A Journal of the Plague Year Day 15

Wednesday 1st April 2020

 

So A just told me about the coming powercuts next week from 11pm to 5am each night, the planned closure of the BBC and talks about the Internet going down to stop the spread of misinformation, and the fact its workforce is not an essential service. That we’d better start downloading films to watch. I was a bit nonplussed but not that bothered either (have plenty of books) but posited it could be the period when the shit hits the fan, and a crackdown on reportage would mitigate public unrest.

I was just about to fact-check it for the blog, sending feelers out already via WhatsApp, when it hit me what date it is today. The fucker.

Yep, hook, line and sinker.

I had to squash him a bit after that.

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Dark humour, indeed. Some K-pop star (Jaejoong, from Girls L-Owed or ABCDEFG or sommat) got into a lot of trouble along the same lines, drawing quite some telling off from his 1.9 million followers after claiming to be stricken in hospital, from flagrantly ignoring the regulations.  He later claimed it was to draw attention to the rules we should all follow. Now, it’s one thing to be told off by strangers, another by someone who admires you, the scales fallen from their lurid doll-like gaze and replaced with character assassination. And another thing entirely to have it happen again and again and again, for hours of scrolling. Yes, the public spotlight/ social media is brutal, soul wrecking, personality changing, dark. And to lay it even thicker, now the Korean Center for Disease Control (aka KGB) is looking into punishing him. With a name like that you know they’re going to be very dour and formal about all this, like being taken to the principal’s office after filming him on the bog.

Oh you.

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In more sobering news, 563 people died yesterday in the UK, our death toll starting to approach Italian levels -that dark marker all countries are now measuring themselves against, having taken the baton from China. Spain, where over 900 died, is likely to grab it tomorrow, or perhaps the US. For the UK, infections are now plateauing, with a good response thanks to enforced social distancing and lockdown, but the deaths will still climb, whereby the fatality bulge follows a week later. The finishing touches are being put to the vast new, 4,000 bed Nightingale Hospital, appropriated from the ExCel exhibition centre in East London, and built with army labour.

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My German friend linked me to a Swiss conspiracy theory she’s heard, about the fact C-19 is not more deadly than a seasonal flu, just more contagious, but governments are taking the chance to redact our civil rights -and that they won’t be withdrawn after (all eyes on Hungary when this is over). I am however at the stage where whatever happens happens, dangerously apolitical at a time when we might need to be. One day at a time.

I’m now with a new routine. Wake, internet, br/lunch, siesta. Read, internet, shower, Netflix, exercise, write, dinner+film. Sleep. I feel a giant fucking slug. The randomisation of a siesta offsets the afternoon shower, a battle between structure and sloth. Today’s national toll is keeping me indoors, for a time I’d envisaged as a critical infection period. The sun came out today, we planned for a bike ride until I heard the stats, and the sun had gone by then too.

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Tonight was Terminator night, the latest edition with Arnie (tick), Linda Hamilton (tick) and everyone else new, with a terrific role for Mackenzie Davis, a semi-termie, who sadly won’t be reprising her role (no spoilers!) due to an er, plot technicality. And ba-limey, does it drag out the nonstop action, plane, trains and automobiles, though Mexico City (and country) still suffers that malignant orange filter and a strong aversion to the swanky city centre, and its skyscrapers, Old City and elegant street cafes. No, what we want is dust. Dust! People smuggling (tick), dodgy cops (tick), desert scrub (tick), guns (tick), legions of the poor/ refugees (tick), oh and a US car plant replacing Mexican labour with robots (tick). But easily backgrounded in the roller coaster ride, and a welcome lesson in losing yourself, even if it is to an oily, shapeshifting robot throwing javelins at your face.

Dust!

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And after all that gunsmoke pizzazz, silence. Like a sudden cliff; I even felt bad to end the credits with the score meandering comfortably to a stop. When night falls, the city is a tomb. There is no longer that murmur of traffic, the endless shunting of trains in the station opposite, the chatter on the street from the local bars, the clip-clopping of the late night commuters, or the planes cruising ever skyward. We look out the window at the lights, and it is in every sense of the word, a deafening silence (I’m not gonna say Dark Fate, but greyish trajectory maybe). I worry about the pigeons, who’s gonna feed them? Are they dying en masse, without our trash, crumbs and vomit to peck at? Maybe we should empty a few bins liberally over the streets, also for the foxes, which I used to see every time I stumbled home late.

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Netflix’s World At Night nature series, narrated by an insanely annoying woman oozing righteousness with every cadence, had an episode on the city today. Notably a section on leopards, the night stalkers of Mumbai, which now happens to be the world’s largest concentration of big cats anywhere in the world, counting no less than 50 in town, along with the 20 million humans. Chillingly the night cameras track them in the shadows, sometimes as they brazenly follow people around, though they’re really out for piglets. Other CCTV footage shows them creeping onto verandahs, balconies and through front doors to grab dogs, of which 1,000 are killed annually. Now that is some other level of exotic I need -other segments showing the elephants in ‘southern Africa’ (they didn’t even bother with the country, as hey, what would that matter) rumbling through a darkened town centre to stunned pedestrians and window peeping kids. Or in Halloween, where huge moose (meese?) invade Alaskan streets that one night a year to get at the jack o lanterns, before melting away again for the year.

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Then to Singapore, which is the vision of the future, and where animals now frolic openly as part of city life, where even otters have returned to the busy city waterways, sharing pavements with joggers every morning. I look out, and it is another world, another time. And all I see are streetlights with everyone home. Dang, I wish there was a black bear rooting through Recycling; I’d maybe settle for a ferret under some leaves. Reality is all a bit too mundane, even in these most surreal of times, and I feel myself too demanding. That I am healthy touch, touch, TOUCH wood.  Though perhaps a fool to want otherwise.

To finish off, Mexico City. We really should give the place her moment.

The perfect society

Welcome to Singapore.

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Dizzying mix of old and new…

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…whose populace enjoys harmonious multiculturalism (and at 85% non-indigenous)

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…the world’s best education system

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…the world’s most efficient healthcare system and longest life expectancy

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(yes, that’s a hospital below)

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…the world’s highest wages, at  $90,570 average a year

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…where one fifth of floor area in the country is certified green buildings:

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…straddling itself as the centre of investment for three major economic regions – the Sinosphere, Indosphere and SE Asia, home to 3 billion. Ranked in superlatives for innovation, start-ups and technology

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…and considered the world’s most futuristic city

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…all set in a wonderland of architectural and historical mix

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…oh and the food, OMG the food. A national obsession

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…and the er, airport. The world’s best, complete with spas, luxury malls, bespoke hotels, themed gardens, hiking trails, aquariums, free cinemas and foodie hotspots, that is now attracting millions of tourists, both with and without flights.

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Yes, that’s an airport – and a spectacular spot for a James Bond/ Ethan Hawke opener:

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And contrary to assumption-spread stereotype, it’s libertine (witness the legions of smokers around every No Smoking $1000 fine sign) and infinitely mined with interest, opinions, brashness and bohemianism, extant in its mix of culture, history and arts at every turn. You might even get excited:

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In short Singapore is pretty much what you get with high education and low crime despite not having any resources, perfecting a society by striking the balance –  getting the populace to behave from its anti-social tendencies while liberating it. You may be fined for littering or smuggling in chewing gum, but you also get to stagger home pissed at 4am, skimpily undressed in the poorest district with complete safety every night. Driving a car may be effectively barred from you ($50,000 start-up in taxes), but you get cheap, reliable and inordinately accessible public transport instead, plus clean air and the best health in the world. It’s that kind of trade-off.

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This is the ‘positive freedom’ camp (‘forced to be free’ as opposed to ‘free to be free’) – but not overtly engineered into Marxism. This is due to it being balanced out by grass roots capitalism (rather than the feudalist, billionaire-generating capitalism culminating everywhere else). Here much more people get to be part of the pie, and get a piece of it too, rather than the 1% – one can compare the results in no-holds-barred city states like Hong Kong and NYC with their legions of proletariat and precariat. By contrast Singapore now has 1/5 of its population as millionaires and rising, and it shows in the way it’s building its environment and lifestyle with ever higher standards.

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But neither is it completely free in law, with its authoritative government and interfering nanny state – the kind of house mistress that pokes her nose into other people’s lives and fines them. Occasionally getting a cane out to bollock you 6 times too if, say, one day you decided to buy a hatchet and tar for a 6 month hobby of vandalism over 50 cars (let me remind you of the starting costs of owning such a transportational rarity), as poster boy Michael Fay did in 1994, to global tea-light burning vigils for his lily little arse.

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She will also, try as she might, throw some ideas into the can, bless her – say discouraging hippy culture and their long haired layaboutism by making the criminally hirsute wait longer in queues, or offering free sterilisation programmes to the poorest percentiles – before the people get all upsy screaming about eugenics and Hitler and all that. After that attempt she’ll wait maybe 20 years and set up the SDU Social Development Unit instead, to couple up the right kind of singletons to boost the birth rates a bit, but then the populace goes and dubs it the speed dating for the Stupid, Desperate and Ugly and noone shows up.

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Anyhoo fast forward to today, and she’s gotten a little savvier with social media, softer, rounder and learnt her lessons, but generally under her you’re free from crime or arguably more damaging, the threat of crime. You may wilt under her gaze but noone else’s – none of that pesky racism, sexism, homophobia, prejudice, class war or subconscious bias people left to their own devices tend to enforce upon each other. She still keeps a few odd things close to her chest for various uses, but rarely gets em out.

For example the 2 year sentence for gay sex still stands from the colonial era, handy these days for closing down noisy or STD-prone businesses but is overall unenforced with openly LGBTQ establishments common – from award-winning sex saunas, clubs and go-go bars, to legal prostitution and govt funded Pride carnivals, such as Pink Dot.

Good clean fun:

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In short she may be draconian, especially in the past when you pushed back a bit and she learnt a few things too but that mix of S&M bizarrely gives you keys to a free society today.

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Pub Quiz fact: Singaporeans were measured as the world’s fastest average walkers, and despite the tropical climate.

Pub quiz fact: speed of walking reflects speed of thinking.

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Both sides benefit each other – its social protection and socialist policies (notably investment in education and poverty eradication) generate every higher incomes.

Perfect society? Maybe. But a gentle reminder: to get to this stage you have to endure generations of poverty, entire careers of hard labour etc, but without the temptations/ alleviation that crime can bring to otherwise fruitless lives. To instate this, it helps if you have ingrained millennia of a Confucian society that’s self-disciplined to social harmony, and that puts others before the self (which of course results in a whole new raft of social problems too, such as a prevalence to suicide).

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The final fly on the pie is the fact Singapore is not like other nations. It’s not enough that you have a hardworking, law abiding populace and invest in the people – you will still end up poor -as many Developing countries, who support some of the world’s largest state investments in education, have found.

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Screenshot_2019-08-09 Financing Education

Singapore just happens to be lucky enough to be placed slap bang centre of the world’s most strategic and largest trade route – commanding the turnpoint into the Straits of Malacca – effectively the narrowest milestone between Asia and Europe. Oh and it’s a tax haven. All that money and investment that’s built this gloryland is sucked from the surrounding region that would otherwise have benefited hundreds of millions of its poor – a giant parasite to 660 million SE Asians, similar to how Switzerland has functioned with Europe, and now the world.

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In short, visit the place, enjoy that society, the freedom and the wonders it’s built. But don’t admire it. The world is a vast pyramid scheme, as we discovered in 2008, SG just very luckily, very cannily, happens to be on top right now.

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In terms of the future, SG may well be it, but we need a vast ocean of the underclass to draw from to build this summit. It may well come to pass that technology and robots will provide this graft and that we will likely tax instead. Or it could just be the usual: the ubiquitous billions of working lives provided by the vast and historically-indentured Global South. Forever beneath the grate.

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The World’s Tastiest City

Tokyo’s 90,000 restaurants (compared to NYC’s 24,000 or Paris’ 40,000) and 160,000 total eating establishments garners no less than 216 Michelin starred places to dine in (down from 226 in 2015 and 267 the year before that), but still head and shoulders above second place Paris, with merely 105. It was also named as the World’s Best Food city by Saveur Magazine  last year, harking on  not just about the quality of local food but also its French and Italian offerings (plus the whiskey, omg the whiskey), and the vast array of global cuisine in general from Belarusian to Senegalese.

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However on closer inspection Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto and Nara are geographically one city, though Michelin divides them into three distinct guides, so really that entity beats the lot. On Michelin stars per person (taking away those small villages like Baiersbronn, Germany, Bray, UK, Yountsville, California and er Knokke-Heist, Belgium) Paris beats Tokyo, not just on per capita, but equal on the almost impossible 3 star rated restaurants (they each have ten) – though the Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe metropolis beats both with 14 triple starred restaurants.

These cities may not have the range over Tokyo but pack well above their weight in stars awarded, as do Barcelona (29 stars for 4.6 million), or Hong Kong-Macau ( 92 stars for 7.3 million), both in turn bettered by little old Brussels (30 stars for 1.2 million). But eminent above them all, by quite a margin would be Kyoto with 100 Michelin starred places for 1.5 million inhabitants– the world’s undeclared epicenter of exceptional places to eat. Meanwhile London toots the horn of most different types of cuisine awarded in one place, serving up British, Basque, Chinese, French, Indian, Italian, Japanese, pan-Mediterranean, Peruvian, Spanish, and Nordic cuisine with the appropriate(d) stars.

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Anyhoo this is the way it looks for the top selected cities, by number of starred restaurants as of 2016. Lift those trumpets:

  1. Osaka metropolis: (includes Kobe-Kyoto-Nara this is one contiguous city that merged together decades ago, not to be confused with a megalopolis, metro or CSA) 258 restaurants 353 stars
  2. Tokyo: 217 restaurants 294 stars
  3. Paris: 105 restaurants   135 stars
  4. Kyoto: 100 restaurants 139 stars
  5. Osaka: 89 restaurants 117 stars
  6. New York City: 75 restaurants 97 stars
  7. Hong Kong-Macau: 65 restaurants 92 stars
  8. London area: 70 restaurants 87 stars (London boundaries 65 restaurants 80 stars)
  9. Kobe-Hanshin : 53 restaurants 76 stars
  10. San Francisco: (Bay area) 31 restaurants 41 stars
  11. Brussels: 25 restaurants 30 stars
  12. Barcelona area: 25 restaurants 29 stars

Inhabitants per restaurant / star looks markedly different. As counted by the contiguous city (not metro), it looks like this. These are the single best places to land your chopper for foraging, provided your PA team did their homework:

  1. Kyoto  (1.5 million) 15,000 people per restaurant 10,791 per star
  2. Brussels (1.2 million) 48,000 per restaurant 40,000 per star
  3. Kobe –Hanshin (3.1million) 58,490 per restaurant, 40,790 per star
  4. Osaka metropolis (14.2 million) 55,039 per restaurant 40,227 per star
  5. Osaka  (8.8 million) 98,876 per restaurant, 75,213 per star
  6. Paris (10.55 million) 100,476 per restaurant  78,148 per star
  7. Hong Kong- Macau (7.3 million): 112,308 per restaurant, 79,347 per star
  8. Tokyo (29 million) 133,640 per restaurant, 98,639 per star
  9. London (10.4 million): 148,571 per restaurant 119,540 per star
  10. Barcelona (4.64 million) 185,600, 160,000 per star
  11. New York (17.5 million) 233,333 per restaurant 180,412 per star
  12. San Francisco -Bay Area (7.65 million) 246,774 per restaurant 186,585 per star

It’s notable how the Michelin people rate restaurants extensively in Europe, covering small towns, villages and hovels across France, UK and Spain but sees a notable drop once upstate a few miles from NYC or Tokyo for example (or was this coverage merely due to well-known celeb chefs opening in small retreats?). Likewise the large gap of unrated Chinese mainland between HK and Macau, which would prove rich findings I’m sure due to the beating heart – now bypassed- of Cantonese cuisine in Guangzhou. The Osaka metropolis however gets European level coverage due to its slew of city centres and different gastronomic regions within the city (Kobe beef a good example). Nevertheless it did get its annual share of doubts for some restaurants that went unrated (did someone drop a fork and not pick it up?).

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Michelin gets further complaints that they are biased toward French cuisine, and over-awed literally by Japanese, with some coughing abruptly and mentioning how the guide is opening up a new market there that coincides with its generous ratings. –Still, opposing camps complain they don’t rate Japanese cuisine high enough, with its complexities of flavor and form, plus subtleties of acquired taste, and the fact a few thousand stellar restaurants go unrated each year.

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en.wikipedia.org

Even then there are so many countries of gastronomic greatness not even rated by Michelin (Tokyo only got rated in 2007), with cities such as Bangkok, Beijing, Beirut, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Casablanca, Chengdu, Chennai, Chongqing, George Town, Guangzhou, Delhi, Dubai, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Lima, Melbourne, Mexico City, Moscow, Mumbai, Rio, Santiago, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore,  Sydney, Taipei, Tbilisi, Tehran, and Tel Aviv world famous yet still trembling in the wings for the ‘ultimate’ accolade to visit. Shanghai, with 120,000 places to eat is drumming her fingers, and Bangkok, busily tidying away its global capital of street food is especially impatient as vendors disappear.

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Michelin, let me remind you, is a tyre manufacturer that publishes road guides (and thus got delving into the foodie scene by awarding stars to rest stops back in 1926), so does not have road guides as yet that would cover for example, the whole of China, or the backroads of Morocco, which in turn would warrant the accompanying restaurant booklet.

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The final nail in the hickory coffin is frankly, well not everyone dines out in Michelin starred establishments. It’s not like the 15,000 per capita Kyotoites are funneling into its chichi places to dine each day, let alone year. Edible flowers and gold leaf is not necessarily reflective of the average Parisian dinner, as cool minimalism and outrageous art is not the table at which Hong Kongers usually eat. What’s worse is the galling fact one can have amazing restaurants but terrible cuisine at large – just visit Moscow, or dare I say it, Berlin whose wonderful places to eat – and the extensive waiting lists that reflect that – are like diamonds sold in naff catalogues for Argos. After 50 years of communist austerity.

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But of course Michelin has its Bibs Gourmands, nods of approval to places that cost below $40 a head. Though even then, the vibrant street food of Shanghai, market stalls of Fez, food vans of LA, or hole-in-the-walls of Hong Kong –although lightly covered- would still sorely miss out, some of the best tasting options on the planet, but heavily penalized on their non-existent, obsolete ‘ambience’ and ‘service’ ratings.

If a fork falls and a Michelin critic is not there to hear it, does it make a sound?

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Okay enough of this kitkat break. Next up:

The World’s Biggest City

What is the World’s Greatest City?

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Dubious question, and one that is contentious to say the least. In the past entire Thucydidean wars were declared over economic competition, trade, hegemony, religion, and culture for that title; today they are argued over endlessly  in annual criteria-based league tables, internet fora and in everything from Trip Advisor to The New Statesman. So why all the fuss? The title breeds geopolitical influence, soft power, tourist bucks and social media tags. Cities are that great coral reef of experience, impervious yet every growing and changing. They stand testament to our lives and livelihoods, our myriad cultures and collective consciousness– with the idea of a single pre-eminent city imbedding itself as a bedrock to contemporary society. A city is, if you like, a crystallisation of culture; the greatest city is the greatest place in humanity.

bjjjwww.johnlake.co.nz

Urban agglomerations are that great marker of history – touchstones of experience where entire eras become marked by their reign, from ancient Rome to Victorian London, Angkor to Edo – with surprising ‘entries’ that stand testament to time (if not in physicality), such as former world’s largest – the million+ boat city of Ayutthaya, Thailand to the present day hamlet of Gurganj, Turkmenistan, a glorious Silk Route nexus before it succumbed to history’s single bloodiest massacre under the Mongols.

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There are many criteria, or handfuls of monikers that can lay claim to the single greatest hit. Richest city? That would be Tokyo, followed by NYC, LA and Seoul by total city economy, to er, Oslo or Zurich per capita.  Most influential city? well that could be anyone’s guess – NYC, London, Seoul get bandied about a lot with the youthful limelight, whilst Beijing, Brussels and Washington DC have the largest bureaucratic sectors. And LA might have something to say about global entertainment.

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Most beautiful city? Once again, the arguments range on everyone’s tastes as collectively supportive for Rome or as individualised to Brasilia. Sydney, Sana’a, Venice, Havana, Fez… the list would be endless. Many would agree the most beautiful megacity would be the complex elegance of Paris, but that would discount the myriad voices calling up the canyonscapes of NYC, the natural wonders of Rio, the futurism of Shanghai or the glorious, pluralist mix that is Istanbul/ London /Beijing/ Singapore. Moreover, how many actually visited, and how many base their opinions from received sources?

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Well the proof is in those voting with their feet some say – the most visited city, a rotation between Hong Kong, Bangkok, London, Paris and Singapore for international visitors, might be good indicators. But even with this seemingly narrowly defined criteria – based on numbers of overnighting foreign visitors – doubt still creeps through. Paris only counts its centre in the league (take that EuroDisney!), while Hong Kong is heavily skewed by the large amount of travelers coming in from over-the-border China, essentially the same country.

-And what about those domestic travelers? Are their views not as valid? Places like Kyoto and Orlando see in over 50 million visitors each year, double the top spot of the international-only league, while Shanghai, the freak, welcomed a whopping 70 million during 2010’s Expo year.

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Ratings? Well Kyoto, Charleston, Florence, Siem Reap, and Rome are all up there (Leisure and Travel Awards), as are London, Marrakesh, Istanbul, Paris, and Hanoi (Trip Advisor). Sun kissed, party mad Beirut makes sporadic appearances near the top depending on its security situation, whilst several places are as much loathed as glorified (ahem, Dubai, Macau, Seoul we’re looking at you). It’s pretty obvious there are too many cooks – whether they be trumpeting the Michelin stars of Tokyo or the street food of Tbilisi.

Beirut Residents Continue to Flock to Southern Neighborhoods

Beirut, http://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photo/2007/daily-life/spencer-platt

Plus there’s Quality of Life. The Nordic, Canadian, Oceanian cities doing swimmingly, but the perennial winners being a rostrum between Vienna, Munich, Auckland and Vancouver according to Mercer (39 scoring factors including political, economic, environmental, personal safety, health, education, transportation and other public services) with nods toward Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, Toronto for the larger cities, and a whole 37 places before the first megacity over 10 million (Paris) shows her pretty head.

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Vienna, travelaway.me

Meanwhile, Monocle magazine puts a megacity right up there, climbing from 5th to 1st was Tokyo (due to its ‘defining paradox of heart-stopping size and concurrent feeling of peace and quiet’), but recently usurped by Copenhagen, with Vienna, Melbourne, Munich and Berlin (a rise of 11 places since ‘after dark’ living was taken into account) worthy of mention. It’s 22 metrics include several that look at housing and the cost of living, from the price of a three-bed pad to the cost of a glass of wine and decent lunch, plus access to the outdoors, with notable upsets when seasonal changes and ambience were taken into account in 2010 (Copenhagen, maelstrom of wintry existentialism, still managed to buck the trend).

copenCopenhagen, exithamster.wordpress.com

But then there are those places with the x factor, the je ne sais quoi regardless of manicured lawns and the price of middle class, middle aged lattes. We must bear in mind cities function in the mind as well as body, that they are a cumulative, inclusive experience. The good, the bad and the ugly. It’s not just how pretty or rich or even popular you are.

Some pics to finish off with:

indJodhpur, www.theatlantic.com

issTel Aviv, www.allphotobangkok.com

lonnn.jpgLondon dalstonsuperstore.com

hanoiHanoi www.gettingstamped.com

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05 People Second Place Photo and caption by Yasmin Mund / National Geographic Travel

Jaipur, India

Continued next post…. The World’s Most Diverse City