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Jonathan Raban: I felt pretty happy that I was still alive

The author on his recovery after a stroke and his fears for a dis-United States.

On 11 June 2011, a few days before his 69th birthday, Jonathan Raban was sitting with his daughter Julia at home in Seattle. He’d felt foggy and out of sorts since waking. Having reheated a casserole, he looked down to see that, try as he might, he couldn’t make the knife in his right hand touch the food on his plate.

His voice lifts in remembered surprise. It was very strange. I said to Julia: “I think I’m having a stroke.”

He was. A few hours later, Raban was in a hospital in the north of the city, looking at scans of his brain. The stroke was haemorrhagic, and massive: the damage to the right side of his body would be impossible to erase.

Carefully balancing a glass of red wine with his good hand, he gestures down at the wheelchair he now uses. Not quite instantly, but within a very few weeks, I was transformed into an old man. A second later, he concedes gruffly: I did feel pretty happy that I was still alive.

Appropriately for a man best known for his nautical writing, Rabans home feels rather like the upturned hull of a boat, with coffee-coloured redwood beams and a clutter of charts, sailing photos, engravings and mock-ups of the covers of his books. Every so often theres the drone of a seaplane coming in to land.

As soon as he got home from rehab,Raban did what he has always done: he began to write, and to research accounts of other peoples strokes (mostly unreadable, he grunts), English social history, his parents letters; searching for a way to braid the experience with the other skeins of his life.

I remember a doctor came to the rehabilitation ward, about my age, and said: Oh, youre the one who used to be a writer. I told him: Im still a writer, and I intend to write about this.

Raban talks in unhurried, intricately woven sentences, languid vowels barely touched by two decades in the US; it feels a little surreal to encounter him here in the Pacific Northwest. But Seattle, he goes on to explain, is as close to a home as he has found. Born in Norfolk in 1942 and educated at the University of Hull where he became friendly with Philip Larkin he started out as an academic. But as his anthology-cum-memoir For Love and Money (1989) attests, he lasted only a few years, writing fiction and journalism during University of East Anglia vacations and trying to gain a ticket of entrance to the city at the end of the line. He launched himself as a freelance writer in London in 1969, lodging with the poet Robert Lowell and becoming part of the bibulous in-crowd that centred on Ian Hamiltons magazine New Review.

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The Mississippi river, the subject of Old Glory. Photograph: Macduff Everton/Getty Images

Even the capital seems to have been a temporary halt. Within a few years Raban was flitting around the Middle East, as recorded in Arabia: Through the Looking Glass (1979); then floating down the Mississippi in an open-topped boat (Old Glory, 1981). Soon after that adventure, be bought a larger boat and piloted it around the British Isles. The project became Coasting (1986), which is as sui generis as Rabans other books part memoir, part rite of passage, part discourse on fluid mechanics, part sly satire on British islomania during the Falklands campaign. In the wake of Brexit, it is a salutary read.

Afloat, Raban writes, he found a sea-distance that matched his sense of estrangement from Britain, and the grounding stability that eluded him on land. But the thing that genuinely fascinates him, and makes his prose leap and surge, is water an eerily still North Sea off East Anglia, as calm and full of mercurial colour as a pool of motor oil; a corner of the north Pacific off British Columbia, like a bolt of grey silk, lightly undulating, that seeps its way into his brooding travelogue Passage to Juneau (1999).

The love affair began early, Raban recalls. Water, one way or another, hasbeen a means of escape for me from pretty much infancy. When Isawa river or a pond or a lake, Isawfreedom and solitude. I could behappy in those places, in a way that I couldnt be at home.

Raban has often written about his tussles with his father, an army captain-cum-cleric whose return from the second world war he brusquely resented as a child, and whose dog collar and cassock, with its greasy antique patina like the sheen on a blowfly, represented everything to rebel against. But his interest in literature is something he owes to his mother, who once wrote short stories for womens magazines.

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The thing that fascinates Jonathan Raban is water. Photograph: Alamy

She taught me to read, which was my one proficiency. My father gets all the attention, but partly thats because he intruded on this relationship with my mother. There is a curt laugh. I harboured the usual fantasy.

It seems not insignificant that his first published work, printed in John Londons Weekly when he was 17, concerned a child whose father is presented with a shattered china dog as a gift after returning from the war. Rabans writing has grown infinitely more sophisticated since then, but its leitmotifs struggles with overbearing authority, a search for refuge in a world that seems aslant have remained.

He insists his arrival in the US, tracked with droll self-scrutiny in Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990), wasnt intended to be permanent he retains British citizenship but it seems appropriate that he alighted on the West Coast, the favoured destination for people wanting to slough off old lives and try on new ones for size. One of that books most moving chapters chronicles the time Raban spent with Korean immigrants to Seattle, whose travel-shocked recalibration to wide wide wide America is partly, one senses, his own. The section closes with Raban setting himself up downtown in a former luxury hotel; in his room is a gold-painted desk that had once been used by Elvis, and a name label reading Rainbird on the door.

Marriage to Jean, a dance critic and journalist in the city, swiftly followed; Julia was born not long after that, and is now in her mid-20s. Among the cavalcade of identities Raban has tried out during his 74 years, the one that really seems to fit him is fatherhood, which came late. Its a role he still seems enjoyably astonished by, and which has provided some much-needed anchorage. Though the relationship with Jean came to an end, Julia now lives nearby and the two see each other nearly every day.

Im interested in his thoughts on genre; though his books are filed in the travel sections of bookshops, does he feel himself to be a travel writer? He snorts. I see a travel writer as someone whos sampling other peoples holidays and writing a bright little piece about the glories of Weston-super-Mare or something. Bruce Chatwin bridled at being called a travel writer; when Songlines was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook award, he wrote a stiff letter saying that it was impossible for it to be entered because it was most certainly an invented journey. I feel sympathetic to that.

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A protest march against President-elect Donald Trump in Seattle, Washington, 14 November 2016. Photograph: Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

Wait didn’t Raban himself win the Thomas Cook? His grin is lizardish. “Twice. But I was hungry for prizes.”

Though travel often features in his non-fiction and the three novels Raban has so far written, he most often uses the verb intransitively, with no obvious destination in mind. I always thought of it as escaping from genre together, the mixture of memoir and travelling not going to get anywhere, but going for the goings sake. Perhaps the notion is pretentious, but its of what a journey could really be: a miniature scale-model life, which you would survive miraculously at the end.

Though he talks with wit and candour, there is a reserve about him that Englishness, perhaps that seems at odds with the intimate scrutiny of his prose. I ask if he’s ever regretted committing something to the page. The grin reappears. “I want to say, je ne regrette rien. Not much.”

Even in Passage to Juneau, which chronicles in agonising detail the death of his father and the collapse of his marriage to Jean? Even that.

The books only begin to make sense in long recollection, he adds: Writing about journeys, I have to forget the memory in its too-precise form and dive into the experience as if it were happening almost fictionally. Its a getting away from the experience in order to be able to write about it.

I’m curious about what happened to the boat. Oh, it was sold, even before the stroke. I’d written as much as I could about sailing. Also, my appetite for it diminished sharply after 2001. Want to meet Republicans in this part of the world? They all have boats.

It is impossible to avoid the subject of Donald Trump, whose victory Raban had been dreading for months, and which still plainly nauseates him. He’s been rereading Ian Kershaws biography of Hitler, an unlikely but nevertheless effective source of consolation: The consolation comes in the very different state of Weimar Germany and the contemporary US. For all Trump’s blustering authoritarianism, he would run straight into the checks and balances of America’s state and city governments.

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Jonathan Raban is best known for hs nautical writing. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Soon after the election, Seattles mayor, Ed Murray, held a press conference to say that the city would remain a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, and similar statements have been made in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

So he’s optimistic, in a way?

“Trump may well turn out to be more of a danger for the rest of the world than for the dis-United States. But whatever happens is going to be a bloody, bloody mess.”

These days his journeys may be moreimaginative than real, but he fights shy of the idea that I’ve encountered Raban at rest. His thinking is as restless and ambulatory as ever; the wheelchair is another kind of narrative vehicle, a fine place in which to write and read. When we meet he’s halfway through the proofs of a biography of Jan Morris, whom he encountered in Cairo: A proper traveller, he writes in Arabia, atouchruefully.

Most of all, though, he’s mapping out the territory of the new book, and the connections he wants to draw between his early life and the lightning bolt that hit him in 2011. Progress is slower than he’d like; more meandering. There are far too many threads.

He sighs faintly, and reaches for thebottle of red. But then, a friend reminded me over email, there always are.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/30/jonathan-raban-author-recovery-stroke-fears-dis-united-states

Sugar lobby paid scientists to blur sugar’s role in heart disease report

New report highlights battle by the industry to counter sugars negative health effects, and the cushy relationship between food companies and researchers

Influential research that downplayed the role of sugar in heart disease in the 1960s was paid for by the sugar industry, according to a report released on Monday.

With backing from a sugar lobby, scientists promoted dietary fat as the cause of coronary heart disease instead of sugar, according to a historical document review published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Though the review is nearly 50 years old, it also showcases a decades-long battle by the sugar industry to counter the products negative health effects.

The findings come from documents recently found by a researcher at the University of San Francisco, which show that scientists at the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), known today as the Sugar Association, paid scientists to do a 1967 literature review that overlooked the role of sugar in heart disease.

SRF set an objective for the review, funded it and reviewed drafts before it was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which did not require conflict of interest disclosure until 1984. The three Harvard scientists who wrote the review made what would be $50,000 in todays dollars from the review.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition, food studies and public health professor at New York University, said the food industry continues to influence nutrition science, in an editorial published alongside the JAMA report.

Today, it is almost impossible to keep up with the range of food companies sponsoring research from makers of the most highly processed foods, drinks, and supplements to producers of dairy foods, meats, fruits, and nuts typically yielding results favorable to the sponsors interests, Nestle said. Food company sponsorship, whether or not intentionally manipulative, undermines public trust in nutrition science, contributes to public confusion about what to eat, and compromises Dietary Guidelines in ways that are not in the best interest of public health.

The cushy relationship between food companies and researcher has been captured in recent investigations by the Associated Press and New York Times. The AP revealed in June that candy trade groups were funding research into sweets. And in 2015, the New York Times showed how Coca-Cola has funded millions in research to downplay the link between sugary beverages and obesity.

The Sugar Association said in a statement that SRF should have exercised greater transparency in its research, but also accused the study authors of having an anti-sugar narrative.

We question this authors continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences to conveniently align with the currently trending anti-sugar narrative, particularly when the last several decades of research have concluded that sugar does not have a unique role in heart disease, the Sugar Association said. Most concerning is the growing use of headline-baiting articles to trump quality scientific research were disappointed to see a journal of JAMAs stature being drawn into this trend.

The findings were based on documents found by Cristin Kearns, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF, in library archives.

The scientists and executives involved are no longer alive.

In recent years, the link between fat and heart disease has become a more contentious topic a 2010 review of scientific studies of fat in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that there is no convincing evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease. The role of sugar in heart disease is still being debated.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/sep/12/sugar-industry-paid-research-heart-disease-jama-report

After the party: Rio wakes up to an Olympic hangover

When Brazil won the Olympics in 2009, its future looked bright. Seven years on, as the Games come to a close, Rio’s residents are counting the costs.

The Olympic Games arecoming to a close, having demonstrated once again that Rio de Janeiro knows how to organise and promote big events. But after theparty, and the billions spent to show the world that we deserve a place among the great democracies, comes the hangover; thebills begin to arrive, and we have noway to pay. As the festive air and thetourism subside, and with the Paralympics due to start in a matter ofweeks, the old problems remain.

It is now that the residents of Rio deJaneiro begin to wonder: what will the legacy be? As we present ourselves to the world, have we revealed our faults? Or has the power of our cultural creativity come to the fore? Therein lies the contradiction of Rio: the combination of beauty and poverty, hedonism and inequality, a carnival atmosphere and bloody violence.

Hosting the Olympics in Rio was the latest effort an extreme, titanic one to impose the ideal version of Rio over the complexities and contradictions of real Rio. In real Rio, the state government does not have enough money to keep police vehicles on the roads. Police stations are running out of paper. Hospitals are in a precarious situation. State universities are on strike: so far they have not received a penny towards the costs of the current academic year. Thestates 500,000 public servants havereceived their salaries late. Building work has been interrupted. Unemployment is increasing. Social andeconomic inequalities have become more pronounced. Just before the Olympics, Rio state declared a state ofemergency, shifting all these problems on to the shoulders of the federal government which handed it almost abillion dollars to prevent chaos duringthe Olympics. But Rios anxious population is already wondering not so much how the Gameshave gone as what will happen afterwards?

Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, has done everything to try to stop a parliamentary inquiry commission being opened in the municipal chamber to investigate spending on theOlympics. Of the original promises made by Paes for the Games legacy, mainly involving investment in urban mobility and the reduction of pollution, barely half have been met on time. The Games proposed budget of $13bn was exceeded along time ago but a lack oftransparency over the real costs has fuelled suspicions of corruption. And there is more: in the weeks leading up tothe Games, the mayor was still racing to complete the building programme. Other pledged projects will be left in the in-tray of his successor, to be elected in municipal elections in October. The newly laid asphalt on main roads has already started to fail; on 21 April, a section of cycle path on Avenida Niemyer, along Rios waterfront, collapsed weeks after it was opened, killing two people. Public confidence in City Hall, already low, plummeted further. Today, 57% of Rios population do not trust the mayor.

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A mural by Eduardo Kobra depicting an indigenous Brazilian. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

All this is without even factoring in the Zika epidemic, thankfully now less virulent during these cooler winter months. Although not Rio residents most immediate concern, it casts an ever-present shadow, especially given the risk of infected pregnant women passing the virus on to their children, with potentially devastating consequences. Zika started to spread through Brazil in April 2015. From the start of this year up to 28 May, 161,241 probable cases of the virus were registered; of these, 46,027 were in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

For anyone who has lived through Brazils progress over the last two decades, this is a shocking situation. When, on 2 October 2009, Brazil and Rio de Janeiro won the bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games, they did so in the glow of economic success. The enthusiasm of the then president, Luiz Incio Lula da Silva, was contagious: Now is our time! Its here! Of the worlds 10 largest economies, Brazil is the only country that has not hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This will be an unrivalled opportunity for us. It will boost the self-esteem of Brazilians; it will consolidate recent victories; it will stimulate new progress.

In Rio de Janeiro, tens of thousands of people partied on Copacabana beach in the wake of the decision. There seemed plenty of reasons to celebrate. In 2011, Brazil earned its best rating in the Gini inequality index since 1960, the year the index was introduced. Brazil had benefited greatly from a boom in the value of Brazilian exports soy, iron ore, sugar cane and more during this time, and economic growth during the governments of the Workers party president, known as Lula, was accompanied by successful social policies such as the Bolsa Famlia programme, which topped up the income of the poorest families so long as children andadolescents were in school. Other important initiatives included an increase in the minimum wage, and the introduction of policies against racism and the exclusionary effects of poverty.

In 1993, 23% of the Brazilian population lived in extreme poverty, meaning that their income was insufficient forthe minimum number of calories required for healthy survival. By 2009, this figure had fallen to 8.4% still unacceptable, of course, but a dramatic reduction nonetheless. The period from 2003 to 2011 saw 39.6 million Brazilians join the ranks of the so-called new middle class.

But during this time, Brazil also got lucky. In 2006, before the end of Lulas first term in office, the government-owned oil company Petrobras announced the discovery of an oil reserve off the Brazilian coast some 800km long and 200km wide, a substantial chunk of which lies alongside the state of Rio de Janeiro. In the 1990s, Petrobras had been an ailing institution; suddenly, its net profit soared, from $2bn in 2002, to $19bn in 2008. The news of this discovery of one of the worlds biggest reserves of black gold gave Brazilians further optimism: things seemed blessed and glorious. Brazil, and Rio inparticular, had not felt such self-confidence since the late 50s and early 60s. This, of course had been the era ofaccelerated industrialisation, the countrys first football World Cup victory and the construction of Braslia, the new capital and temple of modernist architecture; the age of bossa nova, of Tom Jobim and Joo Gilberto, of Cinema Novo and the great film director Glauber Rocha; of groundbreaking theatre and literature, of socialist dreams. A golden age, violently ruptured by the civil-military coup of 1964, which installed aregime that endured for two decades. Now, in the 2000s, it seemed to many as though that golden age might be reborn.

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Children play on a podium erected in front of the Olympic rings. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Rios culture, after all, had never stopped bubbling with variety and vitality. Music continues to be a strong influence, from sophisticated rock shows to funk dance parties in the favelas. More than a million people went to see the Rolling Stones on the beach at Copacabana, and three million take samba to the streets during the four days of the annual carnival.

This organic connection between artand everyday life, the rhythm that pulses in the favelas and appears in more sophisticated visual art, does not occur by accident. It is the product of the most important cultural project ofBrazil, which started in Rio, where itfound fertile ground. Tropiclia began in 1967 with Hlio Oiticica and moved into the music of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. A 1967 exhibition of Oiticicas work at Rios museum of modern art, entitled Tropiclia, included the sound and movement ofmusicians and dancers from the favela of Mangueira. By then, though, Brazil was a military dictatorship, andthe idea of black and poor people dancing samba was not accepted by thedirectors of the museum. Oiticica resolved the question by moving into the street with the musicians and dancers. This performance made apermanent mark on the Brazilian imagination; it has served as touchstone and inspiration for generations of artists ever since. In Rio, cultural explosion has always been a form of democratic resistance to racism and inequality.

But the economic boom promised by the discovery of oil was not to materialise. Deep-water oil exploration requires heavy investment in technology and equipment investment that led to excessive debt. Then, in late 2014, the price of oil collapsed and, with the dollar rising to 3.50 reais, the cheap money dried up. In desperation, the government of Dilma Rousseff, Lulas successor, artificially controlled the price of oil to combat inflation, caused by weak fiscal policy and the extraordinary costs of subsidised loans to entrepreneurs selected by arbitrary criteria. The operation cost Petrobras $34bn dollars. Approximately the sameamount was lost by the company through the devaluation of the currency.

The damage done by the halting of construction work on new refineries came to almost $46bn. Another $2bn isestimated to have been leached away in corruption involving members of the federal government, state and municipal governors, and almost 200federal members of congress and senators from across almost all parties. This, the greatest scandal in the history of the Brazilian republic, is still being investigated by the Public Prosecutors Office and the federal police. Its repercussions have been unprecedented. Along with the economic crisis and the governments consequent deep unpopularity, the scandal created the conditions for the impeachment of President Rousseff, still ongoing in the federal senate. Today, Petrobrass debt stands at around $100bn. It is now predicted that production in 2020 will be no more than 2.8m barrels per day.

The optimism of the mid-2000s is now a distant memory particularly in the state of Rio de Janeiro, whose economic expectations are so heavily dependent on oil. Rio has ended up avictim of the so-called oil curse, the paradox of those countries which, despite an abundance of oil reserves, end up with less economic stability, less democracy and worse development than countries without oil. In the wake of the fiscal crisis, the economic depression and the collapse of the state came the social effects: the decrease in the already precarious quality of public services dramatically impacting on healthcare, as the Zika epidemic has sohorrifyingly shown mirrored by increases in unemployment and violence. In February this year, unemployment in Rio had reached 8.2%: serious, although not yet a catastrophe. But after the Olympics and Paralympics, the situation is expected to deteriorate.

There are other worrying trends. In2015, there were 1,202 homicides in thecity and 310 deaths resulting from police action. The first three months of 2016 saw a further 328 homicides and 76 deaths resulting from police action. The two state police forces in the city of Rio, the military (responsible for patrols) and the civil (which carries out investigations), are among the most violent in the world; they also cause the most fatalities. Between 2003 and 2015, 11,343 people were killed by police in the state of Rio, mainly by military police. The overwhelming majority ofvictims are young, black and poor. Investigations, when they do take place, are generally inconclusive. In other words, extrajudicial executions are indirectly authorised bygovernments, institutions and the population itself, with people widely believing that the killings will reduce crime. Yet in the first seven months of 2016, 60 police officers were also killed. Despite the declaration in 1988 of Brazils first truly democratic constitution, committed to human rights and the rejection ofracism, Brazils authoritarian tradition is alive and kicking especially as far as concerns worker exploitation, the selective administration of justice, and the lack of public services and support for the most vulnerable slums and theirperipheries.

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A teenager flies a kite past more murals depicting the rings. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Rio de Janeiro is a traditionally progressive and iconoclastic city, sceptical of establishment interests and critical of power. Now it is more divided than ever, lacking direction and leadership. The masses find consolation in Pentecostal religious fever, now vying with Catholicism for hegemony. This marvellous picture-postcard city, celebrated in poetry and prose as the paradise of tropical hedonism, of beauty, of sensuality, is beginning to button up itscollar and dress demurely. For many people, Sunday is no longer a day for partying and the beach; its new missionary mood, chaste and abstemious, is taking over squares, Bibles under arms and proselytism in hearts and voices.

Paes greatest error in planning the Olympics was arguably to privilege business and, in doing so, turn a deaf ear to society. Instead of introducing public policies for housing, hospitals, transport and schools in the poorer areas, the mayor has invested in the citys more prosperous western zone, providing further incentives for people to move from the already underpopulated central and northern areas.

Territorial expansion, when there is a lack of resources to provide adequate infrastructure, ends up creating pockets of misery. There have been violent forced displacements, in order to build sports arenas whose maintenance cannot be guaranteed by the public administration and which private interests will have no desire to take on.

Despite all this, the Rio Olympics have been a success. What worries me and many residents is what happensthe day after they finish. In ashort while the Olympic Games will be memory, but they will last for us, who live in Rio, as a major object of political dispute and a challenge for thefuture. Rio de Janeiro is good incredible at the spectacular. Our problem is the everyday.

Translation Lucy Greaves and David Linger. Rio de Janeiro: Extreme City by Luiz Eduardo Soares is published by Penguin.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/21/rio-2016-olympic-games-brazil-legacy-party

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