PsychoGeography #43: Where olives grow on slippery slopes

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The Independent Online

During his fortnight's imprisonment by à la mode basil sprinklers in Puglia (see last week's Psychogeography), Ralph Steadman was held prisoner in a 14th-century fortified farmhouse amidst acres and acres of ancient olive groves. In order to wile away the days of his confinement, Ralph made friends with an old olive tree he dubbed "Garibaldi", in memory of the biscuit. Garibaldi was quite clearly on its last roots and Ralph produced these valedictory portraits. He also took note of the projecting gargoyles on the corners of the house, which were used in former times for pouring boiling olive oil on to passing marauders, who were en route to Naples to die. "Could it be true," Ralph wondered, "that those as yet undeciphered sketches in one of Leonardo's late notebooks were in fact plans for a deep-fat fryer? And how would the invention of the chip have altered the course of the Renaissance?"

During his fortnight's imprisonment by à la mode basil sprinklers in Puglia ( click here to read last week's article), Ralph Steadman was held prisoner in a 14th-century fortified farmhouse amidst acres and acres of ancient olive groves. In order to wile away the days of his confinement, Ralph made friends with an old olive tree he dubbed "Garibaldi", in memory of the biscuit. Garibaldi was quite clearly on its last roots and Ralph produced these valedictory portraits. He also took note of the projecting gargoyles on the corners of the house, which were used in former times for pouring boiling olive oil on to passing marauders, who were en route to Naples to die. "Could it be true," Ralph wondered, "that those as yet undeciphered sketches in one of Leonardo's late notebooks were in fact plans for a deep-fat fryer? And how would the invention of the chip have altered the course of the Renaissance?"

The veridical light of the Mediterranean has always excited the technically minded into abject fantasy. One such was the German engineer Herman Sörgel, who from 1927 until his death 25 years later, was obsessed with the notion of damming the entire sea. Sörgel conceived of a 35km-long dam across the Straits of Gibraltar; the Mediterranean would then gradually dry up until its surface was 200 metres lower. This would create 600,000 square kilometres of new land, as well as generating untold ergs of hydroelectric power.

Sörgel went further, proposing a bridge from Tunisia to Sicily which would create a continuous road and rail link between Africa and Europe. He also wanted to flood the Congo Basin while he was at it, so as to make a "territory actually useful to Europe". Brave days! When unfettered by the kind of hypocrisy which extracts a nation's resources under the banner of liberal democracy, Social Darwinians such as Sörgel felt free to advance "world restructuring" driven by technology. Interestingly, not least among his concerns was the idea that huge power plants at Gallipoli and the Suez Canal would ensure energy supplies - and hence economic security - for the new combined continent of Europe, Africa and the Arabian peninsula, which Sörgel dubbed "Atlantropa".

To be fair to Sörgel, this stupendously grand projet, wouldn't have appeared quite so nutty during the interwar period. For this was the era of the Hoover Dam and the reclamation of the Zuider Zee. The latter offers us the serendipitous link to psychology for, in his 1932 "31st Lecture on Psychoanalysis", Freud described the crux of analysis as "Where the id was the ego shall be," a task which is "a work of culture - not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee." Here Freud makes explicit the links between advanced engineering and progressive psychology: both wish to usher in a period of complete rationalisation when the guilty (sea) bed of the unconscious - writhing with mucilaginous, genital fish - will be exposed to the light of day.

Still, it's one thing to float an idea of this sort (I once entertained the notion of flooding East Finchley to create a giant, municipal swimming pool), quite another to devote 1,000 publications and four books to it. Sörgel, frustrated by the indifference to his vision shown both by Weimar and the new Nazi regime, even entertained collaboration with German-Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn, with a view to planning a new coastline for a future Jewish state in Palestine. Hmm ... what goes around ... Still, those who live by engineering dreams are almost always fated to die by technological realities. Sörgel was killed in a car accident in 1952.

His dreams, however, live on. Ralph Steadman became so entranced by the olive trees of Puglia that he too began to toy with the notion of putting 600,000 more square kilometres "into grove" (as the oleaginous afficionados style it). "Think of it!" He enthused to me upon his return "if we were to drain most of the Med and grow many, many more olives we would at one fell stroke both create a monstrous oil glut and lay waste to that vast littoral which is the summer playground of the North European middle class."

"What are you proposing?" I queried, uneasily shifting on my Philippe Starck stool.

"Nothing less than the revolution! It's only holiday destinations and extra-virgin cuisine that allow for the perpetration of the hierarchy, get rid of them and everyone will once again be longing for chips on the seafront at Skeggie!"

The Greeks maintain that if you fall asleep under an olive tree, it will suck out your brains while you slumber and you'll awake an empty shell of a human. Obviously this is what's happened to my collaborator, because compared to his usual projects (an orrery the size of Croydon, the "Cathosynagogmosque" for ecumenical worship), his embrace of Atlantropa is positively normal.

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