Saturday, 19 December 2009

Reform the CAP

Further to yesterday's post, a link to a declaration calling for the reform of the CAP, the EU's farm subsidy and agricultural tariff system which is doing so much to hurt the world's poorest farmers.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Of course, drinking wine and eating pigs are themselves products of an industry which, while not monolithic, is certainly part of the French self-image, agriculture. Indeed this is perhaps the most totemic of the lot and (as with the electricity industry) this status leads to some curious and self-harming reactions on the part of government and individuals alike. Agriculture in France and across Europe is protected both by direct subsidies and by border tariffs. The result of this ought to be farmers profiting at the expense of the rest of the population who pay higher prices than they would if cheap foreign produce was allowed to compete with home-grown stuff. But in fact this is not the case; farming is in crisis. Both producers and consumers are losing out. The reaction will presumably be to keep throwing money at the sector - because of the visceral attachment to the image of an agricultural France decisions concerning farming bring into play far more votes than there are actual farmers - and hope that the problem goes away. But not only does this approach not seem to have worked it is also grossly unfair. Unfair on the consumers as mentioned above, but if they want to pay higher prices for local products then so be it. It is unfair primarily on producers in the world's poorest countries who are unable to break into foreign markets that would at least give them a hope of lifting themselves out of poverty. One of the stumbling blocks in the Copenhagen negotiations concerns the amount and the kind of aid to be given to poor countries to help them convert to a low carbon economy without harming their potential for growth. The poor countries want more than the rich are prepared to give and they want it with the smallest number of strings attached. This looks like being one of the points of disagreement that derails the whole process. So why not sidestep the whole question and instead of giving/lending money to poor countries remove all tariffs on their agricultural produce? The result would be a near immediate and long term rise in the wealth of these countries (long term since the price differential between a potato grown in Angola and one grown in Brittany or Idaho is not going to go away any time soon). If the tariff were removed in two steps - first lifting it on organic produce before extending it to industrially produced food then there would also be a direct incentive to consume less carbon and protect the environment in these countries. As it is many of these countries practice organic agriculture by default but you can be sure that as soon as they start having the money to buy synthetic fertilizers Monsanto et al will move in. The preferential tariff for organic produce would help protect against this. I would nevertheless have this system not last indefinitely so as not to disproportionately harm organic producers in the wealthier countries. An influx of cheap organic produce over a limited period of time might even benefit them as it will lower the price of organic food which is currently one of the main reasons people are reluctant to buy it. The price difference comes in part from higher costs but also because supermarkets can stick on a hefty premium as there is not enough supply to meet demand. If the markets were flooded then this would not be the case. Well, I am not an economist so I guess there are holes in my argument but it does not take a specialist to see that the manner in which Europe and America currently support their agricultural sectors (at great cost to their taxpayers and at an even greater cost to the world's poorest people) is not only foolish but immoral.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Paris, like much of northern France, is under snow this morning. The result is beautiful - what is normally a grey and beige city is vividly black and white - but also slightly alarming. As was the case last winter the city doesn't really seem equiped to cope with snow, and cars and pedestrians are crawling along unsalted roads and pavements. Alarming too are the announcements of a potential power cut at 7 o'clock this evening. Temperatures are roughly 6 degrees below their seasonal average and hence the demand for electricity is correspondingly high. It is worrying that the French grid is not prepared to cope with a situation that while extreme is not that extreme, and it is curious that despite all the media coverage I have yet to hear a single request from any public body asking individuals to limit their electricity consumption. The possible black out is presented as something that has a high probability of occuring - tonight there is a 50% chance of snow and a 60% chance of a power failure - rather than as something over which we have any control. Worrying also that the previous record for electricity consumption was in January of this year. What this means is that for all the talk about climate change over the last 12 months people have done nothing to reduce their energy use. France generates 85% of its electricity from nuclear power stations which for all their bad press are actually fairly good in terms of carbon emissions. So perhaps there is a false sense of security in France regarding electricity - we produce a lot of it and we produce it cleanly so why bother limiting our consumption? And worse than this there has for a long time been a conscious policy in France of encouraging electricity use as this will support a major national industry; half of all electric heaters in Europe are installed in French houses. There is at the moment a rather unpleasant debate taking place in France about national identity which has predictably turned into a slanging match about Muslims and immigrants. Seen from an outsider's point of view a short-sighted, protectionist obsession with monolithic heavy industries - nuclear, aeronautic, automobile - seems as much a part of French identity as drinking wine and eating pigs.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009


In the museum I thought I would die;
dry, hot air and the strange path money takes
to end up here; the treasures of a man
of standing in a kingdom that no longer is.
The old press against me in tiny rooms,
out on an outing, swaddled in fear.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

"Voilà l'homme tout entier, s'en prenant à sa chaussure alors que c'est son pied le coupable."
Samuel Beckett

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

OK, enough Copenhagen, time for some Johannesburg. Here, for what they are worth (ie. not much), are my predictions for the World Cup:

Group A
South Africa; France

Group B
Argentina; South Korea

Group C
England; USA

Group D
Germany; Ghana

Group E
Holland; Cameroon

Group F
Italy; Slovakia

Group G
Brazil; Ivory Coast

Group H
Spain; Switzerland

Perhaps a bit of a Europe/Africa bias in my predictions (ie. no Uruguay, Paraguay or Mexico) and South Korea and Slovakia are outside bets. We shall see.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

I once spent a night in a room above a wine bar in Antwerp. The place was lovely - large bed, view over an art nouveau square, little kitchen area with a bottle of Genever in the fridge - and so was the bar downstairs. Unfortunately I was kept awake all night by the bar next door which was more of a get shitfaced on Trappist beer and dance until you puke kind of place. I mentioned this to the owner of the wine bar the next morning and he apologized, said that it was not the first time this had happened and promised he would speak to the owner of the other establishment. He did and the upshot was that the owner of the noisy bar offered to pay half of my night's accommodation. In some sleep-deprived, masochistic fit of righteousness I refused, saying that it was not right that someone should repeatedly screw their neighbour and then pay their way out of it. A situation rather like this, where some people will respect the rules of civism and get reimbursed by others who don't is what is proposed by the "cap and trade" approach to carbon emissions. Of course the "cap" part of "cap and trade" - the total amount of carbon to be emitted worldwide is fixed at a certain level which will encourage companies to use less so that they can sell their surplus allowance to other companies who can't or won't reduce their emissions - means that the two scenarios are not exactly the same. (So far as I know no such proposal has been made about world noise levels, although a quieter world would presumably be one of the side effects of a low carbon economy.) This "cap" will be progressively lowered so as to insure the price of the carbon credits does not stabilize or fall and hence polluting will stay costly. Unfortunately there is a proposal to alter the bill before the US congress to allow companies to purchase offsets instead/as well as carbon credits. This would mean that there would be no limit at all - the "cap" would become purely theoretical. And regardless of whether the offset amendment is included in the bill or not regional discrepancies will inevitably exist - and indeed may even get worse. While over all pollution might go down, in certain areas it will stay the same or even increase - a victory for the planet but not for the people living near a dirty power station (or a noisy bar). If "cap and trade" is to work both locally as well as globally (and the verdict is still out on both of these points) it will need to be coupled with laws that limit the emissions any one source can produce. In this regard the announcement yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases pose a danger to human health is extremely good news as it paves the way for the agency to regulate emissions of these gases. One wonders why it took so long to arrive at such a finding (I'm guessing eight years of George W. Bush didn't help) but, as with Obama's belated decision to attend the Copenhagen summit at all, better late than never.

Monday, 7 December 2009

A couple of weeks ago the Copenhagen negotiations which open today seemed doomed to fail. Now things seem a little less catastrophic. The decision by Barack Obama to attend the closing days of the summit reflects not just his desire to participate in the negotiations but also his belief that something might come of these talks. While virtually every other leader in the world was prepared to attend regardless, Obama, burnt by the public embarrassment of his failure to bring the Olympics to Chicago, was only willing to attend if he felt the conference would produce tangible results. This is pathetic but it's behind us now. There will always be fans who couldn't care less about the muddy games in February and only turn up when their team is in the final but as long as they make some noise in the stadium we'll forgive them. Without America these negotiations were going nowhere. With America present there is at least some hope. Of course the real problem is that whatever is decided at Copenhagen there will be no legal framework to enforce those decisions for at least another six months. And even after six months when all the negotiators meet again in Mexico there is no guarantee that a treaty will be signed. However by then we will at least have an idea of the nations which are obstructing progress. Let us give America, Canada and Saudi Arabia just a little more time to get their house in order and if they don't then maybe it is time for a boycott. Not something facile à la Freedom Fries but more along the lines of the apartheid-era boycott of South Africa. Opponents of boycotts and trade embargoes say that they are unjust measures which punish the entirety of a nation for the sins of its ruling class. This argument has a certain logic when you are speaking about poor nations like Iraq or Cuba but the countries threatening to derail the Copenhagen negotiations are far from poor. A boycott would shame them more than it would actually hurt them financially. And since if these negotiations fail the whole world will be hurting financially anyway a dose of shame is probably the best we can do.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

what good will disconnected

Friday, 4 December 2009

Quince and chitterlings

Paris in autumn and I dream
of beer and shorts and Iowa.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Let it be

Let let be struck
from the language;
is is all, permission
a betrayal of ens.

But without let,
on the heels of is
comes not: taboo
policing the polis.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

should we order snipe again or grouse?

Saturday, 28 November 2009


Friday, 27 November 2009

An article in today's Monde about the negative side effects of wind turbines - those who live near them complain of the noise and the disorienting effect of having constant movement in their field of vision. There are complaints of anxiety, high tension and depression, and anecdotes of people who live with their blinds closed or have been forced to sell their homes (often at a loss because the presence of a wind turbine in the vicinity has reduced its value). Well, welcome to city life! I don't wish to come down too hard on the country mice but half the population of the world lives with these inconveniences on a daily basis. Given that rural living tends to have a higher carbon footprint than urban living it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect the country folk to do their part in shifting to a more environmentally responsible future. And doing your part means accepting a certain level of discomfort. Another article, this time in this week's Economist, has the president of the Maldives reacting to the rising level of the world's oceans by evoking the possibility of buying land in order to evacuate his population and restart the nation elsewhere. Town or country or island state, the same wind, the same rising sea surrounds us.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

head cold




can feel my heart,
the muscle, pump

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Is there a way to use all the light and heat and noise that we produce as by-products of other activities? Of course we should above all aim to reduce our energy use but there will always be a certain excess. Take light: there are many buildings that need to stay lit all night - hospitals, factories, car parks, hotels, prisons. Is there a way to capture this light and put it to use. Given that the world is soon to face a food shortage - 80% of arable land is already in use and the world population is set to increase to 9 billion by 2050 - would it be possible to incorporate greenhouses into well lit buildings? The light given off by artificial lights is weaker than direct sunlight but perhaps it could function as a top up light source for plants? In some of the cases mentioned above - hospitals and prisons for instance - plants would have a therapeutic benefit as well as providing nourishment for the people who live and work there. In others the plants would have to be transported elsewhere for processing and consumption but any activity that uses light can't be that far from a population that needs feeding so there would be limited transport costs involved. People like Dickson Despommier in the US and Plantagon in Sweden have developed prototypes for multistorey urban greenhouses that would occupy entire city blocks and produce food where it is needed - for the first time ever more than half the world's population lives in cities and that figure is set to grow - but until food gets so expensive that farming is more lucrative than real estate I can't see this idea getting off the ground (pardon the pun). As things stand the owner of a plot of land will make more money by building flats or offices on it than by building a greenhouse. But maybe if you could persuade a property developer to include some plant growing activity - perhaps through a system of government subsidies - in his or her plans we could at least see if the idea has legs.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


Monday, 23 November 2009

"Vraiment, le peu de morale que je sais, je l'ai appris sur les terrains de football et les scènes de théâtre, qui resteront mes vraies universités."
Albert Camus

Sunday, 22 November 2009


Saturday, 21 November 2009

So it seems Nicolas Sarkozy does understand the notion of separation of powers after all. Pressed to intervene in the France-Ireland affair his reaction was to point out that "I am not the referee"; pity he couldn't come to the same realization before appointing the prosecutor who would preside over the Clearstream libel case in which he himself was a plaintiff. FIFA have predictably refused Ireland's request to replay the game pointing to the law which states that the referee's decision is final. But this was never about the referee anyway. Referees make mistakes but unless one can prove they were doing so deliberately that's the end of the story. This is a story about Thierry Henry and about honesty in sport. It seems inconceivable that Henry didn't know what he was doing when he handled the ball - after all he touched it not once but twice - so the question is how to react to an incident of cheating. It is never likely to happen but wouldn't the appropriate reaction be for Raymond Domenech to drop Henry from his World Cup squad? This would be a severe punishment and so far as I know without precedent but would at least allow the rest of the French team, who are guilty of nothing more than turning in a series of lacklustre performances, to compete in the World Cup with a semblance of dignity. And who knows they might even, as was the case for Arsenal, play better without their ageing captain?

Friday, 20 November 2009

"The more impoverished his own life, the stronger is his faith in the mysterious, inaccessible center, in - if one may put it this way - the absolute of the city. Tourists traveling to the great capitals naively pursue this elusive spirit in nightspots and suspicious neighborhoods. Part of the myth is the feeling that the daytime, the surface city, is not it, that somewhere beneath the cover of the quotidian, the real city exists, boisterous and crazy, about which the local inhabitant who prowls the streets can provide information and reveal it to others. The den of the city is created from inflated fantasies about people who disappear from view, about their hoarded goods, their battles, their successes and failures. In just the same way, hunters, never able to come upon the bones of animals who have died from natural causes, create a legend about an animal cemetery concealed in the heart of the wilderness, where elephants, lions and bears go when they sense their imminent death. People always mythologize the absent, it seems."
Czeslaw Milosz, The Legend of the Monster City

A couple of streets away work has restarted on a Center for Documentary Film and Photography
, the brainchild of the photographer, film-maker and photojournalist, Raymond Depardon. Construction was halted for almost a year owing to the discovery of a thirty square meter void underneath the building which will house the new center. In a previous life this building was home to the largest betting shop in France and before that it was the site of Chez Isis, a legendary 1920s brothel. In the 19th Century this street was a notorious hangout for criminals of all kinds. In this thirty foot hole we have a real example of Milosz's mythologized absence, an actual site in which to place our urban fantasies. (The fact that these fantasies are forced to exist in the past only adds to their mythic potential; the real Paris was that of 1968 or the 20s or the 1890s or the Paris of Balzac, just as the real New York was that of the punk rock 70s or the hard-drinking New York of Pollock, O'Hara and Dylan Thomas. You should have been here yesterday.) How fitting that this endlessly evocative empty space, a space about whose past and original purpose we can know nothing but hence can imagine everything should now house a center for documentary images, a means to record, to bring things to the light.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

A sleepless night last night as Paris' sizeable Algerian population celebrated their country's qualification for the 2010 World Cup (their first since 1986) and victory over their arch rivals, Egypt, by driving around and blowing their horns until dawn. Made me all nostalgic for the much-maligned England fans who at least have the good grace to collapse in a drunken stupor around midnight. There may have been a few French fans tooting as well as France also qualified last night but the circumstances of their victory over Ireland left little to be proud of. A team of France's calibre should never have been in the play-offs in the first place, they were outplayed for much of the match and their winning goal came after a flagrant handball from their captain and former Arsenal legend, Thierry Henry. It appears that neither the referee nor his assistants saw the handball but as the commentators on French television pointed out Henry could have admitted to what he had done. I got the impression from the post match commentary that the French were rather ashamed of what had happened. The various pundits watching the match spoke of little but the Henry incident and former World Cup winner Bixente Lizarazu couldn't even bring a smile to his face when asked for his reaction. So a shame-faced qualification for France who, like Milton's Satan, carry hell within them in the form of their atrocious (and atrociously arrogant) manager, Raymond Domenech; defeat last night would have seen the automatic termination of Domenech's contract. The TV coverage ended (as always in the banana republic that is Sarkozy's France) with an interview with the President who pointed out that even people who don't follow football will want to celebrate France's qualification for the World Cup. Perhaps that should have been "only people who don't follow football"...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Tuesday, 17 November 2009

More cases of cannibalism in Russia, where one man was found guilty of killing then eating his mother, while three others were likewise convicted for murdering and eating a homeless man. The leftovers were sold to a kebab shop. What is it that bothers us so much about this? To kill and eat someone seems far worse than merely killing them but why? And why is it that eating someone you haven’t killed – whether unconsciously as in Titus Andronicus or consciously as in the anthropophagic reenactment that forms the basis of the world’s most popular religion – provokes entirely different reactions of pity and compassion? Later this month a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” starring Viggo Mortensen goes on general release. Some of the most disturbing scenes in the novel are those that deal with cannibalism but in the post-apocalyptic world McCarthy describes eating human flesh seems, if not quite pardonable, understandable. How else are these people meant to survive? For Freud (who would have had a field day with the first of the two cases above), cannibalism, along with murder and incest, was one of the three great taboos. For him it tended, unlike the other two, to manifest itself primarily in repressed forms in modern society or as a stage in infant development. Given that the number of hungry people in the world has passed the one billion mark and that climate change is likely not only to exacerbate this problem but also to bring with it others such as natural disasters, population displacement and war I wonder if he would have the same opinion today?

Monday, 16 November 2009

I went to a reading last night in a venue right near me but which I had never heard of before, the Fondation Boris Vian. It’s a nice space which occupies the ground floor of the building in which both Vian and Jacques Prévert used to live. The reading was part of a series where 12 American writers had been invited to read at various events all around France. I went along to hear Forrest Gander, a poet whose work I enjoy who was reading from his recently published novel, As a Friend. Part of me feels that poets ought not to venture into the more popular genres as a sign of solidarity to their noble yet marginalized art but I suspect I’m full of crap. Why not write what you want? Moreover since virtually anyone who has had a bit of success in another field will have no problems finding a publisher if they decide to bring out a book of poems what’s wrong with reversing the flow a little? Anyway, principles aside, I enjoyed what Gander read and look forward to getting hold of a copy soon. Sitting just in front of me was a rather elegant, elderly woman. Before the reading started she took out a sheet of paper and wrote down the date, the venue and the names of the readers (as well as Gander, the Greek-American poet Eleni Sikelianos was reading from her work) in the kind of handwriting you would expect an elegant, elderly lady in France to have, the writing she had learned at school. There are so many things that after a certain age one cannot change one had better get them right early on. That afternoon I had seen a photo in the paper of war criminals on trial in Argentina; they wore grey and brown, check shirts, zip up jackets, cardigans. Looking at that line of thin-lipped old men it seemed all but impossible for one of them to admit to what he had done let alone to repent of it.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Steak and Kidney,

Pancreas & Spleen

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Porcine realpolitik

Friday, 13 November 2009

It seems that His Eminence Lord Ferguson of Ferguson is to receive a touch-line ban for comments made in the wake of [insert the name of any game United have lost or drawn over the last three years or in which one of their players was booked]. What this means is that, barring an appeal on the grounds that the FA are a bunch of senile cretins who don’t know the first thing about first growth claret, he will have to watch United’s next two games from the stands rather than from the dug-out, and will be unable to advise his players during the match. If he commits a similar offense later in the season a further two match ban will immediately come into force. It was about time that some kind of punishment was doled out to Ferguson; his repeated verbal attacks against the referee had long o’erflowed the measure. Many football fans (and I should at this point declare an interest as a Chelsea supporter) got the impression that he was receiving special treatment, either because of his stature within the game – a kind of Sarkozy/Berlusconi system of immunity – or because of his advancing years which led to him being treated as one might an embarrassing uncle at a Christmas dinner: don’t bother replying, you know what Alex is like, he’ll be asleep soon anyway. Either way there was something grossly inequitable about the whole thing and it is good that he has been disciplined. Players who insult the referee in the heat of the match rightly receive their marching orders, so why should managers who do so in a calm and reflective manner afterwards get off Scot free? Of course the referee makes mistakes but this is how it should be; his is an Old Testament justice, cruel and sometimes arbitrary that, if only one learns to roll with the punches, prepares one well for the setbacks and disappointments of the spiritual life.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

It’s not the fact they’re transsexuals bothers me (or maybe it does bother me but in a way that has more to do with my own psychological makeup than it does with the dance of respect and compromise that is urban dwelling/civilization) as much as the fact that they are prostitutes. And even then it is not so much the fact that they are prostitutes as the fact that prostitution (or to be more precise, soliciting) is illegal. Is there any illegal activity that does not bring with it others? This is one of the reasons I do not think I would ever be able to live in Italy; on a daily basis one would be forced to enter into semi-legal (ie. illegal but not illegal enough or else so widespread that the law-enforcement apparatus does not deem it worthwhile to intervene) arrangements whose consequence is to perpetuate a much larger system of illegality and corruption that pollutes the lives of everyone. My girlfriend has a purse made of eelskin; today I will eat eel for lunch. Can one live, move through the world, without causing violence? Or is the whole game to orient oneself to cause the smaller violences, to pick one wriggly, mute species on which to inflict it?

A little way

A little way
outside Rotterdam
men play base
ball in the rain,
and just before
Antwerp mules.