Saturday, 12 November 2016

Athens 2016 #7 - poem

I'm tired of all this unproductive bile;
I'd rather we could just shake hands and smile.
Why don't we sit and natter for a while?

I see that you're suspecting me of guile
- I have, it's true, described your views as vile - 
but someone has to go the extra mile

before we're all completely fucked

Friday, 11 November 2016

Athens 2016 #5 - Embassies

(A few days ago, I went for a stroll and found myself in the Embassy quarter of Athens.  I drafted this blog immediately afterwards.  Since then (a) somebody yesterday threw a hand grenade at the French Embassy, (b) I learned that someone called Barack Obama is visiting Athens next week, (c) someone called Real Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America and (d) Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to said election with the most important statement of Enlightenment values for decades.  All of which throws new and interesting light on what follows...)

It had not been my intention to be photographed by the security system surrounding the US Embassy in Athens, but given the vaguely circular route of my walk it was probably inevitable.  I didn’t know it was the Embassy at first: it looked more like a prison, or a fort.

I was disguised as a heavily tanned middle-aged white man wearing only a t-shirt and jeans.  I was carrying a black rucksack slung over one shoulder.  I stopped provocatively in front of some gates and took photos.  Of course they were going to react.

The US Embassy occupies an entire city block.  I was able to walk around it.  By the time I reached the third and, especially, the fourth sides, they knew I was coming.  Burly uniformed men on walkie-talkies watched me.  I couldn’t decide whether to try to look more threatening or less.

I stood on the opposite side of the road, here:

and took another photo:

Ha! I am protected from the mightiest nation on earth by several lanes of Athenian traffic!  (As anyone familiar with Athenian driving habits will know, this is actually more reassuring than it sounds.)

I wandered off, satisfied with the pebble I had thrown, through the rest of what I now realised was the ‘Embassy quarter’ – Portuguese, French, Argentinean…  A goodly chunk of the north eastern district of central Athens is maintained, it would seem, entirely by ambassadorial largesse.

Ah.  The British Embassy.

Actually, that’s a little unfair.  There’s also this:

and, er, by way of security, monogrammed and movable 'No parking' signs:

So, suddenly we can see how the history and present of global power is manifest: on the one side, a monstrous projection of defensive and aggressive posturing, an entire city block laid waste and replaced by a brutal excrescence of Uncle Sam’s commitment to making sure that whoever the fuck you are you don’t forget who’s boss; over here, a decaying remnant of former grandeur, still clinging to a belief of relevance, still hoping that a formidable ‘No parking’ sign will not only deter the would-be aggressor (have they seen how people park in Athens?) but will also signal some ineffable set of ‘British’ values to inspire both visitors and passers-by.

Rather than make them laugh or cringe.

Then – the Germans.  Of course.  They, like every other member of the European Union, fly not only their own national flag but also the flag of the union.  (Well, I say ‘every other member’; but there is of course one that does not…) They choose not to fortify themselves like either the Americans (behind immense barricades of steel) or the British (behind immensely powerful No Parking signs.)  In fact, the German Embassy is simply present on the street:

So there we go: the entire character of three great nations effortlessly and beautifully expressed through the metaphor of their respective Embassies: the Americans – wealthy, over-bearing, paranoid; the British – polite, bemused, declining; the Germans - modern, understated, straightforward.

Let’s hope the Germans don’t panic.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Five reasons why Trump is Thatcher

It occurs to me that Trump is America's Thatcher:

  • both have backgrounds as tradesfolk - Trump is a 'businessman' and Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer

  • both (partly as a result) are not merely anti-Establishment, they are outsiders in their own parties (Thatcher was loathed by the patrician class of old-school Tories)

  • both arrive as vigorous reformers against a background of (real or perceived) ossification (in Thatcher's case the background was post-World War II corporatism, the 'sick man of Europe' label, the winter of discontent etc; in Trump's case, the failure of the US Establishment to distribute the benefits of globalisation, the failure to control its debt etc)

  • both evoke extreme reactions among both the general public and the commentariat - there is no middle ground with either of them, people either love them or hate them

  • both have a weird thing with hair

Make of it what you will.  

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

In the event of a scary future, run to the past

So I had intended that this missive would be a light-hearted piece on the Athenian's fondness for shoes – but then I woke up and remembered it’s 2016, so Donald Trump has been elected President of the USA.

Somehow this doesn’t feel as shocking as the Brexit result; but that’s probably because I’m still numb from June.

Either that or I actually believe my own analysis, which is that very large numbers of ordinary people across the western world are angry and confused at how things are panning out for them and they will vote for anyone – literally, anyone – who appears to recognise their pain.  Millions and millions of ordinary people in the US and the UK do not pay attention to current affairs, do not involve themselves in the complexities of globalisation, do not think too often about climate change, do not wonder too much about the relationships between economic growth, debt, tax avoidance, productivity, automation, media ownership, employment, finite natural resources and so forth.  They just want a steady job, a decent house, healthy kids and something to look forward to.

But what is there to look forward to?  More jobs going to other countries?  More people coming here to compete for the remaining jobs?  More expensive housing? Fewer holidays?

Once upon a time I wrote a piece (god knows which hard drive it’s on) suggesting that one of the side-effects of the Cold War was that it provided an underpinning purpose to headline economic activity – by which I meant, the reason to keep on spending and growing and running around as fast as possible was to be as strong as possible in order to counter the obvious threat.  It was a ‘deep frame’, a pervasive myth, a macro-political narrative that justified a whole host of economic policies and actions.  It was tantamount to a duty to be a good consumer, because that was how to maintain the economic strength upon which you and your country’s safety depended.

With the end of the Cold War, that narrative has progressively ebbed away – and behind, there is nothing.  A great existential hole.  What is the point of all this?  Where are we going?  Why?

No one will or can say.

Add in twenty or so years of 'post-person' globalisation, then the crash of 2008 (and its still unfolding aftermath) and – hey presto - we start to go backwards: in the UK, through Brexit, to a time of Empire and ‘sovereignty’, to those re-imagined sepia-tinted ‘good old days’; in the US, through Trump, to a time when America was ‘great’, when all right thinking white folk had good jobs working for great companies, when women and blacks knew their place.  We go backwards to those re-imagined certainties because the future is so frightening: the Chinese in charge? Climate change flooding us out?  Robots doing all the work?

Perhaps the greatest failure of the liberals, the political establishment, the experts, the ‘Front Row Kids’ et al has not been so much in not hearing, or listening to, or comprehending or even empathising with all that bewilderment, but in not developing and then proposing a Good Future.


Deep down, I am optimistic that such a project is possible; and it is, self-evidently, more urgent now that it has ever been.

But now is not the time to begin to sketch what I think might be involved in such a project; nor is it a time for optimism.  (I note my own optimism, and store it in the cellar.)  Now is a time for pain and disbelief, for tears and grieving, for that sensation of shock whereby all the news, all the work, all the ordinary everyday stuff suddenly seems pointless.  Now is a time to allow the numbness to approach and to take hold, knowing that it will pass.  Then, and only then, will it be feasible to act.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Athens 2016 #4 - poem


A crack opens, suddenly, unexpectedly
and I tumble back two decades
into a giant lake of love and play
where my children’s smiles radiate like gold
where the smell of ironing their shirts fills my chest
where everything is a game, or will be soon, even the washing up
where the living room is a great plain, covered with creatures 
     and figurines and imagination
where excitement at a forthcoming journey is physical
where I always finish work on time to collect the boys
     from school
where fights and tears are vapours
where cooking a family meal is an endless experiment in fun
where each morning brings a new and wondrous achievement
where the past is overwritten every day
where the future is a realm of pure potential
where the present is all there is

So fully present were we in that present
it leaves no trace
no memory
just shapes, and hues, and
invisible fissures

A small price to pay
for all that joy

(Ironically the crack was opened by Kate Bush's 'Bertie'; both my sons really dislike her music...)

Monday, 7 November 2016

Athens 2016 #3 - poem

[This a thank you to Stephen Mitchell, translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey, both of which I've taken the opportunity to read whilst in Athens.]

[Needless to say, both the dactylic hexameter of Homer's original and the 'minimally iambic five-beat line' of Mitchell's translations are beyond me, so I stuck to a good-old-fashioned sonnet for safety's sake.]

And with confidence in his judgment…

I sat in sand-swept Pylos like a king
and asked that I might find the words to sing
my thanks to he that journeyed back in time
to bring the matchless gifts of Homer’s rhyme.

As when the juices from the finest peach
elide the tongue and memory to teach
the lesson – while the flesh will feed us now
the stone inside begets tomorrow’s bough –

so too the master offers to his guest
the treasures that will live within his breast,
not merely to fulfil each given role
but truly to refresh the weary soul.

One day, of course, the story will be gone;
for now – thank Zeus! – the odyssey goes on.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Athens 2016 #2 - poem

[On meeting someone who was unable to recall the name Georges Perec, author of 'La Disparition', a novel written without using the letter 'e']

L'usiv (Looking for Prc)

our familiar companion is lost
as on many occasions past

No historical insight
    assists us
No logical inquiry
    supports our loss
No divination
    can catch this ghost

You and I know
that to hunt for him
is folly
You and I know simply
to wait

His arrival is invariably swift
His stay is always joyous
His vanishing is instant

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Athens 2016 #1 - poem

My older brother
was in trouble.
He had spent all his money,
borrowed heavily,
cheated his creditors
and lied to his friends.
He had become so desperate
he had been selling some of his cherished possessions
he had become so distressed
he was no longer able to earn money
with his hard-earned skills and experience.

He asked for my help.

I am in a fortunate position:
my businesses have prospered and
I am wealthy.

I could easily have given him the money
that he needed.
I could easily have directed some of my businesses
to give him work.
I could easily have offered him
an open hand.

But I did not.

Perhaps I had misunderstood his condition.
Perhaps I had become selfish and narrow.
Perhaps I had fallen under the sway
of arguments from people
whose view of the world is
and short.

I decided it would be best
to lend him more money
but only under the strictest of conditions.
I obliged him
to list all his remaining belongings
and to make provision for selling them.
I obliged him
to start earning money again
however he could
and to repay me in instalments
on a regular basis.
I obliged him
to submit to frequent and detailed inspections
of every aspect of his life
so that I could be sure
I would get my money back.

I humiliated him.

At first he was angry
and he shouted and protested
and accused me of trying to crush him.
For a while
he refused my offers
and his situation worsened.
he called me
and agreed to my terms.

Now he is laid low.
Now he is crawling on the ground,
peddling trinkets and
collecting loose change.
He is able to pay me the interest I demanded
but no more.
Now his home is crumbling
and his visitors leave only the smallest of gifts
in return for his hospitality.
the crazed and magnificent sparkle in my brother's eye
is hidden
perhaps gone.

Now, I am ashamed.
At his time of need
I thought only of myself.
Now, even if I forgive him his debts -
as I surely must -
and restore his house -
as I surely must -
and honour his name -
as I surely must -
he may never forgive me

and he may never return.