Wednesday, December 26, 2007


It may be closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, but I read today that we should not eat turkeys for Christmas, but shellfish instead. There is some truth in this : a mass-produced turkeys is among the most disgusting food I can imagine. Bloated, oozing, watery and fundamentally tasteless, it can only be tradition (and commerce) that keeps this bird on our plates at Christmas. Of course, before the 1950s the tradition was for goose, but this fell out of favour largely because geese are impossible to farm on a very large scale (the only way a goose will grow is by being left to range freely). Turkey became the preferred option, and our appetite for it has caused one of the most criminal outrages against animal welfare one can imagine.

I'm not so sure shellfish are much better though - if anything, tiger prawns are far worse. The Environmental Justice Foundation have made a film which you can watch here, which shows the effects of our collective weakness for a prawn bhuna. The UK imports 78,000 tonnes of trawled and farmed prawns from abroad every year - on top of the 2,500 tonnes we catch off our own shores. Trawling prawns from the seabed isn't great because the nets have such tiny holes - necessary for catching the smallest and juiciest shrimps - that many other sea creatures are caught up as well, and then dumped back into the ocean.

But it is farming prawns that causes the most devastation. Larger prawns - kings, tigers, fantails - will invariably have been farmed in Latin America or the Asian subcontinent. Huge areas of tropical land have been seized (often illegally and/or by force) by national or multinational companies, whereupon coastal forests have been destroyed to make way for new prawn farms. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has reported that 50% of the world's mangroves have been destroyed. In his latest fish book, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writes:

The mangroves are chopped down and large areas flooded and seeded with juvenile prawns. These are artificially fed until large enough to harvest and sell. After two or three years the water is so polluted with prawn waste - and the toxic chemicals used to neutralise it and prevent fungal diseases - that it becomes too toxic for prawn farming. Even when the water is drained, the remaining soil is so polluted that crops can't be grown for years.


People who try to protest and fight against the invasion of their land are often met with brutality. In 2004, six children and community activists were shot and injured after residents of Curral Velho on the easternmost tip of Brazil confronted employees of the Empresa Joli Aquicultura shrimp farming company about its recent expansion into nearby mangrove forests. The destruction of the mangroves have significant economic and environmental impacts, the most ironic of which is the slow death of other local fishing industries. Lobsters and many varieties of crabs, mussels and oyster live in mangroves for much of their lives - without mangroves, these local economies will go under.

It would be fair to say that virtually all farmed prawns found today on the market are a product of the destruction of coastal ecosystems in the countries of the South and of the displacement of local populations. The message is simple : don't buy them.

North Atlantic deepwater prawns are better, since they have not been trawled, and prawns and langoustines which have been caught in creels (similar to lobster pots) are better still. Langoustines taste better too, though the British have an awful habit of dredging them in breadcrumbs and serving them up as scampi. In their natural state, however, they are magnificent. If you ever see scampi on a Mediterranean country, this is what you'll get. Grilled in garlic or boiled and served with mayonnaise, they are seriously good.

But one must be realistic. The Marine Conservation Society gives all fish a rating for sustainability. Of the six main forms of crustacean, all are overfished, two significantly so. In the mollusc family, only winkles are currently sustainable. You're pretty safe with a bivalve: mussels, cockles, scallops and oysters can all be eaten with a clear conscience. But cephalopods (squids and cuttlefish) are set to run out before too long, unless we change our diets. There are two types of greed at work here: that of us as consumer, and that of the manufacturers who wish to cash in on our gluttony. In a consumer-driven capitalist society, everything will run out sooner or later. The only hope for many fish is virtual extinction: then at least we might stop eating them in such inhuman quantities, and give them a chance to survive.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

2007 : AROUSED

There is nothing like an end-of-year review to make you feel culturally inadequate. The way I gather music is pretty ad-hoc – internet downloads generated by chance, loans from public libraries, an occasional spontaneous purchase. This means I am able to surprise myself with tracks found in odd nooks of the internet, but it also means I miss out on plenty. I also spent half the year in Andean America, where I carried a very limited number of CDs and listened to nothing but Fleetwood Mac and iffy Beatles solo albums. In fact, before December I had heard no more than two or three albums released in 2007, though I had heard plenty of singles.

But since the first of the 2007 rewind articles came out earlier in the month, I have been desperately downloading whatever I could get my hands on to make myself feel a little more, well, relevant, an exercise which I think has met with some success (i.e. I feel prrrit-ty damn cool right now...).

A lot of indie fans have claimed that 2007 was not a vintage year for music. Of course, they said the same thing in 2006 (and 1996), which makes one wonder if indie might be the best thing for them. The outstanding music of 2007 was written and recorded largely by women, and the year’s best album was made by an artist who has shunned publicity so much, we don’t even know what he looks like.

First, some old highlights. During the summer I made a couple of compilations which sum up what I have been listening to this year rather well. Soft Cell, Bryan Ferry, Japan, Simple Minds, Scritti Politti – it was artists of the glam/new-romo ilk who sustained me during 2007. The recipient of the compilations said that the music they contained was among the coldest she’d ever heard, which suits me just fine.

I’ve gone every which way with Kaya, MIA’s second album, and I still can’t work out whether I admire its giddiness, or find an aversion to its global fetishism. MIA’s style reminds you of those people who claim to like world music – what, all of it? – but while I don’t listen to Kaya as much as I thought I would, I don’t hesitate to say that “Boyz” is the best single of the year, and probably the best video of the year too.

A word or two must be written to mark the triptych of number 1s in the summer : Timbaland, Rihanna and Robyn. It’s a mark of how Simons Fuller and Cowell and their ilk have erased pop's style and substance (and doesn’t the talent-contest world work by the exact same methods that Marx observed in the factory 150 years ago?) that we should remark upon a situation of three consecutive excellent number 1s. While I haven’t heard their albums, I’ve enjoyed tracks by Art Brut, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Sunn O)))), Sally Shapiro, Ricardo Villalobos, Panda Bear and Black Moth Super Rainbow too. I have resisted Marnie Stern and Robert Wyatt, but their albums are both subjects for further research ; as is the output of the Ghostbox label.

I don’t mind Radiohead at all, but they come with an oppressive fanbase whose single-minded and blinkered worship puts me off. In a way, In rainbows is the worst of Radiohead – noodly, fusiony, jazzy, unwilling to stick its neck into outright dissonance – but Thom Yorke’s voice remains ethereally slack, and while most of his lyrics suck, “House of cards” is a dreamy, drifting romance. It is 5 and a half minutes long, but “Atom heart mother” by their big daddies Pink Floyd is more than treble that, so think yourself lucky.

As usual, the critics are wrong. In rainbows is not the album of the year. Nor is Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem, the aural equivalent of one of those corporate posters of a waterfall which says “dream” underneath. LCDS are the sort of group that people who don’t like electronica like, but it has been celebrated by danceheads too. As with Arcade Fire, I wonder if I am missing something. The best album released in 2007 is Untrue by Burial, an album more luminous and textured than his rumbling debut. The second best is probably The good, the bad and the queen. Burial and TGTBTQ are interested in the nostalgic modernism of London, where the threat of apocalypse is met by a recognition that it has already happened. If the end of the world is nigh, how about spending a bit time reminiscing about what we might have been while we roast our chestnuts and guzzle White Lightning?

Merry Christmas; see you on the other side.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


The international media does not often bother with Bolivia. There is no particular reason why it should. Its culture is mainly traditional and indigenous, and its latterday politics of a leftwing bent - what would a New York Times or Sky News hack find to interest himself there? Yet even the radical leftwing press seems reticent to assess Bolivia's current situation. The left's henchman is Hugo Chavez, who routinely attracts attention as much for his declamatory style, as for his revolutionary practice.

When the press does land in Bolivia, it is usually because of a riot of some kind. Headlines predict revolution or civil war within days, and their writers return home disappointed when their darkest predictions fail to materialise. It is rare to see coverage of a peaceful situation in Bolivia (though, to its credit, the BBC's coverage is often surprisingly good). It should not be surprising, therefore, that Bolivia is now in the news again.

Last week, President Evo Morales signed off Bolivia's new constitution. The constitution was the political side to Morales's campaign manifesto (the economic side was to nationalise the exploitation of Bolivia's sub-soil resources and redistribute their profits from the wealthy, non-domicile few, to the majority indiginous poor). Bolivia is a country of racism and corruption, and the constitution promises a better deal for its indigenous majority. It recognises all ethnic groups, and raises Indian people to a level of real citizenship for the first time. It also formally establishes that Bolivia's resources are owned by the people of the country, and not by an elite set of foreign corporations.

The development of the constitution has been dogged by political manoeuvring and violent protests. The right, represented principally by the opposition PODEMOS ("we can") party, opposes the new constitution for two, intuitive reasons. Firstly, because it is against the interests of business to nationalise resources and the industries which extract, refine and trade them. The wealthy capitalists of Bolivia are concentrated in the east of the country, and they are not keen to redistribute their wealth (which they see as their's by divine right) to Andean people. And secondly, there is a hefty slice of racism to contend with here as well. When I was in Santa Cruz earlier this year, I was invited to a party in one of the city's wealthy suburbs. The father of my friend was a corporate lawyer, and an opponent of Evo Morales. He would not talk to me about politics, but his daugher was not so shy. When I asked why she did not Morales, she replied that it was because he was not educated, and not European.

A few weeks back, the right-wing minority mobilised from the east to stage demonstrations in Sucre, the administrative capital. Their representatives vandalised the city and invaded a local prison, groundlessly setting free large numbers of criminals. On November 24th, four people died in in Sucre.

Winded by several years of increasingly vocal and confident social movements the Bolivian Right is fighting back through violence and political non-participation. Having abstained from the vote on the constitution, it cannot be accused of antagonism, but its suggestions that Morales and MAS have acted undemocratically have a hint of logic, however perverse. Now that the constitution has been passed, they are in a position to declare autonomy, which is what they have wanted to do since Morales threatened to cut off their oil and water profits back in 2005.

Four eastern provinces are expected to declare formal autonomy on Saturday. They will do so unilaterally, without any legal or democratic backing. Their ideology - retaining profits among the elite rather than distributing them amongst the poor - is also unashamedly undemocratic. While the Santa Cruz brigade purport to fight for democratic principles, it is difficult objectively to reach any other conclusion than that a moneyed minority are trying desperately to hold on to their financial sovereignty, and the rest of the country can go hang. Whether they will succeed remains to be seen.


From the Democracy Centre, based in Cochabamba:

Yesterday in Santa Cruz's Central Plaza a small mob of hunger strikers from the famous local "Youth for Democracy" physically attacked a 45-year-old ex-miner, René Vargas, after mistakenly identifying him (presumably by his skin color) as a MAS party activist. Screaming their favored chant of "Indian shit" the youth chased the man for blocks hitting and kicking him at all the opportunities they had, until several women intervened to stop them. Bolivia's Human Rights Ombudsman, Waldo Albarracín denounced the attack, "The country watched with indignation the images on television when a group of people, four or five youth, cowardly attacked another countrymen with similar rights as them, demonstrating a racist attitude against the victim."

Is there really anyone left in Bolivia willing to say with a straight face that race is not a central factor in this conflict?


Here and here.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


We learn to shelve our most barbaric impulses until they are deemed acceptable. Then, once the rest of society has caught up, we may be as frank about them as we wish.

So it is that, when you buy certain sandwiches or drinks from Pret a Manger, five pence of your payment will go to the Pret Foundation Trust, which funds various charities for homeless people. The packaging of the purchased item tells you (in the aggressively simpering way that comes most naturally to people who decided to open a fast food chain while studying property law at the University of Westminster): "We don't do this because we're nice people - we do it because it makes sense."

This is arresting for two reasons. First, Pret assures us that donations are only made for business reasons, because it feels shame-faced about its altruistic act. Pret is not being generous for the sake of it; kindness is a by-product (an unfortunate one) of adherence to the capitalist economic model.

Secondly, because Pret deemed that this caveat would assure me. Pret is not seeking to calm the nerves of its board. As customers, we collude with the commodity system as much as the capitalist. There is no them and us. We depend on they depend on we depend on they depend ........ We are all in this together - pure consumers and pure producers.