In 2006, the year I turned 30, I graduated Magna Cum Laude with my BA in English, my fourteen year old daughter was repeatedly attempting suicide and failing in school, and my four-and-a-half year old ADHD twin boys were rapidly being kicked out of every daycare center in the city – all of which was the death knell for my failing marriage. Around this time, I created a MySpace account to stalk my daughter, who, I discovered, had a clandestine account herself. On my profile I listed writing and reading as two of my hobbies and one day I got an invitation to read a blog written by some “author” named Brad Listi. Everyone was an author on MySpace, it seemed. Most of them were trying to sell me something and the ones who weren’t tended to write boring blogs about finance or essential oils or some other subject I had no interest in.

I was, as a matter of course, rejecting nearly every “author” who invited me to read his or her writing – but for some reason, I went ahead and accepted this Brad Listi fella’s invitation.

 

Look at this earnest face.

Look at this earnest face.

To say that life is absurd is a common thing and a seemingly-radical declaration. Instead, absurdism proves a surrender. There is nothing absurd about this world. Everything has been designed with the utmost precision. That design, reasonable yet criminal, may very well be experienced as absurd, and that absurdity can be located in the blueprints, scripts and testaments. But to accept this projected absurdity as reality is to literally lay down our arms, destroy our weapons, and self-amputate our limbs, until we cannot even write in our defense.

There was something ominous about this year’s New Year celebrations in Sardinia. At the town’s Communist Club, a lavish dinner was being planned – but somehow we all knew things would go wrong. Not because the media was against us, not because of the Capitalists, but because there was a peasant uprising simmering.

Bottarga caviar had been bought by the kilo, scores of artichokes had been trucked in and were now being stripped of their spikes by zealous volunteers wearing padded rubber gloves. The seminar rooms, usually so empty and calming with the old framed prints of Che Guevara and Lenin on the cracked walls, the well-thumbed proletarian novels stacked in the shelves and the obligatory carafes of stale red wine, were suddenly impeded by lines of punch-drunk tables like intestines turning in on themselves. To commemorate the glorious foundation of their club, the town proletariat had decided to do a bit of fund-raising at the same time as they stuffed the people’s gullets. Dinner cost 40 euro per head, and there was a good deal of head-scratching about the political implications of this.

Communists aren’t rich, are they? Well, yes, in fact in Italy they often are. They are middle-class intellectuals, college lecturers, film producers, merchants, even landowners… with the odd trade unionist and a smattering of workers (let’s face it, workers don’t live in Europe any more, there aren’t any factories left). The CIA spent years in the the 1960s and 70s giving clandestine support to terrorist groups in Italy, mistakenly believing that the Italian Communist Party was a danger to Western democracy. All they managed to achieve were a few assassinations and a beefed-up Mafia in the south. The CIA should have sent a few agents to our party. They’d have gone home with a deeper awareness of Italian cuisine.

The Commissar of the Casa Del Popolo – the House of the People – took a sober view of the controversy. “I am raising money”, he said, “for a film projector so the town’s youth can come here and have a bit of culture…” Good point, thought some. Others could not so lightly let go of this enormity of the 40 euro entry ticket.

Only a few months ago while I was having my lunch, a friend turned up with a fish so big that he’d brought his brother along to carry it up to the terrace, where I was sitting. Did I want some, they wondered. When I said I did, they proceeded to carve it up, shedding such vast amounts of blood in the process that the drains coloured the street and we were attacked by a huge swarm of wasps. I had to hose the tiles down afterwards, the place was like an abattoir. 20 euro bought me enough fish to cook for ten. I still have some of it in the freezer, in fact.

So now you see the conundrum of the 40 euro ticket…

As we approached the big day, the Communists were ecstatic about their commercial success. They had sold almost 70 tickets. The trouble was, they had not considered the problem of supply and demand.

A couple of Communists went down to Oristano to buy a shed-load of baby goats, which were duly slaughtered. The day before the party, we were treated to a dish of goat heart, lungs, stomach, kidney and thyroid glands. Fried with onion and garlic. It was actually quite delicious, and I suppose ideologically it was also a good thing to eat the stuff no one else wanted.

Preparations were well under way, and the menu seemed unbeatable. A few old girls up in the hills had made stacks of ravioli stuffed with prawns and wild mushrooms. The roast baby goat would follow, then carpaccio of artichoke with dried slivers of bottarga caviar, followed by sheep’s cheese, smoked and air-dried ham, the finest olives and salads. Finally desert – to be honest I can’t even remember what the desert was. All washed down with good-quality Nepente and Malvasia wines. It sounded good, but whether you’re a Communist or a Fascist you still like to eat, and eat plentifully.

Twelve hours before kick-off the Communists were starting to bite their fingernails, as one of the things they had not thought about was their primitive kitchen with a few weak gas burners and a single cold-water tap. It was hard to admit it, but some further investment was required there.

On the big night, floods of guests started pouring in from about eight o’clock. They were damned hungry, they’d paid their dough and now they wanted a decent feed. The smell of roast goat lingered in the corridors. The tables were filling up fast. Plates startled trickling in, but mysteriously as soon as they were put down they were picked clean, as if marauding foxes had taken over the place.

The kitchen was working at full capacity, blood-curdling yells in there as if the chefs were being water-boarded, but there was no way of satisfying the hunger of the people, all of whom had paid their darned forty euro, mind you, and now wanted some value for money. Wine was unlimited, but in Italy one does not drink wine in quantity, not unless it is accompanied by delicious morsels. Before we knew it, arguments were breaking out, heated debates could be heard resounding under Lenin’s severe frown and clenched fist. We were on the third course and there was still a lot of hunger going round. Bread riots seemed imminent.

Suddenly the door opened and there was a general silence. The town’s one tramp had decided to pay a visit, knowing a sure bet when he saw one. He stood there grinning through his blue-cheese-stinking beard, until a Communist got up and fetched him a chair. The tramp dug into his food with gusto, his toothless gums chomping and swallowing lumps of goat whole. His neighbours, wincing slightly, spoke fondly to the tramp, a patriot and citizen who’d seen the harder side of life.

It’s probably fair to say that tramp was one of the few diners that evening who only had praise for the organisers. As soon as we’d cried out our hearty cheers for the New Year, there was a stampede to get the hell out of there. Not being Italian, I sat down and drank a lot of wine. Then, after vomiting a few times in the street outside – this, incidentally, is out of character for me, I can usually eat and drink to my heart’s content – went home to pick up my electric guitar and amplifier.

There weren’t so many people left by the time I came back. Twenty or thirty, maybe. I tuned up, cranked up the volume and sang an old Memphis song. “The Bourgeois Blues”. Written by a black man, in another time.

“Me and my wife/ We been all over town/ Everywhere we go people put us down/ It’s a bourgeois town…”

And then I wandered home in the rain, thinking to myself that in the end, politics is just a word. Prejudice, that’s the problem. And greed.







It’s impossible to know whether the world is going the way of China or China is going the way of the world. An uncomfortable layering of capitalism and communism on top of one another, as embodied by the city of Hong Kong, is not the answer to this question.

Hong Kong is the question.

Sandwiched between ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’, is Hong Kong the model for the city of the future?:

An ultra-policed, liberalised economy surrounded on all sides by a paternalist one-party state to which money flows mostly one way.

Porous borders into and out of a two-tier system in which the obscurity of the local language, even to visitors from other parts of the mainland, creates a huge industry catering for those unable to decifer it.

Boundless vertical density for a theoretically unlimited population over a maximised geographical area, perfectly positioned at the heart of the land and sea infrastructure of the world’s busiest commercial area, The Pearl River Delta.

At a superficial level, Hong Kong is like Kafka and JG Ballard getting together on a UK Garage remix of Two Tribes, with Beckett on the ones and twos.

As a reluctant British ‘subject’, it melts my head to see just how far the UK went with its economic experiment in Hong Kong; still the freest economy in the world. The creation of Hong Kong is the equivalent of devolving Anglesey from the rest of the UK, installing a mercantilist quango presided over by Nelson Rockefeller and demanding an exorbitant stipend for use of the road out.

I feel justified in complaining about most of this because we went there uninvited, peddling smack for tea, and started pissing about—so the guilt’s on the heads of my father’s and my grandfather’s generations, when all is said and done.

But territories that have been forced to adopt western systems, papering over an iron-strong, unique and irrepressible vernacular culture, as in Vietnam, Japan and Hong Kong, will simply not be beat.

The degree to which the forms and elements of commercial excess are pushed in places like (The) Ho(le) Chi Minh city and Hong Kong is testament to the resilience and the individuality of the cultures we’re still desperately trying to subsume with our hackneyed bullshit. In the case of Hong Kong and the larger cities of Vietnam, it’s as though someone local at the top finally snapped at some point and started having some fun with it.

Just like in central London, the complete absence of seats, benches or any horizontal surfaces at human level in Hong Kong is the perfect expression of the ethically-palsied western shopping ethos taken to a demented degree. The private corporation that owns the underground system also owns all the malls and luxury apartments built above the stations; designing the exits from the underground trains to route passengers into the shopping areas, whether they want to go there or not. You can’t even stop, never mind stop shopping.

Most of Hong Kong Island’s ‘public space’ has a six-lane blacktop scything through the middle of it, in spite of the fact that the city has arguably the best public transport system in the world. There’s a genuinely C21st subway, light railway and ferry network and a reasonably efficient tram system before you even get to the busses and the taxis. I would love it if someone could explain to me just where, exactly, everyone is driving to and why they would even dream of investing so much in such flash cars to do so in?

Anyone who has ever spent any length of time in the city of Birmingham in the UK will find themselves fighting off an unusual sense of deja vu on arriving in Hong Kong. To someone steeped in the culture of Great Britain (by fair means or foul), on the surface, the place feels like Manchester occupied and lightly retro-fitted by the Kuomintang. The civic architecture seems based around the model of a municipal lavatory teleported from a British seaside promenade in the 1950s, and purposely renders the entire place into a much warmer suburb of Central London.

The Chicago Loop c/o Creative Commons

The absolute dominion over the place by roads makes every intersection into a subtropical spaghetti junction; delineating with metal crash barriers oceanic concrete islands that necessitate proficient parkour to make any meaningful progress on foot.

Of course, 50-grand sterling for a Maserati for no other purpose than driving around the M25 corridor at rush hour, occasionally stopping off at convenience stores for processed snacks, is everyone’s idea of nirvana, isn’t it…?

It’s possible to tell a lot about a people by their attitude to space. Hong Kong doesn’t have any, so once it’s occupied, it jolly well stays that way, thank you very much. Turn around anywhere on Hong Kong Island with your arms extended even slightly proud of your body and you’ll be touching someone else. Lift up your feet and you’ll find somebody standing on the back of your sandals. Alter your walking pace even minutely and a concertina of bodies hits you from the rear.

The most over-populated island in the world, Ap Lei Chau in Hong Kong, has so many people on it that if they all came out of their homes at the same time, they would begin falling into the sea.

This, I can only pray, may one day start happening to England.

Berlin Elegy

By Stefan Kiesbye

Essay

During the summer of ’89, I took my lover on walks along the Wall. I failed to tell her I had another girlfriend and she kept quiet about her affairs. Susie’s hair was dyed black, and her skin was so pale it almost looked green. Both of us were Grufties, Goths, black swans, sad to the bone, dwelling in a deep and peaceful melancholy mixed with profound half-truths and shiny morsels of philosophy. We were grouchy children of the Cold War, knowing that if Russians and Americans decided to go to war against each other, they would do so in Middle Europe. We were self-indulgent, sorry for the times we were living in, pitying ourselves and taking for granted that the world would soon come to a violent death. Sex we gave freely, as if handing out tissues to mourning friends.

I had met Susie three months before. Getting off the subway train at Leopoldplatz after a day of working as a movie extra, I saw a girl in front of a poster for a pedigree show. She stood slightly stooped, her head raised to inspect the two dogs. Her knees were slightly bent and knocked together. I stopped at the photo booth to check on the blood in my hair and on my forehead. The blood lent me a dramatic air, I decided, as if I had just barely survived a car-crash. It had been my last day as an extra for a TV mini-series about the Third Reich. In the past two weeks I had been a boss of industry supporting the development of the radio, a soldier in the German Navy, and today I had played a servant being killed in a bombing.

“Which dog do you like best?” the girl asked me. I answered that I didn’t like the dog with the bow on its head, but she disagreed.

“I think it’s a beautiful red; it’s a rather beautiful bow.” She nodded her head slowly and smiled as children do when they let you in on a secret. She had a high forehead and her black hair looked like a fantastic crown, a dark version of the Statue of Liberty. She smiled as though embarrassed when I asked her where she lived, and pointed vaguely in the direction of my own apartment. She bared her gums ever so slightly in a smile that ended abruptly.

As it turned out, we lived only a block away from each other. Walking along the cemetery on Turiner Straße, I pointed to my building, which stood overlooking the park-like yard. Bullet holes from the war, which nobody had cared to repair, were still showing in the facade.

“I have a grave here,” she said, a smile touching her face. “I’m taking care of it. It was in really bad shape, and I thought, ‘This grave needs some care.’ Maybe you’ve seen me before.”

Her apartment, to which I followed her without invitation, was cold despite its being a warm evening. Susie took pink champagne from the fridge, crunching bread crumbs and cereal with every step. A dried pancake with a face drawn on it hung above the stove. Greasy spots had soaked the white paint.

Three walls of her bedroom were covered with flowered wallpaper, orange and yellow blossoms. The fourth wall, a bed at its foot, had been left bare except for an enormous eye, taking up the whole space, painted in black and white. A large tear hung in its corner.

Clothing lay humped on the small black desk, on every chair, on the bed and all over the floor. Worn pantyhose, sweaters, and a dirty-white bra. Half-empty bags of gummi bears and potato chips were scattered on and around the mattress.

Sitting down on her bed, I pulled her closer, but she wriggled free of my embrace and laughed. Something in that laugh made me push her onto her back. Susie kept laughing till her head landed on the mattress, then her face froze with anticipation. I put my tongue in her mouth, but she bit me and started laughing again. I pressed her face to one side and bit her neck. Suddenly her arms were around me, and she gave little moans.

Pressing her down with one hand, I pulled off her long skirt with the other. Then I grabbed her pantyhose and slip and pulled them down too.

Stop,” she said, sitting up and panting. When I did, she unbuttoned my shirt, undid my pants, watching me curiously. “You have a good body,” was her judgement, “but your stomach could be flatter.” Then she took off her black sweater and shirt and pulled me close, further inspecting me. “You have nice hair; it’s soft. Like a little duckling’s fuzz,” she whispered. Her body was lazily curved, her skin colorless, showing blue veins. She seemed as naked as someone’s laughter in church.

***

Susie had attended a high school for the super-talented, for those students who in normal institutions perform poorly because they grow bored with the pace of their classes. After receiving her diploma, her Abitur, she enrolled at the Free University of Berlin, in German and Philosophy. But there, her struggles started all over again. Reading Adorno or Kant over the course of weeks bored her into drowsiness; writing papers which were not challenging enough and which she could draft in minutes, led her to never finishing them. She never handed in a single one, then dropped out.

I had dropped out for other reasons. I wanted to become an actor, yet didn’t want to do away with my Robert Smith hairdo and make-up. I was undisciplined and worked in obscure off-off-mainstream projects where young and not-so-young men and women worked without pay or success.

Susie seemed to make her own time, was never distracted and always gave me the feeling I was her only lover, even when I knew I wasn’t. On run-down heels, she staggered along the Wall, pausing to slip a hand down my pants, or show me that she wasn’t wearing a bra. Time followed her awkward steps, never running off or out.

To us, the Wall was like an odd, but good friend. We had been born twenty years after the war and unlike older generations or people with relatives in the East, we had never had any trouble with the existence of the two Germanys.

The German Question, as everyone called it, was no question for us. What kind of question was it anyway? In my eyes, Germany had not deserved any better. Time had slowed down after the war, leaving the country, its culture and arts, in shambles. It should have stopped once and for all in Germany, but time, just because she wasn’t trained to do anything else, went on, aimlessly and off pace, like a disappointed runner who knows that she has already lost.

What had happened to Berlin after ‘45, we appreciated deeply. West Berlin was a country of its own. The presence of the Allies’ armed forces, the division of the city into sectors, assured me that the Germans were kept at bay. “The Germans” were those who did not live within the confines of the Wall, those who were responsible for the Holocaust and two World Wars. West Berliners felt that the war had been forced upon them and that the Nazis had conquered and raped the Weimar metropolis. Now they stood surrounded by the Evil Empire, and were therefore absolved from all guilt. Their city was the last holdout of the free world, the last enclave of the brave and undefeated in the heartland of communism.

A strip several yards wide in front of the Wall — on the western side — was still Eastern territory. This was mostly ignored by Westerners, but to Susie and me it made our walks all the more exciting; it added the flavor of danger. We would ride the subway to a point close to the border — often to Gesundbrunnen in the north — and then walk, sometimes for hours, until we’d be close to another subway or Stadtbahn station.

At certain intervals, there were tiny doors in the Wall, which East German soldiers could open from their side to patrol in front of the Wall, and Susie assured me that, in fact, they did this frequently at night.

I was shocked to hear this, I didn’t want to imagine that my island had porous walls. The sense of peace I had felt during the walks with Susie vanished. Like a King being told that the Barbarians are threatening the borders, I had to see for myself how bad the situation was. So one night we decided to walk to the Reichstag and take a close look at the Wall.

During the day, people played soccer on the huge lawn in front of the Reichstag, called the Place of the Republic, and Turkish families held their barbecues there in summer. Busloads of tourists came every day to have a look at the museum inside the Reichstag and at the Wall. The city had even erected wooden scaffolds to give tourists a better view of the Wall and what lay behind it. At night, however, what was left of the crowd were empty film-wrappers and overflowing trash cans. The area was dead, with only an occasional police car patrolling.

Susie wore a black skirt, fishnet-stockings and black pointed shoes with several straps and shiny buckles, which gave off a jangling sound. She looked like a queen, dark and regal. We walked halfway around the Reichstag and closer to the Spree river, so we could see the Wall running directly behind the building. A Death Strip stretched between the Wall, as could be seen from the West, and a smaller, less imposing inner wall, which stood entirely on Eastern territory.

We climbed the stairs of one of the scaffolds facing a concrete watchtower

inside the Death Strip and waited. To the right, through the trees, we could make out the gleam of lights where the Brandenburg Gate stood, and we could also see the torchlights of the nearby Soviet Honor Monument. Even though the monument was placed in West Berlin, two Soviet soldiers paraded in front of it, day and night. In front of us, jeeps were patrolling the Death Strip, going back and forth between the numerous towers along the Wall. Yet none ever stopped near us.

Susie had brought along a bottle of Valpolicella, and we drank and watched the watchtower, and, when nothing happened, she crawled over to me, sat down in my lap and asked, “Do you think they’ll come if we do it?”

They didn’t. But during the second night we went to the Reichstag, three soldiers in a jeep took off from the watchtower driving toward the Wall. When they came close to reaching it, they disappeared from our view. After several minutes we saw the Wall open in a place where I hadn’t been able to see the door. Two soldiers, their weapons tightly gripped, came through the low opening. For a moment Susie and I stood frozen, expecting the soldiers to shout at us. But they walked a few yards to the left to inspect something we couldn’t see, while a third soldier guarded the hole in the Wall. This man lifted his eyes and he must have seen us, but didn’t show any reaction. After only a few minutes, his two comrades returned, and one soldier after the other passed through the door and disappeared. The door was shut; the Wall was seamless again.

My favorite graffiti was one near Bernauer Strasse. It read “Fighting for Germany’s reunion is like fucking for virginity.” This walled-in city was my place and nobody would be able to take it away from me. Any other thought was ridiculous.