Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Great Escape Part VII: Back in Black

Being back in Copenhagen didn't feel so wonderful
Part I: Maladjusted
Part II: Adjusted for Inflation
Part III: Drifting

We worked in a dank and almost lightless ground floor office in the same building as the Danish newspaper that had published the infamous Mohammed cartoons. As such, me and a couple of my colleagues at The Copenhagen Post wondered, sometimes out loud, when the jihadis would run in and empty their assault rifles into the lot of us.  Perhaps they would just slit our throats – after all there was no security and nothing to prevent anyone from doing such a thing. Were we being paranoid?

My job was to do the layout for the newspaper. I was given an old 486 PC which ran at the speed of treacle and a desk in the corner next to the cupboard where the cleaning equipment was kept. Nobody spoke. There was a strange atmosphere, and I just kept my head down and got on with the work.

Being poor was no fun. There is, I soon realized, no such thing as genteel poverty if you have been thrust into the situation. When you have no money everything is complicated and nothing is possible. We lived at Michelle’s mother’s house in the top room, and I felt like I was always unwelcome. I borrowed a cranky old bike to get to work on, and when it broke down I had to get the Metro. On these sleek driverless trains the passengers, all fashion and icy coolness, would be listening to their MP3 players silently and I reflected how reverse this was to the loud and warm life in Spain I had become accustomed to.

Each month I got paid and each month it only just covered the mortgage and bills in Spain, with a few lonely crowns left jingling in my pocket. The mortgage rate kept going up as Spanish banks struggled to stem their losses, but at least I wasn’t getting further into debt. Michelle had found a job as a cleaner for the local council, cleaning schools, old people’s homes and the public toilets down on the beach. It wasn’t much but the combined incomes meant we could start to save up for the deposit to rent a flat by ourselves.

Being broke for a long period of time can take its toll on relationships. Bickering and full blown arguments can happen without any warning at all. When you are broke with no hope of being unbroken any time soon, you make up little promises to yourself. Mine were coffee and wine. I could afford, on average, three coffees from the self-vending machines in 7-11 per week. These I would drink down at the harbour with a friend and pour my heart out in breaks from work. Wine, I would buy by the box and stow under the bed, knocking back a couple of glasses each evening - sometimes more - after the kids were asleep, and looking out of the window at Danish suburbia and marvelling at the strange ways in which fate works.

As such, I can now never begrudge people who have hit hard times their petty addictions. Without them, many of us would go crazy.

The people at work were generally sympathetic when I explained that I was utterly skint, but how could any of them really know what it felt like? I went from living my ideal life, with an eight bedroom farmhouse and land, to living in a poky room in a house I wasn’t welcome in and in a job that was downright draining.

After a while things picked up a bit. We applied to the council for assistance and were allocated a subsidised flat near the airport – the flat we are still in five years later and where I am typing this. It was great to have our own flat but we had nothing to put in it and there wasn’t even any furniture. So I set about scavenging stuff that other people had thrown out and in less than a month we had quite a comfortable apartment with all the regular furniture and gadgets – all of it for free. 

After a few months in the job we moved offices. It was only upstairs but at least it was a modern office with light. It was, in fact, the office where the Mohammed cartoons had been commissioned from (i.e the culture editor Flemming Rose’s old office) and nobody else wanted to rent it. My job began to get more interesting. I started writing restaurant reviews – primarily because I could have a decent meal out without having to pay for it. Copenhagen was riding on a wave of haute cuisine because of the explosion of interest in Nordic food epitomised by the restaurant Noma, and I dined out in high style as often as I could, returning home to write up my notes in the wee hours.

I also wrote about the arts, in particular opera and ballet. I didn’t know anything about either of these things but I just read what other reviewers had written, went to see the performance and then put my own spin on it. It was enjoyably fraudulent and, again, it broke the monotony of being without money by way of mental stimulation. I also did a few movie reviews, sometimes taking the opportunity of having an entire cinema almost all to myself to take a nap.

A few months later I was promoted to the position of copy editor. The journalists, most of whom were American submitted their articles to me and I edited them and laid them out in the paper. Furthermore, I was given the task of writing features, and keeping a watchful eye on the chin-wagging diplomatic community. This last thing I hated. It seemed to me to be an endless charade of tea parties, launch events and charity meals, and the end of it all the various diplomats just wanted to see their face in the paper. 

I also went to crime scenes, photographing the spilled blood and bullet casings. There was an upsurge in gang-related shootings at the time, so this was a particularly easy gig. I discovered that if you had a big enough camera, wore a moleskin jacket and looked serious, the police would always let you in behind the cordon without asking who you were.

But the big thing that I knew was surfacing on the horizon – and which scant few other people seemed to know about – was the fact that in December the following year all eyes would be on Copenhagen as it played host to the COP15 climate conference, widely billed as the last chance saloon to find a solution to the inaction on climate change policy.

I was excited by the prospect and was eager to be involved in a newspaper associated with the event. Nobody shared my enthusiasm – that is nobody except an Irish journalist named Katie Rice, who was about 13 years my junior. Katie was a real pro. She interviewed all the various famous people that seemed to either end up at our office or invited us to theirs, ranging from several Nobel Prize winners to, er, Rick Astley. I knew instinctively that if I could get Katie on my side for any potential newspaper then it would be a success. Is it turned out, my feelings were entirely justified. 

We were both, in fact, embroiled in a saga concerning the whereabouts of Denmark’s most wanted man; a man known as Amdi Petersen who had set up what is usually referred to as a cult and then done a runner from Danish justice. We received information of his supposed whereabouts and became embroiled in a saga involving Interpol and (allegedly) the Danish secret service attempting to intercept him in (Third World) Country X – and which I really dare not go any further in mentioning here …

After this, I knew Katie was the person I needed most to make the climate conference newspaper work.
In the spring of the following year the editor of the newspaper had a nervous breakdown and walked out of the office. The CEO (for that is what he called himself) asked me if I would step into his shoes as editor and I said ‘Yes’. 

Working at a newspaper is always interesting. You get to meet all kinds of people and do all sorts of things. When I think back, one of the key moments that sticks out in my mind was meeting the Dalai Lama at an expensive hotel in the city centre one Sunday morning. Perhaps because of my bad situation I had fallen back on reading various books related to Buddhism, so getting to meet and shake the hand of such a man as the Dalai Lama was a great inspiration for me.

Another person I met was the US environmentalist Bill McKibben. It was another case of serendipity as I had just that day finished reading his book Economics as if People Mattered (I think it goes by a different title in the US) when I found out he was in town. In fact, it turned out, he was just up the road from our office, giving a talk in an old chapel. I jumped on my bike and got there just before he started his talk.

He spoke about the coming COP15 climate conference and how important it was that successful talks ensued. He is a great orator, and there is something of the Sunday school teacher about him. He spoke with passion and conviction, but I could see he was disappointed with the turnout – there can’t have been more than 20 of us.

At the end he asked if there were any questions. A Danish journo put his hand up and asked why any of us should be bothered about climate change and wouldn’t it mean we can grow wine here? McKibibben rolled out what was probably his standard answer and moved onto the next, who wanted to know what good it would do for anyone to adapt their behaviour in the almost certain knowledge that most other people will not.

McKibben was getting a bit fed up by this point. Perhaps he had jet lag. He informed us in urgent tones that ‘The weight of expectation is on your [Copenhageners’] shoulders. It’s a heavy burden but you must be strong.’ 

I think I heard a snigger. Maybe I was imagining it. The fact of the matter was that Copenhageners for the most part had no idea that a climate conference was coming to town. Of those that did, they could be divided neatly into two categories: those who were worried about unruly foreigners protesting in the squeaky clean streets, and those who wanted to make a lot of money out of it. Otherwise, to most people, it was simply a plaudit and smug confirmation that Copenhagen had ‘arrived’ on the international scene.

Afterwards I had a short chat with him, explaining that I had had the idea of making an independent newspaper during the conference to act as an unofficial platform for ideas and writers. He thought it would be a great idea, so I decided there and then to press on with it. Furthermore, he wanted ideas about doing some kind of visual stunt to draw attention to the upcoming climate conference for his organisation (350 being the maximum number of CO2 molecules per million in the atmosphere that NASA man James Hansen deemed ‘safe’). I said that Copenhagen had a lot of cyclists, perhaps we could all cycle around the City Hall Square and spell out ‘350’ with our bike lights. There would be thousands of us, I said, it will be on a live feed around the world.

On the day though, it was difficult to get people interested. Climate conference? Heh? Nobody was cycling and the weather was wet and grey. Instead a few passers-by were persuaded to stand in a 350 formation. So much for needing security barriers! It was an omen for the climate conference itself.

All this time we were still without money. We had enough to live off, shopping at the cheapest supermarkets and getting stuff that others had thrown away or no longer wanted, but that was about it. Our house in Spain still hung as if by a thread, with the threat of a single missed payment meaning likely foreclosure. Occasionally I wondered whether this might be an option, but soon came to my senses when I realised that this would likely mean an entire lifetime of debt and a lack of options. I vowed to do anything  could to keep our house from being repossessed. A Buddhist would say just let go. I said no way José.

A few weeks later we moved out of our swanky mid-city office and into a cheaper one. The paper was not doing too well financially (same old story) and we had to save money. We all moved into an old slaughterhouse in the long-abandoned Kødbyen district (‘meat city’), situated in the red light district. 

As it turns out, it was just in time. In the US, the FBI had uncovered a plot by Al Qaeda to blow up our old office with a truck bomb. Seems like I had a lucky escape, again.

I told the boss I was going to make a climate conference daily newspaper using the staff and the office. 

“No you are not!” Was his reply. “You’ll bankrupt the entire newspaper with your ideas, like you did with the last one!”

“Trust me,” I said. "I think I know what I'm doing."


  1. Dec 21, 2012, approaching. Nice "coming out." Well timed, well done. Eager to hear more.

    Particularly inspiring personally, was the bit about poverty,

    """Being poor was no fun. There is, I soon realized, no such thing as genteel poverty if you have been thrust into the situation. When you have no money everything is complicated and nothing is possible."""

    I bought a house too, during the boom. After I pay tribute each month, there's about $200 left over to feed and entertain myself. I can get drunk twice a week, and mostly stick close to my dissolute mostly unheated grubby house there's no money or means to fix up, not really unless I stop eating and drinking. LOL.

    Particularly inspiring too, is the coming Announcement. I might have one of my own. ;)

    1. Timing, as they say, is everything ;-)

      Yeah, Dmitry Orlov redefined 'voluntary simplicity' as 'involuntary complexity'. I'd agree with him. One lesson I have learned is never to get into debt again if I can help it. Seriously - you hand your life on a plate to an organisation.

      I look forward to hear your own announcement.

  2. I believe the trick is to not want anything but your time. "Possum Living" as it were, is possible, but very difficult to actually achieve. I think the key is having a residence that is paid for and no kids. Once kids are brought into the mix it changes everything because being poor means eating shitty food, for the most part.

    I believe it's possible to live a healthy lifestyle in poverty (pending you have the paid for residence). That lifestyle would be a subsistence one where you grow your own food and integrate small livestock and poultry (goats/sheep and chickens/ducks). Still you have to manage this with no vehicle and no cell phones.

    My wife and I got close to that lifestyle...and it's still a day. Many factors have gotten in our way, but in the end it's just about money. We don't own this home we are in, and that means we can't make all of our own decisions about things. In order to achieve the freedom we want, we have to make some sacrifices with our time. That's how I've come to be a full time college student for about the seventh time in my life.

    I'm going to be a nurse because healthcare is the only sure shot and it pays good. I never once in my life said "I want to be a male nurse," but here I am. Like I said, you bring kids into the mix and it changes everything. The alternative is WHD ;o). He's free to do what he wants, but I imagine if you asked him he would probably rather have a significant other with the possibility of children. Loneliness with freedom, or companionship and family with no freedom? That seems to be the two options.

  3. I'll add my name to the list of those who agree with the 'involuntary complexity' argument of poverty. We've been there this last 18 months too and you're right - nothing is possible and everything is complicated. And, yeah, having children can add a grim expediency into the living arrangements that just eats away at your soul. So I understand the 'petty addictions' too, but that's a long, dark and slippery slope to be wary of.

    But hey, respect to you Jason for keeping going in the face of it all. For that matter, respect to all of us who understand the magnitude of the winter storm clouds that are brewing that JMG was talking about this week. It's tough, but we have to keep going.

    The carrot of your pending announcement(s) is a help to get me through the festivities ;)


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.