Monday, May 30, 2011


The other day, an explosive thunderstorm hit London. I saw lightning for the first time since moving here. Rain pelted from clouds that were driven across the sky by a powerful storm. One minute the sky was blue and innocent, the next it was black and ferocious. It went back and forth throughout the afternoon.

A few hapless trees were uprooted, but overall the effect on the city was beneficial. The air was washed clean; pollen and dust were gone. The parks, deprived of water after the driest spring in a century, were eager to soak up the moisture. Front- and backyards appreciated the downpour as well, though there aren't that many of them. Most space adjoining houses is radically paved over. There is not much green outside designated parks, and nothing for the water to go but the sewers.

This is a big problem. Like most infrastructure in London, the sewage system is proverbially English: cute-looking in an industrial-heritage-museum kind of way but far from meeting the demands of the present. Built for a slow-moving city of three million, it must now handle the waste of seven million, each of whom statistically ingests over 3000 calories a day and drinks half a pint a night. Just like the underground, the sewage system works beyond capacity. On a good day, it does so in an English way: dutifully and without much grumbling.

When a storm goes down over London and dark clouds unload torrents, the situation changes. As such a large proportion of the ground is sealed with concrete, there's nowhere for the water to go but the sewers that are already bulging. To keep them from exploding in residential neighborhoods, Thames Water, the local utility, opens so-called combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and discharges hectoliters of untreated sewage straight into the river. This happens approximately 50 times a year. The most recent storm caused, according to Thames Water, 130,000 tons of dilute fecal matter to enter the river in my borough alone.

You would imagine that people are up in arms about this. After all, people are always up in arms about something, especially those with properties by the water. On this issue, curiously, they focus their energies elsewhere. While Thames Water is promoting an audacious £4b plan to build the Tideway Tunnel, a massive upgrade to the Victorian sewer system that would reliably take care of fecal overflow, a mob of angry residents don't see farther than their neighborhood park where they don't want construction. (*)

How can the temporary blight of a park that's used by hundreds stand up to a permanent condition afflicting millions? How can a gang of narrow-minded locals suffering from delusions of grandeur impose their parochialism on society? As the Total Perspective Vortex isn't available to give them a sense of proportion, the next best thing is a competing interest group, equally vociferous. I'm not kidding you, this oligocentric nimbyism riles me so much that I'm tempted to form a Don't shit in my river pressure group to antagonize them and restore some balance and sense.

It might be a vain fight. In my borough, the concerned residents are whipped on by the local government that starts a new reactionary petition whenever existing plans are modified to deal with residents' concerns. It's pathetic, counterproductive and a huge waste of money.

The council points out that the Thames is a pretty clean river. This is true, and it wasn't always so. On Sunday I went to the Wellcome Collection for their latest exhibition, Dirt, which charts the attitudes towards cleanliness and dirt from obsessed Holland of the 1700 through England and Germany to the current misery of Indian streetside loos. Like every Wellcome exhibition, this one was fascinating and edifying and managed to be tasteful despite the grim subject matter.

One of the rooms focused on London's sewers. I learned that the biggest deterioration of Thames water quality didn't come about when the industrial revolution got into full swing. Instead, the rapid urbanization that went along with it and the collateral population growth of London put a massive strain on the town's old sewer system. In 1815, an engineer came up with a simple solution: Just let everything empty straight into the river.

So much filth started flowing into the Thames that Parliament considered moving upriver one particularly stinky summer, the infamous Big Stink of 1858. Those plans were abandoned. Instead, the sewer system that's still serving the capital today was built, with collection and treatment facilities, and water quality slowly improved. These days, the Thames is clean enough for sea horses to gallop in the estuary and the occasional whale to cruise the waters.

Nevertheless, the fact that raw sewage regularly flows into the Thames can't be without consequences. Rowers regularly encounter turds and breathe the smell that once almost uprooted Parliament. A recent report demonstrates that WHO guidelines for the quality of recreationally used waterways are frequently breached in London and that there is "evidence of an elevated risk to the health of recreational users of the upper tideway for 2 - 4 days after CSO discharge events." Enough of this shit already, I say.

(*) It would of course be a better solution, cheaper and much better looking at the same time, to require homeowners to put lawns into their yards to break up the near universal sealing of soil (if that's the technical term?). But can you imagine the opposition to that?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

little differences

A good ten days ago I described a day hot on the metaphorical heels of the detained Chinese artactivist Ai Weiwei. Without my knowing it at the time, the story had already become bigger news in London than a few posters printed by a gallery and letters high up on a museum. Dai Qingli from the Chinese embassy had written a long letter to the Economist to complain about the unfair treatment China was receiving once again in an ignorant and arrogant West, about unacceptable interference with internal affairs and blatant disrespect for China's "judicial sovereignty". The usual, in other words.

I was curious nevertheless about what his complaints were in details, especially after the recent privacy/secrecy fiasco in the UK, in the light of which you wouldn't exactly be surprised if outside commentators saw it fit to ridicule judicial handling of the situation and generalize to a corrupt legal system – basically what Western commentators have done vis-à-vis China.

Before anything else, Dai Qingli makes efforts to dispel the idea that China is unfree and dissenting opinions are not tolerated. Ai Weiwei, she notes, was allowed to exhibit, to be interviewed and to express his opinion on Twitter. But does that prove anything? Twitter is banned in China, the interviews were given to Western journalists and the exhibitions held abroad. The average Chinese citizen was zealously protected from Mr Ai's opinion. His blog, which was widely read in China, was shut down two years ago – when it became too daring, one can assume.

Now, as I've mentioned above and in a previous post, the free expression of opinion is not total even in exemplary Western democracies. But what about the way the arrest was handled? Ms Dai – who could be anyone, from embassy cleaner to ambassador; it is never mentioned – goes on to say that "China is ruled by law, not by man" and that "the rights and freedoms of Chinese citizens are protected by law". From when it happened, the official line was that Mr Ai's arrest was not a political matter. Dai Qingli elaborates that "Mr Ai is now under investigation for suspected economic crimes".

At this point I thought for a moment that Ms Dai had made a telling mistake and revealed how rotten China really is. Surely any suspected crimes should be investigated before arrests are made or immediately thereafter. Surely no one should be locked up without charges for weeks, even months. Then I thought again and realized that in Guantánamo, hundreds have lost years of their lives, locked away without trial, without charges, on the pretext of suspected terrorist activities, inclinations or sympathies. What is the difference?

I'm not going to defend China's actions. Western activists, commentators and politicians are right in criticizing China for what happened. They are morally obliged, as human beings, to press China to release Ai Weiwei or, if he has broken the law, charge him. But their case would be so much stronger if they made similar efforts towards stopping corresponding abuses in the West. Being a famous artist doesn't make Ai Weiwei any more deserving of fair treatment than anyone else.

Monday, May 23, 2011

contempt and law

Over the last few days, a curious row has raged in the UK, in artful innuendo and allusion until very recently. It concerns the topic of superinjunctions, legal tools to silence the media that are available to those who can afford them. They are basically the biggest gun in the battle between privacy and freedom of speech. What's going on?

In a society that values freedom of speech, information should flow freely and it's hard to see how superinjunctions are anything but pathetic gagging orders. The case of Trafigura, a scandal-prone privately held company notorious for dumping toxic waste in the murky waters of a Third World country when disposing of it properly was too expensive, illustrates this powerfully. Trafigura didn't think it was in its best business interests if the world knew about the story, and tried to suppress press reports and stories. They failed, as they should have.

A different perspective is afforded by the ongoing case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. This man is far from a saint by even the most relaxed standards, but at this point he is still legally innocent. And yet, with reports of his arrest on TV the same night and media pressure and unsavory stories from his past, he had to resign both as IMF boss and as French presidential hopeful. Is this a fair price to pay for openness? What if he turns out to be innocent after all?

Superinjunctions were designed as an instrument to deal with such cases. They are granted by a judge in certain extraordinary cases and are designed to prevent information on some sensitive matters from spreading. They do this by cloaking everything in total secrecy, but they do it extremely poorly. The person or company that applied for the injunction must not be named, nor must it be mentioned that a superinjunction against that person exists. For this to work, everybody obviously needs to know who the person behind the superinjunction is, lest one spills the beans by accident. And yet, there are apparently a few dozen superinjunctions in force that no one knows about. What a nonsense!

A week ago or so the fact that public figures have apparently been granted these injunctions rather frivolously, to prevent the press from disseminating information they considered detrimental to their public image, sex stories, infidelities and the like. I couldn't care less and I didn't follow the debate, but it didn't go away. In particular, a footballer stood out in his Quixotic fight for anonymity.

Ryan Giggs, a 37-year-old Man United first teamer for twenty years, a wholesome player if there ever was one, squeaky-clean and scandal-free, had allegedly dug into the inflated boobs of a B-list celebrity and then done things with her that no one needs to know about, except maybe his wife. But does a lapse in moral judgment deserve a court order to be kept private? The answer must be yes because an injunction was granted.

Being English law, the injunction applies only to England. Being established law, it applies to print and broadcast media. Blogs and social media exposed Giggs long ago. Newspapers never failed to mention that in their stories. It was a bizarre situation, but it turned truly farcical when the Sunday Herald showed a thinly disguised picture of Ryan Giggs on its website. The English media were still not allowed to name names and now also prevented from specifying the latest hole in the cover. They were restricted to mentioning "a Scottish Sunday paper". Everyone else put Imogen Thomas into the Twitter search box and got overwhelmed by the facts. When Giggs went after Twitter, anonymously, to force the company to reveal the user who had first leaked his name, even I couldn't help checking out who was the nitwit at the center of this absurdity.

Despite all this, the injunction remains in place as of tonight, and naming Ryan Giggs puts me in contempt of court, a serious legal matter. A much more serious matter, however, is that the law is in contempt of common sense and in urgent need of reform (as is libel law, a related issue). Maybe energies can focused on something productive now?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

sunny amblings

After two days out in the open, the Marqués de Caranó is a different beast. Uncorked but recapped, half empty but brimming with the magic of oxygen, the wine has recovered all the attributes the marketing specialist had promised on the label. It's richly flavored and full-bodied, with cherry and raspberry fruit flavors combining with gentle spicy notes. For me, flavors are generally described on a sliding scale from yuck to yum, but I agree with the gist of label note. The wine tastes good.

I spent the day out in the sun today, without a plan and for the most part without an idea of what my next step would be. I set out with one goal only, getting a roll or orange recycling bags from the library, and drifted from there. Fulham Road is really nice, full of little shops, restaurants and cafés. I should come here more often. At some point I got to Putney Bridge where the goosenecks of the Thames and relative geography conspired to confuse me. When I run I come from upriver and turn around at the bridge. Today I walked and I approached the bridge from downriver.

In Putney I hopped on the bus to go to Richmond, a lovely place to be out when the sun is out as well, with wide walks on both sides of the Thames, riverside pubs and picnic sites, exuding an inexplicable charm that even I can't resist.

On the bus I rediscovered purpose, lost since I finished my recycling bag mission a good hour earlier. I would go to Ham, I decided, a town near Richmond that's home to the Backhaus, the best German bakery in London, London being defined in this case as everything inside the perimeter of the M25 motorway, no matter what the actual place names are.

Ham is near Richmond was the only thing I knew when I got off the bus, but London is my oyster and with a recently recharged Oyster Card I knew I could get there in a hop. Nearly every bus stop in London displays two big maps: a local area map covering the surrounding half mile at Streetview detail and an octopus tangle of bus lines running from the dozen closest stops.

Getting to Ham was easy, slaloming through green neighborhoods of substantial wealth and along parks and commons. I just sat there; the driver did all the work. Next to Ham Common, I got off. There was no bakery within sight but a small German grocery store with a few remaining baked goods. (It was Saturday afternoon and they were about to close.) I got this and that and went back to the Common for a picnic. It was a quintessentially English experience, never mind the Bionade in my hand.

The Common is triangular but the action happens in a wide linden-lined avenue that runs through it. At one end is a pond with geese and ducks and a little island just for looks. There are willows around it and park benches with plaques dedicated to John, my grandfather who loved to sit here. The linden trees and the pond surround a cricket pitch where a dozen figures clad in white were engaged in Imperial leisure. Around the game, locals had assembled like an audience. They had got drinks from the pubs around the green or brought hampers from home. Groups of friends and solitary revelers were sitting on the grass, eating, drinking, reading, chatting. And thought it looked from a distance as if they were watching the game, they weren't. The game went on in the background, for hours, like cricket games do. Members of the non-watching audience would glance up from their conversations and meals and books every half hour or so, deriving reassurance from the fact that the game was still going on. If cricket is played, life must be good.

It was indeed, and not just in Ham. I walked down the river towards Richmond, passing the locks at Teddington and then the column that marks the point where the Environment Agency hands over responsibility for the Thames to the Port of London Authority. I was now walking along a tidal river. An hour later in Richmond I came across another common, the Richmond Green. The scene at Ham Common was repeated and amplified, so much that I must admit that the previous paragraph was not an accurate description but a collage of both commons, the linden trees taken from Ham and the spectators from Richmond. (Cricket was played on both commons.) The sun was still high up when I got onto a District line train back to West Kensington.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

own space

I'm sitting on my dining table, sipping on a Marqués de Caranó Gran Reserva 2001 and wonder whether anyone has missed the oenophilic intros? When I lived in Grenoble, when I didn't have a dinner without a glass of red wine for a solid two years running, it was pretty much de rigueur to start a post with a reference to a current or imagined red delight in my glass. To me as a writer it was very interesting to see in how many different ways stories could evolve that all started from the same liquid premise.

In a very similar way, I'm curious to see where this post is going to go. Some things have happened; they deserve mentioning. Surprising connections have been imagined; they have an equally prominent place here. Nothing is as the readers' eyes see it. Or is it? Ask me – it's my blog.

The other day I got a letter from Morgans, the trading name of Morgan Management, as the fineprint helpfully informs. I was advised of an upcoming property inspection sometime during the next months. That's how vague the letter was. It would take place "during the course of the next month", the letter said, expecting that I'd happily give up any claim to privacy during that period.

I don't. I've argued my case before. I don't appreciate the possibility of someone walking into my flat while I'm taking a shower or practicing a post-modern dance routing in the nude down my endless corridor. This time, this wasn't even my greatest concern. I was much more preoccupied with the sudden name change of the company that I'm dealing with. How does Kingstar turn into Morgan, with a new telephone number but the same old address? Am I under the spell of a tax-evading letterbox company?

I called to find out. There wasn't much to it. One is the rental agent, the other the management company, but the operate from the same offices. This resolved, I found myself absorbed in an animated discussion with a telephone wallah who was not in the least sympathetic to my situation. She reminded me that I was in breach of contract for having changed the locks but couldn't be bothered to schedule an appointment for the inspection. The letter said that "we do not propose that any specific arrangements be made in advance", and there was no way for me to convince her otherwise. It mattered not a bit that they would again be in breach of contract if they tried to enter my flat without my explicit consent.

Tomorrow I might call the company enlisted to execute the inspections. From their website (They do have one!), they seem to be more legit than Morgans/Kingstar. I can't see they would do their business in disregard of the law. But tonight I don't much care. The Marqués de Caranó is far from the best wine I've had. But it put me out of my mind and into the right mood to enjoy the four CDs I've recently purchased, four CDs that, as a set, would expand almost anyone's collection.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

too personal

I had just got home, taken off my bicycle helmet and dropped my backpack when my doorbell rang. This is not a common occurrence. These days, most people call instead of ringing, maybe because they can do that from half a block away and thus won't have to wait for me to come down to open the door for them.

The only people that use the doorbell are EDF agents reading the meters and assorted parcel services delivering shipments. Sometimes Jehovah's witnesses come by, promising paradise or warning of doom. As I've never let them in, I don't know which it is. The other class of itinerant proselytizers, my Mormon coreligionists, have never stopped by, and overall, my doorbell doesn't get much exercise.

That's why I was so surprised when I heard the bell this evening. I opened the door and let a woman with a clipboard into the corridor. With a mild Slavic inflection, she explained her presence. "Your postcode has been selected for a post-census survey. Would you mind answering some questions for me. It will only take five minutes."

Just this afternoon, I had a conversation about the census. With the problems various government agencies have had keeping confidential information confidential, it should have been a no-brainer to return the form anonymously, never mind the legal obligation to the contrary. But when I filled the damn thing in, I chickened out and used my real name. I must have had negative brain activity, and I've been banging my head against walls ever since.

With purple-and-white questionnaire in my face, I saw a faint light of hope that I could correct my earlier lapse, but no such luck. The woman was going through a subset of the census question in some sort of control experiment. Matching the answers from people that were asked twice would give the Office for National Statistics a measure of the overall accuracy of the exercise. And so I answered questions regarding my age and professional and cohabitation status again.

Eventually, inevitably, the question of first name, last name came up. There was a short pause. I'm not a particularly confrontational person, but if I can avoid making the same mistake twice, I will insist on it. I explained my position to the poor woman. The I asked her why the name was necessary in the first place. Besides "most popular boys' names" rankings, no useful statistics can be derived from it.

I didn't want to give the poor woman a hard time. She was just doing her job, earning a little on the side in tough times. I recalled her saying that the post-census survey was voluntary. While I was contemplating pulling out after already spending five minutes on it, she relented. "Can you at least give me your initials?" I happily did so and a moment later we parted, both content.

The initial blunder remains, and my exposure to bureaucratic incompetence, but there's no point bewailing it. I went back up, cooked some stew in honor of our Queen's visit to Ireland, and popped in a CD while I ate. Then the telephone rang.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Weiwei day

Every winter, Tate Modern hands control over its Turbine Hall, London's largest enclosed exhibition space at a bit more than 100,000 cubic meters, to a single artist. That person is invited to do with the space/fill it as he or she sees fit. Not much is off-limit, not even structural damage to the building itself, as Doris Salcedo demonstrated.

The eleventh Turbine Hall commission was announced last fall. It fell to Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist that I was not only unfamiliar with but had in fact never heard of before. That doesn't mean much. Last year's black box of perceived infinity was by an artist I didn’t know, and it was brilliant.

I'm not sure this year's commission deserved the same praise. The far quarter of the Turbine Hall's floor space was covered ankle-deep in one hundred million porcelain replicas of sunflower seeds, seemingly identical but in fact all unique because they were painted by hand in small workshops. The material accompanying the installation talked loftily about the analogies to the artist's homeland: the millions in blue identikit Mao suits, with identical hair and, to Western eyes, faces are all individuals.

I didn't think much of the curator's philosophizing, and I didn't think much of the installation. Had I visited during the opening weekend, my verdict might have been different. People were allowed onto the bed of sunflower seeds and invited to touch the art and play with it and to hang out and chill, as if it were the gravelly seaside at Brighton. Then fine dust was noticed, produced by the continuous grinding of pebble against pebble under people's feet, and Health and Safety cordoned off the area. Visitors were restricted to contemplate a deserted beach, too far away to discern differences among the seeds or even recognize them as such.

After my visit, I still didn't know much about Ai Weiwei. He is Chinese and a successful public figure with a large audience in the West. Surely he must be a poodle or a parrot of the regime. The authorities wouldn't allow otherwise... I should have known better. A year ago, the New Yorker profiled Ai Weiwei in a thoughtful and rather prescient piece ("he could end up in jail"). Who is this guy?

Throughout his artistic career, Ai Weiwei has been fighting the system from within, challenging state control of the arts and tirelessly demanding political democracy. He's conflated his life and his activism into one big piece of art, with his blog (shut down by the authorities but recently published in English translation) and nearly continuous Twitter posts relating every minute of his existence.

Using whatever measure of transparency exists in China, he exposed the corruption and hypocrisy of the system, most notably the failings surrounding the Sichuan earthquake. In a country of one-party rule, he became a one-man opposition party that relentlessly tested and pushed the limits of civic possibility. To put it succinctly, he was a major pain in the ass of the Chinese so-called Communist Party.

On 3 April, the Party struck back. Ai Weiwei was detained without charges and hasn't been seen since. Nor has there been any information on his whereabouts or the reasons for his disappearance. In all likelihood, he's waterboarding in some detention center in the far corner of China to pay for his impertinence and self-confident individuality.

There have been protests, from governments and NGOs, but the art world has been curiously slow to react. I read an article the other day that put the inaction down to envy at his popularity, but I can't believe that. As such, I'm glad that a few signs of hope have appeared in London this weekend and I decided to see them one by one.

I started out at Lisson Gallery near Edgware Road, two exhibition spaces filled with sculpture and video that still can't convince me of Ai Weiwei's artistic merit (detached from his political existence). One of the outside walls was plastered with posters quoting Ai Weiwei. They go a long way to explaining why Ai Weiwei is behind bars (or worse). One says, "Liberty is about our rights to question everything". Indeed.

Ai Weiwei quotes

Visitors were encouraged to sign a petition calling for the artist's release and to take copies of the posters home with them. The opportunity to have your picture taken, in front of the gallery and with a "Free Ai Weiwei" sign in your hand, was apparently restricted to the opening night of the exhibition, for which I was one day late.

From Edgware Road I went to Trafalgar Square and walked down the Strand. On the right side is Somerset House. Its courtyard was adorned with twelve enormous Ai Weiwei bronzes, recreations of zodiac sculptures that once been part of a fountain at an imperial retreat in Beijing. Given that the courtyard at Somerset House is one big fountain itself, the heads were a good match. But there was no Free-Ai-Weiwei activism.

Zodiac Heads

My last stop of the day was Tate Modern. The sunflower seeds had all been packed up in the enormous bags they had come in, ready to be – what? Sent back to China and dumped on Tienanmen Square? Made to disappear in the North Sea? Auctioned off at Sotheby's? Nobody knows.

bags of seeds

In response to Ai Weiwei's arrest, huge letters have been affixed to the outside of the former power station, calling for his release. With all I've read and learned, and in ignorance of the official charges, I'm happy to join the chorus: Release Ai Weiwei!

Release Ai Weiwei

Friday, May 13, 2011

simple pleasure

Four weeks ago, I retired from running. This is not exactly newsworthy; I've mentioned it plenty of times and you are justified in flinching in exasperation at the repetition. But I find it necessary to remind myself every now and then because in spite of my natural predisposition for laziness, sitting on a sofa doing nothing doesn't come easy to me.

Maybe I'm still traumatized by my most realistically frightening Halloween experience, which shook me to the core a good ten years ago. I had dressed up as some sort of Mexican fat bastard with 48"-waist corduroys and a XXXL flannel shirt stuffed to bursting with pillows from assorted sofas. I had a shapely but gigantic belly and a straw hat, and I was incapacitated.

I found it hard to squeeze behind the wheel of my little Passat to go to the party and couldn't bend down to tie my own shoe laces. Worse, I couldn't even see my shoes. I resolved, there and then, that I would never allow myself to become debilitatingly fat. With that in mind, my retirement from running might indeed look shaky.

However, I also retired, a good year ago now, from football. This was not caused by being sick of the sport. On the contrary, I loved every second and played with a passion, but I had sprained my ankle one too many times. The London Marathon was looming up ahead and I knew I wouldn't be able to achieve a decent time without training uninterrupted by ankle injuries. Football needed to go.

Now I don't have to train anymore. I'm retired from running, after all. Announcing a comeback of Jordanesque proportions, I booked a spot on the pitch this afternoon. I had only running shorts and a cycling vest, but what does clothing matter with feet enshrouded in a pair of Nike Ronaldinho trainers, one of the best shoe purchases I've ever made (and they weren't even on sale)?

Never mind the dry sunny spring, we're playing indoors and every game is a cardiac chase of red-zone intervals. After three minutes, I was dead exhausted, out of breath and black stars dancing in my eyes, and had to take goalie for a while to recover. Then I scored a few goals and it was like always, exploding back and forth and left and right, trying to keep up with the other players and the ball.

I can hardly believe that I gave this divine pleasure up for running. What was I thinking? Apart from bombing down the Wasatch Crest Trail to Big Water on a fully, there's nothing that can compete in hilarious fun with an insanely frantic hour on the hardwood floor of a gym chasing a bouncy ball like a 16-year-old.

That's all it takes.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

another race

This morning, my sister ran her first race in eternities. There were times, back in middle school when mud was still sticky and rain fell in sheets throughout spring, when she ran cross-country on occasion. There were regular meets between the schools in our town and she was up there with the best. Maybe I'm imagining this. Sometimes I remember that I was up there with the best too, but that I'm imagining for sure.

This post is not about me because my sister ran a 10k this morning. The race was held on the day of, and as part of, the Oberelbe-Marathon, which I would call my favorite marathon, if such a thing could exist. But only a pathologically twisted individual would combine the words favorite and marathon. I, in contrast, like refer to it as a particularly benign form of self-inflicted torture that leads to something slightly less than absolutely misery.

My sister ran the mini-marathon, a peaceful stroll of 3.7 km, last year and did well. Then she decided to do better, and more, the following year, and got somewhat serious about it, taking to the woods where she lives and tracking herself, time and distance. She could have taken her iPhone and asked Apple for the data, but they might have refused (proprietary brand management assets or some such thing). Instead, she takes the epitome of geek, a stopwatch that talks to the stars (or at least satellites).

My sister ran a 10k this morning and ate the competition like a grilled sausage. My sister is a vegetarian, but she knows when to compromise her principles. Coming third out of nowhere is such an occasion. Another is a good sausage, a bratwurst cooked up in Thuringia from fine pork, spices and shredded hoofs and heels. She probably ate that during the stroll through town on the day before the race.

With her time she narrowly beat the target I had pulled out of my head (yes!) the night before, a round number that sounded plausible though not exactly trivial to achieve. I'm delighted – and at the same time twitchy. I feel an itch in my left leg. Stories of racing, especially close to home, always give me a kick. Should I maybe not have retired after all? But this post is not about me.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

halfway around

There are many ways of traveling. One can rent a car and explore, drifting from place to place with scant regard for plans or timelines. One can be holed up in a city and discover the place on foot. One can also hike out into the wilderness, pitching a tent in a different spot every night. One can take the backpack to civilization and weave through the urban fabric of a region or a country by coach, railroad or minibus. Or one can put basecamp in a comfortable hotel and explore the surrounding areas in an out-and-back fashion by whatever means of transportation is convenient.

Paul Theroux has probably done all of the above, but his favorite mode of travel is the railroad. He once remarked that "I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it." In the early 70s, his love for track-bound travel resulted in a pan-Eurasian grand tour, published a few years later as The Great Railway Bazaar.

This book made his name, but it's far from his only one. I encountered him first in The Kingdom by the Sea, a similar grand tour, albeit on a smaller scale, of the United Kingdom, mostly conducted by coach and on foot because National Rail doesn't cover all the coastline of Great Britain, let alone the surrounding islands.

I was enchanted by the way Theroux lets every place, journey or way station, no matter how dull or drab, come alive, mostly by letting the people he encounters speak. Not only this, he gives them all names, as if he knew them personally. I thought this was a gimmick until a friend from Scotland recognized the guy who used to drive him to school every morning.

The other day, I finished The Pillars of Hercules, the account of yet another grand tour. The book chronicles Theroux's first foray into the Mediterranean. The author, who hadn't before been to Spain, Egypt or Morocco, sets out to travel from Gibraltar, the northern Pillar of Hercules, to Ceuta, a possible southern one. Across the Strait of Gibraltar, this would take an hour on the ferry but the long way, along the Spanish, French, Italian, Balkan, Greek, Turkish, Levantine and North African coasts and across a few islands on the way, it takes a good year and a half.

The first third, by distance, of the trip is vintage Theroux: acute observations, dry wit, occasional benevolent condescension, precise descriptions, and interactions with nearly everyone encountered on the way. Spain gives way to France; Monaco is left for Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily; the east coast of Italy is traded for the Balkans. The pages fly effortlessly, but three fifth in, the troubles start.

The mid-nineties, when the trip was undertaken, weren't a good time for traveling around the Mediterranean. Serbs, Croats and Bosnians were at each other's necks, Israel was shelling Lebanon and occupied Gaza, fundamentalists slit thousands of throats in Algeria, terrorists bombed Egypt, Kurds fought back in Turkey, and Albania was completely disintegrating as a country. Lots of places weren't safe and the narrative ends.

After a summer at home, recovering his spirits and waiting for the return of the low season, Theroux continues but he changes pace. The coastal railroad makes way for cruise ships and ferries, a substitution that completely changes the character of the book – because it changes the character of the traveling. Instead of visiting places that take his momentary fancy and talking to locals, Theroux gets comfortable on a big boat and studies the characters around him.

This is not exploring anymore or even traveling, it's cruising. Taking the easy way out of a tight spot is one way of looking at it. More generous would be to grant that Theroux made the most out of a bad situation. The most is not the best, however. The best would have been to finish the manuscript after the chapter on Albania and abandon the conceit of circumnavigating the Mediterranean. The title would have to be changed and an overarching story invented, but the 300-page book would have been a good one.

Instead, the book switches from the desolation and poverty of Albania on one page to a roster of dignitaries and aging bigwigs floating blissfully on a luxury cruise ship on the next. The disparity threw me off balance and made me doubt I was still reading the same book. But I was, and the struggle continues for another 200 pages, painfully disjointed in scope from their predecessors. Not much happens on the ships or ferries and landfall is rare. Few places are mentioned and even less of their local color is captured.

Conversations with fellow passengers and musings on traveling and travel writing must suffice. Theroux is aware that he's shortchanging the reader, but his repeated excuses for taking the cruise ship in the first place and his professed desire to get off it feel dishonest and are tiring. ("My idea was to find a way of going back to Greece and Turkey, not do a hatchet job on a hip-load of cruise passengers, supine on the sun deck, reading Danielle Clancy and Clive Grisham ...")

The outing to Malta with his co-cruisers is a travesty. Like a package tourist, Theroux skims over the highlights, "giving [the island] a good five hours of thorough scrutiny." Greece, which Theroux dislikes enormously, is given equally short shrift, though its coast is nearly unlimited. Turkey is nothing more than a few days in Istanbul and a day-long bus ride to Syria. At the end of the book, nearing Morocco, traveling has become an afterthought and the writing positively self-infatuated.

There are some gems among the gloom, though it would be better had they been allowed to stand on their own in a separate little book. Theroux's been traveling for decades, and his skill and experience can be studied more easily when he doesn't dazzle with crisp description of improbably encounters. There's much to learn for aspiring travel writers, either spelled out on the pages or poorly hidden between the lines. For example, Theroux "makes notes" where everyone else would just take them, just as a serious photographer makes his photos and doesn't just take them.

He considers the correctness of the facts he reports the prime criterion of the value of his writing. Indeed, in travel writing "all that matters is that the facts are generally true, so that a historian, some Fernand Braudel of the futures, will be able to use your book as a source for, say, the condition of Albania and 1994." That's stated explicitly. But between the lines I read that accurate facts must go along with skillful presentation. The context must be drawn broadly and clearly, by the rearrangement of encounters, by the introduction of characters that show certain details more convincingly, and by creative chronology. Artistic license allows for that; a good book calls for it.

The Pillars of Hercules is not a good book, but if it were torn apart at page 300, it would be two good though incomplete books: a third of a travelogue around the Mediterranean and an involuntary travel writing tutorial. They don't go too well together but are worth reading individually. The second "book" might just give the tools and motivation to attempt completion of the trip that Theroux failed in. And with some luck (and the persistent courage of the peoples of Libya and Syria), the time might soon come when such a feat will be possible.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

too good

I've just come back from two weeks in Portugal and Spain, getting soaked by violent showers at first but finishing by soaking up the sun. I ate great food for pennies, drank fresh green wine and heavy port, visited place I've never been to and learned new things. More about this later when I've had time to go through my notebook and align my observations.

By a curious set of coincidences, chance encounters I can't recall anymore, I also came across some music I thought intriguing. It was snippets of news from the in-flight magazine and mini-reviews in Galician newspapers, tantalizing but cryptic and absolutely silent. As soon as I got home I did what I usually do when I happen upon new music: I fired up Spotify to hear what I had only been imagining.

Spotify was a godsend when it was launched, an eye-opener, a miracle almost. Its database contains more songs than the hard disk of even the most avid file sharer, ready for streaming at a moment's notice. When I signed up two-and-a-half years ago, I could listen to pretty much any piece of music, legally and for free. It was great for discovering the unknown, an infinite aural treasure chest.

The service was financed by advertisements that broke albums into annoyingly small fragments. The alternative was to pay for a subscription or, more parsimoniously, a day-pass. Provide an unlimited CD collection and you're almost guaranteed to have a happy party. I liked nearly every aspect of Spotify, and I was sure it wouldn't last.

Ads that I don't act on or even listen to can't pay for unlimited music. It was clear to me that the free Spotify accounts were only teasers to get people hooked, make them take immediate music for granted, to suck them into paying five or ten pounds a month for a convenience they wouldn't want to miss.

I knew I wouldn't want to pay for a music subscription, ever. I want to buy music that I can listen to even when the hot music service of the moment (Napster, anyone?) is long forgotten. CDs are my media of choice. But before I place an order, I want to know what I get, and Spotify was great for that.

Back from Spain, I fired up Spotify and was asked, more in-your-face than usually, to purchase a Premium subscription. If not, I would not be able to listen to a song more than five times, and my monthly access would be curtailed at 10 hours. These are serious restrictions, and they render Spotify useless as a personal and personalizable radio. Nevertheless, I stuck with my Free account, which should still be good for test-listening to new music.

Except it might not. Over the last few months, I had already realized a progressive decline in the availability of songs and albums, a thinning of the collection, a rise of songs in pale grey, playable only with a paying subscription. Is it bye-bye Spotify?

Probably, and I'm not surprised. The free service was always too good to be true. But for the moment, things are still all right. The three new released I had been interested in were all available. I've started listening to Sidi Touré and the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo and, with no connection at all, the Beastie Boys. No decision yet on a purchase, but if I part with my money it will be one-off for a lasting value and not the intangibility of a subscription.