Monday, February 22, 2010

Pompeii




I visited Pompeii as a child, in the late Seventies, and I remember the heat and the crowds moving from house to house, and those heartbreaking plaster casts of people caught in their dying moments, of course, but mostly I remember the streets: the grooves left in the paving by the wheels of the chariots, and those rows of elevated stones that served as pedestrian crossings. There was a comforting familiarity about the latter, and a powerful concrete marker of the time past about the former, of gestures repeated centuries earlier by other people on that very place where I was standing. I might even have felt as if my being there created a connection, but if so no doubt I soon had to hurry along not to miss the next stop in our visit, because when you move with a crowd you cannot dally.

My mother has spoken to me since of her own first visit, in May of 1956. She was twenty-five at the time and had grown up with a passion for antiquities that couldn’t be satiated in her native North, not even in the museums of Milan, so that first trip to Rome and beyond had a very special significance for her. I witnessed another such first much later, in 1980, when she finally went to Greece. At any rate, on the day when she and her friend Lina arrived in Pompeii they had the place virtually to themselves, and what she described to me is precisely the feeling to have found herself alone in the company of ancient people.

(Don’t get me wrong: it’s not as if either of us has ever had anything against other tourists, but I knew what she meant, and how much harder it is to evoke those particular ghosts when you are in the much more concrete and sweaty, noisy company of scores of your contemporaries.)

It seems to me that if there’s any one thing that the modern, experiential museum is about, it is to find ways to manufacture connections such as the ones that I have just described. I was reminded of this recently when I visited the A Day In Pompeii exhibition currently showing at Te Papa. Here, besides some quite lovely artifacts and a selection of those haunting body casts - on which more in a minute - the visitor is treated to interactive computer reconstructions of the inside of a Pompeian house, where you can ‘pick up’ and view from all angles some of the household objects (my son loved this), and to a frankly rather nifty 3D film of the events of that last day in 79AD. A portion of the exhibition area is also meant to reproduce a street section complete with a couple of storefronts.

It is, as you’d expect, a very accessible and expertly produced show. It also runs alongside a number of cultural events - including a Lorenzo Buhne concert that I am sorry to have missed - that contribute to making those connections broader, deeper and hopefully more meaningful. On the Web side, I especially liked the idea of encouraging visitors to upload to a dedicated flickr group their own photos of Pompeii (here you can see Matthew O’Reilly’s take on those wheel ruts).

I have no quarrel whatsoever with any of this, and I'm in fact on record wishing that more of our permanent archaeological and art collections back home made similar efforts to be accessible to a broader public. But Pompeii is also a limit case in history in which the past preserved speaks to us in very unique ways, and where the relationship between the material trace and the symbolic largely pre-empts the work of the modern museum.



On the one hand, Pompeii is the absolute authentic, a city-artifact interred by ash and pumice, forgotten in the space of a generation and lost to history for fifteen centuries before being slowly brought back to the surface - a work that continues to this day. Whilst elsewhere in history it's the powerful and the rich who are remembered better and for longer, if not exclusively, when Pompeii was buried the same fate struck everything and everyone: the villas and the brothels, the patricians and their slaves, and not only the respective belongings were preserved, but also their writings: so the Villa of the Papyri in Hercolaneum has provided us with the only surviving library of antiquity, but just as valuable are the inscriptions recovered on the walls of the cities condemned by Vesuvius, recording the habits, the language, the sexual mores and the ethnic makeup of the lower classes, as well as details of their professions and the going price of a loaf of bread, or oral sex.

So Pompeii is both a specific ancient city, the concrete place where you can stand and trace with your fingers the grooves left by the wheels of two thousand years-old chariots, and a vast social document, a text to read past lives into. It is the immersive, experiential museum of itself and of its era.



And then there are those body casts. You might know the ingenious story behind them: during the second full century of excavations, roughly 150 years ago, lead archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli figured out that the hollow cavities found in the compacted ash layer of the materials that covered the city must have been left by the decomposed remains of people, animals and plants. He ordered therefore that vertical holes be drilled in the sections due to be excavated and that plaster be poured into each hole, so that when the diggers reached one of the cavities they’d find a solid statue of whatever it was that had died on that particular spot. Thus Pompeii, which until that point had been a ghost town, slowly became populated again by people and their pets, each of them captured in the act of taking their last breath of an air that would literally solidify in their lungs. They are heart-rending to behold: people crawling up to each other, perhaps for one final moment of comfort, prisoners clawing at their shackles, a dog pulling at its chain. But what is perhaps most extraordinary about these figures is that they are not in fact proper human or animal remains: they are simulacra, virtual holders of the space once occupied by living things.

As in Brendon Wilkinson’s Meat Dust, here too the human body becomes a sign to be read into the landscape, a meaning to be abstracted from the physical environment; and it takes humans to reactivate those meanings, as we do when we visit Pompeii or design exhibitions about it, for otherwise the empty city would be just an unlikely and temporary rearrangement of minerals.

Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us entertains just this kind of idea. Asks Weisman: if people were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, say due to a super-deadly pathogen, what would happen to our built environments, our artifacts and every other outward sign that we once were? What is fascinating about his account is precisely that it requires that we think about all of these things - the landmarks, the art, the Great Wall of China - not as things endowed with meaning and history, but as physical objects vulnerable in varying degree to the surrounding environment. It turns out that the great suspension bridges, the underground railway systems, they’d be amongst the first ones to go - a reminder of the remarkable amount of tending that they need - while skyscrapers would last less than most low-rises. The Great Wall wouldn’t fare well either:
A pastiche of rammed earth, stones, fired brick, timbers, and even glutinous rice used as mortar paste, without human maintenance it is defenseless against tree roots and water—and the highly acidic rain produced by an industrializing Chinese society isn't helping. Yet without that society, it will steadily melt away until just the stones remain. (173)

When The History Channel set about charting this fascinating post-history of decay, it went about the task with its customary ham-fistedness, which is a shame really since the visuals of Life After People are quite impressive. But the fundamental misunderstanding of Weisman’s premise begins before the credits of episode one have even finished rolling: what will become, asks Dramatic Voiceover Guy, ‘of Man’s great attempts at immortality?’ And if that is the question, the answer is straightforward: they will all cease to exist the second that people are gone, for without us our things make no sense. It’s what Jameson describes as the meaningless materiality of the body and nature versus the meaning endowment of history and the social. When the day comes there will be no immortality, just things.

The Pompeians really did disappear in less than twenty-four hours, their city turned into a barren and utterly a-human landscape. We owe their recovery to our understanding of those man-made forms. As in that famous saying of Michelangelo’s, that sculpting is all about chiselling away the excess stone from a block of marble to reveal the figure within, so too we rediscovered Pompeii because we knew how to imagine it first.






A Day in Pompeii
will be showing at Te Papa until Anzac Day.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Human Terrain



Milan could compete for the title of flattest city in the world if it wasn’t for Monte Stella, a hill park built after the War with the rubble from the Allies' bombings. There’s a wall from Dad’s house in there, and also one from renovations undertaken much later at the flat where I was born. With typical Lombard matter-of-factness the locals call it La Montagnetta, the little mountain.


And it really is a pragmatic approach to getting rid of detritus, as opposed to a memorial to the atrocity of war. The bombings destroyed or condemned as much as a third of the buildings in the city, but killed ‘only’ between twelve hundred and two thousand people. They are not commemorated as a discrete event, at least to my knowledge, or spoken about very much at all. My father, who was a little boy at the time, remembered them almost with fondness. Still, I grew up down the road from the little mountain and I knew from a very young age that it was made of houses where people used to live and roads where people used to walk, things that once had structure and meaning but had now reverted into amorphous geology. Except you couldn’t say that either, since the hill park itself had been designed by an architect and carefully built according to his specifications. So it’s there I think that I got my first implicit lessons into what a tricky business it is to tell the natural apart from the artificial, and to assign value to either. Formative books like Edward Hyams’ history of domestication (whose Italian title - 'And man created his plants and his animals' - is decidedly more suggestive than the original) and the significant time I spent in nonna's village, often cycling with great vigour in the opposite direction of various kinds of toxic sprays, helped me develop a healthy distrust for the then burgeoning marketspeak in praise of the old-fashioned way of going about things, the genuine ingredients and the picturesque surroundings.


It is just possible that Italy’s largest commercial bakery, Mulino Bianco, doesn’t operate exclusively out of this old timey 'white mill'.

I was exposed to enough stories about my parents’ generation to know that modernisation didn’t work like that. And then I read about the Vajont, and saw the images from Seveso and later, most shocking of all, from Chernobyl and Bhopal, and began to understand what we all know: that there is a war in which the battlegrounds are employment and energy production and the raw materials of Western affluence, and the victims are workers and civilians at every latitude, all of them collateral damage chalked up to the cost of doing business whilst protecting shareholder value. Human rubble.

In Italy we call them le morti bianche, ‘white deaths’, or we speak of the people who died in the workplace as i caduti, ‘the fallen’, like soldiers who perish in battle. This virtual memorial celebrates explicitly the sacrifice of these workers ‘in the name of the nation’s progress’. They died to the tune of over 1,200 a year in the past decade, while the yearly figure worldwide is closer to two million, including 12,000 children. But if it’s a war, then who’s the enemy?

It is us, or capital, which is the same thing. We could build more safely, consume and expand more sustainably, exploit each other less, but it would just not be cost-effective enough, so the sprawling city, the industrial park, the factory farm are literally the best we can afford. And then once things have exploded or crumbled or have been poisoned beyond the allowable legal limit, there is the reconstruction or the clean-up, which is also a business. In Italy, this business was effectively privatised just in time for the earthquake in L’Aquila under the auspices of our national civil defence coordinator, Guido Bertolaso. Mr Bertolaso learned last week, on his way back from having visited Haiti (for they don’t have enough trouble there), that he faces allegations of having awarded construction contracts in exchange for sexual favours from prostitutes. You’re not surprised, are you? But what if I told you that the evidence made public thus far includes recordings of a conversation between two businessmen in which one confesses to the other that he laughed in his bed when he woke up to the news of the earthquake?

That laughter track is part of it too, of our degraded human geography, it mixes with the blood and the rubble, it echoes in the state of the art facilities and the modern residential areas and the model farms that are anything but.


‘[On the 6th of] April at 3.32 am, I wasn’t laughing’. Image from yesterday’s demonstrations at L’Aquila

It all seems comfortably removed from New Zealand, doesn’t it? There’s little manufacturing here, people live in houses built to code and mostly out of timber, and business practices are relatively non-corrupt. Now of course there’s sustained talk of mega farms in Canterbury and of mining in the national parks and of blunting the Resource Management Act, but that’s not where I’m going with this, for the benign picture I just offered is false. And not just because it conceals the transformation of the world inhabited by Māori into a pseudo-native British pastoral, or the reality of the impoverished rural and urban communities (like in that marvellous pan shot at the beginning of Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors). It’s that human geography is transnational: we have liquidated our manufacturing base so that we can import the goods from elsewhere, outsourcing not just the production but also the industrial relations, the environmental impact, the horror of work in all its facets. We import oil and cars and money and most of the things inside our homes. We deserve therefore to be fully haunted by the ghosts of the post-apocalyptic present.


Meat Dust, 2006, by Brendon Wilkinson.


Or at least this is what I have chosen to read into this exceptional piece by Brendon Wilkinson included in his current exibition at Aratoi, the Wairarapa Museum of Art and History. When I first approached it for a good couple of minutes I went straight for the built environment and couldn’t see past the neat model of the industrial site. I completely missed it, but I expect you would have noticed the corpse right away.



It’s a life-size piece, built on top of a bed, and it is rather beautifully crafted, so much as that it is easy at first to become engrossed in the individual features and lose sight of the whole picture. When you do that, Meat Dust ceases instantly to be horrific and becomes mundane, almost a celebration of orderly enterprise and the integration of industry with nature. But then the presence of that body reasserts itself, until finally it’s all that you can see. Ghastly details, and the sense of a tortured relationship between life, nature and labour.



Art that makes this relationship visible - as Wilkinson does throughout the works exhibited at Aratoi - is both rare and valuable. So perhaps we should add this set of impressions to the elusive image of work. It is its spectral double, the price that we are made to pay. It is a necessary part of the story.





Brendon Wilkinson's exhibition, entitled Hexon Cusp. Decade, can be seen at Aratoi in Masterton until 23 March 2010 and has been reviewed by Fran Dibble for the Manawatu Standard. The images of Meat Dust are from the author's page at the Ivan Anthony Gallery website. More images of Wilkinson's works can be found here.



Monday, February 8, 2010

About Dustmen


There is much work to be done in the world, and this work is not always pleasant.

(D. Richardson)




This precious little book about garbage collectors popped into my hands at the Downtown Community Ministry Book Fair last year. I haven’t been able to find out very much about it, except that it dates back to the nineteen-thirties and that it was part of a series that included also information on policemen, firemen and postmen. The author, one D. Richardson, worked at the Froebel Education Institute’s demonstration school. He explains in the foreword the objective of the series, which went by the title of An Introduction to Citizenship:
We believe in democracy – in civil liberty, freedom of speech and movement, trial by jury, the right to choose our own representatives – in government by consent of the governed. It has taken hundreds of years to win us these things and we want to pass them on to our children.
But in these days, and in the days ahead, of social, economic, political, and international unrest, will our children be able to hold on to this precious legacy; will they enlarge it in terms of happiness and the “good life”, or, as we have seen elsewhere, will they allow it to slip from them?

The intent then was to teach civics as an antidote to totalitarianism, and to do so by telling young children about the work needed to ensure that the roads be clean and safe, and the mail be delivered. A curious choice, given that all these functions would have been carried out in very similar fashion in Italy or Russia at the time, and likely held in similar regard. Note too how the focus is on male professions only, and nothing is said for instance about nurses or teachers.

Nonetheless, and while I’d love to get hold of the other books in the series - especially the one on policing - About Dustmen holds plenty of interest, being replete not only of markers of the ideology and the spirit of its times but also of facts and pictures describing in extensive detail the life cycle of refuse and the daily routines of the people in charge of collecting and sorting it. Moral, upstanding men ('when a man is being chosen his manners are noticed carefully') who carry out essential and strenuous work for modest pay and whose only career prospect is to become inspectors and earn a more richly decorated uniform, as well of course as no longer having to lift bins.


The function of the inspector is not only to monitor the work of the dustmen but also the habits of householders, among whom one is bound to find a number of thoughtless, careless, lazy and wasteful people. An exemplary cautionary tale goes by the title of a thoughtless woman and her dog:
There is a true story of a woman who went running down the street after a dustcart. Hearing her shout, the driver thought that something serious had happened. Quite out of breath, she explained that her little dog's enamel food dish was amongst the rubbish in the cart.
The dustmen promised to look for it when the cart was emptied.
After raking through the piles of rubbish, they touched something hard and round. It was the little white dish. But many minutes of their time had been wasted.

Held in even greater contempt is the figure of the totter.
You have read that some dustbins are put on the edge of the pavement late at night and are left there until the dustman comes early in the morning.
Very often he finds the lids off the bins and the rubbish scattered about the street.
What a trouble that is for him and for the street sweepers!
It is the totters who have done it.
They are people who rake about in dustbins trying to find anything that will be useful to them or that they can sell. They do not care how much mess they make.
If the police see them, they stop them at once. But totters are very clever at doing their raking when no one is looking.


Original caption: 'Have you ever seen a totter?'

There are obviously unpleasant undercurrents here, ideas about what is orderly and good in society that deserve to be examined. But there are also useful reminders of what happens to our waste not solely in terms of the physical chain but also of the human landscape, the various categories of workers who oversee this traffic of stuff on its way to being buried, burnt, dumped or shipped overseas, or more rarely reused or recycled. And it reminds us that it is not only necessary work, but that it has positive value in terms of human ecology.

It is not so much that we don’t think about waste these days – we do. It’s the workers who have been made invisible. So I pick up About Dustmen and yes am struck by its paternalism and by the things it does not say, but I also note that it tells me about the working conditions and the hours and the pay of these men, about the gestures and the tools and the systems of their profession, about their few prospects and expectations. And it seems me that it wouldn't be a bad place where to start a conversation with children, or indeed people in general, about citizenship.


Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Il quarto stato (The Fourth Estate), 1901

Article 1 of the Italian constitution says that ‘Italy is a democratic republic founded on work’. Article 4 says that ‘the Republic recognizes the right of all citizens to work and promotes those conditions which will make this right effective,’ and moreover that ‘every citizen has the duty, according to his possibilities and individual choice, to carry out an activity or a function which contributes to the material or spiritual progress of society’. These are not bad principles to found a modern nation upon. Yet to the extent that it was ever meaningfully embraced, the notion of a person’s right to work, in Italy as much as in New Zealand and most Western nations, has been very successfully eradicated. Just the other day, in receiving the news about our worse-than-expected (by whom?) unemployment figures, Mr Key flashed a smile halfway between the reassuring and the resigned. That the state is neither responsible for nor capable of securing employment for its citizens is a concept so natural that it can be conveyed entirely via non verbal cues.

The invisibility of the working class, and of course of the unemployed except when it can be cast as a bludger, is essential to this erasure. So where are these workers? What do they look like? They say you need an image. They say that those first photographs from space of the whole earth were an important catalyst for the birth of the environmental movement. Do we have an image for what it means to work?

(Seriously, I'm not being rhetorical here.)

If you had asked that question in Italy until three or four decades ago most people would have visualised the painting by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo reproduced above, in which the working class is represented in the act of striking. It is a rural strike, quite appropriately - in 1901 the country had barely been touched by industrialisation - yet it remained absolutely iconic for at least three quarters of a century. It was on every other book and poster and conference and festival that had anything to do with the working class. In Rosarno a localised version with olive and orange trees was painted on a wall of the central post office.



Image via Fortress Europe

If you insisted that factory work be considered the fundamental unit of labour, then what about this picture of workers outside of the Pirelli factory in via Ponte Seveso, Milan, in 1905?


It is a poor reproduction, I know, but last time I was home I saw it on all its glorious detail in one of Mum’s books. It’s not a workforce on strike, but it’s a large group, seemingly aware of its strength, and they are all looking at the camera at the same time with the fixed stare typical of the photographs of the era, which is a little freaky, and some of them are clinging to bits of the façade so they can all be seen, and it reinforces the no doubt romantic, historically inaccurate idea that it was their factory and their jobs, their work.



So this was the image of the factory worker, la classe operaia, linguistically and materially synonymous with the Italian working class. Perhaps in Britain the iconic figure would have been the miner, in New Zealand, the watersider. Perhaps we choose to recognise the great struggles, even in defeat. But no more. Work no longer works that way. We have outsourced our visible working class, our manufacturing, displaced the ownership of the things that we buy and the conditions in which they are produced, and we have quite successfully spirited away the rest. Do we even tell each other what it is that we do anymore? Let alone organise. As if in a process of un-imagining, I wonder if the modern worker has come to resemble this study from Pellizza da Volpedo’s great tableau: a lonely and faceless figure.



But it’s just a failure of memory and representation, isn’t it? It’s not as if the working class no longer exists, but it is no longer thought of as something concrete, with shared interests and a common purpose. And so perhaps recovering those ideas might also require something as basic as little books with facts and pictures, telling the story of work, of what work does and of who does work, so that we can learn again to understand its value.



D. Richardson. About Dustmen. London: Ginn and Company, 193?
I've scanned the book and it can be downloaded here.

Part 2 of this post is About Postmen.


Monday, February 1, 2010

This Is Our Land!


It began on the 7th of January of this year, when they took pot shots at a group of them with air rifles. Or maybe in December of 2008, when 21 year old Ahamed Hagi was shot with a regular gun by the passenger of a Fiat Punto that sped off and was never identified. Perhaps it wasn’t even the attacks, perhaps it was the inhuman conditions that tipped them over the edge. The prison camp-style dormitories described by Médecins Sans Frontières in 2005 and then again in 2008. The 12 hour fruit picking shifts for a pay of 20 Euro, minus a deduction of two and a half Euro for the ride to and from the orchards.

Seven hundred migrant workers, black workers, marched peacefully through the streets of Rosarno in December of 2008. Another two thousand-odd marched again on January the 8th, but this time they were a little less peaceful, their voices louder, their rage more palpable. Yet they couldn’t bring themselves to stage a proper riot. As you can see from these images (at the 3:35 minute mark), no sooner a rubbish container was overturned that another marcher turned it the right way up. But they clashed, nonetheless, with police and with the locals, the homeowners, the good people of Rosarno. And then came the punitive squads, with the likely help of the ‘ndrangheta, the local mafia. Thus began la caccia al nero, the hunt for the black man, which continued into the night. And the police started rounding people up, but not on the basis of who was the aggressor and who was the victim. They simply took away the black men. For protection, you understand. ‘Remember this date,’ admonished journalist Gad Lerner. When such a thing happens for the first time in the modern history of a nation, it ought to be burned into the collective memory.



Rosarno has a history of poverty, of farm labourers protests drowned in blood, of successive local administrations dissolved due to infiltrations by the mafia. And it is the mafia that coordinates the caporalato, the illegal hiring of farm labourers by means of agents called 'caporali', corporals. This criminally underpaid (and absolutely essential) seasonal work accounts for the transient African population of Rosarno, comprising many legal immigrants and that yet has little or no contact with representatives of our public institutions, other than law enforcement naturally. The only people on the ground are the doctors and nurses of Médecins Sans Frontières through one of its emergency facilities. Not the thing you’d expect to find in a country of what goes by the ghastly yet always popular appellation of first world. And it is in this country that Roberto Maroni, Minister of the Interior, blamed the disorders in Rosarno to ‘years of toleration of clandestine immigration’.


‘This is our land!’ goes the warlike cry of Jake Sully in Avatar, the white man who claims native status on a foreign shore. In Italy, a country where different peoples have been sedimenting for millennia, the fictions of indigeneity are more complex, more nuanced, as many as there are words to indicate that we don’t want you here. Not you, terrone, southerner, nor you, zingaro, Roma, nor you, foreigner. And the black Africans are the least wanted of all. We call them after the only two words they need to utter in order to sell trinkets on the street, Vu cumprà (vuoi comprare, do you want to buy something), or marocchini (as if all Africans came from Morocco) or more simply negri, the black ones.



Meet Mario Balotelli, born near Palermo, Sicily, to Ghanaian immigrants in 1990. His family moved north shortly after he was born and eventually entrusted him to the Balotelli family, who lived near Brescia. In spite of having lived in Italy all his life, by law Balotelli was only allowed to become an Italian citizen at the age of 18. By this time he had already debuted for Inter Milan, the top team in the Serie A league, and was already routinely taunted by tens of thousands of fans of other teams with relentless racist chants. Following one such incident, the entirety of Juventus’ supporters were banned from attending the team’s following home game. A big deal, in a sport that has always tolerated extraordinary displays of organised racism and hatred.

Yet bizarrely the going explanation for this cowardly mass bullying of a teenager was that he was asking for it, due to his hot temper and brilliant but occasionally provocative, cheeky play. His own coach and his fellow teammate Clarence Seedorf, who is also black, said as much at the time. Apparently shouting 'negro di merda', shitty nigger, can be motivated by something other than racism. Nor have things improved since. If anything, Balotelli’s figure has become more hated, more polarising, more emblematic. Who is this talented black man who speaks in the northern Italian vernacular, a tongue more accustomed to lashing at people who look like him? How can he lay claims to citizenship by birth in this land of ours? It is really that raw, that primitive a public sentiment.

***

We have left Rosarno behind, we move north. Balotelli lives and works in Milan, my Milan, the fifedom of Forza Italia and the Northern League, one of the crucial reservoirs of votes of Berlusconi’s political coalition. It is not far from here that Roberto Maroni was born, it is here that his comments originate. It is in this, the nerve centre of the Right, that racism is being institutionalised on behalf of the rest of the country. Some of you may remember that at the tail end of my last visit there I compiled a short, crude and rather embittered photo essay. It included the picture of an ordinary city bus fitted with bars at the windows and used to round up people suspected of being illegal immigrants, which in Italy is currently a crime. What I didn’t know back then it’s that this bus - I saw it, my friends, and my heart sank - would be awarded the gold medal for services to the city, the coveted Ambrogino d’oro.

It is a proud city that loves its symbols.

On the weekend of my arrival Berlusconi’s party, the Popolo delle Libertà, was having its national convention at the Lido di Milano, down the road from the house were I grew up and Mum still lives. So I went and had a look.

The Lido is a sports and recreation facilty built during Fascism that includes a large uncovered pool and other amenities. On that particular Sunday morning, just ahead of the convention’s grand finale on national television, it was open for business but semi-deserted, and with a satisfyingly sad, forlorn look. The playground, which on any other Sunday would be full of kids, and especially kids of colour, had been adorned for some reason with Italian flags.

This is our land!

There were no children in sight. My beloved polar bear, which over the decades has survived many a playground overhaul, was still there, all alone.


Orso! How I wish you didn't have to see any of this.

I moved to the back, the pool area proper, and found it in much better condition than I remembered. The terrace was being prepared for the evening’s soiree, with signage in English for an extra touch of sophistication.


We are an ospitable people

The pool looked pristine, but again, nobody was allowed in it. The changing rooms, always impressively elegant, were eerily silent.



The whole complex on that particular day and in that particular company reminded me, quite aptly, of the ruins of Fascism, to which it had been restored. Hence the embittered photo essay, and the desire to get at some stage on to discussing here the Northern League and its remarkable myths of indigeneity, to my mind the closest we have come to date to replicating honest-to-god Fascism.

But it wasn’t all bleak, there were some things that gave me hope and that I ought to briefly account for. Firstly, and true to cliché, the kids. For people in predominantly white countries but with a different recent racial history it may seem extraordinary that as late as 2010 Mario Balotelli could be a trailblazer, but he is. And to see so many non white faces mixed with the white ones at that playground on other Sundays or at my primary school is to this day a source of surprise and joy. I was especially impressed by my friend Francesca’s daughter’s school. It is located in an enclosed park known as the Trotter, originally a nobleman’s stables and later a children’s summer camp (those ruins of Fascism, again) that my mother was sent to from her village in 1940. When I came back from my visit and told her about it - she hadn’t visited the park since - she told me that she had especially vivid memories of the siren tower, and sure enough, I had taken a picture of it.


The park, which is public outside of school hours, contains some brilliantly accessible and creative communal spaces used by a number of progressive organisations whose philosophy is an extension of the school’s. I am told it serves it gloriously mixed community very well and it was lovely to see.

Closer to the part of town where I grew up I was delighted to discover that an old cabaret joint that my parents used to patronise before I was born has been occupied and turned into a centro sociale.



My best friend from school and I turned up on its weekly closure night, but they let us in anyway, during one of their meetings. It transpired that they were students at our former school, no older than 16, which gave us a wonderful opportunity to ponder over our wasted youth over a couple of beers. More to the point, we discovered that the social centre is named after Abdoul Salam Guiebre, known simply as Abba, a young man from Burkina Faso murdered in the city in 2008 by the owners of a snack bar for stealing a packet of biscuits, and that the bulk of its activities are specifically anti-racist. It was an orientation that had only just begun to properly establish itself in the Left when I moved to New Zealand, and it has been heartening to follow it from a distance, but more so to see it up close.

Outside of those spaces, that is to say, nearly everywhere, it’s harder to muster one’s optimism, especially with the heightened sense of disconnectedness proper of a tourist or a media consumer. It’s harder to escape the feeling that from north to south, at Rosarno and elsewhere, it’s a continuous and unendurable everyday emergency, a ratcheting up of the pressure with every new episode that is bound to be blamed on the Other - for this must always remain our land.


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