Sunday, January 25, 2009

New York missive no 40 - Funeral of a foundation

A man wearing sweatpants and a beanie with a skull and crossbones on it stands on the edge of Riverside Park in the snow, playing scales on his trumpet. Is he thinking America’s a different country from this week on, or is he just making music? It doesn’t matter. The notes are clear and hopeful.

At the “funeral” for JEHT Foundation last week, which had to close suddenly as all of its donor’s funds were invested with Bernard Madoff, the air was bittersweet. Combined with the sense of lost opportunity, the fact that one man’s reckless selfishness (or whatever it was) has stifled organizations working to help people that no-one else wants to – young offenders, prisoners, ex-prisoners just released into society – were ripples of relief that years of hard work for human rights is paying off.

Human rights work is a process of patient attrition, step by setback, by step. Then sometimes there are breakthroughs that make every moment worthwhile. They may be small, the release of an innocent man from jail. Or they may, rarely, be sweeping. Obama’s victory was one of those sweeping breakthroughs, the culmination of years and years of brave people speaking out against discrimination and injustice. The fact that the election of America's first black president it is so momentous, however, is also a reminder of how completely perverse entrenched discrimination is in the first place – why should it be historic that a man whose presidential qualities know no bounds wins the presidency?

On the same day as JEHTs funeral, Obama had signed three executive orders, to close Guantanamo, to put a stop to torture and other inhumane interrogation techniques by US officials and to end the use of secret prisons overseas. When he signed the order on interrogation, a group of retired generals were standing behind him. Human Rights First, one of JEHTs grantees, had been working for several years to bring those generals together, across party lines, to speak out against torture and other forms of prisoner abuse. Here's Jane Mayer's look "Behind the executive orders".

The NGOs and foundations that are now seeing their campaign goals attained in rapid succession are re-assessing their priorities. Changes at federal level aren’t going to be replicated in every state. Commitments to strengthen civil liberties don't mean those commitments will be followed through behind prison walls. And the economic crisis means that millions more people are going to need help to keep their and their families’ lives together. There’s a sense though that the net to catch people when they fall and bring them back up again has strengthened.

The day before Martin Luther King day and two days before Obama’s inauguration SY and I were at a WNYC radio event at Brooklyn Museum marking both occasions (and the links between them). One of the panellists happened to be Patricia Williams, who I’d heard speaking in Brooklyn Library back in the heated tumble of the primaries. An implication ran throughout the event that the days of civil rights campaigning, of an outspoken and powerful black voice in the style of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, are over. That Obama’s demonstrated those tactics are outdated and a new approach is needed to achieve change. But Obama’s campaign was about so much more than race that it almost wasn’t about race. That in itself may signify a momentous change, but there are still divides to overcome, present victories are still founded on past tactics (effective and ineffective), the "old" approaches still do have relevance.

The broad human rights landscape is changing though. There's a sense of doors opening and new connections being made. Patricia Williams mentioned how Martin Luther King began to shift towards the end of his life from a necessarily (at the time) narrow civil rights perspective to a wider one based on human dignity. One that takes the fact we are all born equal as a starting point, then looks at the factors enabling or preventing each individual from living a life of dignity. We’re going to see more of that approach, Williams said. The global “Human Dignity Campaign" on poverty & human rights that Amnesty is launching this year is one indication that we will. Andrea Batista Schlesinger from the Drum Major Institute, one of those rare fantastic think tanky-types who are also hysterically entertaining (she could just as easily have made it as a satirical comedian) talked about how all fronts of the social justice movement are interconnected. You can’t look at civil rights without looking at immigration, without looking at trade, without looking at corporate power. This week I’ve felt more privileged than ever to be working on the intersection of business and human rights. It's an embryonic and crucial movement that has its work cut out. (I re-read the last chapter of Joel Bakan's "The Corporation" at the weekend, in which he says “The question of what to do about, and with, the corporation is one of the most pressing and difficult of our time.”).

Back to human rights tactics...narrow interest campaigns are not redundant, they are still critical. The key is linking them up with each other, to apply pressure to power and achieve common goals. Now, in the US at least, the climate’s right to make those connections.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

New York missive no 39 - Elias Sime's tapestries

Tucked in a corner of the African galleries at the Metropolitain Museum of Art are three stunning tapestries by the Ethiopian artist Elias Simé. Amidst the sensory overload that’s the Met they summoned me over like three green fires. They’re abstract though that’s a meaningless word, they’re of life itself and everything it's rooted in, shades of green thread climbing up the canvas to create a world. That kind of encounter with art is miraculous. Like a hidden trapdoor opening onto a garden. Or a baby finding its toes for the first time and, even better, realising they’re a part of him. What art's all about.

Maybe something else grabbed my attention too, an echo of my grandmother, whose art was tapestry. In her last days and through a morphine haze she said she could see her tapestries floating around the room.

I feel like that was just the start of an encounter. Simé's tapestries are part of an exhibition on African textiles: so the talks on the exhibition on 1 February are now in my diary. And I’ve discovered that the Santa Monica Museum of art in Los Angeles has a whole show of his work this Spring. I might just have to go.


M and I had found ourselves in the Met after a wintery walk round the reservoir in Central Park, when I’d needed the bathroom. We decided to use the museum’s. So in a way I have the urge to pee to thank for the discovery of Simé. The wintery walk was to work off our mountainous brunch at Flagship Diner, a bustling 24-hour local institution in Queens.


The start of 2009 is hanging in an unsteady balance between hope and fear. You can feel it here in Morningside Heights. Flags are hung out on the streets ready for inauguration day and euphoric images of the Obama family still clad the newsstands: a profile of Michelle in “Black Hair” magazine, bumper commemorative issues of Time…yet the talk on the street is recession. A sign outside the soul food diner on 109th and Broadway sums up the conflicting emotions: “Rack & Soul Recession Special – Good through Inauguration Day. Lunch – $15 for Entrée, Beverage, Dessert, Tax, and Tip…Yes We Can!”


This morning the sound of people scraping snow and ice off the street five storeys below woke me up. I lay in bed listening, while a clean morning sun spilt through gaps in the curtains. And am now typing to the sound of Sidney Beckett’s clarinet, in my newly-homelyfied apartment. I’ve been run down with a bug and drugged up the past few days so have been staying in more (as much as I can make myself, in this temptress of a city). It made me notice certain things in the apartment that shouldn’t be here, like the very dead plant on the windowsill and an empty frosty-flakes packet from P who lived here before. So those have now gone. And I noticed certain things that should be here but weren't, like a desk, more splashes of colour, my pictures hung in the right places on the walls, wireless internet, me-clutter kicking about the place. So those have now been installed – a satisfactory nesting process, establishing a base to rest the new year on.


The squirrels up near the Cloisters back in November were all incredibly fat. Ridiculously fat, like teddy-bears, though they still had the physical fitness to be chasing each other round tree trunks. I figured they were full of Halloween pumpkins.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New York missive no 38 - Obama sleeping on 109th Street

I read Dreams from my Father over the holiday period. As well as getting an honest insight into the questioning process of self-discovery that Obama went though on his path to the presidency, I discovered he spent his first night in Manhattan on my block.

New York missive no 37 - New Year, reflections on light, 40 before 40

Loosely connected reflections on light.

It’s midday, well just after, on New Year’s day 2009. It’s a bitingly cold but bright blue-skyed day with people stuffing their hands deep down into their jacket pockets and with burst balloons tangled up in tree branches. I’m in the Hungarian café, before heading to a Montclair gathering at JB’s.

I’ve just emerged from the Cathedral of St John the Divine across the street. It’s fully exposed and open again, free from the scaffolding and temporary walls that had blocked sections off for repairs from a fire in 2001. Now it feels whole, totally different. Going inside is like walking into a living creature. A whale’s belly? Yet instead of chaos and clutter there’s ordered beauty, enhanced today by shafts of winter sun shining through the stained glass windows and scattering rainbows across stone columns. Further enhanced no doubt by my slightly fragile champagne-hungover state.

(An East Asian woman next to me is taking photographs of the cakes she’s ordered. Two big ones - too difficult to choose between them I guess).

On the North side of the Cathedral there’s a place for cremated priests, in stacks of square marble-fronted cremation boxes. There, an African American priest asked if I could help him find his friend, Thomas Andrew Moneymaker. The priest was partially sighted so couldn’t find Thomas in the book that indicates who is where. “He was cremated,” he said. “I’d never be cremated.” He said the reason his friend wanted to be cremated was that his body had disintegrated. I turned the pages to the M's. There were three Moneymakers.

(The woman eating the cakes has gone already, leaving two halves of them uneaten, and grinning and saying “happy new year” before setting off in her bright yellow jacket).

The first Moneymaker was a woman. “No that’s his mother,” the priest said with a trace of impatience. Then another man. And then Thomas Andrew, died 1998, box 80c. We found the box - the priest called out, put his hands up to it and stayed still in front of it for a while.

On light and religion still, in October I watched the pattern of Diwali in Madurai, a town spun like a web around the massive Meenakshi temple in its midst, in Western Tamil Nadu. Sunday 26 October was preparation. Divali being a festival of wealth as well as light, the streets were in a consumer-frenzy, shoulder-to-shoulder elbow-to-elbow with people buying and selling clothes, sweets, toys, washing machines. On quieter street corners women sat stitching together chains of white jasmine flowers to hang in women’s hair the next day. Early morning on Monday 27 I went into the cavernous temple where the scene was totally different, quietly respectful, a time for religion. Families wearing the festive clothes bought the day before circulated and greeted each other. For a while I sat watching and listening by the “Golden Lotus tank” – which as it sounds is a swimming-pool-like tank (rimmed by red and white garish painted checks), with a big gold lotus plant in the middle. There were layers of sound, from furthest to nearest: the clatter of fire-crackers echoing round the streets outside; a repetitive chant like this _ __ _ / _ __ _ / _ __ _, short note-long note-short note on and on drowsing the air; caws from crows hanging about in the towering gopurams (towers) whose intricate multicoloured sculptures were sadly wrapped up in wooden scaffolding interwoven with straw while I was there, making them look like enormous haystacks ; the chatter of families and groups of friends circling the tank; the jangle of toe bells; and the brushing of bare feet on dusty stone. The quiet, harmless side of religion that is so often drowned out by violence.

In that day’s Hindu newspaper was a column on the “practice of meditation”. It described meditation as “stopping the wheel of thoughts in the mind by coming out of the habit of brooding on trifles. When the mind keeps flitting from one thought to another, the whole strength is lost.” Something to keep in mind this year, for which my main resolution is calmness. (Calmness, along with curiosity, openness and honesty were four principles that I decided a while ago are the ones I live my life by, or at least try to). Anyway, the thinking is that with the calmness, all the other plans and projects and the things on my list of “40 before 40”, drawn up in a South London pub with Gita the night before I turned 30, will either be easier to make happen, or will be less troublesome if I don’t.

So in that spirit of openness, here are the 40 things. Many are intentionally unquantifiable to make them easier (“more of this”, “more of that”)...

Stop smoking
Write children’s stories
Write novel
Get the above published (not the smoking bit)
Find Latin lover / sensible man to settle down with [If I was allowed to update this, which would be cheating, I'd change that rather narrow and prescriptive entry to "love"]
Speak Spanish more
Climb some mountains
Have 1 or 2 children
Get thinner and fitter
Live in cities by the sea e.g. Bombay, Lima, Caracas (close enough), Istanbul
Play flute well enough to be in a band
Dance salsa really well (and generally dance a lot)
Work in prisons / with prisoners / ex-offenders
Write poems that make a difference
Wherever I live know the place inside out
Keep childish
Expose injustices (through words, work, etc)
Be kinder to the environment
Build an eco-house
Swim in the sea
Document life in diaries and pictures
Drink less coffee (but not give up)
Be more vegetarian
More music
Cook delicious things
Meet and talk with hundreds of people, of different ages, from different places
Do things well, “with love” as Das [owner of Rasa restaurants in London] would say
Lean about cemeteries
Learn about and make maps
Make something that lasts
Sail lots
Learn and speak Portuguese
Work for human rights
Write letters
Ask questions, be open, listen
Keep reading all kinds of things
Don’t fret re things I wish I was doing; either do them or stop worrying
Spend time in open spaces
Make people laugh and smile.

Well, embarrassingly childish and/or highfalutin a lot of them but there they are.

When I extracted myself from the quiet spot beside the Golden Lotus Tank I meandered through the temple’s labyrinthine intestines lined with Gods and sparkle and encountered the temple elephant. Tourist touts outside the previous day had been urging me in to see the elephant doing its rounds and I’d resisted, so was happy to stumble across him like that. His forehead was decorated with white paint and people were queuing to have him tap their heads gently with his trunk, a diwali blessing.

The peaceful rhythms of the morning were broken in the afternoon when the syncopated tirade of firecrackers sped to a raucous frenzy. Groups of kids spiraled laughing from doorways. By early evening the narrow streets were piled high with the crackers’ paper remnants and festivity rubbish, with the occasional cow perched on rummaging on top.

That night as the train I took from Madurai to Cochin wound through the dark countryside small splashes of coloured fireworks sprung up from hidden villages. As magnificent, if not more so, than the $50,000 display that Ra and I had chanced upon at Fisherman’s Cove hotel outside Chennai, financed by a group of corporate executives clearly not yet affected by the financial crisis.

Manhattan's 109th Street has its own coloured lights dynamic going on. In the build up to Christmas people strung fairy lights between the trees, until one day they all disappeared and we had notes delivered, telling residents not to do that (no reason given). But that hasn’t stopped creative light-decoration, in fact it seems to have provoked it: strands of coloured bulbs wrap around porch columns and twist about the fire-escapes, looking like weird sea creatures floating in the air as you walk down the street. Twinkling lopsided stars lurk behind the bars of basement windows.


I found perhaps my favourite sculpture the other day, at the end of a walk on a cold Sunday morning across West 109th Street, through Central Park and out the other side to Spanish Harlem and the East River. The statue’s in Thomas Jefferson Park, at 112th Street on the East edge of Manhattan. It’s called El Arbol de Esperanza and was designed by Brower Hatcher, though is way better (says me) than any of the sculptures that are photographed on his website. It’s a tree, with a dalek-like trunk, and then a round clump of woven metal branches like a birdsnest on top, filled with coloured ceramic sea animals, birds and toys made by local children.