Gentrification – The New Ghettoization

Gentrification seems to be a bit of a dirty word these days. Now I’m prepared to admit that I’m a bit of a snob sometimes, but I really don’t want to live in an area reliant on payday lenders and pound shops. I want somewhere I can buy nice things, eat nice food, somewhere I’m proud to call home. (For the record, where I live now is not somewhere I’d willingly admit to, being just a stone’s throw from Chav Central). If I can find somewhere where there are lots of little independent shops making a living, providing a bit of decent customer service and making the place a bit more interesting, then where’s the problem with that?

The problem, essentially, is one of money. Larger corporations, such as department stores and fast-food restaurants, have the financial wherewithal to be able to produce goods cheaply enough that those on lower incomes can afford them. It seems to be something of a vicious circle – a sector of the population don’t have a lot of disposable income, so can’t afford to shop in independent shops, so are priced out of the area when the department stores leave. If you like, Gentrification is more similar to Ghettoization than many people would like to believe. It’s been a while since I last read it but I believe that Naomi Klein discusses something very similar in her book The Shock Doctrine.

So far as I can see, the ghettos of old had a relatively stable population that didn’t move about much and often shared a community, either ethnic (Jewish, Hindu, Caribbean) or financial (working class, artisan trades). These days, gentrification seems to involve a more transient community of wealthier people who come in, buy up property, change the retail and trading areas to fit their lifestyles, achieve their ends – and then move on to the next area. Unfortunately, this gentrification means that the stable population who previously occupied that space now cannot afford to stay, and equally often cannot afford to go, forcing them to become increasingly insular. Klein watched this process happen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but I’ve seen less dramatic instances in Spitalfields, Margate and Barking; poor, working class areas now becoming the height of sophisticated fashion, the places to be seen, meaning that local residents now have to find somewhere else to go.

It doesn’t sit right with me. Even though I would rather not have the pound shops and fast food chains, they do serve a purpose and so I wouldn’t get rid of them. There must be a way the two can live alongside each other to benefit the entire community – regardless of social status.

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Brand Politics

Notepad with Personal Branding on office wooden table.

Naomi Klein’s new book suggests that Donald Trump’s presidency is a logical conclusion to his vision of being a global brand – after all, as she points out, what bigger brand is there than the US President? This means that he is a product of Western culture, having manipulated it to his benefit – and which means that the future, even with a different president, looks horribly bleak. The system appears to be rotten to the core and this is the fact I find more disturbing than anything that the president does, says or tweets.

Donald Trump is actually not stupid (and believe me, it galls me to say that); he’s really very clever. What he’s done is create a hollow brand, a brand which manufactures nothing but markets everything – especially itself. Klein investigated such hollow brands in her first book, No Logo, and cited Nike in particular as a company that contracted out its manufacturing and so couldn’t really be held responsible for how the goods were produced. As long as they had the logo, they could then be sold for a premium to consumers who wouldn’t question the provenance of the goods, as long as they had the latest versions. Trump is doing something similar with his brand – Trump. He makes deals with real estate developers where they build the hotels and casino complexes, and he licences them to use his name, which is then proudly emblazoned on all the marketing literature. He hasn’t actually built anything, and isn’t responsible for anything that happens on site; he’s just contracted out his name.

But it’s more than that; it’s how he’s taken the cultural paradigm and pushed it as far as it will go so that people are desensitised to what he’s doing. Klein’s analysis of his production of The Apprentice (which I’ve never watched – or the UK version, come to think of it) horrified me – indeed, she likens it to The Hunger Games, which isn’t a bad analogy as it goes. A group of people literally fighting to survive for the viewing public’s pleasure, with Trump endorsing the view that as long as you come out on top, whatever you do is permissible. Winning is everything. He’s clearly never heard of a Pyrrhic victory. This then begs the question – what is the point of winning if the prize is not worth having?

I’ve been keeping an eye on the news reports lately, mainly in the context of the environment and ecological matters, and it looks to me as though Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement will have utterly devastating consequences for everybody. I wonder if the prize of the presidency is really worth having, given that one day, he may not have a country to govern.

Antarctica is Breaking Up – Who Cares?

There’s a scene at the beginning of The Day After Tomorrow where Dennis Quaid is taking ice core samples in the Arctic Circle when the ice shelf splinters off and he nearly ends up half a mile down a crevasse. The camera pans up and out and the crack in the ice is clear for all to see. That’s what happened in the Antarctic recently. And a recent article in National Geographic explained in graphic detail exactly what is going on, and it’s very worrying indeed. It’s all to do with the increasing ocean temperature and increasing rates of desalinisation – and a very nasty looking positive feedback loop.

Positive feedback is where the effects of something increase its production; an example would be scratching a nettle rash because it itches will only make it itch more, so you scratch more, and so on. In this case, rising sea temperatures cause the ice to melt, flooding the sea with fresh water, which raises the sea temperature a bit further, which causes the ice to melt – and so on. What is really bothering glaciologists studying the Antarctic ice sheets isn’t that this is happening, but the rate it is happening is much faster than they were anticipating. Moreover, if the saltwater/freshwater balance tips too far, it will affect the Gulf Stream, which could have devastating impacts on the climate – this was the mechanism used in The Day After Tomorrow for the astonishing global storms and mini Ice Age that drove the plot.

Should we be worried about this? Yes, very much so. If the West Antarctic Ice Shelf were to detach, sea levels would rise enough to drown most of the Seychelles, the Maldives, the Netherlands and Belgium, the Bengal delta and possibly some of the south eastern states of America. It may even cost the UK some of its coastline – most of Norfolk is reclaimed land. This, in turn, will impact on populations; people will flee their sinking countries to seek refuge elsewhere; the recent migrant crisis from Syria and Libya has shown the reluctance of many First World nations to resettle any refugees. And such dispossessed people increase pressures, which may already be tight, on food supply, water supply, health resources in countries which will also have to deal with how the rise in sea level affects their own country and climate.

It’s not a discrete problem anymore. Global warming is melting polar ice, which is increasing the sea temperature, rising the sea level and itself changing the climate, which is causing drought and floods, forcing people from their homes and into areas where they have a better chance of survival – assuming the climate hasn’t destroyed food crops or encouraged the spread of “tropical” diseases, such as malaria, cholera, yellow fever and so on. And it’s not as far away as we’d like to think it is – I think less than a century before we’ve managed to ensure that the planet will survive only as a rock with an atmosphere and some cockroaches. And that’s something that really should scare you.

Spreading Like Wildfire

When I first saw this piece of news, the wildfires were mainly in Spain and Portugal, but there have also been outbreaks in Greece, Corsica and Southern France. Any country which is essentially arid, dry and hot is at risk of sudden and severe wildfires which get out of control all too easily. Some places, such as Queensland in Australia or the Western United States, suffer frequent wildfires; but it seems that the countries of Southern Europe are getting rather more than they were used to.

What’s the connection between the heatwave and the wildfires? Dry air, dry soil, dry vegetation – perfect for catching a flame. This is why once the fire takes hold, it spreads so rapidly and often far, doing so much damage along the way. However, in places like Spain, Portugal and Italy, especially in late spring and early summer, high temperatures and wildfires have a devastating effect on the tourist economy, on which many of these countries rely. If it’s too hot, people won’t leave the comfort of their air conditioning to see the sights – especially if those sights are outside, such as the Acropolis or the canals of Venice. Countries which are already undergoing severe austerity measures put in place by the European Central Bank and/or the IMF are suffering even more because they are losing tourist income and cannot afford the infrastructure that will help them deal with the problem. Bankrupting these countries is not going to help them and may even make the situation worse. What they need is investment, not austerity; but because Big Finance cannot see the profit, it will never happen.

There is a link between big business and climate change denial which Naomi Klein’s work has explored extensively over the years. It’s worth reading because it shows definitively how everything – even the weather – must have the capability to make a profit before the necessary investment is made. In the meantime – well, the place can burn.

Does Losing a Diplodocus Make Any Difference?

There’s been an ongoing debate on the role of museums – should they encourage taxidermy of specimens, should they be more involved in conservation and ecology. It has to be said, though, that the only dodo I’ve ever seen was in the Natural History Museum in London, which was home to Dippy the Diplodocus. Mind you, the only bison I’ve ever seen was in the Natural History Museum in Chicago. And if it’s all the same to you, I do not want to get up close and personal with a dinosaur any time soon, so the reconstructed skeletons are fine by me. Losing Dippy does mark the end of an era, though. I grew up meeting him (or her) in the Great Hall of the Museum on every visit, and I’m delighted that my daughter also had the same experience. Given that most kids, including mine, go through a phase involving fossils and dinosaurs, it was a wonderful way to capture their imaginations – I know my little brain had trouble coming to terms with the sheer size of the things.

All that said, I can understand the reasoning behind changing the Great Hall’s feature exhibit to a non-extinct (but still endangered) mammal. The blue whale is the Earth’s largest living creature, is itself endangered and has a grace and mystique found in most marine animals. The skeleton has been posed as if it were diving, which must have been an engineering feat in itself. It is, without doubt, a beautiful thing. Whether or not it inspires the love of the living world that the Museum hopes for is another question entirely. I’m not sure that it will – and that’s because dinosaurs are a “kid thing” and whales tend not to be, in a similar way that dodo and bison aren’t really “kid things” either. That’s not a criticism in any way – any parent will tell you that their children are more likely to have a dinosaur phase rather than (say) a crocodile phase.

That said, from a very young age, my daughter was obsessed by sharks. She knew all the different species, from dogfish to basking shark – even correcting a guide at Disney World Florida when he misidentified a carpet shark – and has decided, once she gets primary school (and secondary school and university) out of the way, to become a marine biologist. She still had a dinosaur phase, although not a big one. Basically, she loves the sea. Perhaps I should take her to see the blue whale and see what she thinks of it.

Happy Birthday Mr Benn!

It seems that the lead character of one of my favourite children’s television shows is 50 this year. Mr Benn is 50! When did that happen? He’s as much a part of my childhood as Thunderbirds, The Magic Roundabout and Trumpton – which just goes to show how old I am. It was a simple enough premise – a man in a dark suit and bowler hat who looked like he worked for Homepride would go into a fancy dress shop, be met by a plump chap in a waistcoat and a fez (Rene from Allo Allo moonlighting, I suppose) and hire a fancy dress costume. He’d go into the changing room, put the costume on, go through another door and be in the world represented by his costume – so if he had a clown costume, he’d be in the circus, that kind of thing. He’d have a little adventure, cheer someone up, then go back to the shop, change back into his suit, and go home. That was it until the next episode.

I always thought there were hundreds of episodes (at least, I remember hundreds of them) but in fact there were only thirteen which have clearly been on rerun for years – a bit like Fawlty Towers only with less lunacy. They were lovely little stories, of which I am still incredibly fond, but I’m not sure modern children take to them the same way we did when we were younger. Testament to the human desire for a bit of escapism, an exhibition to celebrate 50 years of Mr Benn is being held at a Central London gallery and you can’t get tickets for love, money or a fancy dress costume. Whether or not it is being curated by a plump chap in a waistcoat and a fez is yet to be seen.

Can One Be A BME Goth?

I can’t decide whether I’m amazed or appalled that this question even needs to be asked. This is what happens if you let Goth become nothing more than a fashion statement – if you don’t fit the pro-forma of pale skin and dark hair while being twig thin and six feet tall, you’re not Goth. And that attitude, quite frankly, is not Goth at all. I’ve always found it to be a most welcoming place, whatever your shape, size or ethnic background.

Before I go any further, although I am not myself BME, I do not fit the Goth stereotype either. I’m barely average height, and even at my thinnest never had a flat stomach. I’ve always had childbearing hips too. And – while I’m on the subject – I wear glasses and am now best described as middle-aged. And yet none of my friends would dispute my Gothic status. I’m just too downright peculiar.

But if we want to get into the nitty gritty, there is no reason why BME individuals can’t enjoy a little Gothic if that’s what they want. Indeed, one of the earliest classics of Gothic literature is Vathek by William Beckford, which is actually great fun – and the palest thing in it is the moon. It’s set in an unnamed Arabian country (more than a nod to the Arabian Nights, I suspect) and is full of witches, djinns and all sorts of bonkers nonsense. It’s a complete hoot, even if it is a bit wordy at times.

Ancient Egypt also offers the Goth a lot of inspiration – quite aside from ubiquitous ankhs and Eyes of Horus. How many eyes did Horus have, anyway? Some Goths prefer an oriental theme to their lifestyles, finding inspiration from Imperial China and classical Japan – or they go the full techno-Goth and model everything on a battered copy of Neuromancer. The Creole cultures of New Orleans and St Louis – and Haiti, come to think of it – provide a great deal of inspiration for the Gothically minded so I don’t see why other cultures can’t join in. Please do!

As far as I am concerned, Goth is not what you look like. It never has been. It’s about who you are and how you behave. So if a pale-skinned, dark haired, twig thin little wraith tries to tell you otherwise – perhaps you need to explain that it’s not just a phase they’re going through.

Hollywood Gothic

Don’t be fooled. I’m still reading Tim Powers’ Medusa’s Web and Old Hollywood plays a major part in the Gothic sensibility of the novel. To discuss all the films with a Gothic flavour that the great Hollywood studios put out over the years would require at least a couple of chapters, if not an entire volume, all to itself. Here, I just want to look at the lure of old Hollywood, and how Tinsel-Town came to have a dark side that was all its own. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a copy of Hollywood Babylon, you’ll see what I mean.

Hollywood in the 1920s was rife with wild parties – if you could get in – starlets, drugs, sex and drink galore. Probably no different to the 1970s, except that the spangles were real and for the majority, it really was another world. Even a feel-good musical like Singing In The Rain hints at this – Cathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) has come to LA to become an actress, but starts off as a chorus girl entertaining guests at a studio party. Her acting career stutters after she upsets the studio’s big star, Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen), who then resolves to make sure Selden “never works in this town again”. The crucial part of the film’s plot deals with Selden protecting Lamont’s career by sacrificing her own, ghost-singing and speaking Lamont’s lines in the early talking pictures. Marni Nixon made a similar career, lending her singing voice to Deborah Kerr in The King and I (amongst other films).

It wasn’t easy being a film star in those days.

Even today, Los Angeles is the City of Dreams; the film industry creates dreams, and everyone wants to be in the business. Virtually every waitress or coffee shop barista has an audition coming up or a script they’re working on. There are more people than there are roles, and even my (just about scraped) pass at Economics A Level knows that supply is far outstripping demand. The studios are ruthless, hearts get broken and illusions are shattered. Hollywood is, after all, about illusion – nothing in the cinema is real, it’s all smoke and mirrors in the end.

It’s intriguing to me that this notion creates a very gothic sensibility, particularly with some of the older black and white movies. I love the old Universal horror movies, some of which are still quite terrifying because they allow the imagination to fill in the gaps – which is how good horror works, after all. And I really like how Powers weaves this into his novel. The old bits of film set that are scattered around the house render it more sinister than I suppose it is – but then I find circuses creepy too, and that’s a whole other story entirely! The references to the caption screens on silent films that Claimaine and Ariel quote to each other starts has a distinct edge to it, hinting at hypnosis, a Svengali relationship, that probably doesn’t otherwise exist. Indeed, a minor character informs Ariel that “doing spiders” was a big thing in Hollywood studio parties in the 1920s – hinting at the decadence of the period.

It’s always been known that there was a dark side to the film industry, but it’s interesting to see it being used as a Gothic motif.

Addicted to the Occult

One of the themes Powers looks at in his novel is addiction; the reader is told in the early chapters that Scott is an alcoholic and Ariel has been “clean” for four years – although clean of what is not initially very clear. What she – and Clairmayne are addicted to is magic, in particular the momentary time travelling afforded by the “spiders”, monochrome occult symbols which transport the viewer back into the body of any person who has previously viewed it. It’s quite clear that Powers considers it more than possible to become addicted to magic – much like Willow in Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and that this addiction has significant physical effects.

It would be easy – and perhaps slightly banal – to suggest simply that all the reader needs to do is swap “spiders” for “heroin” and it would be the same novel; it wouldn’t, by a long haul. The fact is that the magic contained in the spiders is central to the story and the human addiction to it is simply a sideshow. There is much, much more to the story than that.

But it’s interesting that two very different (and separated by a good decade) texts, for want of a better expression, should latch onto the idea that magic is addictive. I suppose it’s the power trip, isn’t it – the idea that you have power that other people don’t have, or power over other people, and that power becomes seductive until it controls you rather than the other way round. Unfortunately the only power I have seems to be guessing which contestants on University Challenge are Australian – I’ve got a 100% record on that so far. Must be the safari suits.

Anyway, I digress. There is certainly an idea that dabbling in the occult is addictive and that this is a good reason why it should be avoided or conducted only by people with iron discipline – which is not many, to be fair. Perhaps this is why the Jedi counsel against the temptation of the Dark Side; they know it’s a slippery slope.

Oh well, there’s another theme for me to pick up again in my reading – the occult as addiction. Who’d have thought that a novel could be so much fun?

This Week’s Eco-News

It’s been a bit of a slow week for EcoNews, given that most people are more worried about North Korea throwing a tantrum. Here are some of my favourite stories from the Guardian over the past few days…

Mexico considers importing avocados as staple priced out of consumers’ reach

I’ve heard this story before; well, something similar at any rate. The rise in “healthy” people in the West eating quinoa has priced it out of reach of South Americans who have eaten it for generations. This time it’s avocados, which are increasingly popular as a source of “good fats” and posh sandwich fillings. It’s a shame people can’t be encouraged to eat more locally sourced produce and be a bit more concerned about their food miles. They may learn to eat seasonally too, and discover what tomatoes and strawberries really taste like (answer – not flavourless mush). As the climate changes, our diets will change with it, but that’s no reason to put other people on the brink of starvation, is it?

Canary Island tourists warned to avoid toxic ‘sea sawdust’ algae

It would have been easy to go with the story about the teenager who got eaten by some kind of aquatic plankton in Australia, but since I’m already convinced that everything over there is designed to kill me, I opted for something different. That and the fact that my sister and her partner have recently returned from a trip to Tenerife meant this story had particular impact for me. Algal blooms are increasing, and probably will continue to do so as the climate changes – but they’re not all bad news. Bear in mind that it was algae that first started photosynthesis, thereby oxygenating the atmosphere which in turn led to life itself. Just wear a wetsuit when you go swimming out there.

Scientists Hope To Breed Asian “Unicorns”

Of course, they’re not REAL unicorns – they’re saola, an animal found in South East Asia and resembling an antelope that is both critically endangered and so rarely found very little is actually known about it. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that two things we definitely do know about the saola are that they don’t fart rainbows or pee glitter. Rumour has it that the key to the survival of the saola is going to be found in captive breeding programmes, which would be wonderful if they succeed.

And that really is it! Hopefully there’ll be more next week, but in the meantime, have a fantastic weekend!