Paris Récit: Paying the rent

Before I go to the appointment in the 5th arrondissement, an area made up of specialist food shops and populated by well-heeled older people (my doctor says it’s a ‘student area’ as the Sorbonne is nearby) I think to myself, I’ll pay my rent. It will be easier that way.

On entering La Banque Postale here, on the other side of the river, I see that the form required for the transfer is readily available. This makes me happy. I won’t need to wait in line to receive a form, this will reduce the time this takes. My how I have changed to be grateful for something so small, I think to myself (this makes me smile more than anything else).

There is one person working in the bank section, he has a badge that says he is hearing-impaired. ‘This is incorrect,’ the man says pointing at the location I’d written on the form. I had written Château-Rouge, an area on the other side of Paris that is a largely West African immigrant area in the city’s north, and branch where I opened the account.

‘What should I write there? Paris?’ I ask. He doesn’t reply. He writes Paris. He has my passport, my La Banque Postale bank card. He accesses my account, on the screen, he can check the balance. The account has 200 euros above the amount needed to pay the rent.

‘I will let you transfer 800 euros,’ the man says. This is less than what is needed to pay the rent, less than the amount I had filled out on the transfer form.

Speaking as urgently as I can, I make an effort to convince him to help me out and make an exception from his stated rules for me. ‘I don’t understand,' I say, 'This is the first time I’ve had this problem; I’ve paid my rent this way all over Paris, in the 9th, in the 10th, in the 18th, the 17th (I made the last location up) and never had this issue before (this is true). I don’t understand. I have enough money to cover the required amount, you can see it in my account.’

Two other times La Banque Postale employees had refused to let me pay the rent. Once in the 9th, the woman said she could not process the payment that afternoon, I could fill out the form but would need to return the next day. (Immediately after this interaction I went to another bureau and did it there).

At Château-Rouge, I was told that the bank employees were on strike and this meant that there were no financial services that day. I asked the man working there if other banks/post offices nearby were also on strike, he didn’t know or wouldn’t tell me. He ended up doing the transaction for me, though, when his supervisor wasn’t looking.

The man in the La Banque Postale in the 5th repeated: ‘If you had opened this account at my branch it would be different, I will let you transfer 800 euros today – that is the limit.’

He told me that I should organise a direct debit from my account. To do this, though, you need to get permission from a bank employee in person. This can only be done via appointment and to avoid the wait at Château-Rouge you have to go there very early in the morning, I hadn't been able to find the time, but I will.   

On leaving the bank, disgruntled thoughts came to mind about the simplistic politics of oppression that are so popular these days, based as it is on a point system of fixed categories. How would this interaction play out : the man had a disability, but had the power to refuse me because of his job. He was perfectly nice to the French people behind me, was it because I spoke with an accent? Or that I had opened my account in a part of Paris he didn’t like.

A few hours later, I went to La Banque Postale at Goutte d’Or – the North African neighbourhood just near métro Barbès – Rochechouart where the young men congregate selling contraband cigarettes.

I go there because I think it will be quieter than the post office/bank at Château-Rouge at this time, where it’s always chaotic, with too many people and long queues and often people losing their cool and yelling. It can be tiring sometimes.

When I arrive at La Banque Postale at Goutte d’Or I see a line of about 12-15 people waiting in the banking queue. I am the only non-black, or non-North African person there. Another white woman uses a machine to buy a stamp and then leaves. There is one employee, a woman, working in the bank section and one woman working in the post office. Two people on a Friday afternoon: when there are around 40 people waiting to be served in the two lines.

Later another woman comes and sits in the bank section, she turns on her computer and looks at the screen, she doesn’t help customers.

I wait for more than 15, or maybe 20 minutes, I don’t check the time.

‘It must be hard for you,’ I say to the woman as she processes the rent payment, I say this to try and make light conversation. ‘Working alone like this, when there are so many people waiting.’

‘No, not really. Most of them could do what they need to do at home, online. They don’t need to come here.’

‘Maybe they don’t have the Internet at home?’

The woman laughs at me, to say, unlikely. ‘They don’t need to come here,’ she says. ‘This is a post office in the end, not a bank.’

Celebrating ‘small magazines’ - Meanjin (in a minor key cont.)

One of the Internet’s negative aspects is also its greatest strength; everyone and anyone can be published, with no intermediary: it’s DIY in excelsis. No-one could argue against this, but it has also weakened the status of print publications, such as literary magazines (and newspapers, of course).

In this era of vast mass publishing, there is a constant hum of content where high/low jostle for attention. Readers skim, scan, jump & start up again, go to the comments, make comments. It’s a totally new process of reading. Lost here, though, is any feeling that you are entering a private space. Choosing to read something, over an extended period of time – just like choosing to listen to a record over an extended period of time … - is personal. The fact that you have made that choice makes it more intimate.

My father sent me two books for Christmas: Ten ways not to commit suicide the memoir by Darryl McDaniels – aka DMC (from the legendary 80s hip-hop group, Run-DMC) and the most recent issue of Meanjin, a literary magazine that has been in existence since 1940. I’m reading both in bits and pieces as a break from my reading/writing on the (terrorist) ‘brothers’ and haven’t finished either. Reading Meanjin again, however, reminds me of the value of small literary magazines and independent publishers …

As we all navigate our way in a more venal and frankly stupid political world, which includes the primary-school antics of El Bizarro in the US (how could he think that having Putin as ‘a fan’ is a compliment?) I think it’s time to go ‘elitist’, niche as way of affirming an alternative community. In the words of one of our wise men:

We brave in the heart, playin a part, amazingly smart
Razor sharp, futuristic raps, state of the art

Refusing the norms imposed by tabloid jesters, affirming something completely apart, can also be political and an act of transgression. 

In a literary magazine, such as Meanjin there is no effort to contort the writers, or the pieces they have written to fit into some kind of house style; the mix and diversity is what counts. Having said that you can also feel the imprint of the editorial team in a way that is unimaginable within the vast store-room of a newspaper or many online news & entertainment sources (unless they are self-consciously esoteric). And then small magazines support the eco-sytem of writers, those starting out and established, forging points of connection between disparate voices that could not, or would not fit elsewhere.

It’s hard to imagine a newspaper, or magazine showing any interest in publishing those long essays on Borges, or Houellebecq, for example: Heat edited by the understated, but crucial figure in the Australian literary world, Ivor Indyk was their obvious home. (The essay on Lou Reed appeared in an earlier issue of Meanjin).

Only part way through Meanjin I’m already been impressed by the range: Alexis Wright’s essay on Aboriginal (literary/political) dispossession, ‘What happens when you tell somebody else’s story?’ followed by Ben Wilkie’s piece on a ‘seven-metre obelisk of grey granite’ that was put up by white colonists to mark the burial place of Wombeetch Puyuun/Oombete Poonyan, who was thought the be the last surviving Djargurd wurrung person.

I liked the way the two pieces of writing – different in style and voice and sensibility and perspective, necessarily – were side by side; reading the two together was valuable, as this desire to ‘mark the passing’ of the First Nations people (the monument included the dates, 1840-1883, which Wilkie says marked the period when the local Aborigines were ‘displaced’ - his word) is, of course, problematic.

It is also rare. In Australia, as with the United States, or any country where there is a history of long-term race-based, or colonial, violence, it’s almost unthinkable for those who claim victory to keep a public record of their brutality. Wilkie ends his essay this way, in part:

As one Australian novelist put it recently, memory is a wilful dog; it visits when it’s hungry, not when you are. Maybe this is why we entrust some memories to stone but hide them away in cemeteries, away from the war memorials and pioneer monuments that take pride of place in our country towns (…)

There’s still much more besides in this issue of Meanjin – a wonderful memoir of a Polish Jewish actress who survived, Sonia Lizaron by Arnold Zable and a really strong poetry, fiction selection as well. The story by John Kinsella, ‘Sisters’ included this description of the wastrel junkie who came to stay that appealed to me: ‘He was high maintenance, but he was hardcore’.

No need to smooth any of the rough edges in any of this, the value is to be found in the clash and intersection of radically different voices; this is what gives it its spark. And again, is something unique about small independent magazines – and publishers – who are not so taken with the notion of branding themselves to compete.

Commentators offering advice on how to survive the next four years, let’s hope the Weird One loses interest in the low-energy nature of daily 'intelligence' and returns to his playground, so high up in the clouds, before then, have repeated the importance of supporting independent media, I can only endorse this.

Subscribe to small magazines, if that’s of interest, and/or support the big newspapers as they are the only vehicles with the heft and capacity to cause damage, if that is something that appeals to you.

To find out more about Meanjin, including the most recent issue's contents, go here.   

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses

UK writer, Neil Griffiths partly personally funded a new prize for books published by small, independent presses, on which he has bestowed the rather extravagant name, 'The Republic of Consciousness' and the tagline: 'hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose.'    

It seems that most have forgotten that the literary greats, let's say the Modernists depended on the existence of small presses and small literary magazines - see above - to get into print. Today these writers are studied in university courses the world over, but when they were alive they were scrounging for work as casual teachers of English in Trieste, or Rome. (I recently read this striking evocation of the peripatetic life of James Joyce and his family, where he was described as 'unsettled and penniless' - puts it into perspective somewhat).  

On reading the long-list of the authors on the Republic of Consciousness Prize, three immediately appealed to me, one so much that I ordered the novel from the publisher last night. See if you can resist, after reading this description of The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas - a writer who was born in the UK, grew up in Jamaica and is now based in Colorado (the publisher, Peepal Tree Press calls itself: the 'Home of the Best in Caribbean & Black British Writing')  

A magical realist journey through the history of Rastafarianism, Bob Marley & Jamaica – not necessarily in that order. Rhapsodic, poetic, scripturally engaged and endlessly inventive. Not only is the electric atmosphere of Jamaica evoked with sensuousness, delicacy and love; so is the ‘dub-side’, a studio yard just the other side of death, where Bob Marley and a toothless and lisping Halle Selassie discuss the relative merits of routes to Zion.

Check out this longlist for the Republic of Consciousness prize; it offers up a multitude of interesting, innovative writers and books to be discovered. And here is the website for Marcia Douglas. Can't wait to read her book, described as 'a novel in bass riddim ...' 

In a minor key - celebrating the small and the marginal

Many, many years ago in another life-time, whenever I used to buy vinyl records from non-mainstream labels (Touch and Go, or Alternative Tentacles ... or whatever it might have been) I would check for a message, scratched into the vinyl just near the centre hole.

This is not as crazy as it sounds, as often there would be a line or a few words that rarely made any sense there, but this act of scratching and then my looking for it well this is the point of what I'm going to write next. Often, too often people who argue that celebrating the minor, the small or the marginal means turning inward, becoming more and more local - from the food we eat to the entertainment we seek out, the clothes we wear etc.

To be local is to support those producers, performers or makers who live close to us (and yes, I understand the environmental message). I would like to argue for something different though, a celebration of the marginal and all the other adjectives that equal non-mainstream, or independent who are not known to us, who are far away. 

A niche/international nexus, so to speak. This partly reflects my personal lived reality (I live in Paris, but operate within a kind of non-space, writing and speaking and thinking in English most of the time) and even though I feel settled here, much more than before, my interests and instincts are not particularly 'French' ...    

If I were to return to an activist project, I'd love it to have an international component, as I feel it has more to teach me as well. Similarly with this website it makes me happy to see* how it's throwing together readers from an unexpected mix of locales on a daily basis (Kabul, Afghanistan today; alongside various cities in India, Canada, the Philippines, Brazil, Germany, Russia, Scandinavia, Tunisia, Egypt, Australia, the UK and all across the U-S-A ... time to reclaim the chant from Agent-Orange-cake). 

We're not talking huuge numbers, every day, but this suits me well; I want this to be niche and international. No need to compete with Murdoch.  

And on that note, I'd like to open up the possibility of including you and your different perspectives here on this site; write to me, let me know of your projects and how you respond to this work, or not. I'd love to hear from you.     

* This is not some kind of eye of Fatima secret power, it's Google Analytics. 

Talking politics; thoughts on 'decentralizing whiteness' and other notions

My family never talked about politics. Now anyone who knows my family would know that this is a lie; my family, of course, like any other Australian family of its kind and social class talked about politics incessantly.

From the morning breakfast, at a local café around the corner, when newspaper articles would be shared, read aloud from and then at the dinner-table when the latest ‘outrage’ committed by the government, or an individual politician (most probably some comment, or decision) would be recounted and the positions taken.

It was a family that spoke often, frequently about politics as government – the most recent betrayal, mistake or as I said ‘outrage’ - but did not speak about politics as it’s understood today more broadly, relating to race, or class or gender.

Today though I remembered something that made me smile. In my parents’ house –  a nineteenth century terrace, with floor to ceiling bookshelves in every room, apart from the kitchen and bathroom, of course – as a teenager I came across Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice and Baldwin’s No Name in the Street (alongside The fire next time) - the original hard-cover versions - and I think there was Angela Davis’ autobiography as well. My mother must have bought these books when they were first published in Australia in the late 60s and 70s.

Looking at photographs of my parents at that time they look so anti-modern, non-radical and non-fashionable; dressed in sombre colours, jumpers, sensible skirts and sometimes tweed, for my father. He is often smoking a pipe. They only ever listened to Classical music and the radio (nothing pop, or rock music related). Hippies, or yippies, White Panthers they were not.

They were lapsed Catholics – who distanced themselves from the religion after the Second Vatican (this was their ‘political moment’) who had grown up in a country that they said would be uncrecognisable to me. Until university, for example, they had never met a non-Catholic (this was not unusual in Melbourne, a city defined by sectarianism – the division between Catholics and Protestants that continued up until the mass arrival of immigrants from Europe in the post-war period).

Thinking about my mother today, with four young children under the age of five, buying these books by Black American radicals made me miss her. But it also struck me as funny imagining this woman who had probably never met a non-white person at that point reading Cleaver’s gunshot prose, written when he was an inmate at Folsom State Prison.

As I said before she was not someone you could call remotely political – at least not in the 2017 sense, even though she spent her entire professional life as a teacher working with migrants and refugees.

A few days ago, I read an opinion piece by Seattle writer and self-described ‘internet yeller’ Ijeoma Oluo on how to remain active in the era of Trump and much else besides, one part read:

Just about every aspect of western culture centralizes whiteness. Our history, infrastructure, medical system, justice system, education system, entertainment industry – and yes, our social justice organizations – all do this. Whiteness is default, it’s ubiquitous and it’s insidious.

We don’t have to purposefully center whiteness. When we neglect to decentralize it, it will be automatically centered. So work to decentralize whiteness: in your children’s school lessons, in your PTA meetings, in your office meetings, in your city council meetings, in the film and TV you watch, in the music you listen to, in the leaders you support ...

I get this, of course I do: I’m hyper-alert to the absences of entire groups of people in films, newspaper articles, in advertisements whether it be based on racial background, or gender to the point that some friends tease me about it. The problem was that 90 % of the Guardian readers didn’t understand this idea of ‘decentralizing whiteness’. It left them stumped and many got defensive. 

If Oluo had said, we need to ‘increase diversity’ there would not have been an issue. Such thinking is commonplace, but by using the jarring – at least for readers of a middle-brow, mainstream newspaper in the UK (it’s hardly Marxist Central) - term ‘decentralize whiteness’ the readers were flummoxed, struggling, wondering if they were being attacked and possibly dehumanised.

What did that phrase mean, some of the readers asked; did it refer to a people, or a series of traits and behaviours linked to a people; if so, isn’t that kind of comment, linking a skin-colour with the behaviour of all people in a group, racist?

There is nothing wrong with throwing linguistic hand-grenades, trying to unsettle people to get them to think differently, but when it gets to the point that people shut down because of how it’s said rather than what is said, as writers as communicators, there is an issue. For all of those non-political readers, unschooled in theory, who are older perhaps, where does the responsibility of the writer lie?  

One response might be to say, though; well there is space for all kinds of politics, as represented by these books of essays and non-fiction from a few decades ago and then there is the kind found in the writing of Oluo and her allies fighting the Identity Politics fight and that there’s room for both. That could be one reply.  

Paris Récit: Le Sweet Fast Food; Dubbing Brothers; Miss Glamour (Aubervilliers)


Commune in France

Aubervilliers is a French commune in the Seine-Saint-Denis department in the Île-de-France region in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, France. The inhabitants of the commune are known as Albertivillariens or Albertivillariennes. 

Area5.76 km²

Weather-3°C, Wind S at 5 km/h, 89% Humidity

Local timeSaturday 6:36 PM

ArrondissementSaint-Denis, Seine-Saint-Denis

TeamFCM Aubervilliers

Line 12: To my left there is a woman with her black hair pulled tight against her scalp in cornrows, in her hands she holds the open packaging for the book she has just collected from the FNAC superstore at Saint-Lazare. She has a very serious expression on her face; enormous glasses with black-rims and is dressed in dark colours, various shades of brown and black.

She looks down at the torn cardboard at the book before she puts it into her bag: Les aventures d’Alice dans le pays des merveilles (Alice in Wonderland).

A beggar gets on and starts his speech. Since arriving in Paris, I have noticed how complex the speeches of the beggars on the trains are and their distinct stages; the men – and sometimes women – begin by excusing themselves for disturbing us on our journey; they speak of their current situation and their past (often mentioning the years that they had spent working for a company, past and present illnesses and their family), they refer to us politely as Mesdames et Messieurs; the language tumbling out of their mouths in formal cadences.

This man, his grey hair sticking up from his head in grey corkscrews, then speaks of what he would like: some change, some coins for a coffee, a ticket restaurant so he can get a ‘sandwich grec’ - a kebab, he starts to describe it in detail: ‘with tomatoes, you know, and lettuce and maybe a sauce, Algerian or another, perhaps some fries.’

I get off at station Front Populaire – opened in 2012 and named after the Left-wing government that ruled France from 1936-1938. This is an area in transition, it seems, there are some housing complexes, a restaurant or two, a park and a supermarket. It’s so cold. The first bus I see has the direction: Rosa Parks.

I go the other way, and catch the bus to the Town Hall. On the way we pass a large building with the name Dubbing Brothers, and then Le Sweet Fast Food (Burgers, Tacos etc), but mainly it’s open empty blocks, some housing, it looks like there is going to be a new university campus opening there soon. Later I see a shop selling fancy, sparkly dresses called Miss Glamour. There is a small village like area with shops that have displays of bright green detergent in the window and a bookshop called ‘Sagesse d’Orient’ (Wisdom of the Orient).

At the Town Hall, it’s much more active with lots of people lining up to catch buses – the métro will be extended there soon, the stop just before the Town Hall will be named after Aimé Césaire (born in Martinique in 1913) and well-known for his 1955 paper ‘Discourse on Colonialism’ here is the start of the essay …

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization. The fact is that the so-called European civilization – “Western” civilization - as it has been shaped by two centuries of bourgeois rule, is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem; that Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of “reason” or before the bar of “conscience”; and that, increasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy which is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive.

Europe is indefensible. Apparently that is what the American strategists are whispering to each other. That in itself is not serious. What is serious is that “Europe” is morally, spiritually indefensible. And today the indictment is brought against it not by the European masses alone, but on a world scale, by tens and tens of millions of men who, from the depths of slavery, set themselves up as judges. The colonialists may kill in Indochina, torture in Madagascar, imprison in Black Africa, crackdown in the West Indies. Henceforth, the colonized know that they have an advantage over them. They know that their temporary, “masters” are lying ...

On the Town Hall there is a plaque that remembers a man who died defending Paris during the Second World War, in French, that reads:

Here Ali BRAHIM fell on the 19th August, 1944.
Foundry worker, aged 32 years-old. Dead for France.
You who pass, remember him.

Near the Town Hall, there is a large library, cultural centres, a cinema: the State is investing and has invested in this area, as it is part of the 93, one of the poorest in France. A poster reads: ‘Capitalism and borders divide us. Solidarity to all those, the men and women, who are exploited.’

A quick Google of the neighbourhood afterwards only brings up extremely negative comments from residents and others, with people commenting on the dirtiness of the place, the ‘insecurity’ and drug-deals …

Aubervilliers has more than 77,000 inhabitants, with an almost 25 % unemployment rate. The official info makes reference to a church on the historic register, Notre-Dame-des-Vertus, the fact that its theatre, La Commune, is known world-wide and the famous French poet Jacques Prévert had dedicated a poem to the town, ‘Aubervilliers’. 

In praise of: Bullet ep, Conway the Machine, prod. Mil (Effiscienz, 2016)*

Start with the voice, then.

Often non-Black, or more accurately journalists from the middle-class (ie the vast majority of writers writing on the genre it often seems to me, and yep I'm included in this bracket) writing on rap/hip-hop, get themselves twisted up in knots when faced with an MC taking on the voice of the criminal. Or 'gangsta until the day I got to go’ ...

They quote lyrics that sound strange out of context, wonder about authenticity and the lived experience and sometimes worry about the artist's negative influence. 

Let's skip all that here, though, as it's the voice of Conway that makes this ep - alongside the restrained production, offered up by Mil (the Paris/Brussels-based engineer, Miloud Sassi). What matters is not only what Conway says, but how he says it. Conway’s delivery sounds straight, so unaffected. And this simplicity makes this release different from so many others, operating within the same trajectory.

It’s almost as if the music operates like a surface; you can choose how you relate to it because the elements, the raw material are allowed to breathe.

The first track that I came across, 'Just Gangsta (No Mercy version) ... 

Slowed down, starting with what seems to be the fall-back inclusion of the static that has come to represent the past, the snap-crackle-and pop of the ‘vinyl effect’ (listening to it now, I can't hear this, maybe I'm starting to imagine things) and the epic Nosferatu-Quasimodo bells, slotting in perfectly with the very nice beat. The record label's promo material refers to Mil as having a touch that is 'clinical' - makes sense here. 

Of course, the gangster stance is an essential part of the story-telling tradition that animates hip-hop. But rather than all those Blaxploitation echoes you find everywhere, where the gangster is some kind of exaggerated buffoon, or wearing some kind of mask, Conway's delivery is unadorned; unschooled (the kind of patter you might hear at a bus-stop maybe).

Note how the first 'Just gangsta' is really different, much more cinematic as they say. You can hear the Bullet ep on Bandcamp. 

Slight diversion: below the YT video you can find one of the funniest and sweetest exchanges to be found on any hip-hop video ...

KURUPT KALHOON2 months ago

i can only listen to conway and westside gunn nowadays. problem is i am white and german, so i turn it down at the traffic light

            Alexander Hyacinthe2 months ago

It's not about what you are ethnically, it's about what you want to hear. These guys are all I bump and I'm from the suburbs, but the production is on point, the vibe is straight gutter 90s, and the feeling is immaculate. I love it all!

Farrukh R2 months ago

don't be so insecure bro. let that music be heard.. turn that shit up! the only ones getting mad are mostly fuckboys and old ass people. you good...

Thanks to Bilal for encouraging me to look and listen in this direction. *(One of) my picks for 20-one, six.

Professeur MORO and two, rather famous, others (two b&w photos from the collection)

After a session with Professeur MORO - efficient work guaranteed; discretion assured; payment after results - the one you love who has left you for another will run behind you like a dog running after his/her master. All those problems that seem so urgent ... etc. will be resolved. Protection also offered against evil spirits. Receiving clients, each day between 9 am and 8 pm, appointments only.

(Ad given out by dozens of people each day to passersby at métro Barbès – Rochechouart).