Tuesday, 17 December 2013

From just inside the end of history



I had this drafted out on paper, and in my head in numerous forms. In the end, I feel it's going to vomit out of me in some mixture of Alexander de Tocqueville, Lao Tzu, and myself. It's a wrap-up.

"Abandon all despair ye who enter here."

It's written above the door of City Lights book store and publisher, in downtown San Francisco, where Kerouac and Ginsberg used to hang out. I love America for that line, and others like it. American civil society live the most embattled struggle for progressive values, in the most decrepit and culturally ransacked society you could imagine. Amongst this climate they maintain hope, and they demonstrate great resourcefulness and determination. I don't like their frequent obsession for branded clothing, for dentistry, and I can sometimes find their manners insincere, but in regards their politics, I have the greatest of admiration for them, and Europe could learn from this attitude. Without that initial optimism, no start can ever be made.

I should begin this bluntly, my mandate to speak in such forthright terms. There was a large bowie knife on a tabletop in Flagstaff, Arizona, belonging to a girl of the gentlest nature and the slightest build. I made a joke about the knife. She responded. "We have quite a big rape problem in Flagstaff... the college boys will buy you a drink and think they're entitled to you." I was at a truck stop outside Indianapolis. The skin of the prostitutes is stained grey, from where the crystal meth makes them scratch at their faces. Methamphetamine happens in more than just fifty-minute episodes of compulsive viewing. The television in the corner of the restaurant has an advert for solicitors, they will help you get compensation if your teenage son has developed breast-like symptoms from a specific drug he was prescribed. I see one of the prostitutes leaving the cab of the truck beside the one I'm sitting in, she makes no effort to conceal herself pulling back into her jeans, dropping enormous breasts back into the cup of a red bra. Modesto is here, it barely scratches the surface of what I've seen. In San Francisco you will see a homeless woman pull down her pyjama bottoms and piss on the street. I can relativise with the best of them, no doubting those guys aren't suffering the misery I would be were I to live in Modesto, but still, objectively, life ain't good for them, and eventually relativism becomes nihilism.

I've spoken to gun-owning, gentle-hearted anarchists living out in the woods of Ohio. "Hell... I like people... but sure... if I didn't and I'd decided to kill myself, absolutely I can see how someone would decide to take a few down with him." America needs to address gun ownership, they need to do it so that people can stop getting murdered. Even more urgently than this, however, and something even liberal America misses, the country needs a frank discussion on why their society produces so many deeply and pathologically misanthropic individuals, people who want to kill their fellow citizens to begin with. America's mental health problem is national as much as it is individual. If you're paying attention... this country will drive you insane. That should be the starting point for the discussion, and though America is furthest down the track, the rest of the world is following suit. As the same anarchist put it... "we're just the canary in the mineshaft." In terms of Britain, Miliband must move further and boldly towards public-spirited, progressive politics. Cameron, and all his cabinet, with the exception of Ken Clarke, ought to do the Castleragh and fuck off. Adam Smith wrote about the necessity of the Invisible Hand of the Free Market. He also wrote of the necessity of the Iron Fist of government.

"That government is best which governs least" is written at the opening of Henry Thoreau's treatise, Civil Disobedience. The idiom has been appropriated by many of the extreme views in contemporary US politics, but is omnipotent in the global cancer that is neoliberal politics. It should be noted that Thoreau envisaged a society of physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually healthy humans who had no need for governance. He was not referring to the diabetic, overweight, consistently distracted, emotionally disconnected and spiritually impoverished societies into which we are being led. Left to the Koch brothers et al to decide our fate in a post-government anarchy, I believe the efforts of our civil society would soon be bent to reestablishing a government. We should not, therefore, aspire to dismantle government, but to make it  better. In some instances, this would involve making it stronger rather than weaker. Americans in particular ought learn this lesson, and know that Thoreau would most likely have approved of the government passing Obamacare, even in forms stronger than it eventually managed.

I've heard my style of prose judged to be grandiloquent and embellished, as if I were writing in some sort of antique style belonging to the nineteenth century. I sense the likeness too, but the style is in no way forced, as some have suggested, and the thoughts are as they leave my head. What forms this type of writing is not really stylistic at all, more a sense of importance and emotional urgency. This urgency was acceptable in the nineteenth century, and is embarrassing in the twenty-first. I'm writing in it now because 1. it's by far the easiest way the words come out, and 2. if this language is nineteenth-century, then so too are the magnitude of our social problems. Melodramatic though it sounds, people are dying from our social ills, their lives are being ruined, and that requires a greater sense of emergency than our post-emotional society ordinarily affords.

I grew up in a town in the Midlands, BBC radio showed up once, to record a programme on "Broken Britain", after a mother killed herself and her disabled daughter with a hose from the car exhaust, that being the most effective way to stop the bullying. A mentally ill woman was beaten to death and her house set on fire. These are not even the only two instances of murder I can dredge from the place where I grew up. In my language... whether written or spoken, I still swear too much, I know. I slowly, I think, get away from the "angry young man" moniker I was given after my cycling world record, but still, I'm furious. I'm bouncing off the walls, and these rough edges are the result of that. To be honest, I wouldn't mind spreading my rough edges around a little further. We're in a mess. A fucking mess, and progressive politicians will find themselves unable to convince people of the need for change whilst advocating in any way that our current system works. Declare the scale of the disaster, and you begin to forge a mandate... it's worked for both UKIP and the Tea Party.

Last night I touched down at JFK, I was sitting on top of the landing gear and I could see Manhattan glowing. When you're sitting right on top of the landing gear and you're looking at Manhattan at night, as the wheels thud down beneath your feet, it makes you think humans are doing a pretty OK job of things. I imagine politicians experience this kind of view quite a lot.

In spite of all of the gloom above, I am positive. Because in my head is an openness and a sense of liberty, and if my head can be freed from the ills and false-promises of our social and political dialogue, then I see no reason why the same cannot be achieved with others. I don't see enemies when I look at the world any longer, certainly there is opposition, but no enemies. Once you've resolved that even your staunchest opponent has a heart that can be won round, you gain a strength far greater than that which you can find in the mere will to defeat another.

I want to write a twenty-first century Democracy in America... it's important that people still believe they can do these things, that they can redefine an understanding of even the biggest political constructs. Where people do not do as much, the constructs become stagnant, empty words without any emotional value. This is where the concept of Democracy now resides... it's driftwood, not even a shipwreck. I grew up outside of the system that now rejects my CV at every opportunity. I'm fine with that. If I had grown up inside the cultures of that world, I wouldn't have this ambition, and harder though that makes life, I'll take the ambition over the job security.



"Abandon all despair ye who enter here."


Thursday, 12 December 2013

Wasteland



Nobody picks you up. Central California is a hitchhiking wasteland, three generations of your family could die out here before anyone got a ride. From the East is a front of Nevada conservative, edged with "Fuck you... bum!"... from the West comes plastic California, consumerism and media fear... these guys don't do alternative lifestysles. The two meet in the middle. Nobody picks you up. There's only fifty miles to go. but I'm done. I pick up my bag and I walk, I walk, I walk.

Two more hours I walk through Modesto, this nowheresville, small town of nothing that still stretches ten meaningless miles. I smell fumes, diesel, the exhausts of one single-occupied vehicle after another. There are no people... only me and the cars again. I see a woman from through the open driver's-side window of a pick-up. I walk towards her with "which way to the Greyhound station?" in my mouth... She sees me, corner of her eye she sees me as the words make their way on to my tongue. An electric window slides up.

I walk the streets, I hate the streets, each building a ten metre house surrounded by a hundred metre fence enclosing empty land. Two hundred metres to the next house. Desert towns. Misanthropic architecture... the buildings hate one another, fell-out long ago and will never sort things out. I can feel it rising in me, I'm about to start hating America anew, all over again. I wonder if maybe there's some sort of public transport system here, then I remember there isn't even a public. The individual transport system does a roaring trade beside me, I'm breathing-in the benzene to prove it.

Two more hours I walk Modesto, reach downtown and still nothing. No bars, cafes or public spaces. I'm the only human being left, an on-foot transport pervert. Drifts of leaves line the gutters of cracked concrete. Overhead are pepper trees, they drop corns of bright green and pink to grind beneath the burrs of my boots, crumbling in a storm of colour, of spice and scent. Nature created pink and green peppercorns. Mankind created Modesto. Try that for an order of rank. We lose. A man stumbles towards me, behind him the shopping trolley that contains his life. Loose jeans, black duffle coat, pale skin with red blotches all over it, red cracking white. Short fair hair, blue eyes, spittle dried thick and yellow on his lips. He comes at me... a hand a-reaching... "brother... brother... Pentrscstl chrch yiu?"... excuse me?... "Brother... brother... you got the Pentecostal church in you?... You can be saved!?" No thanks. I'm saved already.

I walk into the Greyhound station, simultaneously the only place I want to be and the worst place on earth. I see more men with shopping trolley lives, a woman in orange flannel hotpants and vest, reclining on a pavement and reading a book as her bloated stomach of alcohol crimson comes slipping out... still, stay positive... at least she's reading a book! A proud man is finishing off an argument, he's clean, wearing a pressed shirt a rich blue, chinos, neat moustache. He directs buses, looks like he works here, his patience looks thinner than mine... trying to keep afloat in Underclass, send his daughter to college so that she can get the hell out of Modesto for good. I ask the bus to Livermore, the Livermore BART station, where I can ride a metro train to San Francisco... he gives me short shrift.

      "No service."
      "What do you mean there's no service... you mean it doesn't exist?"
      He looks at me from behind sunglasses, "Kind of wiseass question is that?... what an asshole thing to say... jeez!"
      Exhausted, just as this guy looks ready to drown in his detritus, I realise sadly that the only sane people left in Modesto now hate one another more than all the deadbeats combined.
      "Of course it exists! But not until tomorrow. You'd need the bus to San Francisco... forty-five dollars... leaves in four hours."

My jaw drops once at forty-five dollars for a fifty mile bus journey, drops a second time at the idea of four more hours of life, lost forever in Modesto. I spin away, recoil, like I've been shot, peppered with bad news buckshot. I'm going nowhere fast and I need the toilet. I'll shuffle priorities, that can be the new task... take a leak, attainable goals. I head for the terminal. I step inside, I stride past human shrapnel, neoliberal carnage, shock and fucking awe... it's a living death in here... dogs curled-up in jackets, shopping trolley lives, laundry bags, cardboard "Homeless" signs staring right back at cardboard "Please Help!" signs... man... and they say twentieth century Communism was a disaster... that stuff must have been pretty special to top this. Misery. Incandescent misery. There are no words for this disgust, this contempt, it's burning, corrosive... if I were to spit the stuff it would burn through metal. There's no doubting it, I've had suspicions for a while but at last I'm convinced... this is the worst country in the world, largely because so many of the numbskulls still think it's the best. This is an abomination, cancel the aid budgets, tell the DEC. America is the world's foremost humanitarian catastrophe. Still, that's for another time boy... for now just get to the toilet, take a leak, then get out of here... stop getting distracted. I stride through, I make the toilets... it's cramped in here, people everywhere and nowhere to turn. Urinal on the wall.. black bag thrown over it in place of an Out of Order sign, the second urinal has fallen down and split. Hell... I've stepped into a crime scene. I make for cubicles, a toilet, shit in the bowl, door kicked off. I double out... a larger cubicle adjacent.. I keep my head down, I lift head as I step to cubicle. I see feet. Two feet. There he is, it's Uncle Sam... American Dream himself, sitting on the shitter, door wide open, trainers full of holes, trousers round ankles, trousers full of shit, legs stained black with soot and... why can't I stop my head?... eyes... really... why do you have to keep moving... you know this won't end well. There's his cock... violet.. purple... a slug, crawling out of pubis as my brain falls open and hears the calm, eminently sensible voice of Ripley... "I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit."

I beat a retreat, I'm passing out... I'm drifting into hypo, seizure... I need an espresso... I don't mind admitting it either... not after Modesto, I need some gentrification, and fast, intravenous, a hypodermic shot of taleggio. I stride back out... faces, faces everywhere, dark eyes and reaching hands... The Horror! The Horror!... I spin, I gag. I want the subway, I want escalators and tubes that spirit you directly from a home to the safety of an office or an organised consumer recreation. I want San Francisco, I want an aubergine burrito, I want subway exit with artistic posters for new exhibition examining gender identity... I'll even take a bank as headline sponsor. I've had enough journey, just give me a destination... give me a destination, let it be San Francisco, and get me there by metro, let it be a journey through the earth. No more of this... just give me comfort, blindness, ignorance... I want the life, the oblivious life that the middle classes of the world create in recompense, that root, cosseted blindness by which it is all permitted to exist.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Freight



I don't go in for any of that "before you die" bullshit... fear of death as a marketing strategy, selling you something new, starting with a book, the title of which will at some point contain those very words. If you ask me, the better thing to bear in mind is that things could be over before you reach the last full stop. You could beat me to the finish. I don't go in for any of that before you die bullshit... but still... jumping down from the cab of a truck... that's one I wouldn't like to be without. You open the door, step to a griddled step, and with a hand guiding you off of the rail, you hop down. Two things really make it worthwhile, three if you count the fact that you ought really be hitching a ride with the truck in question. First off is the length of time you're dropping through the air, the height you've been up at. Best of all though, is the sound of your boot as it lands back to earth. Gravel's best, concrete's still good. You can take or leave my advice, but I'd say it's worth experiencing sometime, and probably more than once. Like anything, the first time can be a bit hit-or-miss. The first time I did it I was nineteen, and a driver named Jose burst into laughter at a roadside near Zaragoza. I went toppling, flapping, swinging with the Catalan flag from the side of his engine. It wasn't so resounding.

I've a friend with a nineteen year old son at university. Barclays Bank and PWC like to hang around the school gates, pushing free ice creams in exchange for careers information. I knew drug dealers in the Midlands who used a similar tactic. If I can get nineteen year olds to go hitchhiking instead of a graduate fare, I'll consider that half a success. The real deal will be convincing some Chinese and Indians of as much... what the world needs are BRIC beatniks, that's the only thing that can save us now. Kerouac in Mandarin... I'm just here to help the trickle-down... trickle-down Kerouac. This might sound like travel writing to you, but really it's an economic policy... shock therapy. We need more and better Kerouac. You were not born 9-5. You were not born a slave, human beings are entitled to decent wages, work and shelter. Consider this a sponsored hitchhike in the name of a living wage. You were born with rights, and the more time you spend listening to politicians and media the more likely you are to forget them, whereas the more nights people spend sleeping under stars, the harder it'll be to deny as much. At least that's how I see it... the world demands so much more of us all.

I walk the Canyon edge, it's after dark... I'm sorry... all those were just the thoughts I've kept myself company with up to now. Canyon with the clouds off and the cameras out is pretty underwhelming, but Canyon after dark, once they're all shut-up in their lodge accommodation, or once they've sped on to play blackjack at Vegas... once you've got it to yourself, it's pretty special. I feel cold air on one side of my face, which means I've come back out of the forest, means Canyon is back. I move through the darkness towards the gulf. I drop in a stone. It crackles away. I gather myself, nobody's around, and so I give it a roar... I let out a chestful of London, scream and throw it out into the Canyon, better than any North London leather sofa where getting your head straight is concerned. And then.. unexpected.. Canyon it screams right back. Perfect, word for garbled word. I go again, I shout "Hello." "Hello!Hello!Hello!" comes back to me. I whistle, Canyon whistles back. I scream again, and back it comes in high-fidelity echo. I think a moment, and then I try another. I "Bella Ciao!". I listen... "Blll OOwowow". Not quite it. I "Bella Ciao!". Still not right, but we're getting somewhere. I shout into the Grand Canyon, into the heart of America... Bella CIAO! Cup hand to hear... "CIAO! CIAO CIAO!" I step back, I smile... well blow me. The Grand Canyon it sings just like the Red Army Choir.

I walk on, another ten miles to tread, there's snow on the ground, my headtorch picks through the trees, I'm accompanied by old memories and political philosophy, between the two of them I keep pretty good company. I walk the night, beside the forest of Grand Canyon, the greatest office going, where I'm cooking-up a campaign for the 2015 UK general election. What I think we should do you see, is taking a handful of swing sea-... Eyes. Shit. Eyes. Two of them, no mistaking it... they're looking at me... green-white. Straight at me, my headtorch back at them. These eyes they're five metres from me, even the eyes are above the height of my head, I don't want to think about where the antlers finish. I freeze. And then I slow. I move, I stamp my feet, believe it or not he's more scared of me than I am of him. That creature must be petrified... it's rutting season and I'm no stag. I pray deer not elk... please deer not elk. I will the thing back into the forest and not out onto the road. I stomp. I jump. I ready to turn my backpack on it, to take the impact should it charge my way. I promise never to eat venison again... just scram will you! Inside my head I hear it... "the headtorch... they like the light... switch off the headtorch, stupid!"I turn it off. The eyes disappear. Darkness. I roar, I turn grizzly, roar again for good measure. I hear twigs snapping, hear scrambling, frantic... it's gone... it's gone but now I've been reminded of deer and moose and bears and mountain lions. I'm afraid... at last!... a bit of fear!... I'm alive again and thinking of. Bang. Bang-Thump-Crash! Du-dum-du-dum-du-dum. Louder. Closer. More lifelike than any train engine, hooves break the forest on my other side, a second deer stampedes alone across tarmac, white snow exploding at the fall of each hoof. And then it's gone. Silence. I'm alone. I think. I'm alone.

I'm alone and nobody's watching, all their backs are turned and one more comes whistling-in. Desert and blinding daylight. They've been doing it all day, the freight trains have been singing, calling me over even as one motorist after another drove right on by. This time I'm through with it, I'm done with asphalt and I want those rails. Suddenly. Shit. but suddenly I'm running, I'm making a break for fence as a line of empty cribs come rolling slow towards the turn just west of Barstow. I run the line of fence, head for where it's lowest and haul up and over. Chain link fence. Cymbals crash. I run. I've got a matter of minutes to get away from the engine, away from the crew, out of sight and stowed on a cart. I hold the straps of my pack, I head down an escarpment of sand... desert spewing mouthfuls from under each boot as I go falling, falling, reaching out for the foothold and the rail of the intermodal cart. This one ain't stopping. Jesus. I'm catching it on the fly. I heave up, I smell hot iron, I get my head down. I'm out of sight.

Only with the night does the train start rolling, and so, unfound I head into the Mojave desert. The stars. Oh hell the stars. They fly back and forth, shooting, shooting countless and each one so bright and clear so that they whisper it at me, so gently they say their sooths... be humble child... be humble... and I lie on my back, I watch the Mojave sky with the rattling of the train beneath... and for the first time ever... I realise I was born in the twentieth century.

I ride the thing all night, some four hundred desert miles with the wind pulled right through and over me. Be sure to wrap up warm, take a gallon of water too, because once they're moving, those things don't stop. Finally the sky it makes a break for blue, it lightens and up comes a curtain on the almond trees of the San Joaquin Valley. The world turns orange, the silhouetted trunks they split to branches against the dawn. The mist burns once more, and the sun it warms my face as the train clatters on for Sacramento. I look. I look. I choke. And oh hell... sweet life... just what have you gone and done to me this time?

Monday, 2 December 2013

Canyon



It's breathtaking... it's stupendous, the most perfect sight you ever saw, a poetry beyond words. They've thrown eulogies at it all down the ages, they'll go on doing so, but not one of them, either then or now or ever again will ever get close to doing it justice. Because the hot desert air, lifting out of Grand Canyon, has collided with the cold front of the storm that found me in Flagstaff. The two have collided at the Canyon's southern ridge, and there, spilling out and over the land, is nothing but a dense mist that claims all but the five metres in front of your nose. And so I stare. In rapture and in joy, at the most magnificent sight America has given me to-date. A dozen of them, a dozen Chinese faces are looking right past me into where Grand Canyon was supposed to have been. They're crestfallen, wrapped up and woebegone tight, a couple of ladies starting to shiver, and each one of them looking stark-raving miserable... like the UN just recognised Uyghur and Tibet as independent states, like Foxconn just moved to India. Even in this cold, frigid air you can smell the disappointment ripening on them. Their eyes have disappeared, absorbed into gloom, all I can see are frowns, perfect heartbreak as the third world start getting their hands on first world problems all of their own. Mist in the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon's broken. And I look at them, not even troubling to conceal the smile of the guiltiest pleasure all over my lips. To be honest... to tell the truth... I can't remember the last time I felt this happy... anti-climax is so underrated, and when it's someone else's... well... the stuff is even better.

I watch as the Chinese start planning to wait it out... resolve to outlast the clouds. Valiant, one of them pulls out a camera all the same, removes a lens cap and takes a shot. Captures. Mist. Perfect Mist. A clicking of shutter that sounds as underwhelming as a wet fart. A few gather round, look at the screen as, slowly, a new concern presents itself. An elder shouts over... pointing urgently at the camera, just as the girl holding it begins to scream. The elder he goes goes on pointing in earnest, shouting an easily decipherable Mandarin... 'the mist'll get in!' He leans across, grabs it, replaces the lens cap, fumbles camera back to bag.

I turn from them, look back into the mist myself. I wonder why it is I'm so pleased at their letdown. I suppose I feel it serves them right... serves them right for treating nature as some sort of performing monkey, one to be appreciated only for those tricks they call upon once in a lifetime at Arizona. It goes beyond that thought though, because more than I relish their disappointment in the faulty, non-refundable tourist commodity they purchased, I feel sad that these people, and millions like them, will never look inside themselves for the very spirit, the wonders they were told would be waiting unfailingly for them inside Grand Canyon. At least, and in spite of that, they cut a good picture of the universalism of mankind. Hanging saps, drips less lifeless than the icicles... these sad, dejected souls could well have come from Hertfordshire, from some plastic suburb of southern California, from Bavaria as they did apartment buildings outside Shanghai. The faulty Grand Canyon and the world, united in oneness.

After half an hour they turn away, they regain their bus, which starts its engine and pulls off with a slurry of snow. Some time later, for the slightest second, and for only the briefest of moments... the cloud slips, its fingers part, and for the shortest time I'm given a quick glimpse of red rock torn apart, an eyeful of Canyon. And it is beautiful, and it is magnificent, and your mouth does open, or at the very least it smiles, before the clouds fold back, and the Canyon is gone again. I like to think that this was some reward for the fact that I came here without demands, didn't care what it was that I'd see, and so I was shown a glimpse of the good stuff. And yet, I know that this is just the ego of my mind, that it was only the sun, burning off the mist.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Kentucky





I started out similar last time. You have to clear your throat, it takes some building up-to. I prevaricate, beat around the bush a line or two, make excuses for myself. Excuses. It's all life and fire and lunacy and excuses and excuses and excuses. America. You and me. Here we go again.

You don't see this place, it's all but invisible, it's in your ears... this landscape  howls, it looks like a scream. Hands on cheeks, mouth wide open... the planes roar by you. America looks like the sound of a traffic light suspended on a cable above the junction. It's that cr-creaking of rusty steel, not that one... that's the one of the railroad tracks and the freight train, solid metal wheels turning a curve against die-straight rails, two unrelenting lines sliding into a whispered, snapping compromise of changed direction. It pings... zips.... only it's so much more than that. The truck careers down Interstate, we're headed for Missouri, and from underneath comes the rumbling of rubber shrapnel, the remains of a tyre that exploded long before we got here. They load the trailer behind us, the payload is stowed on board as the whole rig sets to shaking, jumps around with the weight of the forklift running in and out. I can call it a rig, and use other words like it, because I'm in America.. where nobody would be seen dead inside a lorry. In London, the left turning trucks crush cyclists, in America, their right turns take out whole cars, a manoeuvre illustrated on stickers at the rear of each trailer. I write... realise my jaw's closed tight, I'm trying for it... but I'm still not even close.

With the knock of wood on wood the dice roll, bounce across the floor and cupboards of this cabin. I'm up in Ohio, though everyone insists I call it Appalachia. In the corner of the room is a jar into which you drop a quarter for a play. You throw the six dice... which ricochet, bang and snap into one-one-four-three-six-two... you lose your quarter, but one day someone rolls a sequential one-through-six and takes the pot. By the time I leave, it stands at $296 and an amount everyone's too drunk to count, dice still rolling as I head to my trailer for the night, declining the offer of whisky... so much has changed in five years.

Come morning I'm first awake. I find tea bags and milk, I boil water on the stove and warm a cup. From the porch there hang four haunches of venison, blood drying rich red in the remaining skin upon each muscle. The wind blows slowly through the valley, and just for me there comes the gruff sound of a length of rope, rubbed against the metal hook that holds the swaying haunch. I look around this kitchen, buried deep in the hills, and on shelves I see Barilla pasta, Bonne Maman jams have made the journey here too, and on a counter is an old copy of The New Yorker. Up here are America's refugees... waiting in the hills for Europe to come pick them up. I won't go into the politics... at least not for now... I'm already so far past tired. Like I said... so much has changed.

For almost two weeks I've been dragging myself across this country using only my thumb. I pull myself through great drifts of the most potent, acrid fear... the whole thing as much a work of surrealist art as it is travel. Sometimes, and with only the power of my thumb, I can move an eighteen wheel truck to the far side off a four lane highway. The weight of rejection on offer is catastrophic, soul-crushing, the only consolation being the power to strike mortal fear and blind panic into the hearts of America's brave men and women, those who have been taught to think themselves so fearless. Sometimes, getting out of the car at the end of a ride, I feel almost awkward not to have murdered anyone, like I've disappointed somebody, let them down... as if all I am is some lousy imposter who only wanted a ride. Nothing like on TV.

Be that as it may, things are about to come good... come gooood. I sit across a restaurant table in a roadside truckstop. Opposite me sits Pala... turns out the only fearless American is actually from the Punjab. Looking back at me is the most Sikh face you ever saw... a bun of hair under the turban under the woollen hat, a knot of black beard tied under the chin. Pala looks at me, looks at me straight, we're in Kentucky and he's headed for Yuma, Arizona, all in the name of plastic-packaged courgettes. I'm looking across the table at 2100 miles, I'm about to strike hitchhike gold, buried deep down on the Mexico border. From the depths of my memory I pull out my rudimentary Sikhism... I Guru Nanak, I Guru Granth Sahib... all set to build a gurdwara and even make a stab at my five Ks... secondary school religious education is about to get me to Arizona, try that for unquantifiable returns on learning. All I have to do is convince Pala that I'm sane and decent, and I'll be set to steal some $400 from the US tourist economy, I'll sit myself in a seat that's already going my way. Pala levels with me, straight up, palms down... “is it dangerous for me?” … I don't know, a good question... “is it dangerous for me?”

We ride into the darkness, the lights frame our destination, the asphalt disappears below, only to reappear and begin again forever and ever. The passenger door leaks the cold, midnight air of Indiana. Pala and I sit side-by-side, our silhouettes with hoods up, staring straight into this tunnel of lights, a stream of trucks, racing from the coming ice we're told is on its way. I watch the night... the lights, the darkness, the lights, ever the lights, suddenly split... blood red... they fall on us and then the carcass of a deer, burst in half, the white tails of two bucks, racing the scene. Gone.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

New York





The journey from JFK airport is made aboard a bus, wrapped in plastic, in order that it could then have advertising printed on all sides. Sitting inside the bus it's dark, light comes in from the windscreen, bright against a line of shoulders. That you can't see America, because you're wrapped inside an advert seems like a metaphor for so much more.

I arrive on October 29th, before evening’s through I’ve been told by three people that it’s the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the storm that claimed the lives of 53 New Yorkers (and some 70 Caribbean people who suffered with the irrelevance of not being American). Of the three who draw my attention to the Sandy anniversary, two spell out exactly what this means in terms of time. “One year... three-hundred and sixty five days!” Americans are obsessed with history... mostly their own, and especially where they can quantify it. 

Ordinarily I live in London. The city mayor, Boris Johnson, claims it to be the best job in the world, in the greatest city in the world. I find this a particularly American style of accolade, the impulse to quantify the subjective in terms of the absolute. If we are to enter into this contest, I fear New York probably beats us. I write that sentence and remember an old conversation, an American who laughed at that British tic of language, our excessive politeness. “‘I’m afraid’, or ‘I fear’... you British are afraid of a lot of things.” Americans fear nothing. Only germs and allergies.

This afternoon I’ve a meeting in an office on the junction of Eleventh and Forty-Fourth. Just the location is American, direct, to-the-point and reinforced by that same style of dialogue I’ve learned in a thousand films that fifty years from now will all be called movies. I’m aware that, back in London, this meeting would be at the corner of Fenchurch Street and Philpot Lane, which can’t help but sound impossibly quaint, mild-mannered by comparison. I know Americans who would find the same difference remarkably civilised, even refined. For liberals of the world, other cultures always seem more impressive than our own.

I’ve decided to walk to this meeting, taking the most indirect of routes because – truth be told – no matter how smug you are about being from the Old World... everyone goes a bit weak-kneed where looking around New York is concerned. Beginning at the Empire State Building, I walk up Fifth Avenue, make my way west through Central Park, my route a tour of names and places that define the cultural epicentre of the human universe. I become splendid by association, improved by proxy. This article is not an examination of whether London or New York is the capital of the world, for if such a thing does exist, you find the verdict on walking a single block of Fifth Avenue. Your head has to tilt a long way back on your neck before eyes hit sky. The bonnet of the delivery truck sits above the height of my ears, the post boxes could fit people inside of them, lend an appearance of industry to the mere act of human communication. Five lanes of traffic. Pavements twenty people deep. I’m dwarfed. Later this afternoon, in the meeting at Eleventh and Forty-Fourth, I’ll ask a Frenchman and a Swede what they think is the capital of the world. Neither seem to have an opinion, nor sense the need for one. Obviously the concept is more of a thing for English-speakers. I wonder, what’s the French for “pissing contest”?

I make my way up Fifth, up Fifth, up Fifth. The advertising takes me, sinks in, ever the best and loudest examination of the psyche of a nation. In New York and you find the exceptional on every corner, Merit up in lights, system-works, that transcendental ideology that remains the only unifying feature in America’s entrenched and polarised modern politics. One by one, the billboards make their case. “Have an idea. Make it happen” is the contribution of Spanish bank, Santander, quickly learning how to speak American, so that a bank bailed out by the collective EU taxpayer has set to peddling the myths of the individual. “Let your next project be the one you’re remembered for” is another offering, a reminder of that Big Time everyone’s heading for in this country defined by an optimism for its future. An adult college hawks its wares on the side of bus stops, I pass by three of their pitches, one with a mother studying in order to earn good and set her daughter up in stage school, another aiming to improve her wages so as to support another daughter, a talented dancer. Work hard and see your children through to stardom, the barometer of good parenting. All over the city are adverts for a website, values.com, my favourite is the one with a black man and a book, promoting literacy. Apparently it’s a good idea.

At the top of Fifth comes Central Park, littered with boulders of granite, the bedrock onto which the skyscrapers of Manhattan were built. Autumn takes the trees, leaves falling to red or branches falling bare. I look up at a young man, sitting cross-legged on a rock beneath the dark outline of a tree, an image that could've been cut from the Alps or the savannah, were it not for the metropolis that stands over him, the park shut away inside. A line of dogs makes its way towards me, six leashes leading back towards the same walker-for-hire. He contorts, leans, fusses in pockets before emerging with his hand inside a plastic bag. He crouches to pick up a warm pile of shit, just in time for another to start sliding from out the back of another dog. If animals don't have senses of humour, I appreciate the scene on their behalf.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

Journey



I just took the subway, crossed under the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn, visiting some friends before heading out of New York, for the West Coast, probably San Francisco. I saw myself on the subway train, I saw a face with a beard, a big bag leaning against me. That's the image, the body and costume that the other passengers would've seen, even though I wasn't actually there... I was at the top of the Cormet de Roselend, where the road turns round the last bend and opens to the lake, 2000 metres up. It's so peaceful up there, everything's so quiet.

Today's Saturday, tomorrow is Sunday November 10th, and I'll walk over the George Washington Bridge, crossing the Hudson River that first brought me to New York this autumn. Right now I feel nervous about that fact, but I know then that I won't... I'll just be walking. Good things are happening. My publisher's confirmed a June 2nd date for the release of my first book, Cycles. I recently got good news on the first draft of my second manuscript, which looks at the London I returned to as a cycle courier, having just ridden around the world in 2009. I like the story, it's as dear to me as that of riding around the world. Good things are happening, though I feel I've been nomadic for a long time, and sometimes I find the feeling tiring. It's a strange situation, to find yourself in the position where hitchhiking from East to West coasts of the USA  seems like the most sensible thing you can do in terms of your career development. John Steinbeck's been giving me counsel, Louis-Ferdinand Céline always does. He's as good as my mentor.

I've started working on a manuscript of this journey across the US, beginning with the last week, of loitering around New York. Whatever comes out, it'll be political, by which I suppose I'd like to think I actually mean Human. I continue to drift away from ideas of journalism, there's such a gulf between journalism and writing, and the latter has a mandate to inspire that doesn't exist in the pages (digital or otherwise) of most media.

Oddly, I found myself campaigning for Bill de Blasio in New York last week, he's just been elected as the city's first Democrat mayor for twenty years. People whose judgment I trust were prepared to campaign for him, and so I threw my lot in alongside them. For me, de Blasio's victory falls into the same category of Hollande's in France, or Ed over David Miliband... they're all candidates prepared to err closer to the idea that the system doesn't work,  none are the candidates that free-market orthodoxy would've chosen, were our political destiny as mapped-out as it sometimes seems. They're all flawed, in the same way as all politicians and people are, but they're a better kind of flawed than the alternative.

People still associate me with adventure, they've certainly been doing so in response to this plan to travel to the West Coast. I don't really like having that word anywhere near my name, still less 'adventurER.' As far as I'm concerned, what I'm doing here is pretty much an exercise in geography. All the adventurers I know personally are less prone to wandering than I am. They work for less money than they could earn, so that they can have meaningful jobs. By 'meaningful' I mean jobs that help people other than themselves. They quit safe jobs in order to start something new and socially valuable. They're not afraid to ask a difficult question of their boss, where they think it's a moral requirement that they do so. They're not afraid to alienate an entire, conforming dinner table in order to say something that's truthful rather than just noise. Nor is it a question of profession, because I know people in charities who I believe are happy to be only cogs... trundling, loyally... and I know bankers who I trust to question the institution they're working in. To me, these people are adventurers, and if they can take interest in something that I write, or be even a tiny bit inspired by some of the ideas or stories I put out... that's good enough for me. Mountains don't mind you walking over them, rivers flow anyway, and roads are designed to be travelled as easily as possible. There's no challenge bigger than changing the course of a human head or heart... don't let any adventurer archetype tell you otherwise.

Soon I'll start to ramble, so I'll leave it there, and close off with Céline. I'm not feeling quite so world-weary as this sounds, but I saw it the other day, for the first time in a while, the opening words to Journey to the end of the Night. It rang pretty true, as his words so often do.

"Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination.
All the rest is disappointment and fatigue.
Our journey is entirely imaginary.
That is its strength

It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. 
It's a novel, just a fictitious narrative,
Littre says so, and he's never wrong.

And besides, in the first place, anyone can do as much,
You just have to close your eyes.
It's on the other side of life."


Friday, 13 September 2013

A Handful of Thoughts



I'm in the process of editing down the manuscript for my book, 'Cycles' (it's still a working title, so any good ideas, don't be shy!), which agents and publishers alike are convinced is good as it stands, BUT, if it's longer than five hundred pages, consumer psychology plus printings costs dictate that you just won't buy it. As such, I'm chopping out thousands of words, to either be released in Cycles: Redux - 2019... or else spend the rest of eternity on a hard drive.

Am I procrastinating in this task? Perhaps... though only for a short while. These days I feel a bit caught, somewhere between wanting to write something fairly regularly, such as a blog, but really being more excited by the prospect of working on books and other larger projects... gathering my thoughts together in one place, rather than drip-feeding them out into the internet.

I suppose this post has been triggered by wanting to state a couple of things openly, four things that seem to have changed since 2009, either in my opinions or in the world around them.

1. I'm noticing that what I wrote back in 2009, about corporate purchase of the human spirit, and consumer experience pitched as substitute for real experience, often now strikes people as a really original piece of thinking on my part. Whilst I'm happy to hoover up the plaudits, I'm concerned that people (especially those younger than me) are thinking this is an innovative bit of thought rather than just a stating of the bloody obvious. It's worrying how completely a set of ideas can be largely removed from consciousness, where advertising and corporations become so entrenched and accepted in popular culture.

2. I used to think, as a teenager, that there was nothing more unspeakably evil than arms manufacturers and imperialism. For most of my twenties, these ideas receded in importance to me, I was almost ashamed of how earnestly I'd held those views, and I thought more about political economy, the ideas of false scarcity, of corporate control and financialisation. Now while all those things remain as important as they were, I've nevertheless realised how right I was as a teenager: there is nothing more unspeakably evil than arms manufacturers and imperialism.

3. Banks are worse than oil companies. Oil companies do downright evil things, and are by no means good for the world, but they provide a product we humans seem to be reliant on. Banks might have a smaller carbon footprint, but they officiate over the bondage of all mankind, and look after (and magnify) the wealth of oil companies to boot. It seems a raw deal that FreeTate protesters target BP whilst saying nothing about endorsement from the likes of Morgan Stanley.

4. On the subject of tax I have quite a bit to say, but I'll say it quick, and note it here having undertaken This is not for Charity in conjunction with the (still excellent) Tax Justice Network. The biggest problem in our taxation system is not tax evasion but the way tax is spent. The biggest boon in the war chest of tax evasion was, without doubt, the Iraq War... I've heard both rich people with bank accounts in Jersey, and bohemians living in yurts use this high in their list of justifications for avoiding tax. There's also the anomaly of people earning minimum wage, working 40 hour weeks that leave them above the minimum tax threshold, thereby incurring tax that leaves them taking home - that's right - less than minimum wage. As a final thought, the diligent paying of taxes cannot take place while the industry of accountancy exists, the two are incompatible, because an accountant is not doing their job unless they are minimising the amount that is paid in tax. The best cure for tax evasion are taxes being spent visibly on things people believe are socially valuable, thereby making taxation something positive and empowering rather than negative. I fear that Kickstarter is probably closer to the right track than HMRC in achieving this. I could write a small treatise on tax and how it needs to change... but that would perhaps be boring.


Thanks for humouring me.



Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Back to the road awhile



Not quite as long as I'd like either... in fact, I've already booked the flight that will bring me home after two weeks cycling through France and Germany. It feels strange to have committed to ending a trip before you've even started it, but I suppose that's the standard arrangement for a holiday... and I've probably done well to avoid it as long as I have.

In general I have few causes for complaint right now. Since my round-the-world book was picked up by a publisher, I've felt a certain amount less pressure on me. Sitting around writing suddenly doesn't seem quite so indulgent as it used to. The book, Cycles, is due out next June, and editing it and getting the thing in to shape is proving more enjoyable than I had feared it would be. It's interesting to note how my writing's changed... my twenty-three year old voice sounds consistently ready to tear the world apart, I really like his innocence, and his fire, and though I'm glad to be no less angry at the same injustices he was, I think I've probably got better at approaching them more constructively.

I don't know if it's a funny time to be leaving London, or if, rather, it is actually the prospect of stepping out of society a while that casts the modern world in the peculiar, wearying light to which we ordinarily grow accustomed. Monday saw the death of the third London cyclist in as many weeks, it's also the first time news of a fatality has reached me at a time that coincided with a friend being in the area. I got to experience that grim relief of finding it was to be someone else's grief. In the United States, and the neighbourhood watch officer who shot-dead unarmed black man, Trayvon Martin, was acquitted of murder.

I continue to hear news from Turkey, of ongoing police brutality, the concerted attempt to send a message that protest is not to be tolerated. More disgusting than the violence with which Turkish state meets legitimate dissent, is the indifference of western governments towards the hate and the arrogance with which a state can treat its electorate. In this silence, just as in the silences that now accompany diplomatic visits from Chinese or Arab nations, you find realisation that none of the world's most powerful countries has a commitment to democracy or human rights that does not shrink beside the prospect of saying something that might offend trading partners and investors. It is worrying that rights and humanity would have all-but lost the international prestige that, sadly, is one of the few things that safeguards them. It is worrying that western governments now have such little respect for the legitimacy of protest.

Divergent as these deaths and injustices might be, they all carry the same spectre of a systemic indifference towards loss of life, a faith in normalcy that cannot be touched by any amount of human suffering. Most worrying of all is the huge gulf that has opened between what state authorities regard to be an acceptable risk of harm, and the natural right of people to lead lives that are not endangered by commitment to an economic or social order. The London construction traffic that on Monday ended another life, has in it the same blind, destructive force... it is apt that so much of this heavy traffic is on the road in the name of skyscrapers and luxury apartments, neither of which were ever intended to benefit the majority of those living in their shadows.

I know lots of talented and committed people who work hard in progressive politics and campaigning... none of which will work without a culture of greater empathy. Creating that culture is the issue on which all sound politics rests, in particular shortening the gulf of feeling between those who lead us, towards those who must live under them. I'll be on the roads of Europe for the next couple of weeks, a place that seems to have become a bit of an office from which I set my brain to that task. It's certainly the place where I'm best reminded it's worth persisting.

Ride safe, be nice to one another.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Moken

This May I spent ten days in Thailand, partly on Phuket, and partly on an island in a national park called Surin. I was working with a documentary team, looking at the way of life of the Moken people, a community of sea gypsies that live on the water, and are spread all around southeast Asia.

I'll keep people up to date on developments with the documentary. For now, I'm really excited by the prospect of writing a book showing the anthropology of an anthropology documentary... but that's a project that will require some time.

Meanwhile, my article, exploring the life of the Moken, and some other themes besides, appeared in Aeon Magazine this week.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Istanbul: A park, a shopping centre and a government




If you’ve ever flown in or out of Istanbul by day, and happened to look down, you won’t have seen much more than a sprawling expanse of white. With few green interruptions, the city stretches into a concrete mass about thirty miles deep, and the best part of two hundred miles from it’s eastern to western extremities. Due to the heat-absorbent qualities of concrete, and Turkey’s hot climate, the city becomes largely unliveable for about two months of the year.

In this urban setting, Turkey’s ruling AK Party (AKP) government are pressing ahead with plans to demolish one of central Istanbul’s last remaining green spaces, Gezi Park, removing trees, grass and a children’s park to make way for one more installation of that essential urban space… the shopping mall. The city this week witnessed bloody clashes between the police and protesters defending the park.

Turkey is a country familiar with protests against the socially conservative AKP government, and policies ranging from abortion rights to Turkey’s world-leading record on incarcerated journalists, but the popular and growing resistance to the destruction of Istanbul’s trees has taken politicians by surprise. Thousands of protesters are staging an occupation of the park (on the hashtag #OccupyGezi), and have been visited with messages of support from celebrities and members of opposition political parties. The breadth of the resistance has been matched only by the excessive use of force by the police, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon have all been used with a brutality condemned by Amnesty International as “excessive”. A woman being tear gassed at close-range was made an editor’s choice photograph at Reuters, but the response of international news agencies has been slow, even as dawn raids by the police left scores of injured protesters admitted to Istanbul hospitals.

Behind the environmental politics, however, murkier forces are at work. First of all, Turks have witnessed Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, responding to protests with an assurance that the mall would be built anyway, a clear instance of the anti-democratic philosophy at the heart of his government. Erdoğan and the AKP have slowly adopted a form of rule that participates in democracy at election time, but disregards it flatly during the interim periods. Second of all, central government commitment to a shopping mall project might seem surprising to a western audience, yet the involvement is a clear illustration of the cosiness that now exists between government and Turkey’s largest construction companies. As was feted by former-IMF economist, Jeffrey Sachs, in a recent, rose-tinted visit to Turkey, the country’s construction firms have expanded into central Asia and north Africa, yet the Istanbul property market – by no means immune to bubbles - has provided a solid bedrock to these foreign ventures. The construction contract for a new development of luxury flats was recently awarded to GAP Inşaat, the CEO of which is a son-in-law of Prime Minister Erdoğan.

Lastly, the protests have shown the outside world the brutality of the Turkish police. International commentators have championed the AKP’s dismantling of the Turkish army’s political apparatus, citing it a victory for democracy, while at the same time ignoring the rise and rise of the Turkish police as a force in national politics. Whereas the Turkish military have always been staunch defenders of the country’s secular republic, and thus offered some balancing of power, the police have proved to be a much more pliant custodian of power, and the upper echelons of the force contain individuals known to be close to the AKP. The enthusiastic fashion in which officers have used force against the Gezi Park protesters betrays not only Turkish culture’s traditional indulgence for the culture of the strongman, it also demonstrates the confidence by which the Turkish police can act without fear of accountability or reprimand.

The Gezi Park protests have prompted demonstrations across Europe, with events organised in Rome, Paris, Athens and London’s Hyde Park. As organisers in Istanbul have highlighted, government-backed construction of a shopping centre in Hyde Park, Central Park, or Berlin’s Tiergarten would all be inconceivable. Support has also been forthcoming from inside Turkey's corporate sector, and some of Turkey’s leading fashion brands, in a move of solidarity, have released statements saying they oppose a development so clearly at-odds with popular sentiment, and that they would not wish to participate in any prospective mall on the site of Gezi Park. If the development can be halted, or if the brutality with which the protest is suppressed can help draw a light on some of Turkey’s gravest and most entrenched problems, some good may yet come of the ongoing violence.



Monday, 20 May 2013

Spirit of '45



This weekend, watching Ken Loach’s Spirit of ’45, amongst the documentary footage I noticed a number of things that gave a strong impression of how life has changed since the years after the Second World War. There is a shot of a woman beating out a rug, doing the very laborious work of hitting the thing hard against a wall. There are quite a lot of bicycles, be they in footage of men wheeling them alongside themselves at protests, or simply of people getting around a city. In scenes inside the home, people are reading or writing, and while I’m not about to mourn the loss of a fictitious golden age when people read books and weren’t lazy, the images all illustrated how society has been automated, and how we can now passively consume processes – be it of transport, entertainment or domestic living - that we once had to provide for ourselves. While I think this extremely significant, Ken Loach evidently didn’t, and so the Spirit of ’45 remains eminently dogmatic and one-dimensional, it’s greatest service is as a master class in how not to go about making a documentary or communicating a political message.

Propaganda is a word I’ve seen written a couple of times in reviews of the Spirit of ’45, nostalgia is the other word that seems similarly useful, and I don’t share the feelings of those left-leaning commentators who seem to feel these sins can be forgiven in what is – broadly – an important and valuable film. A film such as Spirit of ’45 cannot be judged by an ability to motivate those on the left who would agree with its basic principles anyway, its success would have been measured in whether it could make a dent in the views of those who value free-market fundamentalism and myths of Exceptionalism and the self-made man. In my mind, it wouldn’t, the film simply takes up a wandering journey through the simple idea that the world was once better and it’d be nice if it could be again.

One very obvious example of this tendency is coal, encapsulating the problem by which those on the left must reconcile affection for the salt-of-the-earth coal miner with the concern that coal is bad for the environment. At one point, Loach laments the mass closure of coal mines as crucial in the destruction of society, without touching on the fact that coal mining isn’t the most pleasant activity for those mining it, nor for anyone who wants to breathe the air it's burnt in. In the hour and a half documentary, the word “green” is shoehorned clumsily in by a single interviewee, a solitary acknowledgment of the fact that our world and our understanding of it has maybe changed a little across the last seven decades. The interviewees, moreover, give the impression that everyone in Britain is from the north of England, and white, so that whatever the increase of different ethnic groups in public life since 1945, the documentary shows a Britain that few might now feel part of, leading one to question the relevance of what Loach was trying to make. Although some aging interviewees do speak with deep emotion, and no doubt from grave personal experience, the feel of the film becomes little more than old, white people talking of how life was better. True or otherwise, Spirit of ‘45 offers very little constructive for how that ‘better’ might be regained.

There are other inconsistencies too, and even before Loach closes out with black-white footage that turns colour as happy people inexplicably start putting up bunting and throwing streamers, the film is painfully simplistic. Nye Bevan is championed for riding roughshod over the British Media Association when he nationalised healthcare, Loach disregards that the exact disregard for expert opinion and the BMA is now invoked as one of the most heinous crimes in Tory plans for the NHS; Spirit of ’45 only briefly touches on the idea that Labour’s welfare state was imposed by decree as much as consensus. One interview raises the valuable point that the idea of capitalism remains incredibly strong in the UK, despite the failure of its institutions. Another urges pensioners to turn off their televisions and reach out to young people so as to communicate the ideas that gave rise the welfare state, and footage shows one man questioning the psychology and chain of command that leads a police officer to beat a man with a stick. These are all incredibly important questions that Loach gives all but no attention, and nor does the documentary confront the peculiarity that no political party has a promise to renationalise the railways, despite the fact that the majority of the country – even without seeing Loach’s film – are strongly in favour of such a policy.

For those who value the idea of a stronger, fairer and more humane society, I’d just about advise going to watch the film. After it finishes, go home and start the harder task of how to make that vision a reality, a question Loach seems to have afforded precious little time.



Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The 'hauntingly beautiful' death... of someone else



I haven't read much about the collapsed Bangladeshi factory where (to the relief of the world media) the significant milestone of 800 deaths was reached this afternoon. I haven't read much about it because the disaster is not exactly a surprising feature in a notoriously cruel world economy, the unfairness of which is a very poorly kept secret. When disaster strikes, media and society rush to pay brief attention to the need for some public soul-searching and profundity, thereafter returning to business-as-usual, convinced of our own goodness on account of the very public and very sentimental display of grief we've shown ourselves capable of. Well done us.

I'm only writing now because of this article, and the image that secured it. Most unsettling of all is the journalist who thought two dead human beings (and they suffered and died less than three weeks ago) looked "hauntingly beautiful" in their death position, which - conveniently enough - happens to look like an embrace. I find it even more unsettling that X number of editors left in the words "hauntingly beautiful" to describe a photo of the bodies of two recently dead human beings. "Hauntingly" and "beautiful" are two words that should never be used together in good writing, because they are frequently used together in bad writing. "Hauntingly beautiful" should never be used to describe the picture of two recently dead humans, because that gives the impression that dead humans can at least provide an aesthetically valuable commodity. The fact is that, beautiful or otherwise, nobody in their right mind gives a shit if a photo of recently dead people has a"haunting" effect on a journalist or audience, because people have died, and that ought be so much more significant that we shouldn't care how the photo of their death makes us living people feel for a little while.

I also think it's significant that these are two Bangladeshi bodies we are seeing buried beneath the rubble. In as much as this, it has all the hallmarks of the disaster photography genre, something that - either due to sensitivity or a lesser supply of disasters - is not peddled so enthusiastically where documenting western (read: white) victims of catastrophe. In this photo essay from the Haiti earthquake, we have the privilege of white doctors helping the helpless Haitians, who in other shots are hard at work with some pistol-toting looting. It likewise seems significant that the Bangladeshi photo has been taken and described by a Bangladeshi journalist, in the abstract, emotional but apolitical terms by which it is most easily digestible to the western audience.

The issue also makes me think of the New York Post front page, where the photograph of a man about to be hit by a train prompted a public debate on the sanctity of life and death, and the invasiveness of photography and media. Of course each case has its differences, significantly that the man on the New York subway was in America (although of Korean origin) and the dead man and woman in Bangladesh are Bangladeshi, one of the many darker-skinned and economically disadvantaged people who - in the world of a Time editor - swarm vaguely over most of the earth's surface. These people are required to sew our endless new clothes, or to assemble the increasing variety of computer devices our apparently growing sophistication seems to require. Occasionally, misfortune dictates that these people will die in photogenic disasters such as the one at the Bangladesh factory. "Hauntingly beautiful" as they are, these opportunities reliably prompt an outpouring of goldfish sadness, all the more worrying because people believe it to be sincere. The apparent grief and soul-searching is made sufficiently colossal that once again we can feel better about ourselves as a conscientious society, thereby recovering from the cause of the injustice without changing a thing.


Friday, 3 May 2013

Mayday with the Spacehijackers





At 17:45 the answer phone message changes to reveal the address, “emergent service workers of the world unite…” is the command. I am told to make my way to the party, at the garish coloured buildings on Saint Giles High Street, and wished a happy May Day.

The setting is the new London headquarters of Google, who occupy five floors of the Central Saint Giles redevelopment, a place where residential and retail possibilities combine to make “more than an office building”. The premises are managed by Stanhope PLC, and are the sort of location preferred by the party organisers, who call themselves Space Hijackers. Self-identifying “middle class art school wankers”, the group peddle a playfully subversive politics; they daubed black paint across a dozen BP billboards prior to the Olympics, they have organised games of cricket in private developments of public space.

The crowd is clean-cut, some partygoers have arrived with their families, children are dressed in fencing masks and are using keyboards as foils. A keyboard maypole is wheeled in on a cargo bicycle, and May Day observers in white jumpsuits begin to dance around it with computer cables. A small-time drug dealer shuffles through the crowd trying to sell wraps of cannabis, off to one side, a familiar-looking band of freelance photographers have made the short journey from where I’m used to seeing them, waiting for celebrities at the BBC studios on Great Portland Street. They stand about in utility waistcoats and hooded sweaters, looking altogether disappointed with the small turnout. One by one, they take it in turns to visit a nearby café.

I arrive with the fundamental misgiving of whether a modern May Day is a cause for celebration or commiseration. The organisers refer to the event as an “after party”, their flier a wandering but lyrical complaint against workfare and overtime, they joke that the campaign for an end to the wage economy has been left half-finished, with the economy still intact and only the wages removed. In Turkey, I hear 27,000 police had been deployed that morning on the streets of Istanbul. Tear gas was fired, authorities suppressed turnout by cancelling public transport to the area. In Central Saint Giles, the Worker’s Day protest is suffering a distinct lack of workers.

The altogether strange environment is leant a final eeriness by the empty buildings, the bare concrete without interior. Most of St Giles’ ground floor premises have been filled with a pastiche of Latin or Mediterranean dining culture, but overhead and all around, quite clearly there are vacant lots. In Ground Control, her chronicle of the privatisation of public space, Anna Minton opens with the admission that the manuscript had been conceived of in a boom and written in a bust. She talks of how investors jumped at the promises of new developments, only to dry-up as the financial crisis came about. A party organiser passes me by, clutching an armful of beer cans, and I watch the Space Hijackers as they dance around their maypole, in the shadow of what looks like a development failure. From a corner, a unified screech rises momentarily above the volume of the sound system… “We love Google!”… from a group of women sitting outside a franchise Italian restaurant. The head of building security marches into the huddle of partygoers, he shouts orders into a phone, reprimands the masked children for fencing with keyboards.






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