Facing the ocean and thinking about fish, August 2017

There’s a brightly painted mobile with wooden tropical fish hanging from the ceiling in our sitting room. When our grandson Carl – still a baby – comes to visit he gets very excited gazing at the multi-coloured fishes swinging in the air and as we lift him up to look closer he grabs at the little pieces of wood with determined movements of his tiny fists. He has recently learnt how to hold on to and then throw away objects… In an attempt to introduce him to the English language I whisper the word “fish” in his ear as he tries to catch them.

I thought a lot about fish during travels in August 2017. We spent a week in Lisbon – facing towards the Atlantic Ocean – a city where cod and sardines are on the menu at almost every restaurant. We stayed in a little flat close to the Castelo Sao Jorge on a hill in the old city overlooking Baixa (the lower centre) to the west and the Rio Tejo to the south. It was particularly enjoyable to stroll in the Alfama district, descending the steep hills and staircases by foot and then using the public ”elevadores” (lifts) to regain height without effort. There are tramlines crossing the city centre and it is fun to watch the old machines – the Portuguese call them “elétricos” – trundle along the narrow streets, sometimes getting stuck.

The fishing settlement of Cascais thirty kilometres west of Lisbon is an attractive destination and an ideal location to get fresh air when the temperatures soar. We joined the crowds on the suburban trains escaping the sweaty city to sprawl on beaches and sample the marine delicacies cooked up at eateries along the shoreline. Cascais is a surprisingly multi-faceted town divided between a quiet maze of seemingly deserted colourful backstreets and a hectic shopping zone packed with people. Next to an up-market modern marina is an old harbour where there are fishing boats moored as well as nets and lobster pots on the quayside.

From the train passing through Belém en route to and from Cascais there are good views of the monument to the ”discoveries”: huge figures of Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and the other explorers who sailed south around the African coast in the 15th and 16th centuries, charting the route to the unknown East, where there were spices and peoples ”without history.” They also crossed the Atlantic to “discover” Brazil. In those days Lisbon and the southern Spanish ports were at the centre of an expanding world of European voyagers and colonisers. Fishing in the Atlantic wasn’t enough for those guys… The imagined riches of El Dorado were just beyond the horizon.[1]

On our last day in Lisbon we sailed across the river and walked around the town called Almada where we found a good restaurant serving a classic: ”bacalhau con todo” (cod with everything). Returning to the north bank, we took the underground across the city to the Park of Nations and the Oceanarium. It was a very hot day and hard to walk the un-shaded stretches of the concrete pavements to get to the exhibition centre. But it was worth the effort as the numerous tanks are full of every marine animal imaginable: from octopus to sharks, from eels to sea otters. It’s a hugely popular exhibit, crowded with groups of kids and families.[2] I took a few ’photos of some small creatures in one of the tanks: sea dragons!

In somewhat dramatic contrast, a week after returning from Lisbon I flew north to Bergen, to attend a three-day conference of European development researchers.[3] Again I found myself facing west towards the Atlantic and I soon found out that fish have been prominent in the history of the Norwegian coast too. Nowadays the most notable industries in Bergen are associated with North Sea oil. But in the days of the Hanseatic traders, the city’s fish market was the vital centre of the economy and it seems that there were many intrigues and battles for control of the marine produce, involving various levies and price wars, as well as widespread exploitation of the fishing communities by the powerful merchants.

It was good to have an opportunity to wander around Bergen. Like many European cities it has become a popular destination for Asian tourists. There are huge crowds along the famous Bryggen quayside and in the queues for the rack railway connection to the Fløyen mountain from which there are tremendous views towards the western islands and the ocean.

Very good meals were available at the hotel where the conference was held, with salmon, herring and other Norwegian seafood specialities appetisingly laid out on buffet tables. But one evening I had to find somewhere to eat in downtown Bergen and I opted for a Thai restaurant with several fish dishes on the menu. The excellent grilled tilapia I ate was served with ginger and fresh vegetables. May the oceans, rivers and lakes of the world continue to provide us with such fantastic foodstuffs!

An elétrico stuck in a winding street near the Alfama, Lisbon

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An impression of the empire in a picture at the Gulbenkian Modern Art Museum

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Old fish merchant’s houses at Bryggen in Bergen

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Sunset looking west across the city towards the Atlantic Ocean from Fløyen

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[1] Much has been written about the Portuguese colonial adventure and the rise and fall of the empire between the 15th and 20th centuries. In the end, the costs of containing uprisings and guerrilla wars in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique were too high and the soldiers were demoralized after years of struggle. I distinctly remember the revolt of the armed forces to overthrow the Salazar dictatorship in 1974 (the Carnation Revolution), although it was overshadowed by the closing acts of the Viet Nam war.

[2] Check out https://www.oceanario.pt

[3] The EADI-Nordic conference dealt with “globalization at the crossroads” and there were sessions on inequality, humanitarian assistance and migration, international tax justice and the “green shift.” The plenary speakers at the conference were a largely insightful and highly articulate bunch: http://eadi-nordic2017.org/2017/08/28/re-watch-the-keynotes/

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Wilderness in three books I read

Sometimes during long days in the concrete jungle I find myself dreaming about escape to the wilds. I’m not alone with these thoughts it seems; “the call of the wild” is an ancient curse. In the modern versions there are TV shows in which people attempt to survive in the sub-arctic tundra avoiding hungry bears, on deserted Pacific atolls threatened by typhoons or in the tropical African savannah with nothing but a water-bottle and a penknife. I am reminded of the Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001), a bizarre story of a young man’s struggle to survive on a lifeboat floating in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger and a dead zebra as fellow passengers! I also recall David Byrne, the singer and songwriter in the band called Talking Heads, who is a keen cyclist and has described the joys of biking in the wilderness zones of America compared to the tame experience of discovering Europe where there are not many landscapes ”untouched by human hand.” The exceptions it seems are some regions of Northern Scandinavia and Scotland where there are expanses of moorland and mountains that haven’t been cultivated or covered in concrete. Recently, in addition to the tales by Martel and Byrne I’ve read three exciting books that touch on the theme of wilderness in one way or another.

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016) is the most relentless dissection of how people have destroyed nature (forests) that I have ever read. Her subject is the clearance of North American forests from the arrival of settlers in New France (Eastern Canada) at the end of the 17th century, to the advent of conservation movements in the same regions (particularly Nova Scotia) in the second half of the 20th Century. The fortunes of the descendants of two outcasts from France are traced through the ups and downs of the families and their timber and logging businesses, interlaced with strong themes about racism and the disappearance of indigenous Americans. Every chapter of the book echoes with the cracking of axes and the screaming of saws. There are numerous dramatic incidents in the story, which illustrate the old thesis that life in the ”pre-modern” world was ”nasty, brutish and short.” I was blown away and couldn’t do much else for ten days but read the 700 pages!

Another impressive writer is Andrea Wolf who has tackled the life story of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian explorer and scientist whose enormous thirst for knowledge led him to undertake expeditions up the Orinoco River and across the Central Asian steppes to gather evidence supporting theories that have become the basis of ecological systems thinking. The Invention of Nature (2015) is an utterly absorbing read, largely because Humboldt himself was an extraordinary character, with an apparently endless capacity to lecture, debate and write on the composition of the ”kosmos” (the title of his major work). Everything from vegetation patterns to electrical currents, from romantic poetry to the movements of the heavenly bodies, was of immense interest to him. He lived near Berlin and in Paris from 1769 to his death in 1859, just before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. It seems that Humboldt’s legacy lives on in many scientific communities around the world, particularly where a holistic understanding of nature is emphasised rather than specialisation in “disciplines” with narrowly defined spheres of enquiry.

The third volume in these thoughts inspired by wilderness is rather complicated. The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant (2005) – subtitled ”a true story of myth, madness and greed” – is an examination of a curious incident in 1997 on an island in British Colombia, in which a woodsman and conservationist destroyed a unique 300 year-old Sitka spruce tree and then disappeared. The Haida Indians in the region revered the golden spruce and the wild Pacific coast is in the forefront of the story, which also deals with the large-scale destruction of forests in North America since the arrival of the white man. The protagonist is a man called Grant Hadwin who converts from working as a logging surveyor to taking up the forest conservation cause. But his life is a shambles of broken relations and in the course of his campaigning he somehow loses his sense of direction, battles with the forces of nature around the Queen Charlotte Islands, cuts down the golden spruce, is summoned to court to be tried for his crime but then canoes into oblivion. It is a bleak story. I read a paperback edition of the book that includes some fantastic black and white photos from the archives of the loggers and timber traders as well as ethnographic studies of the Haida.

Reflecting on the scope and intrigues of these three stories – both fact and fiction – I’m glad that I’ve had opportunities to get a bit closer to some forests and the wild, albeit on a limited scale and without the drama of struggling to survive against the odds. I think of the diverse wild landscapes I’ve admired over the years: the coastline of County Donegal in Ireland, the fringes of the Sahara desert in Burkina Faso and Mali, the rainforests in Central America and the barren but beautiful Altiplano in Bolivia, etc. I’m also glad that many of the world’s wildernesses are protected as national parks, biosphere reserves and so on. In this way the urge to exert control over nature is tempered by recognition of the grandeur of the cosmos.

An easy way to view the wilds, the Annapurna range from the air.

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Crossing borders

Somewhat to my surprise, in the last couple of years I have lost the urge to travel, particularly over long distances. Is my caravan grinding to a halt? Commuting to and from Copenhagen isn’t a very profound and enlightening experience, but it seems to satisfy my desire for mobility and offers a daily opportunity to contrast a city and the countryside. The prospect of being packed into yet another Airbus or Boeing for long cramped hours of bad air and noise en route to the other ends of the earth fills me with dread and weariness.

My last memorable long flight was at the end of April 2016, returning from La Paz in Bolivia via Bogota and Frankfurt; a 24 hour trip… During it I watched the latest film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth full of howling scenes on windswept Scottish moorlands and sat back in my seat reflecting on collapse and madness! Then the Airbus pilot had to abandon the landing in Frankfurt at the last minute due to crosswinds and circled the airport for 20 minutes before making a second attempt to put the wheels on the ground.

Maybe I’ve just lost my nerve. Anyway I seem to be crossing some borders. But borders are becoming more and more difficult to cross. As social and economic inequalities become increasingly explosive, as governments seek to prevent migration and as fences and walls are built to protect us from them, I find the world is less and less welcoming. Somewhere I read that despite the incredible scope and reach of mass and social media, many people are retreating into narrow ”virtual worlds” and communicate only with like-minded tribesmen, such that their exposure to any diverging or uncomfortable ideas or opinions is limited. The borders are not just geographical, but also emotional and intellectual.

In this context a dangerous political space has emerged where nationalist and populist movements with simplistic messages (tweets…) are defining new limits, suppressing dissent and undermining human rights. The most recent example is the demand by the Saudi and UAE governments that the rulers of Qatar close down the Al Jazeera broadcasting network. But there are countless other attempts to silence critical voices in many countries: Turkey under President Erdogan seems to be retreating rapidly from the democratic sphere as the prisons fill up with activists, while the ruling cliques in China, Iran, Viet Nam and elsewhere continue to police the channels of expression in their efforts to keep the people on the narrow road to conformity and to prevent ”unrest.” One of the great ironies of recent years is that Edward Snowden – who would be locked up in the United States for betraying official secrets, state surveillance of internet users – has been given asylum in Russia, where dissent is risky and almost any form of protest is met with intimidation and violence.

What happened to the promotion of our common future on this shared planet? Freedom of movement as well as expression seem to be reserved for a minority, a thin strata of the richest citizens for whom international travel has become part and parcel of daily life. The booming tourist industry bears witness to the possibilities, while student exchange programmes and global research networks are keeping the dreams of cross-fertilisation and innovation alive. But these ”open societies” are threatened by conservative, mainstream media-driven fears of outsiders bringing disruption and destruction. The contradictions abound, along with the visa application rules and passport controls. For example, while the American government has become obsessed with ”homeland security” and travel restrictions on foreigners, at the same time many highly skilled Chinese and Indians are apparently migrating to the info tech industries in California bringing their creativity and new ideas.[1]

I doubt it will be possible to police and control all these borders, despite the raging of noisy populists, anti-globalists and their kin. The human spirit is restless and seeks to go beyond boundaries. Long live the nomads of the world!

Black and white butterfly, design on cloth by Abdoulaye Konaté (Malian artist)

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[1] Some inspiration for these thoughts came from the Economist, challenging received wisdom in an article called ”If borders were open” (15.07.17), which notes that although such a move would be disruptive, the potential (economic) gains are so vast that objectors could be bribed to let it happen! Maybe it is a false impression, but California – visited briefly in 2013 – seems to be a magnet for “libres penseurs” and inventors (not to mention musicians and film makers…). I wonder if the proximity of forests, mountains and deserts along the Pacific coastline has got something to do with encouraging the spirit of exploration. In San Francisco I liked finding street signs in Chinese, English and Spanish and I note that numerous social and natural science discoveries are ascribed to researchers at the universities around the Bay Area…

Some scenes from the “technosphere” (2012-17)

In the Anthropocene era, as humans have become the dominant force on the planet, we have also accumulated a lot of stuff! Thus, scientists recently discovered that all objects on Earth created by people add up to an astoundingly large figure. How large? According to a new study described in “Live Science”, the estimated mass of every bit of urban and rural infrastructure, every vehicle and machine, every device and construction on land, sea and in the air, every piece of technology, and all the garbage in landfills, is approximately 30 trillion tons. All of these objects are collectively known as Earth’s “technosphere.”

Buildings are the most common features of this technosphere. In the following series I have collected a few examples from travels in the last five years, photographed in settlements ranging from around 100 people (Rougemont in Switzerland) to over 20 million (the agglomeration of Mexico City). The oldest building in this collection is the church in Rougemont, dating from 1080. The newest is the Fondation Louis Vuitton (FLV) art gallery in the Bois de Boulogne on the edge of Paris, designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2014.

When I was a child I sometimes thought that being an architect would be fun. Having looked at thousands of buildings over the years, on the whole I’m glad that I can’t be blamed for the ugliness that abounds. But there are of course also many impressive and attractive buildings.[1]

Stockholm has a fair share of interesting infrastructure, often reflected in the waters of the lakes around which the city is built. I have been there many times since my first visit in December 1980, when I realised how cold and dark a Scandinavian winter can be. The technosphere of the city stretches from the narrow streets of the “Gamla Stan” (old town), past a number of imposing palaces, parks and churches to smart residential zones often with indoor markets or malls. Public transport includes the “tunnelbana” (underground), buses and some new tramlines as well as a network of ferries sailing between the islands and into the archipelago to the east.

Close to the centre on Skeppsholmen is the “Moderna Museet” (of modern art). There are often exciting exhibitions and a fine permanent collection of paintings and sculptures including a bath of bubbling mud. We visited the museum in August 2012 and to introduce these notes on buildings I thought a picture of light would be appropriate.

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Few cityscapes are as dramatic as supersized Jakarta. It has been steadily expanding upwards as the settlements sprawl ever further across Java from east to west and southwards. To the north is the Java Sea into which the city is slowly sinking under the weight of its buildings.

On several visits between 2009 and 2012 I stayed at the Marriot Hotel, just around the corner in the jet-setting business district from the Danish Embassy (which is on the 26th floor of a huge skyscraper…). Like many countries, Indonesia is plagued by various fundamentalist movements and the hotel has been bombed twice! Security checks to get in have become extremely rigorous, but once inside the staff are the happiest, smiling people on the planet, doing their utmost to assume airs of normality…

There are some fantastic views from the top floors of the hotel too. The last time I was there I took a picture of a new flyover highway being built in front of the Kuningan shopping mall. Will this road have reduced traffic congestion? I doubt it…

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Provence and the Côte d’Azur are overflowing with beautiful locations and lots of fine buildings. We’ve been to the region for several holidays and taken the bus a couple of times to the small town of Villefranche-sur-Mer to stroll and admire the harbour. There is a very stylish row of houses with bars and restaurants on the quayside.

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A lot of water has flowed under the bridges between my first visit to Bangkok in 1993 (en route to Cambodia) and my latest visit in 2014. Each time I’ve been to city I have tried to squeeze in a trip on the Chao Phraya River. The bustle, noise and heat of the downtown zones are oppressive, but there are fresh breezes on the river and lots of boats of all shapes and sizes buzzing under the bridges. The views towards the temples and palaces are good and it is possible to hop on and off river buses to explore. Watching the Thais and tourists interact is fun too!

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It seems that property prices are going through the roof (sic) in San Francisco, where the info tech revolution is endlessly booming. Examples of creative construction are easy to find in the city, ranging from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Coit Tower. We stayed in the Mission District at Easter in 2013 and particularly enjoyed the skyline viewed from Dolores Park.

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With a population estimated at 21.2 million there’s always some construction going on in Mexico City. It seems that there are always some killings too. I would like to explore more of the metropolis and the country, but am discouraged by the regular reports of violence.

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Despite a favourable location beside a sheltered bay and with sandy beaches stretching northwards, Maputo the capital of Mozambique doesn’t boast many attractive buildings. The tropical rain and winds seem to be destructive too, so that many high-rise blocks look worn and run down. Maintenance appears to be a problem, causing the residents to abandon some buildings or to survive without services such as water and sanitation. After a meeting at the Ministry of Finance in downtown Maputo in 2013 I took a picture of one of the many slightly dilapidated apartment blocks.

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It is funny how buildings can become largely unnoticed backdrops to everyday life. Kings College Chapel is a good example. As a child and teenager growing up in Cambridge I passed the spectacular towers regularly but rarely gave them much thought, except at Christmas when it was fun to join the queue outside to get the best seats in the Chapel for the “festival of nine lessons and carols.” Enjoying this service has probably been my main concession to English religious ritual over the years. I have often tuned in on the radio and listened to the recitals and the soaring sound from the building transmitted across the airwaves. The Chapel looks impressive from “the backs” as well as from Kings Parade in the centre of the city.

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A massive cathedral completed in 1250 dominates Ribe the oldest town in Denmark. It is quite a surprise to go inside and find modern mosaics, stained glass windows and mural paintings above the main altar. They are by Carl Henning Pedersen and depict Biblical stories.

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Every self-respecting medium and large sized European city has a cathedral. Like Muslims with their great mosques, Christians have been keen to demonstrate the power of their God by erecting enormous halls for worship. Lausanne is no exception; a gothic style cathedral completed in 1235 dominates the hilly city. I went there on a freezing Sunday in January 2015 to hear a choir and an orchestra perform Mozart’s Requiem. Hundreds of people packed the nave and were blown away by the powerful voices and sombre melodies.

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Lyon is a large and attractive city with lots of interesting buildings including a Musée des Beaux Arts. In May 2015 we stayed for three nights in an airbnb on the fifth floor of an apartment block close to the centre. In the Croix Rousse district there are a series of unusual hidden passageways or lanes – called “traboules.” These were constructed for silk weaving businesses and were used to transport the fabrics under cover down to the Saône River for shipment. We took a look and some pictures. It seems that the silk trade has been a significant source of income and employment in the city on and off since the 4th Century.

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The organisers of meetings I attended in Washington in May 2015 had not been able to book any accommodation in the central District of Colombia (DC) itself, so I found myself staying for several nights at the Sheraton Hotel in Arlington (VA). The meeting rooms were on the 16th floor, from which there were some extraordinary views of the capital and in particular the US Air Force Monument and the Pentagon. It was odd to look up from discussions about sustainable development and gaze across at the heart of darkness, the nerve centre of US military obsessions. Also visible in the picture (bottom right) is a slightly tumbledown building which is a top-rated Ethiopian bakery and restaurant serving excellent food!

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From the train window heading south from Montreux along the Rhone valley it is just possible to glimpse the 12th Century castle at Aigle. I was keen to get a bit closer, so I got off the train and went for a long walk through the nearby vineyards. There are not many such archetypal historical buildings in such magnificent surroundings; the Lonely Planet guide to Switzerland has Aigle Castle in pride of place on the cover. There’s a wine and vineyard museum inside the castle as well as the usual range of turrets, ceremonial halls, dungeons and so on.

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Way back in the mists of the early 1980s I was a regular visitor to Zürich. The financial affairs of the peace organisation I worked with for several years were in the hands of an old Swiss conscientious objector who lived near the city. We met to balance the annual statements and to ensure smooth international transactions using a special accounting system. Zürich seemed to be the right location for discussing money matters. I got to know the city a little and I like riverside walks along the Limmat, where there are many stylish houses, several churches, parks and tramways. This photo was taken during a short visit around sunset in November 2015 and shows the Fraumünster Cathedral which has stained glass windows by Marc Chagall.

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Every year a winter musical festival is organised in the Swiss town of Gstaad, patronised by wealthy expats, exiled royals, dignitaries and other celebs. I visited the town in January 2016 and after enjoying lunch in a smart restaurant, was directed to the tiny village of Rougemont where a piano recital with young Polish performers was due to take place in the 11th Century church. Rougemont is just across the “röstigraben”, in the French-speaking region of the country.[2]

I arrived at the church a couple of hours before the concert and found the musicians were tuning up. Some of them had been staying in the building; somewhat unexpectedly there were sleeping bags, electric kettles and clothes strewn about. Anyway I settled quietly into a corner and listened to a free concert for an hour or so, leaving before the official proceedings began!

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The Alhambra complex on the edge of Granada is enormous and full of potential angles for artistic photography. It is also very crowded, as it is rated one of Europe’s top attractions; even in February there are long queues for touring the main buildings. I took lots of pictures and have decided that a shot of stars decorating a ceiling suitably reflects the cosmic glory of the red castle!

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Some years ago somebody in La Paz had a brilliant idea about how to improve urban transport in mountainous settings and the result was “mi teleférico” (a cable car network). The city has one of the world’s most extraordinary locations, in a long valley stretching down from the Andean Altiplano at over 4000 metres to what is called “la zona sur” at around 3500 metres. The tower blocks, houses and other buildings as well as roads cling and wind and curve and crawl up the hillsides, such that the cityscape is a rippling disturbance of juxtaposed colours, styles and spaces.

The cable car system that has been built from one end of the city to the other provides commuters and visitors alike with magnificent vistas across the rooftops and highways towards the mountains. Sitting back and contemplating or conversing while peacefully swaying in a cabin is an ideal means of getting around. ¡Que bueno mi teleférico!

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The technosphere in Paris is made up of a flourishing and fascinating central core, surrounded by bleak and ugly suburbs (for the most part). A good impression of the contrasts can be obtained by taking the RER (regional express) train from Roissy CDG airport to the centre of the city. Before the line goes underground near the Boulevard Periphérique, the cold, harshness of poorly designed, cheaply built and badly maintained high-rise housing dominates the views. It isn’t surprising that people riot from time to time in these “banlieues défavorisées.”[3] Then emerging from the station near the Jardins de Luxembourg, the characteristic avenues lined with five to seven story buildings covered with elaborate stonework, wooden shutters and intricate iron balconies stretch in all directions. In these central “arrondissements” it is easy to appreciate why Paris is synonymous with style.

Architects seem to have been encouraged to go a bit crazy in French capital, starting in the 19th Century with the Eiffel Tower and continuing with the Centre Pompidou in the 20th. The latest addition to this “experimental mode” is the gallery of the Fondation Louis Vuitton (FLV) in the Bois de Boulogne. In February 2017 we joined thousands of people crowding into the building to see an exhibition of impressionist paintings. While the artworks on loan from Russian collections were interesting it was the remarkable waves of concrete and glass that filled most mental space!

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The Chinese imprint on the technosphere is growing rapidly. In Dar es Salaam there are large numbers of Chinese toiling on construction projects. Some of them live in a barracks across the road from the Danish Embassy. Further down the street I spotted the sign below and had a good laugh… But I also wondered why the national lingua franca, Swahili, was ignored.

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The final picture in this series was taken in the Garden of Dreams in Kathmandu. The Himalayan city is congested and chaotic. But in the middle of the madness is an oasis of peace, a well-kept garden with lily ponds, tree lined paths and flowerbeds. During an assignment in June 2017 I joined some colleagues for a meal at sunset in the restaurant overlooking the garden. Unfortunately I was lost in daydreams when I went down some steps and fell awkwardly, spraining my ankle… The following day I flew home, hobbling painfully through a transit stopover in the technosphere of Istanbul airport.

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[1] A book of 70 questions about architecture by Jonathan Glancey (What’s so great about the Eiffel Tower? 2017) gave me some inspiration for these notes. He explores contrasting views of a whole lot of architectural wonders, including the influence of Le Corbusier, the Great Pyramid at Giza, la Sagrada Familia (Barcelona), the Taj Mahal in Agra, and Stansted Airport!

[2] The fried potato dish called ”rösti” is a Swiss classic, but belongs to the German speaking region rather than the French. Hence the ”graben” or fault line between the linguistic zones.

[3] By chance I wrote these notes more or less at the same time as the citizens of London were grieving for the dead in a high-rise building blaze that killed many low-income residents due to negligence and failure to adhere to construction regulations.

Brexit – going backwards with climate change deniers

The horrendous prospect of a minority Conservative government in Britain relying on the sectarian Democratic Unionists (DUP) in Northern Ireland to back a clumsy and contorted exit from the European Union and to remain in power despite having lost a misjudged general election has revived some memories of my exit from the dis-United Kingdom at the beginning of the 1980s. How can the Conservatives guide the people into a brighter future when they depend on support in parliament from a bunch of ”no-surrender”, anti-abortionist, climate change deniers whose fear of a united Ireland kept the green isle locked in misery for much of the 20th Century? The Good Friday agreement and the “farewell to arms” since the mid-1990s seem to be hanging in the balance as the Tory leader Ms. Mayhem continues blundering. Somebody needs to teach her about the ugliness and stupidity of fundamentalist sects, although judging from her performance during the last year there’s not much scope for deepening her understanding of any such issues. Her sound-bites have been something like: Let’s have a “hard” Brexit, by setting up barriers with our main trading partners – including the Republic of Ireland believe it or not – by sending Johnny foreigner back where he belongs and by assuming that Johnny consumer at the far end of the earth is eagerly awaiting the signature of new trade deals (with an ex-imperial power now relegated to mini-nation status…)[1]

I lived in Belfast for a year at the end of the 1970s and learnt a little about the tangled history of the 32 counties and “Anglo-Irish” relations. At that time Ian Paisley’s DUP was a forum for anger and fear, not to mention bigotry and backwardness. I had little sympathy for the ”men of terror” on both sides of the sectarian divide and despaired of any chance of peaceful solutions to a conflict, which had divided and polarised people for hundreds of years. Northern Ireland (Ulster) often seemed to be stuck in a time warp of religious mistrust belonging to the 16th and 17th centuries (”pre-enlightenment”) rather than the 20th. It was only in the wake of significant economic progress in the Irish Republic – within the European Union – from the mid-1980s that the warring factions discovered the advantages of peace and prosperity.

After the limited success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, during the 1970s the violence of the Irish republican army (IRA) was confronted with the full force of repressive rule, from the massacre of innocents in Derry on Bloody Sunday, to internment without trial, the daily routines of surveillance by the British Army and humiliation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Frustrated by the pervasive sectarianism, I found out that a year in such an environment was more than enough. It was a great relief to move on to London (1980) and then Antwerp (1981), where people of different ”races, colours and creeds” seemed to be capable of co-existing without hatred and violence.

Subsequently I have realised that the DUP and similar movements in numerous other countries are dangerously effective in preventing people from breaking out of blinkered beliefs and by obstructing policies designed for “the common good.” By appealing to the basest instincts of tribalism and by distorting ideas and information with narratives of manifest destiny (“greatness”) and antagonism to other traditions, customs and practices, the outside world becomes a threat and “the other” an enemy. The solution to the challenges of co-existence is found in building walls and keeping guns at the ready, or in the imperial dreams of reactionaries who like nothing better than to bomb far away places about which we know little…

But then again, given the narrow-minded nostalgia that led British Conservatives (and unionists) down the Brexit pathway, perhaps the DUP are ideal partners in a project that seeks to go backwards as fast as possible while completely ignoring the urgency of measures to promote low carbon economic development in Europe (and elsewhere). Thus, it looks as if the Tories and the DUP are firmly on the side of aging crackpots like Trumped Up and the US Republicans in their increasingly desperate attempts to destroy the planet for future generations.[2]

May their miserable projects fail as fast as possible! I’m raising my glass to the worldwide revival of progressive forces… Sláinte!

[1] The letter sent by Ms. Maybe to the European Council in March 2017 invoking article 50 of the EU treaty and initiating negotiations to leave the Union was a bizarre summary of contradictory aspirations. The main message was that the UK government would seek good relations with the EU as a sovereign non-member. But the letter almost read like an application for membership in terms of emphasising the need for stable international security arrangements – to deal with the Russian threat, an age-old British bugbear – for favourable trade deals (to counter US protectionism), etc. etc. The Tories appear to have become experts in delusion, confusion and bad governance, though of course these have always been dominant characteristics of the British elite!

[2] John Oliver’s assessment of the US Government decision to withdraw from the UNFCCC Paris Agreement is worth 20 minutes of viewing time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5scez5dqtAc It seems that the Canadian activist and writer Naomi Klein is publishing a new call to action, pinning her hopes on progressives and environmentalists able to defeat the self-serving, greedy, fear mongers who have taken over in Ankara, Moscow, Washington and elsewhere. She concludes a recent interview by pointing out that the US President may be an idiot, ”but don’t underestimate how good he is at that!” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/11/naomi-klein-donald-trump-no-is-not-enough-interview

 

June 1967 – two memories

Most of my memories of the 1960s are hazy; I was only 14 when the decade ended and the turbulence of teenage bliss and neurosis was still ahead of me. Nonetheless, there are a couple of events that have etched images on the storage cells in my brain. Not surprisingly, given the progression over the intervening 50 years, my memories combine fun and fear…

The Beatles released their magnum opus ”Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in June 1967 and in the same month the Israeli army defeated the combined Arab forces in the six-day war. These two largely unrelated happenings had significant impacts on world music and on geo-politics. I was conscious of both, but too young to articulate an understanding of what was going on at the time.

Sergeant Pepper’s is often voted as the best popular music album ever. The reason is straightforward enough: the Fab Four wrote good songs with catchy melodies and the record was produced by George Martin who understood the possibilities of using classical music arrangements and instruments to underpin the psychedelic and social themes being explored by the lads from Liverpool. I remember being very disappointed that I hadn’t seen the band on stage in 1966 when they performed in Cambridge. But I was exhilarated by their music, which seemed to be pushing us all beyond rebellious youth towards a swirling drug-induced alternative. As a ten year old I had no hands-on experience of the scenes evoked by the music, but I was aware that some boundaries were being crossed.

The Israeli army crossed boundaries too and their rapid victories in Jerusalem, in Sinai and on the West Bank of the Jordan River created the traumatic stalemate that persists in the occupied territories fifty years later. I was watching TV news about the Beatles on tour, while other reporters were covering the expansion of US operations in Viet Nam. Suddenly the focus shifted to airplanes and tanks in the desert and to the one-eyed commander Moshe Dayan, directing the action. My parents reckoned that the end of the world was nigh. But with the hindsight of history we know that the Israelis wielding high-tech American weapons easily outgunned the Arab armies with their Russian equipment. The military industrial complex was on a roll in the sixties.

In some ways I think that much of the planet has been under the influence of June 1967 ever since. The Beatles showed the way to musical fun and games, while the culture of mass entertainment was born, aided by television and by global distribution of key artefacts like colourful costumes and memorable tunes. The Israeli soldiers demonstrated the power of purpose in the cause of destruction and domination (or survival…). Since 1948 the Palestinians have been unable to prevent the loss of their lands to heavily armed settlers, despite the resolutions passed by the United Nations. The joys of psychedelic musing and hippy happiness in the 1960s have been thoroughly undermined by injustice and the fear of military might.

Such contrasts! John, Paul, George and Ringo were transcendentalists and dreamers, floating off into the sky with diamonds.[1] On the other hand, haunted by anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Europe, the Israelis have been obsessed with the primitive impulses of blood and land, building defensive walls as their best option.[2]

I don’t own a copy of Sergeant Pepper’s, but I have heard many of the songs hundreds of times. As my musical interests expanded over the years I tended to leave The Beatles behind, but for my generation they’ll always be “the greatest!” My caravan has never been to Israel or Palestine, but I am acutely conscious of the unresolved conflict and the hatred and mistrust in the region. Perhaps a peaceful solution can be negotiated, although superhuman reserves of tolerance and respect are required, both of which are in short supply. I’m not optimistic.

”And life flows on, within you and without you…”

[1] Although their roots were on Merseyside, as citizens of nowhere – to coin a phrase – the Beatles wandered backwards and forwards across the Atlantic and ventured to Asia in search of spiritual inspiration. George Harrison raised funds for famine relief at the 1971 concert for Bangladesh and ten years later John Lennon was shot outside his home in New York City. Despite the outlandish absurdity, the bed-in for peace protest in Amsterdam with Yoko Ono was another highlight of the sixties!

[2] As the historian Ilan Pappe noted in 2013: ”the idea of Israel symbolizes, for an ever-growing number of people, oppression, dispossession, colonisation and ethnic cleansing, while on the other hand an ever-diminishing number of people string the same ideas and events into a story of redemption, heroism and historical justice. Along the continuum between these two extremes lie innumerable graduations of strongly held opinion.”

Time to declare a global state of emergency?

At the heart of the natural sciences is the uncertainty principle, which defines the limitations of knowledge about physical phenomena. The principle states that the position and the velocity of an object (a particle) cannot both be measured at the same time, even in theory…

Determining probabilities, risks and likelihoods is the generally accepted means of overcoming the difficulties of precision, which is exactly what the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does in reporting on measurements of global warming and indicating scenarios for the future. Thus, recent studies of the disappearing ice sheet in the Arctic use time series observations of the extent of the ice cover, the thickness of the ice in different seasons and so on, in order to determine scenarios for the future, thereby predicting within a range of possibilities when there will be no ice left. But although the exact consequences of this dramatic change are unknown, there is consensus that significant disruption in terms of weather patterns, further warming and rising sea levels are likely outcomes. There’ll probably be no polar bears either…

Economists and political scientists are also studying the problem of climate change. In addition to calculating the costs of action and inaction, there is much debate about appropriate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the possibilities of enhanced ”resilience”, i.e. people’s abilities to cope with the changes in temperature, altered rainfall patterns, storms, floods, etc. But social scientists have also been examining the apparently ubiquitous problem associated with climate change: denial, i.e. refusal to accept that it is happening at all. Variations on this theme also include shifting the blame for pollution of the atmosphere to anything ranging from sunspots, god’s will or the Chinese…

Information about the effects of higher concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been available for a long time. There is nothing new under the sun! In the 1987 ”Brundtland” report to the United Nations on the prospects for sustainable development – Our Common Future – it was noted that catastrophic climate change must be considered a ”plausible and serious probability.” The World Commission chaired by the Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, then asked the key question: ”how much certainty should governments require before agreeing any action?”

Fast-forward another 20 odd years to an issue of the American magazine National Geographic published in 2008 in which visible signs of global warming, the scientific evidence and a range of solutions were outlined. Noting that the environment “needs all the help it can get”, the editors of this special report lamented the slow movers in powerful positions in Washington, while enthusing about progress on clean energy, etc. at city and state levels. The target is “weaning ourselves from coal, gas and oil…” they concluded.

Finally, after numerous stops and starts in international negotiations through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a comprehensive global agreement was signed in Paris in 2015. Unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the Convention, there are no legally binding greenhouse gas emissions targets in the agreement, but almost all governments signed up for making “nationally determined contributions” that it is hoped will solve the problem (cutting emissions). For once it appeared that the urgency of the matter had penetrated through the fog of opposition that has been generated by those who pretend that no scientific consensus has been reached.

At least until the arrival of Mr. Trumpet and his squad of “business leaders” who have taken over the White House following the disastrous American election in November 2016. The United States looks increasingly like a banana republic, led by bigots and charlatans. Not content to preach the sermon of extreme avarice to the citizens of the richest nation on the planet and one of the most destructive in terms of carbon, the stupidity of the latest President stretches to undermining the 30 or so years of painstaking progress to reach agreement on how to tackle the problem of climate change. In other words, under the influence of get-rich-quick wheelers and dealers representing a tiny elite of super-consumers, Mr. Trumped Up has turned to the favourite retreat of those opposed to climate change: denial.

Given the information emerging from scientific investigations and the observations of the multiple impacts of global warming, it doesn’t take much intelligence to realise that drastic actions are required. But it seems that politicians must be forced into much harsher discomfort zones before any measures will be taken. Some argue that a global state of emergency needs to be declared. Sadly, such a call for renewed efforts to cut emissions and prepare adaptation measures is likely to be ignored by the greedy and stupid so-called leaders who have taken over the asylum.