Monday, February 29, 2016

In the name of invisible monsters

I was seven years old when they kidnapped the chairman of Italy’s largest political party, former prime minister Aldo Moro. They took him on a Thursday morning in Rome, killing the five police officers of his detail to get to him. 55 days later, they returned his corpse in the trunk of a cheap car. I saw all of the graphic pictures, all of those bodies, on television and in the newspapers, over those 55 days and for the rest of the year.

It was a long decade of bombs, kidnappings and gunfights in the streets of our major cities. It started in my hometown in 1969, with a bomb planted in a bank not far from where my father worked, killing 17 people and wounding nearly one hundred. It ended in 1981 with a bomb planted at the Bologna train station which left 85 dead and over two hundred injured. Yet what terrified me the most as a child were the kidnappings and the shootings. I wasn’t a judge or a journalist or a politician, but in my nightmares I was a victim – not of the neo-fascist bombs designed to kill ordinary people as part of what came to be known as ‘the strategy of tension’, but of the Red Brigade commandos pursuing their deranged political targets.

Both kinds of terrorism operated on children as much as they did on adults. It formed us, growing up in this fear, and seeing fear on the faces of the grown-ups. It must have. However, I don’t recall ever being asked to draw those feelings.

The Italian secret service has a more chequered past than most, having been found out by magistrates to be directly implicated in several chapters of that decade of domestic terrorism. Reforms designed to bring it under closer prime ministerial control resulted in 2007 in its reorganisation into three different agencies plus a fourth controlled by the military: a host of new acronyms – AISI, AISE, DIS, RIS – for what looks suspiciously like the old, familiar set-up. On the public relations side, however, things have certainly changed: the organisation’s historic magazine, Gnosis, once hand-delivered to the selected few, is now sold in the Feltrinelli bookshops, a large chain linked to our largest left-wing publishing house. Even more curious is a recent competition called ‘Draw the intelligence services and help your school to win’ in which children as young as I was when Aldo Moro was kidnapped were asked to produce art on the subject of state security. One of the winning entries (above) depicts Islamic State as a black monster preparing to seize a child outside school, while masked and caped secret service agents hiding in a tree prepare, presumably, to save the day. Note the haloes on the agents’ heads, while the acronym ‘SS’ is surely coincidental.

Agents-as-angels are featured in this other entry, in which a group of winged spies holds a net with the words ‘Saviours of the citizens’ under a crowded tightrope. This time the threat that the rope is meant to symbolise is not specified, and is likely the sum of all available fears:

While this Inspector Gadget-like agent presides over a world threatened by ISIS, an exploding plane, and the attack on Charlie Hebdo:

This kind of exercise is self-fulfilling, so of course it would result in security services being portrayed as the guarantors of public safety. But it interests me that it would be tried at all, and that they found schools and educators willing to go along with it. The competition encouraged use of a ‘lecture’ on the history of intelligence services drafted by officials of the Ministry of the Interior, and winners got to be ‘agents for a day’ by visiting the organisation’s training facilities. However, what is most striking is the imagery that was produced: Islamic State as a dark monster, the white spies as angels; the country – which harbours freedom, security, rights and peace – being protected by the services’ ‘invisible hands’ against drugs, crime, terrorism, war, weapons and the cyber threat.

These are expressions not just of fear but of paranoia, and as such of decidedly dubious pedagogic value. Whose end does it serve to ask children to explore these feelings while competing for the privilege of parading in front of agency recruiters? What critical engagement could possibly exist under these conditions? Yet some of the exhibited works, if not critical, are at least somewhat acerbic. Like this one, showing the institution of the state’s secret as the cogs in a mysterious machine:

Or this representation of the ‘cyber threat’, in which it’s impossible quite to rule out that some of the eyes looking upon our work may belong to the agents of the state:

The overall effect, however, is of one of normalisation: both of fear as the defining feeling of the contemporary condition, and as secret policing as the existential line of defence. Thus the role of the agencies is not to quell that fear – for doing so would make them redundant – but reassure that not all bad things that could happen will happen.

When I was a boy, and the country was shaken by horrors brought about in large part by the state, we were spared such comforts. My fears remained unexpressed, bottled in that way that children have of speaking about some things but not others – perhaps out of an anxiety that putting them in words might make them more real. Or maybe I felt that my parents couldn’t help me through those feelings, and that they were dealing with fears of their own, too large and too distant from mine. Either way, it worked, on them and on me: our anxieties made us crave the security on offer, even as it came in exchange for never securing justice for most of those atrocities.

We live in dangerous times. Haven’t we always? And the answer, if there is one – the political answer, I mean – is to erect as many defences as we can against being manipulated in the name of the bad things that could happen.

Originally published at Overland

Monday, February 22, 2016

The weight of the sky

As a child I was fascinated by the idea that the Greeks and other ancients perceived the heavens as being solid. The most famous depiction, in the West, is that of Atlas holding up the sky. The Greeks also figured out that the Earth was round, but had an even more sophisticated perception of the geometry of the sky and thought that it was also round. Round and solid. A sphere.

The Farnese Atlas, Roman copy of the 2nd century BC Greek original

Atlas was condemned by Zeus to hold up the sky as punishment for joining Chronos in the god wars. I’m not sure who had been holding it up until that point, nor am I sure how Atlas managed to sustain a sex life subsequently, seeing as he fathered – among others – the Pleiades, the stars of Matariki. Maybe it was during his brief holiday, when Herakles took over his job in exchange for Atlas snatching the apples from the Esperides on his behalf. This is Herakles on the job.

When Atlas came back, he appeared reluctant to relieve the hero of the celestial burden. So Herakles asked him to hold it for a minute while he tied his sandal straps then wandered off, whistling casually. Yes: he wasn’t the brightest fellow in titandom, old Atlas. However, somewhat incongruously, we still name atlases after him in spite of the fact they are mostly maps of the Earth, rather than the sky. That’s because the great Dutch cartographer Mercator put him on the cover. This, from a 1634 edition of the 1607 original.

I remained fascinated about the concept of the weight of air, growing up. Air exerts pressure, this much I knew. And changes in pressure changed the nature of gases and liquids, this I also knew. For instance, when we holidayed in our caravan in the Alps I knew pasta would take longer to cook, because water no longer boiled at 100°C, but at a lower temperature, due to the decrease in pressure. I was also told – but couldn’t quite so readily observe – that there was less oxygen at high altitudes. This seemed counterintuitive as I found it quite easy to go on long mountain hikes, compared to when I had to breathe the miasmic gas of the city.

Pressure is essentially the weight of the atmosphere above our heads, which is 100 km high. That’s how much sky there is above us, up to the so called Kármán line, above which point molecules are so far apart it counts as outer space. All this air is a mix of gases – chiefly nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) – whose molecules aren’t weightless. The whole atmosphere has been estimated to weigh over 5 million billion metric tons, but I find that quite meaningless. Another way to think about it is that we walk around with a column of air as wide as our shoulders above our heads. At sea level, this column exerts a pressure – that is to say, weighs – 14 pounds per square inch, or 10 metric tons per square metre. And if a plane travels directly above you head, for a fraction of a second its weight forms part of the weight of that column of air. We’re all little Atlases, walking around like that.

I took a photo of the sky last month. The beautiful Wellington summer sky, which goes on and on.

One of the things I like about Wellington is that the sky has true depth, unlike the northern Italian sky of my youth, whose encircling Alps kept as if under a lid. I don’t know anything about the physics of why that is, but I can tell the difference: over here I can see the sky and how much of it there is.

Back to our 100 km-tall column of air, occasionally containing passing planes. At 10 metric tons per square metre, even our little portable sky by rights should crush us immediately. But it’s easier to think of the air as operating like a liquid. We stand at the bottom of a sea of sky. And while the pressure is higher at the bottom, as it is in the sea, it’s also all around us, which supports us as we walk, or swim. Archimedes’ law applies in the air as much as in water, in other words. Pressure buoys us at the same time as it weighs on us.

So long as we are talking arbitrarily closed systems, we might also say that portions of clear sky are heavier than equal portions of cloudy sky. Here we must distinguish between cause and effect: bad weather occurs because (pardon the simplification) areas of low pressures relative to areas of high pressure cause air to rise and cool, condensing into water vapour – that’s the cause – whereas weighing a certain volume of clear sky versus the same volume of cloudy sky is a rather crude way of measuring a local effect that may not apply to the entire system. But anyway, I really just want to bring up Amedeo Avogadro, that old looker.

The air is made of gas and in 1811 Avogadro theorised that different gases contain the same number of atoms and molecules per unit of volume given the same atmospheric conditions. Therefore humid air entails the substitution of some of the nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere with an equal number of molecules of water vapour, in order to maintain the Avogadro constant, well, constant. And because water weighs less than either nitrogen or oxygen, given the same temperature and pressure a slice of clear sky weighs more than a slice of cloudy sky of equal volume.

Okay, I’m nearly done. Planes. Planes travel typically at 30,000 feet and above because the air is less dense there, so it’s easier to push against it. At the same time, the cabin has to be pressurised because at that altitude there is too little oxygen for people to breathe. If it were pressurised at 1 atmosphere, meaning the pressure at sea level, this high pressure would push against the walls of the plane, which would have to be extremely heavy to withstand it. So on most planes the pressure is kept at the equivalent of 7,000 to 8,000 feet of altitude. That’s the height of my childhood caravan holidays. The new Boeing 787s can afford to increase the cabin pressure (or lower the artificial altitude, if you like) because they are made of carbon and are not subject to metal fatigue.

Finally: temperature. This one has always confused the hell out of me, as the effects of altitude on temperature aren’t linear. They zig and zag. Up to about the height of a Mount Everest and a half, temperature decreases the further up you go. Which is counter-intuitive if you think you’re getting close to the sun, but at those low altitudes most of the heat is reflected by the surface of the Earth. Then from 14,000 to 50,000 metres (that is to say, in the stratosphere), temperature increases with altitude, because sun radiation is the main heater. Then from 50,000 to 90,000 metres you get into the mesosphere, where temperature falls again due to the high concentrations of ozone, which filters sun radiation, and carbon dioxide, which at those altitudes has a complex cooling effect. (Where by complex I mean ‘I don’t really understand it’.) Finally in the last 10 kilometres of atmosphere, up to Kármán line, the temperature rises again due to the unfiltered radiation, but gas molecules are so far apart that it no longer makes a lot of sense to even speak of temperature.

These are some things I learned lately about the sky. I hope they’re not wrong.

In sad news this week, Umberto Eco died. You can read the obituary I wrote for Overland if you like.

Monday, February 15, 2016


The film premiered last year at Cannes but is screening locally only now as part of the French Film Festival. Yet the timing, given the phase that the debate on refugees and the Double the Quota campaign have reached, in many ways couldn’t be better. This is a film that everyone should see, and now’s the time to do it.

Not that Mediterranea is about refugees proper. Its protagonists, Ayiva and Abas, are economic migrants, fleeing a country in which they couldn’t eke out a living for another that less than a hundred years ago sent its starving sons and daughters to America and Australia. We encounter the pair in Algeria, after they left their native Burkina Faso, and follow them into Libya – where they get robbed at rifle-point of their few belongings – and, most terrifyingly, on to the sea, on an overloaded barque driven by a passenger selected on the spot by the smugglers, then sent out, unequipped, towards possible if not probable death.

This is the risk they take. Figures for the fist eleven months of 2014 (the year the film was shot) catalogue the loss of 3,419 souls on this, ‘the deadliest road in the world’. If we put them in relation to the number of crossings, they are the numbers one might expect in a war zone. But still we don’t call these people refugees.

Reach the other side the fragile boat does, although not without strife. And the other side is Italy, or more precisely the small town of Rosarno, in Calabria, which in 2010 was the scene of riots by the African seasonal workers exasperated by their inhuman living and working conditions.

Film director Jonas Carpignano visited the town after the riots, and it was here that he met Burkinabe migrant Koudous Seihon, whose life story became the inspiration for the character he plays in Mediterranea. Building on his two short features, A chjàna and A ciambra, Carpignano tells the story of the two friends in sparse, direct style. Using the apparatus of cinéma verite he places us with them, even if it means having to read their background and motivations hesitantly, in the folds of the story. The result is a remarkably unsentimental portrayal of the struggle to settle in a country that offers no security and responds with racist violence to the demand for justice.

Given a three month temporary visa by the Italian authorities, during which time they must somehow obtain a regular employment contract to escape deportation, the two friends find seasonal work picking oranges. But while Ayiva is singled out by the orchard's owner for his attitude, and is even welcomed on the odd occasion at the family table, Abas doesn’t tolerate the discipline, the poor pay, and having to live as a squatter under constant threat of being robbed or evicted by the local police. Both ultimately face the same decision: whether to be a diligent worker and cultivate the faint hope that this will lead to disenfranchisement, or return to his country and a life that seems no worse than their new one. The eventual resolution is both poignant and heart-rending.

Grim as the film is, it has its hopeful moments, as well as a peculiar warmth. It also features Pio Amato, the wheeling and dealing Romani boy of A ciambra (in English ‘Young Lions of Gypsy’), the short that won the critics’ prize at Cannes the year before Mediterranea made its debut. Gloriously playing himself, Pio only has three scenes, but they alone justify the cost and the trouble of seeing this important and timely film.

Mediterranea will play around New Zealand on the following dates:

Sat 21 Feb 6.30pm
Fri 26 Feb 1.15pm
Sat 27 Feb 10.30pm
Sat 5 Mar 11.00am

Auckland – Rialto Cinemas
Sun 28 Feb 3.00pm
Fri 4 Mar 1.00pm
Mon 7 Mar 6.30pm
Sat 12 Mar 11.55am

Auckland – Takapuna
Sat 27 Feb 1.45pm
Sun 13 Mar 4.30pm

Sat 5 Mar 1.45pm
Sun 20 Mar 5.10pm

Wed 16 Mar 7.40pm
Sun 20 Mar 5.20pm

Tue 15 Mar 8.30pm
Thu 17 Mar 1.20pm

New Plymouth
Sun 20 Mar 5.20pm

Sat 19 Mar 8.30pm

Mon 21 Mar 8.30pm

Palmerston North
Thu 24 Mar 6.00pm

Sun 3 April 3.00pm
Thu 7 April 1.30pm

Havelock North
Sat 9 April 1.15pm

Tue 5 April 8.30pm
Fri 8 April 12.00pm

You can get tickets here.

Monday, February 8, 2016

I don't protest, I love

It was an especially grotesque pronouncement against the basic right to protest that greased the chute. Before I knew it, I was neck-deep inside YouTube looking for clips from the old musicarelli, and one in particular, starring the young Caterina Caselli.

The film was entitled Io non protesto, io amo (‘I don’t protest, I love’), and is to post-1968 Italian cinema as Hello, Dolly is to the great season of American cinema of the late 60s and 1970s. That is to say: an entertaining aberration, a work you would struggle to place in the same century, let lone the same decade, so quickly it was overtaken by events within the film industry and the taste of audiences.

The connection with the police state enthusiasts who equate blocking traffic to an act of war may seem tenuous, but sometimes I like to engage in this kind of mental exercise. Take meat-packing company AFFCO, which over the weekend threatened their employees with a notice of illegal strike should they choose to observe a statutory holiday that is guaranteed to them by the law. How are we to process this kind of attack not just on specific workers’ rights, but on the very idea that workers should have any rights at all? Where does this mindset come from, how long ago was it common? What kind of art and entertainment it produced, when it was closer to mainstream thinking?

Italy in the 1960s was a country waking up from an economy boom, which had just experienced – albeit unequally, in painful fits – its first taste of consumerist prosperity. In the eve of a long decade of protests that exposed the hidden fissures in that society, the musicarelli – a play between the word ‘musical’ and the name of the enormously popular prime-time television show devoted to screening ads – seem almost charmingly oblivious to what is to come. Their Italy is a country in which young people demand the right to listen to new musical genres and to their favourite bands, but the demand isn’t truly cultural, much less political. Like in the films starring Shirley Temple in Depression-era America, these kids want to be allowed to dance but in no way rebel. As if society could accommodate dancing – that is to say, freedom – without changing in some deeper way.

Originally modelled on the films of Elvis Presley or Bill Haley, the musicarelli were pop star vehicles whose objectives sometimes included launching actual musical hits. Unsurprisingly, or perhaps mercifully, YouTube stores them in the form of musical numbers, without the surrounding filler. Or, if you’re lucky, you might find the original trailer.

I was lucky. Here’s the original trailer.

Play the video directly in YouTube. I don’t embed, I love.

In I Don’t Protest, I Love (1967), Caterina Caselli is a singing school teacher who sometimes uses singing to teach. A crusty local aristocrat (character actor Livio Lorenzon, whom you may remember from such spaghetti westerns as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) initially attempts to stamp down on the devilish practice, but then decides to try and exploit her talents by offering to launch her commercial career. However, her young fiancé (Terence Hill, of international Bud Spencer and Terence Hill fame, except at this stage he still went by the name of Mario Girotti), loves her so much he wants to stop her being a singer and she, uttering the epic words of the film’s title, announces she will choose… I don’t know, housewifery over having a career I suppose. What the ‘and they lived happily ever after’ part might look like is left implicit as far as I recall.

Even more extravagantly and abruptly outdated than this patriarchy-friendly resolution is the musical number ‘Biciclette bianche’ (‘White bicycles’), the warped mock-protest song excerpted in the trailer whose opening stanza goes as follows:
One morning you’ll wake up
In a white world, a white worldAnd you’ll find yourself in a white world
In a white world, a white worldA bright dawn will spread through the sky, woah, woah, woah
Above the your city filled with smog,
Above all cities.
Play the video

This isn’t a supremacist anthem: the film is far too naïve for that sort of thing and besides racial conflict was effectively absent from the collective national consciousness at the time. The song is really an appeal to conformity, or perhaps to hoping for an improvement in the general conditions, phrased so as to avoid any association with real, existing protest slogans or colours. Reminiscent as the song is of Coca-Cola’s famous I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing – which was to be filmed near Rome four years later, and may owe a debt to the genre – the musicarelli themselves were knocked over by the change in the socio-political wind and ceased production virtually from one day to the next. At the same time, and not casually, it became harder for musicians to avoid taking a political side – not to mention how if they tried not to, it was perceived as taking the wrong one. Either way, songs like White Bicycles became a whole lot more difficult to sing and to sell. Which is no bad thing.

I have no overarching moral to offer: much as these films are interesting social documents, sometimes my chasing such historical detritus is a way to avoid dealing with the depressing present. But I also wanted to highlight that idea, that ‘protest’ is the opposite of ‘love’ – a point the media establishment tries to foist on us every year around Waitangi Day – and how wrong it is. Unless you live in a white world, that is.

If you head over to Overland, I’m covering another Italian film this week – the late Ettore Scola’s masterful A Special Day.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

My fucking food bag: pizza marinara

It’s called marinara because it was the food of Neapolitan fishing crews, but after this point the theories vary: it was either the flavoured bread they took out on long expeditions, or a pizza sold on land. According to this latter version, ironically the marinara would be a pizza minus the fish: that is to say a pizza with anchovies, only without the anchovies, sold to impoverished fishermen at times of high fish prices and not dissimilar in this to that great Sicilian dish, the ‘pasta with sardines at sea’. As in: ‘Why are there no sardines in this pasta?’ ‘They are at sea.’

There is an ancient pizzeria in Naples called Port’Alba, and it is here that, as the legend goes, a pizzaiolo first decided some time in the 1730s to use humble garlic as a substitute for the noble anchovy. Regardless of whether you credit this theory or not, the basic fact remains that for centuries pizza marinara was poor people’s food, its ingredients being the cheapest one could imagine at those latitudes: flour, water, yeast, tomato, garlic, salt, olive oil, oregano. So in today’s instalment of my fucking food bag – where I don’t send boxed ingredients to your home, and you still get to cook yourself, but hey, at least it’s free – I’m going to take you through this very simple preparation.

There really is no point in making a pizza marinara. You have to make two. Unless you have tiny hands, kneading pizza dough for a single, thin disc is frustrating and a waste of effort. So the ingredients are for a half-kilo dough that makes two bases, but instead of making the second pizza I’m going to teach you how to make focaccia with potatoes and rosemary while I’m at it.


500 g of flour
70 ml extra virgin olive oil
Fresh baker’s yeast (10 g)
Garlic (2 cloves)
Lukewarm water (275 ml)

Let’s pretend I hadn’t taken you through the pizza process before. It was years ago now. Also I may have tweaked the recipe somewhat.

Get yourself some fresh yeast. I buy mine in 1 kg bricks at Moore Wilson’s in Wellington – did you know? baker’s yeast freezes fine – but most supermarkets in the country that still bake their own bread sell it in 100 gram lots for a dollar, though sometimes you have to ask. You need just 10 grams, which you’ll leave in a cup of lukewarm water and sugar (one teaspoon) while you clean your cooking surface and assemble the other ingredients.

Put 500 grams (four cups) of flour in a mixing bowl, mix in two teaspoons of salt and add 50 ml (roughly three tablespoons) of olive oil. Now, seriously: it has to be extra virgin. It barely costs more than non-extra virgin anyway and makes untold difference.

At this point the yeast should have started frothing in the cup. We’re looking for this sort of effect. If it’s very fresh, it will audibly fizz.

Chuck the yeast in, add as much lukewarm water as you need to get to 275 ml. It’s important that you do this. Don’t skimp on the water. You don’t want a stodgy dough.

Now you mix the lot with a spoon or other implement in the bowl, until the liquids are well absorbed.

Then you move the rough mixture onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough. I’m not going to tell you how – just remember to push with your palms rather than mix with your fingers. The mixture at this point should be soft but sticky. Knead and add a bit of flour if necessary until it stops sticking to the kneading surface and your hands, but not so much that the dough loses its lightness and elasticity. I cannot over-emphasise this part. It’s the only thing standing between you and champion pizza-making.

At the end, we want a ball like this, which we’ll put back in the bowl to rise in a dark, warm place for an hour or so, or until it has doubled in size.

In the meantime, crack open a can of boiled peeled tomatoes, add a pinch of salt. I pulp the tomatoes with a mixer these days, so it becomes a smooth sauce. You’re only going to need a third or so, use the rest for cooking something else or freeze it to make more pizzas. Cut the garlic cloves quite thinly. Now is also a good time to turn the oven on and pre-heat the hell out of it. Hotter the better.

Once the dough has risen, split it in half. Stretch one half into a disc of the diameter of your largest oven tray using your hands, a rolling pin or gentle persuasion. You don’t need to grease the oven tray, unless it’s one of those deep, thick ones. However, for thin pizza it’s much better to use a thin aluminium tray if you have it. Personally I’ve stopped mucking around with pizza stones altogether.

Add the sauce – four, five tablespoons – and spread it on the base. Sprinkle oregano. Lay out the garlic slices. As for the oil, the highly codified rules of authentic Neapolitan pizza demand that you pour it using a copper vessel with a long spout in a spiral motion starting at the centre. A drizzle is sufficient.

Slide it into the oven for as long as it takes. If you have a good oven, it will be as little as 8 to 10 minutes. In a wood-fired oven at the prescribed surface temperature of 430°C it’s supposed to take no longer than 90 seconds. Our kitchen oven is very sluggish, hence the paleness – but you have to take it out when the bottom is done.

This is it: consume. It’s great summer fare, light, tasty, good to take out for walks or throw at vegan friends. Admittedly I buy some of the ingredients in bulk (flour, yeast), but I’ve costed it generously at $1.20. Those impoverished Neapolitan fishermen really knew how to stretch the budget.

Speaking of which, we’re going to use the rest of the dough. (Although it too freezes fine.) I’ve started making thin focaccia again, using the entire surface of the tray for half a dough – as thin as pizza, in other words.

There used to be a place in Piazza delle Erbe in Verona where you could buy excellent pizza by the slice but one of their specialties was focaccia with potatoes and rosemary I've tried to recreate ever since. The ingredients – bear with me here – are potatoes and rosemary.

You slice a medium-to-large potato very thinly. Justine suggested I used the slicing blade of our grater this time, and it worked well. Spread the base as per the previous procedure – you don’t need to grease the tray this time either – lay out the potatoes, sprinkle the rosemary, do the spiral-motion thing with your olive oil. Then add salt. Rock salt is perfect here. In New Zealand this kind of salt still sells for extortionate prices in small spice-style containers, but you can also find it by the bag at human rates. Grind some on top and slide in the oven. It should take even less than the pizza to cook.

This will set you back another dollar or so, is also vegan and highly delicious, though it can take a couple of tries to locate the perfect cooking point.

Let me know how you get on.