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Thursday 20 March 2008


There's a line of retailers in Selly Oak, on Bristol Road, across from the Sainbury's. And they're apparently all victims of a terrible melancholy. Perhaps it's the environment. Their shops look dodgy and dangerous, but they're not. They just need a new paint job. And just a bit behind them, is an abandoned industrial site, complete with a smokestack, which somehow has managed to be the only part of it not decommissioned or torn town. It emits a blackish grunge which settles onto the wrecked piles of bricks below.

Birmingham is not a cheery looking place. It must have been much worse in the past. But even now, it's gray and damp and rainy. The city buses get so covered with soot and worn looking that they don't seem to belong in the first world. For all of America's infrastructure problems, we seem to have nicer buses than the British midlands.

The shopkeepers sit inside their dirty, unpainted, dodgy looking shops, watching the flithy buses going by and the mad car drivers, who sometimes go at high speeds on the sidewalk. And as they sit, the soot gradually creeps in to their persons.

So when I go to ask the pet shop about boarding or ID tags, I get stories of stolen pets held for ransom. When I go to ask the bike shop about getting a tune up for my bike, after a sidewalk-driving car nearly ran down the proprietor, I also got doom and gloom. Nobody in this country can possibly work on my bike, because it's Dutch. Why, he had a customer once who broke a gear. The gears on those bikes are enclosed in the back tire. He had to order the part from Germany. It was going to cost £300 for the part. She ended up deciding to scrap the bike.

$600 for a new gear? Yeah, I would decide to scrap the bike too, since that's the price for a brand, spanking new mid-level Dutch bike. Maybe his problem is that he was ordering Dutch parts from Germany. I know Brits have some confusion about countries on the continent. (As an American, I'm hardly able to point fingers here.) But, trust me on this, the Netherlands and Germany are separate countries. For £300, I will personally take your bike to Holland, and get it fixed for you. For that much, I ought to be able to pay transit costs, stay in a fairly nice hotel and get the repair done. Well, actually, transit might be a bit more pricey. Stupid British Rail.

But what price conformity? That bike is foreign, in every sense of the term, and thus it's right and appropriate that you pay a penalty for trying to ride it and get it repaired. "Why did you buy a bike like that?" The shopkeeper asked. Because I lived in Holland. Because it's a great bike. He warned me that many bike shops would say they'd done work on the enclosed parts, but not actually do it. For X's sake, I just wanted it greased and the brakes adjusted, but I have a tool shortage. So I bought some grease and I hope my pocket knife has enough tools to fix the front brakes.

So I went to the park to walk Xena. I go around the same time every day and have a nice walk and chat with the senior citizens of my area, which I quite enjoy. Yesterday, they were looking for the new bird houses. Selly Oak Bird House They had been on a campaign to get the city to hang houses for song birds, owls and bats and other native species, to provide them with extra habitat. The bird houses had just been hung the day before. It took 8 months to get the grants to do it, but finally all the work had paid off.

The houses were not custom built or anything, why had they needed to apply for so much money? Well, they needed to pay the person who hung them up and also insurance! A bat house could fall on somebody! It had to be properly insured! What if somebody got injured?!

From now on, I'm going to be more forceful about disagreeing when Brits start telling anecdotes about how Americans are lawsuit-happy or insular. First of all, the McDonalds coffee burn woman was given coffee that was 80° C, in a paper cup. She needed skin grafts, in a country with no national health, where half of people can't even buy insurance, and her original goal was just to get McDonalds to sell non-scalding coffee and they refused - after she'd learned that several people were badly burned every year. But you - you have to get insurance on bird houses and can't possibly fix a bike from a country less than an hour away by plane.


Daniel Wolf said...

Hi --

I made a tatement on my blog indicating that I intended to avoid buying Chinese products or consuming Chinese information (i.e. watching the Olympics) due to Tibet and Chinese censorship of the internet and information in general.

The first response I received was a complain that I couldn't be using my computer and blogging without using a Chinese product. Well, they do have a lock on a lot of production, I have long tried to buy electronics not made in countries using torture (US included) and in the short term, I can certainly hold off on any major purchases, but my effort is probably doing the work of Sysiphus unless a significant number of others joins me. But is there really a significant number who are prepared to accept a little less consumer convenience?

It is precisely in a situation like this that one has to recognize that it is a good thing that there are still Dutch-made and British-made bikes, whatever your personal incovenience may be. Local production is important, and it is added leverage on matters that are more important.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

Both the Brits and the Dutch have admitted to using torture in Iraq. I don't think any government is clean.

I try to avoid buying things made by slave labor, prison labor, or sweatshops, but that's a lot of research. So I try to buy union. Or fair trade. But some stores have fair trade but shitty labor practices at home.

Locally made is good for the economy of where I live and requires less shipping.

But, honestly, there are chinese parts on my bike. Some of the best gear shifters are made in China. Any bike is better than any car. A delivery bike is just useful to me.

I don't want to boycott my home country because it's my home. I used to boycott china, but I saw a lot of "yellow peril" in it and stopped.

I try to buy local produce, but I've just started buying fair trade bananas. The shipping's not so great, but those banana farmers are dependent on overseas markets.

Frankly, the conclusion that I'm coming to is that you can't shop your way to a revolution. Social change doesn't come from a checkout stand. I've noticed that media voices who seem most willing to tell me that it does are also trying to sell me something.

I can push for change where I have a stake: where I live, where I can vote. I don't know if there's anything else I can do.

Polly Springhorn said...

Duran Duran are originally from Birmingham...

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

So is UB40

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