The Complete Works

When I shifted to this 2004 format I told myself there’d be a few changes, and by now you’ve seen what they are: even more infrequent posting; essay-length entries interspersed with goofy one-offs; and an almost total lack of metabloggery and reviews. I hadn’t planned on ditching the reviewing, but my intake of movies and music has been fairly light this year, while my book consumption has outstripped opportunities to write about them. After getting back from two weeks of reading the Time Out guide to Andalucia and signs in Español, I read anything I could get my hands on, and have hardly stopped since.

Over the next week or so I’m going to revisit them here, grouped into four or five themes. Kind of a Times Literory Supplement. I’m not sure why; it seems mad to write about a bunch of books that regular readers of this site won’t have read, and random Google searchers won’t care what I think about, without getting paid to do it by Rupert Murdoch. But that never stopped me before.

The first theme, just to get them out of the way, is The Last Two Books I Read Just The Other Day.

Stasiland by Anna Funder

I bought this the day after it won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, and read it more or less immediately. Which wasn’t hard; it’s beautifully written. What was hard was its subject: Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall is about the psychological grip East Germany’s secret police had on its people for forty years. While it’s tempting for us to mentally lump the Stasi in with the KGB or the SS, Funder points out that although one in 6,000 Soviets worked for the KGB and one in 2,000 Germans worked for Hitler’s SS, a staggering one in fifty East Germans worked for the Stasi. The result was a population-wide paranoia an outsider can barely comprehend. I’ve visited Berlin and what was East Germany a couple of times, and even the Runde Ecke museum in Leipzig, but I hadn’t fully grasped it either until I read this book.

What Funder makes clear, without being as gauche as to hammer the point, is that East Germany was the banal (in the Arendtian sense) realisation of Orwell’s 1984—a book which was, not surprisingly, banned in the DDR. 1984 comparisons crop up all too frequently at the moment, I know, but this was the real deal: a country under total surveillance, where anyone you knew could be an agent of Big Brother.

Funder builds up this picture piece by piece, interview by interview (or simply conversation by conversation), with people who lived through it: some of them key figures of the regime or opponents of it, others ordinary folk whose lives were destroyed over some perceived slight against the state. It’s a masterly piece of non-fiction, combining the best aspects of reportage, history, analysis, and memoir; the kind of book that makes you despair of academic writing, which can’t hope to achieve the same emotional impact. And, it has to be said, the kind of book that makes you despair, with only just enough hope to make it bearable.

The rest of the world, and a lot of Germans, have been keen to put East Germany behind them, but for too many Ossis that’s impossible. As Funder shows, there’s still plenty to be learned about, and from, life in the real Oceania.

Not on the Label by Fiona Lawrence

Subtitled “What Really Goes Into the Food on Your Plate”, this probably wasn’t the best chaser for Stasiland. The terror-by-proxy of the latter was at least by proxy; this is terror-by-Tesco, where I and millions of other UK residents shop every week. Lawrence is a reporter on food issues for The Guardian, and parts of this book have appeared there, but it’s worth reading them in a single volume which concentrates their impact.

Not on the Label is an ideal companion to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and, to a lesser extent, Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Like Schlosser, Lawrence covers the gross-out aspects of modern food production well, her first chapter pointing out that chickens are de-feathered by being dunked in a vat of boiling water changed only once a day which ends up as hot dilute chickenshit, meaning that half of them are infected with campylobacter. Britain’s chicken is only half chicken anyway, the other half being water, starch, and other additives designed to bulk it out.

These visceral facts are overshadowed, though, by the picture Lawrence paints of a food industry totally dominated by major supermarket chains, who squeeze prices by squeezing producers and, through them, the working poor at the bottom: illegal immigrants earning a pittance in Britain’s fields and the plastic greenhouses of Southern Spain, and the farmers of Africa and South America. What’s most frightening is how much the supermarkets have consolidated their position in the past ten or even five years, propped up by artificially cheap freight. Combine this with oil production having peaked and you’re left with a system of food distribution that’s disturbingly vulnerable and, in the long term, unsustainable. Lawrence points out that when oil supplies were blockaded in 2000 in protest against petrol prices, Britain’s supermarkets came within hours of running out of bread.

Elsewhere, she talks about the effect of supermarket freight and storage requirements on the quality of the fresh fruit and vegetables we buy; a fact that’s always been obvious to anyone who has ever grown their own, or, like me, was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a big garden surrounded by fruit farms. Just about every fruit or vegetable I buy these days is a sad spectre of the platonic ideal in my head, which is almost always from a farm or garden in the Huon or (if it’s tropical) a market in Fiji—rural landscapes a world away from urban Britain.

It’s hard to finish Not on the Label without feeling helpless in the face of globalising forces beyond your control, but Lawrence’s account of the problems with the food industry contains implicit messages about how to resist them, if not overcome them. Eat local produce where you can; shop locally; follow the seasons. I’m determined, now, to see how long I can go between visits to the giant Tesco a few miles out of town (no doubt one of the thousand giant supermarkets that sell half of all food in this country of sixty million). We’ve signed up for a delivery co-op that sells locally produced fruit and veg, just to give it a go and support the alternatives. Failing that, there are still some small local stores around us, and as long as they’re able to get deliveries from a transport system increasingly in thrall to the supermarkets, I’ll try to give them more of my custom. As Lawrence shows, the “always cheap prices” of the big chains are costing us all too much.