Posted by at 11:32 am  Catastrophe Games, Fundamental Perversions, IN Conversation  Comments Off
Jan 272012
wordstall graffiti

Walter Benjamin writing about Proust:

‘There was something of the detective in Proust’s curiosity. The upper ten thousand were to him a clan of criminals, a band of conspirators beyond compare: the Camorra of consumers.’

Uncle Scrooge, a riot of tartan and SNP rosettes, plus missing teeth, feet in a bowl of gently steaming water, eyes gleaming with something like malice but maybe it is only his sense of humour, caught on camera in his North Caucasian rest home. Eyebrows jutting ferociously, willing Alex Salmond on to ever more demanding political pirouettes. At the age of 93, a well deserved retirement of non-sobriety in his antechamber to the cardboard coffin.

I saw one of these being carried out of the Methodist Chapel the other day, painted a perfect blue of high summer sky and I like to think there were one or two clouds and maybe even a bird or two flying free. The four men carrying it made it appear that it was as light as a feather. Perhaps the cardboard box was merely a container for a departing soul.

A couple of thoughts from Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism:

‘The new world should be formed with a clear recognition that we have only limited powers of objective reasoning.’

Now, that is important to remember, and:

‘People are not as much propelled by material self-interest as free-market textbooks claim. If the real world were as full of rational self-seeking agents as the one depicted in those textbooks, it would collapse under the weight of continuous cheating, monitoring, punishment and bargaining.’

Though, surely, in free-market heaven there would be no need for monitoring – the market would sort everything out. Do you know there are people who actually believe such nonsense!!

Of course Uncle Scrooge was forced to glimpse and contemplate his unhappiness, or ghosts of time as Dickens has it. A touch of reality as the fabric is stretched to breaking point, to tear and reveal in the sharp light shining on all that is rotten in the state of Denmark. Look, there’s the ghost of Hamlet stalking through Borgen.

Since acquiring a Kindle a few weeks ago I have been able to begin a clear out of some of my books that have been accumulating dust and cobwebs over the last decades and I found revealed Julian Beck’s The Life of the Theatre, bought, I think, in Camden’s Compendium Bookshop in the early seventies. The pencilled price is £1.55. Under the heading of BREATHING, he quotes K. M. Bykov, “Textbook of Physiology,” Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1960:

“When insufficiently supplied with oxygen, the nervous tissue and especially the cells of the higher divisions of the central nervous system cease functioning.”


Strange visitations, ghosts if you like, from the past. But do keep breathing.


Travel to a City you probably have never heard of

 Posted by at 5:04 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 242012
Kiosk 31, Istanbul Technical University car park

Riding the Northern Line this morning, my eyes travel along the row of small rectangular ads, which are always to be found above the seats on the opposite sides of the underground carriages. Alongside bio-tablets for everlasting health and vitality, and online dotcoms offering match making and endless job opportunities, my eyes stop and open wider at the bold red lettering of this message; travel to a city you have probably never heard of.

“Think smarter not harder”, Tio Amaretto (or Uncle Scrooge as we liked to call him) always used to tell us when we were children. We, the young McDucks, would sit at his fluffy woolly-slippered feet which poked out from under the tartan blanket that lay over his legs. Uncle Scrooge sat in a large armchair like the ancient patriarch he was. He was old and his skin looked yellow, but he was a toughy, and he was always bright eyed inspecting us out of his wrinkled face, peering over his NHS prescription glasses. His stare would silence us. Then he would tell us fantastic stories of his past in the Wild West of America both north and south, of meetings on the frontiers with men who knew how to use six shooters and how to fight duels with long knives. Think smarter, he would say. It was all very new and exciting even if we didn’t understand what Uncle Scrooge was trying to tell us exactly.

“Heavenly heather!” Uncle Scrooge exclaimed to us once, “The genie in the magic lamp! The fortunes I own! I could have the world’s biggest diamond! No! The entire mining industry! Yes, yes, yes! I can see that this is going to take some careful
thought.” Because Uncle Scrooge had also become very rich, one thing having led to another. That is how it was those days when causal logic and analytic reasoning ruled the roost; one thing always led to another.

Yes indeed, and it all needed the hardest of hard, and most careful thought. Simply counting up the quantities Uncle Scrooge owned took up most of everybody’s time. “One multiplujillion, nine obsquatunatillion, six hundred and twenty three dollars
and sixty two cents!” his health service book-keeper told him another time when
we were with him. It was still those long off days before computers got quicker
at counting, and numbers like that seemed like an awful lot to us.

We were young, and we thought it was real, although his people always had to keep
counting over and over again so Uncle Scrooge was always waiting for that final final figure which would tell him how much he had got to spend keeping him well, and we thought it would last for ever. Of course those were the days before the Goatee Goats got even bigger than the McDucks (the Goatee Goats and all their branches, both the protean firm of Goatman-Sacks out west and the scary Goatam-ovich oligarch family in the east). For thirty years those Goatee Goats have hoovered up everything, causal logic and analytic reasoning having been taken over by their newer ontological categories and more exciting algorithms of hegemony, power and influence. Hoovered up everything… as everybody knows these days… until there was nothing left.

But even though Uncle Scrooge has grown even older still these last thirty years, and
his NHS joint replacement surgery and heart bypass operations notwithstanding, his eyes still sparkle from behind his (now thicker and thicker) NHS prescription lenses when we visit him in his social services state-funded old people’s home in north London. “Think smarter not harder!” he goes on telling us again and again, quack quacking his toothless gums together… now most of his NHS decayed teeth have also been taken away.

Travel to a city you have probably never heard of. Not London. No. It sounds like something Andrzej Stasiuk would tell us to do in one of his feuilleton literary travelogue pieces which win international prizes! And it is true: Poland-Travel, the ad sign says under this headline message which has stopped my roving eyes in their horizontal tracks today, City of Culture, 2016: the invitation is to travel east and south to join the carnival in the city which is called Wroclow, the state capital of that very part of southern Poland in which Andrzej coincidentally also lives.

The underground train is slowing down and it is my stop. Wroclow is not the only name the city has known during the last eighty years, I reflect as I gather my leather
bag off the carriage floor, sling the strap over my shoulder and make towards the exit. Vratislav and Breslau are two of its other names among several others by which it has also been known… It is not like London whose name one cannot think of ever changing however hard one tries.

Travel to a city you have probably never heard of. Hard to get your head round? Not if you are smart enough to actually live – and of course write from – there.

Jan 202012
Guest Kiosk 7, Karakoy

Are we trying too hard to think? Well, no, must be the simple answer to that question. Are you saying there is a problem? Are you pussy-footing around (in your decent English fashion) implying a question/problem that you don’t actually define. There is something you call NHS Intelligence as though it might a branch of MI5 or MI6 and there is something about speed . . . you are probably not talking about waiting time for operations but then again maybe you are.

In your plea for less thinking, are you referring to the constant interference by every government to reorganise the NHS; to attempt to move towards greater efficiency – a much beloved trope of authority talking about others. It must be why authorities, those with a smidgeon of power, move reflexively towards tyranny. And why the rest of us have to busy ourselves with keeping an eye on things and discovering new and exciting ways to resist their forays into dictatorship. And it’s why there is no such thing as a free market – because those with a smidgeon of power always want to distort the market in their favour and there are those who have accumulated great wodges of power and have developed cosy relationships with those we have (with faint hopes) elected as a government.

It does seem certain that there is a whole strand of thought in England which is infected and dominated by US hysteria about anything remotely socialistic (like the NHS) and this strand of (non)thought is also dominated by neo-con free market madness, despite the recent evidence that it doesn’t work – except of course for the few. And no doubt the Tory Party is about to morph any time soon into a Tea Party look-alike, a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-European Rottweiler.

What am I supposed to be not thinking about?

Should I adopt a mitteleuropean shrug of the shoulders? Inscrutability in the face of dictatorship?

Yes, no doubt we need a smile, a shrug and a bit of cunning in order to survive. A subtle (or not so subtle) resistance to the government of the day which these days seems to be infected with the Blairite hypermanic managerialism. So far the secret police have not infiltrated every aspect . . . though who knows how far off that day is . . . the privileged obviously have to protect their privileges, the pirates their treasure, the bankers their bonuses. And the rest of us . . .

What comes to mind is 60 million ways of resisting and 60 million ways of working and laughing . . . actually that’s what we are:


Working, resisting, loving, laughing



Women and men



And the still to be conceived

All that force waiting to be formed human


And of course doubting, thinking, believing, making the wrong decision (again), not overly efficient and, yes, complex.


Decision Time

 Posted by at 6:17 pm  Catastrophe Games, Old Men Travelling, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Jan 172012

Are we trying too hard to think? In our thoroughly-decent fair-play English way we have always put a high premium on thinking. Yes, there is common sense, but when we have got a big problem like the future of the world, or even a medium sized problem like the future of the United Kingdom, how about doing some superior thinking? How ever much it hurts our heads, how about some intelligence.

Let’s take a medium sized problem like the future of the Health Service. That calls for NHS Intelligence… (Let’s play the Harry Lyme theme now – NHS Intelligence - I kid you not). Now there is a title that makes me smile.

You see I have a theory about the NHS. Composed in the spirit of historical determinism it is called my “Russian/Soviet Army/Hospital Trust Theory” and it goes like this:
Take a large organisation with over 1 million ‘employees’ or ‘people in arms’
+ plus a passionate ideology of freedom for all at the point of delivery (of a bayonet or a needle)
+ plus the need to be in a constant state of decisive change (radical reform or
The outcome (however well intended) is that the organisation moves 50% slower each time a cycle of reform is completed. eg the tank/hospital divisions/services move at 32 kph then 16, then 8… and so on… ad finitum.

Yes, there’s the rub. It is ‘Ad Finitum’ not ‘Ad Infinitum’. Things do not go on for ever, and there is always a cut off point… It was 1989 for the Russian Soviet Army… And it will be a date in the relatively near future for the NHS. It is not a question of whether, simply of when.

The above theory has nothing to do with Right Wing Think Tanks by the way. There is and has clearly been a Tory ideological objective to do away with the NHS for some time under the guise of ‘market reforms’, and if these kinds of people get their way this of course would simply hasten and bring forward the moment of ‘Ad Finitum’.

NO, my theory is based more in the tradition of mind of central european thinking
post-communism… and now (perhaps) post-capitalism. This tradition is embedded in the 200 million people of our european neighbours who live east of Berlin and west of the Urals, people have seen more terrible and violent things in the last 100 years than we in our gentle English isle would ever care to think about or imagine, and experienced  the worst excesses and most ridiculous absurdities of ideological practices of both the Right and Left. In this tradition they have developed the wisdom of being superflous, and a deep knowledge of transience having seen many things come and go. They know the horrors of superior thinking, and they would have little time for NHS Intelligence or UK government’s ‘market reforms’ (if they happened to live in Ukania as opposed to Ukraine). They would in fact be entirely indifferent.

Being indifferent to ‘Decision Times’ is their way of surviving because they know that, whatever is done on their behalf and whatever is changed to improve the system (intelligently or otherwise), they are always the ones who will end up suffering the worse consequences.

They have my entire sympathies… etc…

Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka (The Good Soldier Švejk) knows better; NHS Intelligence indeed!

Jan 132012

How do we think about something that we can’t yet think about? The pressure is intense, likely to lead to bashing one’s head against something hard – this something that we can’t yet think about and yet it is very hard and causes endless amounts of pain. How fundamental is the shift going to be? Could I, for instance, carry on my life much as I am at the moment? It would be convenient. But what if I am going to have to understand everything in a fundamentally different way? And what would startle me out of my dreaming state, my constant attempts to rebuild what I know and what is familiar?

Here’s something I saw in adbusters magazine:

‘So, students. Decision time. You live in what many believe is a bifurcation point in human history. You’ve seen all the graphs with lines curving up like a ski jump. Human population. Gross domestic product. Species extinction. Carbon emissions. Inequality. Resource shortages. You know that something has to give. You’ve got an idea that the price isn’t right. Maybe you’re even suspicious that if the world economy does turn out to be a Ponzi scheme, you or your children are a little bit late to the game. You therefore stand at a fork in the road. You can take the orthodox route – and risk ending up with a qualification as impressive as a degree in Marxist ideology right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or you can take a chance on regime shift by speaking up, questioning your teachers, being open to disruptive ideas, and generally acting as an agent of change. You can insist that the economy is a complex, dynamic, networked system – and demand the tools to understand it. You can point out that the economy is unfair, unstable and unsustainable – and demand the tools to heal it. You can tell the oracles that they have failed. You can go in and break the machine. And then you can do something new.’ Adbusters took this from David Orrell’s Economyths.

I suppose we are all students really, or at least sort-of-students – puzzling and studying and puzzling – possibly offering our own thoughts into the never-ending task of interpretation.

Here’s the uber-interpreter Walter Benjamin, quoting Goethe:

‘What one wishes for in one’s youth, one has in abundance in old age.’ Benjamin adds: ‘The earlier in life one makes a wish, the greater one’s chances that it will be fulfilled. The further a wish reaches out in time, the greater the hopes for its fulfilment. But it is experience that accompanies one to the far reaches of time, that fills and divides time. Thus a wish fulfilled is the crowning of experience.’

What, I ask myself did I wish for? Does wishing require some sort of courage or confidence or merely desperation? With millions of celebrities shouting out for what they wish or want or demand, with the help of their personal Max Clifford and the tabloid press screaming in adulation or pouring filth on them, wishing has developed an unattractive aspect. Perhaps it was better when we cut our birthday cakes and made a secret wish. These days, secrets are only here to give some passing friend the chance to betray.


Jan 102012
Kiosk 33, Hyatt Hotel

“Paradigm Shift?” – I am writing online this morning on my aging notebook, whose battery is failing. Time was when it would hold a charge for two hours, now I am lucky to last thirty minutes. So mostly I keep myself plugged into the mains, and so I thought I was this morning in Camden town at a favoured café with free wifi. Then thirty five minutes into the piece, the screen goes blank. The plug wasn’t in the socket properly I guess. There is nothing to compare with the effect of the totally blank screen, and being brought to a sudden stop; thirty five minutes of occupation killed off in a nanosecond of power failure.

I stop to consider “Paradigm Shift” again, that old gnarled idea for moving back or moving on, and toponomastic inventiveness, like changing the name of a city from Leningrad to St Petersburg, or Pogradec to Perparimi. The latter town is in Albania had its name changed for a time during the second world war when the country was taken over by the Italians and under occupation. Perparimi means “Progress” in Italian by the way. I expect there are many towns and cities in the USA called that too.

I have been in the company of the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk in London the last two days. It is he who told me about Pogradec’s name change for instance. He also offers me the consolation, brought to a stop as I was by my power failure, from the time when he was last in Albania, and the power cuts lasted twenty out of twenty four hours. It was a long hot summer, and the waters behind the hydroelectric dams in the north of the country had run dry. So in Pogradec, plugged into the wall or running off an aging notebook battery, total power failure was more or less a permanent fact of life.

In conversation with Andrzej it is as if we are strolling on the Corso together, but it is not Italy, we are doing a passagiata far beyond Trieste to the east. I am reading his book Fado (Dalkey Archive Press 2009*), which is categorized by the publishers as ‘Essay / Travel Writing’. The truth is that the writing belongs to neither of these categories however. The pieces are too short and wandering to be considered essays, mostly about one or two thousand words long, and they are written in a style which is less about travel and more about what happen afterwards, and the uncanny experience when everything has been brought to a stop: challenging, amazing and unfamiliar perspectives, they should of course be called feuilletons.

Thus it is that power failures at this precise moment feel far more relevant in their irreversible way to me than the idea of paradigm shifts, which anyway somehow never actually seem to arrive for us in the here and now.

In the company of Andrzej I do not think I have ever found a companion whose writing shows such a close an affinity to the form and practice of serial dialogue we try to follow here. For instance, another piece in Fado is titled Rudñany. “This is a story of Slovakia” it begins. Rudñany exists, this is no fiction I tell myself, it is a village on the Google maps where I have discovered it for myself. Andrzej tells me of the difficulty he has reaching it, the long drive into the mountains along a narrowing valley past rusting factories, warehouses with broken roofs open to the skies, and overgrown railway tracks. He explains that for seven hundred years the mines at Rudñany provided plentiful supplies of silver, copper and mercury, but the mines were closed a few years ago when the seams of ore finally ran out.

After he finally reaches the village Andrzej describes the community of gypsies living there, literally at the bottom of the abandoned and utterly barren mine pit. It is important to add here that for Andrzej gypsies are people of hope, the nomadic tribe of Europe who for nearly a millennium have always possessed nothing and progressed nowhere. Their population is growing he tells me, soon they will be the majority, and perhaps then they will need their own state, he adds. At a certain point he describes the large concrete square at the centre of the closed up mining village where he has stopped. At this moment for truthfulness sake, I feel I must repeat his exact words: “The square was filled with hundreds of people walking about, stopping, and chatting, as if on the Corso.  They had no other occupation and so they were simply spending time with one another.  It looked like an allegory of Sunday or of a holiday in general.  The crowd was animated, dressed up, colourful, and at the same time listless.  No one needed them and so they occupy themselves with each other.  They killed time together.”

“I watched them and imagined the future of the world, with its growing numbers of people of whom it will be said that they are simply superfluous, because there is no work for them, there is no room, no prospects, and actually we are closing up shop just now and don’t anticipate reopening.  Those who arrive late will have to stand or stroll around and talk for whatever time is still remaining, or for eternity, on a concrete square.”

You may perhaps be surprised to hear that Andrzej is not at all a gloomy companion to be with, nor does he have dystopian beliefs or pronounce terrible prophecies. If I was to ask him about paradigm shifts, I think he would shrug his shoulders and laugh, because the fact is he is entirely indifferent to the West and its economical or any other ways of constructing reality. Post communism, and now post capitalism, power failures matter more to him than paradigm shifts – where walking about, stopping and chatting, as if on the Corso, we have no other occupation.

The nobler journey? Yes, Andrzey says at another moment, it is pilgrimage.


* Fado – and book prize winner, joining the several he has won for othere of his works, but Andrzej’s books, although much is now in translation, do not occupy the interest of the western literary press.

Jan 062012

And where do I go for the truth? The wind rattling the windows, worrying at the dry leaves of the beech hedge (actually, a promise of a future hedge). I saw the isobars packed tight, the depression off to the north-east, giving the Scots another bashing.

Our minds sleep fitfully in the ordinary, the day to day detergent dramas of our lives.  Intimations of truth or Truth perhaps could arrive in that moment of waking up to the strange, the unheimlich, the not at home . . . so, yes, you were right to go off to Russia to be shocked out of the blank wall of the familiar into something so startling one might think of it as the truth, to see the weirdness of truth or the truth of weirdness. Though Macbeth had only to step outside the castle gates to see the witches stirring up a whole cauldron of trouble.

I’m holding on to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm shift applied to the possibility of a change in economic thinking. Rather as there was the advent of the neoliberal, market dominated thinking that was picked up conservative politicians in the late seventies. There’s a desperate need to move on but will it be back to Keynesian ideas or something more startling? Will it emerge in this Olympian year or will we continue to wait, despairingly perhaps, no holding our breath, as inequality increases and the hyper-rich get even richer (well why not if we can get away with – you can hear the self-pity in their voices). When will the tipping point (as Malcolm Gladwell described it) arrive?

To what degree is my poverty self-chosen? Or merely the result of stuff happening (Donald Rumsfeld’s theory of looting – hadn’t he heard of capitalism?). But then again, these days, that used to be hours, I puzzle my way through months that used to be days, one myopic eye on studying, the other on the, yes, weirdness of aging. Perhaps the fear that I am no longer going anywhere at all – it’s all got to be handed over the children. What could I say in my defence if there should be any accusations of wasting time, making wrong decisions (is there any other type of decision?)? I did what I could . . . but I was in such a rush to get to the somewhere where I haven’t arrived (yet!). So there could be some hope that even at this late stage (how late is late?) I will, in fact, arrive where I intended – even admitting that the destination was never entirely clear to me – lost in myopia, as usual.

So let’s admit it, life is way too difficult, but hope flickers on, putting up a head or at least a hand to emerge from the dream wreckage or the wreckage of dreams, wishes emerge from the mist . . . oh yes, I could do A (or B or even C) . . .  I promise I’ll let you know when I get there or like you, when I’m on my way back.

Happy New Year!



 Posted by at 10:05 pm  Catastrophe Games, Old Men Travelling, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Jan 032012
Guest Kiosk

I am sat in the departures lounge of Berlin’s Tempelhof airport, waiting for my connecting flight back to London, heading back to Ukania. The airport cafe’s and shops are all gone and it is a long wait, but I am at ease sat in the stripped back and bare walled halls since I have a strong feeling for time, a strong feeling for its immeasurable length, both for the historical complexity and the particularity of its geographical location.

Where have I been? To Russia. We go to Russia for truthfulness. Time was I was unable to fetishise, but age brings its consolations and I was in transit from the Argentine pampas to… Where was it now? In transit from the Argentine pampas to… (“alone, disconsolate, and in some way, interesting” is one option referred to by Borges in his 1951 essay The Argentine Writer and Tradition).

Ah yes, I remember, to Russia, and now I am heading back to Ukania. Because the political economy of life is laid bare there to the fullest extent, the reality of the extreme gap between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Nots’. I was reading a review of Luke Harding’s new book Mafia State: How one Reporter became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia (Stephen Homes London Review of Books 05/01/12 p23-27), describing the way democracy works in Russia democracy, vyboria bez vyborathe, “elections without a choice”. Go check it out I thought. So I did, voting with my feet through that other option (the other one which Borges had suggested in his 1951 essay) finding: “room for manoeuver and capacity for innovation”.

To Russia looking for truthfulness. And now heading back, I am halfway to London, and I am stopped again at the Tempelhof Airport outside Berlin. Not a living soul around “the will-o’-the-wisps of the dead are glimering; there’s no sign of a living soul around…”. This time it is the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk speaking (boss with his wife of Czarne Publishing), being like Anselm Kieffer a visitor more than once at Tempelhof, and travelling to places nobody else would think to visit, such as Galicia, and obstinately leaving his words for someone else to find, since nothing is washed away without leaving a trace. Not even there. And not even in Ukania.

And in Ukania, the candles are also being lit by invisible hands for the dead.