“My War Gone By, I Miss It So”, by Anthony Loyd, Anchor.

My edition has been printed in 2000 and, as all cheap paperbacks, isn’t ageing very well. The pages are yellowing with the characteristic celerity of poor quality pulp; its spine is bent, but in fairness it was already in this shape when I first bought it; the cover is cracked and ear-marked. The artwork, the one that struck me in the first place, is still there though. A man in fatigues, right hand holding a rifle, left holding his head against the wrinkly trunk of a tree. Of his head, only a 1990s mop of hair is visible. His face hidden, we are left free to wonder what has caused him to lean against the trunk. Sadness, exhaustion, something overwhelming? Who knows. All I’m sure of is that it is the cover of a book, My War Gone By, I Miss It So, that can claim its status as a modern-day classic.
It almost begs belief that a slender volume of 300 pages and change, dedicated to the experiences of one Antony Loyd, journalist, in the Balkans and Chechnya, can be an almost inextinguishable source of new insight, but this is precisely what’s happening here. This is something more than a war book, it is a kaleidoscope of views on humanity in which every sentence is necessary and poignant, every opinion bound to generate thought and debate. In fairness, and without trying to dramatise, I hadn’t read anything like this since Hemingway.
I’ve read My War Gone By, I Miss It So four times now; each and every one of them has given me something new. The first one happened some years ago, the book being the company for a driving holiday through the very places where the conflict had happened, Bosnia and Croatia. Of that first read I remember my surprise at the realisation that, far from being relieved by its end, Loyd was missing the conflict. I went through the pages on Sarajevo whilst we journeyed through that city, and I struggled to reconcile the haunted description of the besieged town with the lively place we were in. Mankind’s capacity to bounce back from the abyss was, without a doubt, the most poignant lesson I took from that trip.
The second reading of My War happened one winter. A particularly rainy one, before the switch to the daylight saving time, for both my commutes happened in the dark. There were pages, in the book, written in italic, their subject quite different from the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya: a frank and matter-of-fact description of the author’s addiction to heroin, a monkey that he seemingly could only lift off his back by descending again into the conflict. I had never heard anything as hardcore – war as a substitute for smack – but I had no doubt in believing what I was reading. The book helped me realise that addiction is as much, if not more, a public health problem than a criminal one.
Sometimes between spring and summer of 2017 I had another occasion to pick up My War. This time the trigger was, in a copy of The Times that I picked up on a business trip, a reportage by Anthony Loyd from Syria, a touching and enraging article on the legacy left by the genocidal folly of Daesh. Once home I rushed back to the book. This time I discovered the vivid, cinematographic description of war: the blast of an apocalyptic Russian shelling on Grozny, beating the author through the closed doors of a speeding car, or the heart-in-your-mouth escape through the woods, a mad dash towards friendly lines as bands of Serbs descended behind him in a hail of fire and promises of horrific death. As far as action writing went, Loyd was second to none.
I have just completed my fourth read of the book; this one proved, rather worryingly, that the message of My War is still very much actual today, anno Domini 2018, as it was in ninety-four.
The whole array of Balkan wars are considered in a rather paternalistic way in Italy. My high-school history manual, for instance, was as good an example of this as any. The affair was liquidated in a page-and-half in terms that one could only describe as Darwinistic. Jugoslavia, the book went, was an invention, cobbled together only by the personality of Tito; him gone, the various peoples returned to their heritage, which was inevitably made of wars and Medieval hatred. War, it concluded, was only inevitable once the whole house of cards had tumbled. Loyd made short work of this idea, time and again.
The Muslim commander called Beba and his Serbian opponent, sitting together on the frontline at the foot of Mount Vladić, bringing each other up to speed with the latest from common acquaintances, now divided by the fighting. The Croat soldiers of Vareś who drove their Muslim friends and neighbours to the safety of a maniple of Swedish UN troops, away from the murderous reach of a gang of fellow Croats from elsewhere, crying tears of shame and anguish as they did. And many more. No, this wasn’t a war of race or religion, said Loyd, and I believed him over my history book.
What caused it, then? How could neighbours, people of the same ethnicity, who spoke similar languages, drank the same slivovica, turn on each other with such bestiality? How to explain Srebrenica, Stupni Do and the countless acts of wanton cruelty inflicted on civilians and prisoners? Peddle enough propaganda, Loyd said, and it’ll work. Stir up enough reports of Islamist bestialities, he said, and even the most urbane and secular person would succumb to suspect and fear. The proof, for me, was the case of one separatist enclave, nominally Muslim, led by an opportunistic former apparatchik. In a bid for power he managed to whip up such a terror of the government, whose secular army he painted as a band of deranged fundamentalists, that he managed to get Muslims to fight other Muslims.
At the time of my first reading of My War Gone By, I Miss It So this tactic – throw enough dehumanising bullshit at some specific group and soon your minions will stop considering them as people – felt very effective but, I thought, a bit passé. I thought we’d grown past it. But now, as every day brings more fake news, more Presidents blabbing about bad hombres, more Sun commentators writing about “cockroaches” and more Interior Ministers talking about “big cleaning-up operations”, I’m starting to reconsider it.
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Confessions of a graphomaniac.

Doctor, dear doctor, help me for I’m a graphomaniac. Yes doctor, I love paper. I adore the smell of the thing, the muffled noise of a pencil running on a smooth sheet. In a nutshell, doctor, I love writing. I feel the need, no the urge, to put my thoughts on paper. Doctor, I even have a favourite pen (Uni-ball broad black, made by Mitsubishi in Japan, and to think I was sure they only made cars). I’ve also got a favourite pencil (Staedler Norris HB2). I own two laptops, I can get OneNote on my mobile: yet, I can’t do without pen and paper. I sketch my presentations and plans on a Waitrose Essentials pad, before I commit them to the eternity of PowerPoint or MS Project. It’s bad, I know.
Actually, doctor, do me a favour. Don’t help me. I’m perfectly fine as it is, going through a pad every quarter, sharpening my pencils and losing rubber erasers at every corner. In facts, now that we’re friends, doc – mind if I call you doc? – why don’t you ditch that iPad of yours and get a notepad? Notepad and fountain pen doc, they’ll give you a certain je ne sais quoi. People love it, I’m told.
I plunged into graphomania in my early teens, thanks to two, unrelated, events that happened one summer. Must’ve been 1995, or 1996. Who knows. Enter event one: a book, which I think I pinched from my brother, about the Vietnam war, the title long forgotten. A passage mentioned how the NVA soldiers all loved writing, and carried small booklets, normally bound in red cloth, or oilskin, to which they confided dreams, stories, letters and poems. Whilst the concept of poetry was lost on me – perhaps I’m too prosaic to appreciate it – the idea of having a personal notebook was something I could relate to.
Event two happened the following year, and was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. One specific scene of that film captured my imagination, and it wasn’t Elsa’s death, or the adventurous chases in the Venetian dungeons: it was, of all things, Sean Connery’s notebook. See, Connery, who played Indy’s father, had a notebook, a black thing held close by an elastic, bulging with flying papers, covered in notes, yellowed by time, filled with exquisite drawings and containing God knows how much wisdom. Ah, to have something like that in my pocket!
Notebook, in Italian, is taccuino, to be pronounced with a hard c, as if it was a k, and I became hell-bent on possessing one. The price was about 10,000 Lira and let me tell you that, when you’re eleven, that’s some serious dough, especially if your only income is granted by squirrelling away the loose change off a 2,000 Lira ice cream cone. Still, one day, having gathered the necessary funds, I marched to the bookstore of the village where we lived at the time, appropriately named Livres et Musique. Back then there was only one choice, or so it seemed to me. It was a rather serious black taccuino, ruled or plain, its angles dull and a folding pocket for loose papers. The Moleskine.
In the intervening twenty years things changed – price, for starters, or a shift in preference for the soft-cover plain version – but the equation taccuino=Moleskine always held true, at least for me. Each and every one would have its pages numbered with a sharp pencil, like Chatwin suggested (and I don’t even like the guy). With time, though, the purpose of a taccuino evolved. What set out to be a recording of impressions and notes, to be jotted down quickly on the road, lest I forgot them, morphed in the repository of the first draft of all my blog posts. Talk about Lean processes.
Then, roughly two years ago, the idea. Why couldn’t I use a Moleskine to write down some notes on what was useful, interesting or good to eat? After all, I carried the thing in the back pocket of my trousers anyway. It followed that, in order to find all this treasure, I needed a map where, unlike what Indy said, X always marked the spot.
I’m not very good at drawing. I suppose I lack the basics, a good understanding of prospective: whatever it is, I know that whatever I’ll draw will be asymmetric, too baroque on one side and barren on the other. Caravaggio would definitely headbutt me, or worse. Still, the idea of drawing my own maps, of forging my personal guide, was too good to pass on.
Faithful to the old adage “Don’t run before you can walk”, my first attempt was comically simple. A one line, describing the coast of South-West Sri Lanka, and another to define our itinerary. Then a step too far, a map of Nuwara Eliya that I found mildly pleasing but utterly useless at navigating through the valley.
I hastily returned to the very basics, with a simple sketch of our journey through the Pamirs.
Uzbekistan was a challenge. How to depict the riot of roads, alleys and catwalks that made the centre of Samarkand, Bukhara or Tashkent? Draw a grid, I told myself.Draw a grid, use a pencil, sharpen it often and focus on what’s important. But for a few wrong turns, it worked well.
Beirut was next. Here precision was fundamental, especially in Hamra. Roads had no names, or if they had they were known with others. Nicknames, nom-de-guerreor prominent buildings. To hell with proportions, what mattered here was the number of junctions, of roads, so not to miss our hotel at night.
And so here we are today. New maps are ready for use, a lot more than ever before. Some are utilitarian, sketches with the same beauty of a skip filled with old furniture; other are more aesthetically pleasing; will their artistic flair match their usefulness, come September? I guess that only time will tell.

This post is dedicated to Magdi. After all, it was your idea. 
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The sublime art of panning, or how to fail in Chicago and succeed in London.

Panning, excitable teenagers on Youtube will tell you, is a technique used in photography where the camera rotates on its Y axis in order to keep a moving object in focus. If done well, the result will be a striking photo where the subject is crisply detailed, whilst everything around it will be blurred, conveying the idea of movement.
Now, the idea of myself tinkering about with a camera’s settings is so absurd not to be worth considering. Fact is, you could put me next to an orangutan, give both of us exactly the same DSLR and I guarantee – no, I swear – that he’ll learn to shoot in manual mode sooner than me, and with a lot less profanities.
Still, one Sunday in Chicago I set off with the declared intent of doing panning photography.
Much in the same way that one doesn’t quite turn to criminality by himself on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, this desire had to be born from semewhere. Every fire has a firestarter, and mine was our company photographer: an amiable Scotsman with glasses, a predilection for chequered shirts and the odd habit of calling people “Dude”, due to, I suppose, to an excessive consumption of the Big Lebowski. Anyhow, one day I bumped into him; one thing led to another and here we were, watching photos on the screen of his phone. There was one of a particular American town – could be Houston, could be Phoenix, they all seem carbon copy of each other to me – with a black musclecar speeding on one of those devilish concrete overpasses they have over there. You can just but glimpse the overpass, the skyscrapers and stuff, because it’s all blurred. All there is to see is the dark, powerful vehicle. The details are so crisp I can gaze at the tattoos snaking up the driver’s elbow.
At that point, a small voice inside my head began chirping “I wish I knew how to do those photos”.
So, one day, armed only with a couple of indications from the McDude, a fraction of the gear and none of the talent I set off, stalking cyclists in Lincoln park and motorcyclists downtown. Immediately, I realised that something was amiss.

Everyone seemed to be going too slow: cyclists crawled at a pace that would’ve made the fixie brigade in London apoplectic with anger, and bikers seemed more interested in cruising by than to do wheelies. Perhaps it was because no one wore helmets and didn’t want to crack their skulls open, but things didn’t seem to be going very well. All I had to show was some snaps, still as if painted by a Medieval miniaturist.
Undeterred by the American debacle, upon my return I dived again in the wide world of Youtube, taking copious notes on instruction of youngsters peppering their parlance with adverbs such as “Totally”. Finally, a modus operandi came into play, a delicate balance of shutter speed and lenses. I was ready to try again.
Sunday morning brought the end of the heatwave that had turned the parks yellow and the people nuts. Clouds flew across the sky as if in a rush to go somewhere, and the temperature had turned decidedly British again. Wrapped in a windbreaker and shorts, I headed to one of the bridges that links Chiswick with Richmond, waiting for the great Lycra transhumance that is the London Prudential 100. Because, I figured, if one wants to get the hang of panning, where better to do it than at a race with thousands of cyclists?
And, sure enough, they started to arrive. I checked the screen after every burst, hoping to see the long-awaited photos… but no. Perhaps I’m too fast, I thought, and slowed the shutter speed. Then…

It’s hard to describe the sensation of satisfaction that I got from this photo. But soon, a lot more started to flood in.

Cyclists were everywhere. Groups were so ubiquitous that I began seeing double. Or perhaps triple. Or quadruple?

I moved on the bridge, grinning uncontrollably. And I wasn’t the only one with a smile on his face, or so it seemed.

As soon as I realised I was missing out on the ladies, an occasion came.

Then, sadly, the weather closed down on us. It was to rain for the whole day, a hell of an anticlimax after 2 months of sun.

I returned home absolutely drenched, my windstopper – valiantly protecting the torso –  turning into a sort of a waterfall. Pathetic as it might sound, I felt as if I’d achieved something big, something worth making a big song and dance about. Me, the guy who couldn’t take a decent photo not even if he tried, finally succeeded.
Click below for more; if you are one of the cyclists in these photos, first well done! Second, please do let me know if you want them taken offline or if you’d like a full-res version of any of them.

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Elegy for gentrification. Yes, you read it right.

There are a few words as laden with meanings, almost entirely of negative connotation, as gentrification. Say it and your mind will conjure images of invading toffs, an irresistible volkswanderung of genteel professionals with no fear but for white carbs, descending on the last redoubts of affordable real estate prices in a motorcade of Volvo SUVs. Type the cursed word in your search engine of choice and you’ll be spoilt for choice on which article to read, all inevitably telling the story of those pushed out from their neighbourhood in Brixton, Brooklyn or the Bay Area. After a while, the irony that these articles are published by the very papers favoured by the gentry – Guardian, Independent, Washington Post, New York Times – will hit you. As far as absurdities go, it’s up there with the sight of Nantucket harpooners engrossed in academic journals on the effect of mass whale hunting on the marine ecosystem.
My attitude towards gentrification has, to borrow from a former leader of the main Italian Communist party who later in life joined a militant Catholic organisation, “changed slowly”. Had you been stupid enough to ask my opinion a few years ago – on gentrification, not on Commies-turned-Catholics – you’d have been in for a tirade on unscrupulous developers, professionals’ lofts and grad pads. However, these days my view has become a bit more nuanced, along those wishy-washy Centrist lines that go “when done properly, gentrification can be useful”. This turning of coats has happened because of one thing, and one thing only: King’s Cross.
It can be argued that the best boost to the reputation of King’s Cross has been JK Rowling. Had she not chosen it as the departure point of a trainload of little wizards en route to Hogwarts, it’s doubtful whether any visitor would ever have noticed King’s Cross (even the Eurostar just sort of skims it). Instead, in one of the great mysteries of modern-day tourism, this mere fact – and a luggage trolley wedged into a brick wall – has put King’s Cross on the map of thousands who’d be willing to line up to snap a photo of themselves in front of said wall, through which Harry Potter walked on to Platform 9 ¾ and, arguably, the one and only train that has ever left London in time since 1954. Whilst today’s station looks arguably great, only the most strenuous wearer of a pair of rose-tinted-glasses can deny that, had Harry Potter asked around for platform 9 and ¾ a decade ago in the station’s environs, he’d get anything – robbery at knifepoint, a foil of crack cocaine, a quickie in exchange for a tenner – but an answer.
If there’s a conclusion for this rather convoluted introduction, it’s that, 10 years ago, King’s Cross rhymed with decay. Those less merciful than yours truly would define it as an open-air latrine or, in the immortal words of Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcom, “one big pile of shit”. I remember walking around Pentonville road with my dad in 2003 through a parade of boarded-up shops. Prostitutes loitered outside a hostel, waiting for clients, whilst junkies ambled about. A discarded shopping trolley sat atop a mound of rubble that descended into a no man’s land towards the skeleton of the abandoned gasworks.
If you were to do the same walk today, you’d have trouble believing that this is still the same town.
Where the post-industrial wasteland dragged on, a new city sprouted out of nowhere. KX, as it had been dubbed, glittered under a sky that had very little of London and a lot of Mallorca. A street market led, through a terrace where a multitude sunbathed and watched the latest from Wimbledon on a giant screen, to the canal and a set of locks operated by a tattoed punk. New homes had been built within the gasworks’ pantograph structure: cylinders with an obviously eye-watering price per square meter, enclosed within elaborate brise-soleil of honeycomb metal. They looked both futuristic and ancient, the kind of buildings one would expect to gaze at in Ray Bradbury’s New Texas City.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The tell-tales of gentrification were plain for everyone to see. Waitrose, second best in Britain’s caste system of supermarkets, had installed itself in a former sweatshop next door to a covered market where prints of whales, bikes, owls, bees – an entire hipster iconography – were on sale. The London University of Arts held classes in a warehouse abutting granary square, serving as ground zero for a veritable epidemic of signs typed in Helvetica. Landscape was carefully engineered to be pollinator-friendly.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Yet, KX wasn’t just a playground for techies darting out of Amazon’s HQ on their fixed-wheel bikes. A community had lived here throughout all this: the crack-dealing years, the demolitions, the reconstruction, and still did. Local youths worked at the Skip café, an establishment that could be defined as an optimist’s take on Budapest’s ruin pubs. And, in the fountains in Granary square, the sons and daughters of KX frolicked together, a colourful mixture of toddlers dressed in expensive gear bought at Trotters or in Primark knock-offs. Their future, dictated by the different avenues made available by their schools, was already running on ever diverging tracks but today, under this strangely warm sun, gentrifiers and gentrified were one and the same.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
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A good day to be in America.

Waking up at silly o’clock in a corporate hotel room (describable by the colour “beige”) on the 25thfloor of a Magnificent Mile high-rise in Chicago, I felt a genuine, good-spirited sense of excitement. It was a cocktail, I decided as I slipped in the few non-business rags I’d brought, made of ebullience at the idea of having the time to see the place I was in, and of sheer expectation for a day that, I decided, I was to pass by myself.
It might sound a tad egotistical, and perhaps even a bit socially awkward, but I was yearning for a day with me, and myself only, to deal with. I was savouring, as I rode the elevator to the lobby, the freedom of going left if it pleased me, or right if I fancied it. Latitude to go ahead to my heart’s content, or to stop where I wanted, without having to deal with social courtesies, embarrassed compromise or the inane chit-chat that are the stalwarts of when people with different personalities and interests are forced together by the bonds of a contract: I didn’t want Sunday ever to end.
I had one suggestion for the day, by the incredible Julie at Wish I Were Here: Andersonville, somewhere up in the long brush stroke of streets, railway lines and infrastructure that unravelled northbound from the Loop. So I set off, aiming casually northwards, free to go and to deviate only three blocks in, waylaid by an inconspicuous sign that read “Navy Pier”.
There is something, for me, in visiting what normally is a hive of activity at its quietest. Victoria Station at 4 AM. St. Peter’s square at 5 in the morning. Navy Pier at 6.30 AM on a Sunday. Bar for a couple of joggers and a truck patiently refilling a tour boat – a rather eerie sight, for there were no humans in sight to supervise the operation – I had the pier to myself, the only one to hear the lament of seagulls and the clinking of hoist ropes against flag poles: much to my surprise, a dozen rainbow flags flew in the wind, together with the Stars ‘n’ Stripes, the State and City banner, looking out to what felt very odd not to be able to call ‘sea’.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
My initial impression of Lincoln Park – wide avenues, condos with concierge and fitness centres, no one but the homeless on the street – fizzled and disappeared as soon as I started weaving in and out of the grid of smaller streets that led to the north. Whilst the larger arteriae drowned everything with their impersonality, the roads feeding them nourished me with their quiet floridity. I walked in the shade of a continuous canopy of trees, past homes in wood, stone or brick, flags dangling from poles and newspapers on the doormat. At times, the residential texture broke to reveal a commercial high street, where Starbucks might be sitting shyly in a corner and individually-owned businesses took pride of place. Dry cleaners were out in force, an activity that – together with standing on the kerb dressed in Lycra, watching your French bulldog stare at another, identical, specimen held by a fellow Lycra-clad person – had to be North Chicago’s favourite past-time.
Pushing northwards through streets so quiet that I could hear my blood rumbling into my ears, I found entertainment in the all-American tradition of putting slogans on car number plates. Used to the impersonality of Europe’s ones, I’d always found this habit deeply fascinating, and today I could add a few more examples that I hadn’t, so far, seen before. “Land of Lincoln” was obviously out in force and, by the time I read it 30 times, I began finding it quite reductive for Illinois which, in the 150-or-so years between then and now, must’ve produced somebody else worth being proud about. I giggled at the mild bitterness of DC’s “Taxation without representation”and felt a sudden urge to hug the owner of the car that read “America’s dairyland”. You cannot claim to have a heart and not feel for Wisconsin, who must’ve thought long and hard about what defined it and couldn’t come up with anything better than the liquid squirted out of a cow’s udder.
It was by then 10:30, and I was still halfway to Andersonville. My plan had been to find a suitable café on the main road, where to have breakfast and multiple cups of coffee, perhaps a place where they’d call it “joe”, but the progress so far suggested I might be late for it. Faced with what looked like failure, I did what anyone would’ve done. I cheated.
The Red line of the L delivered me in 10 minutes of air-conditioned bliss into a rectangle of neatly ordered streets – is there a bendy one in the whole of Chicago? – oozing Scottish heritage: Argyle, Balmoral, a whisky shop. Yet, the atmosphere was unequivocally American. As I set off for a first round of sight-seeing it occurred to me that Andersonville fitted, for me, with the blueprint of any small-town American town I’d ever imagined. There was a high street with restaurants, stores, a bookshop and a couple of bars and, around it, beautiful wooden homes hidden beneath verdant trees. This is how I imagined Stephen King’s towns to be looking like in It or The Dark Half. The resemblance with the grainy footage of the moonwalkers’ birthplaces, in the Apollo documentaries, was also striking. I half-expected to bump into Charlie Duke loading his truck with paper bags from the shop. Andersonville was the kind of place where men and women smiled at complete strangers and asked how they were doing, and where those who sat on public benches read books and drank lattes, not smoked crack. After a couple of rounds, I settled on a café, where I was accommodated by the window, the breakfast menu included roasted potatoes and steak & eggs and coffee refills were as forthcoming as fresh Prosecco chalices at a Putney bottomless brunch.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Yet, there was something very different from the standard all-American small town feel in Andersonville. It wasn’t the Swedish heritage that painted the old water tower blue and gold; I had an initial inkling when, walking along a residential street, it occurred to me that every house displayed, on the porch, American and rainbow buntings, and signs on the lawns proclaiming that hate didn’t live there in half-a-dozen languages.

But the real wake-up occurred as I stopped by a set of traffic lights, on the way to the café I’d chosen for my morning bacchanal. A duo of short-haired ladies pulled up beside me on a baby-blue Harley, a monster that they rode bare-headed, wearing Levi’s, shades and the sort of leather gilets that the Hell’s Angels prototyped in the 1960s. Music blared out of a hidden speaker, a cheeky guitar riff I’d heard it before. I had to ask.
“Sorry, isn’t that Electric Six?”  
“Yeah baby!”the passenger bellowed as the driver put the dinosaur into gear and rumbled off. “Danger danger high voltage!” they laughed as they left. I grinned, both because I loved the brief conversation, didn’t mind the song and I finally understood it all.
Andersonville was the hotspot for Chicago’s gay community, a veritable Midwestern answer to Soho; I remember Julie mentioning this to me, and in fact it now made sense. In the café a moustached waiter, his chequered shirt closed only on the last two buttons, bounced along to Radio Gaga’s bassline whilst he took my order. The music then changed to I Feel Love by Bronski Beat, which for reasons unknown prompted me to think about Slavonski Brod, the Croatian border town, whilst more and more couples and families piled into the café to gorge on the great food.
I’d likened Andersonville to Soho, but in hindsight this was better. In Soho few – if any – could afford to live, and most came only to celebrate, and even that was in retreat, threatened by gentrification. Andersonville, instead, was a residential neighbourhood that offered an insight into the normality of a gay couple or family, away from the usual partying cliché. And it was also interestingly mixed: two straight families with toddlers ate at the centre table, an older couple, their son and his partner sat opposite me, whilst a man read a magazine behind my table dressed in a painter’s onesie with the nametag “Rusty”. A motorcade of Jeeps and bikes, all adorned with rainbow flags and modification of the Union banner on those lines, paraded down the main road, headed south, with jubilant cheers from everyone on the street.
“They’re heading down to Pride”offered the ‘stached waiter, before showing the parade’s route with a Sharpie on the Google Maps printout I’d used to guide me there. I, too, headed there. It was too early for the main event, but I was bang on time to witness the spectacle of half of Lincoln Park descending on the pavements, armed with deck chairs, fishing stools, even sofas, to claim a prime spot of real estate for the spectacle to come. Young and old, gay and not, kids and octogenarians, all were reading themselves with the classic preparedness of the Americans: besides seats they had coolers of beer and soft drinks, hot dogs and ice-cream, whilst little Mexican ladies pushed carts filled with tamales. Children played and ran, adults danced and downed pints, glitter and sweat gleamed under the sun. Even the most truculent CPD officer had a smile on his face. A small plane buzzed overhead, trailing an advert.
Penned in a square delimited by CPD blue barriers, and guarded by a posse of beefy cops, a scant group of fundamentalist in baggy trousers and long-sleeved jerseys, hunting caps rolled backwards to protect their sun-burnt necks, shouted homophobe slogans to no one in particular. I watched a man with Fu Manchu moustache wave a sign to criminalise sodomy, whilst everyone ignored them. Everyone but for a party of drag queens, one of whom held a cartoon of Jeff Sessions in S&M outfit in a hand and a sow on the leash on the other, who started blowing kisses to Fu Manchu and his congregation. The homophobes went ballistic, going redder and redder, whilst the bearded cop next to me tried his best not to laugh. Our eyes met and we both grinned. It wasn’t, for a change, a bad day to be in America.
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And the bumblebee buzzes by.

There’s a mammoth-sized hydrangea bush sprouting on the street we normally take on our way to the tube; think an explosion of pink and green caught in the moment of deflagration. As we passed it we heard an ominous buzzing, a concerto of syncopated bzzz as what it felt like dozens of small helicopters were landing, taking off, hovered and in general ambled about. Still, it was hard to locate the source of all that noise.
Let’s have a closer look, shall we?

Ah, there they are!
Bumblebees. Dozens of chubby specimen of species Bombus are gorging themselves on this feast of nectar, leaving for their nests with sacks full of the juicy thing. It’s an uplifting view, but – sadly – an increasingly rare one.
Pollinators, it’s well known, are under threat. A combination of factors, a veritable shit-sandwich of climate change, destruction of wild meadows for those damned English-style lawns and, above all, contamination from neonicotinoid pesticides are inflicting a heavy toll on these little insects, and not just them. It’s estimated that 50% of the 27 species of bumblebees are in decline, 3 have gone completely. 38% of European bees are in decline, together with an astounding 66% of moths and 70% of butterflies. This is bad news for not just this plucky writer of yours when he feels new-age, but for everybody. The overwhelming majority of the plants we use for eating (or feeding cattle) are pollinated, and these animals pollinate an estimated 87% of plants. Without these animals, someone else would have to do the job and, let me tell you, collating pollen from one flower and then giving it to another is a damn long process.
Luckily, help seems to be at hand. The oh-so-vituperated European Union agreed a total ban of neonicotinoid pesticides from the end of 2018 (but for greenhouses), after a long-standing opposition by the UK had been lifted by Micheal Gove, possibly the only commendable action the man made recently if you ask me. This would definitely help, but what can one single fellow, armed perhaps only with a back garden or sometimes not even that, do to get something looking like this?
Well, you could do what many London boroughs are intelligently doing with their parks, i.e. making them scruffier: stop cutting grass one palm from the ground, leaving plants to grow taller, and flowers to grow.

Flowers need to be growing almost all year round, from March to October, and can be of many kinds: lavender, oregano…

… rosemary, daisies…

… foxgloves, roses and so many more.

This is how the urban spaces in the new King’s Cross development, where one of the areas that could only be described as a seething pit is now becoming a jewel. But that’s all to come; in the meantime, on with the buzzing.

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Beirut people watching.

Humanity is the best spectacle, in this city where gated communities rub shoulders with bombed-out, charred shells. Pneumatically-enhanced bimbos and babes driving Dodge Camaros on one end of the spectrum and ragged Syrian children tapping on their rolled-up windows for zakat on the other: in this city, there are so many nuances of humanity, sprinkled all around town with such liberality, that walking from neighbourhood to neighbourhood felt like crossing into a whole new country altogether.
We set off from Hamra, heading east. The neighbourhood had gone a long way since the days of the war and now had a distinct family feel. Men in goatees played with toddlers whilst women in headscarves smiled benignly on, all whilst swarms of mopeds whizzed everywhere, in or against the flow of traffic. Ice creams were eaten, water and tea and coffee drunk, even though it’s Ramadan and a good six hours to iftar.
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Where the neighbourhood ended – in a fluttering of Hezbollah flags and Syrian National Socialist Party banners – a no-man’s-land of motorway slip roads and barren brushes began, inhabited by scruffy street children, their infancy robbed by the sieges to Aleppo, Homs or Deir-ez-Zor.
We scuttled back to rue des Capucins, past squaddies on patrol and, finally, into a square that felt as if it belonged to another city than the one that hosted Hamra or Basta-al-Tahta. Place des Étoiles.
The square was quiet, a hexagon with leafy trees, a tower clock and the white stone building of Assicurazioni Generali, garnished with all the regimentals, Saint Mark lion included. The place seemed to come alive at night and now was empty but for a few middle-aged couples and men in suits – ministers, businessmen or those wheelers and dealers that are a dime a dozen in these places –hiding behind expensive sunglasses, attired smartly in well-cut suits, purring into a plethora of iPhones and Samsungs. Cops and soldiers hovered around, pulling security.
Hurriedly, we crossed into Martyrs’ square, past the statues, braving the Wacky Races marauding downhill on Damascus Street at the wheel of Denali and Escalade SUVs, to take refuge into Saifi Village: a reticule of roads that had been reshaped to resemble a Provençal village, only posher.
We sat at a restaurant with tables spilling into a cobbled square, conscious of being sweaty, underdressed and not fitting at all with the rest of the clientele who were, without fail, all impeccably appointed. Tables glittered with smart, hand-crafted jewellery in hammered gold and silver. Soft linen draped tanned shoulders: blues and creams were the colours of choice. No one, here, would fall for the brash ostentatiousness of London’s King’s Road. In other words, no red trousers or chevalières. Conversations whiffed in the warm air in studiously well-accented French and Arabic, with two of the players labouring their points by waving around Cohiba cigars. Fidél’s favourite.

We left the actors to their comedy and pressed on eastward. Traffic, the cancer of this city, was surprisingly bearable here, but it hadn’t gone away: simply, it was bumper-to-bumper on Gouraud street. This used to be the Armenian part of town, now inhabited by hipsters and fashionistas. Macbook Pros and Mercs, long beards and expensive dresses bought with old-school checks.
The sun set and we found ourselves on the Corniche. We strolled home as the sun dove behind the curvature of the earth, past the engineered perfection of the Yacht Club and on the seafront promenade. As we walked, I couldn’t shake a feeling of déjà-vu. I had seen these people before. It wasn’t the foreigners – Filipino maids, Ethiopian nannies running on the heels of riotous toddlers, Russian heavies in sandals, but the locals. I’d seen them somewhere before.
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They were all around us, jogging up and down the seafront, smoking narghilé, selling refreshments or just enjoying the day. They were often tall, tanned by the warm Mediterranean sun, the hair frizzy, with streaks of lighter colours in the mass of dark curls, beards flowing in almost geometrical perfection. Noses were strong, powerful, running at the same angle as the foreheads. Eyes were brown, with infrequent but notable hazel-greens that stopped us, speechless, in our tracks. I’ve seen them before.
We reached the corner where the light-house stood. As a solitary fisherman dipped his bait in the water and a group of seals dived into the shallows, it hit me. I’d seen them before, but not in the flesh.
In pictures, in fact, taken from museums all around the world and printed over my high-school history and art manuals. Empty hands holding sticks and implements long gone in the fog of history, walking somewhere impossible to reach. The photos showed small bronze and gold statuettes, scattered around the Med three millennia ago by an enterprising people of traders and explorers: the Phoenicians. They all looked the same, with strong nose, descending in a straight line from the forehead, like the men and women all around us: not caricature, not ideal types long disappeared from the genetic pool after centuries of invasions and völkerwanderungs,but real. Alive.
As we continued strolling towards our home for the night it occurred to me that this people, who 3,000 years ago sailed beyond Gibraltar and into the unknown that lied beyond it, would still be here in another 1,000 years, watching the sun going down from a Beirut waterfront that only God knows how it’ll be looking like.

 

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You Were Filthy But Fine.

“You were filthy but fine” sang James Murphy in that LCD Soundsystem jewel that is New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down and I, for once, think that it could very well fit to Beirut. Spotless, it certainly ain’t. Manicured, only in a handful of places. Organised, fuggedaboudit. Yet, she’s got something. One of these somethings, one layer of this sumptuous cake that makes the noise pollution traffic rubbish bearable, is street art. Middle-Eastern slapdash meets French nonchalant disregard for rules: hateful if you’re OCD, utterly enjoyable for everyone else. Perhaps it’s again the French influence tinging the whole thing political, but this isn’t your hipster guerrilla marketing designed to look independent. This is the real thing, political, and it smells so.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow. 
Sometimes, instead, there’s more refinement in the political message. It’s not by accident if this murale has been painted by the Corniche, within spitting distance from chrome-painted-Lambos and expensive condos. An ironic retake on the cedar flag that adorn the blast-walls eroded around all the palaces of power, with added side of burning tyres. Come think of it, it’s been only what – one year, or perhaps two? – since the You Stink! protests.
Beirut is a sophisticated city, making up in style what it lacks in order or organisation. Peppered here and there are reminders of how deeply true this is. A photography show of this country, so used to be on the edge that it felt almost a fashion statement; a seemingly permanent display of antiques – most of them raided from somebody grandpa’s garage – that no one seemed bothered to be selling; a dusty shopfront window, abandoned as both ends of the street it stands on have been closed to car traffic. A message scribbled on the bullet-proof concrete watch-post near the Grand Serail, saying God (or those speaking Arabic) only knows what. 
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Armenia Street, named so after a Caucasian community by now fully assimilated in the colourful ensemble of Beirut, is perhaps the hipster heart of the city. Beards might be the longest – not even the photos of Hassan Nasrallah and his cronies, garnished with Hezbollah flags, dared reaching such extremes of facial hair – MacBooks the newest and lattes the most ubiquitous. Flair, elegance and a certain dose of machismo are in the air; the walls, here are the most colourful, sometimes confusingly so.
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It’s perhaps easy to think that this is nothing but a Hackney with guaranteed sunshine and where Almaza beers have suddenly replace all pint cans of Red Stripe, but I guess that would be wrong. This is a place with deep troubles, used to them I guess, but nonetheless unafraid of asking why things keep on happening here.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow. 
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Remembrance for scatterbrains.

Landing takes place at night. We descend into the warm Mediterranean air, those of us sat on the left-hand side being treated to a royal view of the entire city of Beirut lying, invitingly, beneath us. Here is Ras Beirut, protruding into the sea; there is downtown – BCD for friends – a riot of colours as the city tucks into Iftar meals, or uses the occasion to throw yet another party (a quick orrraw poll held amongst our fellow travellers, who’d been guzzling whisky-and-ginger-ale from the get go, suggested that the latter option was more likely). And for miles around, between the sea and the hills, glitter the lights of countless suburbs. Are those the southern neighbourhoods, the refugee camps where Hezbollah runs patrols and Hamas is held in great regard? They could very well be, but from up here all they evoke are views of hummus and narghilé pipes, not of fiery clerics and dogma.
It’s a short taxi ride, at this time at night, into town. The dancefloor warriors are out in force, riding mopeds two apiece, or storming ahead in rumbling Harley-Davidsons. All have flowing hipster beards and all, as if by rule, ride without helmets, hair so neatly combed backwards that not even the wind dares ruffling them. Muscular playboys overtake us whilst chatting away on their iPhones, or texting, or lighting a cigar, all done at 100 an hour. One overpass plays host to a congregation of Harley centaurs, parked in a dark bend, whether by accident or design we would never know.

The following morning there’s only one place to go to: the Corniche. Echoes of Istanbul, Cape Town and Rio run riot as we descend towards the seaside promenade. The air smells the same as it does in Tel Aviv, even though it feels adventurous to just think it, but a quick glance at the burnt rubbish discarded on the sidewalks is enough to dispel that thought. This is the other side of the Middle East.
Empty plots, overgrown with invasive scrubs, offer a side view of the urban strata of Hamra. From the ground level up, the first to be seen are those buildings that are testimony of those old, gentler times before al hawadith, the events, of 1975-1990. Beautiful mansions, rarely venturing above four storeys, decorated with balconies, slender columns, pergolas and Moresque windows, often with bodegas on the ground floor, garnished with faded signs in French and Arabic. Inevitably, they are almost all abandoned, or soiled by the scars of war.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Edging above them are those condominiums built in the immediate aftermath of the war, when the priority was to build housing that wasn’t turned into Swiss cheese, and that perhaps had plumbing and electricity. With this in mind, it seems reasonable if looks weren’t high on the list of priorities, even though – as time passed and money flowed back in the country – aesthetics started claiming their role, chiefly through the introduction of floor-to-ceiling windows that would’ve made a young Don Johnson proud.
Finally, standing head and shoulders above everything else, are the true skyscrapers. Towers of azure glass and shards of blue crystal dart towards the sky, in unusual yet harmonious shapes: the scalpel, the crystallised wave, the staggered bookshelf. I’m meant, like every other self-respecting organic coffee guzzler, to be pouring scorn over these monstrosities, denouncing them as tasteless replicas of Miami, Vancouver or Dubai Marina, but the fact is that I like them. This eruption of futuristic shapes sprouting out of the seafront is an uplifting scene, a testament to human tenacity and a great demonstration of our specie’s capability of turning things around. And of the benefit posed by lax, if not completely conniving, money-laundering law regimes, I’d hasten to add.
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Sandwiched between the granite-pink Phoenicia hotel and a cluster of condos that smelt of price-per-square-foot to rival those of Mayfair, a rather odd sight ogles the marina, where several millions’ worth of yachts bob under the warm sun. Its lines are remarkably straight and clean, a classic parallelepiped designed in rigorous international style, two long sides with windows running their whole length, and the two short ones covered in stone and concrete. Twenty-six storeys high, and pockmarked with wholes dug by anything from a simple assault rifle to field artillery, the Beirut Holiday Inn stands, gutted and fire-ravaged, amongst its glitzy neighbours like a poor uncle smiling shyly at his rich nephew’s birthday party. Suddenly, we realise we are the only ones to be looking at it.
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– § –
South of the waterfront, separated from the manicured perfection of the Yacht Club by a few klicks of heat, sweat and kamikaze moped drivers, stands a rather nondescript junction, marked by an odd swing to which hangs a wheelchair. Besides this unsettling rendition of a playground staple, it is an unremarkable junction indeed: clogged with traffic, crossed by pedestrians and populated only by traffic cops doing the bare minimum to regulate the flow, and by half a dozen beggars, including Syrian children forced by the war to ask for alms. Totally unremarkable, were it not for the Barakat Building standing on one side.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
In a city where the scars of the war have either been plastered over, or simply knocked down, the Barakat wore them with pride, reminding anyone who cared to look that this unremarkable junction had once lied along one of the deadliest borders in the whole Middle East. The demarcation line, or – as it became known – the Green Line.
When sectarian violence erupted, ripping society apart, the city broke up along religious lines, however blurred after centuries of intermingling. One of these fault lines ran north to south, separating the Muslim west from the Maronite east; along the Green line pitched battles were fought, snipers picking off their victims one by one, rockets by the handful, mortars by the dozen. The Barakat building, with its lovely balconies, elegant inner courtyard and the Mario Photo studio downstairs, found itself slap-bang in the middle of it all.
After the signing of the Taif Agreement, and the return to normality, the Barakat was preserved from the onslaught of demolitions that were happening throughout the city, with the idea of turning it into Beit Beirut, the house of this city’s memory. If only it worked.
Lebanon is the most diverse country in the Middle East – with Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Druzes and Alawites, plus refugees from Syria and Palestine – and multiculturalism here isn’t of the kind that makes Justin Trudeau beam with that heart-melting smile of his. It’s more akin to walking on a tightrope whilst holding a Ming vase, with crocodiles and hyenas and cobras lying in wait below. There are things that can be said, things that is better to tactfully ignore and things that God forbid are mentioned in public. Discussing the legacy of the war, the various factions’ roles and responsibilities, massacres such as Sabra and Chatila are examples of the latter. Unsurprisingly, the idea of a museum in Beit Beirut didn’t last long, and two out of its three floors lie empty, but for a moving tribute to Photo Mario, its ground floor occupant.
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Still, there is something deeply moving about this building, about these nude walls, that needn’t a museum to convey a message. I grasp it by looking down a stairwell, the stone steps blown into the bottom floor, crushed by the explosions. The walls peppered with impact craters, or punched through by rockets or artillery, holes so big to act like windows casting a light on the building whence the shells had been fired from. The message this stairwell teaches is that this was a war where neighbours used recoilless cannons, designed to penetrate the steel armour of tanks, at each other’s houses. And that it didn’t take long to get to that point from the day when it was all simple quarrels at the tenants’ meeting.
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What is the impact of this edifice, I wondered? What difference does the Barakat building make on the day-to-day lives of those who inhabit this city? For starters, we aren’t alone in here, but it’s undeniable it’s all tourists. How about those on the street level? Does anyone look up to the Barakat?
I stand above the intersection, looking down on the traffic. Two cops have pulled over a moped and are engaged in a serious arms-waving contest with its driver. A couple of attractive women walk past a man with feline grace, causing him to forget his phone conversation mid-sentence. The drivers keep on driving and honking their horns. No one seems to care about the Barakat.
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Perhaps it’s because the memory is still very much etched in their minds, and needs no visual reminder; perhaps it’s still too fresh to be talked about. Definitely, for the impoverished refugees asking for money on the central reservation, the Barakat doesn’t really serve a purpose when their own houses have been torn to shreds just a year ago. Whatever the reasons, no one looks up.
On our last day, we find ourselves on Martyrs’ Square. Dedicated to the memory of those killed by the Ottomans, it features a handsome trio of bronze statues looking out to the sea, standing on a plinth of white, calcareous rock. As we walk closer my original assumption – that they had been designed to be looking war-torn – fizzles away like dry ice. They had been shot to pieces. Arms missing, impact craters splattered on their torsos, bullet holes disfiguring their faces, entry-and-exit holes in the legs. I continue walking ahead, captivated. It is by far the most compelling and thought-provoking monument I’d seen. Yet, we are alone in the square, whilst throngs of people mill about in the nearby perfection of BCD or Saifi Village. As I think all this, walking as I do with my nose in the air, I hear a muffled splash. I look down and realise that my right Nike shoe is now sitting in the middle of a cake of discarded tomatoes, rotting apricots and unidentified vegetables, topped by the largest clot of chewing gum in the whole Mediterranean, by now firmly wedged under the sole.
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As I contemplate the mess it occurs to me that this incident is quite fitting, for it seemed that every reminder of this city’s close past is also shunned, forgotten or ignored, enjoying the same success of a remembrance function attended only by scatterbrains.

 

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Approaching Beirut.

Beirut, Paris of the East.

Beirut, mother of laws.
Beirut, the city that can be Rio, Miami and 1943 Stalingrad all within the same block.

Beirut, the filthy.

Beirut, the ironic (another French legacy I suspect).

Beirut, you’ve got the worst traffic I’ve ever seen, but also some of the best sunsets.

Beirut, I can’t say I’ve understood you, I can’t even deny that I sometimes wished I was somewhere else, and I’m so damn glad I’m not hearing your car horns anymore, but I’m also grateful for having seen you.
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