the biro, bottle, foil and fag ash

This is a crackpipe belonging to a friend of a friend of friend [Fofafoaf].  A piece of tin foil covering the top of the bottle would have a bed of cigarette ash placed in it, the crack sitting on top and the smoke drawn through it.  Fofafoaf says he really likes it a lot, it cuts through his moods, it works where other drugs don’t any longer.  Fofafoaf has been trying many different drugs over the last years; in fact he says he’s been a junkie since he was 12, starting with inhaling gas, glue, petrol fumes, anything.  Fofafoaf started to develop a taste for heroin recently; he’s good company so he can always find someone willing to share his tastes, someone generous enough to share with him their tastes.  Smack doesn’t really do the trick though, the crack does.  Fofafoaf is covering something up with all this he says, he’s hiding from his own mind, forgetting who he is, numbing his thoughts, dulling his anxiety, escaping from this world.  The trouble is that the world keeps coming back at him.  He needs to eat.  He needs to sleep.  He needs to see his children. His friends.  And they are still there.  Like his other world, the one that meets at the end of the biro tube.  He can throw it away but biros are cheap and he is good company.  Plastic bottles are cheap too. Tin foil and fag ash.  These affordable props will become ever more luxurious as Fofafoaf’s backdrop becomes ever more sparse.  Until one day, there is just the biro, bottle, foil and fag ash.  Family and friends, as Fofafoaf knows, are more complicated.  They are the theatre in which the props, the scene and even the play take place.  They’ll remain when the drama is over.   He’s good company though. Not a bad bone in his body.  The residue inside the neck of his bottle can be scraped off and smoked, if needed.

in permanance

Sitting in a café on the high street, looking out across the road I suddenly notice a young woman standing in a telephone kiosk, still while people on the street pass by.

I realise she runs the stall selling hats and scarves.  Her stillness surprises me, emphasising how busy I am, how busy we often are.

Someone stops to look at the hats.  Or I assume they do as she disappears from view, her permanence animated by someone joining in.

working class, yes i said it, working class

I heard an interview with Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of Unite.  Asked about why he wouldn’t accept the current plans concerning pension reform bearing in mind the financial pressures everyone was experiencing he spoke about how the pension funds that provided for the pensions of the Unite members were in good financial health. He made the point that the removal of pension rights was a strategy not based on sound financial management of the pension fund incomes but one designed to claw back money from public service workers to fund the deficit.  A deficit that has been ill managed by a financial elite who were not held accountable and who were, individual careers included, bailed out by the very public funds and borrowing which public service workers are now being asked to underwrite through job cuts and reduced pension rights.

That point of view seems to be totally lacking in the Labour Party and  the leadership of Ed Miliband.  His brother,apparently a more skilled player of a middle class game which came to dominate British political life, was sidelined in favour of the leader whose very support was founded, somewhat controversially, in the Union vote.  Yet Ed Miliband does not take the Union line, he tacitly accepts that they are wrong, that there is an eventual economic rationale, a political pragmatism, authorising the side-lining of practically the only remaining vestige of an organised and confident working class organisation.

A criticism of Thatcher is that she inaugurated the domination of  a middle class ethic as a national public morality.  The shop keeper, self made, promoting the agency of individual desire and ambition as the motor to economic well being in the context of which people would, it was imagined, accept the necessity and price of individualism, euphemistically thought of as self determination.  The working class have been encouraged to focus on capital growth, their own through property acquisition, nationally through consumption.  They are if they do not acquiesce,  considered to be dangerous.  Not just in rioting but in potential race relations, in hedonism.  There are so few voices, other than a tamed, heritage inflected, historical account of working class self organisation, from which confidence can be drawn.

The Labour Party has abandoned these positions, their spokespeople are largely middle class whose memories of working class life are themselves rooted in an imagined past rather than experience.  We are all the poorer for this.

meeting the people

In the atrium, OK, the arrival lounge, no, the lobby, I don’t know, that bit inside the supermarket but not inside the shopping area proper… is an information board which announces (top left) that you can meet our suppliers.  I would guess that this is a typical display in such shops which tells people about sources of local products, normally cheeses, eggs, meats and other things.

However in our area things are different.  The suppliers and the products are one and the same – we are the producers of ourselves and our consumers too.  Cannibals no less and nothing wrong with that in a consumer society.

So, to the right of the projected local suppliers and the explanatory map of their locations in the district we see, not fish farms or Christmas cakes suppliers, no sausages nor ale but charities, good works, supporters and protectors of the community.  Our local suppliers are supplying a dense mix of relations, prepared to a local recipe and made from local ingredients: us.

The texts that are carried in this information section refer to the ‘local suppliers’ that Tesco would like us to get to know.  However what we read about are a charity shop on the adjacent high street, a childcare centre, information about local courses and a variety of other good works carried out locally by and for local residents.  My intention is not to demean any of these providers but just to point out that in an area such as ours, one high on the deprivation index, we are promoted (by ourselves and by Tesco) as suppliers of services to the needy and the needy themselves.

games people play

Around Christmas one of my daughters received a Monster High Doll or four. I’d never heard of them until a week before the 25th when  I realised she had stopped obsessing about Moshlings and that there was a new gravity at work in her universe. We managed to change her gifts in time, shuffle a few around to the possible irritation of her younger sister and Hey Presto, come the big day Monster High emerged victorious. A very successful gift. She plays with it, attends to its needs, combs, cares and arranges everything. She draws portraits. Arranges photo-shoots.

Few other girls in her peer group seem yet to have these particular dolls but this morning I went to collect one of her friends to come and play.  She too had received four Monster High Dolls for her gifts and in the car I was witness to a long and involved conversation where they seemed to be discussing the antecedents of the Dolls, that is their parents.  My daughter said to her friend: “It’s funny how there are no Dolls of their parents.” What that made me think about was the astonishing detail with which children populate their games.  I pay so little attention to the worlds my daughter creates around her toys but when I do, I realise that there is a whole social, moral and physical world that is build around them.

It is a craft to build such a world, one that is born of a practice of playing, of improvision, of making do, of collaborating not with me, the more of less (dis)interested observer, but with the dolls, their signifying features and with friends, collaborators in the flesh, more or less reliable but all the more reliable for that perhaps.

So I was left wondering where it is that the craft of practice relates to this? I thought that for collaboration to happen it has to be on the terms of the field, the child in this account.  The researcher looking to craft a practice of collaboration, a dialogic ethnography, must allow the child to dictate the game to be played, must enter the world of the child even if that is not where the ethnographer, that is the I (paradoxically the object not the subject) wants to go.

A craft of practice needs must be open to being used.  The craft of practice is thus a tool rather than a process?  How do we develop a craft of practice? By picking it up and using it – but as we are it we must get carried away.

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Occupy, Punch and Judy

The occupation has been in front of the Cathedral for a couple of months now. I have  several friends who have been supportive in one way or another and conversation has often been in favour of giving assistance to the movement. The model of general assemblies appeals to certain sensibilities as does the absence of leadership. Something is going on which is in a way nothing: meaning that it is difficult to disagree with Occupy, it is a bit like disagreeing with the Sermon on the Mount. As if the meek shouldn’t inherit the earth.

I’ve had a number of disagreements with people I know and respect over the past few days about Occupy Sheffield. I was very moved by their occupation of the Salvation Army Citadel (The Citadel of Hope) in the town centre before the New Year. In fact I was positively jealous! I’ve been watching that place for a few years now fantasising about what could be done with it. I follow what is going on through twitter and have seen a few photos of the inside and I’m looking forward to looking inside.

I was discussing this all over a meal the other evening and I and friend, an anthropologist, decided we wanted stay the night at the occupation together sometime later in January. We want to support it but also, it is true, to see inside a little more, to register our interest in what is happening, to have more sense of the mechanics place, to be part of the socialisation. This is a fairly bland aim but when we discussed it with the others at dinner we found that there was a fair amount of negativity towards the occupation from some quarters.

The objections were about the value of a movement that had no base in a broad based struggle within the city. The occupation was accused of being at once too middle class, peopled by those with the option to return to comfort, and marginal. It was viewed as somehow pointless, what could it achieve? It alienated people by being seated in an profoundly alternative world that set it irrevocably apart from the experiences and desires of normal people, of that broad swathe of the 99% whose (op)position it aims to voice.

One friend present, whose daughter had visited the camp, was cross because those present at the time of her visit had alienated her, not been able to accommodate her concerns about the utility of the camp. Here was my main area of agreement with them, I too, despite knowing several people who have been there regularly from the earliest days and nights, do not feel comfortable walking up and speaking to them. It feels a bit like wandering up to a sound system at a festival when you aren’t really aware of what music they play, if they want you there and a whole host of other inadequacies.

However, to return to my point: by and large I disagreed with the detractors. Why I asked did it concern you so much? What was the issue with Occupy? You do not complain so severely of the presence and practices of the banks opposite? Nor even of the commercial practices of the cafes or department stores on Fargate? All those brand names, those chain stores. Why object to Occupy which feels almost like a brand name, not for a product, but for a way to organise, a way to discuss, a way to keep issues of inequality in a public arena? There lies, if nowhere else, its profound value: it keeps questions open, it attracts discussion and maintains a set of effective punch and judiesque figures around which an audience, in debt to so much offered by inequality, can gather, laugh or ridicule.

Take the motion put forward by Jillian Creasy, the Green Party councillor, earlier in December. However toned down was the eventual motion passed by the Council, it forced a debate on issues of principal which is, I suspect, comparatively rare in pragmatic political arenas, the very fields where it matters.

Good luck to them and I’ll go to the performance some time soon.

othering ourselves

In research there is always an issue of the researcher having power over the researched.  This is typical of anthropological work where the ethnographer comes to their field, spends time, forms relationships and then buggers off stage left,  perhaps to return with a chapter or a copy of a book if they are that successful.  This is of course a partial and partisan version of sets of conditions which will avoid this caricatured account.  The researcher is often young, inexperienced and constantly under a form of personal threat to emotional well being that is born of engaging with one or another other, any other might be the case.  The researcher is not Queen but will often come away with something, a thesis perhaps, a set of data at least and that is in a sense or can be at least, experienced as something stolen, taken by a form of slight of hand.  However much the ethics require that we admit our positioning, that we say ‘I am the professional here to find out about you, your ways’, still the necessity of doing so insists that disbelief be suspended and then the thesis is something removed along with the thesis producer.

This is a very old dilemma in anthropology.

There a field developing known briefly as dialogic ethnography a term introduced by Kate Pahl.  Here the search is on to make explicit how to conduct ethnographic work that doesn’t somehow fall into the trap of othering.  An ethnographic practice that does more, that goes beyond Lassiter’s Collaborative ethnography (2005) and doesn’t work with anybody any more than anyone works with us. Sounds impossible doesn’t it?

I was wondering if it could be a sort of auto-othering, a moment where the anthropologist becomes that other: rather than valuing the other (the liberal ethnographer) maybe we should make of ourselves the other and seek to devalue ourselves even – just to get the balance right.  Sounds horribly possible that doesn’t it?



One of my daughters drew this on top of a photo of her younger sister. It was supposed to be mean, she was angry and wanted to draw her sister as a pig. It seemed that as she finished something else had happened, the drawing had a life of its own and the object of her anger had disappeared. Something then about crafting a practice that achieves something useful? A way being found to dissipate anger and make something with its own life, its own purpose.

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a consuming shame

There has been a Tesco Extra open near to us in Sheffield for a couple of months now. It is located just at the edge (the town side) of a vibrant, mixed and low income/high unemployment shopping area called Ellesmere Green or Spital Hill. There was a lot of discussion before the giant supermarket opened its doors about how it would affect the 50+ independent shops that operate nearby – there are no chain stores at all apart from the post office. Many on the liberal green and left were uncomfortable about the supermarket; Tesco had already opened a small store in a nearby shopping area and had the main local supermarket down by the Penistone Road. Discussion often centred around the fact that Tesco would challenge the small shops, the independent shops selling international foods, large sacks of rice, flour, myriad vegetables and fruit, each one serving, apparently, a particular group. Tesco, the big bad giant, would put them out of business, wouldn’t it? Destroy the community shopping facilities.

Two months later the affect on the local shops is yet to be played out however it has been an exiting process getting to know the new Tesco. Well I have found it so anyway even though at times some of my positive comments have made me uncomfortable. One sticking point for many was the stocking of ‘world foods’. Tesco, it was said, should not stock them and allow the local shops free reign perhaps. Tesco stocks what it sees fit however and the aisles of ‘world foods’ are busy as is the Halal Butchery. As I stand there looking, consuming, I realise the impossibility of not allowing certain foods to be stocked – indeed the necessity of stocking what local people want – of the sharing of the facility – of the lack of exclusion.

Meeting people I know at the shop has often meant meeting the following comment: Hey! Another one who said they’d never shop in the new Tesco! There was a shared feeling of guilt in being there, a consuming shame. I have yet to shop there in the day so all my comments are based on late shopping moments, after the children are asleep. So it seems is the pattern of many of the people I know. There are two car parks in the new shop. The upper level, the smaller by far, is accessed directly from Spital Hill and is where we, the locals, are found. The lower level is for the others, or that’s how it feels. The shop was never designed to feed the locals alone but the wider northern area of Sheffield accessed by Spital Hill and the road that leads to Attercliffe which passes below.

In the shop itself I not only know people who were successful in getting jobs there but I see so many people who I recognise from school pick ups, from other shops, from bus stops and walking along the road, accompanying children to the park. No where else do we come together is how it feels.

On Christmas Eve the shop felt practically radical. It was busy. Full of people. Everyone felt local. The shop becomes a place where people can see and be seen: I was left with a sense that this shop might actually build a sense of a wider community that is hard to access elsewhere so compartmentalised are we in our smaller groups of choice, descent or obligation.