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Saturday, 27 December 2008

Empty ships in Salamis

Why am I apprehensive about the recession; about the decline of the West? Obviously it's because it's hurting people (there's no poor world-rich world disconnection) - people in Greece, people in general and people I know, friends, relatives and neighbours. If it weren't for such contradictions, I'd be rejoicing, celebrating a yovel, the hammer of justice on a bell proclaiming 'liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof ... a jubilee...returning every man unto his possession, every man unto his family (Lev 25) and the cancelling, by the rich of the debts of the poor. As my friend Kim said in October "it may ruin us but it might save the world". Fewer flights, fewer big cars, less fuel burned, less demand for bio-fuel and the forest clearance it demands, (even less NASCAR), fewer miles driven in metal boxes, less noise, death and injury on the roads (tho' perhaps not in China, India or other societies for whom the car remains an uncompromised object of desire); more people willing to travel by train; more travelling slow by cycling and walking. Less tourism, less cement - one of Greece's staple industries - over remaining green spaces. Less domestic waste, less consumption, less packaging, less material to be dumped in land-fill or less fossil fuel used incinerating it. Less water extracted for hot tubs and swimming pools from the deep aquifers that once fed vibrant streams. Empty cargo ships are anchored in Salamis roads. A slumping shipping industry could mean less safety and even more pollution, but there's a chance it will mean fewer oil drenched shorelines. People might buy less meat, reducing the volume of crops grown to feed the animals we eat and the vast areas of land given over to rearing livestock; all this, plus a more politically mature environmentalism; the techniques of sustainability more widely known; of greater interest to many more in the first world. Less consumption for consumption's sake; less energy given over to finding the credit needed to console the constantly stoked anxieties of materialism; return to planet earth from planet finance; more voluntary work; greater kindness between strangers. For the first time in human history the opportunity to be frugal is not only forced on us by events, it is something many want. Given the novelty of such a convergence, is it surprising that so many are surprised and confused by contradictory impulses? Saint's traditionally wear hair shirts, but didn't Francis of Assisi offered poverty and chastity say "yes, but not yet". We speak of ordinary people - like me - willing to be freed of the avarice engendered in them since birth, inherited from their parents, conditioned in circumstances described by Elliot Currie, as ones in which market economies have become market societies, where: Harry Tsoukalas, focus of some insular animosities, wrote to me in October: 'I tell my wife and to the Corfiots that at least when my son asks me in the years to come what I have done about our huge problems in this paradise I could look at him straight in the eye and answer. How many people can say the same? It's all has to do with the future generation I think, it's too late for us.' Or one of the last observations of Bruce Chatwin about the smile of a 'poor' old woman in the desert, that smile he lived with ‘like a message from the Golden Age' teaching him 'to reject out of hand all arguments for the nastiness of human nature. The idea of returning to an "original simplicity" was not naïve or unscientific or out of touch with reality. Renunciation, even at this late date, can work.' * * * * Karen came with her daughters to stay and she went down to Handsworth Park to look at the trees. I cycled down later to join her but she wanted the park, as much as possible to herself. It's what I like about our park - the way you can both share it - with great numbers - and the way that, at times, you can have it for yourself - the landscaping of so comparatively small a space allowing that illusion. K took a picture of me by the fence between the park and the space beyond, yet to be laid out as allotments and playing fields.I groaned inwardly at the damage caused off Holly Road where the south park gate and pillar had been wrecked by a drunkard in a metal box careering up Thornhill Road and at similar damage at the parks eastern noundary, where the Hamstead Road fence and wall had been breached by yet another driver treating our streets as their domain for playing dodgems. The sooner we can all agree that 20mph is a sensible maximum for motorised urban traffic the better. It won't stop these drivers, though both were caught. I hope they're loss of no claims bonus hurts them and the thousands charged their insurers will add to the hurt, helping us all towards a culture where a mix of internal regulation and shared respect, will allow those who walk and cycle to share city space that motorists have been encouraged to appropriate for too long. Until very recently street design has segregated other road users from cars, telling those in cars that roads, with a few exceptions, like pedestrian crossings, are theirs. Traffic lights are for the convenience of drivers - only secondarily an aid to walkers. Slowly, ever so slowly, this is changing - but there'll be many more killed and injured, park gates smashed, house walls destroyed, pavements mounted, shop windows shattered, whole streets closed off to people on foot, communities severed by free range motoring tarmac, before cars are tamed. You still buy, for yourself and your passengers, a swaith of other people's liberties when you get a car. I don't want to see this goal achieved via regulation with yet more CCTV and cluttering signage. It must come from design over time with lots of debate - hence the long wait for impatient people like me to enjoy shared space on the roads of the city.
... The most recognizable characteristic of shared space is the absence of conventional traffic signals, signs, road markings, humps and barriers - all the clutter essential to the highway. The driver in shared space becomes an integral part of the social and cultural context, and behaviour (such as speed) is controlled by everyday norms of behaviour.
[Back to the future to the past: 19/01/09 Richard Risemberg posted the YouTube URL for a 1950 Disney cartoon on 'the transformation of a normal fellow into a self-centered, violent slob when he gets behind the wheel of the car...pretty funny, and pretty telling. Nearly 60 years ago!'] * * * An exchange on the language of anarchy - in the statement and comments. There's a suggestion that the problem is not bad Greek or bad English but that the language is not really meant to be used for communicating outside the circle, indeed is deliberately playfully confusing adopting fantasy terms familiar to Harry Potter readers. The quoted paragraph from the Levellers stands out as a model - not widely followed though:

Having by our late labours and hazards made it appear to the world at how high a rate we value our just freedom...we do now hold our selves bound in mutual duty to each other, to take the best care we can for the future, to avoid the danger of returning into a slavish condition. Levellers, An Agreement of the People, 1647

Back to the future 02/01/09: Malcolm Brabant on the state of Greek shipping Back to the future 14/01/09: Shipping rates hit zero across the world.


  1. Excellent blog keep it up ! Merry Christmas Harry :)

  2. Στη γεια σας, George and best wishes for 2009 and I'll pass your greetings to Harry (or perhaps you know him far better than I). καλη' νυχτα


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