Friday, 19 May 2017

Reclaiming the streets: community walks for better neighbourhoods

                                         Society of the bespectacled                                     
Whenever I hear words such as "urban renewal", "redevelopment" or "city planning", I shudder; for experience shows that what they really often mean is a new building plan that will impact negatively upon the lives of people and the surrounding landscape. Time and again, urban planners have promoted the idea of progress linked to architectural and urban atrocities that did not take into account people's needs and views of what their neighbourhoods should be like, let alone the aesthetics of those new buildings and areas. Profit, not people, has all too often been at the centre of this approach.
The all too powerful pairing of politicians and urban developers was (and still is) a well-oiled machine that has the legal means and the financial resources to overcome citizens' resistance and legal challenges ahead.
However, this has not always been the case; fortunately, people have stood up and fought against ill-conceived plans that some fat cat (with the help of a conveniently bought politician) wanted to impose in the name of what they understand as modernity.
One such example was the figure of Jane Jacobs, an American-born urban activist who back in the 60s in New York first and in Toronto later led the way and showed us that cities do not have to be the way capitalist and corrupt developers want.
In a heavily male-dominated environment, Jacobs dared challenge the ruling local financial elite and organised a grassroots movement to protect her neighbourhood-Greenwich Village, Manhattan- from the mighty developer Robert Moses, whose plans included a total overhaul of the area. She had to fight prejudice and the arrogance of the establishment who patronised and ridiculed her for both being a woman and for not having an architecture or urbanism academic training. Despite all the scorn she encountered, she became heavily involved in the urban planning movement and her work The Death and Life of  Great American Cities has become a classic book and must-read for anyone interested in the topic from a critical perspective.

Walking in the community: a Jane's walk in Cornes, Compostela (Galiza)
By the time Jacobs passed away in 2006, she'd become a reference and a model for many people involved in grassroots urban projects; an urbanism that had people rather than cars at its heart.
A group of Jane's friends gathered in May 2007 to honour her memory by organising a walk and to celebrate her legacy and ideas. Very soon, this became an annual event that went global and so every year now thousands of people join neighbourhood walks across the world in a sort of street festival of ideas about what sustainable cities should mean. The initiative known as Jane's Walks was born.
These walks, despite (or maybe thanks to) their simplicity, are a very effective and powerful tool to raise awareness and to create a sense of community and belonging among people who wouldn't otherwise have the chance of meeting other like-minded people to discuss issues they all can relate to. Something as simple as walking around the neighbourhood to exchange experiences and views can become an almost cathartic and intense experience; it is also a political statement that challenges a model that promotes individualism and a passive attitude.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Jane Jacobs would be immensely proud of such an initiative that year after year fills the streets with people who care about their cities and their neighbours and are prepared to reclaim the streets.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

A man of his time

Ways of seeing (and thinking)

The news came as no surprise; at 90, John Berger was still as relevant and lucid as you'd expect but he was equally fragile. "Il est parti", confirmed from Paris his granddaughter. I'd like to think he wanted to join Leonard Cohen up there and perhaps was too tired to face a world with the likes of Trump running the show; a nightmare scenario for someone who spent his life supporting and helping the underdog, the dispossessed, the vulnerable.

Who and what was Berger? He was a man of his time: art critic, writer, thinker, storyteller, a humanist full of energy and charm. He was someone who taught us how to look at (and see) things;  not only art, which he did famously through the groundbreaking TV series Ways of Seeing but also the world.
He became notorious in 1972 when, after winning the Booker Prize, denounced the slavery connections in the Caribbean of the award founder Booker McConnell and gave half of the prize to the British Black Panthers, something that did not go well with some parts of the cultural establishment.
He then went to live in the French Alps for most of his life, where he found inspiration for one of his most successful books, Pig Earth (1979), that would become part of the trilogy Into Their Labours. 
An outspoken critic of capitalism, Berger's legacy will remain with us for generations to come and his work will be studied and enjoyed because, as artist David Shrigley has said, he was the "best ever writer on art". I for one will not challenge that.
There is where we will meet, John.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Europe's shame:adrift, washed ashore, ignored, scapegoated...

Millions on the move
A tragedy of catastrophic dimensions is unfolding under very own eyes and we chose to look away. The mass media have long ago decided to shift their focus; once the headlines and all the resulting scandal pretending we cared over the dead body of a drowned Syrian boy made way for the umpteenth political crisis, we have been left with very little information on what is happening with the scores of people who are forced to pack up and leave their homes.
And yet, a lot is happening on our doorstep. For starters, people in countries like Syria and Afghanistan are still fleeing for fear of their lives; these are, according to the UNHCR statistics, the countries where most refugees come from but by no means the only ones. Somalia, South Sudan and Eritrea are other countries that heavily 'export' refugees. But most of them, let's make this absolutely clear, do not come to Europe. The countries hosting most of the worldwide refugees and asylum seekers are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon and Iran. Let's dispel this myth because other countries (poorer and less prepared to deal with huge numbers of people) are bearing the brunt, not Europe neither any other Western country.

Where most refugees go
The global numbers of people on the move are mind-boggling, with an estimated 23.1 million people seeking refuge, a number that goes up to 60 million if we consider what is known forcibly displaced people (refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people).
In other words, over 60 million people are roaming the world, far from home and with little or no access to the basic conditions that the Human Rights chart establishes (food, shelter, education, health...).
If that weren't enough to make us think AND act, Europe is now witnessing a situation that takes us back to the dark times of last century's Germany. Like then, we know people are dying, not in concentration camps but in European shores and also at sea. We know it, our politicians know it, our media of course know it.
The deeply shameful and flawed European Union-Turkey agreement of last March is just an example of how the Europeans (I mean the States, not necessarily their people) have privileged their interests over people's safety.
Returning asylum-seekers to Turkey (a country whose human rights records has been consistently criticised by NGOs and other Human Rights organisations) in exchange for an extra financial support of €3 million to Turkey is something future generations will hold us accountable for. Simply put, this is moral bankruptcy of the highest order.
But things can -and indeed do- get worse because the Mediterranean has become a floating graveyard, where thousands of humans have found their deaths on their escape from poverty, war or persecution. According to the Missing Migrants account, more than 3,700 people have died or have gone missing this year so far. These numbers speak for themselves, really.

In the middle of this we find, however, some good news thanks to all the people who have chosen to do what the governments don't. Many volunteers and aid workers are adding their bit through their unsung commitment, literally rescuing people from a very likely death. MSF, Open Arms, Save the Children and others are there on the ground helping people and bringing some dignity to a continent that is becoming more and more passive.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Skeleton Tree: one more time with sorrow

Harrowing,daunting, intense...immense

Most listeners will approach Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' latest instalment with a very specific frame of mind; indeed, most, if not all, reviewers will bear that in mind when carefully analysing and stripping bare the ins and outs of an album that is as demanding as emotionally daunting.
The reason for all of this is, of course, the dramatic event that turned Cave's life upside down, the tragic death of his 15-year-old son Arthur last year (
So we are all well aware, Skeleton Tree is not going to be a barrel of laughs; very few songs by Nick Cave songs are, really. Over the years, he and his band have become skillful masters at singing about death (though unlike now, it was about other people's) and the darkness, the raw and the gritty. All of this wrapped up in Cave's twisted poetry that produced haunting images.

The album opener sets the mood for what is to come next; the brooding intensity of Jesus Alone, which finds Nick Cave prophetically singing "You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field near the river Adur" (the song was written before Arthur's death), over layers of guitars that create a tense, eerie, almost suffocating atmosphere. This is in stark contrast with "Rings of Saturn" with Cave sort of rapping rather than singing, lightening things up a little before moving on to what is one of the most harrowing moments of the album with "Girl in Amber", a lovely yet painful song that deals with the emotional scars that such a terrible event brings to a couple. The girl in amber is, admittedly, Nick Cave's wife Susie Bick ("if you want to bleed, just bleed"); the song ends with Cave almost crying, his voice drowned in fragility ("don't touch me"). The sorrow and the anger show up in "Magneto" as he confesses "the urge to kill someone was overwhelming" and the insurmountable daily chores he has to face, "I had such a hard blues down at the supermarket queue"  while the next track "Anthrocene" seems to confirm the artist's interest in drawing parallels and metaphors based on ideas and theories coming from the realm of science (just like "Higgs Boson Blues" from 2013's Push the Sky Away did). "I need you" is perhaps when Cave deals with his son's death more openly and it is also one of  the most poignant moments of the whole album; for him,"nothing really matters anymore" since the night in which they "wrecked like a train". Hard not to be moved by such honesty and grief. In "Distant Skies" Cave is joined by Danish soprano Else Torp and together they start to see the light at the end of the tunnel as they set out for distant skies. This catharsis is somehow confirmed by the last track that gives name to the album- Skeleton Tree-  that ends with Cave acknowledging that "it's alright now".

"If you want to bleed, just bleed" 

Thus, Skeleton Tree sees and artist that is able to deal with and purge his demons, laying bare his feelings about a devastating event whilst producing an album of an intensity and honesty rarely seen in today's popular music. Leaving aside the all-too-hard-to-ignore leitmotif that hovers over it, this is a giant step forward in Nick Cave's output, and that says quite a lot about one of the most consistent artists around. It is also noteworthy the influence that Bad Seeds' violinst Warren Ellis plays on the album.
Time will of course tell, but right now I see Skeleton Tree as one of the best albums this Australian bard has ever released and definitely one that will duly show up in the lists of the best albums of 2016.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Digging up:Detectorists

'Climbing through the briar and bramble'
Most people who have watched this series wonder how is it possible that it was broadcast on BBC 4 only as, clearly, it deserves a much wider audience; this seems unfair because, in a perfect world, Detectorists would be shown in prime time on BBC 1 and would be acclaimed by critics and public alike.
This should be so because this sitcom, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook (better known as the infamous Gareth in The Office), is a gem bound to touch anyone who is after a comedy that is subtle, original, delicate and at times deeply moving, all in an understated way that makes it even nicer to watch; some may call it 'slow comedy' simply because it demands some time and effort for its brilliance to come forward. You won't find here canned laughter, neither slapstick nor cliches or crowd-pleasing numbers; this is humour at its best, but not the sort that will have you in tears.

Andy and Lance in the thick of it
Detectorists tells the story of friends Andy and Lance (the mentioned Mackenzie Crook and the great Toby Jones, star of the marvelous film Marvellous) whose main - and only- interest seemingly lies in metal detecting; almost an obsession.
This is, by all means, a refreshing and quirky starting point, as it puts the series in a league of its own. Episodes kick off with these two peculiar and unlikely characters in search of the Holy Grail of metal detectors (or detectorists,as they like to call themselves) in rural Essex: the Saxon hoard.
Instead, they find discarded and useless objects, though this does not seem to deter them from continuing their search. Metal detecting becomes a way of life, a philosophy, a therapy of sorts.
As with many other great pieces of art, the genius of Detectorists sits in those details that may go unnoticed at first. Crook's writing is subtle, full of awkwardly funny moments, low-key yet impossibly sublime; this is enhanced by superbly crafted characters that you grow to like and love as the series develops and the whole is made irresistible by the stunning beauty of the English countryside.
To top it all, John Flynn has written one of those songs that manage- despite or because of its simplicity-  to give you goosebumps, thus confirming, from its very first minute, that Detectorists is a series like no other. Unmissable.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

This must change everthing

A call to arms

Naomi Klein has established herself as one of the leading voices against the wrongs of our time.Her first book, No Logo (1999), quickly became influential among anti-globalisation activists worldwide and it was for many an eye-opener about the ruthless methods of  global brands that we all know about. Since then, Klein has written hundreds of articles, delivered talks, participated in conferences and actions. She was an activist as much as a thinker. Her other seminal work, written years later- The Shock Doctrine (2007)- tackles the consequences of neo-liberalism; the free-market mantra devised by Milton Friedman and happily applied by Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and company. So it is no surprise that latest publication is focused on another Damocles sword: the environment, or more specifically Climate Change.
In it, Klein argues that action needs to be taken urgently, which by the way is something environmentalists have been saying for decades. But she insists that if we continue to blindly believe in capitalism as the only way out, then we may be shooting ourselves in the foot.
Reading this in the wake of last year's Paris Climate Change Conference does not help, either. The institutional response to what science is evidencing (ie rising temperatures, ice caps melting, sea rise, etc.) is way too slow and insufficient, no matter what the triumphant headlines after the summit told us.

The book is, as you would expect,  rich in details and evidence and its scope is to preach to the non-convert and, hopefully, turn them into committed climate activists.
We're running out of time and action is required, both at an activist and institutional (aka governments) level. Reading this enlightening essay may be the first step towards a 'new deal'. The hope is that this book changes everything. For our own sake.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

We Should All Be Feminists

We should indeed

As part of the Tea & Sympathy Book Club, last month we read this short yet enlightening book by acclaimed Nigerian author Ngozi Adichie. I must say that this short essay works wonders, or least it did in our group, since both the topic and the length were motivating factors for the group readers; I mention this because in my experience running book clubs, some people tend to be put off by lengthy books as their reading pace is slower than when they read in their native tongues.
This book stems from an equally thrilling talk given by Adichie at TED some years ago. With a title like that, I guess few people would be surprised by its content, as the author's aim is clearly laid out right from the start. The writer's own experience as a girl growing up in her country is used as guide to expose society's inherent sexism and discrimination for the simple fact of being a girl. For her, this must be challenged and in doing so she faces being ridiculed and criticised by those who label feminism as a dirty word and refuse the main principle behind the definition of a feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.
This book challenges stereotypes, raises awareness about an issue that is still a long way from being normalised and, ultimately, serves its purpose as an educational tool that should be a compulsory read in schools and colleges everywhere.