Sunday, November 29, 2009

Watch me on MTV!

David Thorpe on MTVWatch a clip from my MTV interview when I was ambushed by interviewer Caza as I turned up to rap to students at the ESPM University Sao Paulo on November 18th

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ambushed by MTV in Sao Paulo

Flying over the countryside north of Curitiba - the Serra do Mar's forested mountains look stunning, as do the series of rivers pouring their sediment-laden waters like opening fans into the ocean. In at least in one case after a very long isthmus parallel to the coast. At 7000 feet you can still make out white horses and the long sandy beaches. Sao Paolo is visible as a circular sprawl inland from a coastal conurbation; from above it is like a white inkblot. Coming nearer, the clusters of hundreds of skyscrapers seem puny in their pretence to be high, thin teeth bristling their serated edges at the clouds. We bank westwards of the city swooping down over a forested but well-occupied area to make a perfect landing.

The plane is late. At Sao Paulo airport there is chaos as people are leaving for a public holiday. By the time I get to the DCL office via bus ad taxi it is 1.30pm.

This is a company of about 40 employees and its own canteen. Otacilia greets me. Its very hot and humid. We have a late lunch after which she gets down to business. She asks me to list all my projects, which I do - about five of them. I give her the manuscript to We Can Improve and synopsis for The Moebius Trip. She is not interested in The Drowning because it is too local. A Hybrids comic might work.

She shows me a huge cupboard of samples from the Bologna Bookfair she has to read, and manuscripts sent in. Then a box full of titles bought for the 2010 schedule. One of them is Exodus, an excellent novel for teens aout climate change from 2002 which I have recently read as preparation for writing The Drowning.

I'm introduced to the team including the deputy director, Mr Maia Jr. His office is also drab, with bare walls. We are in a light industrial part of town. Otacilia works long hours as well as having a freelance job and doing voluntary work teaching English literacy to adults.

She explains how the publishing process works in this state. Print runs are low - about 3000 - unless there is a government intervention, where the state decides to bankroll a 50,000 print run for direct donation to schools. Next year it's focussing on teens so I'm in with a chance there. But whereas HarperCollins will decide in months if a title is to make it, and provide marketing support for just one month when the title comes out, here a title is given two years to build. They still don't have sals figures for Hibridos. Sales channels are mostly direct sales, to schools and door to door. 30% of a print run, a staggering number, is given away to teachers, who read them and discuss them befor deciding wether or not to place an order. So it will be a while before they know how to proceed with Hybrids two. I complain that by that time the ideas in the book may have passed their zeitgeisty sell-by date or the readership of the first book may have out-grown it and not be interested in the sequel.

That's how we leave it until the following week when I get back from wherever Im going for my out-of -the-city break. Still haven't decided where. Was going to be Rio but no-one's responded to requests for meeting and anyway it's a yet another city. Otacilia suggests Paraty, where every year there's another bookfair, FLIP, a coastal unspoilt old town. A small place with beaches watersports, old buildings and nearby contryside. Sounds perfect.

At the hotel which the university has booked and paid for by Avenida Paulista they tell me that the booking was for two days including the previous night (I never asked for this but it's nice of thwm to think of it). As I didn't show up the previous night the whole booking is cancelled and I will have to re-book for tonight. I tell them there is no way I will accept this as a room has aleady ben paid for and it is immoral for them to accept payment twice for the same room. The receptionist says he will talk to the manager but takes my credit card number anyway.

By this tme there is only twenty minutes for me to briefy check emails and shower before heading off. There's an email from Gil at the uni about MTV wanting to interview me, but I don't pay it much mind, it sounds a bit crazy. Why would they be interested in me? Diego had said he might meet me at the hotel a 6.15 to go to the uni together but he doesn't show by 6,30 so I take a taxi on my own.

The uni is lively and buzzing. Thiago greets me and takes me up to the lecture hall. There's the professor Gil a fit, sotcky indian looking guy, with muscles and very relaxed in jeans and t-shirt. He's very happy to see me. Diego it seems missed me at the hotel held up by the dreadful traffic. He arrives half an hour later.

To my surprise there is the MTV crew. Caza, the presenter / director in a black t-shirt and heaavily-tattooed arms, and a three-person crew. He wants to do it now before my talk. While they're setting up he runs through the questions from his Blackberry. What about Hybrids, politics, how is Brazil going, what should young people be thiking, am I optimistic about the future, what do I think of cyberpunk. Suddenly everyone is talking about cyberpunk. It seems this is the take on Hybrids and it's a cool subject here. To me, that wave is well over. Gibson's Neuromancer came out in '79, thirty years back, another era. Still if that's how they latch onto it.... for them this is the zeitgeist. It's their developmental stage. We joke about what they'd merge with, the cameraman with his huge cam on his shoulder would have probems getting comfortable in bed. He tells me he interviwed the Super Furry Animals from Swansea once and how he liked their Welsh in which they'd discuss how they'd answer the questions before saying them in their lovely (his word) version of English.

I find that the way I answer the questions on camera is instinctively very different to how I talked on camera at Aymara. This is curious. For MTV I am speaking very fast in bursts of animation and a much younger style. For Aymara I was more serious and formal. In both cases my sentences are long and structured, but the style for MTV is more throwawy. I do this without thinking.

And now, as I begin my talk for the students, with the crew gone a few minutes later, I have another style. There are about 50 of them, all but four are women. It occurs to me dimly that as this course is about creativity, start-ups and digital technology this might be the main reason why I've been invited, but I don't care. I speak in English of course. There's no translator but Gil assures me they all know English. Some if not all are 'mature' students but I am by far the oldest person in the room. One beautiful woman in particular is eyeing me and smiling and seemngly nodding in agreement at everything I'm saying. I give them the schpiel about the size of the threat and how busiesses will be sustainable or fail. I sumamrise all the usual stuff - resource efficiency and closed loops, CSR and industrial symbiosis and run briefly through the opportunities for low carbon goods and services. Isn't this why I'm here? There's a lot of interest but not too much feedback. I'm told later they probably got about 50% of it. Then Gil says he wants me to talk about Hybrids. I so I do but not a lot. It gradually sinks in that this may be why I'm invited but I don't care, I'm a green evangelist, this stuff is more important than the products of own imagination. And everyone is pleased. One girl, Lilandra, has brought a copy of Hibridos for me to sign.

Afterwards, a small meal and a few beers, but all the women have melted way, it's just Diego, Gil and a keen young blogger with an iPhone, who pelts me wih questions and gives me a lift back to the hotel afterwords. I still don't exactly know what I'm doing tomorrow.


I arrive in Curitiba as dusk settles. There's a storm and the landing is very bumpy. I take a taxi at rip-off price to the eco-hostel I found that morning on the internet. The rain absolutely charges down, and lightening flashes intermittently. I'm glad I took the taxi as it's dark now and the hostel is way out in suburbia. On the way there we pass mile after mile of high riss, shops, advertisement hoardings and traffic, all identical to any developed city in the West. It depresses me. I did not think Curitiba would be like this. It's supposed to be green. That's why I've come her - to see what a self=proclaimed 'green' city in the developed world is like. I hadn't expected to find out of town shopping centres, Wal-Mart, McDonalds and even C&A and Burger Kings.

The hostel turns out to be an oasis of calm and green in the middle of an urban desert - more precisely a suburban desert. It has young trees, birdsong, a pool, and I have my own wooden cabin with two beds and a bathroom. There is no towel or glass for water. Luckily I have a glass with my capoierha kit! It's calm, and the internet is free in the reception/lounge area.

In the light of day I see the area is surrounded by gated communities - condominiums like fortresses, with high walls topped with razor wire and electric fences, and elecric gates manned by sentries. Inside, small houses have tiny gardens, and children can play safely. Stuff can be owned with less fear.

This is an eco-city?

A bus that stops outside takes me to the town centre, a square on the edge of the famed pedestrianised area. It's like Nottingham centre, or Birmingham. I do what I always do in a new city and find the modern art gallery - another place I always feel at home in. As it's Monday, it's closed. I walk. And walk. And walk. I get lost in the downtown historic area. I try to find the Oscar Niemeyer gallry, an iiconic piece of architecture shaped like a huge eye, but there are no maps or signs to say which bus to take. No one understands English. I feel a fool for having no Portuguese. I eventually find the Civic Centre and abandon a plan to ask for the Press Officer to get a view of City Hall on developments, for my lack of language.

So I jump on a bus at random and find myself taken on an eliptical trip around the city, lasting an hour and a quarter, on one of the renowned metro-buses. You access them by climbing first into a glass tube where a man sells your ticket through a turnstile - the ordinary buses always have a ticket-seller with a turnstile situated on the bus a third of the way down so you pay to get off. These metro-buses have a different network, and whereas the ordinary bus system lets you get off on the right side of the road (driving on the right), the metro-buses, faster and making fewer stops, let you descend on the left hand side. Thus, the two systems don't get in each others' way. The road network is mostly alternating one-way streets, as in American cities. The city was designed around this transit system, and it is this for which Curitiba is the most famous.

The bus races round miles of urban area. I start off by trying to follow it on my limited tourist map but soon we're off it. Past the Telecoms tower, and along suburban streets past shopping centres, miles of people. It's afternoon, and we don't encounter one single traffic jam. I think this is a smooth system. In the next couple of days however I do meet jams; they happen in the rush-hours just like everywhere else.

I buy a kind of fried cheese-in-pastry envelope (called pastillas) from a side stall and provisions from a supermarket. Exhausted I take the bus back to the hostel, longing for greenery and thinking about taking the old train journey to the coast the next day, giving up my mission to investigate the eco-credentials of Curitiba.

It was not to be. Messages abounded on my return, from a guy called Rafael, working for a local publisher Almaya, who wanted to show me around the next day and facilitate my detective work.

He collected me in a taxi at midday. He turned out to be wheelchair bound - a slight figure who ade up for his diminutive stature by his volubility and anxiety to communicate. We talked non-stop. On enquiry he revealed how his inability to control his wasted legs was caused by his prematurity: he was as premature as Dion, yet survived despite being born in a town outside Sao Paulo where specialist medical help in 1982 would have been scant. There was no midwife. He suffered respiratory infections, common at that age, which starved his brain of oxygen causing lesions which affected his development. I told him about Dion's exprience. I revealed how Dion had had no nipples at first and we had the privilege of watching them grow.

"I had four!" he replied.

"Still?" I said astonished.

"I don't know," he said, "I haven't looked lately. I'm very hairy."

I said, "Well, that's a good chat-up line for girls anyway - 'Want to see my four nipples?'"

"I never thought of that!" he said laughing.

We had lunch in a veggie restaurant. I had to push him everywhere, and it was an education in accessibility. We took the tourist bus, and they are all, including the metro bus, fully wheelchair accessible. The metros have a ramp that descends every time connecting the raised tube to the bus. This is evidence of sustainability mentality in the planners. All the time Rafael was on his mobile making arrangemets for us to meet people. It's short notice and hard to pin everyone down. It's a shame he didn't get the messages I'd sent to his employers the previous week, via Otacilia.

He told me the city is resting on its laurels. It won its reputation for sustainability in the '80s and '90s when many of the initiatives it is still renowned for were inaugurated. But now it's fallen behind the times - the rest of the world has caught up.

We alit at a place called Universidade Livre do Meio Ambiente - the Free College of the Environment - Unilivre for short. We met the educational officer, Naiana Arruba and I pushed the wheelchair along a raised wooden platform over a stream up a dripping, plant-walled creek, emerging into a lake-filled quarry with swans, ducks, and Koi carp. Unilivre is nothing other than a version of CAT, set up in 1991 by Jaime Lerner the Mayor himself, to try and raise awareness and do research into environmental issues. Like CAT, it is in a disused quarry and it ran short courses that were free to the public.

However, Naiana said, it has fallen on hard times. The City stopped supporting it four years ago for political and personal reasons and other consultants have sprung up to offer training. It has to charge fees and people don't like this. Its offices, which resemble a large treehouse cum helter skelter constructed from old telegraph poles, eucalyptus and rammed earth, are empty. It still employs 20 people, who fear for their jobs. Unless they can secure more sponsorship they may close.

She also says the water in the lake is being polluted by an invasion in the land above the quarry.

"An invasion?" I ask. It sounds like aliens have landed.

"An invasion is what we call the beginning of a favela," she explains. A nearby favela has become full. Some of the inhabitants have decided to squat on some land up there. They are building shelters. There is no sanitation and so the watercourse is polluted.

It's an illegal occupation of land. "Cohab, the municipal housing agency, should turf them off," she said. But I say "It could be an opportunity". Has she not heard of reed beds? No she hasn't. I explain how they, like marshland everywhere, are the kidneys or liver of the world, removing pathogens and impurities from water. CAT has pioneered thmm. She shugs. No money. Not their business. The authorities must act. This doesn't sound sustainable either. Has everyone lost their way now Jaime is no longer Mayor?

An 'invasion' also sounds biological like the body being invaded by pathogens and microbes.

While we talked, seated on benches by the lake, visitors ambled around. Suddenly I spotted on the far side, two young men. They'd been using a hook and line and poached a large carp, which was flopping around on the bank. Quickly they stuffed it into a large transparent plastic bag. I nudged Naiana. She phoned the entrance while I photographed them. They smiled acros the water, flashing the V-for-victory sign, and ran off with thir prize. They didn't look like they really needed it - it's not as if they're from a favela.

On the way back, Rafael and I started to talk about the favelas. "They're hidden away," he said. "On the edges of the city. Curitiba is also surrounded by several 'sleepover cities". Commuter towns. There are favelas there. Curitiba is a victim of its own success. In the nineties, as it proclaimed how eco and successful it was, it attracted inhabitants from all over the country eager to share its fortune. It has exploded in size from a few thousand to 1.7 million. These people sort the rubbish. Only 3% of the waste is recyled by the City. The rest is collected by workers from fsavelas."

I've seen them everywhere. In Sao Paulo too. They pull large barrows by hand, laden with anything they find on the streets, from cardboard to old exhausts, abandonned white goods to plastic. It all gets hauled back to the favela where it is sorted, and sold to middlemen who sell it to the recyclers. The favelas also house the women who work as cleaners and nannies in the middle clsss homes.

"Isn't this a kind of aparheid?" I mused. "Is it Curitiba's dirty secret, that it would grind to a halt if not for the existence of these second class citizens hidden away from the eyes of visitors and 'nice' people, and the squeaky clean steets of the central areas and gated suburbs?" It sounds like a truly Ballardian set-up.

"Could be," agreed Rafael.

"We have to check it out, before we can publish this," I said.

Rafael got on his moble to make more phone calls. He was trying to get to speak to a senior secretary at City Hall.

Back at the hostel, I shared a meal with some French/Swiss people. The woman chain smoked and sipped red wine. Her boyfriend and 22 year old daughter did neither. She is voluble. Next day they are takng that train jorney I dreamt of and invite me along. Part of me would really like to get out of urban coccrete and go. But Rafael has made arrangements and I can't give up now.

Hr's late the next day - 8.30. The traffic is bad. We go to the HQ of SPVS, an NGO responsible for conservation where a director, Ricardo, explains their mission: to preserve the remaining 7% of the original 1.3 million square kilometers of forest cover that once covered 155 of BraziI when the Portuguese first came in 1500 and started denuding it for the valuable Brazilwood and its red dye which hosiers back in Europe needed for the fashion-conscious classes.

There are two types of biome - the Amazon (called this even this far south) and the Arucaria, named after the distinctive upside down Jweish-candelabra shaped tree that is seen everywhere. In Parana state, home of Curiiba, less thn 3% of the original is left, mostly in national parks The usual threats abound: logging, urbanisation, cattle and agriculture.

SPVS audited the Curitiba green areas and discovered that a City Hall claim that the city had over 50 square metres per person of greennspace wasn't exctly as green s it sounded. In fact much of this greenspace was actually just lawn; grass verges. As a result they began working in 2006 with the city to reclassify these so credit only goes to the truly biodiverse areas with native species. Ricardo says the City is broadly co-operative, in particular to pressurise the owners of larger gardens to conserve and restore their biodiversity. This includes the city's many parks - of which there are many, as I have already seen, more perhaps than Birmingham, a ciy of comparable size.

To avoid further deforetation, SPVS acts as a go-between in a carbon-offsetting scheme. Each hectare of forest costs $R2500 per year to protext. In Curitiba itself, there are two projects to protect green areas. The 'Condominio do bioversidade', with support from City Hall. works to educate people about the native species ad their value. 'Bio Cidade' aims to create officially protected areas. The City has signed up to the UN Convention on Biodiversity but Ricardo if not sure if this has had any efffect on th ground yet. Meanwhile, favelas are spreading into natural wetland areas.

Garbage is a big problem. So is flooding when there are flash floods. There are so many environmental technologies in Europe that hey haven't heard of here yet, which they could be implementing instead of 'wiring in' unsustainable infrastructure and habits. A short list would have to incude: sustainable urban drainage green rooves nd bioclamatic architecture to cool the city; solar water heating, micro-renewables, trains, even small water-saving tricks like fitting plugs in sinks and basins.

Ricardo givs us a package that includes examples of their environmental education work - a board game that explains climate change in which you lose or gain carbon credits depending on your knowledge and progress around a lotto/Monopoly style board. Very clever. I wonder if anyone's designed one back home.

We are still waiting for our meeting with someone from City Hall to put their side. We were supposed to have lunch with a senior guy called Castella from the State Administration, who might have been able to give us a more objective view of what the city is doing, but he was suddenly called to the bedside of his 89 year old grandmother. The secretary of the city environment chief keeps not calling back and Rafael is indefatigable in his pestering to get a result.

"The funny thing is," he confides, "I don't think I could do this on my own. It's only because you're here that this opens doors. They want to meet you to explain themselves." We spend a while discussing what it takes to be an environmental journalist. Rafael is grateful to be learning so much and I'm grateful to be helping him.

While waiting we ascend the nearby Telecom Tower and the panorama stretches twenty miles in all dirctions. On two sides are hills, the Serra del Mar being the largest range. I imagine the Swiss family's journey through it coast-wards.

The Tower takes no advantage of visitors to sell anything, no rotating tower-top cafe like in Berlin, so we lunch in a nearby restauarant at Rafael's employer's expense before taxi-ing to our second appointment - with an Empreendor Social (Social Entrprise) NGO that works at the other end of the scale, the favelas.

Lina Useche is a stunning Penelopw Cruz-lie Spanish 25-year old, who co-founded the NGO at age 18 and is now a director. She enthusastically describes their work with the women of the favelas, encouraging them to take training in crafts and sewing and business management, obtain micro-credit, via support from banks and Wal-Mart, and create co-operatives to make and market their work. The NGO finds outlets but thy must also find them themselves. It's mostly women because the men think it's not real man's work and they'd rather do nothing than this.

She explains how they work with the rubbish-collectors. The existing system replicates an arrangement as old as Brazil itself. In the days when sugar was worth its weight in gold, European traders leased the milling equipment to managers on the coast at extortione rates they could never pay back. Few lasted ore than a couple of years, it seems, before returning to Europe in exchange for some other sucker. Certainly the plantation workers never escaped poverty either. The enormous profits were all made by The Man in the Old Country.

The Man is still at it. The collectors lease the barrows they tug up and down the hills for $R10 a day, and they can barely earn that from what they collect and sell. So SE began a project called Avina in 2005 that obtains microcredit to buy the barrows and, by clubbing togther, they can acquire balers cheaply to package the sorted garbage and cut out the middle-men, selling direct to the top buyer for a better price. Anyone can invest in the business. Help comes from an ulikely source - the Wal-Mart Institute and the ABN Amro Foundation.

Lina shows us beauiful bags and wallets and other items mde from recycled materials. some of them are even sold in Wal-Mart. 97% of rubbish is recycled by the favelas. The City has realised that they need to help the collectors and have just given the Co-ops responsibility for the remaining 3%.

Later in the day Juliana from Aymara takes uss on a tour of a favela. It's not far off the bus route I took on the first day. Now this is how I pictured Curitba in my mind before I came: a tight hodgepodge of small homes cobbled together with bricks and other materials in rubbish strewn streets, a lively area owith its own economy of shops, barbers, cafes, but most of all warehouses where the rubbish is sorted into types for selling. For the first time I see barrows pulled by ponies and am reminded of the rag-and-bone men that used to come round the neighbourhood in my childhood in Nottingham with their cry of "ragsa'bo'", and who inspired the now archaic-seeming sitcom Steptoe and Son. It hits me: we're back fifty years. Fifty years from now will the favelas seem archaic? Will they ever go?

It's a question i'd already put to Ricardo - his answer waas to shrug his shoulders. It's as old as Brasil. "We have a saying which is untranslateable but something to do with applauding those who 'get away with pulling a fast one'- The little Brazilian way". Everyone's on the make, every man jack for themselves. There's no social security safety net.

So we see, in the middle of the favelas how some homes have been modernised: good materials, a fresh coat of paint, beautifully applied with style. These are no longer shanty town dwwllings but beginning to be respectable. As Lina had said, in answer to my question, "When people become richer, they don't leave the favelas - they improve them, and give employment to those around." The community bootstraps itself up.

But there's no trickledown. It's due to the work of these charities and to the funding from the City Hall for these typs of programme. Now I understand: I've seen the progression from an invasion to a favela to self-improvement. The City agency, Cohab, is charged with providing housing. "It's not well-structured," says Lina, "and there are political problems. Also, when people leave the favelas they have to pay taxes, watr and energy." Why should they want to?

Of course ES is only able to help small proportion of these people and more are arriving all the time. It is a drop in the ocean, and controversial. Some politicians oppose these measures because they may they attract the wrong sort of people from outside.

But it is a symbiotic relationship. unless the City completely changes its system of rubbish recycling they will always need the favelas. And the favelas need the rubbish. Bottom feeders - every ecology needs them. Fair? Not really, but fairer than other cities where the collectors are not even supported.

Lina descrbes how their recycling programme involves introducing the rubbish collector to each householder on ther route by name, so they form a personal relationship door to door. The householder is shown how to separate ther rubbish by example and how it benefits the collector. A specially-printed circular leaflet on recycled paper explains how and when the rubbish is collected and the name of the collector. This ensures maximum co-operation. I saw encouragement to recycle also printed on the sides of the council refuse lorries.

It's early evening. I'm taken to the publisher Almaya with Rafael. They are a medium-sized concern with three premises. The first is the Pedagogical Division. There one of the editors explains how they work directly with the authorities and schools to produce materials as part of a teaching programme. The show me carefully designed award-winning ring-bound publications. Some of them are huge, with very large print for the special needs children, and some are even in braille only. I suggest that I don't envy the prooof-reader of these.

The offices are brand new and light and airy, painted in well-designed primary colours. I'm introduced to everyone.

Then Juliana takes us to another premises, designed in the same style. This is the audi-visual division where videos are made. I see the editing suite and get shown an educational language video. There's a large use of green-screen, and the editing in Final Cut Pro is highly professional. It's all state-of-the-art. Downstairs the original garage is converted into a studio where the same actor I've just seen upstairs on the video is being filmed against the green-screen in another scene.

Now comes the pay-off. Almaya has been paying for my lnces andtaxi and Rafael's time withe me. In return I'm expected to record a video message for business students. The cmera and boom is setup and Rafeal, out of shot, spins questions at me about what is suatianability, why is it important, what shoud we be doing, what do I think of how Brazil is doing, what should it do, and what should the businesses of tomorrow do? They are so pleased with my responses that they want to shoot another video statement, this one about comics - my work with them and why or whether comics are useful in education. This is a little more out of my field and all I ca manage is o talk about the importance of catering for dfferent learning styles and the work I did on the title "How The World Works". They seem satisfied.

Goodbye Rafael. We've got to know each other pretty well these last two intense days. We'll stay in touch. I climb into my taxi back to the eco-hostel. It's 7pm - we never met the guy from City Hall, but we did a lot, and I can try to contact him by email later.

Porto Alegre bookfair 2

Otacilia shepherds and mothers me around, arranging this and that and paying for meals that are not paid for by the Bookfair - which paid my accommodation, taxis, and most of the food in Porto Alegre. The flight down here was paid for by DCL but I was met at the aiport by an 'angel' (it's what they call them) from the bookfair wh helped me change my return flight so it goes to Curitiba and not straight back to Sao Paulo - I do not want to return there for a while.

We had a meal in the evening at the worst restaurant I've ever been to for years. Supposedly posh and exclusive, and right by the bookfair's stalls in a main square. The waiter forgot my beer; then the vegetarian pasta had a slab of meat hidden beneath it; when I returned it, they took ages to bring another, by which time everyone else had finished eating; and this had far too much salt in it to be edible. In compensation they gave me a chocolate pudding. This rather skewed my diet since earlier in the afternoon, the same crowd went to a cafe in the art gallery which only served cheesecakes. I ordered one, ate it, and then the owner discovered who I was and wanted me to sign a copy of my book for her in exchange for another pudding, this tie a lemony cheesecake. I was stuffed.

Unfortunately I was taken back to the same restaurant the next morning by Ricardo, the chief press officer for the bookfair, who was very enthusiastic about my work and my talk and the one who wrote the glowing review (well he would wouldn't he). He suffered from polio since the age if nine months and walked on crutches, but is really well, strong and on his second family. He asked me a lot about my beliefs about technology. And what science fiction and writers should be writing about.

When I explain my theory of SF here - the part containing the 'America dreaming' imperialist fantasy idea of Star Trek and Star Wars, everyne understands it. They all profess to hate America. Yet they all drink Coke - especially Otacilia. In fact at the evening meal, everyone drank fizzy drinks and no one drank alcohol with their meal - on a Saturday night. Try finding teetotal publishers and writers after a bookfair in England. About as likely as finding a panda in a pine forest. But American culture is naturally ubiquitous here and insidious regardless. Disney titles, its stories well known for plagiarising and corrupting local myths in favour of its sanitised, sentimentalised versions, is the best selling of DCL's lines, and Otacilia admits the irony of this - it provides one third of their income and allows them to finance other imprints including Lighthouse, the one which publishes Hibridos. They hate it but can't do without it.

After leaving Ricardo I return to the hotel, passing burnt out buildings which the city can't afford to renovate. It reminds me of Nwcastle, or Liverpool. I wait with the taxi driver for ages for a third passenger to go to the airport. The second is a Parisian academic who writes about cities and planning - he tells me he has never visited a favela. I think he can't really know then what South American cities are really like. I want to visit one. He says he wouldn't feel safe. But I know you can get a guide.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Porto Alegre bookfair

Is this the oldest book fair in the world? It's certainly one of the biggest. It goes on to about six weeks, as long as the Hay on Wye festival, but unlike the latter, and unlike any other book fair I have ever seen, it is entirely free -- no doubt the factor that ensures its vitality and survival.

Porto Alegre bookfair

The fact that it's supported by the authorities in this way means that everybody can attend any event, including the poorest. Many of the events are for children and schools though by no means the majority of them.

Most authors represented here South American and especially Brazilian. I was the only author from the UK, but as this that is the year of the French there were several from that country, and I found myself leaving the hotel showing the taxi with a French professor specialising in the study of urban areas. For there is a strong academic element at the book fair.

Much of the fair is also outside, despite the humidity. About half of it takes place in a couple of urban squares ringed with thronging bookstalls from distributors, publishers and other retailers. The juvenile area is on the old dock front, and venues include the old warehouses, and the opulent interiors of former Portuguese offices and halls that line the downtown avenues.

Porto Alegre bookfair

Some of these restored mansions, reminding you of the old glory when the city was founded, provided a striking contrast to dilapidated more recent 20th-century buildings adjacent to them. The town is in decline but struggling to reassert its new identity as a cultural magnet.

From the dock you can take a boat tour up the river Guaiba, actually almost a lake, a delta, and the journey takes you around islands that are protected as conservation areas - very unusual in Brazil so near to an industrial area. The Brazilian name for the body of water means 'lake of ducks', and there is much birdlife in evidence, though not much else. Some areas are less protected than others, and there houses come down to the waterfront.
Porto Alegre bookfair

The river flows swiftly but it still has 200 km left to get to the Atlantic Ocean. Porto Alegre was constructed by the Portuguese on the west side of a long isthmus, so that he could defend the river from the Spanish, so it was never an Atlantic port.

The bookfair doesn't start till around lunchtime and then in the afternoon the place is absolutely packed. Everywhere are authors signing books and street performers entertaining children.
Porto Alegre bookfair
Porto Alegre bookfair

I am introduced to the director of the book fair, and have lunch with the chief press officer, Ricardo, a wonderful, indefatigable man, who has suffered from polio since the age of nine months, and who also like me has two sons, about the same age. Unlike me he has married again and now has a nine-month-old!

I am also introduced to many other authors and illustrators, including the talented André, and Barroso and Marta Lagarta.

My session, held in a small room next to the children's library, goes well, and I use a couple of PowerPoint slideshows to illustrate my talk that I have been using at the British schools where I was two weeks before.

They precipitate a discussion on the nature of science fiction, how Star Trek and Star Wars represent the imperialist dreams of America but how dystopian fiction has sadly proved more prescient as a way of predicting or describing the reality of a least parts of the world.

And how it is the duty of writers now to provide hope to the children who will be tomorrow's adults, because it is we, the older generations, who have fucked things up so badly for them.
Porto Alegre bookfair

Afterwards, Ricardo writes it up, and this is the result:

Pretty poor but just about understandable Google translation:

I am currently in Curitiba exploring its environmental credentials, staying in the eco-hostel which is very nice, an oasis in an urban desert, and will write about this shortly.

I am feeling that I have been here over two weeks and not seen the real Brazil -- I have been in one city after another and many of them are strikingly similar to European cities. Somehow in the remaining time I would like to see some of the countryside, wildlife or forest, but I don't quite know yet how to do this.

I go back to São Paulo on Thursday morning when I have to visit DCL's offices in the afternoon and to give a talk in the evening at the University, but from Friday morning until Monday morning I am free and may go to Rio. I leave to go back to the UK on the Wednesday, and am saving Monday and Tuesday for possible more meetings with Otacilia.

Porto Alegre and the art Biennale

Of course I was only there for the weekend, flying in at 1030 in the morning, taxi to the hotel, leaving again the same way the Sunday evening. But of all the towns in all the world that I have visited it reminds me of none more than Newcastle-on-Tyne - Geordie-land.
Porto Alegre art biennale

Both are struggling to recover from a period of decline and scarred by areas of neglect. Several buildings had been gutted by fire and left like that apparently for some time. Many others were empty and covered in graffiti.

Both towns are trying to use culture in order to attract outside interest to the downtown areas. Newcastle has its brilliant Baltic art gallery, while Porto Alegre has its Biennale, a large art exhibition that takes place in several venues every two years, reminiscent of the one in Venice. In fact the best venue for the exhibition is line of disused dock warehouses on the waterfront, that is strikingly similar to the Armoury area in Venice.

The exhibition showcases Brazilian and South American artists, unlike the Biennales in Río and São Paulo, which also provide much space for European and North American artists.

It is very interesting to see how these artists are interpreting and mixing Western traditions with their own. I saw a portable beach holiday (complete with campervan full of sand with a palm tree growing out of the roof), a football match made entirely out of wood (football is of course a matter of life and death here), not to mention a campervan also made entirely a wood.

The latter reminded me of Heather and Ivan Morisson's post-apocalyptic garden shed on wheels that is a mobile library of dystopian literature - including a copy of Hybrids!

Campervans are ubiquitous here, and are used by people wanting to start businesses in another town but not yet able to rent their own space. They symbolise the magnetism the city, the promise of affluence, the energy of growth.

Another fascinating piece - I'm sorry I didn't have the chance to note the names of the artists - was an almost life-size reconstruction of the Parthenon made of scaffolding from which were hung thousands and thousands of books each wrapped in polythene bags. The public was then invited to help themselves, and videos and magazine and newspaper articles document people gladly ripping down the books and throwing them to the crowds below, who ran off hungrily with them.

Because of my interest in Dadaism it was astonishing to discover a Brazilian version, inaugurated 45 years after the original, but aesthetically and insensibility strikingly similar, called Nadaism -- or nothing-ism! I love it.

Another piece celebrates popular graffiti on concrete Modernist architecture, of which there is too much in abundance in the cities.

There is a spirit of enquiry and invention in the art here, a celebration of what it means to be Brazilian. 25 years after the end of the dictatorship, and 20 years after the CIA mostly lost interest in South America with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Brazil is becoming more and more confident, and debating positively its new identity.

Brazil - a Celtic island

I was given a fascinating book on the history of Brazil by the first editor of the Brazilian edition of Hybrids, Camile Mendrot. I met her in São Paulo one evening when we went to an excellent jazz club/bar where a trio of drums, electric bass and electric guitar were crammed into a small corner with us crammed at a table next to them.

She works for a publisher called Callis now, and made me a present of several books, most of them for young children and excellently produced, in English, but this one is by Eduardo Bueno entitled 'Brazil: a Brief History'. Amongst the many fascinating facts I've picked up so far is a connection between the name of the country and Celtic mythology - especially of interest to me since I live in Wales.

Apparently in Celtic the word "bresail" means "blessed land". It refers to a mythical island called Hy Brazil which is the setting for the Celtic legend of Brandon, an Irish saint, who in the year 562 took to the seas to evangelise, arriving at the island some years later, and where he died, allegedly 181 years old. The book says that "from 1351 until at least 1721, the name Hy Brazil could be seen on maps and globes and up until 1624 -" (Brazil was discovered in 1500) "- there was still extinct expeditions looking for it" - rather like Atlantis!

According to "Brazil in Legend and Ancient Cartography", by Gustavo Barroso published in 1941, "the literate men of the 16th century had no doubt that the name Brazil came from the legendary island", rather than the name of the tree, Brazilwood, which the Portuguese and other Europeans systematically exploited and almost eradicated for its reddish dye, and which the simple sailors assumed gave the country's name.

There are others who might prefer the name the original inhabitants of the land had for it - Pindorama.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rich pickings

Going home time from St Paul's School, Sao Paulo

You can tell the nannies because they wear a uniform of white slacks and tops and contain a high proportion of indigenous Indian or African slave-descendant genes. The mothers breeze by in designer jewellery and the overall atmosphere is tense. One of them, clad in a flowing leopardskin print robe slit high up to the thigh and of fairly mature years, totters by on her high heels having presumably already partaken of several caipirinhas this afternoon. This is the national drink, consisting of fermented cane sugar juice mixed with mashed lemon and more sugar and crushed ice - rocket fuel, broadly indistinguishable from the fermented cane sugar bio ethanol they put into their cars. In my bag is a kit for making it, a leaving present from the school.

You would expect mothers collecting children from school to be overall a pleasant experience. Half the people here have their ears glued to mobile phones. Most of them seem stressed. They are watched by men in black suits and shades standing arms crossed on the sidelines. All of them have memories of kidnappings. A kiosk run by another man with darker skin sells popcorn, pop drinks and ice lollies on the sidewalk while the nannies or mothers tow kids towards a never-ending parade of chauffeur-driven 4x4's or land cruisers, all obeying Henry Ford's mantra: any shade as long as it's grey, silver or black, and the windows are smoked.

The queue of vehicles is maybe half a mile along and conducted through a parody of suburbia in the shadow of walls topped with razor wire and electrified fences, bristling with security cameras, the sidewalks dotted every 200 metres with kiosks populated by security guards, paid by a collective of all residents and operating a secret code of whistles; which they displayed last night when I walked through the estate back from the town centre, inadvertently straying into this area. The whistles transmit down the line the nature of this unusual pedestrian, a rare species of invader, this time quite harmless.

It's warm and muggy and to this northerner it seems an incongruous time to be seeing Santa Claus, fairy lights and snowmen materialising on the streets as Christmas approaches.

This is my final day in São Paulo, at least until later next week and I have finished work. Later, I sip a beer outside a bar on Rua Joao Cachoeira. On the other side of the road the same migrant family in the same disused shop front that was there a week ago when I watched some official taking their details. More darker skinned people, mostly children, ignored by the thronging crowds on the streets. One of the boys changes his shirt from a wheelie suitcase. Their clothes at least seem quite new.

Smokers are few, and so are the smiles. I'm glad I'm leaving tomorrow.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My talk at Porto Alegre bookfair - this Saturday evening

I will be giving a talk at Porto Alegre bookfair:

Place: Ducha das Letras - Armazém A do Cais do Porto - Av. Mauá, 1050, Porto Alegre, 90010-110, Brazil; (0xx)51 3211-5022

Time: Saturday 14th November, 18.00 hrs.

Topic: The Limitations of 'Literature' and the value of 'science fiction'. A plea for other genres to be taken seriously as 'literature' as a way of confronting the world's problems. Hopefully there will be a discussion afterwards.

I am staying at Hotel Grande Hotel Master, R. Riachuelo, 1070 - Centro Porto Alegre - RS, 90010-270. Tel. (0xx)51 3287-4411

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Meeting Diego

Tonight I met one of my Brazilian fans, Diego Remus, at the place where he works, The Hub, which coincidentally is right near the restaurant where we were the previous night during the power cut.

When we met he first took me to a bookshop on Avenida Paulista and surprised me by finding on the shelves a copy of my book Hybrids in English as well as Portuguese and made me stand there while he took a photograph.

I'm getting kind of used to this while I'm here. in

Diego is a specialist in social networking and electronic media, a consultant to start-ups and interested in applying sustainability theory as well as communication theory to new models of business enterprise. He set up a Portuguese language fan club for Hybrids.

He works also for Startupi, which is a pun, because the Tupi is an old indigenous culture.

We especially talked about industrial symbiosis, resource efficiency and the potential of the sustainable economy new business model to benefit Brazilian businesses. He's going to arrange for me to give a talk at The Hub on the subject at the end of next week when I'm back in town from Porto Alegri and Curitiba.

See also Blackout in Brazil

Oh yes, I did finally get my laundry back last night, and find that there is tea to drink at St Paul's British School, but really, I think the UK must get the best pick of the tea leaf crop. This grey concoction is a pale shadow of what my constitution is used to!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Hanging out in Sao Paulo

It rained last night and today is much cooler and overcast. A relief from the last week. People here in São Paulo work very hard and long hours and I have found that an arrangement to meet is liable to be cancelled at the last minute for one reason or another.

Mind you, it's not as hard as trying to get a cup of tea which is in fact impossible. And of course I'm dying for a cup of tea.

At a restaurant yesterday with my DCL editor Oticilia in the Museum of Modern Art I asked for tea. I was brought a cabinet containing perhaps 30 different kinds - but I searched through them in vain - they were all fruit teas. No cafe or restaurant will serve tea! Arghh!

Today in a supermarket I finally found a packet of English breakfast tea. Heaven! However the price - five pounds for a small packet - made me think well, perhaps the Brazilians are right to drink so much coffee after all. And they do drink a lot of it -- many small cups of super-concentrated espresso.

Another thing you can't get is an up-to-date English language newspaper - or the American and English ones when they finally arrived two or three days out of date. Why do they bother in the age of the Internet?

Otacilia had cancelled two possible appointments before we met yesterday. But we had a beautiful day going to the Botanical Gardens Parque Ibirapuera and drinking coconut milk from the green fruit through a straw. I encountered for the first time a lates tree, its huge dripping roots like Rasta dreadlocks. The gallery had an excellent exhibition of non-Brazilian artists influenced by Brazilian art, including a Welsh artist, Wyn Evans. I particularly liked Mateo Lopez' lace-like map cut-outs, Simon Evans, Marjetica Potrc and Franz Ackermann.

In the early evening yesterday I found myself at an opening party for a new venue for a school for comics artists, Impacto Quadrinhos (Quadrinhos is Portuguese for comics). Luke Ross, a local (he anglicised his name for the sake of his career) who is successful illustrating many marvel comics, was giving a workshop. He is an old friend of the artist I am working with, Felipe Cunha, who introduced me to him.

He seemed very happy with the way Marvel were treating him. Me, I'm still waiting for a copy of the compilation of Captain Britain stories, containing my work, which was published in the summer. This is the second compilation - I never got the first either. Nor have I been paid a penny.

The owner of Impacto Quadrinhos, Klebs Junior, used to work for Marvel himself and still does occasionally. He told me he lamented the fact that Brazil still doesn't have a market that can accept home-grown comics with a Brazilian theme and all of the artists that he represents as an agent have to sell their work in North America or possibly Japan.

It was somebody's birthday so we went to a bar off Avenida Paulista, the commercial centre of São Paulo. We stayed there for several hours drinking iced beer and eating polenta chips. Felipe had told me the other night that it might be possible to sell a 12 page story to Heavy Metal magazine. I had sent him on Friday a story set in the story world of Hybrids, but with Major Winter of the Jean Police as the central character. All of the characters from Hybrids appear in this story which could be the first of a series and is aimed at a more adult audience. At the bar we discussed this and Felipe really likes it. Now I have to add some dialogue.

It's great that I finally have time to write fiction and have started work on my next novel The Drowning, by starting to write out the scene cards. Quite frankly I'd rather sit in the hotel and do this then go out and exploring São Paulo, traffic filled street after street after street after street of charmless buildings. It feels more like a cosmopolitan European city rather than a developing country.

My laundry has got lost. Eleanor, from St Paul's School where I am teaching from tomorrow, said she would do my laundry for me as it would cost a fortune to let the hotel do it. I had to take it to the school yesterday but she wasn't there and Rita, the woman who met us at the airport, stashed it in an office. Eleanor came over today to the hotel to see Katy and I. Katy Moran is the other author from Britain who is teaching in the School's. She didn't know anything about the laundry being left there. I only hope I can get it back, clean, before tomorrow!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

São Paulo - city with a future

The chocolate is melting and so am I. It is 34° and I am sitting beside a small pool on the roof of the 27th floor of my hotel. As far as I can see in almost every direction are buildings: a crenellation of 10s of thousands of high-rises. Their rooftops map an archipelago of suntrapping eyries, many of them inviting landing spots for helicopters.

São Paulo is a city with a future, confident of its ability to be the capitalist Mecca of the South American continent. Its infrastructure creaks under the strain of its 10s of millions of inhabitants, but its optimism propels it to meet and exceed expectations during the 2016 Olympics when the world's eyes will be on Brazil.

As we crawl along its sclerotic arteries driven by taxi drivers who can't read maps and rely on us, strangers, to give directions in their own city we witness a bank robbery, street urchins and rubbish recyclers pushing their carts alongside splendid temples to the banking system.

Brazil knows crises and thrives on them so, unaffected by the recession gripping the rest of the world, its burgeoning young population demanded the baubles that have satiated and bored the dwindling young population of the North.

At Frankfurt, my lovely Brazilian editor Otaclia - of the Brazilian edition of Hybrids - reports that she was was doing more deals than anyone from a northern publisher. The children of the huge middle class of Brazil need literature, and if publishers can't buy it from Europe or America they will buy it from India and China. The balance of power in the publishing houses of the world has shifted. American comics publishers seek Brazilian artists for their energy and hard work. Brought up on a diet of both Japanese manga and Marvel, they look both ways. There are more Japanese people in São Paulo than there are in the whole of Japan I was told. Can this be true? It's big enough.

The children are astonishing. St Nicholas British school in Sao Paolo has to be one of the best schools I have ever been to. English is a second language, but at all ages they are highly motivated and must be among the brightest kids on the planet for their age.

They ought to be - the school is well resourced and costs £1000 a month to attend. These sons and daughters of bankers and multinational executives are of many nationalities - Europeans, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Jewish, South African, Brazilian, with a few Indian, Muslim and the odd descendant of African slaves. The small campus crawls with security guards and technical staff who in radio contact with each other, shepherding students across the public road and into buses and cars.

The threat of kidnap and ransoming is high.

Greater Sao Paolo is reputedly the third largest city in the world: 30,000 sq km of buildings, with about 10% of the 20 million population living in makeshift favelas. But this area is one of gated communities, choked by jams of the latest models of cars, stress-fueled horns blaring in rush-hour.

I am running workshops on story-telling, journalism, and my own work, and when I give them exercises the students all complete them perfectly in good time - show me this in a UK schools, apart from the odd academy school.

Looking at their work books I notice immediately that teachers correct their English - grammar and spelling - in every case; something considered discouraging in UK education, but which I consider vitally important. If children are not taught these things how can they be equipped to be fully articulate? Is the language not the blood of a culture? Infected by misuse can it flow smoothly?

Next week I am in another school - St Paul's. This will be larger, and I look forward to seeing how different it will be. Otacilia promises to take me to a 'normal' school for comparison. The wonderful Otaclia promises me many things: guided tours, a party, introductions to environmentalists trying to make the world a better place, art galleries, and a publishing deal. In a couple of weeks we go to a bookfair together in Porto Alegre, where I am to give a talk on science fiction and surrealism. This is very exciting.

Having collaborated by e-mail for 18 months, I meet penciller/inker Felipe Cunha and his colourist George at my hotel for the first time. It's as if we have known each other for years. Over iced beers we discuss the challenge of surviving and succeeding in a city so huge you are less than nothing. Felipe lives two hours outside the city -- he came by bus, Metro and bus. Where his parents moved to 20 years ago was then trees. Now a favela has sprung up just five minutes away -- the rural desperate pursuing their own dreams to find themselves trapped in the double net of poverty and prejudice.

Over an excellent Italian meal the three of us plan escapades and promise to meet again on Friday night at a party at the city's best comics store, thankful, as everyone is, for whoever invented air-conditioning.