In periods of frenzied haste towards wealth, of feverish speculation and of crisis, of the sudden downfall of great industries and the ephemeral expansion of other branches of production, of scandalous fortunes amassed in a few years and dissipated as quickly, it becomes evident that the economic institutions which control production and exchange are far from giving to society the prosperity which they are supposed to guarantee; they produce precisely the opposite result. Instead of order they bring forth chaos; instead of prosperity, poverty and insecurity; instead of reconciled interests, war; a perpetual war of the exploiter against the worker, of exploiters and of workers among themselves. Human society is seen to be splitting more and more into two hostile camps, and at the same time to be subdividing into thousands of small groups waging merciless war against each other. Weary of these wars, weary of the miseries which they cause, society rushes to seek a new organization; it clamors loudly for a complete remodelling of the system of property ownership, of production, or exchange and all economic relations which spring from it.‘The Spirit of Revolt’ 1880
I’m not the only one who thinks this is extraordinary, but it is still something that maybe not everyone reads and it really is worth spending some time with Gilding the Ghetto, published in 1977. It’s a strange moment to be reading it really, after so many years of austerity, facing many of the same issues with the same roots, but in vastly different contexts. Still, both periods were framed in terms of crisis.
Towards the end of 1976 among the endless reminders of Britain’s economic predicament another theme was brought to public attention: the urban crisis.
This is how it opens – but they are quick to note that this urban crisis was not new — crisis was never new. Forty years later that shit is still not new.
Anyway, In the late 60s and early 70s a number of projects were started — and I found them fascinating so explore them in potentially boring detail here. For the most part they were attempted, they were awesome, but then they were finished and buried, and this cycle is so familiar.
Yet today there is an official silence about these programmes of the late 1960s and early seventies. A striking silence.
This report goes back to the early stage. Written by a group of workers from the National Community Development Project it tries to make sense of the spate of government ‘poverty initiatives’ beginning in 1968 of which CDP was a part. It is written from inside but, we hope, for an outside world. It comes from our own experience as some of the state’s ‘poverty’ workers, and from the doubts that experience raised in our minds about what our employers were really intending.
This sounds so familiar:
The Home Office, with James Callaghan as Home Secretary, embarked on CDP in 1969. The idea was to collaborate with local authorities in setting up local projects, each with a five- year lifespan as ‘a neighbourhood-based experiment aimed at finding new ways of meeting the needs of people living in areas of high social deprivation’. There were to be twelve projects … Their brief rested on three important assumptions. Firstly, that it was the ‘deprived’ themselves who were the cause of ‘urban deprivation’. Secondly, the problem could best be solved by overcoming these people’s apathy and promoting self-help. Thirdly, locally-based research into the problems would serve to bring about changes in local and central government policy.
Makes me really angry of course. Also unsurprising:
A few months’ field-work in areas suffering long-term economic decline and high unemployment was enough to provoke the first teams of CDP workers to question the Home Office’s original assumptions. There might certainly be in these areas a higher proportion of the sick and the elderly for whom a better co-ordination of services would undoubtedly be helpful, but the vast majority were ordinary working-class men and women who, through forces outside their control, happened to be living in areas where bad housing conditions, redundancies, lay-offs, and low wages were commonplace.
So they started organizing the people they were working with, using their research to pressure local authorities and councillors and investigating the structural issues at play – and that’s when they were shut down and buried really. In 1973 a central CDP Information and Intelligence Unit was set up and published a series of (probably embarrassing to the government) reports: The Poverty of the Improvement Programme, Whatever Happened to Council Housing? Profits against Houses and the Costs of Industrial Change. In 1974 central government asked for a review of the programme, with a goal of controlling, curtailing and closing down. (5)
Only six weeks after publishing the highly critical report on the government’s public spending cuts, Cutting the Welfare State (Who Profits), the Home Secretary ordered the closure of the unit.
This pamphlet was written in 1977, when a few projects were still running out their time, but finding it hard to coordinate work or collectively make sense of the findings.
This report is part of that attempt. Though it is not an account of our experience – that is to be found in the various local and inter-project reports — it tries to locate and explain that experience in the context of the series of government moves of which CDP was one….Still we hope that our analysis will help to clarify for others as it has for us, the role of government in relation to both the demands of the economy and pressures from the working class, and the part that such programmes we describe here as the ‘Poverty Programme’ play in maintaining the status quo. (6)
Part 1: The Poverty Programme
The men behind all of this top down malarky, well the men still look the same. Glasses are different of course.
The Welfare state was under pressure, government unsure what to do, this all sounds familiar too. It was an experiment— the word comes up again and again — conducted with very limited resources in many separate laboratories. The central state drew in the local authorities, disregarding their traditional departmental boundaries. ‘Citizen involvement’ and ‘participation’ were recurring themes. Most important, all the schemes took as their testing grounds, small, working-class districts of Britain’s big cities and older industrial towns. These were the ‘areas of special need’ which had first come to the centre of official concern; soon they were being called ‘pockets of deprivation’. (9) In describing the programming that emerged in response, James Callaghan, Home Secretary said it was:
to provide for the care of our citizens who live in the poorest or most overcrowded parts of our cities and towns. It is intended to arrest, in so far as it is possible by financial means, and reverse the downward spiral which afflicts so many of these areas. There is a deadly quagmire of need and apathy. Hansard, 2.12.68 (10)
Quagmire. Right. Still, I’m only just beginning to realise what a big deal it has been, the centralisation of funds and control over programmes, so this is important
Responsibility for Urban Aid was located in the Community Relations Department of the Home Office, the department also responsible for the Community Relations Commission. The money made available for Urban Aid was not an extra government grant, but money already existing in the Rate Support Grant which was taken out of the general allocation and put into the Special Grant category. This allowed the government to have for the first time some direct control over what was going on ‘at the grass roots’. Local authorities could apply for grants from this Special Grant for specific projects which could be financed for up to five years on a 75/25% basis (10)
It still seems to have been quite decentralised, and going into quality programmes:
As the local authorities grasped the new idea and sent back descriptions of the areas they regarded as being ‘of special social need’ the kinds of projects supported through the Urban Aid Programme widened in scope. From the nursery schools, day nurseries and children’s homes, family advice centres and language classes for immigrants of the earlier phases, it had extended its embrace to many more informal kinds of organisation by the later phases. The Home Office actively encouraged local authorities to support autonomous forms of organisation that were already active in their areas. Women’s Aid centres, holiday play schemes, housing and neighbourhood advice centres, family planning projects were all included in later phases of the Urban Aid Programme. (11)
But of course there was never enough funding
there have been around five times more applications made than those granted. In 1971 for instance the London Borough of Lambeth submitted applications for projects to cost £103,500 – only £13,650 of this was approved (11)
In 1969 the Home Office set up its version of ‘action research’: This included an array of programmes: Urban Aid (a neighbourhood-based experiment aimed at finding new ways of meeting the needs of people living in areas of high social deprivation; by bringing together the work of all the social services under the leadership of a special project team and also by tapping resources of self help and mutual help which may exist among the people in the neighbourhoods. Home Office Press Release 16.7.69 (12)); the Educational Priority Area (EPA) action-research project; Neighbourhood Schemes intensively targeting money into small deprived areas to complement the other programming; and the National Community Development Project. In the words of civil servant Derek Morell who pushed this through:
The whole project is aimed against fragmentation … The starting point of the project is that ours is a fragmented, disintegrating society. But the project aims at evolutionary changes, not revolution. Depersonalisation is another problem. The technical juggernaut is taking over and we are no longer the masters. The most difficult step will be how to discover how to perform the crucial task of raising the people of Hillfields from a fatalistic dependence on ‘the council’ to self-sufficiency and independence –Minutes, 14.7.69
That all sounds familiar too. And as if it were a race, the Department of the Environment announced in quick succession its own ‘total approach’ scheme: the Six Towns Studies.
In our approach to the environment, we have endeavoured in the first two years under the new DoE to make a switch of resources to bad areas .. . I believe that the next most important step for any department is to bring about a total approach to the urban problem. In the past the attitude has been a series of fragmented decisions not properly co-ordinated and not bringing about the improvement of urban areas which is necessary. –Peter Walker, then Secretary of State for the Environment, in the Budget Debate 1972, quoted in Community Action No.8. (13)
The Department of Health and Social Security (Sir Keith Joseph Minister), then set up a working party to explore ‘whether the cycle of transmitted deprivation would be a fruitful area of research’…investigating how ‘deprivation’ is passed on through the family. (13) Ah, how I love to hate that old chestnut. 1973 brought Quality of Life Studies, courtesy of the Department of the Environment, looking at improving access to leisure activities. They were a bit worried about how to coordinate it all by then, so created the Urban Deprivation Unit (UDU), and the Comprehensive Community Programmes. These were all partnerships between local and national government, but the European Economic Community (EEC) was also involved, and sponsored its own ‘Poverty Programme’ focused on the ‘chronically poor’. The research proliferated.
2. The (non) eradication of poverty
The aims of the EEC programme sound familiar: ‘to develop clearer perceptions of a complex problem and pioneer new techniques for tackling it‘.
The results? Mixed. The effort – beggars belief really.
The inner city areas of Liverpool are the delight of every deprivation theorist. They have been treated with each of the government’s urban deprivation programmes in turn, sometimes with several at a time. An EPA in 1969, a CDP in 1970, a Neighbourhood Scheme in 1971, an Inner Area Study in 1973 which then sponsored an Area Management experiment have all been tried there, and up to 1974 £1,707,213 had been spent on a stunning total of 146 different Urban Aid projects.
In 1968 when the poverty initiatives came to town, 25,000 people were registered as out of work on Merseyside. Four years later their numbers had more than doubled with 52,000 people unemployed. Today, 85,600 men and women, 11.3% of Merseyside’s population, are out of work. Even these telling city-wide figures cover up the real story of the inner-city areas. There the predicament of would-be workers is even worse with up to 20% unemployed and up to 30% among younger people. (19)
It’s all structural, innit. No one wants to tackle that though.
Both the CDP and the Inner Area Study agreed that immediate action was needed to tackle inner-Liverpool’s housing crisis. But though the message of their reports became more insistent, the actual housing output declined. (20)
It all boils down to this, always and everywhere seems like:
The poverty initiatives then have clearly not made any great inroads on inner-Liverpool’s real material problems. All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time.
Let’s just repeat that, because we are still doing it.
All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time.
Right, to continue:
If you live on Merseyside you have a better than average chance of being made redundant, being on the dole for a long time, living in slum conditions, being evicted, and forced to wait over six months for hospital treatment. Your children are more likely to die in infancy, or when, after getting no nursery schooling, they finally get to school, of being in larger classes in worse buildings, only to emerge finally onto the dole. Over 10,000 people leave Liverpool each year as a way of avoiding these problems. Those who are left can debate them in the neighbourhood councils and area management experiments left behind by the ‘poverty projects’. But, as they well know, talk is not going to make any impact on the worsening situation that faces them. (20)
12.5% households were still without hot water in 1966, though that had dropped to 6.5% by 1971 (21). Homelessness figures, though, were rising:
Homelessness has doubled since 1970. On an average day in that year there were 12,874 people applying for temporary accommodation throughout Britain: by 1975 this had increased to 25,120 people a day. Meanwhile there are one million households still on local authority housing waiting lists throughout England while in London alone the total number on the housing waiting list increased from 152,000 in 1965 to 233,000 in 1974. (21)
So what change was achieved?
The problems of ‘deprivation’ then would seem to be as acute as ever for those who live them, and the prospects are bleak. Neither the poverty initiatives, nor the government’s more general policies towards the poor could be said to have had much impact on the problems facing the people who live in the older urban areas. But the programmes have always been small compared to the size of these. Not so much geared to solving the problems, they set out to provide the basis on which policy at both central and local government levels could be improved. Did the EPAs, Inner Area Studies, CDPs and the rest at least succeed in this respect? When it came to it neither Tory nor Labour governments seem to have taken much notice of the major policy recommendations emerging from the programmes although several years have now passed since their first reports were available. (22)
For housing specifically:
In housing too the pattern is much the same. One of the major recommendations of all three Inner Area Studies was the need for more spending on house improvement, with changes in policy to allow poorer owner-occupiers to take up improvement grants and more powers to enable local authorities to ensure that rented property was improved. The local authorities got their greater powers in 1974, as part of the Housing Action Areas scheme, but powers alone are useless without money, and they have now been denied the resources to carry out these proposals at all as government spending on improvement grants has gradually been cut back from £195.2m in 19734 to £85.8m in 1975-6. (23)
1976 brought in a renewed period of cuts — more money going to the ‘urban problem’, but not as much as was being cut in other spending in face of national economic crisis. So – it’s structural inequality. A great quote from the quote from the Liverpool Inner Area Study:
A number of issues emerge from this description of inner area characteristics and the work carried out by Inner Area Studies. The chief one is the poverty and neglect of the area and its people in every sense. To a great extent this poverty is a reflection of inequalities in society as a whole. Clearly the scale and character of the problem is too great for policies concerned solely and specifically with inner areas to be effective. Any fundamental change must come through policies concerned with the distribution of wealth and the allocation of resources. IAS/L1/6 Third Study Review, Nov. 1974. (24)
Next post — the larger political economy of the 1960s, and just why all this spending on certain kinds of solutions could never provide the right answers. I can’t believe we’re still having that conversation, but the CDP did it masterfully.
Garbage swirled against my ankles. Napkins and plastic cups used, crushed in the hand, dropped carelessly. A large dead rat lay decayed flat beside a bin. A scattering of people still wandered, some with their dogs and some still wringing the last dregs from a night out. Others settled in where they would sleep. A woman screamed liar and streamed filth from somewhere in the darkness of Picadilly Gardens. ‘We don’t do spice‘ two girls said to a man as I walked past, as I waited briefly to cross behind the tram. Warm summer night as claustrophobic, overheated. Everything felt edged. From Glasgow to Wigan to Victoria, late trains and late arrival and the further station and a ways to walk to the bus and I hadn’t money to waste on a cab and streetlights out, and God I thought to myself I am not sure about this city whose cheeks are growing hollow as it drowns itself in nonrenewables and sends luxury’s chrome and steel up into the sky and kicks its people into the gutters.
I, Daniel Blake was my first screenplay, I found it quite a fascinating read after watching the film and reading lots of interviews and watching lots of Loach’s other films and writing a film review (another thing done! Whew). I might have done all of this in the wrong order, but I liked seeing where things started and comparing that to where things ended up. I liked seeing where they had stuck tightly to the script, and where actors had improvised lines. I liked how Laverty wrote their lines, disjointed, like speech actually comes. I liked seeing the sections cut, and the pieces added. You get a much better sense of the process of making a film, the collaboration involved — the extras in here, interviews and bios, add even more insight. And of course, as I always love most about reading, you can linger, go at your own pace. Sometimes I resent how films hurtle you through space and time, or like this one, drag you towards an ending you know will momentarily blot out your sun.
And of course, it was as powerful, though I didn’t cry quite as much because I find words a kind of buffer between events and my tear ducts though not my emotions. I liked that too. Still, this ending…it gets me.
They call this a “pauper’s funeral” because it’s the cheapest slot, at 9:00. But Dan wasn’t a pauper to us. He gave us things that money can’t buy. When he died, I found this on him. He always used to write in pencil. And he wanted to read it at his appeal but he never got the chance to. And I swear that this lovely man, had so much more to give, and that the State drove him to an early grave.
And this is what he wrote.
“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user…. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief… I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen… I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so. I don’t tug the forelock, but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can. I don’t accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less. Thank you.
From ‘Wanting Now’, thinking of all the struggle that lies outside of a ‘movement’:
Today the desire for justice is multitudinous. This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organizations, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement. (2)
From ‘Let Us Think About Fear’ — it seems even more uncannily accurate about Trump and the Republicans today, who almost make me miss Bush Jr.
The leaders of the New World Order, however, would seem to be married to Fear … Day and Night the partners of Fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates the right half-truths … It takes about six half-truths to make a lie. As a result, they become unfamiliar with reality, whilst continuing to dream about, and of course to exercise, power. They continually have to absorb shocks whilst accelerating. Decisiveness becomes their invariable device for preventing the asking of questions. (53)
From ‘Stones’ — on the walls of Ramallah:
Today there is not a wall in the town centre of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead, taken when alive and now reprinted as small posters. … These faces transform the desultory street walls into something as intimate as a wallet of private papers and pictures. … Around the posters, the walls are scarred with bullet and shrapnel marks. (59)
I confess, I am perhaps a bit wary of such essays as a form, printed in a small book they seem part of the elite tradition of letters. I still love this book, I know Berger was a Marxist to the end. Yet it makes me so sad that the cover should name Berger one of the great intellectuals of our time, that he could then write such an essay so powerful on Palestine, and that it should continue to be ignored. It makes me wonder what we are doing, what we should do, what we can do.
As I read Raja Shehadeh, another such powerful writer, on his wanderings and the beauty of Palestine it reminded me so much of the Arizona desert I love, that was also lost though not in the same way. So this had a bit of an eerie feeling to it:
I have never seen such a light before. It comes down from the sky in a strangely regular way, for it makes no distinction between what is distant and what is close. The difference between far and near is one of scale, never of colour, texture or precision. And this affects the way you place yourself, it affects your sense of being here. The land arranges itself around you, rather than confronting you. It’s the opposite of Arizona. Instead of beckoning, it recommends never leaving. (68)
This captures capitalism I think, and our history of conquest and pillage of which Bacon knew quite a lot — On a new appreciation of Francis Bacon’s work ‘A Master of Pitilessness’
Today’s pitilessness is perhaps more unremitting, pervasive and continuous. It spares neither the planet itself, nor anyone living on it anywhere. Abstract because deriving from the sole logic of the pursuit of profit (as cold as the freezer), it threatens to make obsolete all other sets of belief, along with their traditions of facing the cruelty of life with dignity and some flashes of hope. (87)
More about walls, about poverty, about home. ‘Ten Dispatches About Endurance in Face of Walls’ (Oct 2004)
The poor have no residence.
The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.
The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens. (91-92)
‘Looking Carefully — Two Women Photographers’ made me feel inspired to be a photographer again, but I particularly liked this:
Within such a concept of history we have to come to see that every simplification, every label, serves only the interests of those who wield power; the more extensive their power, the greater their need for simplifications. And, by contrast, the interests of those who suffer under, or struggle against this blind power, are served now and for the long, long future by the recognition and acceptance of diversity, difference and complexities. (134)
Ah, to take pictures that do not capture and simplify but render up complexities.
I end where the book actually begins, with a poem. It has been too long since I shared a poem.
Hold Everything Dear
for John Berger
as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey
as the rose buds a green room to breathe
and blossoms like the wind
as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent
in the trucks
as the leaves of the hedge store the light
that the moment thought it had lost
as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air
as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark
hold everything dear
the calligraphy of birds across the morning
the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth
one step ahead of time
the broken teeth of tribes and their long place
steppe-scattered and together
clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug
carrying itself towards us through the soil
the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking
the map of the palm held
in a knot
but given as a torch
hold everything dear
the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them
the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching
the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days
as it sinks to become what it loves
memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed
the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door
the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world
the people in the room the people in the street the people
hold everything dear
19th May 2005
I hated summer today. Sunburns everywhere like bruises. So hot, but unlike lazy Tucson days it felt as though here someone had picked the town up and shaken it so everyone clinging by threads or riding along any kind of edge had fallen out twitching and needing a fix. Men wandered the streets whip thin, shirts off and ribs sticking through badly tattooed skin. Excited with an edge of anger, voices raised even when they were just talking about haircuts, bicycles. Nowhere lives and early deaths marking their gaunt stubbled faces. Visible addiction here belongs only to them. Mass unemployment here now for a good few generations, the closing of pits and factories. My heart hurt and I wanted a drink, still, I wouldn’t be going round the Wetherspoons today. It opened at 8 am. It snapped and snarled and soppily swore at full capacity and anything could have kicked off.
Instead I felt like spending the cool of the evening going to throw rocks at the original captain-of-industry’s ‘castle’, raging against the violence of this wealth extraction and abandonment — its chemical decimation of generations and its blight upon the earth.
Tomorrow I get to go home.
This miserable town. Boredom, hopelessness, despair drip as condensation down its every surface to deaden the skin and the eyes, light up a thousand cigarettes. Defeat’s miasma curls wood, strips paint, shatters windows, repairs them again with superglue and uneven squares of plexiglass. Or leaves them jagged stars. Watches beautiful buildings sag and fall in a slow moaning plea for new use, truncates facades gawping at the sky, metals up entrances as it sends roofs slowly collapsing into the mildewed black holes beneath. Closes up all but the cheapest pubs, strip clubs. Ensures anger and violence always simmer just beneath the surface, marks couples by angry words, makes bodies spread wide or condense into hardened addict knots of wasted flesh. Faces too old.
Here and there a brave effort tries to rise above it. One holds knock-off china of a poorly-executed traditional pattern and cakes no one will ever eat embalmed in its windows. There are no bookstores. There are many people who do not embody poverty and despair here as foil to the rest, but they will not be found walking here after five. They disappear in cars to pockets of relative prosperity after picking up groceries at the giant Asda, carefully avoiding its predecessing poverty-stricken brutalist arcade next door. The two buildings together must have claimed a large section of the city center.
It is as miserable in the heat as it was in the rain and December’s freezing chill.
I hoped to escape, to find a mountain I walked up a broad paved path through a park, garbage winking at me everywhere beneath a welcome cover of riotous summer growth. It was isolated, trees and high banks to either side, beautiful old trees. Defeat running through their sap, their leaves keening. This is no safe place, there is nowhere to run but a preordained forward or back. A shuffling figure ahead of me, zombied with spice, dragging something from the bushes. Forward or back. Forward. No fear. It is some kind of jacket left here some time ago, he has dragged it into the middle of the path. Forward, he tries to see me but his eyes can’t focus, his lips can’t move to shut the gaping mouth over rotting teeth. His skin is mottled, I would not recognise him again because there is little of him here. It must feel like hours between thought and jerking steps. My heart breaks. Three others up ahead. Two young and one old, none of them have many teeth. All way too fucking thin, sinews standing out, anger simmering, arguing. Still walking with purpose, intent. Homemade tattoos stand out against white flesh. Only the old (prematurely old) one sees me, at my nod he makes way. ‘Sorry, love’ he says. I like his smile.
And then I am on an estate. A wide sprawling one, semi-detached houses that have all seen better days. Nothing else here. A sense of barrenness. Isolation. No plants, gardens. A place strangers never come, I can tell by the way cars slow with their music blaring, by the curious gazes of the children. I feel myself curling up inside because there is nothing about me that belongs to this place. This is somewhere so long cast out from belonging they belong only to each other. I am familiar with these places, knowing one makes you no more welcome in another. The mountain is getting closer. I swing my way through stares like wet concrete.
I approach what I suddenly realise is a motorway. No way over to escape to the mountains, you must go under. A fucking underpass, here. No way to walk alongside the road. No way to safely cross it. I can already smell the underpass. There is only forward and back. The air is horribly sickly sweet but underneath is human waste. Two fires have been lit here, I would guess to burn the sum of someone’s meagre possessions. Charred shapes rise from the ground, they feel alive, malignant. The underpass is actually a series of bridges. I stared, you cannot see from this place of safety what lies beyond. The tunnel that must be there.
Forward or back.
It was back. Had to be.
Past the same eyes, wading through the same concrete for the worst of it. I did manage to bypass the ‘park’ and instead curved down another road that opened up views across the valley — I had no idea how high I had already climbed. It should have been beautiful, but wasn’t. Down I went.
The Spirit Level marshals all the evidence — for those who needed such evidence — that inequality has a huge negative impact on everyone in a society, the rich as well as the poor. But especially the poor. There is of course, a minimum level of security and income which human beings require. Many do not enjoy such a level. But for those who do, it still isn’t enough to guarantee a full and happy life:
Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich counties, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. (5-6)
This is good book full of evidence that it is the degree of equality in a country which leads to longer, happier lives and a stronger society.
Poverty itself is a bit of a slippery concept if you think too hard, I liked this quote from Marshall Sahlins:
Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status . . . It has grown . . . as an invidious distinction between class . . . (Stone Age Economics, quoted p 15)
Poverty as a relationship — it makes sense that this relationship is what matters above the bare minimum required for life.
Their graphs are simple, direct — only as good as their data of course, but that is well documented…This one is from p 20 and p 174, so good they showed it twice!
The best indicator for the whole gamut of health and social problems in rich countries is not poverty, but the difference between rich and poor. Reduce inequality, and you should see marked improvements in all of them.
How Inequality Gets Under the Skin
I read this over the summer, but it’s weird going back over my notes after Trump’s victory, especially reading things like this:
The growing rates of anxiety in the U.S. are very depressing indeed, yet they correlate to more aggressive declarations of self worth.
The answer turns out to be a picture of increasing anxieties about how we are seen and what others think of us which has, in turn, produced a kind of self-promoting, insecure egotism which is easily mistaken for high self esteem (36).
I’m always a little skeptical how we ascertain how society is changing us more broadly, but this rings true. Still, it is hard to analyze the water in which you’ve grown up in. They connect these kinds of psychological anxieties with inequality, and then tend to almost conflate the two in trying to explain the correlation between inequality and many of the social ills and illnesses examined as the multiple indicators of health and wellbeing.
Part 2 — The Costs of Inequality:
So for the great list of indicators:
- Mental health and drug use
One of the things they cite is Oliver James on the
‘affluenza’ virus…is a “set of values which increase out vulnerability to emotional distress”, which he believes is more common in affluent societies. It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous. (69)
Interesting, depressing, you can see how hard this would be to live up to.
- Physical Health and life expectancy
They cite more than 40 papers on the links between health and social capital have now been published. (See M.K. Islam, J. Merlo, I Kawachi, M. Lindstrom and U.G. Gerdtham, ‘Social Capital and health: does egalitarianism matter? A literature review’, International Journal for Equity in Health (2006) 5:3.)
Increasing social capital and reducing inequality improve health across the society, just throwing more money at it doesn’t. Probably because most of that money doesn’t actually go towards health, as in the US, but towards corporate profits, but that’s another story I suppose. Looking at this chart and realising that of all these countries the US is the one that doesn’t actually provide universal healthcare despite the obscene of money going into healthcare makes some sense of the outcomes, and makes you feel sick at the same time. Sadly, there’s no cure for that other than some serious structural changes. Like all of this really.
- Obesity: Wider income gaps, wider waists — correlates to inequality.
- Educational performance — correlates to inequality.
- Teenage births: recycling deprivation — correlates to inequality.
- Violence: gaining respect — correlates to inequality.
They note that inequality is ‘structural’ violence, and statistically it matches up with…inequality. Again, they connect this inequality with the anxieties that emerge from our unequal society:
…increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status: status matters even more. The impact of inequality on violence is even better established and accepted than the other effects of inequality. (134)
- Imprisonment and punishment — inequality
I’ve read lots about the crazy amounts of incarceration in the US, The New Jim Crow is miles and away better than this summary. But one fun fact
In California in 2004, there were 360 people serving life sentences for shoplifting. (147)
Jesus wept. And of course, there is this on p 148:
I have to note that in many of these charts I couldn’t initially find the US because it is so often alone up at the top…This chart makes me sick too.
Another brief note they make, there is so much to dig into here but it’s interesting:
In societies with greater inequality, where the social distances between people are greater, where attitudes of ‘us and them’ are more entrenched and where lack of trust and fear of crime are rife, public and policy makers alike are more willing to imprison people and adopt punitive attitudes… (155)
- Social mobility: unequal opportunities — inequality
This is so geared towards statistics and policies, digging through data more than into experience, but every now and then they drop into higher theory, like Bourdieu writing about ‘the actions by which the elite maintain their distinction symbolic violence…’ (164) I had forgotten he wrote about this, this book underlined for me the very strong connection between inequality and violence, inequality as violence, and how that underpins everything else.
Part 3 — a better society
I appreciated that they ended The Spirit Level with some thoughts bringing everything back together, and from there thinking through what change is possible. There was some interesting things on the racial divides in the US, and again and again this book underlines that while the poor suffer from inequality most, really it is everyone who suffers. Maybe that will have some impact? Though it doesn’t seem to have had yet…
in the USA, state income equality is closely related to the proportion of African-Americasn in the state’s population. The states with wider income differences tende to be those with larger African American populations. The same states also tend to have worse outcomes…among both the black and the white population. The ethnic divide increases prejudice and so widens income differences. the result is that both communities suffer…
So the answer to the question as to whether what appear to be the effects of inequality may actually be the result of ethnic divisions is that the two involve most of the same processes and should not be seen a alternative explanations. The prejudice which often attaches to ethnic divisions may increase inequality and its effects. Where ethnic differences have become strongly associated with social status divisions, ethnic divisions may provide almost as good an indicator of the scale of social status differentiation as income inequality. (179)
It is interesting to look at how the numbers brought Pickett and Wilkinson to these findings that are more often found elsewhere. Again and again the message — inequality hurts the poorest most, but it negatively impacts everyone. Reducing inequality benefits everyone. Evidence also suggests it should make rich countries care more about reducing the terrible inequalities between countries — little sign of that despite how desperately — perhaps even more desperately — that is needing recognition, but the more arguments made the better. This is just a building block in working towards ensuring equality remains on the agenda.
There’s a whole section on ‘can this be done?’, can we create more equal societies, but honestly. They themselves make the point that some countries have done it already.
systems of material or economic relations are systems of social relations. (199)
So what is their solution? They look to worker owned business, cooperatives, give example of Tower Colliery, where miners successfully took over pit operation, combining redundancy money to buy the pit in 1995, for 15 years until seam was mined out. They also, in the bigger picture, argue for what they call a steadd health: does egalitarianism d by economist Herman Daly. (220) I’ll have to look more into this and always prefer to start with the source, so to just finish up with some of their final findings.
Evaluations of even some of the most important services, such as police and medical care, suggest that they are not among the most powerful determinants of crime levels or standards of population health. Other services, such as social work or drug rehabilitation, exist to treat — or process — their various client groups, rather than to diminish the prevalence of social problems. (233)
even more damning, this is my personal favourite sentence:
Rather than reducing inequality itself, the initiatives aimed at tackling health or social problems are nearly always attempts to break the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces. The unstated hope is that people — particularly the poor — can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs. (234)
So really this is an economic and a political problem, they write
The historical evidence confirms the primacy of political will. (238)
Behind this lack of political will? Multiple reasons of course, one being the decline of the trade unions — their decline in power has itself made possible a great deal of this growing inequality. There’s also the fact that many corporations have bigger economies than many a nation state. They quote the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD):
Twenty-nine of the world’s 100 largest economic entities are transnational corporations (TNCs)… On the 200 TNCs with the highest assets abroad in 2000, Exxon is the biggest in terms of value added ($63 billion). It ranks 45th on the new list, making it comparable in economic size to the economies of Chile or Pakistan. Nigeria comes in just between DaimlerChrylser and General Electric, while Philip Morris is on a par with Tunisia, Slovakia and Guatemala. (244)
Small wonder they walk with such big sticks. Small wonder higher levels of equality should be so hard to achieve, despite the improvements it makes to everyone’s quality of life.
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.
It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.
A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:
Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.
He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:
Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.
This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.
As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.
Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:
Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…
Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.
After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts, apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.
One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)
It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches — like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.
More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:
We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.
Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.
A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:
Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.
Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes
The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.
Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.
There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.
Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.
This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):
The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.
The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:
In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.
Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.
When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.
It was very different from the rising countercurrent of
a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.
Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).
Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:
They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.
It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.
Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.
The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:
His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).
And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.
It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate…
That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):
By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.
Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.
On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.
The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:
The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.
That, actually, was just funny.
More on the particularities of the papal state.
Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.
Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:
There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …
Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:
Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.
They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.
This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.
No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.
Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:
…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.
Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.
And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:
I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.
He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.
It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.
Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.
Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.
This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:
…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.
A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.
And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.
Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:
Pictures such as the Seven Acts and The Flagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.
But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.
I loved Si viviéremos en un lugar normal
by Juan Pablo Villalobos, enjoyed again the way that fiction can open up experience of home, patria, poverty, frustration, entrapment, and the inflationary economy in ways that non-fiction cannot. This post tells you a very little of the plot but does kind of involve a spoiler, so be warned.
En los anos ochenta en Lagos de Moreno, un pueblo donde hay mas vacas que personas y mas curas que vacas, una familia mas bien pobre intenta sobreponerse a los estramboticos peligros de vivir en Mexico.
On the amazon.co.uk page, this book is being sold as Quesadillas, rather than If Only We Lived in a Normal Place, and this description from the back is translated as:
It’s the 1980s in Lagos de Moreno – a town where there are more cows than people, and more priests than cows – and a poor family is struggling to get by.
Struggling to get by, yes without doubt, but this translation misses the vital point. I’d say rather ‘trying to overcome the absurd dangers of life in Mexico.’ Possibly bizarre rather than absurd. The rest of the translations are my own and done in a little too much haste, and all faults are mine.
This is, above all, a book about absurdity — of poverty, of politics, of life. The sense of absurdity that emerges from the anger that emerges from this poverty. That gut feeling that it doesn’t make sense pushed to its absurd liberatory conclusions that therefore other absurdities are equally likely to exist. The black humour that resonates so strongly with my favourite approach towards getting through the injustices of life. It is the same kind of humour found in The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi, describing the absurdities of Palestinian life under occupation. I adore the fact that both involve alien interventions from outer space (or do they?) because why not? (I mean honestly, why not?) What is stranger than reality, if not the way everyone ignores the injustices of its strangeness?
I can see, though, why they called the English version Quesadillas — delicious morsels of cheese melted inside a tortilla. For me, this use of quesadillas to explain the experience of the Mexican economy in the 80s is almost nostalgic, because here in the UK they remain a treasured memory as any semblance of the cheese required to make them does not exist here. But my own longings are beside the point.
Entramos en una fase de racionamiento de quesadillas que terminó por radicalizar las posturas políticas de todos los miembros de la familia. Nosotros concíamos muy bien la montaña rusa de la economía nacional a partir del grosor de las quesadillas que nos servía mi madre en casa. Incluso habíamos creado categorías: quesadillas inflacionarias, quesadilla normales, quesadillas devaluación y quesadillas de pobre — citadas en orden de mayor opulencia a mayor mezquindad. Las quesadillas inflacionarias eran gordas para evitar que se pudriera el queso que mi madre había comprado en estado de pánico, ante el anuncio de una nueva subida en los precios de los alimentos y el peligro tangible de que la cuenta del súper pasara de los billones a los trillones de pesos. Las quesadillas normales eran las que comeríamos todos los días si viviéramos en un país normal, pero si fuéramos un país normal no comeríamos quesadillas, por lo cual también las llamábamos quesadillas imposibles. Las quesadillas devaluación perdían sustancia por razones psicológicas, más que económicas, eran las quesadillas de la depresión crónica nacional — y eran las más comunes en casa de mis padres. Finalmente teníamos las quesadillas de pobre, en las que la presencia del queso era literaria: abrías la tortilla y en lugar del queso derretido mi madre había escrito la palabra queso en la superficie de la tortilla. Lo que no habíamos conocido todavía era el chantaje del desabastecimiento quesadillesco. (17-18)
We entered into a phase of rationing quesadillas that ended by radicalizing the political postures of every member of our family. We knew all too well the roller coaster of our national economy through the thickness of the quesadillas that our mother served to us at home. We had even created categories: inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and the quesadillas of the poor — named in order from greatest opulence to greatest meanness. The inflationary quesadillas were fat to prevent the great amount of cheese from going bad that my mother had bought in a panic, confronting the announcement of another hike in the price of food and the tangible danger that the supermarket bill might go from billions to trillions of pesos. The normal quesadillas were those we would have eaten every day if we had lived in a normal country, but if we had lived in a normal country we wouldn’t be eating quesadillas at all, which is why we also called them impossible quesadillas. The devaluation quesadillas lost substance for psychological reasons, more than economic ones, they were the quesadillas of a chronic national depression — and they were the most common in the house of my parents. Finally, we had the quesadillas of the poor, in which the presence of cheese was only literary: you opened the tortilla and in the place of melted cheese my mother had written the word cheese on the tortilla’s surface. What we still hadn’t yet come to know was the blackmail of the cheese shortage.
Amazing. That encapsulates much of the humour, the next sentence captures how it hits a little below the belt, and makes it hurt:
A mi hermano no le gustaba ser pobre, pero la pobreza de los peregrinos circundantes no modificaba la nuestra, si acaso nos dejaba clasificados como los menos pobres de ese grupo de pobres, lo cual lo único que demostraba era que siempre se podía ser más y más pobre: ser pobre era un pozo sin fondo. (78)
My brother hated being poor, but the poverty of the surrounding pilgrims didn’t change our own, even if did allow us to classify ourselves as the least poor among this group of poor people, that only demonstrated that it was always possible to be ever more poor: being poor was a well without bottom.
A well without bottom — that’s what it is, isn’t it. And always you are afraid you have further to fall.
Two brothers are already embarked on picaresque adventures here — in search of their two younger brothers who have disappeared (meaning more quesadillas are available for everyone else). Their adventure involves a fight and a split — they lasted longer than I probably would have with any of my brothers, however. Orestes refuses to believe the story of his older brother that they have been abducted by aliens, (Orestes is our hero, they are all names after Greek figures — Aristóteles, Orestes, Arquíloco, Calímaco, Electra, Cástor y Pólux) and he continues on to the city, works out a con involving a machine with a red button, survives, returns. The unfinished shoebox of a house that he hates stands in the way of the development of a rich neighborhood, and they are evicted brutally, watch it torn down in front of them. It is all managed by their wealthy neighbour who also works inseminating cows — Orestes once went to play there with the son, eat their wealthy food, experience their wealth of possessions, and disdain. At one point he has to apologise to them, work for them, and oh, I burned with him. All these feelings. So familiar. There is, too, that feeling that things just happen to you and you have to react, the adrift feeling of circumstances pushing you here and there because you are not someone with the power or money to stand still, make your own fate.
Aparece una gigantesca nave interplanetaria…
— No puede ser verdad…
¿Y por qué no?
¿Por qué no, papá?
¿Acaso no viviámos en el país en que vivíamos? ¿No se suponía que nos pasaban cosas fantásticas y maravillosas todo el tiempo? ¿No hablábanos con los muertos ¿No decía todo el mundo que éramos un país surrealista? (180-181)
A giant interplanetary ship appeared…
— It can’t be true…
And why not?
Why not, papa?
Maybe we don’t live in the country in which we live? Didn’t we all know that fantastic and marvelous things happened to us all the time? Did we not speak with the dead? Did we not tell the whole world that we we were a surrealist country?
All the rules are off, and with clicks of the red button on Orestes’ little machine, the house of their dreams is built there in the field, reality constructed in ways that the poor are never able to construct their own realities:
al final, in the end:
Ésta es nuestra casa
Ésta es mi casa
Ahora intenta tirarla (186)
These are the fighting words, now there is something worth defending and everything is different.
This is our house
This is my house
Now just try and tear it down.
But, as always, the victory is terribly fragile.