(Ex-)cat door, they are everywhere in Valletta:
And this one, cheekily sticking out his tongue.
There is even now a mad crashing of cicadas. Their buzzing comes in waves from all sides, they are angrier here than at home, louder. As you approach they cannot leap to stillness but must wind down slowly, a whirr and a whirr and a whirr and a whirr. Then there is silence. They jump into a full blast of sound again, louder than before, but behind you this time as you pass. They bring me happiness, like the quick slender lizards that move so quickly to efface themselves in improbable cracks.
I love being surrounded by this sound of summer, sitting in front of the whirring of a fan and its odd mechanical rumble as it turns from one side to the other. But it is also odd, such familiar sounds yet so far from home. The glimmer of turquoise water just outside the window. Every now and then an echo of those everywhere-the-same sounds of families at the sea-side. The expected breezes off the sea non-existent. The skin on my neck itching and unhappy, the lazy slothfulness, the delicious mad consumption of books. The stirrings of a story or two, but no desire to write more than this. A scatter of maps on the low table along with a prized ticket to the Ħal Saflieni hypogeum for tomorrow, procured from the Citadel early this morning — I had all but given up hope of seeing it, with no pre-ordered tickets available. A freezer stuffed with frozen ravioli from the market in Victoria. Mark working at the kitchen table, but I cannot follow his example and work on my article. I just cannot. Fiction or nothing. The mention of a shame-faced crab in the Gozo natural history museum yesterday a new character for Whispering Truth, but no, I am in the mood to lazily think. To blog, the most effortless of writing. The older I get, too, the more afraid I am of forgetting.
The sun streaming through the kitchen window is about to hit me, forcing movement into a cool shower. My legs are finally the colour they have been most of my life, before I moved to England. They are fully mine, but still forced into retreat.
Mine to the right, Mark’s to the left. We’re both a bit obsessive.
Someone broke in last night.
I was trying to get out the door, late for work of course, and saw the door was ajar. I stared at it, wondered if it was possible I had not shut it behind me. No time for recriminations though, I ran down the steps, got to the corner. Remembered I had to remember my work laptop, turned around to get it.
Stared at where it should have been.
Just my pile of shoes there by the door. I had left it by the door to remind myself, but I found myself just staring at the shoes. Blank.
I still didn’t think. Wondered where I might have put it. Turned. Saw also gone the ancient mac that only works to play DVDs. Its screen long dead, it is connected up to a cheap screen so I can watch US dvds, awaiting the day I can afford a television and a universal DVD player. They took all the cords, left the cheap screen. That old mac isn’t worth £5 to anyone but me, but we’ve been through a lot together.
I never move that mac, never touch that tangle of cords. I knew someone had been in there then.
They came in through the window I think. I had left that small window open I think, and it was now closed. They came in while I was sleeping. I saw later, after calling the police, that they had pulled out some of my papers, an old wallet that had nothing in it but my checkbook to a defunct American account. An empty envelope. A lot of risk for so little. Even later, really looking around to make sure everything else was there, I realised they also stole my exercise cord. How am I going to do my rows? That felt like some kind of really stupid straw.
Just a door between them and me asleep.
That’s the real thing.
I am surprised this warm comforting space I call my home didn’t catch them up in a black tornado funnel and spit them back out the window, didn’t rare up biting and clawing to protect me. Or overwhelm them with its love and consciousness embodied in books and political posters. They took that cord, but left the painted Creature From the Black Lagoon box right next to it. Luckily our definitions of value are very different, and everything I love most is still here. I am not much for portable and valuable things. Except laptops.
I feel funny though. Like someone has dropped a stone in water, and I am not sure where the ripples have left me. I had to talk to strangers on the phone. I went in to work because I didn’t even think maybe I shouldn’t, still operating on automatic, then came home. I had to fill out paperwork. I still have to call the manager. I failed to do much beyond a few urgent, very specific email tasks. After I realised they had come through the window I called the police back, thought they should come out after all. I don’t think they’re coming out. I don’t know that I mind. I’m still waiting for a call.
I ordered a box-set of BBC adaptations of Jane Austen. Many years ago, a woman off her head on something and fighting someone in the building or her own demons threw a large stone through my window when I was on my own in LA, and started screaming she wanted to kill me after seeing my shadow. I stared at the rock and the shattered glass all over my bed. Called the police. Waited for them for hours, she was long gone and I wasn’t sad about that either. Then I went to my friend Jennie’s, and watched all of Pride and Prejudice for the first time. I should own a copy for the next time something happens, it is the most soothing of productions.
I am not sure where the ripples have left me.
It’s been such a long few weeks of trying to recontact people I talked to months ago facing homelessness… many homeless still. Others housed. Some in prison. Most impossible to contact. I’ve been across Wales, away from my own home for most of the month, and work hasn’t stopped while I’m away. I’ve edited an issue of City, and written this piece about my hopes for Labour policy and homes that support life as it should be lived for a Verso ebook, also online with Salvage. Of course it could not look away from Grenfell, my heart is still broken.
A place to call home. A simple thing. Labour once had a vision that there should be housing for everyone, though what makes a home is perhaps not so simple. As Kim Dovey writes, home is deeply intertwined with our identity. It centres the relationship between ourselves and the earth, centres our connection to community and culture and society, to our past with its memories, and to our ability to grow into our full potential with the power to define our future. A home should be a place of strength and safety.
A home should not be what kills us.
Yet Grenfell went up in flames, went up in a great stench and acrid smoking to consume its survivors’ past and their present, their safety and security and community. It greedily consumed a still unknown, possibly never-to-be-known, number of human beings who trusted it and built their lives within its walls. Each of them was a world of stories and dreams and laughter. Only memories and ashes now, a gaping hole in the hearts and lives of those who loved them.
But I tried to dig down, go further. Think about how housing should be rethought before it is rebuilt. It was so hard to write, everything has been hard to write. Grief has been ever-present this month. Fundraising for the funeral for Julian, fundraising for Chelsea’s Silas and his future now that hers has been erased. The murderer of Philando Castile set free, a jury who could see what I and the rest of the world saw and do nothing. My friends sharing stories and fears, and nothing can ease fear for their lives in a country that puts no value on any Black life. On another front. My mother fighting to get the medicine she needs to live, and the Republicans doing what they can to take away the little and the imperfect support she now has. And bombs keep dropping and people far from here are still dying and millions are in movement across this earth and home has become such an impossible thing and their grief rages like a forest fire beside my small blaze. I suppose this diminishes neither. I just wish there were more that I could do.
The Viking Ship Museum — incredible. Despite hordes of elderly French tourists in colourful anoraks and sensible shoes fresh off the coach, following a diminutive tour guide in a bright yellow jacket who propelled her footstool through the crowds, leapt upon it, declaimed, and moved on to the next-notable-thing. They followed her at speed, seemed to linger longest in the gift shop — but that’s probably prejudice speaking as I was transfixed and not really paying attention.
The wonder of these ships. To be built with such care, to be eminently practical yet also crafted and made most beautiful, from their great curves and curls to their meticulous carvings. To be buried in honour of certain members of the community. The most beautiful, the most decorated ship carried two women to their afterlife and with them their weaving tools — multiple looms, weaving tablets, yarns, precious cloth. Agricultural tools were found here too, plowshares, sickles, scythes — at least the wooden handles. If only there had been more, they could have joined my collection of medieval illustrations/ implements still used in everyday life.
Two women and their weavings. In this.
What love and honour shown to them. The Oseburg ship, build around AD 820 and in use before the women were buried in 834. 22 metres long, 5 metres wide, could reach a speed of over 10 knots under sail. The most lavishly decorated ship yet found.
A picture of its excavation:
There is the Gokstad ship, found in 1880, built around 890 and buried around 900 with a full complement of shields. A warriors ship.
The third ship, the Tune ship from 910, is almost in ruins, only the base of it remaining preserved. Still beautiful.
The only hint of humour here — the remains of a peacock were found — ‘It may have been a gift from some foreign dignitary or perhaps a ‘souvenir’ brought back…’
Also within the Oseberg ship this cart:
Soft leather boots:
five amazing carved animal heads, four in the burial chamber, they seem to have been meant to be mounted or carried with a thong passed behind their teeth, their purpose unknown.
I would have loved to have been here quiet and alone, but amongst these objects so weighted with beauty and an entirely different way of viewing the world and living within it, those coachloads didn’t matter quite so much. But we got there early before the real deluge started I think. It would have been intolerable with a few more coachloads by the time we left.
We also took the ferry, which meant we were able to continue our tradition of disappointing boat rides in European cities. A picture of the Akershus fortress from the water:
It emphasizes the importance of sturdy boats. But the Vikings built beautiful ones.
Oslo is a lovely city, a wonderful city to wander — we didn’t realise how big it was until we took the ferry out to the Viking ship museum (zomg the viking ship museum, amazing), but it feels human size, liveable. I think partly it is because only a short walk from the center you reach areas where you find things like this:
I’ve not been to a city with quite this shape — a yard or second road and houses tucked in behind them. It creates variety, interest, surprise — all the things Cullen and Alexander described as key to an interesting human environment. The above picture isn’t the most picturesque, but the only shot that managed to capture some of the contrasts, and just how cool a space this is.
Then there are the old streets of wooden houses. But I have already sung their praises.
There are balconies that seem well used, cafes spilling out onto sidewalks, coloured lights and tables and chairs inviting you to enjoy any summer evenings you can manage. Lots of street furniture too, in pallet style though I am fairly certain that is not cheap pallet wood upcycled.
It is also almost all mixed use and plenty of small shops, like this fruit and veg vendor protecting his wares by a small sacrifice to the birds. There are parks and green spaces all over.
There is a museum dedicated to Labour — we walked up the Akerselva to the old working class neighbourhoods to get there (I confess, they don’t really feel working class any more).
Lots of cobbled streets still. I love them, though I love them more since I stopped wearing heels.
The museum itself is small, nice, not quite enough about Labour and a little too even handed in describing the workings of capital, but we’re biased. It was worth a visit, and had we not gone we would have missed these splendid waterfalls in their entirety. They appeared nowhere in my admittedly quick search for weird and wonderful things to see — that turned up the mini bottle museum (closed), but not this beauty?
This was the centre of Oslo’s industry, the museum had an exhibition on of paintings of the Aker. These waterfalls once powered sawmills, later textile factories. A vision of it as it once was below:
Heading out towards the Munch Museum we passed what felt more like the current environs of the working class. Nice, I love these balconies, with their built in window boxes.
There is street art everywhere, here off of Tøyengata we found a beauty, along with an impressive diversity and some old buildings and cracked walls and lots of tags and stores that sell everything with brand names you don’t recognise that made me feel right at home.
Perhaps what I loved best was how massive luxurious modernity was squished into its own small section — though modern building is spread through out the city. This ‘landmark area’ still felt more vibrant and interesting than say Salford Quays (though we didn’t venture in), but they’ve actually done very interesting things with long narrow buildings lines all up in a row. I like them confined this way.
With wonderful plazas, a parade for each day we were there, some of the best public art I’ve seen as well as awesome (often anti-fascist) graffiti and stickers, I enjoyed Oslo immensely, despite the rain. Just reminded us of home I suppose.
Before getting into why that is, a hilarious aside of how worried people in power get (and academics when embedded in that) about people having too much time on their hands. You know there are some hardcore assumptions about working class people in this
1958 study under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago, which fretted that “the most dangerous threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,” a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb. (16)
So what is social capital?
Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.
The term social capital itself turns out to have been independently invented at least six times over the twentieth century, each time to call attention to the ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties. (19)
This is what I love, that social capital is all about connection. It is all about relationships. What I hate? The word capital. But ah well, it’s done and dusted and a term thrown around hither and yon now, and so must be engaged with. Unlike the capital of Marx’s title, reciprocity is the key here:
Social connections are also important for the rules of conduct that they sustain. Networks involve (almost by definition) mutual obligations; they are not interesting as mere “contacts.” Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity… (20)
And, of course, such close and tight-knit relationships do not always lead in good directions — the more I write about white mobs, the more clear this becomes. So some care is needed in thinking about how this works. More thought is needed about the nature of these connections.
Social capital, in short, can be directed toward malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital … Therefore it is important to ask how the positive consequences of social capital — mutual support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness — can be maximized and the negative manifestations — sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption — minimized.
Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). (22)
This is such a key distinction. I think a lot can be done with this… Whereas a Freirean or a Frommean would think about how one or the other leads to a more full expression of our humanity, a more full life, a better society, a truly radical reimagining of our relationships, the use of ‘capital’ tends to lead us down another road:
Bonding social capital is, as Xavier de Souza Briggs puts it, good for “getting by,” but bridging social capital is crucial for “getting ahead.” (23)
I don’t know what getting ahead means, and for people of wealth and privilege, bonding capital is good for both. So this takes us sliding down into a more apolitical, neutral concept. But we don’t have to go that way.
Even so, anything that pulls away from the mad idea that we do it all ourselves is great:
our national myths often exaggerate the role of individual heroes and understate the importance of collective effort.
So a central question of the book is, is it true community is really on the wane? Reading Raymond Williams on the Country and the City, it’s clear there’s a nostalgia in every generation. Putnam writes:
Debates about the waxing and waning of “community” have been endemic for at least two centuries. “Declensionist narratives” — postmodern jargon for tales of decline and fall — have a long pedigree in our letters. (24)
But Putnam seeks to establish whether or not this is true — and finds it to be true:
The dominant theme is simple: For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (27)
And so we enter the great lists of just what is declining.
I like the need to measure different kinds of change, to make this distinction between
social change that is intracohort — the change that happens within a generation, an intercohort — the change that happens when a generation dies off. (34)
And Putnam does find a decline.
Financial capital — the wherewithal for mass marketing — has steadily replaced social capital — that is, grassroots citizen networks — as the coin of the realm. (40)
Looking at 32 national chapter-based associations (PTA B’nai B’rith, Knights of Colombus etc…), again, more decline (though still, better than 1900):
On average, across all these organizations, membership rates began to plateau in 1957, peaked in the early 1960s, and began the period of sustained decline by 1969. On average, membership rates more than doubled between 1940-1945 and the peak and were slightly less than halved between the peak and 1997. (55)
I don’t know that I think that this all that terrible a thing — because I think we’ve seen a real rise in religious participation lately and it’s fucking terrifying. But liberation theology and Black radical traditions are a whole different thing.
Religiosity rivals education as a powerful correlate of most forms of civic engagement. (67)
…the more demanding the form of involvement — actual attendance as compared to formal membership, for example — the greater the decline. In effect, the classic institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out.” (72)
The result is that the country is becoming ever more clearly divided into two groups — the devoutly observant and the entirely unchurched. (75)
In Yiddish, men and women who invest lots of time in formal organizations are often termed machers — that is, people who make things happen in the community. By contrast, those who spend many hours in informal conversation and communion are termed schmoozers. (93)
I like this distinction. I like too the realisation that cities weren’t the evil, atomising places they were once theorised to be.
Some early sociologists though that this thicket of informal social connection would not survive a transplant o the anonymous city, that urbanization would doom both friendship and extended kinship. However, experience showed that even in the most densely populated urban settings, social filaments linking residents were steadily regenerated. The density of social connections is lower in cities … but twentieth-century urbanization was not fatal to friendship. Urban settings sustain not a single, tightly integrated community, but a mosaic of loosely coupled communities … (96)
we are connecting less every year, and schmoozers more and more common than machers. But even ‘informal social connectedness has declined in all parts of American society.’ (108)
Still, I’m not such that schmoozers and machers really describe all the informal connections within communities.I’m not so sure that this captures what I think of when I think of informal support networks, how people survive on low incomes. Another way Putnam measures loss is in restaurants and cafes and bars giving way to fast food —
These cold numbers confirm the gradual disappearance of what social commentator Ray Oldenburg calls “the great good place,” those hangout that “get you through the day.” (102)
And I’m not sure that fast food in some places isn’t actually filling that role still, though in a different way.
The second two of these three are hard to measure unless you’re talking about middle classes and formal organisations I think, which captures only a fraction of connection…
There is an important difference between honesty based on personal experience and honesty based on a general community norm — between trusting Max at the corner store because you’ve known him for years and trusting someone to whom you nodded for the first time at the coffee shop last week. Trust embedded in personal relations that are strong, frequent, and nested in wider networks is sometimes called “thick trust.” One the other hand, a thinner trust also rests implicitly on some background of shared social networks and expectations of reciprocity. (136)
This is an interesting concept, this thick and thin trust. I like the ways that Lyn Lofland and Elija Anderson take this in different directions thinking more about the connections people make and the spaces they make them in, building of course on Jane Jacobs.
Ah, social movements… I agree mostly with both of these statements, though always worry when terms like ‘social movements’ are thrown around as kind of everyday things, when in fact I think they are fairly rare, and what we have are groups engaged in building movement.
Social movements and social capital are so closely connected that it is sometimes hard to see which is chicken and which egg. Social networks are the quintessential resources of movement organizers. (152)
Social movements also create social capital, by fostering new identities and extending social networks. (153)
Why, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s, did the fabric of American community life begin to unravel? Before we can consider reweaving the fabric, we need to address this mystery. (184)
Longer working hours, increased financial worries and sense of financial vulnerability mean people don’t get together. Putnam notes that one practical way to increase engagement is to make it possible for men and women to work part time if they wish (and still continue to live a decent life). Amen to that.
First the creation of suburbs — this is pretty anti suburb, though it doesn’t get into how suburbs fostered a white sense of community by coming together to fight like hell to keep everyone else out. They are now hoist with their own petards.
Eric Oliver found that the greater the social homogeneity of a community, the lower the level of political involvement; “By creating communities of homogenous political interests, suburbanization reduces the local conflicts that engage and draw the citzenry into the public realm.” (210)
A good quote from Lewis Mumford: “suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life.” Putnam continues:
Now, however, the privatization of suburban life has become formalized and impersonal. Gated communities are innately introverted, as traditional urban neighborhoods were innately extroverted. (210)
Putnam quotes Kenneth T. Jackson, great scholar of the suburb and the KKK, about a ‘weakened sense of community, increase in social life feeling privatized’ (211)
He looks at commuting:
Car and commute demonstrably bad for engagement, the more commuters in community the less engagement of all members of community, even those who don’t commute (213)
Spatial fragmentation between home and workplace bad for community life. (214)
He looks at sprawl (these are all picked up in Urban Sprawl and Public Health, and Walkable Cities) and gives the main reasons sprawl is bad: Time taken in commute, social segregation and increased homogeneity, disruption of community “boundedness”, separation from work, home and shopping. (214)
Nothing — not low education, not full-time work, not long commutes in urban agglomerations, not poverty or financial distress — is more broadly associated with civic disengagement and social disconnection than is dependence on television for entertainment. (231)
Social capital has many features that help people translate aspirations into realities. (288)
That’s always nice. This is a pretty good list of why connections are good for us, even if I worry about some of the language. Greasing the wheels for example.
Putnam goes on to measures how social capital makes a difference in our lives looking at 5 variables: child welfare and education, healthy and productive neighborhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democratic citizenship and government performance. (290)
There’s some stuff here too about how inequality and social solidarity are incompatible — the more unequal a society, the less social capital. It’s significant how badly former slave states perform along every index. Of course, books like The Spirit Level have since picked up on this and broadened the analysis to be global.
— higher social capital rates statistically highly correlated with babies healthier, fewer teen parents, lower dropout rates, less violent crime, suicide, homicide, lower child abuse rates, higher test scores (informal social capital more highly correlated than formal for student achievement)
Higher social capital correlates to lower crime, less lethal violence, also home to survival networks
support networks for jobs, loans, ideas etc
huge benefits to health (see the Marmot report, not quoted here but all the same findings…)
higher public-spiritedness, local organizations become schools for democracy, the more isolated people, the higher tendency to extremism, need more forums for debate, meaningful engagement in big issues…
Shows tolerance has increased between 1960s and 1990s as disconnection from civic life decreased…. But still studies find that more engaged people are more tolerant. Given growing inequalities and disengagement, perhaps this all explains the trouble we are having now?
So, social capital.