Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Urban Diary

My intention was only to pop into Evans Cycles in Holborn for a quarter of an hour and from there to carry on down to South Kensington on the Piccadilly Line. Yet, here I am on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, about to embark on another of my spur-of-the-moment “walking adventures”. This time the object of my exploration is Soho. Not in-Soho, but outer-Soho. Its periphery, its urban borders; the imperfect rectangle that means so much to misfits and outsiders.

Not that it was always that way. Henry VIII’s former Royal Park’s delusions of grandeur were dealt a reality check with each wave of migration; from Algerians to Greeks (in fact one of its roads is called Greek Street), they all opened their small businesses here. However, Soho has been chiefly known for a long time for its sex shops and strip shows.


in-Soho

Unfair, I would say, as I traipse up Charing Cross, Oxford Street-bound. The area is still host to many fanciful restaurants and cafes which render this part of London bohemian and left-of field. It is also a place where the old and new mix easily and organically. The gay community has used Old Compton Street as its hanging-out place for years with the Admiral Duncan pub as its headquarters. Carnaby Street brought us 60s “Swinging London”. Many film companies are based here.

I turn left at Tottenham Court Road tube station to find a semi-overcast sky with an oval-shaped late-afternoon sun fast disappearing behind the buildings on Oxford Street. Its trace leaves a scarlet-berry-coloured pavement trod on by thousands of commuters in search of what London’s nightlife has to offer. I am reminded of Keats' "barred clouds" blooming "the soft dying day". I hurry along Oxford Street with its big department stores palisading both Soho on one side of the road and Fitzrovia on the other. I will probably come back here for my Christmas shopping in a month or so but now it is the end of October and the yuletide season is not on my mind yet.

What is on my mind, though, is to get to the other point of this loop: Regent Street. It is always a pleasure of mine to go down on this road, Piccadilly Circus-bound, and see the contrast between the Mayfair upmarket shops on one side (Hackett, Crabtree and Evelyn and Karl Lagerfeld) and the neon signs on the other (that would be in-Soho). I descend the stairs of the tube station, the last rays of a faint terracotta-coloured sun vanishing as I pull my Oyster card out of my pocket.

© 2016

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 10th December at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Fidel, my Bladder and Me

In 1988, amongst the many events that left a mark on my life as a confused, almost rudderless, seventeen-year-old college student, one stood out the most. That was the year that I enrolled in the MTT (Territorial Troops Militias). I say enrol, but it is only fair to say that I was almost coerced to join in, as I was one of the few pupils who was not already part of the Youth Communist League in my class. However, it is also fair to say that being a hormone-driven male adolescent I was looking forward to the military challenge that this opportunity presented. Little did I know what was in store for me.

The MTT, as a body, was a branch of the Cuban Armed Forces, and it was supposed to be a voluntary, selective and territorial movement whose main function was to assist in the defence of the country. As a new member of this organisation I had to go out training some Sundays with a whole brigade made up of elderly people, other students, workers and women. Women represented half the force of the MTT. I must admit that I never felt daunted by any of the tasks demanded of me, which included, shooting, digging trenches, and crawling under barbed wire.

1989 found me fretting over my university admission exams. The rules had just been changed the school year before which meant that it was no longer on academic average that one was able go to further education. We had to sit three tests in order to progress and since one of them was Maths, I was not sure anymore whether I would get the course I wanted.

All that was put aside when I was told that I would be part of the human barrier guarding one of the roads during the May Day March. As a bonus I would get to see Fidel’s motorcade filing by. I could not wait to get into my green olive trousers and blue shirt, the MTT official uniform.

In 1989, despite some doubts already seeping in, I was still a true believer of the Revolution. Inside me I yearned to belong to the Youth Communist League and got very upset when I was rejected on the grounds that I was not ‘combative’ enough. Which meant, in short, that I did not grass people up. So, when the opportunity arose to serve my country and to see up close and personal the leader of the Revolution my little young heart skipped a bit unintentionally.

The day arrived and we all gathered on Paseo Avenue and Zapata Street, two of Havana’s main arteries. We were split into little groups with a leader. Mine was headed by a man who had served in Angola and had plenty of military experience under his belt. His voice was firm but reassuring. At around 12noon we were assigned our posts.

Because the May Day March usually began very early, people would come from afar in the designated means of transportation. Sometimes they would choose their own. Buses would be diverted and traffic would become chaotic. All this far from creating a negative atmosphere made the people come together even more.

By the time our leader pointed at the spot I would be guarding, it was past midday and I had missed the chance to use the toilet. This was a problem. A couple of years before I had been diagnosed with kidney infection and the doctor recommended that I take as much liquid as I could. The year after, the infection attacked again and our GP was even sterner, warning me that failure to follow his orders would have dire consequences. As his words replayed in my mind now, my bladder decided to play up and all the liquid I had drunk before (roughly a bottle of water) demanded that it be let out.

Soon after, hysterical waves of ‘Fidel! Fidel!’ roared from the north of Revolution Square. My mind had been too occupied with the thought of liquid evacuation to realise that our president was about to pass in an open car. All of a sudden ear-piercing shouting burst out all around me ‘Long live Fidel! Long live Fidel!’ Passers-by in front of me stood up and jumped in delirious excitement, their raised hands waving little Cuban flags frenetically. I, too, joined in, but more from the desperation to keep my body in motion and thus not wet my trousers than just from mere elation at seeing the leader of my country.

What followed after could only be described as agony. Fidel was already famous for his long speeches, which could last several hours, and as my condition worsened, his enthusiasm to talk grew. Thus, more than three hours passed. I was almost bent over and my eyes were watered. Our leader came over to check our position a few times and to make sure that we were not letting any strangers through. When he saw me in my miserable state he asked me what the matter was. After giving him a short explanation, he shrugged his shoulders and told me that since the speech was about to wrap up any time soon, I had better wait it out. He mentioned the words patience, revolutionary duty and courage. Somehow the image of a urinal being smashed on someone’s head flashed up before my eyes.

Finally at around 4pm Fidel said five magic words that have forever stayed with me: This is my last reflection. That was it! I thought. My micturition dilemma would soon be over. I had already cast my eye on a little bush nearby. Forget toilets, let’s go tribal.

Don't you bloody dare use that bush! I'm about to finish... in two hours.

It turned out that Fidel’s last reflection was a red herring. True to his word, though, it was indeed his last reflection, but it lasted two more hours. And at around 6pm, as the din of the attending masses drowned the noise coming from the coaches and trucks in the vicinity revving up their engines in order to set off, I looked behind, looked again to the front, looked back once more and made off to the bush I had paid so much attention to before. I would like to think that the plants I watered so contentedly then went on to become beautiful flowers, or maybe even trees.

That was the only time I saw El Comandante  up close but it was rather my bladder’s stoic resilience that I have always remembered this occasion for.

© 2016

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 7th December at 6pm (GMT)

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