Sunday, 28 March 2021

Empowering not exploiting

Migrants du Monde, Lecce

It has been in the news: fast fashion brands have been using cotton picked under slavery conditions by the Uighur minority in China, who are deprived of their human rights. I always find it very hypocritical when brands issue statements to the effect that they knew nothing about exploitation, that they actually condemn such practices and will now make sure their (whatever) is sourced ethically. 

These arguments about not being aware of what is going on were also put forward when there was the Rana Plaza fire in which so many women and children, crammed in a physically unsafe sweatshop, died. Brands were quick to dissociate themselves, blaming local contractors, but we know that they were involved or at the very least, they turned a blind eye, pocketing huge profits. It's a pass the buck mindset. 

The fashion industry does not hesitate to exploit the labour of the most vulnerable people in society. A good example is how fashion brands treat refugees. The Panorama investigation of 2016 showed us Syrian children working in garment factories in Turkey making clothes for M&S and ASOS in the UK.  Since then there has been some improvement, but there is still much to do. The website of the  Clean Clothes Campaign has much to report and it is important that we begin to ask questions about who is making our clothes and whether the garment makers  are being exploited.  Fashion Revolution, an initiative that  came about soon after the Rana Plaza tragedy, has also launched the campaign #whomademyclothes to highlight the condition of garment workers.

Everywhere in the world voices of protest are being heard, we all know we cannot go on the way we have done for so many years, that a change is needed,  but  not enough is being done.  

Thus when we hear of projects which are empowering for the people who make the clothes we wear it is definitely very uplifting. There are a few brands operating in the UK that work with vulnerable women, for example, Beulah London who support trafficked women.

Model: Giuse C.

In Italy, there is Migrants du Monde, an offshoot of Migrants du Monde Rabat, which uses a South/South approach to the whole issue of refugee resettlement. 

Covid19 has slowed things down but it has also shown that exploitative fashion has to end, for the survival of the industry. 

It's important that we should know how the clothes we wear are produced and that we should take some steps towards eradicating exploitation. 

Please also see my blog post for Fashion Revolution here

Sunday, 21 March 2021

The apocalypse of Salento


Xylella fastidiosa. The Apocalypse of Slento 

I am pretty sure not so many people have been aware of the devastation caused by  xylella fastidiosa, a
bacterium from Latin America, transmitted through insects, that has been destroying the olive trees of Apulia since 2013, with irreversible  damage to the ecosystem of the region and to its economy.

I came to know about it when I went to the Salento on holiday last summer. An acquaintance who owns some farmland in the region told me of it, sounding pretty glum, but I really did not grasp the gravity of the situation until I saw with my own eyes the decimated olive trees on my way from the airport in Brindisi to the city of Lecce. 

I must confess that even then I did not realise the extreme consequences of the onslaught, not until I started doing some reading. I came across the brilliant documentary film by Paola Ghisleri, a filmmaker trained in the UK who currently lives in Geneva. Her father owns a farm in the Salento region and was desperate about the xylella hitting his olive trees.   Paola decided to make a film documenting the impact of this bacterium and the significance of the death of the olive trees in a region that has been defined by their presence.

Olive trees are very important in the landscape of southern Italy. They go back millennia. As Autorino writes: 

" traditionally the olive tree has been deemed as the pillar of the Salentinian agrarian culture and landscape; thus upheld with pride by many. Olive groves are often inhabited and retained like actual eco-museums; photos of the most twisted and embroidered exemplars are exposed in people's shops and private homes; whilst tours and walks are often organised for tourists around the oldest exemplars. The passion for this plant is most commonly exemplified in the celebration of its aesthetics and forms". 

At the moment two practices are followed in an attempt to eradicate xylella. They are 1) eradication of the olive trees and 2) the abundant use of pesticides. But these are not regarded, locally, as viable solutions. 

According to Comitato SOS – Salviamo Ora il Salento (Save Salento Now Committee), the best course of action is to implement ecological resilience, understood as 'the ability of an element to self-repair after damage and to return to the initial state after being subjected to a disturbance that has removed it from that state' by adopting less exploitative agricultural practices.

In his photoblog that documents the impact of xylella, János Chialá, wrote in 2019 of the horror felt by the local people at the idea of eradicating ancient olive trees and the number of conspiracy theories that have begun to circulate, fuelled by social media, which seem to deny the existence of the bacterium  -one can see here a parallel with Covid-19, which is decimating human beings and which a number of people deny the existence of, only today I met someone that vowed there was no Covid 19 and vaccine is intended for genetic control.

Dead olive trees. Photo: Chialá, 2017

Yet xylella fastidiosa is a real threat and it is likely to spread to other countries, such as Spain and Greece, where too olive groves are found in significant numbers. But the xylella problem is compounded by other issues relating to our current intensive agriculture practices and our overall relationship with the eco-system. 

"We do not know whether the scientists will ever find a cure to xylella fastidiosa" reports Chialá "what we do know is that we will continue to eat a lot of olive oil, and that our relationship to olive trees will continue, as it has done for thousands of years. What form it will take in the future is up to us to decide, and in doing so we should not repeat the mistakes of the past, ignoring the social and environmental aspects of the relationship between people and olive trees"

Friday, 12 March 2021

Calling versus texting


Salvador Dali 'Lobster phone' 

I grew up in a household in which the telephone, that contraption, as my father would call it, was not allowed. My father hated phones with all his might,  and feared that having a phone  at home would encourage my mother to chat on the phone endlessly - she rather liked calling up her friends. And us girls, he reckoned, thinking of me and my sister, we would just be glued to it and would never do any homework. Friends were people you visited or who came to see you - not that my father liked receiving people, but that's another story. 

We lived in the country and the lack of telephone was a great nuisance. People would have to call up a neighbour to pass on a message or to get us briefly on the phone but obviously only for very important matters, we could not chat endlessly at someone else's  - not to mention that the neighbours would pretend not to listen but always found a reason to hover by the phone, taking in every word that was uttered and then spinning stories of their own.

Of course, there was a phone in my father's  office, which was in a nearby town - its use was strictly for business. But my mother, on a sunday, would sneak into the office and make a couple of calls to her friends and to my sister in Turin, who at the time lived with her father.

When I moved to London the ritual of the sunday call was quickly firmly established. By then the office no longer existed but it was the era of phone cards , so my mother would get hold of a couple of them and she 'd call me. In London  I always lived in flats or houses where there was a phone, often shared with flatmates, with endless rows over bills and how they should be split. 

Fast forward a few years during which I married and lived in a flat with a telephone, then my husband and I split up.  Soon after  mobile phones became the norm and landlines slowly became obsolete (but I still have one). 

I was one of the early adopters of mobile devices. I still remember when someone's phone would go off, on a bus, and the person would then shout 'I am on a bus' at the top of their lungs and proceed to have a very private conversation, also at the top of their  lungs and people tuttutting and then asking rhetorically, after the person had got off, were these mobile phones not so intrusive?

Calling Photo: Donato Cinicolo

I never liked calling, I would text but I would call a few people. When my son was a  teenager I bought him  a cheap phone, the idea being I would keep track of his whereabouts and check up on him. Not only has my son  inherited his grandfather's dislike of phones, he was also not keen on me tracking him. The first thing he implemented was a policy of switching the phone off, so that no one would be able to reach him - he still does it, though a little less, he just does not reply. I used to be mad at him, and clearly I was not the only one, his girlfriends were livid and I do remember one who used to call on the landline asking me in a tearful voice where he was, at which I simply would, most truthfully, reply 'Sorry, I don't know. Can I take a message?'

I have recently read an article about people not phoning at all, these days,  but relying on texts and those rather weird voice messages, of which my Italian friends seem to be great fans. The thing is, calling someone is spontaneous and thus very scary.  Also, you cannot edit the replies you give to questions. You can do so with texts and recorded voice messages. Ever found yourself being about to listen to a whatsApp voice message and suddenly that message is deleted by the sender, just as you start listening to it, because they have changed their mind?

Texting. Photo:Donato Cinicolo

Texting gives you a false sense of intimacy, but in reality texting is extremely misleading. You are interacting with a screen.

So my advice is: let's try and call more. I do not mean we should  engage in video calls all the time - now those can be quite intrusive, what if you are  slouching on the sofa in your pyjamas, still unwashed? A call does not have to last hours, but it's nice to hear a friendly voice at the other end of the phone. 

As Rebecca Nicholson writes in her piece: "by texting less and calling more, I was reminded that people are almost always nicer on the phone than on text. Face to face, they’re even nicer than that. Arguments are resolved more quickly. It is much more difficult to be rude, and we could all use a bit of that."

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Walt Whitman posing with a butterfly

Walt Whitman, posing with a butterfly in 1883. Image via The Grolier Club

 I first came across Walt Whitman through Cesare Pavese, the great 20th century Italian writer, plagued throughout his life by suicidal urges, who,  at the age of 21, introduced Italians to American literature, during the fascist era. He wrote his thesis on Walt Whitman, later published as a book about the American poet, and embarked on translating many great American writers, including Hermann Melville. In some of his work as a poet in his own right, Pavese referenced Whitman. 

 (NB. Pavese though he accomplished much, did not fully understand the nuances of Melville's thunderous and majestic prose and was not able to convey in Italian the language shifts of Captain Ahab. I realised this when I read Moby Dick in English and was overawed by Melville's prose, akin to poetry. Moby Dick remains one of my favourite books to date. See my post on Moby Dick here ).

 It was only after coming across the poignant article written in 2011 by Michael Bourne on how Walt Whitman saved his life that I felt compelled to pick up Leaves of Grass (1855) and realised what I had been missing.  That extraordinary Song of Myself, with its opening - "I celebrate myself and sing myself/And what I assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you",  or  I sing the body electric, which was also, I realise, the title of an album by Weather Report  which I loved in my younger years but never knew had a link with Whitman - "I sing the body electric/ The army of those I love engirth me and I engirth them/ They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them, / And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge/of the soul" are now forever etched in my memory. 

Nothing prepared me for the sheer beauty of Whitman's free verse. He is the epic poet of America. He "made poetry out of making poetry", as Pavese said. 

Whitman's verses convey passion, euphoria and joy,  speak of love, sexuality, nature and are full of zest and respect for life. He was a humanist, who believed in freedom and who, with his poetic legacy,  inspired many generations to follow - the Beat generation poets, Allen Ginsberg and the recently departed Lawrence Ferlinghetti in particular.  Whitman spoke openly about sex, extolling the beauty of loving both men and women. The world in the 19th century was not yet ready for someone like him, with his ability to tune into his own humanity and proposing such an intense, free, joyful and energetic celebration of life.

Leaves of Grass will be my companion for a long time to come. 

" I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell

are with me.

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I

translate into new tongue"