27 February 2008

My Vineyard has been Turned into a Shopping Centre

One of the most beautiful things encountered in Lisbon during my recent trip was the of range citrus trees growing right in the heart of the city. Making cities productive - what is sometimes referred to as 'edible estates' or, in a more rural setting, 'edible landscapes' - will be key to our survival once peak oil begins to bite. Much as happened in Havana when food imports became too expensive we will be growing vegetables on verges and waste-ground.

As part of the Transition Towns initiative activists in Totnes have been planting nut-trees on spare ground, and Stroud's mayor has agreed that in future urban tree-planting will focus on fruit-bearing trees. Sweet chestnut is a particular favourite, since it is leafy and gorgeous, produces useful tasty food, and its wood is durable and excellent for a variety of uses.

Sadly, elsewhere Lisbon is not so friendly to urban production. Campo Pequeno and Campo Grande are areas of the city that were once wine-growing fields, small and large, and are now concrete oases and tube stations. My hotel was near Campo Pequeno, where I began to notice eerie echoes of an earlier post. Not only does it have a bull-ring (in this case the genuine article) but underneath it is another shopping centre. In contrast to Birmingham, the shoppers are underground, the sports' fans in the fresh air.

I also began to understand the true meaning of the theory of comparative advantage, a bogus economic justification for free trade that was originally outlined by David Ricardo in terms of trade between the UK and Portugal - we make woollen cloth and export it in exchange for Portuguese wine. Our climate favours one and theirs the other. Since the theory is about justifying trade in goods when one country is always more efficient it isn't really a very good example.

Except that I discovered from my guidebook that the reason there was free trade between these two countries is that it was bought some 50 years early at the barrel of a gun, or rather to allow Portugal to avoid the barrels of Spain's guns. Britain offered military protection under the Methuen Treaty but in exchange Portugal had to agree to let UK cloth in cheap, undercutting domestic production and putting thousands of textile workers out of jobs.

It is astonishing in how many corners of the world you encounter examples of our brazen, pro-capitalist, tread-on-your-face mentality in operation. No wonder my daughter says 'We are bastards aren't we mum?' Except that it wasn't the impoverished factory workers of Lancashire who benefited from this. But it does make us slightly more responsible for sorting the mess out.

21 February 2008

The Final Frontier

I had the great pleasure last night of listening to Doreen Massey give a public lecture. She is an inspiring example of a public intellectual, an engaged academic, who is both analysing and changing the world. She took as her theme 'the politics of place'. The lecture was highbrow stuff of the kind I often struggle with and in my attempt to convey some of what I learned I am no doubt about to commit mental GBH, but surely that is better than holding back for fear of misrepresentation.

What I like about Doreen's work is her clear statement that the 'end of geography', propagated as what she might call an 'imaginary' by the proponents of this late and most corrupt phase of capitalism is an illusion and should be nailed as such. We are as much indicted in a process of international exploitation as we were in the days when we sent our best and brightest to administer the colonies and half the known world was coloured pink on our schoolroom maps.

Her question - to herself and others - is how we can live a positive response to the globalised world we find ourselves in. She made me question my own easy notion about the local and its safety. How easy it is to sit in Stroud and wrack my conscience in choosing between French organic apples and fair-trade Kenyan mangoes. Within our Transition Town process we have a theme called 'learning from the South' and a commitment to community-to-community trade between ourselves and the poor countries. This is the path towards the solidarity economy that is the 'alternative globalisation'.

But Doreen is right that our involvement in the lives of those in far-distant places goes beyond buying their crops and using their time to provide cheap holidays in warmer climes. London is the capital of the financial system that facilitates the global trade system. This makes our responsibility for challenging that system and its consequences especially acute.

I feel sure that building a strong local alternative economy is part of the answer, but it is not enough. However, the alternative on offer last night - and this was a point made by several questioners - is to be left in a dithering limbo of indecision. Ultimately, any consumption more complex than self-provisioning becomes uncomfortable. Any food we didn't produce ourselves becomes difficult to stomach.

11 February 2008

Food: A Matter of Life and Death

After a week of argumentation about the rights and wrongs of the £1.99 chicken I finally entered the fray - indirectly, as it happens, when a very personable journalist from The Sunday Times asked me what I thought about it. My quotation is phrased in terms of knickers rather than chickens, but that appears to be my lot. He did call Market, Schmarket 'brilliantly provocative' which is going to keep me smiling for weeks. Until I saw that written down I hadn't realised how precisely it sums up what I was hoping to achieve.

Enough of me and my ego - let's get back to chickens. As it happens I got to know some local chickens fairly well over Christmas and I can tell you that looking after them is a deeply responsible business. You just worry all the time about foxes and badgers. It is considerably worse than caring for children, who could easily see off small furry mammals whereas in the henhouse they can cause the avian equivalent of Apocalipto.

I also didn't benefit from the eggs, since I found the warmth and taste of them just too alive somehow to really be food. This pins me down as not only a townie but also a child of the sixties. Yes, I know food is part of the mysterious web of life but I prefer its life to have been removed sufficiently distantly before it arrives on my plate. And this is to say nothing of blood-spots which, since the hens enjoyed the company of a cock, could potentially have turned into chicks at any moment.

I had a similar experience while trying to eat a sea bass a former partner had proudly served up after catching it himself during a manly angling trip. It wasn't the strange muddy flavour, nor the fact that it had turned up in some rather dirty newspaper. It was the fact that I could still taste life in the fish that made me want to heave.

Perhaps I should conclude that my fate is to become a vegetarian. There certainly is something rather Buddhist about all these experiences. Yet I don't think - and my herbalist is with me here! - I'm quite ready for that yet. I tend to agree rather with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's approach of forcing meat eaters to encounter the reality of the death that fills their nightly plates. I have an oustanding offer of killing my own chicken on our community farm and am thinking long and hard about it.

Life is what food is about. There is something seriously wrong with anybody who prefers dead food to living food. Since I've been eating organic I have struggled to find the word to describe the non-organic food that I, my partner, and even my daughter in school just can't stomach any more. It's just dead isn't it?

5 February 2008

Slow Travel

Regular readers will have noticed a haitus in posts over the past ten days. This is explained by my visit to Lisbon for an EU research meeting - five days of meeting plus another two of travel, since I went by train in both directions. Using the excellent website The Man in Seat 61 the practicalities of land travel can be a pleasure; the problem is the social consequences of walking apart from the herd. Many people read my choice of transport mode as a deliberate affront to their lifestyle.

The main advantage of slow travel is that you actually have a sense of your progress across the globe - yes it is slow, but that is the point. Your understand the reality of travelling a long way. Drizzly hedgerows make way for flat plains and the occasional chateau, and eventually cork trees and olive groves. And in January field after field of beautiful bright citrus trees, with orange and yellow fruit contrasting with lush dark green leaves.

I mentioned to several friends the ease and comfort of the sleeper train. I was lucky enough to have a whole carriage to myself in both directions - presumably the benefit of travelling as a lone woman in the middle of winter. I told them that I felt like James Bond - the height of sixties romance somewhat punctured by the retort that James Bond did not carry his own herbal tea-bags with him.

After leaving Paris on the TGV I began to wonder whether I was living in the wrong country. It was the train that was slow, of course, it was the pace of life. By the time I reached Portugal people had time to spend a whole evening in the dining car with table-cloths, wine glasses and three course meals. The contrast between this and the seedy buffet with its 'selection of hot and cold snacks' one encounters on British trains made me wonder about our proud boasts of a successful economy. Successful for whom?