The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Sunday, September 30, 2007

New banner

I've been meaning for some time to replace the blog's banner with something a little less belligerent... I'd been struggling a long time to find something appropriate... I started with rather cluttered images trying to get all my influences together. I think the idea was to get people together who'd advanced freedom (or made a noble attempt at it) or developed my understanding of freedom.

I couldn't decide whether to have these folks looking off towards freedom or have them staring, more or less disturbingly, towards the reader.

In the end I figured this was too much at once, too cluttered, and random.

I settled for a simple contrast between the Buddha (a Greco-Buddhist statue made from under the Hellenic influence in India following Alexander the Great's invasion) and the Pharaoh Khafra (he has the second biggest pyramid in Giza, I would have gone for Khufu, who has the biggest pyramid, but the only portrait of him we have is a lousy statuette).

The link isn't obvious, but maybe the Frantz Fanon quote (one of my favorite: "Irresponsible, hanging between Nothingness and Infinity, I began to cry.") binds them to gether. Buddha, from my very limited understanding of him, said that all pleasure and accomplishment was ultimately fleeting and unsatisfactory. Therefore, the good life was to free oneself of unreasonable desires, and not to vainly pursue this or that red herring.

The pyramids of Egypt, on the other hand, have represented throughout the ages a kind of ultimate human achievement. They are tombs, monuments to the death of a man, that is, man's final attempt to matter even though his life will inevitably end. The pyramids aimed for the eternal, and being the only wonder of the ancient world remaining, they have been the most successful. In fact, they have become tombstones, or rather the epitaph, to an entire civilization and have reserved for that civilization, a glorious, almost divine, place in the imaginations of all peoples who have known what they left behind. They are the ultimate vanity.

So yeah... between Buddha and Pharaoh.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Portraits from B'ham: Ralf the Ravin' Bajan

I left my house for that familiar little trek into town to buy some trainers and return a shirt that was too big for me. It is evening but it is still bright. The sky is clear but the air is blustery and cold. I reached the bus stop and joined in waiting beside an aging Black man for our transport. I always have a book handy, just for these occasions, so that my time need not be wasted entirely. In this case it was a lovely slim little photo biography of Franz Kafka. I sat on a post and just as I was about to begin reading, the man solicited my attention. I smiled and lent him my ear (as I love meeting old people, wisdom and generosity are a pleasant mix). He smiled cheekily as he began in a strong West Indian accent I couldn’t discern.

“You goin’ into town? To cause trouble?”

I smiled “I’m a good boy, never cause trouble.”

“That’s good. You know boys gettin’ into town this time is often to cause trouble! You don’t smoke. Good. You can drink but don’t get drunk.”

“When I was uni I used to get drunk, but I don’t smoke. I’m mostly good.”

Then, his eyes lit up with some new, related, thought that must have returned to his head, a thought so important he felt he needed to share with me.

“When I came here in ’57, it was good! I’ve been around here 50 years. But now, it’s not…” Then he adds what ought to have been a secretive whisper, but his voice was so desperate it was loud affirmation: “Too many Pakis!”

Well, I thought, that was brutally to the point. Somewhat disorientated, I muffled a compatible response “Yeah… Small Heath has the highest concentrations of Asians in the UK.”

He looked at me with a cheeky look of surprise, “No! You ever been to Manchester? It’s much worse there! I went down there once, with two White men. And… I was just sittin’ on the bus. And this young man, a Paki, comes up to me and says: ‘You, Black man, you’re spyin’ on us!” As he continued his story, it rambled a little, I must have tried a few different expressions from surprise, shock, smile and nervous laughter. I couldn’t make it all out, but he reached the end of his story anyway.

“And this fella’, this White man, came up to the boy and said, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ He answered ‘This Black man’s spyin’ on us!’ And then, the White man said (this was the punch line) ‘I am a police officer!’” He then shook my arm as he cackled with laughter.

I got a better look at him as he spoke some more, on the subject of work and pay, it came up somehow. “I am from Barbados… before I came here in ’57. It’s just a small island.” He was an old man with dark brown skin, a mostly smooth face, and little gray hairs protruding around his mouth. “We used to work for 12 hours in a day.” He looked a little ridiculous, in an endearing precious way, with his little beige trilby hat, rim-glasses and rickety-looking blue-tartan umbrella. Like an eccentric great uncle. “And we’d get two pennies for that! TWO PENNIES!”

I tried to simulate a surprised interest: “That’s not much. What could you get for that?”

He ignored me and rambled on a little more. “My daughter, she is…” Right. “…and I had my second wife…” Good. “…she was sayin’ that…” And etcetera it went on. He’s really quite fond of me.

The bus came and whisked us off both. I sat first, and he sat beside me. I just realized, I’ve forgotten the shirt. The shirt. Always the shirt. But I thought, I’m beside this old man, perhaps I’ve made a friend. This’ll be an experience anyway, not a waste of time (and I still need to get those trainers). I can see him close now, his expressive face and his hands clutching his umbrella... His hands! They were so dry and crackled they were almost pale. I can smell him close too, he carried that distinctive old person smell, slightly pungent, but ultimately associated with the wholesome goodness of loving grandmothers and gentle grandfathers. He continued with another story.

“You know it’s not good to get drunk. Boys like to get into fights. One day, this came up to me and said he was gonna [indiscernible] my car!”

“He was gonna steal your car?”

“No!” he said with reenacted anger “He was gonna kick it!” Oh. “So I got to my trunk and got my…” What did he say? It was a muffle. Was it crow(bar) or sledge(hammer)? In the event, he continued “And I went up to him and whipped him good in the leg!” He swung his umbrella through the air for emphasis and to great effect. “And I woulda got him in the head too…” and the punchline “…but he hopped away!” He burst out into laughter and shook me some more. He then added, in a dire voice, “What I work for is mine. I’ve stopped workin’ but go in every mornin’ the last couple years for two hours. They give me 12 pounds. You can’t let people, with what’s yours, you can’t let them…”

“Take it?”

“Yes!” and adds with indignation and conviction “Or smash it!”

We got off in town and began walking in the same general direction. We make some more conversation…

“So you work?”

“I’m a waiter.” He looked shocked. I had slipped that I’d gone to university at some point earlier in our frenetic, slightly deranged, conversation.

“In a restaurant?”


“You born in this country?”

“Uh, no.”

“What? You Polish?”
”It’s complicated.”

“It’s all complicated…”

“I’m born in France, I’m from France, but my dad is from the states…”

“There’s your mistakes! Haha!”

“…but my Mom is from Preston.”

Preston? Why don’t you live there with your mother till you find good work?”

“There’s only my grandmother… so I’m living in Small Heath.”

“You’ll be living near me, where you live?”

“Middle of Bankes Road.”

“That ain’t so far from me… I have a house 59 Dudley road. I used to rent on Bankes road. I used to have the landlord come every week for his rent.”

“That’s me! Every two weeks he comes for his rent…”

He stopped us in the middle of the road, he pulled me close… “He does? Is he Asian?”


He got indignant there, “He is? How much do you pay?”

“120 pounds every two weeks.”

He took a step back. Then he took one deep breath as his face twisted into an expression that screamed ‘This is an outrage!’

“What? That much? One-hundred-and-twenty pounds! A fortnight! Does he cook for you?”

“Uh, no.”

“Does he do laundry?”

I shake my head.

Exasperated… “One-hundred-and-twenty… e’ry fortnight…” He continues to mutter under his breath at the unfathomable amount. What has the world come to? He takes me closer, and utters, as some forbidden fantasy, “If I had my way… I’d kill every last one of them!”


Soon our paths diverged, I to my clothes store, he to another bus stop. “Go to your shop!”

“Yes, what’s your name?”

“Alf!” We shook hands, firmly.

“I’m Craig.” He keeps holding my hands tightly in his as he smiles with all his teeth and his eyes twinkle from behind his spectacles.


I continued towards the store, a little dazed. They didn’t have any trainers I wanted and I obviously couldn’t return the shirt. I walked home with empty hands, but not exactly empty-handed, I had acquired something else: a little food for thought, though it would take some thorough digestion, like some really thick mash. I stood at another bus stop again, for the way back, and there was a young carefree couple, very young, teens. The boy in his black cap lay across the bus-bench with the ease, that relaxed confidence, of someone who knows he is loved by someone worth being loved by. His girl, gorgeous little thing with smooth brown skin and a sparkling smile, playfully took pictures of him with her camera phone. “This one’s not too bad!” She giggled as her phone clicked and snapped. What a cute couple… or… is it… the mouth of an ouroboros? I did read my Kafka for the last leg the trip.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Man (dog form)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Beautiful Libraries

Though both libraries I've frequented in Birmingham and Liverpool aren't esthetically attractive (which doesn't prevent them being perfectly functional). There are nice ones out there. The older almost royal-looking European ones look very fancy indeed. I'm not sure how it feel to study in them though... the books almost look like they are meant to go undisturbed and untouched by curious fingers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Separate but Prominent

I’m discovering the Birmingham Central Library: free internet, printing facilities, books to loan, and a space to read. Nice. The building is pretty nasty looking though (good old-style socialist Brit quasi-Stalinist architecture, also known as 'brutalist', Prince Charles isn't a fan either). Well, you can’t have everything.

Now one things bothers me about the place. It is too self-consciously progressive in a rather inscrutable unhelpful way. First was a women only desk:

It’s not like to library was very busy, there was loads of other spaces, but I couldn’t really fathom the need…

Then I surfed the internet, browsing my usual sites, including the strip Jesus and Mo’. The browser then tells me that the site is not visible because of the B’ham City Council has banned it on their computers. Some people take things too far. Jesus and Mo’ is simply demystifying, harmless, thoughtful and fun irreverence. It undermines “sacred Otherhood” in the perceptions between Christians and Muslims by poking mutual fun at both. It’s not like I’d tried to visit Stormfront. Alas.

(most relevant is this one on censorship and poking fun at Mo')

But what really annoyed me was when I searched for books on the Martinican psychiatrist-cum-revolutionary-theorist Frantz Fanon. He’s been something of an idol to me in recent months and I figured if I was going to revere him I should at least know as much as I can about him. However, every time I wrote down the reference numbers of the books on him, and went to the appropriate shelf, they were missing. Curious. Is he that popular? 1, 2, then 3 books not at their respective shelves. What’s going on?

I asked one of the friendly librarians for help. Who reiterated the reference number and pointed me to a shelf. I informed her that I'd just gone through that one and she raised an eyebrow. She tapped a few more keys on the computer and informed me “Ah! It’s in the Black section…” I squinted. And sure enough, she showed me an area where all the “Black” books had been placed. There’s Frantz Fanon, snuggled among African-Americans and British Asians.

It’s not like the books have been ghettoized into some obscure part of the library. It is there, prominent, beside a nice little exhibit on slavery, racism, blackness etc. I can see the people who did this are well-meaning. In all fairness, deciding how to deal with race is always tricky (the rock and hard place of discrimination and denying difference (presumably, of experience, or worse, ‘culture’)). And, it looks like part of it may have been a temporary only setup to commemorate to the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery.

Nonetheless, it isn’t just this library which does this. All the Waterstones and Borders I’ve been to have their “Black and Asian” section. I must protest. I can imagine days when there weren’t any books regarding the Black experience (the library’s Africa section is a little skimpy). The correct answer is to get more books on racism, colonialism, and Blackness, not segregating them into their own section. I’d like to think Fanon would disapprove. On being systematically shoe-boxed by people in France he said “Where am I to be classified? Or, if you prefer, tucked away?” It is true that Frantz Fanon was, incidentally, Black. But he never ceased to cry out that this wasn't the sum of his being, this wasn't his determinant, that his color was not his essence. Indeed, unlike many other Black French writers at the time, Fanon denied that "Black people" were actually distinct population, except insofar as society construed them to be one.

Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon's study of Black-White relations and the pathology of racism, concluded with “At the end of this work, I would like that the reader to feel, as I do, the openness of all consciousness.” Everyone can, must, imagine what it is like to live in another person’s shoes. One of the causes of conflict is the irrational, dangerous form of selflessness whenever we talk of “Us VS Them”. They are taking our jobs, our money, our women. This stems from a fundamental lack of empathy. If I feel what others feel, if I imagine my life as another's, it is not simply that the boundary between us and them dissolves, but the very notions of “us” and “them” are shown to be bankrupt. We realize that, fundamentally, we are made of the same stuff. This is the foundation of community.

In this sense, Black-White experiences are of universal relevance. Say it again, you-nih-ver-sal. It is in a similar vein as Catholic-Protestant, Brahmin-Untouchable, gentile-Jew, Jew-Arab, Hindu-Muslim and all the other relationships in the world which our history has made painful. I looked again at the sections where Fanon and his biographies would have been had they not been put in the Black section. They would have been beside colonialism, decolonization, globalization and some political biography. He would not have been out of place.

That this literary segregation was in all likelihood done in good faith leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’m sure some people would interpret this section as some sort of gift to minorities. “Are ‘they’ satisfied yet?”

Oh well, in the event, the biography of Fanon I picked up is very good, enormous, thoughtful, well-rounded and exhaustive. I’ve devoured the first 300 pages in the past 5 days.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Japanese Market Creepy Robo-cat

Lovely. Pretty soon we'll have robo-infants for all our cuteness needs.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


I bought 3 small bowls for 1 pound. I didn't care how they looked, I just needed bowls for cereal and they were the first I found.


(flickr doesn't seem to be cooperating, link here)

Perhaps only dad will get this, but I will take this as a good omen.