...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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September 28, 2005 || 9:49 am
Scattered thoughts

The errands pile up and get dealt with: buying clothes, taking my violin to the shop to get a new bridge (the old one being completely warped by a year of Alabamian humidity), ordering a new credit card (they didn't automatically replace my old one because I spent too little money on it, can you believe!), going through a stack of mail, finally getting my super-long jeans taken up. Punctuated by some very nice eating and friend-seeing - St John Bread and Wine, Kulu Kulu sushi - and a long and interesting conversation about the nature of religion with a visiting fellow-blogger in Bar Italia to the background of the Inter-Rangers game. The conversation originated from, of all things, talking about the Internet: the parallel being the interconnectedness of everything made apparent by the linking world of the web, and that this is, of course, what religion is all about as well, at least if you are into mystical Kabbalah. So apparently I can forget about all the God stuff and still be 'religious', or something, because God is just a metaphor for the world/order/chaos/fate. Hooray! I'm back to church on Sunday, then.

But to be less flippant, I absolutely agree that for me, the essence of religious teachings from almost every religion is metaphorical not literal, and about the understanding, ordering and connecting together of the world around us - the linking of cause and effect in a way that is analogous to chaos theory, the understanding of the relativity yet importance of moral actions, teaching humanity, kindness, humility as opposed to the fallacy of 'absolute' knowledge or 'truth' and so forth. And, as I wrote the other day, I enjoy the ritual of church (or synagogue, or mosque) and glimpse of the ephemeral and 'other' that such a moment of silence and concentration allows me.

But still I struggle with the 'God stuff' in its historical and contemporary manifestations. While for me personally that's fine, but in terms of my understanding of 'religions' in the world at large - conflicts over dogma, let alone wars and crusades - I can't understand why, if this metaphorical conception of 'God' and the religious texts is so damn obvious to the two of us sitting in a cafe in Soho, the mainstream religious leaders, who must be infinitely better read, knowledgable and wise than us, can't also broadcast this message to their warring flocks.


September 26, 2005 || 10:27 am
On race relations, integration and equality

[Note: I was tickled to read Tom Coates on how he hasn't had time to blog about the things he really wants to write about. This post has been 'in progress for several days: it's rough and incomplete but I decided I should post it up anyway, otherwise I'd never get it out...so forgive any excess bluntness!]

Race, due to Trevor Phillips recent comments, due to the disaster of Katrina, and the bombings in London, is high on the agenda. I've just lived for a year in an area where racism is popularly supposed to be the worst in the States, coming from the area of London that it is famous for being the 'melting-pot' of immigrants, with a white minority. I can only comment with any authority on the relationship of race to physical space - the much-used word 'ghetto', and the place of physical 'pepperpotting' of ethnic families in neighbourhoods.

West Alabama is somewhere where de-segregation has happened legally regarding jobs, voting and services, yet where huge physical and social segregation is still visible. There are white neighbourhoods and black neighbourhoods; churches are almost all (voluntarily) segregated; some white and wealthier businessmen don't deal with blacks (for example, a realtor not renting to blacks) and socially, whites and blacks choose to spend their time in separate bars listening to opposite types of music. Institutional racism, in terms of the gerrymandering of electoral districts, the unequal provision of education due to laws linking its funding to property taxes; and the bad design of state and federal programmes so that they misfit with the real needs of deprived people (mostly black): is rampant. Black and white politicians are equally corrupt, however, with their garnering of votes from the dead, and black-run programmes are accused, often correctly, of maladministration and racial favoritism.

Yet day to day, most whites work next to black people, care about their welfare, treat them well and ask about their children. I have had days there of incredible optimism, whether it was seeing black kids dancing on stage last weekend to old-time string bands, or just seeing the civility with which people treat each other in the gas stations and shops, the jokes exchanged between white and black blue-collar workers queuing together at the lunch counters, and the kindness and generosity of many of the wealthier white families towards black families with nothing at all, such as during Katrina. But the casual comments about blacks continue, whether about their drug and crime habits, their promiscuity or their welfare culture. These comments are chicken-and-egg, justified in some senses, but equally the phenomena that they refer to are the product of centuries of inequality and lack of opportunity, breeding apathy through a lack of hope.

The East End, you might say, is the pepper-pot model, where white, black British, Bangladeshi, Turkish and African families live cheek by jowl crammed together into squalid housing estates, included in the same neighbourhood regeneration schemes, living in the same terraces of Victorian houses. But I have more non-white friends in Greensboro, Alabama than I do in London. I know more about what the news is in the black community, what everyone's up to, in Alabama than I know about what preoccupies my Bangladeshi neighbours in London, or even what on earth the Turkish people living in the flat directly below me actually do for a living. This is nothing to do with the physical segregation, or lack of: it is entirely due to pace of life. In Greensboro I have the time to talk to people, get to know the ordinary people who surround me, and hear all the news. This is called nosiness, or community cohesion, depending on who you ask.

The fact, and my shame, of the matter is that in London I simply did not make the effort. My Turkish neighbours could be terrorists for all I know, but every time I tried to talk to them I couldn't understand a word they said and after a while I gave up. I didn't want them to think I was being nosy, or racially profiling them, by quizzing them - how ironic. Should they have been more open with me? Yes. They should have tried to get to know me as much as I should have tried harder to get to know them. They could have learnt more English. The most I knew about them was that they used to play Turkish music loudly beneath my bedroom and sometimes I wanted to go down and tell them to shut up, but I felt embarrassed to do so because they were all men and I felt they looked at me funny and were sexist. I loved overhearing the Cockney-accented Bangladeshi girls on the bus talking about how the boys they knew were pathetic, but I never joined in their conversation. I felt both excluded by virtue of my different cultural background, but also shy and not wanting to make comments that might be perceived by them to be either judgemental, stupid or unwelcome.

Trevor Phillips appeared to be advocating the kind of mixed-ethnicity neighbourhoods that exist in the East End as opposed to the segregated neighbourhoods common to me from the southern USA. Yet the word 'ghetto' to me doesn't accurately describe the phenomenon of ethnically homogenous communities, as to me it is reminiscent of forcing an minority group to live apart from the dominant ethnicity. In the States most black people choose to live around other black people, because of reasons of family, community, land ownership and historical solidarity, not to mention the provision of local shops and services that cater to their particular needs and tastes. [The exception to this is obviously the middle-class black urbanites who often reject the 'black culture' of the lower income groups.] To force these people to live in 'mixed' neighbourhoods will not automatically lead to greater social integration, as we can see in areas like East London. And how can any government legislate for this? It can act against racism by rental agencies, housing associations or residents' groups but fundamentally if a Bangladeshi family wants to live in an area where there are mosques, halal butchers and sari shops, this is normal and to be respected. We cannot control who chooses to buy a house where.

But in our schools, shops, workplaces and streets - those 'places of exchange' and neutral grounds - as individuals we can and must make more time to get to know our neighbours and colleagues as people. Your Filipino cleaning lady - you probably have no idea how many kids she has or even where she lives. Your shopkeepers, checkout girls, street cleaner, petrol station attendant - they are Jane Jacobs' "public characters" who, through their everyday actions, bind our communities together, act as communal resources for those of us who are less 'public' in the way we lead our lives and know all the local news, if you just bothered to ask. Although in Britain, our institutional and passively sanctioned racism may be less than in the Southern USA, I would venture to say that perhaps our ignorance on a personal level - our ignoring, really - of other ethnicities and social groups is greater.

You can't force us to live next to a person of a different race, or make us have some token black friends. But as citizens, I would consider it our civic duty, not to mention good neighbourly manners, to get to know those who surround us, who serve us, who we encounter in our everyday lives, whether of a different race or class or not: to talk to them and listen to them, to help them if they need help and look out for them in times of trouble. Then, we may be able to call ourselves a society, let alone an integrated one.


8:44 am
A London weekend

Settling back into London, I've been trying to keep myself as active as possible. One of my worst tendencies in this city is to lapse into laziness, caused by always being slightly overtired, stressed and - well, just lazy about travelling more than a mile from my front door. But this time around, I'm determined to make more effort to keep work and life in balance and actively seek out and take part in new events and venues.

On Friday night we treated ourselves to a good St John dinner, followed by pints in the pub with friends. Saturday was more active, with a frustrating (as usual) shopping trip to buy myself a wardrobe of worksafe clothing to replace the ragged t-shirts and cut-off shorts which a year in Alabama has left me with. In the evening we went to the Reclaim the Beach party on the Thames foreshore beneath Charing Cross bridge. Much fun was had by all dancing away, drinking and beachcombing by moonlight (or rather, the glow of the streetlights) for Roman pipes. The sheer novelty of an event in London that was outdoors, free and semi-legal but police-tolerated was heartening somehow, giving me a little more hope that the return to expensive, restrictive city living may be bearable if more spontaneous and unusual events like these happen.

Sunday, we went, in my newfound passion for church-going, to Evensong at St Pauls! [Note to readers: I'm not a born-again Christian, don't worry. I skip over mumbling the Creed but join in wholeheartedly with the hymns for the novelty of actually singing in public.] The service was classic and soothing, with full sung Responses and good readings to meditate upon. I hope they never stop using the King James Bible for Anglican services. We were also lucky enough to catch the Admission of new choristers to the choir - six tiny, cleanfaced, angelic little boys all dressed up in their robes, being inducted by the Dean and Headmaster of the cathedral school - incredibly cute.

Then it was up to Camden to go on my first adventure into seeking out American music in London town - at "http://www.comedownandmeetthefolks.co.uk/"Come down and meet the folks"> at the Fiddler's Elbow pub. It was pretty fun - the people who were playing for the 6-8pm live set were more alt-country than what I am really looking for to get into (old-time/blues/cajun/swing) but still, it was great to hear live music and check out what the scene was like. Back for a quick local meal and into bed.


September 22, 2005 || 7:05 pm
Back in the UK

A mixed feeling of delight and sadness at being back in the UK for the foreseeable future, one year and one month after I left in a similar mixture of excitement and apprehension for Alabama. The sheer monotony and familiarity of the journey back to England (I've crossed the Atlantic 8 times this year) did something to smooth away my sadness but it was still with a heavy heart that I arrived back in foggy, cold Gatwick - the weather never helps when returning to England! - and it was quickly back to business as usual on the miserably crowded, late train into town.

But the weather cleared and a warm sunshine took over; and London looked a little more palatable. I picked up a shiny, fresh conker in the street as I walked around Canonbury and Highbury for a couple of hours. Somehow it was cool and smooth, and remained cold despite being in my pocket. Highbury Fields looked beautiful and peaceful, and schoolkids chatted in groups on the street - a very London scene. It's funny how the new fashion for flat-soled pumps for girls makes them look very old-fashioned in silhouette - with their black tights or knee-high socks, and their little Peter Rabbit feet on the bottom. They look like something out of St Trinians, or even earlier - Blake's schoolkids, or something from an 18th century engraving.


September 21, 2005 || 6:02 pm
New feed

For those of you who are so minded, I've got a new RSS/Atom feed going so you can subscribe to the blog - it incorporates both the regular posts and the Ephemera too in one nifty feed and it's here. For those of you who still haven't discovered the joys of RSS as a new method of procrastination, here's an explanation of what it is, courtesy of the Beeb.


September 19, 2005 || 9:29 am
Goodbye to all that...

Another wonderful weekend of music up at Paint Rock Valley Lodge - perhaps the most fun festival we've done, but one that also made me totally miserable that I'm going to be leaving all of this in two days.

As my last gig with my wonderful band, it was the perfect way to cap off my year with them, but still, thinking how at my first festival here, I knew nothing at all about how to play all this old music, and what a fantastic learning curve I've had since then and, listening to the other bands that were playing at the weekend, how much I still could be learning, it's heartbreaking to have to leave it all behind. No matter what I manage to find in England, music-wise, it's going to be nothing compared to the whole-hearted, genuinely communal musical events that happen here.

The festival had the best buck-dancers and cloggers that I'd encountered here, perfect for the old-time fiddle tunes and claw-hammer stuff that we play. I've never had a bigger thrill than playing for a six-times national buckdancing champion, the crowd whooping and hollering, and him taking centre stage surrounded by fantastic dancers of all ages. As always, we met some fantastic people, learnt new tunes, swapped licks, told stories and jammed in the campground till the wee hours.

I got back to Greensboro and moped around on the verge of tears, torturing myself further by listening to old-time string music on my iPod while coming up with every more ridiculous plans for getting myself back to Alabama as soon as possible.


September 15, 2005 || 5:54 pm
And another report...

Another week, another Demos report. This time its on 'People making Places', paid for by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Again, it is another worthy retelling of the old tale that it's actually the way that people use places that make them successful, and this has to do with the way they are programmed and managed, not just how pretty they are. Well I never.

David Wilcox blogs it aptly:
The issue in many of the areas researched by JRF these days is not so much knowing the problem, but getting the public agencies who can do something about it engaged and working together. I fear that the more research you produce, the more Government and other agencies can say - "ah yes, we know about that and are working on a comprehensive strategy".

I.e.: less research, more action. Or maybe, action research - that idea so novel that the guy who coined the term died in 1947. At the Rural Studio, each team every year learns exactly the lessons that this (and every other public space report) puts out, simply by actually trying to do something on the ground. And hey, at the end of the year, the community has four or five new buildings to use, too! Our thinktanks might come up with more radical conclusions if their researchers actually tried to implement a real, built project on the ground.

And if our think-tanks and public agencies continue to lack the action streak, well, lets do it ourselves, rather than whinge about how useless they are.

[Note to Demos: I'm not picking on you in particular. But as you've put yourselves in the field of doing a lot of work around issues that I'm interested in, you are opening yourselves to critique. But I mean for this to be a more generalised criticism of the system of thinktanks/researchers/endless policy recommendations that all say the same thing, when perhaps that money should be spent more fruitfully by implementing actual projects, rather than talking about it. Just in case you flame me like last time...)


September 14, 2005 || 3:15 pm
Small design changes

I'm thinking that this blog might move more towards an essay-based version of life rather than a blog-as-collection of links. Most people who read blogs will probably know about anything I link to already through a bigger website than mine. But I know that a lot of my readers read almost no other blogs apart from mine and don't have an RSS feed popping up constantly on their desktop - so there's a new ephemera section on the side - stuff that's newsworthy, interesting or amusing that y'all might be interested in.


September 13, 2005 || 9:44 am
From the world of the built and the unbuilt...

This is the look of the "inspiring suburban homes for the 21st century"?


Sad...and this isn't just about desiring a more 'modern' look. Are pitched roofs really the most efficient use of materials? (This is supposed to be an environmentally responsible development as well.) Do we really think that 'contextually-sensitive' needs to involve pastiche? are we still stuck in 1981 Milton Keynes? [sigh]. Not that I think that the alternative should be this...

It's sad that these seem to be the options that the public sees right now - plasticky modernism or watercoloured neo-vernacular. The means of rendering - bad photoshop vs bad 'artists impressions' - seems to be half the problem. There's no real impression of actual inhabitation, texture, light. You don't really think that your house will look like that, but your choice is between buying into the signals of watercolour (tradition) or photoshop (modern) - buying a lifestyle, not a design that will actually work for you in practice, in ten years time, that makes you feel good day after day.

Meanwhile, these guys want to actually build Tatlin's tower. Help them.


September 12, 2005 || 12:00 pm
Winning the Ashes

I can't really believe I'm sitting here while the Ashes are being won by England at the Oval. I saw the very first balls of this series at Lords in July and now...I'm here where no-one understands cricket, let alone the importance of this moment - and I just want to jump up and down and scream for joy! it's a terrible predicament - it's also only lunchtime and I desperately want to get champagne drunk.

What to do. Test Match Special over the internet and the Guardian over-by-over commentary only serve to increase my jealousy of my good friends back home who I know are in the pub right now. Please, can we have a delayed celebration next week when I get home? I've never been a more bizarre mixture of utterly ecstatic and completely depressed at having no-one to share it with.


September 11, 2005 || 11:51 am

As always, it's the music that gets me! and makes me physically pained at the thought that I'm leaving the States in ten days. We played a gig on Friday night in Selma, nothing that really mattered that much (fun but a pretty posh, old crowd), and I stood in with a local country band last night at a local bar - again, nothing 'high' musically, but the old feeling of how fun and personal it is to play music with other people came again, and how really, you hardly have to be able to speak to each other but when you play together, no matter how well or badly, something different happens...

This musical culture - sitting on the street the other night playing the blues, playing with my fellow Kudzus, playing last night on a last minute invitation, let alone the myriad little festivals, events and spontaneous occasions on which ordinary people get out their instruments and play - doesn't exist in England, which alone is a fact that makes me extremely sad to be coming 'home'. Sigh.

It's hard to explain - despite all the problems of the South, the racial divisions, the backwardness, the lack of hope in many ways, somehow I personally forget it all when I hear or play the music from this place - even though the music itself contains an acutely reflective social history of all this. And watching the crowd last night dance like mad and sing along to Hank Jr's 'Dinosaur' or 'Sweet Home Alabama', the unofficial state song around here, the fun they were having was so innocent, despite the 'whiteness' of the music and the white crowd. Rednecks and redneck music - well yes, and proud of it, as Hank sings, but why should this be a bad thing, necessarily? to celebrate your culture and roots? And I will always remember my client for the house I built, an 86 yr old black woman, dancing with a cheeky grin on her face to Buddy Holly, remembering her teenage dances. It's always more complex than you might think.

I'm really sad to be going back to somewhere that doesn't have music at such a central point in its everyday life. It is a cultural difference. Elvis isn't pop music - he's pure, high culture, as is Mississippi John Hurt, or Bob Wills, or Stevie Wonder. Their music is the pre-eminent American medium of cultural expression, preserving communal histories and memories, of marking time and geography and identity.

This is a badly expressed way of trying to say something that I think is important about music here and thus, about culture, identity, diversity - but, in the manner of the weblog, better written down than left in my head to be forgotten!


September 09, 2005 || 1:49 pm

I'm sorry - I loathe James Howard Kunstler. And it makes me sick to read him in conversation with Jane 'Goddess' Jacobs. Twisting her into a New Urbanist - ugh. He's so clever with his words, yet so stupid in their content. She is, sadly, getting old and probably surrounded with too many cronies, but yet almost everything she says shines with perception and intelligence. Unlike his loathsomely crude judgements.

A little quote from JHK: "[The Garden City movement] was in some ways another one of those really bad ideas that a lot of intelligent people fell for—including Mumford who got sucked in really big."

Are we going to be saying in 50 years that New Urbanism was another one of those really bad ideas that a lot of intelligent people fell for - including Jane Jacobs? Poor woman. What a sad misuse of her central work that it becomes the mantra for a whole lot of pastiche, sentimental, claustrophobic, fake 'urbanism'.


September 08, 2005 || 9:58 am
More Katrina fallout

Katrina continues to impact on Greensboro, over a week later and 300 miles away. We learnt yesterday that 10,000 elderly and disabled evacauees are to be housed in neighbouring Greene County in a Red Cross tent city - Greene County itself only has a population of 9,900, of which over a third are officially below the poverty line.

A rental truck stuffed full of donated items turned up in town from the Red Cross in Tuscaloosa - enormous amounts of donated clothing, shoes, random toys and other thrift-store miscellaneous items. Again reminding us of the physical ramifications of these donation drives - masses of stuff that is not, of course, what we most urgently need - food, diapers, baby formula, for example. And it's totally unsorted, piled up in black trash bags, and surely more clothing than we can reasonably distribute in our area.

Yesterday we learnt that the Red Cross has been giving out debit Mastercards that evacuees can use to buy things they need - $360 for one person, rising to $900 for a four-person household. But today they have run out, and they are giving out cash. Next week everyone will get a $2000 FEMA cheque.

Today Ron in Pam's office (where I am temporarily installed to do my work) is trying to organise cutting up, packaging, freezing and distributing some enormous amount of donated meat to the evacuees.

Meanwhile, I read this (via Crooked Timber) - a horrifying account of being trapped in New Orleans during the disaster and the appalling, inhuman response by the authorities. And this about what awaits the evacuees after they get to a FEMA camp. And then, you read a report this positive from somewhere else...

All of which only goes to show how disparate people's experiences of this disaster will be. For some it is living hell. For others, who end up in Austin, with a $900 Mastercard from the Red Cross, it will be dreamlike - a deliverance to a world where people are incredibly generous, where opportunities await. Greensboro also is clearly a haven for the many who are coming into Pam's office for help. But for some who have come to Hale County, I have heard reports that they are shocked by how backwards it is compared to what they are used to - even poor black families, being generously taken in by local black households (of course, housing works on racial lines here), are expressing dismay at the conditions that they find themselves in.

And I wonder how the local population feels about the cash and aid being doled out left and right to the evacuees, while they are sitting in the same poverty as they have experienced for decades, ignored by the authorities. I hope that the goodwill currently being shown to those who have arrived here doesn't turn to resentment, or worse. There haven't been any fund drives for the poor who live here year on year, with no running water, no sewage, no job, no nothing.


September 07, 2005 || 10:07 am

Meanwhile, life goes on here with lovely and horrifying moments. On Monday night, we had an impromptu dinner at Pam's apartment, where I stayed the last few nights, which ended up being a lovely affair, sitting on the pavement with candles as it was cooler than inside, eating, drinking and playing a little blues music too. Somehow, the kind of informal occasion that will never happen in London.

But at the same time we hear of horrendous news - an old local man, impoverished, black and disabled, killed by his nephew for $40 to buy crack, and dumped in a local sewage pond, bound with duct tape. The nephew then went on to shoot a local grocery store owner, and then went to ground before being found by police the other day. Presumably he was high during the whole incident, but the callousness and desperation of such deeds is so saddening. And now the family are sitting and grieving, and wanting to make T-shirts to memorialise Freeman Nixon, whose name is so strangely redolent of the conflicts and history of this community.

And more refugees arrive daily, along with some other random newcomers - a psychiatrist from California who just decided to up sticks and move to somewhere he feels more needed. His astonishment after one day in Hale County, being bombarded by information, experiences and people, was palpable as we sat over a Taco Tuesday meal at the local Mexican...

And an addendum: Please, if you live in the Southern USA, go to Katrina Home, and register yourself if you feel you might be able to help house some refugees. We really need you!


September 05, 2005 || 4:59 pm
Visiting the Gulf Coast

Yesterday we had a very strange day, getting up before dawn and leaving at 5am to drive down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast with donated supplies for the relief effort, specifically for a relative of someone in town who she was worried about, needing baby formula, food and other supplies. When we got to her, she was in fact a middle-class woman living in a middle-class subdivision outside Gulfport, and really didn't need any help whatsoever (power back on, air-conditioning running) so we gave her the stuff from her family and took the rest of our trailer-load of stuff around the area to see where there might be people who needed help.

We drove around Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula, not really knowing where we were going but trying to get a feel for the situation. Firstly, obviously there was an enormous amount of damage. Houses completely destroyed, not much electricity, mile-long lines for gas, shops and services wrecked by the storm. But the flooding had receded and from what we saw, this had enabled the relief operation in these areas (east of New Orleans, for those who don't know) to get underway pretty smoothly. The army were everywhere and the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other organisations had set up well-organised centres in carparks, churches and schools for distributing food, water, supplies and helping people get shelter if they needed it.

Also, nearly all the areas we saw were almost all middle- or upper-class - beach homes, condos, expensive houses or even just 'normal' houses, not the kind of poverty we are used to in Hale County. The kind of people who really didn't need help, despite their protestations of how hard it had been for them and how they didn't know what to do. Apart from the areas immediately on the coast, most houses were damaged, some badly, but still standing - so they had roofs over their heads. In many places the owners were getting on with chainsawing fallen trees, re-roofing and clearing up.

Looking for poorer people who might have less capacity to help themselves (a strange kind of way to sight-see), we spied a few trailer parks further to the east. But even there, it seemed like most people had evacuated, and although some trailers were completely and dramatically destroyed, the families who remained and that we talked to seemed in reasonably good shape. It was quite strange, because they were obviously in poverty and really needed long-term help with their housing and economic needs, but for our mission which was to deliver essential supplies to those who had no help, they all were pretty fine, being close enough to the relief stations that had been set up. They didn't complain at all about their conditions, in comparison to the middle-class families who all acted as though they were in desperate, traumatic suffering.

Eventually, we realised our naivety in thinking that we could just find people in these areas who hadn't been helped by the other relief organisations, and took our load of donated stuff to a Salvation Army centre, who were very grateful and who told us that they had been seeing a lot of people who really did need a lot of help. But it was a strange feeling knowing that inevitably, in the areas that we coudln't access because they were cut off by flooding or military roadblocks, there were thousands of people who really did need what we had brought, who had been starving for days, but there was no way for us to be able to help. The extremity of the situation in New Orleans area became all the more apparent - while the less urban, more wealthy Mississippi coast was getting back on its feet and operating, if not normally, at least with order and with the emergency relief that was needed, just a few miles west was a situation which, to judge by what I read of the news today, is still harrowing and pretty desperate.

After we dropped off the donated supplies, we went to help the relative of another local family who had asked if we could load some furniture from his flooded home onto our trailer and take it with us for storage while he rebuilt and straightened out. He, again, lived in a very middle-class neighbourhood and again, we were actually quite shocked by the scenes there. Every house had a huge pile of furniture, appliances and other stuff outside it in the front yard.

What we realised was that these people, whose homes had been briefly inundated by 4ft of water during the storm surge, had insurance, and therefore were getting rid of absolutely everything from their houses knowing that they would be able to pay for new. Fridges, brand-new washing-machines, plasma-screen TVs, cabinets, tables, beds, everything was being thrown away. To us, knowing that this furniture, even with a water-stain, would be invaluable to poor families who are sitting on packing crates because they have no chairs, this sight was a little short of sickening. We could furnish half Hale County with the stuff that was being simply put out for landfill by families who couldn't be bothered to clean it off and keep or recondition it. I wished for a semi-truck so we could take it all back with us.

So it was a strange, and very American, day into the disaster area, taking donated supplies from the richer Greensboro residents who wanted to 'help'. The same residents, one might add, who might not be as incredibly generous to those in their own town who desperately need help every day. It's easier to respond to an 'emergency'; it's less easy to change your ways and the social and economic systems that are at work creating both the black, homeless crowds seen on TV stuck in New Orleans, and the black families stuck out of sight on the back roads here in Hale County, both groups living on nothing and with no capacity at all to help themselves.


September 02, 2005 || 10:37 pm
Links on Katrina

Addendum -some blog reading matter on the politics of the New Orleans disaster - all worth reading.

Transcript of interview with NO mayor. A rant but still gives a real sense of his frustration, at least.

Boing Boing blogs an email on letting poor people drown.

The BBC reporters log is very thorough and terrifyingly detailed.

Corante on how come there aren't more resources being called up to help.

A bit too I-told-you-so but interesting post on how the authorities had been warned of what mgiht happen - from Wired.

Experiment in the power of wiki web mapping to get better information to those who need it during a disaster.

Daring to dream about a new New Orleans? WorldChanging looks ahead - I'm still trying to absorb the human and social impact of this rather than what physical form a rebuilt city could take (is a rebuilt city even socially feasible any more?) but nevertheless worth reading.

I don't know if there is a place for humour right now, but try this blackly funny photo.


8:39 pm
On the catastrophe

It's time, now the travelling has come to an end, to blog about the storm. I've had a lot of questions from friends and readers about it, but it's really hard to know where to start. Having been on the road, and therefore not glued to CNN, when it struck, I think we had quite a strange perspective on it. But in many ways, I think our gradual realisation of the depth and awfulness of this event mirrors the response of the authorities. And now I'm sitting in front of Larry King Live and the continuous roling coverage, I guess it's time for me to contribute my small thoughts on this disaster. I don't really know what kind of news is reaching the UK but I'll try to add some observations.

Firstly, I really have no words to describe the awfulness, the scale of this. More than the natural disaster of the storm itself, the absolute, total chaos that reigns everywhere, even far from the worst damage. Katrina hit over five days ago, yet it feels like absolutely no progress has been made to deal with the human and social disaster - in fact the reverse, the area is descending into increasing pandemonium. There has been a total breakdown of the rule of law. The scenes are straight out of central Africa, or the rioting slums of Latin America. People are raping, looting, shooting in the streets. No-one trusts in the authorities. Any semblance of control is absolutely false. The Red Cross is not operating in New Orleans because it is too dangerous, and police officers are deserting. Martial law is technically in place, but practically impossible. Analogies to the NGOs pulling out of Baghdad are not out of place. The mayor of NO has said that he doesn't think the city may survive another night of this anarchy, and he sounds, over a crackly phone line, absolutely desperate.

But what strikes me is that this social breakdown is absolutely symptomatic of the underlying frustration, rage and inequity that exists in the South. Behind the facade of the party city of New Orleans lies a huge black population living on the poverty line. It cannot excape notice that the crowds captured on camera roaming the streets are almost 100% black. White people simply can afford to evacuate, have somewhere to go, a way to pay for a motel or the gas to a northern city. While this will sound like a gross over-simplification, it is outrageously true. Poor blacks have no home insurance, no way to get out, no skills to deal with this kind of situation, to articulate what they need. The rage is genuine - Kanye West, the rapper, had made a statement that George Bush doesn't care about black Americans, and he speaks for many who feel absolutely abandoned.

The South always feels abandoned by federal government and this disaster, which in terms of death toll, sickness and destruction dwarfs 9/11, only reinforces this view that no-one cares. This is absolutely not to condone the violence and criminality that is occurring. But having had a year's experience of the South, let's be real about the lack of a strong social fabric in this region and the way it is ignored/glossed over until it boils over in these kind of ways. It should not surprise anyone that some people are acting in such bestial ways when the social fractures are as deep and complex as those in post-colonial Africa, somewhere that the 'West' now almost expects to react violently and suddenly to any event.

While aid agencies poured into the tsunami area, despite its massively bigger scale and devastation, America can't help its own five days after the event. The numbers of people are, relatively to other human catastrophes, small, but this is the world's richest country and yet absolutely no adequate response has been forthcoming. People are walking in raw sewage, because the National Guard and almost all its helicopters are in Iraq. Hospitals have no water or power, doctors are giving themselves intravenous drips because they are so malnourished.

I spoke today to Pam Dorr, who is trying to find ways to help in the area - and can't find a way to help. The authorities are telling agencies not to come to the area because they don't think there is anything they can do. Meanwhile, even Greensboro is sheltering people who have managed to evacuate. Every town has families turning up with awful stories - and they are the lucky ones who have managed to get out and aren't among the 50,000 trapped still in their flooded houses, waving flags from their roofs, or the ones who are trapped in the lawless convention center in NO. There are huge lines at every gas station and prices are going up and up - many stations are out of gas altogether. Everyone talks constant of the disaster, of the gas prices, the fear about what is going to happen socially and economically to the South. Although today Greensboro seemed normal and sleepy as usual, we are constantly reminded through these little moments of the horror going on south of us, which we feel absolutely powerless to help. Adverts are everywhere urging us to donate money but we can't see where that cash is going, because the distribution networks are so incapable of reaching the worst situations.

It makes me feel absolutely sick to my stomach. This, which could have been a disastrous, but manageable, disaster four days ago, has become a national disgrace threatneing to tear the fragile social and racial balance of the country apart.


September 01, 2005 || 10:17 am
Back in Alabama

We are back in Alabama! After a hard nights drinking in Austin, Texas, and a night's camping on the eaastern-most point of Texas' coastline, near the strange oil town of Port Arthur, yesterday we headed straight through the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Initially curious, in a slightly ambulance-chasing way, our foolhardiness was paid off when we started to run out of gas in the middle of the wasteland - with everything destroyed around us on the near-deserted interstate, we crawled our way to Hattiesburg where we finally found gas on the edge of the town, with huge queues and rationing in force. Our gas ran out literally yards from the pumps - we were incredibly lucky not to have gotten stranded.

Hattiesburg itself was a ghost town, with wrecked buildings, fallen trees and no power anywhere. All the way to Meridian the interstate was covered in fallen trees, sometimes reducing it to a one-lane road, and Meridian had a curfew in force. Obviously we couldn't get into any of the coastal towns but seeing how bad the damage was even that far north, the scale of this disaster has begun to set in. Meanwhile, everyone is panic-buying gasoline, prices are going up astronomically and we are only glad that we did our road trip when we did because now it would be unaffordable.

It's strange, because everywhere on this trip energy has been such a massive part of the landscape. From creaking oil wells in Wyoming, the gas wells in Utah, the enormous wind farms of California, to the rigs of the Gulf, and the constant search for the best pump price for gasoline, I have never been more aware of the energy economy and the physical impact of it on the landscape. It does seem strangely symbolic that at the very end of the trip this huge crisis hits, making us feel like perhaps a dying breed of roadtrippers, having completed a full circuit of the USA. I'm back where I set off - at the Red Barn in Newbern - having covered around 10,000 miles since I left exactly one month ago.


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