Archive for October, 2013

1974

A trite, mish-mash of a story that borrows from real-life crime cases like the Poulson Affair, the Moors Murders and Donald Nielson’s botched blackmail attempt that ended in the death in a drain of Leslie Whittle.

It’s ultra-violent, exceedingly crude and cruel in the extreme. Torture, ritualistic child abuse, rough sex and racism – it’s a kitchen sink of vile characters and abominable proclivities.

The book is one of a quartet but I won’t be reading any more, thank you. Morse and Maigret are more my cup of tea.

stoneThis is the Polish Zorba. A rambling, epic of a book charting the life of a hard-drinking, womanizing, beast of a man who lives life on his own terms, no matter the consequences.

Through the eyes of Szymek Pietruszka, a peasant with scant education, little money and even fewer prospects, we are shown a slice of rural life before, during and after the Second World War.

The transition is captured in minute detail and delivered in a series of soliloquies that act as metaphors for the change in Poles’ relationships to family, to community, the church and the land.

Memories pour onto the page and while there’s no fondness for the post-war Communist period there’s no great nostalgia for the past either.

Author Wieslaw Mysliwski takes us into a bleak period where people are living hand to mouth, shackled to the land as much as their beasts of burden. This is no rural idyll. This is a world of brutal work, simple minds, ignorance and superstition, jealousy and viciousness.

Pietruszka shuns the plough and spurns the authority of the church, but cannot escape his basest instincts. He drinks, he fights, he fornicates and wakes up to do it all again and again and again. He’s a ladies man, a heartbreaker, a man with the gift of the gab, a peasant who meets life head-on, takes the knocks and comes back for more.

He’s variously a policeman, a resistance fighter, a barber and a wedding officiant. At times he’s a hero, at times a rogue and, just occasionally, a man with words of peasant wisdom that pierce the sophistry of church and state.

Ultimately, he becomes the broken down shadow of the man he used to be, a cripple looking after his mentally ill brother in the ransacked farmhouse where they grew up. And the book ends where it begins, with Pietruszka intent on building a family tomb in the churchyard of the village where they grew up.

Landgrabbers

As the world’s population rises, land and water availability dwindles, eco-systems succumb and climate change havoc sets in, the need for secure future food supplies is driving a worldwide agrarian power struggle.

The sheer scale of what’s taking place is matched only by the greed and venality of the players involved – countries, governments, agribusinesses, drug cartels, commodity traders, bankers and chancers all competing for fat profits from a carve-up of continents.

Journalist Fred Pearce spent a year visiting places as far apart as Patagonia and Zimbabwe, Ukraine and Australia to report from the emerging frontlines of the politics of food.

What he found were neo-colonialists being aided and abetted by a parade of despots and dictators, corrupt politicians and cut-throat businessmen. And, as ever, the big losers are the pastoralists, the subsistence farmers and the poorest, marginalized peoples.

So-called “empty lands” are the prime target for much of their attention; bribes are paid, locals are forcibly evicted, promised jobs, schools, hospitals and improvements fail to materialize and the environment takes a beating from which it may never recover.

It was soaring food prices that fueled the revolution in Egypt which led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. That may explain why Middle Eastern petrodollars are pouring into farming in Africa: Food insecurity equals political unrest.

But there are other factors too: Rising demand from China and the Far East for meat, an increasing requirement for biofuels from the US and Europe, a need for more rubber plantations as car use climbs in emerging economies and a growing appetite from agribusinesses for soy and palm oil products.

Pearce’s big picture reporting gives the Who, What, Where and Why of what’s taking place in a way that piecemeal mainstream news fails to capture. And, bleak as the landscape is, he doesn’t cloud his writing with hyperbole or environmental evangelism.

Best of all, he gives voice to advocates for alternative agriculture options that don’t destroy the environment, don’t displace people from tribal lands and don’t end in a Malthusian nightmare of famine and death.

The David and Goliath battle being fought in Washington State over the labeling of genetically modified food (I-522) goes to the vote on November 5, but whatever the outcome it won’t deal with an underlying lack of transparency about what’s in our food.

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 “Big Ag” has plenty to answer for in this regard with its squalid practices, revolting standards and profit-at-all-costs attitudes; it also makes an easy target for consumer ire in the current debate.

Much harder to swallow is our part in this sorry state of affairs. For the most part we passively tolerate the behind-the-scenes manipulations we all know of but would rather not think about.

Time and again we choose price over quality, price over decency and price over compassion.

People coyly describe things as being inexpensive or good value when what they really mean, but can never quite bring themselves to say, is cheap. Cheap is synonymous with tawdry, with nasty, with poor quality, with corner-cutting, which is where we are with much of our food chain.

Yet cheap is what we require of “Big Ag”. And we reinforce this message every time we go to the supermarket. Cheap chicken is cheap for a reason. Every time we choose one over more expensive alternatives we are endorsing practices we claim to dislike.

Cheap is the reason corn oil finds its way into bread and chocolate and infant formula and thousands of other unlikely places. Cheap is the reason antibiotics are routinely used in meat production where animals are kept in close confinement. Cheap is why we have monoculture crops needing genetic manipulation to resist pesticide sprays. Cheap is why we have habitat loss and wildlife population crashes.

When viewed in this way our food choices aren’t quite so cheap. In fact they come at a very high price. And they’re paid for by the animals we eat, the landscapes we despoil and the water resources we plunder.

The “No” lobby on I-522 will continue to claim that the GM labeling requirement is ill-conceived, unworkable and will add to weekly grocery bills. They will continue to obfuscate and sow doubt and promote confusion.

But as consumers we shouldn’t allow that to cloud the real issue: We have a right to know what’s in our food, a right to transparency about its production and a right to hold the industry to higher standards.

Until we accept that we’re prepared to pay more and start showing that through our shopping habits “Big Ag” won’t budge. If things are to change we have to start by rewarding the producers who meet these requirements and by leaving on the shelves the products of those who do not.

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Michael Pollan cleaves through the complexities of food politics with a directness and clarity that will challenge you to think deeply about your own eating preferences.

It’s not so much proselytizing, as a laying out of facts about the unseen elements in our food production chain.

He frames many questions along the way, such as: Is organic produce a better choice than local when it’s grown thousands of miles away?

And he concludes with pithy advice that underpins his own food philosophy including gems like: Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.

My conclusion: It’s well written, well researched and well worth your time.

IMG_5613As a new immigrant to the US the opportunity to travel across the continent by rail – from sea to shining sea – was not to be missed. Seattle to Chicago, Chicago to Boston, three days out, three days back and in between a weekend in the stellar company of Nieman Fellows at their 75th anniversary at Harvard. What’s not to like?

Along the way we’d be traversing the Cascade Mountains and the Rockies, absorbing the vastness of Montana and its big skies, the wild immensity of North Dakota amid its fracking boom and the more manicured landscapes of New York State with its rolling hills, rich greenery and picture-book villages.

What followed revealed far more than the epic scenery in my newly chosen country, it showed the daunting determination of pioneers who put a railroad through tremendously harsh terrain, and a distinct lack of ambition by modern-day politicians to build on their legacy.

Our Amtrak adventure began badly. The scheduled departure from Seattle’s King Street Station was delayed due to the unexplained late arrival of the Empire Builder from Chicago.

With no digital displays on site, no wifi, and no useful information from Amtrak there was much confusion among passengers. An hour’s delay became two, then three, then four.

The evening meal we were supposed to be enjoying while skirting Puget Sound and climbing into the spectacular Cascade Mountains became a Subway snack box, a sandwich, a cookie and a bag of chips eaten in situ.

With time hanging heavy and excitement ebbing out the door I started to ponder: Why was there no sense of occasion when arriving at the station? Why wasn’t this route being promoted as a wonder of the rail network?

Where was the signage for Empire Builder travelers? Where was the lounge for those embarking on this 2,200-mile trip? And in a land of hype and hard sell where were the mugs, the T-shirts, the baseball caps and trinkets? Why did we feel forgotten instead of special?

Seahawks fans came and went, a raucous, painted tribe from across the way at Century Link Field where 67,000 of them had watched their team beat the Jaguars 45-17. They went home happy. We sat and watched and strained to hear wisps of information from the acoustically-challenged ticket hall PA system.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Twitter feed urged travelers: “RT if you’re ready to take your first X-country trip with us #enjoythejourney” My reply: “I’m ready, you’re four hours late!” failed to elicit an @Amtrak response.

It was left to one of the rail staff, standing on a bench and shouting into the echoing hall, to explain the details of what was unfolding. Notions of an American-style, Orient Express experience were rapidly diminishing.

IMG_5619We left in darkness at around 9pm, almost five hours late. We saw nothing of the marvels of the mountains in this disappointing beginning to a much–anticipated trip. Instead we tried to focus on trailblazers Lewis and Clark, in whose vicinity, if not footsteps, we were travelling for part of the way. They would surely have shrugged it off as a minor irritation and we tried to do the same.

The train staff were annoyingly, repetitively, apologetic as they tried to compensate for the shortcomings though they, too, were suffering the consequences.

We never did get an official explanation for the lateness. A landslide, mudslide, track fire, flooded rails, bison on the line, any of these would have salved the situation and even added to the enjoyment.

The more likely explanation was that the incoming train was forced to give way to freight, sidelined so the real business of the railroad could be conducted. Track repair was another excuse – heavy oil traffic means more maintenance, our car assistant said. The Empire Builder’s punctuality record for August 2013 shows it was on time on only a third of its journeys. For the previous 12 months it fared better, with a 61% time-keeping record – but that’s a long way short of acceptable efficiency.

Amtrak lays the blame firmly at the door of the freight companies on whose track it travels and in the case of the Empire Builder, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. (BNSF) is cited for the bulk of the problems.

Having someone to blame is all very well, but as a customer I just want something that works and that’s seemingly beyond Amtrak’s scope to guarantee. Their fares are expensive (we could have flown business class to Boston and back for less) their punctuality is poor and they lack the investment and the infrastructure to get out of the mess they are in. Truly, this is no way to run a railroad.

For anyone who has traveled in Europe where train travel is heavily subsidized the contrast could not be greater. High-speed, long-distance routes criss-cross the continent, trains are modern and luxurious, stations are well-appointed and businesslike, and the overall experience is one of effortless efficiency.

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Amtrak’s rolling stock is visibly ageing and tired. The polished metal exteriors of the two-storey Superliners have a certain nostalgic appeal, but that’s quickly extinguished by the dumpy interiors.

Our upper berth roomette was on the cramped side of cozy, with no room for suitcases which had to be left in rack alongside an aisle downstairs. Beneath the facing seats which flatten out into a single bed I found popcorn remnants dropped by the previous occupants and a Sudoku puzzle book. Clearly corners had been cut to get the train back into service leaving me to wonder what else had been skimped on.

We had only a single powerpoint, that’s standard. But the audio system didn’t work, the air-conditioning didn’t work, the heating controls didn’t work.  And sharing restrooms and showers was always going to be a challenge. (They weren’t cleaned during the trip). On the return leg a vacuum problem knocked out all the restrooms in the carriage, and the water heater failed meaning cold showers only. And so it went on.

Staff worked tirelessly to overcome the difficulties but the overall impression was one of worn-out kit being constantly resuscitated when it would have been kinder to put it out of its misery. Either that, or take the whole kit-and-kaboodle out of service for proper restoration.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Amtrak: It’s crucified for the subsidies it gets, pilloried over costs and reliability and then held up as an example of the failure and wastefulness of public monopolies. Congress’s Catch 22 requires the company to provide long distance routes as a public service and then denies it sufficient funds to fulfill the requirement.

Privatisation has no solutions either, unless the public is prepared to countenance the sale of profitable lines in the north-east and the closure of all others.

Why does it have to come down to all-or-nothing choices between unfettered capitalism and underfunded public monopolies? Europe’s high-speed rail network shows that there are alternatives, if you accept the notion of public service – and are prepared to fund it.

There’s value to keeping cars off the road, limiting CO2 emissions from trucks and planes and keeping far-flung communities linked by rail, but the ledger that balances costs per passenger mile doesn’t have a column for less tangible benefits.

Highways continue to suck up the bulk of transport subsidies in the US and because of powerful lobby interests they do so without the hue and cry surrounding the funding of railroads.

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I’m not anti-car, nor opposed to flying for that matter, but in a country of vast distances, choked roads and crowded skies a modern, high-speed, rail network should be part of the transport mix.

There were many things Amtrak could, and ought, to have done better on our trip. But travelling through the landscape, watching a canvas of epic proportions unfold, has no equal by road or from the air and in the end that was its saving grace.

The next step for the service has to be to build on the enterprise and imagination of the early railroad pioneers. Their blood, sweat and tears deserve a better legacy than mere memories of faded glory.