Monthly Archives: November 2008

the certainty of everyday life

It is clear that nothing new is ever built well. Indeed, but it’s the line on the Clissold Leisure Centre that got me thinking. It is true: it fell apart just like everything else these days. Families, banks, children’s new toys, the plastic boxes that contain Woolies’ discount Christmas cards, Oyster card wallets, the boxes that package 16 tampons, homes, schools, cars (my mother in law’s 4-year-old Peugeot engine crumbled after 13,800 miles and they refused to reimburse her or do anything that might have qualified as nice), roll-ups, toasters bought after 1985, taps, shower fittings, colourful china door handles with designs tentatively labelled ‘ethnic’, John Lewis scales for weighing the human body, slices of bread, universities, tarmac roads, bus stops, unions, job contracts, mobile phones, nations, old ladies’ hips, aeroplanes… Guns probably fall apart these days too. Cheap loo roll. Pavements. Language. Laptops. Cemeteries, even.

But the other day, I was swimming at a sister centre to the Clissold Leisure Centre. That woman was there again, my arch rival. I left the pool, as usual before she did, and walked to the changing rooms. A class of teenagers was getting undressed, and most of the changing rooms were occupied. The one I found was towards the back, the furthest row from the showers. I dropped my clothes onto the bench and as I started peeling the black wet glove from my body, became aware of a smell that made me think of shit. I opened the door, one hand holding my costume up, and looked down the corridor of white doors and pale blue plastic grip-mat. No one. So I turned around and was about to step back into my cubicle when I noticed a sizeable pile of solid dark brown human faeces under the small bench on top of which my clothes were piled. How did someone manage to bend down there? was the first thought that crossed my mind. The second was, Why did they do this to me? Paranoia helping me assume that a stranger had known that I would go into this cubicle. So that’s why all the doors are shut: they led me here. I grabbed the clothes, the towel, and my shoes, and backed out. Who is watching me? Why have kids picked on me? Kids tend to weed the weirdos from the crowd. How did they know? Perhaps it was an adult. Perhaps it was her?

I told a person wearing a blue T-shirt with STAFF written across her breasts. She thanked me and went to look, to check I wasn’t making the story up. Perhaps she’s thinking it was me. A few minutes later a chunky man appeared in a blue tracksuit. He had a bucket and was wearing thin plastic gloves – the kind dog owners use to poop a scoop – and had a cheery shine in his eyes. He went into the cubicle briskly, and reappeared in less than ten seconds perhaps, still as cheery. He went down another corridor and I waited for him to come back. But he didn’t. I waited for five minutes, increasingly self-conscious about my quest to see the shit scrubbed up. But no one came. Was it so dry he didn’t need to scrub the floor? I’ve thought about this all week. And now I’ve started swimming at the lido on London Fields. The changing rooms are open plan – like modern day offices. Skinny, pale women with tufty pubic hair strip in a matter-of-fact way. It would be hard to defecate there.

So how did I get to this? The solidity of every day life, I thought, as I read IT. Faeces is at least not flimsy. Should I really be writing this on a blog? What will people think? Do I care? Not right now, no… but who knows about tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that…

There was something else. Ever since credit crunch (itself a disturbingly infantile-friendly way to describe what is going on on planet earth, like ginger crunch cookies), I’ve been feeling deeply ashamed about the number of times I have pondered the debt of Angola and certain other countries in Africa that I am familiar with (I’m not saying Third World debt because I’ve rarely thought about lots of countries as a group). I’ve thought a lot about the financial mismanagement of Angola, in particular, and about its indebtedness and risky reliance on high (now medium) oil prices. It wasn’t until about 2001 that I really thought about First World debt, specifically US debt. It wasn’t until 9/11 that I started to see just how indebted the States was (and today, is even more so). And it wasn’t until 2001, the year I returned from living in Luanda to live in London, that I realised how many things in common London and Luanda and Angola and Britain have. One of the biggest ones being that everything these days falls apart.

Zedu, the president, would open a school that had been built with the funds of his special foundation, FESA, and a few months later the same school would sink. Just like Cherie and IT’s place of work. This year – when I was back in that wonderful place – a friend took me to a slum. We drove along a beautiful tarmac road in the middle of the neighbourhood of corrugated iron shackland and he told me that the road had been built in time for a minister’s visit. It will have fallen apart by the end of the next rainy season, my friend said. Indeed. I’ve seen many a road in Angola that has fallen apart come the first rainy season. Ruas do MPLA, people say and laugh. Just like IT and her Nu-Labour buildings. At least, I thought this morning, shit does not fall apart like that. How strange we wish to make things that do.

Those that don’t include these people I’ve been watching on this kuduro video thanks to MM over at Sean Jacob’s Leo Africanus blog. And I’ve been eating Heinz tomato soup.

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water walks

Please watch this. And thank you JD.

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always behind

So Stockhausen came from Sirius, and why the hell not?, and Cage made 4’33 of silence and pointed out that around huge swathes of the whole world, silence is traffic. The sound of traffic, he said, is always different whereas the sound of Mozart or Beethoven is always the same. The point is, a friend said late last night, it is all in their imaginations and the truth is they don’t actually know what they’re talking about. This, in reference to those other friends who say they’re being spied on and the place is a police state. Attempts to somehow harness an incredibly dense experience with acute language resulted in disaster a little later on. A press of the button and the mail had gone. To the wrong person. Worse, to an in-law; the in-law who was the subject of the mail. Can I blame my morning but oh so belated discoveries? The liberation felt encountering Stockhausen and Cage at youtube? Can I blame Ill Seen Ill Said? Or that woman in the pool? Or the imaginery author who wrote the book reviewed by MJH holed up in an ambient hotel? Perhaps it’s all the bullshit being said about the bankers and their bonuses, the deceit about the borrowing. Language used only to cover up, never to release. The insistence on an outdated etiquette I’ve never understood anyway. Is this a kind of aspergers? Isn’t it that all the aspergers carriers, the schizos and psychos are all we have left as some kind of moral guide? I’d like this to have been written in a more classical way, probably a more male way, so I’d be taken more seriously, be allowed a little more status. But it just comes out. Bloggers’ Tourettes. When my book is finished, I’m going to take a male name.

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telling tales

Why the obsession with narrative? Why do readers need stories? Is it that we live stories that only certain people like writers can understand, can decipher? Or is it that we want to live stories, tales of beginnings and middles and more middles and more and finally, ends? It doesn’t feel like a narrative to me. I don’t see narratives. I don’t live a narrative that I am aware of. What I am writing about isn’t a narrative so much as a series of incidents, of acts, of seeings and hearings. Do they have to amount to a story just so that you – I hope, the eventual reader – will feel more of a desire to turn the page? Do I have to entice you all to read what I’m writing? Why? That’s not my aim. My aim is to write what I saw, what I heard and what I was told and what I did. There isn’t really a narrative so much as an attempt to understand, to come to terms, to search for, to make sense of… And don’t say, See Lara, that’s your narrative! in that kind of discerning and terribly bourgeois (it is, isn’t it?, bourgeois) way that always finds narrative in the travellings of someone like me going South. Ah! So you’ve got the journey, That’s the narrative, the journey! Except it’s not really. The travelling was to escape boredom (and NO, that definitely won’t do and it’s been done a thousand times before anyway), and to see more, and to try to fit it all in before the visa ran out. It was to remind myself of what I’d done, to remind myself of a past, to give some definition to what I’ve become: a terribly deeply cynical being. Can we do more than simply write what we see? Interpretation? Analysis? I’m not sure I have any. But you have to have analysis, Lara. Do you? Why? What for? For whose benefit. How do I know that what I saw was what you saw, or what I saw, or what I thought was somehow erudite or interesting. A lot of the time it’s very humdrum. Which strikes me as the whole point.

But I know I must be missing something. You can’t simply expect people to read a series of sightings. There has to be a point to it. Does there? My point is, if pushed, a sense of tragedy of peoples lives. But I see the same tragedy here. It’s not that I think the tragedy is there because it’s obviously tragic. Being back in London feels every bit just as tragic. That’s my point. I don’t see the difference so much as the similarity. And spectacular generosity. But apart from that, it’s just the enjoyment of being with strangers and being strange and being seen, noticed perhaps. And that’s all fluff anyway. I could get on the 55 bus and end up on the road from Huambo going north to Luanda and I wouldn’t blink. I’d just think, It’s got hotter all of a sudden and The driver’s going much faster than he usually does. But I wouldn’t suddenly feel in anyway exotic, or nervous, or lonely.

Is this where cynicism ultimately leads? I really want to find the path out. But I fear it might be too late. Do I mean cynicism?

This is a bit more like it! (Thank you MO for the introduction).

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fat

There’s this very fat woman who shares a lane with me. She wears a blue rubber hat and goggles. Her flesh is creamy white and tapers into elegant hands and feet that she points like a dancer. Her body twists in the water, twists as if it will tumble and sink in the water. She doesn’t quite do breast-stroke, she swims at an angle that isn’t fully side-stroke. She doesn’t quite do back-stroke because each elegant flip of her arm tips the body onto the side and so in that moment, she is swimming sideways. And then she rolls back on to her back, flicks her head side to side, and then moves to the other side. Somehow we always end up in the same lane. I watch her and think, how gracious. We share the lane and I try to think of things to say to be friendly. I want to tell her how strong she is, and how fast she is. But I know I only think she’s strong and fast because she’s so fat. I feel ashamed that when we are both doing back-crawl, she’s faster than I am. This obese woman whose arms swing back so slowly and softly is faster than me. I am trying harder, I’m sure. She doesn’t try at all. Today I let her overtake me in the deep end. Our eyes touched and she pushed off, twirling around to her front. She gets in before me. I get out before her. She’s very focused. Very fast. Very smooth. I think about her on her fiftieth length jealously and wander back to the public changing rooms where the toilets smell of urine because people seem to think that when they’re swimming they might as well piss on the floor. Or piss in the pool. And to think that for so many years I believed the water would go purple.

I long to see her on land, to outmanoeuvre her.

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spectacular

On a small screen, perhaps half the size of a single page from a tabloid newspaper, framed in gold glitter paint, I watched The man who armed the world. Featuring The man who became the son of Africa (subsequently The smuggest man in the world), it told the story of Victor Bout, a former Soviet military man turned international arms dealer. Bout is now in jail in Thailand, where he was arrested by the US Drug Enforcement Agency in a clever sting operation earlier this year. The programme was very good (Tom Mangold is a man to be admired) in many respects. It spoke to all the people who in their own way had helped track down and trace Bout and his dirty dealings selling arms to anyone and anything who paid. The programme featured lots of Hain plus a senior US advisor who I met years ago in Angola, Witney Schneidman. They spoke at length about the evil Bout and their roles in trying to find him. Hain chuckled about his own idea to shoot Bout’s plane out of the sky, laughing down his nose as he recalled how his advisors had gasped and panted at the idea. Brushed over far more swiftly in the show was the fact – Mangold interviewed a member of the US army serving in Iraq – that the Americans used Bout’s armada of aircraft to regularly deliver arms etc to their own troops serving in Iraq following the invasion in 2003. Bout also used British territory frequently to run arms into other countries. Meanwhile, Hain huffed and puffed about his own role in exposing Bout for running guns to both sides in the latter years of the Angolan war. Marvellous. Does Mangold trust the audience to pick up on the hypocrisy, the absurdity, all alone? Without any help?

The programme ended. I sat in my chair gazing at the glittery gold box, my eyes wet with tears. The day had begun with a voice from a much smaller black box telling me that Lloyd Blankfein would not be taking home his usual annual bonus this year. Last year that annual bonus was calculated at 54 million US dollars. His salary was a mere 600,000 US dollars. The little black box spoke the facts calmly and quietly. No irony. No anger. Just the facts. I was once given a bonus by the BBC. Fifteen hundred quid I think it was, for some programmes I’d made about AIDS. I felt so ashamed earning extra money for wallowing in the disease, I gave half of it away, including a third to someone who had agreed to be interviewed live every day for five days about what it is like to live with AIDS. A nurse from Zimbabwe, she spoke frankly about oral sex, condoms, living with AIDS, and how she left home to come here to get treatment. We’d paid her some pitiful amount for her services. It still makes me feel sick to remember. Mark Byford invited us all to a party and told us all how wonderful we were, how amazing we were for making programmes about AIDS. I stood bemused at the back of the room, remembering the bizarrest of meetings I’d had to attend listening to people saying things about BBC strategy and one BBC I truly did not understand. The beginning of the end. Kofi Annan’s voice was piped through speakers, filling the room, vibrating the bouquets in the arms of an overwhelmed woman who’d saved Africa for one week. Byford’s hand jangled and wriggled in his pocket.

Abandoned. Is this it? A quarter of British bees have died. Rocking in the chair. Alastair Cooke is God. President Jammeh is untouchable. Eight male voices coming from the little black box. Another three male voices from the gold. Ten cats shitting on the window. A man with a belly in a skeleton suit. Sausages and crisps and fizzy white wine. How long can a Christmas tree last before it loses its needles? The third runway. “Malcolm Gladwell is black.” Children prohibited from the Tate. And Cabindans should grow up. Reading Ill Seen Ill Said and listening to ubuweb thanks to the latest post from Tim Etchells (see right). I like entertainment, said J, and I like being forced. If somebody is permitted to manufacture arms, why shouldn’t somebody else be allowed to sell them?

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don’t dream on

The paradigmatic cynic tells you confidentially: ‘But don’t you see that it is all really about money/power/sex, that professions of principle or value are just empty phrases which count for nothing?’ What the cynics don’t see is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom which ignores the power of illusions.

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