Flashes, Camcorders, and Compulsive Documentation at the #Olympics

I think the strangest example of compulsive documentation is the bizarre need we feel to photograph events that are definitely going to be documented anyway. The athletes filming the Opening Ceremony from within the parade last week is a great example of this. I was very taken with this at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Games and took a really bad photo of the athletes filming the crowd during that ceremony.

And I’ve noted this oddness before, when thousands took photos of the 2008 Presidential inauguration, Malia Obama among them. In these actions, (entirely superfluous in the age of the mass media), we see the audience authenticating their own experience. “I was there and I took my own pictures to prove it.”. It’s the digital equivalent of picking a pebble off a beach – banal in itself, but imbued with meaning and sentiment for the one who took it. Continue reading “Flashes, Camcorders, and Compulsive Documentation at the #Olympics”

Cycling to Work on the Eve of the Games

The smug designer with the skinny t-shirt and a fixed gear bike.
The mother in blue track suit with an empty child seat fixed to the pannier.
The ill-prepared lad in the baggy jeans on mountain bike with the seat set way too low.
The hobbyist with orange glasses and Lycra that matches his titanium frame.
The dreadlocked courier with a thick chain wrapped around his chest.
The woman with frayed ginger hair crawling out of her helmet.
The two Japanese tourists, inexplicably on Boris Bikes (miles from a docking station, surely?)

Could I discern
The same eager twitching as the red lights wane,
The same grit of the teeth as clear road opens up ahead
The same extra power on the pedals as the bike overtakes a bus
The same glance over the shoulders, to check the gap between the person behind,
The same confident gait of the one who imagines himself to be wearing a yellow jersey,
As I perceived in myself?

At the four way pedestrian crossing at Ludgate Hill,
When the red lights rudely put the brakes on our makeshift peloton,
Did I perceive in the tall old man in a linen suit,
In the girl in a flowing white dress and flat sandals
In the woman in the business skirt and trainers,
In the sweaty man in shorts, now carrying his fold up bicycle,
A quicker step
A longer stride
A firmer tread
As if the noise that heralded the green man
Was no longer a high-pitched beep
But a starters’ gun?

The World of An Insignificant Woman

Over the past year, I’ve been working on a creative publishing challenge I set myself. It’s time to blog about it here and draw a line under the project.

A few years ago, my parents showed me a faded typed manuscript of a memoir, The World of an Insignificant Woman. It was written in the mid 1980’s by my grandfather’s sister, Catherine Thackray, about their parents and family. It is based in a large part on the handwritten memoirs and letters of my great-grandmother, Hilda Marjory Sharp (born 1882).

In recent years I’ve taken a particular interest in new forms of publishing. I drink in the columns of Cory Doctorow and the experiments of James Bridle (two London-based thinkers I have had the pleasure of meeting a few times, through English PEN and Free Word Centre activities). The potential of print-on-demand and eBook publishing is huge, and I had begun to think seriously about getting in on the micro-publishing action.

Continue reading “The World of An Insignificant Woman”

Quoted in Politiken

Over the weekend I was quoted in Politiken, the Danish broadsheet, discussing the LOCOG attempt to control how staff, athletes and the public tweet during the Olympics.  The ‘Games Makers’ have strict tweeting rules, and Twitter have been roped in to police ‘ambush marketing’ attempts by companies who are not an official games sponsor.

Here are the quotes:

Hos den engelske afdeling af PEN, der kæmper for ytringsfrihed over hele verden, siger kampagneleder Robert Sharp, at han finder forbuddet direkte latterligt. “Det er bizart og man kan spekulere over hvilket signal OL sender ud ved netop at lægge så meget vægt på deres sponsorers interesser. Det efterlader en med en dårlig smag i munden og det strider for mig at se imod hele den olympiske ånd, der går ud på åbenhed og at dele”,  siger han.


Robert Sharp tvivler alvorligt på, at de den Olympiske Komite kan håndhæve nogen form for censur. “Vi har tidligere set i forbindelse med retssager her i Storbritannien, at selv ikke et forbud fra Højesteret har kunnet stillet meget op overfor twitter. Tværtimod tror jeg ethvert forsøg på at stoppe en twitterpost eller et opslag på Facebook vil have den modsatte effekt. Det vil sprede sig på nettet med lynets hast”, mener han.



Sign the Petition Against Dow at the Olympics

I know that politicians and people in power can be notoriously out of touch with reality, and we’ve seem some spectacularly tone deaf policies from the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently… but the Dow Chemicals sponsorship of the London Olympics really takes the biscuit.

Bhopal is a town in Madhya Pradesh, India.  In 1984, a gas plant run by Union Carbide malfunctioned and poisoned at 3,787 to death.  Almost thirty years on, the total number of gas-related deaths to date may be closer to 15,000 with the Indian Government saying that up to half a million people had suffered health problems as a result of the disaster.

Union Carbide, the company responsible for the disaster, is now owned by the Dow Chemical company. Dow deny that they are culpable, despite the numerous convictions of Union Carbide employees in Indian Courts.

The IOC says that because Dow only bought Union Carbide in 2001, that they were not responsible for the accident and the deaths.  However, that’s not how things work.  When one company buys another, they buy the brand and the liabilities of that company as well as their assets.  Wehn Dow bought Union Carbide, Dow legally became Union Carbide – their histories and destinies become intertwined.

Even if the Dow/Union Carbide version of events is true (something that the people of Madhya Pradesh and successive India Governments consider complete baloney), the fact is that a gas leak at their plant ruined the lives of many lakhs of people.  While litigation continues, this company should not be allowed to sanitise their reputation through the sponsorship of London 2012.  It is deeply inappropriate for the International Olympic Committee (hardly a paragon of virtue itself) to take Dow’s money.

Early Morning at #OccupyLSX

I have been meaning to visit the Occupy London protest camp at St Paul’s Cathedral since it appeared in October. Yesterday morning I went via St Paul’s on my way to work and shot a few slices of video of the camp, while its denizens were still sleeping. Its a snapshot of the eclectic mix of ideas being discussed at the camp.

Shadow Cities

There is much to admire in André Aciman’s Shadow Cities, a ‘classic’ New York Review of Books essay.  For Radhika Jones, it is the way the writing evokes her own memories of New York.  As for me, I like the concept of overlaying imagined cities and long-lost viewpoints:

New York is my home precisely because it is a place from where I can begin to be elsewhere—an analogue city, a surrogate city, a shadow city that allows me to naturalize and neutralize this terrifying, devastating, unlivable megalopolis by letting me think it is something else … Straus Park allowed me to place more than one film over the entire city of New York, the way certain guidebooks of Rome do. For each photograph of an ancient ruin comes a series of colored transparencies. When you place the transparency over the picture of a ruin the missing or fallen parts suddenly reappear, showing you how the Forum and the Coliseum must have looked in their heyday, or how Rome looked in the Middle Ages, and then in the late Renaissance, and so on. But when you lift all the plastic sheets, all you see are today’s ruins.

I didn’t want to see the real New York. I’d go backward in time and uncover an older New York, as though New York, like so many other cities on the Mediterranean, had an ancient side that was less menacing, that was not so difficult to restore, that had more past than present, and that corresponded to the old-fashioned world I think I come from. Hence, my obsession with things that are old and defunct and that seep through like ancient cobblestones and buried rails from under renewed coats of asphalt and tar. Sealed-off ancient firehouses, ancient stables turned into garages, ghost buildings awaiting demolition, old movie theaters converted into Baptist churches, old marketplaces that are now lost, subway stops that are ghost stations today … Going to Straus Park was like traveling elsewhere in time.

This is a marvellous evocation of why I enjoy much of the literature and imagery that I do.  I have discussed the idea of overlaying of invisible worlds onto a physical space quite a lot on this blog.

To wit: The human ideas imposed onto China Mieville’s The City & The City, and the secret Londons described in Un Lun Dun and Kraken; The transnational societies in Cory Doctorow’s For The Win; the myriad wifi networks on Exmouth Market; my idea for a London Underground game, marvellously realised by Chromaroma; and overlaying a fantasy narrative onto Edinburgh in Ghost.

Releated: there is the leaving of a digital breadcrumbs trail we saw in Stalking Shawn; andPulling echoes of the past into the present space in [murmur];

And finally, there is the fascination with the organic nature of cities: Buildings in a state of constant alteration and repurpose (the Free Word Centre where I now work is one such building); Medieval cities that persist in the twenty-first century, like Fes; The way buildings can take on a personality, when plugged in; the way a city can seem to be a jungle; and buildings that make you feel as though you are already a part of history, such is the weight of their (future) iconic status.


Wrestling with Fighting Talk

Anti-fascist poster
Anti-fascist poster

My inaugral post on Labour List (cross-posted here) elicited a few responses which highlight some subtlties in the ongoing discussion around the limits of free speech – specifically, the point at which it is appropriate for the state to ban political demonstrations.

First, this from Ben Singleton:

I have no problem at all stopping the EDL marching. Ever heard of Cable Street? This is nothing new. When it comes to fascists the response has to be No Pasaran!

I do however agree that the argument about costs is a bad argument and leads us into dodgy territory. The EDL march should be stopped because they are a bunch of violent racists, not because policing is costly.

While this appears to be quite bolshy and uncompromising, it does draw an interesting distinction – between what it is appropriate for the police to do, and what it is appropriate for other citizens to do.  There is something about the fact that Cable Street was not an act of state censorship, but of citizens standing up to repell the fascists, that makes it feel somehow morally better, and I think this is the reason why it has become part of modern folklore.  However, this is purely an emotional feeling, and its a bad philosphical argument.  If we adopt Robert Peel’s idea that the police are in fact just a particular and peculiar type of citizen, then there seems to be very little distinction between the police stopping a march, and An Angry Mobb doing the same.  The question of “At what point do you step in to stop the march?” still remains, something I’ll return to in a moment.

The mention of Cable Street reminds us of Skokie, Illinois, site of a controversial march by American Nazis in 1977. A correspondent of mine e-mails to say:

[The EDL march] resembles the classic Skokie march in America. The issue there was whether or not the fascist marchers should be allowed to wear the swastika: did this constitute ‘fighting words’, which even the first amendment does not protect?

The politicians opposed to the march aren’t saying that the EDL should be banned, or prevented from meeting; they’re against a manifestation of its members beliefs which could constitute ‘fighting words’. It’s a really interesting area of first amendment law. Fighting words are different from incitement, because they are calculated to inspire a reaction, not an action.

I think this reveals my position in the Labour List article as being quite close to absolutist about Free Speech.  Could such a position work in the real world?  Well, with concepts such as Satyagraha and Christian non-violence (Luke 6:28, for example) in the mix, I do think it is possible to resist the urge to react to ‘fighting words’.

In suggesting this as a way out, there will be those who who accuse me of gross naiveity, but I think that just shows a lack of imagination and political ambition.  It expects very little of human beings.  For example, ‘A Cleo’ says:

Tower Hamlets is a complex and peaceful community with a lot of pride. If it is provoked by a bunch of thugs, it wont take it lying down. How can it?

This implies that the people of Tower Hamlets are no more than circus animals, incapable of not reacting when insulted.  But the easy or obvious response, the one that surrenders to base emotions, is never the only course of action.  Moreover, when a group reacts violently to ‘fighting words’, it always means they lose some of their moral high ground and offer a propaganda victory to the provocateurs.  By contrast, there is nothing more politically powerful than dignified non-violence.

George Orwell said:

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist

I don’t think that refusing to react to ‘fighting words’ is the same as pacifism.  There is nothing in what I suggest to say that the EDL (or any other far-right group around now, or in history) should be just left to get on with it.  A counter-demonstration, a physical presence, is essential – it signals to the communities they seek to intimidate that their views are not shared by ordinary people.  And it breaks the ‘epistemic closure‘ suffered by the far-right themselves, offering an alternative viewpoint they cannot turn their eyes from.

Nor is there anything wrong with offering your fists, if and when your community is physically attacked.  But – and it is a big ‘But’ – you only retain the moral high ground and win public opinion if you do this after the other side have taken the step from ‘fighting words’, to actually ‘fighting’!

So what we are left with is a form of Brinkmanship, Chicken, Who Blinks First, Eschaton.  It is tense and it costs money to put the police in between the two sides, and we all wish we didn’t have to bother. But to my mind, it is essential to the political project of repelling the far-right, that they be given precisely the right amount of rope to expose themselves as the thugs they are.  Pre-empting this, however good and just it feels, will only be counter-productive.