From the moment in Annie Hall when he led Marshall McLuhan out from behind a film hoarding in a New York cinema I have been a huge fan of Woody Allen. He is America’s best writer director of ensemble urban comedies – truly a unique filmmaker.
Robert Bilott’s ‘auto-documentary’ book, Exposure, on Du Pont’s chemical pollution in Parkersburg, West Virginia, is a sobering look at the immorality of corporate America of recent times. In a searing study of how greed drives so much economic activity in America these days, Robert Bilott’s personally and legally revealing work was first made known to me when I recently saw the film Dark Waters – a Todd Hayes (directed) and Mark Ruffalo (produced and lead role acted) – a fine film, worthy of several nominations in this year Hollywood hoopla round. It received none BTW. I think we get the picture.
Bilott’s book tells us the whole story. It begins with Rob Bilott’s ‘unusual’ jumping the fence from his law firm’s usual corporate defence work to take on a plaintiff’s case for an angry lone quite desperate West Virginia farmer, Earl Tennant, who contacted him, then showed up at his office carrying a mountain of evidence.
What Rob Bilott discovered demonstrated how Du Pont had been for years dumping poisonous waste from its Washington Works plant at Parkersburg, West Virginia, into landfills which leached into rivers, streams and ponds, killing cattle and compromising the health of many inhabitants in a wide area around the Parkersburg plant.
His book is a story of corporate harm, demonstrating the casual and arrogant and quite ugly ease with which a powerful corporation can engage in immoral practices in the name of business as usual. Initially rebuffed by Du Pont, Bilott convinced the courts to order the company to agree to setting up an independent scientific investigation into the potential harm done by a chemical PFOA, that Du Pont used for many products, famously in Teflon, a huge worldwide profit source and spinner for the firm.
After years of waiting for results from an exhaustive scientific study of the blood samples of nearly 70,000 people in the immediate and surrounding areas, the appointed scientific panel finally came back with findings of clear probable cause links to several major life threatening and life-altering diseases and conditions. The ruined natural water and piped-water supplies meant that many were already suffering, some dying, from these diseases and conditions.
This story is as stunning as it has been breathtaking, a jury finally finding for a class civil action against the company – who put up a fierce and at times devious public relations & legal defence – with the plaintiffs awarded a 670 million dollar settlement against Du Pont. Du Pont appealed and appealed then in the face of the evidence folded and accepted the jury’s decision.
This whole immoral if not statutorily felonious ‘environmental crime’ was aided and abetted by the EPA who worked in tandem with Du Pont to obfuscate and hide key facts of a chemical dumping program from the public, while Du Pont carried on its harmful activities for years, abusing the basic trust its economic stranglehold over the small community provided, where they were the town’s main employer, knowing full well all along that PFOA was an extremely dangerous substance for all life forms.
So in summary, a fine book and a very necessary read for people who want clean land, air and water and a reasonable chance at living life without corporations poisoning them or providing them with cancer. Also for anyone who believes that honest and accountable corporate activities are a necessary right for individuals in any properly managed and democratically governed society in the 21st century.
Without Earl Tennant bringing this to Robert Bilott’s attention and Bilott deciding to take the career risk of bringing this civil action on behalf of Earl and many others, for so many stress-filled years of his life, we may never have even heard about Du Pont’s malfeasance.
(In a run up to the class-action trial, Du Pont spun off its Washington Works plant into a new company, Chemours, in a technique many companies use to limit financial damage by placing the offending product range under another firm, that can easily be tipped in bankruptcy thus preventing a payout. After years of seeing how Du Pont operated Robert Bilott was ready for the legal tactic.)
As Brexit continues morphing out over the coming months, I think we should begin sharing experiences of what it has been like to live in and freely travel around Europe before our rights disappear. The ‘good’ the young of Britain in particular are about to lose.
Automatic right to be and travel inside Europe without a visa, attend universities, work without foreigner status conditions, to learn languages, share in the life as citizens of Europe with equal rights.
What the Europe Union does so well is not to look towards obvious economic stimulants as bridges to future social, cultural and economic activity, but to social and cultural stimulants, which when aggregated from individual life-changing experiences multiply in exponential societal ways, not only across Europe but across the world. Europe is a civil and cultural force unlike any other.
Here is an early pre-FOM personal European experience, before freedom of movement was instituted, but giving reason to why it is so good for societies and individuals.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The ancient Odeon, built by Herod Atticus 161 AD, situated at the foot of the rock of the Acropolis with the Parthenon as a backdrop. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus written up by Vernon Kidd in the New York Times, describing a 1981 Athenian summer component in a plethora of Europe-wide festivals, The Athens Festival awaiting travellers… “plays of Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes … presented by the National Theater of Greece, the Amphi-Theater, the Art Theater and Northern Greece State Theater. Tickets: from $1.20 to $6. July 5 to Sept. 25.” As Kidd’s NY times article detailed, Ancient Greek theatre in the ancient Odeon was only a small part of a Europe-wide extravaganza of arts festivals in the summer of 1981.
So, unaware of any of the above, one hot early July ’81 evening I wandered up the road from my Plaka hotel to the Acropolis, this young filmmaker then resident of Hong Kong. As darkness gathered, I sat myself on a wall to take in the dusk scene at a spot overlooking the lit-up Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre. A rehearsal was going on way down below. Intrigued very quickly by what I saw, I hiked down the hill to find out what it was I was watching. A poster outside the Odeon announced the Athens Summer Festival’s showing of The Acharnians by Aristophanes. Had I see an Aristophanes play before? No.
I returned to my hotel and the next day bought a ticket for the play at a ticket outlet – (prices of the day ranging from $1.20 to $6). I found a Penguin translation of the play in a bookshop, read it, and no wiser I have to say set off a night later to see the performance.
The Acharnians was first performed in 426 BC. A strident anti-war play it is credited with being the oldest staged Greek comedy. I didn’t know what to expect because the Penguin translation did not make anything clear. Still, I had seen the rehearsal. That was enough. The play itself would do the rest.
The Odeon theatre is an extraordinary space, but on a hot July summer night it is other-worldly. The night air made translucent by light was alive with what looked like tiny floating tips of flowers, rising in the warm air all throughout the amphitheatre. In jeans, t-shirt, sandals surrounded by Greeks in evening dress I felt a rank outsider. Yet nobody cared.
What truly resonates with me most, nearly forty years later, is how an ancient play, interpreted, performed and directed as it was, was soon so relevant for a 1981 audience. Filled with dance, mime, mask, and music, George Kounis’ (or Kouns’) production lifted me off my seat. This was not a stilted play from Ancient Greece, a production I remembered too well from university productions. The Penguin translation was swept from my mind.
Dicæopolis, a native of Acharnæ and an ex-soldier returns disillusioned from the Persian wars, heartsick at the miseries and stupidities of the conflict. Not shy in making his views known, with earthy gestures he rails against fellow citizens, while a chorus of startled, indignant citizens in white masks, odd hats and fantastic bed square sewn quilt costumes, rush in dance formation from one side of the stage to the other, all to a cacophony of startling music and sound effects, remonstrating with him and each other. The audience was in stitches inside minutes. I didn’t understand a word yet understood everything.
As a writer it is hard to communicate the effect this experience has had on me: the hot July night, the western world’s most ancient comedy, the mime, dance, costume, design and performances, Greeks all around me ‘rolling in aisles’, the old director helped on stage after the performance – I felt as if theatre itself, not only the ancient Greek concept of ‘spectacle,’ had finally been made clear to me.
photograph by and courtesy of Berthold Werner 2017
Is this the future face of home-building in Australia?
Do we build homes with exteriors and window glass that can resist up to two thousand degrees celsius? Homes with internal energy reserves, water and food storage recycling and creation systems.
While Australian Liberal National Party politicians decide whether or not to add the words “wind” and “solar” and “hydrogen” and “wave” to their vocabularies, decide whether to expand their comprehension of the word “energy” to include the current ‘impossible’ — the consignment of coal to the graveyard — the exterior of a house could be sealed against extreme weather patterns. All substances even wood can be used inside. Is this too radical for you? What do we do over the continuing fires?
If we could force the political climate change deniers to take early parliamentary retirement, then as a society join with each other in to turning global warming around we might still be in time to stop the human project’s slide to the bottom, stop the immorality of condemning other life forms sharing this planet with us to an unnatural slide in to oblivion.
With Brexit still breathing down Britain’s neck, I wanted to revisit a blog I did some time ago, to celebrate the very best of British production, in my view – the Landrover – and how this journey back (together with the journey down) opened up Europe for me, travelling across France and in to Italy.
So many journeys so many memories, to and from London and our place in Tuscany, Italy. Nostalgia? Absolutely, completely. I feel the need to revisit these memories before the Brexit maniacs get their way and destroy what is beautiful and sustainable in Freedom of Movement. The camping grounds I stopped at in France were extraordinarily well-managed, great facilities, and so reasonable in price. It made driving the long hours an absolute joy.
The first trip back to London took me up through Italy from Tuscany up through Piemonte to Valle d’Aosta, which led me (countless times) to les Alpes, driving up over the Great St Bernard Pass (il Passo del Gran San Bernardo) that first time down into Switzerland in brilliant sunshine, at four on a September afternoon. Around Lake Geneva to Lausanne I went, arriving at Pontarlier in the dark. I found a parking spot just outside the entrance to a Péage, heading to God knows where. I was absolutely exhausted. After a night of waking up, dozing in the front seat of the old beast, I shook myself conscious and crawled on toward Troyes (seeing the periphery), going on, then around in circles late afternoon south-east of Paris struggling to discover a municipal campsite. Finally I did, coming upon Méry-sur-Seine, a tiny hamlet south-east of Paris.
I parked on the grass and walked in to the village, got something to eat – do I remember what I ordered? No, but whatever it was it was very, very good. I know that. I walked back and set up my mattress in the back of the beast, extending out over a table top I had made especially with a trestle to support it. With a tarpaulin attached to the roof rack and reaching down and pegged in to to the ground all around, fresh country air flowed in all around me. I slept the sleep of angels. To this day I can’t recall a sleep so sound (maybe one other). It rained all night and I never felt a drop.
Waking up at six I packed up like a single person army on the march. I was gone in minutes, driving around to find the right route north, until I stopped at a café for breakfast, café au lait, a croissant and advice how to drive en direction de Meaux skirting north-east Paris, on through the northern cities. I reached Calais at four in the afternoon. Crossing the channel by ferry to Dover, I arrived home in east London at around ten at night. My old landrover only did fifty miles an hour.
That voyage in 2006 I will never forget. I have done the same trip many times in the years since then, in two separate Landrovers (old and new). My last defender model (2013), took me via different routes, but the first trip from Tuscany in the battered old Series Three has never ever been bettered.