All entries for March 2011

March 26, 2011

March for the Alternative

march28.jpgVery big demo against the cuts to the public spending in London today - 2 hours walking backwards through the marching crowd until I found my trade union.

Will it affect the government? Of course it won't. Not even the bigger demonstrations in France last autumn affected their government and their cuts (there were French veterans from those demonstrations in London today). That's not the point. The point is that such an event - the first such demonstration of social issues since those against the Poll Tax 21 years ago - will give strength and courage to workers and local communities fighting against redundacies and closures around the country. And that it forces politicians to take position: Ed Miliband, who owes the election to Labour leader to the trade unions, had to come out clearly today, after months of inconclusiveness, against the cuts. Let's see what happens - and for the moment, the pictures.

March 23, 2011

Route Irish

Movie image
Route Irish
5 out of 5 stars

Two weeks ago I went to pre-screening of Route Irish, followed by a Question & Answer meeting with the Director, Ken Loach. Ken Loach is more popular in Italy and France than he is in the UK: apparently in Nuneaton, the town near Coventry where he comes from, they don’t even know who he is. A movie like The Navigators was a ticket box success in Italy, but wasn’t even screened in cinemas in the UK. If Ken Loach turned up at a cinema in Italy I can imagine the crowds – but at the Arts Centre the cinema wasn’t even full...

With 'Route Irish' Loach goes back to serious, heavy and very political themes, after the 'Looking for Eric' football comedy. In this case, the theme is the War in Iraq. If the sort of theme is not surprising, the genre is: this is Ken Loach’s first thriller. It may not have the best screenwriting and the most surprising plot, but it is a good effort nonetheless. It’s the story of Fergus, an Iraq veteran, himself disturbed by the experience (echoes of the Dear Hunter and even of Rambo), trying to explain and avenge (successfully) the death in Baghdad of his best friend Frankie, and come to terms with it (unsuccessfully). Loach’s style is evident in the careful neorealist directing: all actors from Liverpool, and not told about the plot in advance, so that they experience it ‘in real time’. Except some scenes filmed in Jordan (for Baghdad), the story is played in Liverpool, which is a good thing. Loach’s neorealism is perfect on the Britain he knows intimately, but is distorted by ideological idealization as soon as he chooses a foreign subject, whether Nicaragua (Carla’s Song), Spain (‘Land and Freedom’) or even Ireland (‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’); even immigrants tend to be idealised (Bread & Roses; It's A Free World). So I went to the cinema expecting an idealisation of Iraq, but fortunately there is little of it, even though the few Iraqi characters are all, predictably, ‘goodies’. The movie is indeed well researched, based on a number of interviews with Iraq veterans (interesting documentation is in included in the film’s book).

It’s the political content of Route Irish which is most important. The movie is mostly about the privatization of war, whereby corporations, and in particular private security companies, make huge profits on the bodies of the local populations and of working-class lads with no other employment opportunities. An important sub-theme is torture, dealt with in the most gripping, and technically most difficult, scene. This portrays, for the first time in a fiction movie, waterboarding – a torture used by US forces in Iraq, and still defended by Dick Cheney. Let’s just say that even if on 'Route Irish's stage waterboarding was obviously partial, very short and not coercive, the actor suffered panic attacks for weeks later. The scene is cleverly introduced into the plot, with the effect of condemning torture in an absolute way, even when it is the ‘good’ side to use it.

‘Route Irish’ ends without a ‘way out’: the system is all corrupt. In the debate after the screening, asked if he expects his movies to change people, Loach replied “oh, no way films can change people: if they did, we would have all become cow-boys.’ He was also questioned about Libya, and he expressed predictable scepticism at a possible intervention (it was before the UN Resolution), which would have been in the interest, again, of oil corporations. At this point Loach may be frankly be too simplistic.

To an Italian, and to me in particular, this movie has a strong echo. Frankie is killed, under unclear circumstances, on ‘Route Irish’, the ‘most dangerous road on earth’, leading to Baghdad Airport. Exactly on that road, on the 4th of March 2005, Nicola Calipari, Italian intelligence officer, was shot dead by American soldiers. He was heading to the airport with the journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who had been released only 20 minutes earlier after 4 weeks as hostage of Iraqi fighters. The circumstances of the killing have never been explained: under heavy pressure from the Pentagon, especially via foreign minister Fini, the Italian prosecutors had to drop the case. Giuliana worked for Il manifesto, with which I collaborated myself at the time, and the weeks of her kidnapping and then Calipari’s death were for me an unbelievable anguish. She told her story in detail in her 'Fuoco Amico' (Friendly fire) book. There is no mention of the Sgrena-Calipari case in the film’s book, but Loach knew the case of course, and given his popularity in Italy, I can’t believe the reference is accidental. Yet I did not have the time to ask about its meaning during the debate: so let’s wait until the movie reaches the Italian cinemas.

On a lighter note: Ken Loach supports the idea of his football club, Bath City, to offer 80%-discounted tickets to Polish fans. Some Bath City fans have complained against this ‘preferential treatment’ of foreigners, not understanding that introductory offers make perfect economic sense. Even if Polish football is at quite a dire level, I wonder how many Poles will really take the offer: Bath City play in something like the Sixth league, and Poles in the UK are more likely to go to see Speedway (I have seen many Poles at Coventry Bees’ matches, without the need for special offers). But if they do, Ken Loach should take the camera to the terraces and document what happens.

March 18, 2011

Auguri Italia – despite all

Italy celebrated its 150th birthday yesterday, and I am in Modena, 10 minutes away from Reggio, where the tricolore flag was created. As a student, I saw waving the Italian flag as an act of fascism. It was just acceptable only for sport events, but even for that it is no more now – with Italy fans regularly singing fascist songs and chanting racist abuse at the first black Italy’s player, Balotelli (and the only good player Italy has right now by the way).

Auguri Italia

Still, today I wore a five colour (three Italian colours plus two European ones) coccarda. As long as we remember the many dark days of Italian history (colonial policy towards the South; repression of German and Slovenian speakers; imperialist, mass murdering colonialism in Africa; and most of all fascism, Nazi alliance and anti-semitism), there is no reason why not to celebrate Risorgimento, which inspired peoples’ freedom from Poland to Latin America. With all its evident limits, and despite the legitimate nostalgia Milanese may have for aspects of Austrian rule, there is no doubt that the Italian state was better than what was there before. And today to oppose Italy’s celebrations are just the racists of the Northern League...

In Modena we are also remembering a very sad day of Italian history, the ninth anniversary of the assassination of Marco Biagi, industrial relations expert, by the Red Brigades in 2002. He was not the first colleague to meet this fate: Tarantelli and D’Antona were killed before him, many others were injured and threatened. Many of the victims also suffered abuse, first from the extreme Left, then by the government (Biagi was called a ‘ball-breakers’ by Interior Minister Scajola). Some colleagues, still today, are not free to go out without police escort. Labour relations is inherently controversial (and yesterday some young Italians told me my speech was ‘courageous’ as they would not be allowed to express that degree of criticism at the current government) – but if we do not fully respect difference of opinions, there is no point in it: terrorism is the denial of democracy, including industrial democracy. As somebody who cycles to work every day, I also love the logo of the Biagi Foundation (Biagi was shot while cycling home from work).Biagi Foundation

Finally, yesterday I was also on strike, to defend our pensions – and especially the pensions of our younger and future colleagues.

March 15, 2011

George Shaw's Tile Hill paintings: my neighbourhood or the universal English working class estate?

A 4-hour train journey across England to go from an anonymous post-war working class estate in Coventry to Newcastle... to see paintings of the same anonymous post-war working class estate. That sounds like a great week-end plan.

BalticGeorge Shaw’s ‘The Sly and Unseen Day’ exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is worth it. And Tile Hill is worth it too.

Shaw made his paintings over the 1996-2010 period, on the basis of an archive of thousands of photographs he took around the Tile Hill estate, where he grew up. He took many of the photos with his late father, who had come to Tile Hill from Ireland, like many others. Painting from pictures, rather than from real life, reduces the light’s dynamic range (much detail is lost in shadows) and flattens the perspective, but also allows painting at strange times and under bad weather conditions – especially rain – while keeping an indirect individual link to the place. Shaw uses an unfashionable, humble, almost weird material: Humbrol enamel paint. This reminds of simple craftwork in the shed, and gives a very simplified and artificial colouring: more industrial than natural. The perspective and composition are also very simple – as from a child’s eye.

Subject of the paintings (owned by various collections including Tate, Deutsche Bank - some are of Warwick's Mead Gallery) are Tile Hill corners that mean something to the painter: a phone box no longer used; the school entrance; his house; old garages; what remains of a demolished pub; a path in the woods; a subway. There is no human figure in any painting, nothing happens. You have to think to interpret what sort of life could have been there, why a certain path, a certain boarded window may be important. No easy symbolism, but a very strong statement of what art is about, and where it comes from.

To see the exhibition coming from Tile Hill makes a double impression. The first instinct is to locate the apparently anonymous locations: where exactly is that garage, that corner, that tree? Then, there is the reaction that it is quite unfair, the paintings focussing on the abandoned, decadent parts in an apparently depressing manner. But after these neighbourhood-provincial reactions, a further look discovers all the depth of artistic creation. The neo-Romantic references, especially with the suburban landscapes echoing, maybe mocking the Pre-Raphaelites. The poetic references to Larkin on Coventry, where 'my childhood was unspent' - and 'it is not the place's fault - nothing, like something happens anywhere'. The historical references, from old trees that were there before the estate, to peeping holes in a fence, reminders of Coventry’s legendary Peeping Tom from the medieval Lady Godiva story – in Shaw’s words ‘a classic British story – sex, class and realism'. Indeed, Shaw is a ‘classist’ artist, despising the ideological, un-experiential ‘higher-class’ art and affirming his working class roots strongly, even though avoiding political language, also in the way he talks about his work. The paintings are intimate – but in their artistic content they are also universal.

Tile Hill is a good place to reflect over time, memory, decadence. It is right in the middle of England and could be seen as representative of all working class estates in the country, but that's not factually precise: the place has its individual history. It was built for the ‘new’ working class, largely from Ireland, for the factories nearby - 'everyone either worked at Standard or at Massey-Ferguson', remembers Shaw. (According to the Acorn classification my street’s typical demographic definition is ‘large families with low level of education’: my house is an outlier, with a popolation of 2 and 100% PhD-level education). It was a 'new town', after the old Coventry had been destroyed by the 1940 bombing. Some of it was intended as progressive, innovative urbanism; especially the Jardine Crescent estate, a circle of brutalist housing blocks encircling a common and community services: you can still tell the utopia of such planning. Shaw paints the burnt or razed pubs, the abandoned playgrounds or football pitches, the boarded houses. Indeed, since the 1980s Tile Hill has suffered serious decline, like most of Coventry (1980s Coventry, and Warwick University, are portrayed in a sweet-sour sauce in the fine short novel by Jonathan Coe, A Touch of Love). The factories have gone and Tile Hill is the seventh poorest of 230 parishes in Coventry. In some regards the decline goes on: the Irish club where I used to go to watch football, attached to the Catholic Church and Catholic school where Shaw grew up, has just closed down, killed by the smoking ban and by cheap supermarket booze. However, something also develops on the ashes. On Jardine Crescent, on the place of desolate prefabs painted by Shaw, there are now an impressive Youth Centre, a nice library, a new health centre. The old craftsmanship of Shaw’s enamel paint has not disappeared, and on the same Jardine Crescent survives a fantastic family bike shop. The woods are being managed and kept well - one point on which Tile Hill differs from the average estate is the amount of parks and woodland. It is a continuous fight against destruction: the library is at risk thanks to the vandalic cuts of the Tories. Some regeneration is replacing services (Tile Hill college) and social housing with more anonymous middle-class housing, although there is still no systematic speculation-driven effort at ‘gentrification’, as for instance at London’s Heygate.

OuseburnNewcastle, vibrant and friendly northern city with its bars, its arty scene in regenerated industrial Ouseburn, its spectacular river and its labour movement traditions (the Jarrow Crusade) is an appropriate setting for this arty celebration of the quintessential, but actually unique, English working class estate.

Postscript. The train journey back was disrupted, as usual given the state of British railways. Trains were not running to Tile Hill, because no London Midland’s train drivers volunteered for Sunday work. The union is in dispute after the company dropped the special Sunday pay rate. Even if Sunday work is voluntary, the company says that the refusal to work amounts to a strike and refused to provide replacement services or to refund my ticket. But it is not an official strike and after losing the patience of its employees London Midland is on the path to lose the patience of passengers.

March 08, 2011

“Under German beds”: the surprising adventures of a Polish cleaner in Offenbach

Review of: Justyna Polanska, “Unter deutschen Betten. Eine polnische Putzfrau packt aus”, Knaur 2011.

41ykqjxlkl._ss500_.jpgThe autobiography of a Polish cleaner in Germany, under the title “Under German beds: A Polish cleaning lady unpacks”, has been an instant success and is currently in third place in the list of German bestsellers.

The book by Justyna Polanska, 32 year-old who emigrated at the age of 19 from Poznań to Offenbach near Frankfurt, has all is needed for an immediately-likeable bestseller. First, an accessible contemporary style of short sections and short sentences (I read the 210pp over a couple of evenings, and I am usually slow with German literature), possibly the product of heavy editing (I couldn't detect any underlying Polonism). Second, stories that relate to the lives of millions people. Third, a mix of cheap psychology and practical information – the two most sold items of self-help literature (Polanska also offers cleaning advice on the internet: And, decisively, a soft tabu topic.

The two main reasons why Germans are reading this book with such Drang are probably two. First the ‘dirty’ stories on the sexual harassment Polanska has had to endure in her 12 years of cleaning in Germany. These are all very depressing and in my view not the best part of the book, but undoubtedly they are a selling point, flagged up already in the title (“under German kitchen sinks” wouldn’t sell that much). Secondly, and intriguingly, the perspective of a cleaner is a formidable “mirror” on the real lives of Germans – private lives but also, metaphorically, public life. I can imagine Germans buying the book to discover “how we (and our neighbours) really look like”. As Polanska puts it: “this is the privilege of the cleaning lady: we look behind the curtains.”

These curtains are particularly thick in Germany, and this is why the topic is “tabu”. Not just because Polanska tells us that Germans (unsurprisingly) are not as clean and orderly as they claim. Domestic cleaning is particularly widespread, and increasing, in Germany, and it is also particularly informal. Western Germans have traditionally paid more attention to looking after their homes than many Central and Northern European neighbours: men, under industrial vocational training influence, are into DIY, and women were largely house-bound (the tax system discourages the dual-earner family, childcare provisions were minimal, schools end at midday). Only recently female full-time employment has boomed – hence the demand for domestic cleaners. Other countries have had it for longer (Southern Europe) or have already developed partial alternatives (public services in Scandinavia, ready meals and just not caring in the UK).

But also, other European countries have tried to ‘regularise’ domestic cleaning, usually through major social security incentives (Italy) or ‘vouchers’ for families so that they employ regular workers (Austria, Scandinavia). As a result, paradoxically, the domestic cleaning profession is much more ‘regular’ in a notoriously informal economy such as the Italian one, than in the supposedly ‘coordinated’ one of Germany. In her comparison between Germany and Italy, Finitelli (‘Migration Policy between Restrictive Purposes and Structural Demand: The Case of the Domestic Worker Sector in Germany and Italy.’ In Metz-Göckel, S., Morokvasic, M. and Münst, S. (eds) Migration and Mobility in an Enlarged Europe: A Gender Perspective, 2008) stresses the major role of ‘regularisations’ of domestic migrant workers in Italy, in contrast to the ‘undocumented’ German reality; officially, in Germany there are only 148 thousand domestic workers (90% of them German!), but surveys indicate that 4 million German families use domestic labour: assuming that it is just for one day a week, there must be 800,000 domestic cleaners, without even counting the large, not much more formal sector of business cleaning. So domestic cleaning is a private and public tabu, something which Germans pretend it doesn’t exist. In other countries it is a more public topic: in 1990 for a while the most debated issue in the Italian Left was not the fall of the Berlin Wall, but, following an article by Valentino Parlato, whether it's acceptable for communists to have domestic cleaners. By the way, research is discovering the issue: in Italy much has been written by Asher Colombo and by Bianca Beccalli (who already forty years ago had written a paper on cleaning and socialist division of labour...), in the UK interesting work is being carried out by Nick Clark at London Metropolitan University.

Indeed, Polanska herself works illegally. She deals with her guilt for not paying tax by doing some volunteer cleaning for poor old people, but it is not clear how she deals with insurance and pension - now she is happily married to a German Italian, so I presume that was the solution. But she points to the fact that the real beneficiaries of informal domestic labour are, of course, the employers. She cleans for both families and some businesses (medical practices, restaurants, brothels etc), and nobody would employ her if she issued a receipt. Among her employers there are lawyers, police officers, journalists, politicians: all require maximal secrecy (indeed, every now and then a politician is found using undocumented migrant labour – usually it is those who in public oppose immigration...).

For me, the attraction of the book is somewhere else, at the intersection between sociology of work and sociology of migration. Domestic cleaning is a complex ‘labour process’, and the strategies of employer control and employee survival are particularly varied. Exploitation through late- and underpaying is frequent, given the vulnerability of female undocumented workers. It is also a profession at the lowest end of social prestige, and Polanska has something to say about the German expression “meine Putzfrau” (“my cleaning lady” - it could be worse: in Italy “la mia Filippina” is commonly used, even when the worker is not even from the Philippines). And she tells about lack of humanity, for instance about never being offered a drink, even on hot days, when the employing family can ostentatiously sip their cold drinks while looking at her sweating.

In terms of migration, the book is ambiguous. Polanska decided to leave Poland at 19, suddenly, knowing only one word of German (the ominous “Fenster”, window), answering a newspaper ad for au pairs in Germany (the au pair job will turn out to be extreme exploitation: a year of starving with little or no pay), and rationalises it retrospectively by writing: “About my country I can simply say: there is no perspective. A young person can’t do anything in Poland. Many of my friends have qualifications and earn €350 monthly – when they are lucky”. Which is quite an absurd statement about a so-called “economic tiger” where average pay is nearly €1,000/month (gross), especially given that Poznan is better than average. But it is understandable: in Poland there are actually lots of chances, but very unevenly distributed. Otherwise Polanska’s mother and sister would not have followed her to Germany, a few years later, to take up the same profession.

The author also tells about German prejudice against Poles: “do you have Coca Cola?” is the lightest, abuse for alleged inclination to stealing and prostitution the heaviest. Even her apparently well-educated German neighbours, when they find any rubbish in the communal areas of the apartment bloc, deliver it to her door, because logically only foreigners could leave rubbish around. But on Polish-German stereotypes, rather than this book I’d recommend the recent comedy film “Hochzeitspolka” (by Lars Jessen, 2010), on a Polish-German wedding where a century of “misunderstandings” explode. Polanska comes from a quite typical Polish conservative family. Among other things, in Germany she discovers that “homosexuals are normal people – really normal people”. Her background explains some of her criticism of Germans: dressing up and make-up is for her normal, traditional Polish femininity, but Germans despise it as a sign of being ‘easy’ (on this topic see Women Migrants from East to West, by Passerini, Lyon, Capussotti and Laliotou, 2007). And her repeated anger for not being offered drinks is normal coming for a country where the first sentence you hear when you enter a house or an office is always “coffee or tea?”.

Despite the stories of sexual harassment and exploitation, this book might offer a rather ‘rosy’ picture of immigration and cleaning: Polanska earns her €10/hour, is married to a German Italian, conducts a rather normal life. It is difficult to predict if the book legitimates, or criticises the current state. In any case, it ‘humanises’ an unspoken category of people, and opens a tabu. It is a positive compensation to other recent German bestsellers which are openly xenophobic: Sarrazin’s Deutschland schafft sich ab and, most horribly, Kein Schwarz. Kein Rot. Kein Gold: Armut für alle im “Lustigen Migrantenstadl” by Udo Ulfkotte, while it is in line with literary fashion: the last German Book Prize shortlisting was dominated by authors with immigration background. And as cleaning still is a 99% feminised profession, it is a good book to comment on today, International Women's Day.

March 2011

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