Boll-ox to the year of the steak

Dateline: January 1st, 2021, on my sofa

I was mildly puzzled this last week to see that beef was being energetically promoted at the supermarket. Beef in Japan is expensive, steaks especially so. But the local Seiyu had piles and piles of steaks, exceptionally large steaks, and other beefy stuff. You could hear the death moos as you passed the cold shelves. 

And then yesterday I had a depressing epiphany: beef is de rigeur because 2021 is the Chinese year of the ox. 

Yes, it’s moo-cow year, so let’s get stuffed on moo-flesh. Never mind that oxen and cows are different animals. They both have a leg at each corner, eat grass, and say moo. More to the point, the marketing people have deemed we shall spend our money thus. 

The simple syllogism suggested by those marketing folk goes like this: 1. it’s the year of the ox 2. ox is like a cow, kinda, 3. ergo, eat beef — and the more depressing thing is that people in their bovine herds go ‘Oh, yeah! That’s so profound — if we eat steak we’ll have good luck all year.’

It’s a bit disappointing for me as a writer to confess that it’s hard to find the words to convey how fucking inane this all is. 

First, there’s all the death. How many extra creatures were bred and slaughtered to feed this facile fantasy?

Then there’s the superstitious conflation of dinner and fate. 

‘Hello, humans,’ says the cow.

‘Hi cow! How are you doing?’

‘Great! Next year is the year of me!’

‘Yay! Congratulations, cow!’

‘So, you’d better kill me and eat me.’

‘But why, oh moo-cow? If we kill and eat you, there won’t be any you!’

‘Because killing and eating me will make me happy and I’ll bestow magic and good luck on you all year. ‘

‘Oh,’ say the humans. ‘That’s very nice of you. So, is there some special ritual or ceremony to go with this?’

‘Not exactly. I’ll just stroll to the abattoir, where the nice men in blood-stained smocks will string me up on a chain and slash my throat. Then they’ll dismember me, package my bits in plastic and truck me to supermarkets all over the country. The magic bit is where you go go to the supermarket and buy whatever bits of me you fancy — but don’t forget, the bigger the price tag, the more the luck! It’s a special deal, you know.’

Well, we do like shopping, and we have nothing better to do with our heads other than stuff them with this nonsense, so see you there!’

Perhaps 2020 was a crap year because we failed to eat enough rat in the final week of 2019. 

And so to be a real thing, eating for lucky fortune must be consistent. The years of the pig and the chicken are to be anticipated with bibs on and a knife and fork in hand, but how do we deal with the year of the snake? Apparently people eat eels, which are not snakes at all but will do considering actual snakes will frighten the customers and since none of this makes any sense anyway. The years of the tiger and monkey present legal and safety problems. But what do you do in the year of the dragon, that particular beast not existing and all that? Does the universe end in entropy because there’s no animating nosh?

Why stop at years and the Chinese zodiac? In March we should eat Mars bars, both July and August demand feasts of caesar salad; on Mondays we can eat rocks and cheese, and, best of all, on Saturday we get to devour our children. 

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Is 2020 hindsight 2021 foresight?

A happy new year to all my readers — I hope.

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The behind the scenes deals that seal no deal

Of course there’s no deal. There was never meant to be a deal. 

The talk, the manoeuvring, the posturing, the negotiations have been an elaborate pantomime, a pretence at getting a deal because no deal was what Johnson and his sponsors actually wanted. No deal was a hard sell to the British public so the charade of the oven-ready, easy-peasy, they-need-us-more-than-we-need-them charade was necessary to keep the voters onside. Boris Johnson and his chaps knew all along that a no deal exit would harm the country, but, again, that’s what they wanted.

So, no deal and a dented British economy was the hoped-for outcome. How do we know? Because it’s no big secret.  

In September 2019, Rachel Johnson, the prime minister’s sister, first spilled the beans, announcing publicly that Johnson was in thrall to a particular bunch of hedge funds that had bet against the UK economy, who stand to make untold millions from a no-deal Brexit plunge

About the same time, Philip Hammond, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, told us the same story

We don’t have to take the words of Ms Johnson or Mr Hammond for it. There’s plenty of information sloshing around in the public domain to support the claims. 

Those who stand to make a killing from Brexit/no deal are financial contributors to the Conservative party. Yes, Big Money is bunging money at the elected government to trash the country, and with it, the lives of voters, so that Big Money can make even more money. 

One such donor is hedge fund manager Crispin Odey (formerly married to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Harrow and Christ Church educated, worth £825 million, and recently charged with indecent assault) claims he has already made £220 million from Brexit. See the link in the previous paragraph.

 Odey has reportedly donated at least £1.7 million to the Conservative party. 

Contributions to the Tories from the financial sector amount to some £50 million. Of this, £18 million comes from just five very wealthy hedge-fund backers.

(What does it mean to bet against the UK economy? Here’s an explainer.)

With this revelation, the whole Brexit project should have been stopped and put under investigation. Instead, the popular press largely ignored the story — unsurprising since the interests of the news media’s billionaire owners are aligned with all the other billionaires who are reaping huge profits from the situation. 

It’s not just the Conservative backers that stand to make money. Some of the architects of no deal — influential members of the current government — will make millions through their own market bets. Jacob-Rees Mogg is already a beneficiary to an undisclosed Brexit windfall. This is quite possibly the actual Platonic Form of insider trading. 

Fun fact: Rees-Mogg’s own fund is heavily invested in Russia, which interfered in the referendum on the side of the leave campaign.

Of course, making boatloads of money off a no deal was not the only cause of Brexit, nor the only benefit for Big Money. Exit from the union means freedom to trash any kind of regulation that might bother the billionaires in their pursuit of yet more lucre. This means degrading safety regulations (of which Grenfell is but a foretaste), environmental protections (just as we hit the climate change tipping points), labour laws, human rights, food hygiene standards (hello to dirty American food), and so on, and so on. 

Central to Big Money’s regulatory irritation was the likely adoption by the EU of rules making it harder to hide dosh from the taxman, an inconvenience now neatly sidestepped. 

We don’t know exactly what will happen in January when the break becomes complete. The Bank of England has already estimated that real household incomes have dropped by about £1,000 since the referendum, and the Centre for Economic Performance reckons those real-term incomes are likely to drop a further £2,500 to £5,500 per annum in the next 15 years. I wonder how many voters can afford to lose that kind of income. On top of this we can expect increased insecurity, more reliance on food banks and charity, the de facto end of the NHS, which will likely be replaced by an American style, pay-up-or-die private system. 

Drilling down further, we might reflect that the money sloshing around the world’s money markets was created not by the people who ‘own’ it but by the work of ordinary people, whose labour was turned into profit and transferred to the stratospheric realms of the ‘exotic financial instrument’. The ordinary people will be bearing the brunt of Brexit in financial terms and at a cost to their wellbeing and health, in effect being robbed twice by the same people. 

And all because a small number of already-rich saw a chance to bag more dosh for an extra yacht or two. 

First published in The Cannibal’s Gazette

Links used in this story:

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Seitaro Kuroda — artist in perpetual motion

Golden Week. Exploring Osaka with my camera I stopped by Hozenji, Namba, and found a jazz band setting up inside the temple and, nest to the band, an artist arranging drawing paper and coloured pens on a table. 

Hozenji is a tiny temple tucked away among the eateries and drinkeries of Namba to the east of Midosuji. The temple and the adjacent streets figure prominently in Sakunosuke Oda’s earthy tales of Osaka life, written in the thirties and forties. These days, the streets immediately adjacent to the temple preserve something of the old Edo atmosphere. In the centre of the temple, a Buddhist icon, shaggy with an extravagant coating of moss kept fresh with water thrown by worshippers. And today, that jazz band and artist.

The music-art event was a fundraiser for Tohoku and the work created by the artist, one-minute pieces drawn to the rhythm of the music, were on sale, all proceeds to the disaster funds.

The artist was evidently a person of some note, an established artist: slightly older, backed up with a staff of helpers and his work illustrated the menu of at least one of the adjacent bars.

I watched in fascination as he pushed his pastels round the paper, in a very individual motion. Each composition was apparently unrehearsed and quite spontaneous and although there were definite motifs, each work remained individual. The line was distinctive — perhaps because of his unusual pushing style — and the sense composition was offbeat and quirky. The pictures featured flowers, birds, doves with branches of peace; all containing whimsy and humour; simple and striking colours and clearly, a great deal of humanity and love for his activity.

I eventually bought one of the pictures: a purple dove holding a flower in its beak, a simple line drawing with an off-kilt construction and the lines inside the wings finger-smudged to soften them and return the focus to the bird’s face: brilliant; fun.

The artist was Seitaro Kuroda and I was intrigued to discover that he was the painter of the big, black bird-man mural in Amerika-mura by the Apple Store, a long-time landmark of the area. Clearly the man is an Osaka institution. More than that, his career spans decades and he has lived in New York, where he has regular exhibitions; he has worked across Europe, Asia, and even in isolated Pyongyang.

His art over the years has ranged from the small, cute and whimsical to large, complex and even scary. We see characters that might not be out of place in commercial merchandising but we also see large abstract works. All the pieces possess the otherworldly atmosphere of a very active imagination.

We arranged an interview, which took me to another of his events, this time in Hirakata, an apartment complex where he was to be painting benches and sculptures in a garden with an enormous number of very small children.

Painting as a performance and a communal activity characterises his work. Most frequently he seems to perform with musicians and has done a lot of work with John Zorn, experimental, avant-garde and jazz composer and performer. In Potsdam, he created a show on a commuter train.

Today: no musicians, but lots of children and sunshine. The purpose of the event: to encourage togetherness and communication and connection through the shared activity of creating. And in the process, turn this communal suburban garden into an outdoor art gallery.

When we arrived, Kuroda was flat on his back on the ground relaxing before the event started but was happy to greet us and start chatting right away. Before I could begin on my carefully composed list of questions, Kuroda was off, telling us about his life and art and eschewing the nice garden bench to get back to the casual comfort of the ground.

He was born in 1939, and his earliest years in Osaka and Kobe were dominated by the war, the austerity it imposed and by the US occupation, all experiences that have conditioned his world view, his approach to and the content of his art.

“The war was futile for Japan,” he says. Images of peace are constant in his work and the occasional presence of violence: in his Amerika-mura mural, the nightmarish bird-man creature walks through the words ‘Peace on Earth’; doves predominated in the Tohoku images. I later asked him about the recurrent images of peace, and he replied cryptically, “they are very important to me, but I don’t like to talk about them.”

His work took him all over the world. “I realised there was no difference between people. People the world over are the same. There is no difference between westerners and Asian people.” These observations launched one of the main themes of his conversation: difference is an illusion. Differences between places, races, nationalities, age, gender, they are all perceptions; artificial. 

“The world should be without borders. Art has no borders; music has no borders. Red is red wherever you go; do re mi is the same everywhere. The sky is blue in Pyongyang just as it is everywhere else.” And so the arts are a language, a medium that goes to the essence of being alive.

To work. He is here to paint: wood panels and the concrete benches, with the help of all the kids of course. He punctuates his activities with little talks for the benefit of his audience: “To be born is a miracle; just be happy!” Fine sentiments but whether they sunk in with the primary school kids is not clear. But they were happy, clad in plastic covers to keep the flying paint off their clothes, they daubed and splashed the concrete and the wood and eventually got their hands in too, creating an effect to put the ‘riot’ in ‘colour’.

Kuroda was down on his hands and knees among the kids painting with them and then having his work obliterated by their busy brushes. He also did some solo designs and he showed the same spontaneous, intuitive approach I saw at Hozenji. “I don’t think,” he later told me, “I just do whatever comes to mind. Otherwise it doesn’t work.”

“Life was very tight after the war. Art was an escape from tightness, from social restrictions.” And clearly it has been ever since. 

I asked why he was attracted to action art, rather than studio work. “I just like to be outside, with the wind and the earth. I once did an event in the middle of a typhoon in Okinawa.” 

Seitaro Kuroda’s landmark mural in America-mura, Osaka

Kuroda liked the image of the wind. It is always on the move, like him. Although born in Osaka, he points out he has lived many places (currently Kitakyushu) and doesn’t consider himself from anywhere in particular. Of his almost itinerant lifestyle he said, “I’ll go anywhere if I’m invited. I’ll go like a dog when it’s called,” and laughed. “I don’t like things to stay the same. Things should always be changing.” When he says this, he is also talking about art; art should always be dynamic. When I asked him about his famous mural in Amerika-mura, painted in 1983, he clearly didn’t want to talk about it: “It’s too old. I didn’t intend it to be there so long. One year was enough.” Move on.

To the future? He will be going to New Zealand soon to paint on a mountain with Maori people. Before that, he’s going to Tohoku. 

Clearly, Kuroda is a man who likes to live and work without restraint or constraint on lifestyle or imagination, always on the move, communing with people and nature through art: a man without borders.

There are a number of videos on YouTube of Seitaro Kuroda working — just search on his name spelled in alphabet.

This story was first published in 2011 in the now-defunct Kansai Scene

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Gaping wound?

This image was originally posted on The Cannibal’s Gazette, and now by my popular demand, reposted here.

“Gaping wound?

Heart flayed bare?

Time to dismantle capitalism.”

The inhumane have long since taken over the world and are cannibalising us. Time to take back control.

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Cartoon with square wheels

Brexit: reinventing the wheel and making it square.

I dashed this one off really quickly in an hour before heading out to work, which is why it’s so scrappy. But I liked the idea even though I haven’t re-drawn it.

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[Recent graphic]

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It’s that time of year again, innit.

Bollocks to summer
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Bollocks to: Facebook

It might be time to talk about Facebook. Advertisers are boycotting the platform for July because of Facebook’s stance — or lack of it — over hate speech and incitement. These advertisers include Unilever, Coca-Cola Starbucks, Adidas and many others. Facebook employees and contractors have staged virtual walkouts in protest. 

Of course, the position of the advertisers is not one of ethics in the sense you and I understand the word. They are worried about brand contamination; being associated with a platform that has become associated with racism. If the Facebook brand has become that toxic that even these nerveless behemoths are getting bothered, perhaps alarm bells ought to be ringing with us, the punters.

And the problems of Facebook do not begin or end with tolerating hate speech. 

I have just finished Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and I urge everyone who spends time online to read it too. 

We have this image of Facebook scanning your profile to find out who your favourite bands are and what food you like so someone can buy ads from them. The truth is different and entirely insidious. Surveillance is a mild word for what they do. Facebook (and Google and many others) are engaged in a project to actually predict and modify your behaviour. This involves scraping your life — online and in the real — for every bit of data, every interaction, everything they can about you to build comprehensive behavioural models. In this, they are building on the work of behaviourists such as BF Skinner and his heirs. Skinner considered free will to be an illusion and believed human behaviour could be engineered to create a hive-like society. If you haven’t heard of Skinner, stop reading this and look him up now and become very alarmed. 

More, learning from techniques developed in the gambling industry, they have made their site deliberately addictive, designing it so that the user gets regular dopamine hits that encourage hypnotic engagement. 

And this combination of behaviour modification, addiction and the nature of the platform in which you become the subject of yourself, has caused all sorts of identity disorders among young users. 

Would we tolerate having our homes bugged for sound and vision so that we can be nudged into behaviours that are not our own? Probably not. But that’s qualitatively what these companies are doing. Today’s selfie is tomorrow’s biometric profile, as artist/academic/privacy activist Adam Harvey likes to say.

Going further, that data and the platform is being exploited by third parties to interfere in elections — the 2016 US general election, the Brexit vote, the last two UK general elections. Facebook knows about this and does nothing. 

Meanwhile, Facebook et al are using their huge money to lobby governments to exempt them from any kind of regulation that would inhibit them from doing whatever they decide they want. 

For sure, Facebook is not the only online abuser of our lives. Google and Amazon are almost as bad, and almost every online entity and seller of smart devices is abusing us too. Every time we do anything on Facebook — anything at all — we provide the company with yet more grist for its money mill. The direct revenue comes from advertising and selling data analysis tools but our lives are the raw material. 

Facebook top knob Mark Zuckerberg is sanguine about the boycott by Unilever et al. They’ll be back soon, he says. And he’s right. And the corporates are only protesting about one issue, one that conflicts with their brand. They aren’t protesting over the surveillance and all that flows from it because, of course, they use that data to make money out of us.

But what if the users began to withhold their data, Zuckerberg’s product, by staying away from the site? At least for a while. Might that be interesting? Might that be something to talk about?

Facebook loves you! Art by Nathan Hillyer
Art by Nathan Hillyer


Monday (July 6th), I was sitting in a branch of a well-known pub chain in Osaka having a pint and working on a draft of the above post, when, with exquisitely ironic timing, I got an email from Amazon. The email noted I was in this specific pub and pointed out that the location was also an Amazon ‘locker’. I could have stuff delivered by Amazon to pick up while having a beer. 

Amazon had tracked me to the pub. 

I was not on the free Wi-Fi there, so Amazon had tracked me through the cell network. 

Read more:

That book — The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

Facebook is out of control. If it were a country it would be North Korea — article by Carole Cadwalladr

Extend US Facebook boycott to Europe, campaigners urge — article by Alex Hern

Only bold state intervention will save us from a future owned by corporate giants — article by Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill

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