Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What it means when you touch your face in a certain way

I can’t recall if it was an ad by Taboola (probably) or an ad by Outbrain (I think it was an ad by Taboola). Either way, I clipped it along with the page it linked to, because surely I would have to revisit this.

What goes by the very misleading name of native advertising – one might as well call it ‘indigenous lying’ – is one of the most insidious elements of our current media age. We’ve all come across them, including on reputable sites such as the Guardian and the New York Times – the very people who have pledged to defend us against the scourge of fake news. Following on from stories that, if not always accurate, at least come with a number of explicit and implicit editorial guarantees, and subtly mimicking the almost universal design of web news content, these ads introduce themselves as ‘recommended content’, as if the recommendations came from the sites themselves. Indeed, sometimes they are actual stories from reputable and traceable sources. But more often they are not.

This one is not.

If you click, as I have, on the link under the stock photo of an elderly lady touching her face you will land on a page where a video starts to play automatically. This is a standard infomercial such as you may see on television, but it’s not playing on television. It’s playing on your computer, perhaps as far as New Zealand, across boundaries both electronic and geographic that make what little consumer protections are still in place in the country of origin (in this case, the United States) utterly ineffective.

The commercial begins with these words:
“Take a good look at your husband and children,” said the doctor. “This may be the last time you remember their faces.”
The terrifying lines (which would surely get a doctor instantly fired) are delivered in the video by a reassuring, silver-haired man who goes by the name of Martin Reilly, supposedly a science teacher from Stamford, Connecticut, but almost certainly an actor. He proceeds to tell us the sad story of Sandra, his wife, a victim of early onset dementia, while promising that ‘in the next few minutes’ he will reveal to us the ingredients of a simple plate of food that can cure Alzheimer’s disease.

He won’t. And the video – which you cannot fast forward nor rewind – doesn’t last a mere few minutes, but an exhausting seventy, by the end of which the dish has become a 21 day ‘protocol’ for you to purchase, none of whose ingredients are revealed, save for coconut oil. Nor does the presentation contain any information whatsoever on any parts of the body that, if you scratched them, it would be a sign of Alzheimer’s. That detail is just quietly forgotten in the time it takes for you to click on the link.

'Martin Reilly'

While the roots of the videos are to be traced in informercials such as those that landed Kevin Trudeau in jail, the context in which they can be consumed has changed, making them more persuasive. There are fewer signals that the video playing on your computer screens is in fact an advertisement, more ambiguity about the source of the information and its demarcation from the page that landed you here – perhaps the Guardian or the New York Times. Messages get jumbled together. And while the web can be a place where to test the claims made in an infomercial, it can also be gamed in order to reinforce it.

For instance, if you research the memory research protocol you will find pages with promising names such as ‘memory-repair-protocol-review’ which are in fact long advertorials, complete with customer testimonials and links for purchasing the product. The literacy required to separate these fake reviews from real reviews is not insignificant, and remember: it was a trusted news source that led you here in the first place.

Going over the claims made by ‘Martin Reilly’ (more on his identity in a minute) would take too long, but the story spun during the video is worth a quick summary: while visiting a nursing home as he and his wife prepare for the inevitable, Martin follows a delicious smell of food into the kitchen where an Indian lady of 107 is cooking her meal. I come from a town called Ballabgarh, she explains, and if you Google the name you’ll know why my mind is so sharp. Sure enough, Ballabgarh is is touted in a BBC report as the ‘Indian village may hold key to beating dementia’, on account of its low rates of the disease. Following this discovery, Reilly launches in a crusade to self-fund research into the local diet, which Big Pharma forbids universities to look into so it can continue to sell billion dollars’ worth of drugs that don’t stop the disease.

Finally, Reilly meets Dr Miles Fielding from Unnamed University, a ‘specialist in neuro chemistry and brain function’ whose name returns zero results in Google Scholar for papers in this field, and after much experimentation the pair develops a 21 day diet that not only stops the advance of the disease in Martin’s wife Sandra, but reverts it completely. Now Reilly is willing to share these secrets with us in a package that – and this is by far my favourite part – does not cost $997.

It costs less than that. As a matter of fact, Reilly would not even bother to sell his memory protocol, if not to pay for the cost of running the website, and to deflect the repeated but always unspecified attempts by Big Pharma to silence him.

If you try to purchase the Memory Repair Protocol in book form through Amazon, it lists as the author not Martin Reilly but one Brian Wilds, whose current catalogue includes Lost Ways: Spy Secrets that Can Save your Life, and whose past catalogue boasts such titles as Flat Belly Overnight and Lean Belly Breatkthrough. While if you keep looking for reviews of the product you'll stumble upon a Diabetes Loophole package which is nearly identical in design to the Memory Repair Protocol, and is identically advertised, making similar quasi-scientific claims, retailing for the same price through the same secure banking platform, and hawked by its own stock silver-haired guy.

'Reed Wilson'

This information may be enough to stop you in your tracks, instead of spending less-than-$997 on a recipe book of dubious value, but then it depends on just who you are. You may in fact be vulnerable, or desperate, or grieving for a loved one who is still alive but doesn’t know your face. It’s a common enough condition, even among people who possess otherwise sufficient literacy to disbelieve and disprove the claims of the Memory Repair Protocol. And for all of these people, there is little protection, or hope of redress beyond the 60 day money back guarantee, which hardly makes up for the pain of being duped on top of the misery of living with a cruel and incurable disease.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Walking Radical Wellington

I told this story before. Whenever my father was asked for directions near his place of work, in the part of Milan where he was born, he would tell motorists to either turn at the bridge or continue straight after the bridge or similar, which would have confused them greatly since this so-called bridge was removed and the waterway it crossed paved over in 1930, four years before my father was born, and you could guess its past existence only by virtue of a slight slope in the road. But when my father was growing up everyone still called it the bridge and so he kept calling it the bridge, and maybe he even saw it in his mind, that bridge that was removed four years before he was born. He certainly knew where the old rivers where, even if you could barely see them underneath the modern city.

A city is sculpted by time, by the movements of people, by changes in labour relations and the economic base of the community. And it is sculpted by social relations in all their forms, including political relations, which are governed but not completely determined by those other factors. In Wellington, as of last week, we can access this particular layer of the city’s history thanks to the Walking Radical Wellington app, a project created by Dougal McNeill and Samantha Murphy and supported by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of our main university. So I downloaded the app and went on the walk.

If you’re not familiar with these kinds of apps, they are generally overlaid on mapping software such as GPSMyCity or, in this case, PocketSights, and connect a series of location that are annotated with text and pictures. Walking Radical Wellington features 28 such locations, connected in spatial as opposed to chronological order. The two main thematic criteria are sites of working-class and socialist struggle, and sites of organisations of the LGBTQ community alongside what the authors call the ‘social spaces and outlets whether private lives of individuals could find public expression’. This network of clubs, venues and private dwellings, stretching mainly from Cuba Street to Willis Street, is perhaps the most surprising and vivid aspect of the walk, conveying the sense of a secret Wellington that struggled for recognition and ultimately liberation.

The walk can be disorienting, because it takes you backwards and forwards in time, and also because some of the old physical markers have been erased over time by new leases and successive redevelopments. Often you will look for a street number, and find that it has disappeared, as if crushed between the neighbouring addresses. You may be searching for the original site of the Resistance Bookshop at 144 Willis Street, for instance (location #18 on the walk), but the numbers jump from 136 to 148. You are standing right there, but there isn’t there anymore. Similarly, you could say that the workshop of Philip Josephs – the anarchist tailor whose life is chronicled in Jared Davidson's brilliant book Sewing Freedom – is now a Sunglass Hut, but only more or less: the actual building is long gone.

Yet there is value in those spatial relationships, even when they connect places that have physically disappeared or morphed beyond recognition. The walk tells a story, through flash backs and digressions, and the space in-between the stops is the time it takes for the story to be told. Linear time is replaced by space, or rather displaced into another form of time: the time of walking from one location to another.

Outside Trades Hall

The authors are careful to point out that the story of radical Wellington they endeavoured to tell is one of many possible stories, dictated by their particular political interests and knowledge as well as by certain constraints such as how far people could be expected to walk in a single outing (this is why, for instance, an obvious set of locations such as Newtown was left out).

One thing the walk explicitly isn’t, is an attempt to map or connect places of current activity and struggle – a fact that was made obvious to me as I passed the social centre at 128 Abel Smith Street twice in the early stages of the walk. And what it perhaps most notably isn’t – again by explicit disclaimer – is ‘an attempt to capture the history of Māori political activity in Wellington’, which McNeill and Murphy felt ill-equipped to tell. There, I think, lies the most immediate opportunity for a companion or sequel that might go even further in illustrating how much place matters to our politics.

The Bank of New Zealand building photographed by Ron Fox

I really enjoyed the walk, and found it delightfully instructive. And not just because of the many things I didn’t know – for instance: about the industrial disputes during the construction of the State Insurance, formerly Bank of New Zealand building that towers, Death Star-like over the CBD, and where I worked briefly after moving to Wellington. Individually, those are just interesting stories. But woven together, they form a lineage, a heritage.

Walking Radical Wellington didn’t speak to me of lost utopias or romantic pursuits, but rather – much more compellingly – of the concrete signs of a collective history that is never finished or exhausted, but can be retraced, and brought back to useful life.

You can download the Walking Radical Wellington app for iOS or Android from the project's web page.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The soaking man

When I was a small child, I thought there was a man who lived in a flooded house, with the water coming up to his chest. But he was very neat so he always dressed up, although he also got his shirt badly stained.

This man was known as l’uomo in ammollo, the soaking man. The soaking man was always going on about this bet he made with his wife. His shirt was very dirty. Wine, tomato sauce, grease. Such stains were once impossible to remove. But not anymore, thanks to a laundry detergent called Bio Presto.

Soon the original soaking man was replaced by a new soaking man whose name was Franco Cerri. He featured not only on the television ads but also in full colour in magazines.

The soaking man entered hour homes every night during Carosello (literally ‘Carousel’), a popular prime time show consisting solely of advertisements, mostly in the form of skits of varying duration. Some of these recurring skits are classics of Italian entertainment, including the wonderful La Linea, a character that starred in a series of stand-alone cartoons but was mostly known for his role in advertising Lagostina pots.

The comedy of Carosello was often of the surreal variety. But nothing was quite so strange – to me at least – than the soaking man.

Why was this man submerged? Where did all the water come from? What did soaking man do all day?

Bio Presto was a detergent for your hand-washing. But later they introduced a variety for washing machines.

There was a big generational gap in Italy when it came to washing machines, and I caught the tail end of it. Older women didn’t trust them. My mother bought my grandmother a washing machine. But my grandmother only used the washing machine when my mother came to visit, every second weekend. Otherwise, she washed everything by hand in the big stone laundry basin at the back of the house. I know because sometimes I spent the week there, especially in summer, in-between parental visits.

The sloping front of the stone laundry basin featured a sculpted surface with dents that acted like a washboard. My grandmother didn’t use Bio Presto though. She used big square blocs of Marseilles soap. She trusted Marseilles soap.

The soaking man was trying to sell to Italian housewives a more technologically advanced form of handwashing. Bio Presto isn’t a laundry detergent, he explained. It’s a bio-detergent. It washes clothes biologically.

The television ads included an animation showing how the enzymes of Bio Presto lifted the stains off the material, which greatly fascinated me.

The slogan of the ad campaign in all its iterations was non esiste lo sporco impossibile, there is no such thing as a stain that won’t come clean.

When they introduced the version of Bio Presto for washing machines, in the late 1970s, the ads became even stranger. The soaking man lived inside the washing machine now. But I was older so I was less fazed. Good on the soaking man, I may have thought.

The most famous soaking man was Franco Cerri who – this is also quite strange – was one of the premier Italian jazz guitarists of the last century. He’s still alive, actually. He’s 92 years old. During his very long career, he played with Chet Baker and Billie Holiday, with Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan and Stéphane Grappelli, with Buddy Collette and Gorni Kramer, who discovered him in a club in Milan in the late 1940s.

But true fame came to him via television. Carosello had an audience of 20 million. Half the country. For at least two generations of Italian children, bedtime was 9pm, or ‘after Carosello’. So everyone knew the soaking man and the ‘little man of Lagostina’ and all the other characters that populated those ten minutes of nightly television – every day of the year, except for Good Friday and the 2nd of November – all paid for by commerce, and often by multinationals (Bio Presto is a Henkel product). All so they could sell us groceries.

I don’t feel the slightest bit of nostalgia. But if I think back quite hard I can briefly reach for the sense of bafflement I felt whenever I thought of the man who lived in a flooded house.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

On the end of the internet

The internet is the future we seldom imagined. It eluded generations of science fiction writers, only to suddenly appear, fully formed, some time in the mid-1990s, and from then on quickly become an essential part of how most people communicate, research, write and work. Our new present.

It is a common experience to ask oneself: how did I do this before? Except before is receding, a not-distant past pushed out of mind by a technological paradigm that is constantly changing the meaning of old, familiar words. Not just what it means to like something or to have friends, but the very act of being social; not just the word ‘memory’ – now reduced to what fits on a microchip, or on the glimmering surface of a hard drive, or in the cloud – but what it’s like to remember.

Within that difficulty to recall, or perhaps more accurately to imagine, what life was like before the internet lies the problem of how to conceive of a future without it. It may well be – to paraphrase Fredric Jameson – that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the internet. Conversely, what is routinely presented as ‘the end of the internet’ turns out to be anything but. Two years ago, the phrase was used to describe the effects of proposed copyright legislation. Nowadays, the spectre is raised about attempts to bring the internet outside of the exclusive control of the United States, the prospect that the principle of net neutrality might be abandoned, or even increased taxation of internet traffic. Anything that might alter the regulatory or technical landscape under which the internet as we know it operates is viewed as a catastrophe, the end.

In addition to this, knowing that the internet was originally conceived as a wartime communications network makes us liable to overstate its actual resilience. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the book/app Why the Net Matters, has cited at least four ways the internet could go down. These included political interventions (some will recall Bashar al-Assad shutting down the network in Syria, but there have also been proposals to give American presidents authority over an ‘internet kill switch’); acts of cyber-warfare or sabotage; or the malicious or accidental cutting of deep-sea cables. The fourth reason – space weather – has recently come back into the news and is the most fascinating and chilling of all.

It seems that in 2012 we narrowly avoided being hit by a coronal mass ejection from our sun. As astronomer Phil Plait explained in a widely shared piece for Slate, a coronal mass ejection is the largest type of solar storm and causes the release of billions of tons of plasma into the solar system. When one of these storms hit the Earth in 1859, it wreaked havoc on the telegraph system – the effects on a more advanced society would (of course) be far greater. Plait predicted widespread, months-long blackouts if large transformers were hit, while Eagleman suggested that a major solar event ‘could theoretically melt down the whole internet’. University of Colorado astronomer Daniel Baker has put the chances of Earth being hit by an ejection of the same magnitude as the one that narrowly missed us in 2012 at 12 per cent over the next decade. ‘That’s a bit higher than makes me comfortable,’ noted Plait wryly.

If one sets to one side for a moment the staggering hardship that the sudden collapse of the world’s communications systems would cause, the threat has something of a poetic quality. Large solar storms are relatively frequent, and would have occurred many times since the beginnings of human civilisation. The only different is that now we can notice them; only now do they have the potential to suddenly halt and reverse our technological progress, if not history itself.

It is difficult to muster a human response to events that occur on a cosmic scale, but it may be useful nevertheless to reflect on that failure of our collective imagination, since a future without the internet may suddenly displace our present. It may come from the skies, or by executive order. But it could happen.

As I have noted in the past, the challenge, as I see it, is to abstract progress from technology. We need to think of our new forms of organisation not as the product of new communication tools, but as our response to them, so that we can teach ourselves to replicate those forms, those networks – which are predominantly social – even without the internet. We should do this not just because we might have to do so some day, but to build a redundancy and to make ourselves more resilient.

I also see great value in the recovery of that too-quickly-forgotten past of daily practices and long-term thinking: how we used to communicate, research, write and work. It wasn’t that long ago.

Originally published at Overland

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

On being there

I flick a switch and zoom in to my childhood home, which I sold recently after my parents were taken ill. I look into our former backyard and see my father there. I try to get closer but I am repelled by the absolute limits of the zoom function. Dad’s face is duly blurred but he is walking purposefully. There is no sign of the broken hip that made him reliant on a walking frame, no sign of the rapidly advancing symptoms of dementia that now afflicts him. He is frozen in time-sickness.

– Simon Sellars, ‘Journey to the Centre of Google Earth’

You find yourself in the middle of a long stretch of road. On either side, fields of what looks like young wheat. There are no cars in sight. The sun is shining – isn’t it always? – but of course you aren’t warm. You can choose to proceed in either direction. Eventually you will come to a road sign, or cross paths with a vehicle whose markings might shed some light on your whereabouts.

Car plates are illegible so I look out for trucks, which often provide clues such as the address of the company. Trucks can come from quite far away, so the information is no absolute guarantee you’re even in a particular country. It’s just a hint, a clue.

Or sometimes you find yourself on the outskirts of a village. When it happens to me, I like to explore the place a little bit before getting down to the business of figuring out its exact location. That is where the pleasure of the game lies: to seek information not from the shop or road signs – which is easy enough – but from the aspect of houses and people. You quickly learn to tell if you’re in a hot country or a temperate one, in a rich town or a poor one. There are unmistakable signs, things we already know at a subconscious level about the shape of people’s lives.

The earliest and most popular game in this genre, GeoGuessr, is nearly as old as Google Street View, on which it is overlaid. There are mobile apps that do the same job, but GeoGuessr is just a website. Every game of GeoGuessr takes you to five locations chosen at random from a given selection, or ‘map’. Some maps are quite specific: you can choose to be transported to urban environments only, or to specific countries. Others span several continents. In any case, after a certain number of moves, you’re going to want to make your guess by placing a pin on the world map at the bottom right corner of the screen. The game will reveal your actual location, and give you points based on the accuracy of your guess.

As Street View has evolved and expanded to cover more and more regions of the world in ever-increasing detail, so too GeoGuessr has become more difficult and interesting. Although it is possible to pit yourself against other players, I don’t play competitively, or keep track of my scores. I suspect treating the game as a pastime is the most common approach. Commentators have remarked upon its addictive nature. To me, it is a palimpsest of what the internet could be: a place of places, an infinitely interactive map of the world. A tool for transporting yourself, as opposed to grasping at whatever pieces of detritus happens to gravitate toward the orbit of your interests on any given day.

For the internet has a double nature: it connects us across time and space, and in doing so produces the illusion that those distances don’t matter, compressing all of history and geography into the here and now. I click on a link that somebody has shared on Twitter: it speaks of things and in a language I understand, but I don’t always bother to find out who wrote it or where and when. Even if I wanted to, digital content from the first decade of the World Wide Web is seldom even dated, and is often unsigned. Context is the first casualty of our unprecedented capacity to instantly access what seems at times like the entire store of human knowledge. But loss of context also impoverishes that knowledge.

Playing GeoGuessr, as I do quite often, I am reminded of these erasures even if the game makes erasures of its own. Africa is very poorly covered at a street level. So is China. But I don’t play the game to be everywhere. I play it to be somewhere.

Occasionally, the game takes the player to a location that cannot be guessed. Street View has a surprising number of such places, which are glitch-like in their appearance. You couldn’t access them from the map, so you wonder why they are even there. Once, for instance, I found myself inside somebody’s office in New Delhi. Off the reception was a utility room with concrete floors and myriad electric cables. I couldn’t tell what kind of business it was, nor was I able to exit the building and access the street.

Another time I ended up in a grass field north-west of Beneficente, Brazil, next to a donkey and some farming implements. I could see a human figure in the distance, but could not get close to it. The frustration of not being able to move past the invisible barriers around me resembled the experience of moving inside a dream.

At one level, GeoGuessr is just that: an illusion. It creates the sense of being there – wherever there is – without the means of responding to the environment. It also reflects the limits of Google’s gaze, notably its proclivity to map businesses ahead of everything else. Yet even in the unique way the internet has of turning uncanny experiences into the banal texture of the everyday, the game also acts as a reminder of how vast the world is, and how both similar and dissimilar other people’s lives are to our own. And that is no small thing.

Originally published at Overland

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

My fucking food bag: Mantuan Carnival cakes

The rough translation of frictilia, I suppose, would be ‘fritters’. This is the term that ancient Romans used to describe strips of dough fried in lard, a popular treat during the yearly Saturnalia, or feast of Saturn, a direct precursor of the modern carnival. The sweet – which exists in many cultures – has survived in Italy until the present day, with small variations and under an almost bewildering number of regional names, including merveilles (‘marvels’) near the French border, bugie (‘lies’) in Piedmont, frappe in Rome, strufoli or cenci (‘rags) in Tuscany, crostoli in the North-East and from there into Croatia and as far as Poland. In most other regions they are chiacchiere, or chit-chats.

My grandparents lived near Mantua so for my family they were the lattughe, literally lettuce leaves. Nonna made them every Spring and it was one of my favourite sweets but it’s only recently that I tried to re-create them, and only this year that I finally got them exactly right. It’s not because they’re hard to make, on the contrary: but I wasn’t just trying to make any one of the many variants. Rather, the one from my childhood. The one I would recognise.

This is a very humble dish. it is not difficult nor expensive to make but it takes labour and time, as befits its origins. As I’ve said many times before, the cuisine of the Mantuan province is historically ‘of the Prince and the pauper’, and festivals in particular required that the same rituals and dishes be accessible by rich and poor alike. None more so, perhaps, than Carnival.

To make lattughe you need to prepare a dough that sits halfway between pasta and pastry: a mixture of eggs and flour enriched with relatively small amounts of butter and sugar and flavoured with lemon peel, Marsala wine and vanilla, which you will then need to roll very thin. That last aspect in particular is what sets the lattughe apart from other variants, along with the frying in beef dripping – another pauper’s ingredient that is still found in many dishes of this region, including bread.

On we go. These are the ingredients:
300 grams flour
3 eggs
30 grams of butter
50 grams of sugar
5 grams of baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla pod (or essence)
1 lemon peel
1 shot of Marsala wine or equivalent liquor
Beef dripping (or vegetable oil) as needed

Sift the baking powder and flour, mix with salt and sugar, form a well in the middle in which to break the eggs and add the butter, peel, vanilla and Marsala. Mix, then knead until the dough is hard and smooth. Mine ended up looking not unlike like a cauliflower.

Leave it in a bowl covered with a tea towel for half an hour or so.

As I made a double batch, I helped myself with a pasta machine to roll it, but you can use a regular pin, so long as you aim for pasta-like thickness. This is more or less what we’re looking for.

Cut the pasta into strips. The traditional shape is a rectangle of 10x5 cms in size, with two parallel incisions in the middle.

You now have the option of feeding one of the corners into the opposite slit, to make a sort of bow – it has no other function than to give some of the lattughe an interesting shape.

I did about half that way, the other half I left as rectangles.

To cook, heat up the oil or dripping in a saucepan or frying pan. It needs to be hot enough for the dough to cook instantly. Dunk a strip and count to 4 Mississippis (or, in this case, “Fiume Po”), then turn it over for a split second on the way to taking it out of the pan and into a dish or bowl which you previously lined with a paper towel. They should look something like this.

And taste something like this.

No wait that’s still how they look. But you know what I mean. Enjoy, and buon carnevale.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Are we running out of poems?

Originally published at Overland

According to the Daily Telegraph, the Hope Bourne prize is a prestigious poetry competition whose chief requirements are that the each entry be ‘original’ and ‘inspired by Exmoor’. Determined to fulfil at least one of these requirements, a chap by the name of Christian Ward took a published poem by Helen Mort entitled ‘The Deer’ and handed it in as is own under the title ‘The Deer at Exmoor’. As the Telegraph explains:
Mr Ward is believed to have changed only a handful of words from Miss Mort’s poem, replacing ‘father’ for ‘mother’ in the first line, ‘river Exe’ for ‘Ullapool’ in the second verse and changing the reference to a ‘kingfisher’ near Rannoch Moor in Perthshire, Scotland, to a peregrine falcon on Bossington Beach, Exmoor.

I am admiring of Mr Ward’s scheme, which would allow someone to localise with little effort practically any work of literature – and not just in Exmoor. But literary types are very sensitive about attribution, and once the matter was put to him, some time after he won the prize, he didn’t help matters by making some rather feeble excuses:
I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn’t entirely my own work. I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. I have begun to examine my published poems to make sure there are no similar mistakes. Already I have discovered a 2009 poem called The Neighbour is very similar to Tim Dooley’s After Neruda and admit that a mistake has been made. I am still digging and want a fresh start.

I can also reveal that whenever I sit down to write an essay or a blog post, I use somebody else’s as a model. Especially if it’s supposed to be about my personal experiences. Then, as soon as I’ve changed enough words, I post it or send it to my editor. Is there any other way? But you really can’t be so careless as to forget to make the changes! Now it seems that Mr Ward may have been equally careless in the past, and so there he is now, at the forefront of the campaign to uncover his own acts of plagiarism, a task for which he seems eminently qualified and can already boast some early success.

A further incident last week – involving British ‘poet’ David R Morgan – has prompted the Guardian to come up with the headline, ‘Another plagiarism scandal hits poetry community’. Apparently this ‘community’ is now ‘searching its soul’ and ‘asking itself just how widespread plagiarism is’. I am always doubtful when such sharply defined feelings and intentions are attributed to a vast and diverse group of people, but it may be true that the issue of plagiarism is causing a degree of anxiety that is to some degree peculiar to our times. It’s even got its own, zeitgeisty how-to guide: How to Find Plagiarism in Poetry.

It is a variation on a classic contemporary paradox. On the one hand, the internet has greatly increased the human capacity to disseminate texts, including plagiarised ones; on the other, it has given people unprecedented tools for textual matching and analysis over a corpus that – thanks to repositories like Google Books – is approximating the totality of what was published in print before the internet came along, plus all the digital content. Obscure books that could once be trusted to slip further and further into oblivion are now constantly threatening to resurface as searchable texts. You could practically hear them thumping loudly through the plagiarist’s floorboards, like the tell-tale heart in that story by Poe.

I don’t intend to ask why we even care, nor the degree in which the idea of authorship is called into question – some years ago, after one of New Zealand’s foremost writers was caught in the act, I proposed using the term ‘authoriety’ to describe its current slippages – but rather reflect on the peculiar character of this anxiety. How it is bound with the fear of being caught doing what we all must, as we engage in that form of serial theft otherwise known as culture. How it ultimately points to the exhaustion of our capacity to say and mean things originally, which is centuries-old and yet always poses itself as new. Perhaps it’s a question that each generation has to ask: are we running out of poems?

In 1961 Raymond Queneau tried to answer this question, or rather ensure that humanity would never have cause to ask it again. His book, Cent mille milliards de poèmes (sometimes translated as ‘One hundred million million poems’) consisted of ten 14-line sonnets of identical rhyme scheme and matching line endings, with each line printed on an individual strip so as to enable the ‘reader’ to produce up to 10, to the power of 14 different combinations, each one equally valid from a formal point of view, but likely of different semantic and aesthetic value.

I never had the pleasure of physically handling the book, but there are a number of websites that strive to replicate the experience in a computational environment (including some in French and English). Ironically, the base-sonnets are protected by copyright, which all the sites are in breach of. Wikipedia tells me that a French court has so decreed.

Legalities aside, the problem with Cent mille milliards de poèmes is that it’s very boring. It may be a little nicer to play with the print book, but I found shuffling the lines at the touch of a button (or by hovering over the sonnet) so distracting that I had to stop at once. However, this is in fact a reframing of our media paradox: you can have the statistical certainty that the text you just composed has never been seen in this world before, and it still won’t be your poem, or new, or a piece of art (may Dada forgive me). To do poetry the customary way always involves retreading somebody else’s ground. And that’s fine. If there really is such a thing as a ‘community of poets’, it should worry less about running out of words, or about its capacity to catch the odd thief, whose presence should in fact reassure us that the culture hasn’t reached a dead end; that our canons aren’t yet so small that they can be recited by heart.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The trial of Victor Emmanuel III

The President of the Senate, Pietro Grasso, called it ‘an act of compassion’, although it’s not very clear that it in fact was within his powers to prevent it. What seems clearer is that the dead king didn’t need to return on a special army transport: we could have been spared both the official act and the final expense, along with the deference that they implied.

The remains of Victor Emmanuel III, Italy’s de-facto last monarch (he reigned for a full 46 years, while his successor lasted less than one month), were flown last month from Alexandria, Egypt, to a military airstrip in Cuneo. They were then transported to the small sanctuary of Vicoforte, there to be reunited with those of his late wife, Queen Helen, which had arrived the day before from France. Their exile was self-imposed: they left in haste in May of 1946, leaving their less tarnished son Umberto in charge, in the hope that it might persuade Italians to vote for preserving the monarchy in the June referendum. It did not. Following the referendum, a ‘temporary rule’ of the newly drafted Republican constitution banished the male heirs of the family from the Italian soil, lest they tried to seize power again. The rule was finally abrogated in 2002, opening the door to the return not only of the living members Savoies, but also of the dead ones.

So, why does it matter?

The ‘act of compassion’ might have been just that, were it not for the guard of honour provided by our armed forces and – more importantly – for the fact it opened the door to new claims from the descendants of the last king. Namely, that Victor Emmanuel and Helen be buried not in the modest chapel that houses their famous forebear Charles (d. 1630), but at the Pantheon in Rome, the burial place of the few other kings and queens of our short-lived monarchy. Such a move would have a much greater symbolic significance, going a long way towards rehabilitating the Royal Family and amending the historical judgment on the role it played in a great many crimes.

Albeit initially more moderate than his parents, Umberto and Margherita, Victor Emmanuel has a lot to atone for. He is principally responsible for the country’s disastrous participation in the First World War, having invoked the extraordinary powers granted to him by the Albertine Statute to override the will of parliament. After the war, he presided over the government’s turning a blind eye to the campaign of violence of the nascent fascist movement. Most extraordinarily, he turned the farce of the ‘March on Rome’ into a successful coup d’état, elevating Mussolini to the prime ministership just as the army was poised to regain control of the capital. From that moment, he rubber-stamped every measure introduced by Mussolini not just to legalise Black Shirt violence (beginning with the abduction and murder of socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti) but gradually abolish all democratic freedoms, and ultimately hollow out the powers of the monarchy itself. In the 1930s, he was the figure-head who accepted the titles of Emperor of Ethiopia and King of Albania, and who signed off on the racial laws that targeted the Indigenous population in the African colonies (1936) and the Jewish population in Italy (1938).

That’s not all. Having given his enthusiastic assent to Italy’s late entry into the Second World War in the June of 1940 – when it looked to like the tiniest of helps to Hitler’s seemingly inexorable advance would translate into big gains at the peace-making table – the king behaved just as disastrously three years later, when he was left with no choice but to oust the Fascist leader. It was then that, after putting Marshall Badoglio in charge of the government (and it was no progressive choice: the man was a butcher), he fled to Brindisi, to spend the rest of the war under the protection of the Allied command. Left without orders, the Italian army units stationed both overseas and in the Italian regions not yet under Allied control were swiftly captured by the German army. Those who didn’t surrender, ended up fighting on the side of Mussolini’s soon to be formed puppet regime. The rest – some 600,000 men – were deported to German labour camps.

It is at this time that the deportation of the defenceless Jewish population began. And it is the Jewish community that has been most vocal in opposing any move to transfer Victor Emmanuel and Helen to the Pantheon, a short distance from the historical sites of those mass abductions. Their response has included a full-blown mock trial of the late king.

The trial, ‘written’ by Viviana Kasam and Marilena Francese, featured the testimonies of survivors of the Shoah and descendants of deportees and forced exiles, in front of a judging panel that included a former minister of justice and a prominent anti-mafia prosecutor. Focussing on the passing of the ‘racial purity’ laws of 1938 – which Victor Emmanuel had the power to veto – it found the late king, of course, guilty. But its value was primarily as a creative intervention, within a media environment structurally disposed to present historical events as a contest between opposite and equal sides.

Recorded at a theatre in Rome ahead of Holocaust Rememberance Day, the trial of Victor Emmanuel III was televised in prime time on that, which in Italy goes by the name of ‘the day of memory’. But memory, again, implies a contest: the averaging out or mediation of sometimes opposite recollections. The forensic setting of a trial – while founded in part on the institution of the testimony – constitutes instead an attempt to (re)establish a knowledge of history, as a truth determined by civil institutions that cannot be called into question barring new evidence, and a further trial.

Italian Fascism never had its own Nuremberg, and the new Republic – which was formally founded on the repudiation of the old regime – chose to proceed, both culturally and politically, by means of amnesties rather than trials. And so here we are, having to metaphorically exhume the dead not so we can defeat again Fascism back then, but prevent its deep roots from sprouting again.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

National standards

This one is straightforward: it’s a collection of my mother’s primary school reports, or rather of the four out of five that survived. But it still comes with questions. Above all, this: when is a school not a school? What are the criteria to assess the value of state education, and what distinguishes it from its opposite – indoctrination?

My mother turned six in February of 1937. Her formal education began therefore when Mussolini’s reform of the school system was well and truly complete. Two disciplines in particular – “General knowledge and fascist culture” (grades 1 to 3) and “History and fascist culture” (grade 4 and above) – had been introduced in the 1932-33 school year. Alongside existing ones such as “Hygiene and personal care” and “Manual and female work”, they give us more than a mere glimpse of the model student that the Fascist school sought to produce.

To make this totalitarian project even more overt, the school reports from this period are elaborate affairs with very high production value and obvious propaganda intent. This is the cover of the first report that Mum took home, in June of 1938.

Note that the name of the Ministry of National Education is smaller than Gioventù Italiana del Littorio – the Fascist youth organisation in which all pupils were signed up upon enrolment – and the acronym of the National Fascist Party (PNF). As for the picture, it features the M of Mussolini over a stylised axe, above a rifle resting over a book – the latter symbolising the motto “book and musket make the perfect Fascist”.

At the back, the year is given according to the fascist notation (year XVI of the Fascist Era, ie 1937), above a reminder that of the advent of the “Second Empire”.

This is the far-less-remarkable inside, resembling pre-Fascist reports in most respects.

At the end of her second year of primary school, in June of 1939, my mother took home this report.

We’re at the eve of the Second World War, and the book is gone, to be replaced by a wholly martial imagery. The Fascist year notation is now to be found on the front cover, and there is no back cover.

The report from June of 1940 is the most remarkable of our small family collection, and a lesson in military history and geography. The scarlet M of Mussolini links Libya with Ethiopia, which the regime had brutally invaded in 1935.

At the back, the Italian colonies are shown in greater detail, within the silhouette of those still-resisting countries. For them, it’s apparently Year One of life under Italian rule.

The report from Mum’s fourth year at school has gone missing. Her final one dates June 1942, one year and one month before Mussolini was to be deposed. Italy has joined the war by now. An unusually winged and armoured allegory of Italy, her shield decorated with an imperial eagle and the M of the still-boastful Duce, is seated above the word VINCERE (“To victory”). Reader: we were about to lose.

At the back, a gun rests on a stylised Axe, below the standard of the Fascist Youth.

I cannot really imagine what Mum’s school was like, nor what it was like to grow up in a small village in a totalitarian country. I know that she was a good student, which is why the reports were kept in the first place. And I know that one of the books she loved (and that was not part of the syllabus) was a collection of the Greek myths that form the prologue to the Iliad, adapted for a young audience by Laura Orvieto: a Jewish writer that in those years was hiding first from persecution, then from deportation. Those stories, I think, were the spark that ignited her love for a culture that had other things to offer than a virile ideal of colonial conquest, and helped her forge a path towards secondary education and eventually a life outside the small village, in a country that strived in complicated and sometimes ambiguous fashion to leave Fascism behind.

But that’s another story. These are just documents, relics of a time when children were taught not what they should love, but whom they should hate.