Andy had spent three years at art school. His angle – because in the arts one always has to have an angle – was that he painted things at microscopic level. Encouraged by his tutors, he referred to this as “Interiorization of External Space.” Andy liked cauliflowers a lot, he was always painting cauliflowers, because he couldn’t think of anything else to paint; initially, a friend had recommended them to him, because of their “interesting structure.” Sometimes he’d leave them lying around for a couple of weeks until they went brown. He was always mindful about giving his paintings industrial-sounding names: “Rotten Cauliflower, Batch I,” “Rotten Cauliflower, Batch XXII,” etc. One of his best compositions was called “Rotten Cauliflower, XIX,” he painted it one morning when he was badly hung over and suffering from nicotine withdrawal and therefore full of spontaneity.

Recently as I was walking down Wörther Strasse, Berlin, I found myself passing St. George’s English-language bookshop, where a few copies of my short story collection have been kenneled for the last few months. As usual, I find them dozing on the shelf next to Arthur Koestler, which is exalted company, to be sure, yet Koestler’s majestic spines always seem to throw a shadow over the modest heirs of my own invention.

We are living in a time when there are too many writers and too few readers. Who said that? Well, I think everyone said that. And so, six months after publishing my first short story collection and exactly ten months before my first novel comes out, it’s reassuring to be able to access Amazon’s recently introduced Author Central service, which allows me to check on my sales figures without having to chase down the publisher, who can be a bit of an elusive beast. Right now, I can tell you, my short story collection is riding high in 559,052th place on the Kindle bestseller charts, out of a total of 800,000 listed books. Its high point was on March 21st, when it climbed to a whisker above 59,000th place. As for the paperback, well, Author Central informs me that a single copy was sold in America between September 12th and October 9th. This, in Chicago. Whoever you are, rare-spirited denizen of Windy City, I thank you! Do I deserve more readers? Well yes, I think I do, but so do a lot of people.

As I enter the simple youth hostel in Rio de Janeiro where Mr. R. Belo has agreed to be interviewed, I am struck by how very ordinary this man looks. I am reminded of something Winston Churchill once said about Prime Minister Attlee: “Mr. Attlee is a very modest man. But then he has much to be modest about.” Mr. R. Belo is indeed a modest man, never seen without his trademark red tie and dark suit. After a difficult, impoverished upbringing, Mr. R. Belo has risen through the ranks of political workers and now dominates the forward-looking Brazilian Communist Party which is considered one of the most progressive organizations in the world.

Recently Mr. R. Belo has presided over the relaxation of his country’s forestry codes, so that small-scale farmers and hobos can slash back the jungle and grow more food. Some foolish people seem to think that this reform will simply pave the way for industrial interests, that will very quickly move in and buy up all available land to start exploiting the rich mineral wealth of Amazonas.

I am meeting with Mr. R. Belo today so that I can sound him out on his new forestry code and, of course, find out more about his social programs.

Q:

Good morning, Mr. R. Belo. I wonder if I could begin by asking about your policy objectives for the 21st century? You are a leading figure in the government of one of the world’s fastest-developing nations, i.e. Brazil. Some argue that your reform of the forestry code for Amazonas may have ramifications for the environmental stability of your whole continent, possibly even the whole world. Could you begin by explaining how you see the future? Would you say that non-Brazilians are entitled to their own opinions on your country’s new policies?

A:

No, because the West has a colonial perspective. We have always said, and we will always say that our stated objective – in accordance with Paragraph 18, Sub-Section 23 of the 1934 Communist Congress – is to continue the crucial work of alleviating poverty in this country. Capitalism is finished in the West, anyone can see that. But in Brazil we are different, our country is huge and we are building a new, revolutionary Capitalism. It’s very easy, all you need are large digging machines and a hell of a lot of concrete. We have a lot of metals to dig up, a lot of oil to drill for and of course we have this very large redundant area known as Amazonas, which we intend to scale back quite considerably and turn into a productive resource.

Q:

When you say “productive”, what are you driving at? Some would say that Amazonas is extremely productive, as it produces immense amounts of water and oxygen, which are crucial to life on earth.

A:

The bourgeoisie in the West are criticizing us for developing our great country. They say we need to preserve our forest for the sake of the world. Let me simply say this: the global community is not our concern. We must look to our own interests, and these interests are quite clear. We will not stand by while poor farmers starve.

Q:

Surely there is no need for them to starve? Brazil has a buoyant economy. Could you not help them in other ways?

A:

Absolutely, and Brazil will continue to grow because we will develop our country and go for prosperity.

Q:

Yes, but would it not be reasonable to develop in a way that can be sustained in the longer term?

A:

That is a bogus concept. The future is another country, you know… (Mops his brow, momentarily confused) But Brazil is not another country, Brazil is Brazil. And always will be. We must deal with today and then when tomorrow comes we will deal with tomorrow.  Make no mistake about this, we will deal with tomorrow as soon as it comes along. I make this promise today, hand on heart.

Q:

Yes I can see that. So… how do you see the future of your… great country?

A:

Capitalism has failed, comrade. The factories of the world have simply crumbled into dust, and the pollution and unemployment and moral and physical sickness of your societies is plain for all to see. Just look at those riots in England! How sad to see young people so alienated, in a post-industrial society.

Q:

Right. But if that’s how you feel, why not do something more progressive with your own society?

A:

Oh, we will. After we have finished burning the Amazon jungle, we shall turn it into the most spectacular productive region of the world. Dams, factories, oil wells and mines will cover this enormous area, and the tribal people of the whole region will no longer have to hunt the monkeys of the trees or go fishing. They will have more dignified roles in our society. They will have houses, and cars and credit cards.

Q:

But this Capitalism you advocate… is it really a viable long-term vision? Industrialism has created a lot of problems in the West? Do you see heavy industry as the future?

A:

Yes, because we have a clear goal. We will take one of the world’s most valuable ecological resources and then, in a very purposeful way, convert it into an efficient vehicle for the production of pork and beans, so that our workers can live with dignity. We are not simple or brutish people, we are a humble confederation of comrades, our goal is a better world for everyone. I will not rest until our workers have pork and beans every day. (Adds, with a gleam in his eye) As a child I had to starve, I had to watch my mother feeding our family on tomatoes an pasta. And this is scandalous.

Q:

What about those who say that the Amazon jungle is the lungs of our planet and contains a massive share of our biodiversity? What about the immense wealth the forest offers in terms of new pharmaceutical products? Could not Brazil try to invest in new technology and social engineering projects? Your country is becoming an important member of the world community. One might have hoped that it would be more of a pioneer, a beacon for how the rest of the world should develop?

A:

This is frankly an insult quite typical of the Western perspective. We have every right to develop in whatever way we like, and frankly we see little value in listening to anyone on this point. Our critics seem to think we are stupid. I say to you, they should stop worrying and mind their own business.  We will keep a few reserves of forest here and there where pharmaceutical workers can mess about with herbs and experiment with their medical technology. In England and France the Capitalists kept the workers on bread and water for years. We will not do this. We will let farmers clear the forest so they can produce the food they need, and have themselves some decent rice and pork and beans.

Q:

Is it not a problem that the land cleared for agriculture is not very suitable for agriculture and tends to revert to dry, unproductive land?

A:

This is nonsense. The large areas that have turned to desert are very useful land for factories and other wealth multipliers such as garbage dumps, mines, roads, airports and other useful things… schools, for instance…

Q:

I was going to ask you about that. What about the education of the masses? Are you investing in education?

A:

Absolutely. And once we have sold off Amazonas to Capitalist interests who will set about turning it into a large, arid flat area pockmarked with disused mines and contaminated soil, we intend to set up Centers Of Marxist Agrarianism (COMA) to train our people in environmental technology. Brazil will become a leading player in this industry, we are already a world leader in bio-fuel. Our Air Quality Initiative is far more advanced than anything the West has come up with.

Q:

What about the climate talks? How will Brazil meet its carbon emission goals if it burns the Amazon?

A:

Look! (Mr. R. Belo’s face goes a very deep red) We don’t need all these trees! We have plenty of oxygen and as far as carbon emissions go, I’d say let’s not lose our heads about it. (Leans back, adjusts his tie) It is much more important that we develop traditional Marxist industries such as oil, mining and steel-making. Those were the industries of the past… and we intend to keep them as the industries of the future too.

Q:

I see. But what about the new industries, high technology, alternative energy and green solutions? Would it not be beneficial for the Brazilian Government to listen to its critics, both inside and outside the country, and do something socially innovative?

A:

We will train our workers and tribal brothers in how to make metal, drill for oil, drive trucks and so on. We need everyone to take part in our development of Amazonas. If our tribal comrades refuse to do this, we will simply put them in reserves, more or less as the United States did with its own native tribes – which, incidentally, was scandalous and a blot on the history of that country. (Stops, scratches his chin, looking puzzled) You know I have this friend in the Congress, her name is Wilma, she’s been a bit skeptical about all this, she worries too much about breaking her promises to the electorate. She actually told them she would protect Amazonia. But I’ve made it clear to her that the electorate must do as it’s told. (He laughs pleasantly, then adds:) Of course I am joking…

Q:

I saw recently that ten of your country’s previous environmental ministers have written a public letter criticizing the reform of your country’s forestry code. And now your current Minister for the Environment has also resigned. Doesn’t all this indicate that there’s something seriously wrong with your policy on Amazonas?

A:

I disrespect these people from the very bottom of my stomach. You know, suddenly I understand how Syria, China and Iran feel when the international press agencies gang up on them. Or when people demonstrate against them. Of course Brazil is quite different from these countries, Brazil is a democracy and that means no one in the world is entitled to criticize us. We are doing what we were elected to do, in fact we are also doing what we were not elected to do, but that is our decision. Also our duty.

Q:

Do you really think that all the poor, unskilled and uneducated people voting for your party, give you the mandate to ignore the views of scientists, environmentalists and world opinion?

A:

A democrat must do what he or she is elected to do. My voters are looking for pork and beans, and I will let them have what they want.

Q:

But surely what’s required here is a more sophisticated approach to managing a globally important resource like Amazonas? Should you not be providing leadership and innovative solutions that safeguard the future?

A:

I can see that you are a corrupt Western elitist. Nothing could ever be more innovative than Communism and populism. And I can say that because I am a democrat. I don’t mean to sound repetitious, but I will say this, just for the sake of clarity: we believe the impoverished landless people must go into the Amazonas and burn it to the ground, so that they can start the vital work of producing rice, beans and pork.

Q:

Is there any validity in the claim that Amazonas, like the Antarctic, should be a protected World Heritage Zone partly paid for and protected according to international law? Should we implement the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth?

A:

This would be colonization!! We are the people of Brazil. We are a free, liberal and enlightened people. (Mr. R. Belo breaks into a sweat, mops his brow with a red handkerchief, and raises his voice with fevered intensity) We do not need any foreigners having opinions about our precious Amazonia, which is a part of our national identity, an indelible part of our soul. Amazonia belongs to us and no one else.

Q:

Does it worry you that once Brazil’s farmers and logging companies have finished clearing Amazonas, there will be a tendency for the area to turn to desert, with a lack of water and good soil for cultivating crops? Does it worry you that by the time corrupt Western regimes have developed new, clean energy systems – let’s say in twenty years time – Brazil and its neighboring countries will have major environmental problems as a result of deforestation and excessive industrialization?

A:

No, not at all, because once the trees of Amazonas have been cleared there will be so much pork and beans for the workers that this party will be voted in for years and years to come. This is our goal and I believe it is an honorable and entirely reasonable goal for a political party to try and stay in power for as long as possible, by appealing to popular sentiment. Brazil is a great land, a land of truth and democracy and workers’ rights, and, as a consequence, no Western country is entitled to comment on anything we do.

Mr. R. Belo stands up and shakes my hand, then stalks off with fluid steps, like a jaguar. I am grateful for this opportunity to commune with a great mind, a great intellect that surveys the future with the keen eyes of an eagle. My mind buzzing with inspired thoughts, I return to the newspaper, where I type up this interview with trembling hands.

 

 

The Brazilian government has finally done it. Like a sadistic child with a stick beating a dog to death, it has authorized the Bel Monte dam. We are talking here of a region that functions as the lungs of the planet, the vast Amazonian wilderness. 400 000 hectares will be flooded and in the region of 40 000 people displaced from rich, important land whose biodiversity is twice that of the entire land mass of Europe. It will be the end of the Amazonian basin as we know it. The Brazilian government will authorize, in total, some 60 dams across the Amazon to supply the country with energy.

Energy for what, you might ask? What do we need all this energy for?

I wish the human race could summon a bit of moral energy, a bit of intellectual energy, and stop being ruled by the lowest, cheapest, meanest forces.

An idea like Bel Monte, the enormity of a decision that will kill and harm so many people, is akin to a war crime. It reaches the very depths of depravity, to the level of slavery, human trafficking and ethnic cleansing. I know of course that I will receive enraged comments about this – but in the end, the total number of dead will extend right across the world, people will suffer and die, everywhere, for years and years because the Brazilian government has judged this project to be “in the national interest”. A somewhat narrow definition is being applied, no doubt.

I have written before about the dysfunctional banking and free trade system that is slowly tipping the human race into absurdity. Decisions are based on financial criteria that are invalid. Economic science has failed because it does not recognize true value systems. It is intellectually fraudulent.

Ruut Veenhoven of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam has published her findings on happiness in the so-called “World Database of Happiness” and her findings are startling. For instance, she suggests that “…the appraisal that one’s life is ‘exciting’ does not necessarily mark oneself as happy [either]; life may be too exciting to be enjoyable. A Chinese curse says: “May you have interesting times”.”

The simple fact is that the human race is enjoying a bit too much of the interesting life. Is it interesting watching the ending of things? Yes, very. Also very disconcerting. Who will be able to sleep while all these crimes are taking place?

If America really is a nation of destiny, a nation that will exert moral force in the world, it must stop its fixation with armed conflict and concentrate on supporting environmentalism. Ultimately, while spending close to a trillion dollars per year on armaments, the country is bankrupting itself (just as the old USSR did) and preventing serious engagement with more important ideas.

The developing countries – China, Brazil, Indonesia, India – are captivated by their growing power. They need to be challenged and opposed in their thoughtless expansion.

The world needs its forests to breathe. It is time for enlightened nations to start fighting for the happy survival of all its peoples, not just political supremacy. The people – that is, you, me, and all of our friends – have to start telling our politicians how tired we are of their rhetoric. Electoral boycott would be a very good start.

Let’s get real. Put down your spoon. Don’t finish your dinner. Do something.


What is an environmental question? Shall I tell you what I think? A good one might be, why it is that a bee somehow looks like you’d like to stroke its back? Whereas a wasp, for instance, has a hateful quality apparent in its bifurcated, tapering abdomen. A bee has a solid waist, it looks like a corpulent, middle-aged geezer who has found what he is looking for and is happy to share it with you over a glass of beer. Or a portly woman doing a bit of gardening, possibly with a few buns on the go in the oven. Sometimes when one opens the newspaper to find that carbon dioxide emissions are up 8%, or some similar news story, it feels very disheartening – and does not inspire one very much.

Henning Koch’s Love Doesn’t Work, just released from Dzanc Books, is a collection of seven “dualist” tales that examine the struggles of the human condition with sharp satire but also surprising vulnerability. I picked up the collection at AWP and couldn’t wait to talk to Koch, an ex-screenwriter and literary translator living in Berlin, about his influences, the minefields of publishing, and why he thinks love doesn’t work.

So we did, and here it is.

Anyone following the political debate in the United Kingdom will have realised that yesterday London was filled with demonstrators protesting against the British Government’s public spending cuts. Predictably enough, within a few hours, gangs of hooded and very confused young men wearing black were attacking the symbols of their oppression: the Ritz Hotel, assorted bank offices and Fortnum & Masons (purveyors of fine teas, veal pies and ginger shortbread biscuits). I had to admire their persistence in managing to pulverise large plate glass windows with nothing more than well-aimed kicks and the odd claw-hammer.

While this was happening, the head of the Labour party, a certain mild-mannered and very well educated fellow named Ed Miliband, was standing on a Trade Union Congress rostrum invoking the fight of suffragettes (campaigning for women’s voting right) and the civil rights movement in the United States. The connection between such well-known human rights movements and a demonstration against government policy remained unclear to me, until I reflected on the fact that Miliband is a standard politician accustomed to intellectually patronising his voters, few of whom could possibly have his level of education. But judging by his performance, they may well be better off without it. I can almost see Mr. Miliband sitting in his swivel-chair with a frown on his polished face, telling his scriptwriters to “keep it real, keep it visceral, make it understandable…” Maybe those struggling scriptwriters should have invoked Churchill, the Blitz, the march on Rommel? That would certainly have stirred the buds of British patriotism. One commentator who did fall back on the workhorse of World War Two rhetoric was Liam Halligan – chief economist at Prosperity Capital Management – in an article in Britain’s mainstream broadsheet The Daily Telegraph. Halligan clarified the fact that while George Osborne, Britain’s amazingly schoolboyish Chancellor of the Exchequer, was aiming to balance the budget by 2015, this would only be the “end of the beginning” of the fiscal battle. For if Osborne’s plans go smoothly, that will be the year when his Government stop borrowing money every month in order to balance incoming and outgoing revenues. If the current rounds of savage cuts are applied and maintained for another four years, the country will then find itself in the lovely position of not having to borrow money every month to pay for its functionaries, hospitals and schools. Interest payments on its borrowing are swallowing 6% of tax receipts, and this will rise. Almost a trillion pounds of debt remain to be repaid once the day-to-day financial disorder has been settled.

How amazing it is to realise the scale of the problem not only in the United Kingdom, but also America and throughout Europe and the world. Whenever I sit at the breakfast table opening my bills and frowning at my incompetently managed affairs, I remind myself that I am an indebted individual living in an indebted world. My incompetence is a necessary product, even a requirement, in the world we live in, where people are obliged to buy useless things with the help of credit cards, overdrafts and payment plans.

Ever since the West began its assault on Islamic fundamentalism and our media spouted highly debatable conclusions about Islamic extremists I have been asking myself whether, in fact, the extremists are not the very people who claim to be our leaders? Churchill (let’s not forget him) once said “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject”. Here I think we are getting closer to the point. For in spite of the crowing of Capitalists about the superiority of their system over Marxism, increasing numbers of people are now suggesting that Capitalism has also failed and is only being propped up by banks (themselves propped up by Capitalists). Is it not, in fact, economists who are fundamentalists? – persisting with their flawed ideology even when the evidence is more than enough to put them in the dock. If so, then I think we can safely assert that economics, as a science, has failed.

I repeat, I am no economist, but it seems to me that given that we invented money and the whole system of economics, could we not now simply de-invent it? We are free, after all. Surely money is nothing but an idea, an outmoded idea? Why not simply abolish it altogether and cancel the debts? Milton Friedman (a Nobel Prize winner in the field of Economic “science”) may have established in the 1980s that too much money eroded wealth (an unlikely proposition, right?) but now it seems incontrovertible that “wealth” also takes a bit of a knock when it is nothing but a polite word for borrowed money.

The Royal Mint in the United Kingdom was established towards the end of the 1700s, headed by the stringent figure of Sir Isaac Newton, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist if there ever was one (though he was unlucky enough to be born before Alfred Nobel). Before the existence of the Mint, people used to make their own money out of bits of scrap metal (silver, gold, tin, etc) and the system seemed to work reasonably well. Once the Mint came along, the Government made sure that anyone counterfeiting their production of coinage was swiftly strung up from the nearest tree. The Royal Mint has had 200 years to prove itself, and surely that is long enough?

If it were not for China desecrating its environment and its people’s health in a race for economic development, if we did not have the expansive Indian, Brazilian and Asian systems similarly “developing”, the West’s decline would be even steeper.

Let’s say this very clearly: we are bankrupt. We cannot pay back the debts, because debt-repayment is itself dependent on running up more debts. The consumption model is thoroughly discredited. Banks make profits out of corporate and personal debt. And profits in manufacturing are generated by people running up personal debts to pay for their new acquisitions – this toxic mechanism applies to almost everything.

If, for instance, I went out this morning to set fire to a car, the Gross National Product of my country would increase. Why? Because the subsequent insurance payment would finance the purchase of a new car. Every time an airliner crashes and passengers are killed, we have positive financial results: a new plane is ordered, while the grieving next-of-kin go out and buy new houses and cars with the damages they are paid.

The problem of credit and debt has been debated for a thousand years or more. Economists should be made to read Rabelais, who once (sarcastically) said that debt, rather than the human spirit, was the true measure of man. Saul Bellow, in “Herzog”, once wrote: “Dear Mr. President, Internal Revenue regulations will turn us into a nation of book-keepers. The life of every citizen is becoming a business. This, it seems to me, is one of the worst interpretations of the meaning of human life history has ever seen. Man’s life is not a business.”

I believe the time is now ripe for universities all over the world to heed Mao Tse Tung and send their Economics undergraduates back to the countryside to learn the intricacies of chicken rearing and potato cultivation. Maybe in the bosom of Mother Nature they can learn something about the real creation of wealth and prosperity?



Here, Today

By Henning Koch

Poem

A development occurred.
Rock grew skin,
Water learned to breathe,
Scurrying things
Acquired the art of speech
And murder;

Our world seemed unlikely:
An elliptical ball
Repetitiously circling
In a place not defined.
We wondered why
Our eyes had opened here.

We knew nothing,
Not even whether
To count blessings
Or heap up bitterness.

Imprisoned in monkey thought
We lined up
On sodden branches,
Longing to have
Every thing while
Spending our days

Throwing nuts
At birds

Like a boxer finding his feet

Gets off the floor

Or a ship buoyantly climbs

The crest with a groan


An unseen technician

Slides the dial, and here

Comes our plentiful

European light;


No scavenging hyenas

Or roaming hawkers here

To disturb our preening

Stillness. Only swans


Doing their best to glide

Like card cut-outs

Across the perfect stage

Where a man sits


Head in hands, watched

By sleeping strangers

Whilst he declares

“Morning won’t suffice.”



My world is limitation, my whole life has been limitation from beginning to end. I’ve got used to it; the first time I saw a woman naked I looked at her and thought, “My God, it’s not what I thought!” And when I went to the ‘obligatory’ places for the first time – Venice, Paris, Barcelona – they struck me as self-conscious arenas designed for the tourist to come and buy a post card. Consumed, empty theatres.

What an unnerving experience to interview oneself. It confirms my suspicion that people don’t really know who they are. Do you agree with this?

Well, hmm… yes I do agree with me on this point. In practice there is all the difference in the world between the public noises we make and the inner world we have to live in. I would describe the world as a ‘non-linear’ place. Hence my enjoyment of surrealist poetry and Rimbaud – these people end up saying important things precisely because they are not trying to make sense.

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.








Wednesday 5th August, 2009.

It is not every day one finds oneself on a train, heading north out of Helsinki. Just such a day is this. Nor is it every day one walks into the restaurant car to find elegant brass railings separating upholstered chairs and tables with tablecloths, and an ice-blond woman smiling coolly behind the counter. I order some meat soup.

“What sort of meat is it?”

“It’s… hmm? I don’t know.”

“Just say it in Finnish.”

She says something strange. Then makes a mooing sound.

“Ah, beef!”

“Yes. Biff.”

Minutes later I am enjoying a plate of homely beef soup, whilst the wide-bodied train thunders through bewitching countryside in evening light, the landscape semi-dressed in wraiths of mist like a foxy sylph in a whirl of white silk. Ah! Finland!

What a revelation! The bread is almost black, the butter is thick and cold. Ah! My stomach sings for joy as I open my mouth. Forgotten are the countless ciabatta rolls with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes I have consumed today in the world’s identikit café chains. Now I have meat and potatoes and carrots and fragrant broth in my gullet, washed down with beer. I am like a fornicator who’s got wind of his prey, nothing can stop me now. I eat. Then I sigh with relief.

Progress, what is progress? To me, it’s when you keep the good things and throw out the bad. In England we threw out everything and replaced it with plastic bags. Attempts are occasionally made to revive or preserve the good things, but we tend to be told they’re too expensive. Or rather, financially non-viable. It’s just a regrettable fact: we have to make the most of our plastic bags and even learn to love them!

What’s so financially non-viable about a table with a tablecloth and some meat soup?

“It’s home-made! You made it?” I ask the girl.

“Yes.” Her eye-brows rise, as if to say “of course”.

“It’s very good.”

She shrugs. It’s okay, she means to say. Nothing to talk about, just a plate of meat soup for God’s sake.

A bunch of Finnish guys come marching past, all with cut-off denim jackets. They’re white, pudgy beer drinkers, but don’t underestimate the power of white fat when it comes to a showdown. These Finns will perform with enthusiastic violence, count on it and don’t utter a word in Swedish.

Swedes were always the oppressors. Swedish is still the second official language of Finland… even though only 6% of the population speak it.

What else?

Not much.

Back in my seat, I watch the sun sinking over the jagged forests.

Finland… forgotten land of high technology and slightly scruffy people. I like the combination, it appeals to my aesthetic sense. Okay?

In Helsinki, I noticed, they had the most enormous cobblestones on the pavements. They looked hand-cut to me. Each one a work of art. Granite cobbles, slightly red-flushed. Handicrafts… wood, stone, glass… It’s solid, man, it’s solid. Finland… where the women are so pale and athletic that their bodies resemble the trunks of silver birches. But the men are like depressed lunatics, for ever engrossed in glum conversations, smoking and drinking as if this were the only way out.

In Helsinki I met an Old Master writer, Bengt Ahlfors, whose play I had just translated. The play was a monologue based on the conversations he used to have with his elevator.

It sounds a daft idea for a play, I know. But… by the end of that play you felt like jumping into an elevator and starting up a conversation of your own. (I tried it at the Holiday Inn, but I only lived on the second floor, so there wasn’t much time to get into my stride.)

Bengt and I went up in the elevator, a old creaky thing (his inspiration, he explained), then sat in his study where he went through my translation whilst offering me some cherries from a bowl. It seemed rude not to, although ever since I started using large quantities of Swedish snuff I’ve noticed I seem to be allergic to most fruit. It makes my lips balloon.

I feel like that woman, what’s her name, Donatella Versace, is it – whose plastic surgery went wrong? We sit there and talk, my lips are monstrously large, I slobber over my words. But I don’t think he notices.

I ask for some water and try to rinse my mouth clean of every vestige of cherry. It works. Slowly my lips reduce to their normal size.

That’s when he gets up and announces I have twenty minutes to make the train to Tampere.

As an English-speaker, I have an automatic advantage over this old writer,  this old-school servant of the written word, with his diffidence and his electric piano placed next to his computer. I speak the world language.

Translators help some of the lesser-known voices grow more powerful, but we have to take away their sting, their pith and kith and kin. We have to Anglicise.

Small cultures like Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden can only live by turning themselves into type-cast, herring-eating snuff-takers. They need interpreters to be understood outside their boundaries. They turn themselves into clowns. They are not really herring-eaters any more than Englishmen are cricket-playing, meat-pie eating gentlemen.

In Tampere, the favoured fast-food alternative is a length of black blood-sausage filled with specks of white fat, eaten with a large dollop of cranberry sauce. I can’t see it catching on internationally. But who cares? Do we need to spread the word on Finnish blood-sausage? Should it be globalized and rebranded? Or can we just agree to let it rest?

Thursday 6th August

And so… day two in Finland…

Did my amazement and satisfaction continue into day two? At lunch-time I would have answered with a resounding “no!”

You see, I found myself being accosted in a restaurant by a drunk, who insisted that I had no right to be writing in my little book. When I told him I was writing about Finland he got murderous. “You know this country? Not. You not know. So… why the write?” I tried to explain to him that I was observing with my own two eyes and such things can often be more significant than dry, academic study. His eyes narrowed as he told me he had seven brothers, one of them with a prosthetic arm – this because of his love of fighting. Someone had stabbed him with a broken bottle… repeatedly.

When he slapped me brusquely on the shoulder I noticed at once he decided to give it a miss – fighting with me, I mean. I have large, muscular shoulders and I could have decked him very easily, especially as he could hardly walk.

I glared at him, and then he stumbled off mumbling curses to himself.

But if he’d known I was a Swede he’d have fought to the death. They’re a bit hung up about us, the Finns.

(But who can blame them? Swedes have been rude about the Finns for centuries. The Swedish word for “pimple” is “finne” – literally “a Finn”. An acne-troubled Swedish youth might therefore peer into the mirror one morning and say: “Oh no, I’ve got a nasty Finn erupting on my nose.” Whether there is some etymological link here I don’t know, but it seems insulting nonetheless.)

In the morning a coach picked up the festival guests and took us for a ride around the city. The guide seemed stuck at first for things to say about Tampere. “To your right is an apartment block built for the workers in the textile factories, it was built in the 1950’s, it is the tallest apartment block in Tampere…”

I turned my head and looked at a gray peeling building about ten storeys high.

We made progress, though. We drove out of Tampere.

The guide explained that the town was first established there on account of the advantageous position between two lakes, one of them eighteen metres higher than the other, thus the rapids, and thus the building of the mills and textile works.

We drove past the old mill-owners’ sumptuous villas and suddenly found ourselves in a settlement on top of a high ridge looking out over lakes on both sides. Its name was Pispala.

Finland used to have about 70, 000 lakes, the guide explained.

Then, when Sweden announced it had 80, 000 lakes, Finland held a recount and upped its total to just short of 400, 000. (More or less like the Iranian election results.)

Pispala consisted of congeries of wooden houses built by textile workers, once the slum of Tampere, where the urchins were said to be born with stones in their hands. Now the place is full of artists… rich artists. As we piled out of the bus, we saw a group of those same artists sitting on a bench. A girl in pig-tails and striped tights was singing from a book she held solemnly in front of her. A young man accompanied her on the guitar, another young man fell in with a violin.

I could have stayed there all day.

The blue, slightly ruffled lake lay at the bottom of the slope. There was something Greek about it. A lake stretching almost to the horizon. Very peaceful. Its name, the guide told us, was “Holy Lake”.

On the way back we stopped at an intriguing cathedral, whose central nub was decorated with a long coiling snake opening its jaws around the round fixture at the top of the chain by which the chandelier was suspended. Encircling the snake were countless feathery wings. Sort of God trying to snuff out Satan. (He’s not doing very well, so far.)

Friday 7th August

Today when I woke up there was a message flashing on the TV, which had switched itself on while I was sleeping. “Please pick up a letter in the reception.” I went down, vaguely curious, to find an invitation to a puppet theatre performance of King Lear – a non-verbal version. I didn’t have a lot of other invitations, so I went. Luckily the auditorium was very dark. I fell asleep in there, but whenever I woke up, I was treated to the spectacle of an odd-looking little puppet being manhandled by two women – one of them making loud moaning sounds that continued for about an hour. Occasionally she screamed as, in the background, another puppet was cut open and large bleeding livers and hearts were pulled out of a hole in its stomach. At one point the top of the puppet’s cranium opened, like a sort of lid, and a small hand emerged. Very Jungian – the writer must have had an excellent time coming up with that. Had the audience been high on LSD there would have been many nervous breakdowns.

It was a pleasure to walk back out into the sunlight. I went down to the waterfalls and bought a sausage at a hot-dog stand. The girl, another ice-blond, encouraged me to have some blood-sausage and cranberry but I told her I’d had some earlier and now felt like a regular brown sausage. She smiled in a slightly mocking way. I looked round and noticed a big fat guy wolfing down some black sausage in the background – clearly if you had too much of it, you ended up looking like him.

The other people by the waterfalls were mainly teenagers with green hair, studs coming out of their lips and generally deformed. It struck me that in out-of-the-way towns like this, the kids at school decide to make their mark on things by being “alternative”. But ultimately their efforts are futile. In Tampere, looking like a Goth freak is just another way of conforming.

Yet, after I wrote this I learnt that in July, Tampere enjoys another important annual festival: the Anarchist Counter-Cultural Festival. When I check the website I read: “For us anarchism means for example the critique of all forms of domination and hierarchy and on the other hand creating non-oppressive, egalitarian culture. We see domination not only in large structures of society, but also in oppressive customs among ourselves. Our analysis is not limited only to human relations. It also includes our relationships with non-human beings. Our aim is to strengthen critical views and empowerment in the form of taking control of our lives. Kill the police within!”

(Quoted from http://news.infoshop.org)

So maybe the green hair and weird t-shirts are signs of a flourishing counter-culture? The fact is, that drunk in the restaurant is correct: I will never know…

I was going to finish (sic) my Finnish journal here but something else has come up. Tonight I had the privilege of seeing Bengt Ahlfors’s play (the one I translated) at the Lilla Teatern in Tampere – a sumptuous nineteenth century theatre with gilt plaques above the stage celebrating great names in world drama such as Lopez de la Vega, Ibsen and Molière.

Ahlfors’s play is a monologue, so there was only one man on the stage, this being the unique Lasse Pöysti. None of you reading this will know about him. None of you will know that he starred with Birgitta Ulfsson in “Ö” in 1959, or that he appeared in Johan Bargum’s “Som smort” in 1971.

However globalized we get, these things don’t cross borders. The best things are always secrets locked up in their own language and no translator or Arts Council grant can ever transfer the magic. (Except perhaps in the case of Lopez de la Vega, Ibsen and Molière?)

Lasse Pöysti is an old hero of the stage. A war-horse close to eighty years old.

In the middle of his performance there was a fire alarm and we all had to walk out and wait in the sun-drenched square by the old Russian church, its bell-fry of yellow, cracked wood.

When Lasse Pöysti resumed his performance he muffed his lines. He ended up repeating a long anecdote, but no one minded. When he finally finished there was an emanation of pure love from the audience. We clapped and clapped. Seriously, there was not a dry eye in the house.

On my way home, I was again struck by a quality that Scandinavians all have in common, whether Finns, Swedes, Norwegians or Danes: they are all May-flies! When the sun sticks its head over the horizon and gives them a few days of summer, they rise up from their wintry graves. Girls seem intent on procreation all of a sudden. Boys lengthen their strides and know this is the time to find a companion for the long, dark winter.

A final note: did you know Scarlett Johansson comes of part-Danish parentage? When you walk down Tampere’s main street on a summer’s evening, there are tens of Scarlet Johanssons skipping along, with very milky skin… and green hair.

It’s really quite entrancing…

Admiralstrasse, Kreuzberg, Berlin… What’s conjured up by these words? Lou Reed… Nico… naked people with strapped-on plastic dildos dancing in underground nightclubs in the name of Brecht and Art? Yes, all these things. Oh, and something else. In this capital city of Germany they have now also evolved a hamburger known as the Suck-u-burger. Unintentional but weird…