Sunday, 19 December 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Christmas and New Year Reflections and Music

Self-deluded, indulgent, (over)exposed, arrogant, "inadequate, pimpled and single" (the last three epithets courtesy of Andrew 'Bah, humbug!' Marr of the BBC). When it comes to describing bloggers, there's no shortage of insults to hurl at us. How unfair. And pathetic.

I joined Blogland in 2007. I'd just had an article published in a national newspaper and realised that I didn't have a platform on which to continue to discuss the issues about which I had written. Since my column had been on dance, it was logical to open a forum about this art form. Thus, I spoke to the designer who'd created my website a couple of years before about opening a space for debate, but she told me that online talkboards, fora and blogs cost money. It was then that I discovered

I'd heard about blogs before but wasn't very sure about what to expect from blogger (in the back of my mind I probably had a similar prejudice to Andrew 'Ebenezer' Marr's about online posters). Since it was a free service, I had nothing to lose and in June 2007 (cue drum roll) 'A Cuban In London' was born. The name was not easy to choose. I first thought of a catchy one like 'Our Cuban In London', echoing Graham Greene's Cold War novel. But it'd been such a long time since I'd read about Wormold and his web of deceit that I gave up on the idea almost immediately. Around that time one of the British television channels showed 'An American In Paris' and I knew there and then that I'd found a good alternative for the name of my little online nook. Still doubts kept creeping in. It's all right if your blog has a generic name (including your real one), or a title that is closely related to the issue(s) about which you write. But when you define yourself by your nationality, gender, or political leaning, you might, unintentionally, be courting controversy. After all, what is a Cuban, besides the obvious answer: a person born in Cuba? And in what way, I thought at the time, would I be contributing to people's notions of what my countrywomen and men were like? Then, there was the most important question: what did it mean to be a Cuban in London?

After some weeks of - aimless - blogging, I realised that really and truly, besides dance, I had a lot of topics to write about, issues that I had not even contemplated addressing before, matters that had last been discussed to the soundtrack of an empty bottle of rum rolling down the floor of a desolate school dormitory in the small hours. I'd acquired some experience writing for the now defunct monthly newspaper "Noticias", a publication aimed at the Latin community in London. I had also written a few music and books reviews for websites. I put those skills into practice. Dance was not the only subject on which I could wax lyrical. Cultural, social and the occasional political post could well be woven into my online threads. I'd finally found my blog's mission statement.

And friends. During the first few weeks my comments section looked as arid as the Sahara Desert, but little by little, fellow bloggers arrived. My compadres and comadres from Cuba and other Ibero-Latin countries were the first ones on board. They were quickly followed by a coterie of US-, and later, UK-based posters, who were sometimes acquainted with Cuban culture. Eventually the list of international contributors to my comments section grew enough to resemble an ad for Benetton, not only due to our ethnic mix, my darlings, but also to our glamour. Credit where credit is due (smiles and flutters Penélope Cruz-style eyelashes). These fellow posters gave me the encouragement I needed to go the extra mile, to make an effort.

Online friendships work differently from real, physical ones. I think that on that point we all pretty much agree. But our cyber-social interaction needn't be cold and distant. After all, we (I, at least) do spend an awfully long time in front of my PC, reading posts by fellow bloggers, oohing and aahing at their creative output, or at the songs they upload, or at the images they choose to illustrate a particular topic. This exposure to other like-minded folks, even if it was just from the comfort of my computer, led me, shortly after I began my own journey through Blogland, to shed any vestige of prejudice I still had (attention Andrew 'Scrooge' Marr, you'd do well to heed this message).

This is not to say that there are no bloggers for whom my opening words would be a perfect match (thankfully, none belong to this parish). At the last count there were roughly four million blogs in the UK alone. Many times, I've come across websites that are pure vitriol, or are trying to sell something (quick tip, always check your followers' list), or were last updated when Henry VIII was having his little tussle with the Pope. But what I've also realised is that on Blogland, equal attracts equal and after more than three years as a blogger, I count more successes than failures. I especially single out those who've stuck it out with this space for that long.

There're risks, though, in confusing your online life with your real one (if you notice a cautious tone in my words, it is the guarded Scorpio talking). What happens when your fellow bloggers/regular readers unexpectedly disappear? How is one meant to feel when all of a sudden they stop commenting on your posts? Even worse, what about when you pop by a "mutual friend's" blog and you read his/her comments there? Published after your own column went online? How to react? Whereas in real life friendships can either end abruptly (after an awful fall-out, for instance) or peter out slowly, in the wide web world there's no way to arrest the demise of acquaintanceship. All you have is an empty comments box to mull over. Then the questions begin: was it something I wrote? Have I offended him/her? Human emotions on a virtual medium. We homo sapiens surely know how to keep life interesting.

The second risk is the actual, physical disappearance of a fellow blogger, especially someone who has had a big impact on you, be it because of their writing or the thoughtful comments they leave in the feedback section. I still can't get over the death of fellow blogger Renee, who sadly passed away earlier this year. The pain is as palpable as if it had been a friend in real life.

But as I mentioned before the triumphs outnumber the setbacks. In three and a half years as a blogger, these are some of the issues I've discussed and to which I've been introduced, and the writing/photography/art to which I've been exposed:

- Museums I've always wanted to visit and on whose floors, thanks to the existence of blogs, I've left my virtual footprints.
- Musings and observations on the mysteries of life, written with the linguistic flair of an 19th century écrivain.
- Floristry.
- Disability, awareness of it and its effects.
- Books, music and films reviews and recommendations.
- Multilingualism (a topic in which I have a special interest and which never ceases to generate debate).
- Illustrations (and collaborations with caricaturists).
- Travelogues that have taken me from St Kitts to Belgium, from Greenland to Malaysia, from Mexico to Maine. The list is endless, the writing and images are always superb.
- A network of like-minded Cubans, scattered throughout the world, but united by the same desire to be seen as individuals, rather than being defined by a political figure (well past his use-by date, mind you). Incidentally, my blog has just been featured in a book about the Cuban presence in Cyberland called, 'Buena Vista Social Blog'.
- Epic poems whose lessons are still relevant today.
- Discussions about religion and multiculturalism.
- Serious analyses about literature.
- Well-crafted poems, either prompted by a mischievous magpie (isn't that a case of iteration?) or landing on my virtual lap courtesy of a weekly bus.
- Exploration of the subconscious mind through autobiographical writing.
- Cookery columns.

I could carry on forever, but you probably get the gist: like our real human selves in our real human lives, bloggers come in all forms and guises. I consider myself to be one of the luckier ones for having so many online friends with whom I share similar interests. And for that reason, I raise my glass of (insert name of juice here) to you today. As for Andrew 'Fence-sitter-in-chief-at-the-BBC' Marr, well, Andie boy-o, how to put it into words? You know one of those of things that they give you when you're born, it starts with 'l', it has four letters, ends in 'e', you give it back when you die, and it has a lot of stuff happening in the middle? Well, get one, mate. In the meantime allow me to praise my 'bredrin' and 'sistas' from Blogland. May you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 9th January at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The first seven lines creep up on you like a stalking tiger. They, then, wrap around your legs like an evergreen shrub and climb up your body until they reach your head. Finally, they break in. Chaos is about to ensue.

When/if the times ever comes to decide upon a melody that perfectly captures a lover's feelings of dejection (and rejection) Nick Cave's "There She Goes, My Beautiful World" must be placed either near or at the top

With this post I am not intending to steal Laura Barton's mantle. The author of the 'Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll' columns I thoroughly enjoy every fortnight is inimitable. Nick's song, however, deserves to be dissected because it calls to a different part of me. A part you could say that is rooted in the hopeless, hapless romantic fool I have been at times in my life (not for many years, fortunately, I hasten to add). But, say, dear fellow blogger/reader, who hasn't ever penned a love letter after being dumped?

Letters. Yes, let's talk about letters. Love letters, rejection letters (not of the job type, mind), unrequited love. Missives whose margins still lie firmly on the left. Spillages that owe more to fountain pens than to oil companies. Correspondence born out of different emotions: elation, annoyance, compassion and despondency. Despondency. Step forward Mr Cave.

For some reason, I imagine that the Australian singer wrote "There She Goes..." on a piece of paper, longhand, sitting down on a rock, with his right leg crossed over his left one. I can perfectly imagine him drafting up that second stanza: "John Willmot penned his poetry/riddled with the pox/Nabakov wrote on index cards/at a lectern, in his socks..." I love the way he likens the difficult conditions in which these authors wrote their correspondence to his own predicament:"Well, me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears/Me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears/Me, I'm lying here, for what seems years/I'm just lying on my bed with nothing in my head". He is empty. He has been emptied. By his lover. Can you empathise with him, bloggers/readers? How many times have you sat there, in your lounge, you, forlorn ex-, wanting to write the letter that will wash everything away, that will return your partner to you, and yet, you can't find the words?

The love letter has a long history. Whether written by jilted lovers or hopeful ones, there are so many examples in literature that picking one or two seems unfair on the rest. However who can forget Beethoven's romantic epistle to his 'immortal beloved'?

"Why this profound sorrow, when necessity speaks? Can our love endure without sacrifices, without our demanding everything from one another, can you alter the fact that you are not wholly mine, that I am not wholly yours?"

C'mon, play the 'Moonlight Sonata' whilst you're reading the words above. And then think of all those lovers who've had to face the stark reality: a 'Return to Sender' for their efforts.

But how many can conjure up the spirits of a German philosopher, a French post-impressionist painter, an English poet and a Welsh writer and still make sense of a sung plea to his lover? Or maybe not make sense at all, but at the same time making it? If you know what I mean. Does it make sense? Anyway, Nick pulls it off beautifully:

"Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital/And Gaugin, he buggered off, man, and went all tropical/While Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull/And Dylan Thomas died drunk in St. Vincent's hospital"

But if Nick is heart, the piano in 'There She Goes... is soul. Especially as the song reaches its climax. Pity that in the clip below the keyboard is drowned out by the two guitars and bass. In my recording (commonly found on my mp3 player) the frenzy caused by the triumvirate of Cave, lyrics and piano is enough to send me on a sprinting run, especially as I normally listen to this melody whilst out jogging. The irony is that love letters from rejected parties are meant to be calm affairs of the heart. Your passion has been subdued, you can do nothing but give up. Cry your eyes out, drink your blues away, or eat a whole box of bon-bons with your friends. Yet Nick's insistence on becoming one notch up above a doormat borders on the insane: "I will kneel at your feet/I will lie at your door/I will rock you to sleep/I will roll on the floor/And I'll ask for nothing/Nothing in this life/I'll ask for nothing/Give me ever-lasting life"

Valedictory reflection from me today? Sometimes you don't want anyone to know what and how you're feeling. It happened to John Keats. He knew he didn't have much time left in this world on account of his tuberculosis, Yet, that was not deterrent to pen one of the most beautiful love letters ever written, in his case, to Fanny Brawne ("... The last of your kisses was ever the sweetest; the last smile the brightest; the last movement the gracefullest. When you pass'd my window home yesterday, I was fill'd with as much admiration as if I had then seen you for the first time...") The missive remained secret many years after the poet's death. Some other times, though, you want to shout out to the whole world: "I've loved and I've been loved!" Enter Nick again:

"I just want to move the world. I just want to move the world/I just want to move the world/I just want to move (...) So if you got a trumpet, get on your feet, brother, and blow it/If you've got a field, that don't yield, well get up and hoe it/I look at you and you look at me and deep in our hearts know it/That you weren't much of a muse, but then I weren't much of a poet..."

Unrequited love has never sounded so passionate, sincere and honest. Thanks, Nick.

© 2010

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Christmas and New Year Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 19th December at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Last week, I invited fellow bloggers and readers of this blog to take part in a discussion about the gender divide and whether our views, ideas and opinions about it are rooted in our biological make-up or our social interaction. I was very pleased with the feedback, both in the post's comments section and the written correspondence I received from readers. Three bloggers from different walks of life and nationalities (American, Canadian and British) accepted my invitation and today they will be sharing their opinions about this controversial issue. So, without any further ado, let the discussion commence!

Elizabeth Aquino (EA, left) blogs at 'A Moon, Worn As If It Had Been a Shell'. She is a writer living in Los Angeles, California raising a child with severe disabilities as well as two other "typical" children. She works in the health field as a parent support professional and currently have a fellowship at The University of Southern California's University for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Elizabeth also guest-writes at the blog 'Mama Manifesto'.

Deborah Sudul (DB, right) writes the blog 'The Temptation of Words'. She is a post-feminist mother of two sons and a daughter, which gives her a first-hand view of the differences between sexes and a highly-unscientific opinion about whether those differences are due to genes or upbringing. As the younger, taller sister of two brothers, she was raised by a sensitive father and a strong mother – an experience that taught her that the barriers women – and men – face because of their gender are meant to be ignored.

Rachel Cotterill (RC, left) writes the blog 'The Thoughts and Travels of Rachel Cotterill'. She is a writer who's studying for a PhD in computational linguistics. She lives with her husband in an idyllic cottage in the Cotswolds, but still takes every opportunity to meander through different parts of the globe.

- In your opinion, how much of a role does biological determinism play in defining men and women's place in society?

EA: In my humble opinion I imagine biological determinism plays a big role in defining men and women's place in society but is easily maneuvered over with consciousness, if that makes sense. I always tell the story of my first son, aged two, who I brought to a toy store so that he could pick out a baby doll and prepare to be a big brother (I was pregnant and expecting another boy). My son picked out one of the babies and a pink stroller to put him in. When we got home, he took the stroller out of the car, placed the baby doll carefully inside and buckled the little seat belt over the doll. He then proceeded to shove the stroller as hard as he could down the driveway and watched it as it rolled and tumbled, clapping and yelling, gleeful. I remember wondering where that aggression had come from, wondering that since it hadn't been modeled by anyone in his too short life (at least I thought not), it must have been inherent. I didn't judge it as "bad" or "good" but rather thought it was interesting. And as I've continued to raise two boys and watched my friends raise their boys and girls, I feel like there IS some biological determinism but that biology doesn't actually trump consciousness -- meaning that yes, perhaps we're wired in a primitive fashion as males and females but that evolution, consciousness, etc. can alter that biology and sometimes even trump it.

DB: It’s undeniable, I think, that biology is a huge factor in determining what people are interested in doing, and that translates quite naturally into broad societal assumptions about where men and women ‘belong’. Anyone who has had children of both sexes has a story to tell about hard-wired feminine or masculine interests, however what has changed in the last few decades is the willingness of Western society to acknowledge that there is far more cross-over in gender roles than was previously thought. I’ll go out on a limb and say that while engineering schools might now admit an equal number of females as males, overall fewer women than men are interested, for instance, in things mechanical. So it’s not surprising that men and women are still funnelled, even if voluntarily, into what are seen as gender-appropriate professions. And that, unfortunately, has a huge ripple effect. Even though women have breached male-only professions with considerable success, and even though men had found gratification in traditionally female roles, a significant percentage of men and women still find themselves in gender-specific work and personal situations.

Place is still determined by worth, and worth is still determined, for the most part, by how visibly successful one is. And success is still measured in man-terms. If a woman is successful in theoretical physics, for instance, she is admired as much for the fact that she is not typical of her sex as for her intellectual prowess. A man who is successful as a nurse does not usually enjoy the same status, nor benefit from the same positivism.

RC: This is a really huge question, and I think it can be profitably divided into two levels. So at the level of the individual: very little. I don't feel that being a woman has had much impact on the path I've taken through education and life, I've usually been in somewhat male-dominated areas (e.g. the sciences), and I've never felt that I'm less skilled than my male colleagues. But at a societal level, it's very hard to disown the biological imperative, because women by definition are the child-bearers. Given the length of human gestation and nursing, that's a huge chunk out of the life of any woman who wants to raise kids, and I think a huge amount of what we'd now consider sexist behaviour can be traced back to those very early roots. That's the fundamental reason that "equal" or "fair" treatment is never going to be the same as just treating everyone identically.

- In the same way that the woman, to whom I referred in my article, was said to be 'hardwired' to learn foreign languages easily, men and women are said to be 'hardwired' to behave in certain ways. Do you agree with that idea or not?

DB: When my first child – a boy – was born, I was determined to raise him in as non-sexist a way as possible. I wanted to prove that boys could be just as interested in so-called feminine activities and objects as girls were, so I filled his toy box with dolls and a whole lot of what I thought were gender-neutral play things – the stackable rings, the puzzles, the books and plastic animals. I vowed never to give him anything to play with that resembled a weapon and really thought I would end up with a sensitive boy in tune with his softer side, able to recognize the futility of violence and inclined to helpfulness and caring.

He wasn’t interested in the dolls. At all. I tried various kinds, shapes, colours, sizes, but none of them attracted his attention.

Anything that involved physical dexterity and construction was appealing, and as I whizzed down the aisles of the local hypermarket, he grabbed desperately at displays of toy cars. I began to realize that no matter what I might want my son to be interested in, he was having none of the ‘girly’ stuff. Toy guns were still out of the question, and I could console myself with the knowledge that, even if he was on a man-track, I would keep violence out of his world. Until the day, at about eighteen months of age, when he bit the corner off a rectangular cookie, held it by the whole end and pointed it at my forehead. Bang-bang!! The gig was up. I had a boy who was only interested in ‘typically male’ pursuits and nothing I did was going to make a blind bit of difference. Twenty-seven years later, that’s still true.

So to your question of hardwiring, I would say that it’s definitely the basis for most interests and abilities, although there is lots of room to introduce other options. I am most probably hard-wired to do my own plumbing, basic car repairs and simple building projects not only because I had the example of a very capable mother who wielded an effective hammer, but because I was just born with an inclination to do those kinds of things. Although, having two older brothers may have conditioned me to believe that I had to compete on their terms in order to be taken seriously!

RC: I've got a linguistic background and I'd say that almost everyone is hardwired to pick up languages (the exceptions being where there is brain damage or some other definite problem). People who think they're bad at languages have usually been taught badly, and almost certainly haven't had the chance to learn in an immersive setting. I'm not sure if it's safe to draw a direct parallel to the gender question, because there *is* a biological difference between men and women; we're just debating what the effect is. I only have experience of being a woman, so it's very hard to know in what ways I'd be different if I had a different set of chromosomes, but I can say with certainty that my personality changes - in a small but measurable way - over the course of each month, in a way that I assume is down to hormones. So I find it hard to believe that having a completely different set of hormones wouldn't make any difference. That's not really about skills and abilities, more about personality shifts: for example, there are a couple of days of each cycle in which I'm incredibly impatient. It's also important to keep in mind, when considering any question like this, that we're dealing with two massively overlapping sets: any inherent gender difference will express itself only as the difference in the distribution of characteristics across the whole of these two sets. The individual variation for any given characteristic seems, in my experience, to be sufficiently large as to overwhelm the group characteristics. Let's think about sport for a moment: the average differences between men and women in strength and speed are significant enough that most sports are separated by gender, but a female Olympic runner could easily outrun the average man. I think you're more interested in the mental angle in this debate, but the statistics work the same way. Unfortunately, statistics tends not to sell as well as big headline statements of the "Men Are From Mars" style.

EA: I do agree with it. I'm not a scientist but I'm fascinated by the idea that biology -- chemicals in the brain, its metabolism and structure -- can determine personality, predilections, etc. Why not sex as well?

- What is your experience of biological determinism and social conditioning? Do you think that the former has a bigger say in how we interact socially than the latter?

RC: On a personal level, I don't think I've been affected much by biological determinism - to date, I've even avoided the sense of a "ticking biological clock". Regarding social conditioning, however, I've had several strong rebellions as I really don't like to feel I'm being pidgeon-holed on any basis. I used to think I hated the colour pink, because of the assumption it was a "girly" colour (if you look at my blog, you'll see I've got over that!). It's almost too easy to say that social conditioning has more of an effect on social interactions, but I think that risks overlooking the fact that a lot of the social conditioning has roots in biology - again, we come back to the fact that women have to give birth to children, have to feed them, and therefore traditionally end up looking after them. The implications of this hit me really hard when, working on my first (fantasy) novel, I devised a society where women and men really were treated equally by the system. I had to redraft the whole thing when I realised I'd been so busy making sure that education and work were egalitarian, that I'd left no space for women to give birth!

EA: I'm not convinced that biological determinism has a bigger say in how we interact socially. However, I confess to being as guilty as the next in my sexist comments about the inscrutability of men because that's been my experience with them. The sort of social interaction I have with my women friends is vastly different from that with men -- is that because of biology and hormones or social conditioning? I don't know. Again, I imagine biological determinism can be manipulated by social conditioning but it's probably always present. I just finished a fascinating novel called "Room" -- I believe the author is British -- a story of a young boy who is raised for the first five years of his life in a small room with his mother, who is being held as a sort of sex slave/hostage. I know the premise is utterly creepy, but the book gives a fascinating glimpse of what it might be like to only be exposed to one room and objects within that room, to have one's paradigm of existence NOT be shaped by multiple influences and social conditioning. As this author wrote it, objects are only as significant as the names we attach to them -- and are they really the objects that are named or only the names? In the same way, I suppose we could argue about male and female as signifiers, but if we were to peel back their skin and probe into their brains would we find very different things -- male and female -- or is the brain shaped, neurons firing, pathways created by experience and conditioning?

Overall, in my experience I find the "male" and "female" mind distinctly different, so different that I fall on the biological determinism model, perhaps, out of frustration. It's a far easier answer.

DB: This is a tricky question – and a good one, Cuban. I’d like to think that I’m an example of biological determinism, as many of my interests tend to fall on the side of what is considered to be male territory. Anything to do with cars, how things work, physical problem-solving (dishwasher repair) and computers are a few of the things I can do and talk about with some degree of assurance and enthusiasm. I find that these conversations tend to be held with men, because few women are knowledgeable or interested in such subjects.

Socially, I often gravitate towards men not because I like to flirt, but because I feel I have more in common with them. What cultural conditioning I have has made me conscious of my femininity, and quite comfortable with it, but I consider it to be a far less important factor of who I am and what I bring to my social interaction. I have, unfortunately, a negative reaction to women who behave in ways that I consider to be typically feminine. Social conditioning has taught (many) women to consider their appearance and sexual appeal as having more initial worth than their intellectual, practical and philosophical abilities. There was once hope, I thought, for the daughters of the feminist movement, but if anything their perception of themselves as helpless ultra-females is more pronounced than for women of the pre-feminist movement.

I think that the cultural influences on gender roles of the last forty years or so have left their mark principally on men. In mixed gatherings, I hear men having conversations that their fathers wouldn’t have had, while the women’s talk revolves around much the same things that their mothers’ probably did. I do think we are far more influenced by our cultural conditioning than our biological imperatives when we men and women relate to each other, at least in the superficial phase of our interaction.

© 2010

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 12th December at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Linguistic Reflections and Music

I once met a woman who was trilingual: she was born in Switzerland, in the French part, and lived there the first few years of her life, thus, she spoke the Gallic language fluently. Her family then moved to Spain, where she was raised, therefore she had an excellent command of the Iberian lexicon. As an adult she settled in the UK with her Canadian partner - later husband -, picking up English in the process. What was curious about this person was how she deployed her linguistic arsenal. She used French for basic conversations, the what, who, where, when, how, so to speak; Spanish for deep talks, from the state of the economy to politics. English, then, was left for chats about children and education (especially home education, as none of her three children went to school). You could say then that this woman was a 'natural' for languages; she was 'hardwired' to become fluent in any lingo.


This is a different post today, in that issues to do with language are usually addressed in my 'Living in a Bilingual World' columns. But today I will use linguistics as an excuse to discuss with you, fellow bloggers and readers, a hot topic, one that has caused many a controversy for a long time and which will continue to polarise people all over the world. Are men really from Mars and women from Venus?

The reason why I'm using this woman as an example for my post today is that the response she often got to her excellent linguistic skills was similar to the feedback women (and men) get when they are involved in activities that are outside their alleged gender remit. Many people oohed and aahed at how this woman was able to switch from French to Spanish to English. But why did she elicit such a strong response? Because her audience was seldom multilingual themselves. Same with the people who claim that females are better at communicating and males better at playing the Action Man role. What a lot of horlicks (as former home secretary Jack Straw would put it. There, another example of male articulacy). Look at a group photo of the latest G20 meeting and tell me how many men and women there are in the line-up. And what do you think they do all day in this once-a-year meetings? Play cops and robbers? Hmmm... I just realised that I might have inserted an (unintentional) pun in that question. To clarify, any similarity to real actions or events is pure coincidence

But you know what I mean. When the G20 meet, they normally talk. A lot. For a long time. Usually behind closed doors. And as this group is male-dominated, we can safely assume that not a lot of 'it' or 'tag' games are being executed (the image of Berlusconi chasing after Merkel is enough to put me off my breakfast, although apparently he hasn't got any problems giving chase to seventeen-year-old girls).

Then, how is it that we still allow our - obvious - biological differences to rule our social interaction and our contribution to modern society? Why is it still OK to ascribe certain rigid mores to each gender without double checking first that, hey! they are interchangeable and don't you know that women can drive buses and men change nappies?

The 'Martian Man vs Venusian Woman' is a far too rich industry to execute a U-turn like Pope Benedict has done in relation to the use of condoms. And even the Pontiff's statement was not very radical. Anyone expecting to see a headline reading: "Pope Benedict: Jesus did not die on the cross, he died of a severe case of micturition, hence his crossed legs", will have to wait. The Pontifex Maximus has merely accepted what everyone else has been saying all these years: that the use of condoms reduces the risk of infection from Aids. Still, can you hear the gritting of teeth? Likewise, anyone expecting the advocates of biological determinism to come out and say that, actually, the differences between men and women are more often than not caused by social conditioning than innate distinctions, should sit down and wait patiently... and wait patiently... and wait patiently...

That's why I am opening up my blog for another debate (I've already done it once. Remember the discussion about feminism? Click here, here and here so that you have an idea about how it works). On this occasion we will be talking about the issue of nature vs nurture from a gender point of view. If you want to be part of this debate, e-mail me at my address (it's in my profile). I have drafted up three questions for the first three bloggers who contact me. Once I have received the confirmation from the three contributors that they want to take part in this discussion, I will then respond to all of you at the same time. I will be using the Bcc field to avoid disclosing your e-mail addresses. All replies will be unabridged. What you write is what I will post. I would really appreciate it if you could forward a very short bio, maybe just a couple of lines. Pics are optional, as I know some bloggers prefer to remain anonymous. If you do send a photo, please, do it in jpeg, tiff, giff or bitmap format, blogger doesn't accept pdfs. Your blogs will be linked at the beginning of each biography. If you want to reproduce the content of my piece in your own blogs, please, feel free to do so.

The follow-up to this column should come out next week, as long as I get the replies in time. I do have an alternative post to publish, just in case (always have a plan B), but I would really love it if we could segue from today's column to next week's instalment smoothly.

So, get writing! I'm already looking forward to your contributions.

In other news, the Theatre Royal Stratford East was the perfect setting for an amazing concert by the Creole Choir of Cuba last Thursday 18th November. Desandann (meaning 'descendents'), as the vocal troupe is more widely known, blew the audience away with their passionate songs, passed down by their parents and grandparents. The melodies, sung in Creole and supported occasionally by drums, highlighted the influence that Haitians have had on Cuban culture for centuries. I would like to thank Joe, Rebecca and Lucinda from Serious for giving me the opportunity to attend and review this concert. The choir will be on tour next year. For full details of their upcoming performances, click here. And for you readers/fellow bloggers, here's a taste of what my beautiful Cuba has to offer.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 5th December at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Exercises on Free Writing

Is he asleep?

Of course, she snaps. But should there be an 'of course'? After all, many a night she has been up until the small hours consoling him after a fit. It's not the convulsions she fears, to those she has grown accustomed, it's the aftermath, his sense of disorientation. Her voice softens. "Yes, he is asleep, sorry".

"You don't have to say sorry. It's not easy. I understand."
"Do you?"
"Well, I try. I know, it's difficult to put myself in your place."
"I wonder if I can even put myself in my place. I wonder if I even want to be in my place".

Silence. The unsayable is usually followed by quietness. This is not what she came here for, however. She saw the balcony light on, knew he was out there, wanted to have a chat. Wanted to have contact. With another human being. Wanted. To see him.

Their eyes kiss. It's a lingering, embracing kiss, the type they know they won't be able to replicate with their lips.

"How bad is he?" He sounds worried, but maybe he just wants to break the uncomfortable silence. There are good days and bad days, she replies, lately we've had a good run. But you can never be certain. He will die very soon. Of that we're all sure, the kids and I. The tumour is too advanced. Hence the holidays. Radiotherapy, chemotherapy, oncologist, surgeon. A whole new vocabulary she never asked to be taught. The surrounding Andalusian landscape reminds her the time when she wanted to learn Arabic. Who knows, maybe by now she would have been able to say brain tumour in that language.

He looks at her. From where he is sitting, leaning back on his chair, feet up against the door frame, he can just make out her naked body underneath her camisole. The full moon serves as a giant spotlight that outlines her fine features: her wrinkled face, each crease telling a unique story of an eventful life, her strong shoulders, the result of many a lap in her local swimming pool - wait, didn't she dare him to a race a few days ago? And beat him? He looks at her curly black hair, set against the paleness of her skin. White streaks already crowd her mane. Often, she jokes, she imagines a short dialogue between a -still- black strand of hair and its grey counterpart: "Will you ever dye?", "I don't know about you, but my owner and I will surely die one day". He looks at her breasts, already pointing downwards, as if they were trying to reach down to its belly, rounded, protruding belly, the carrier of three beautiful children. Children? No, teenagers now. His eyes keep travelling southwards to her legs. Her negligee is ankle-length, but still he is able to see her well-shaped, veiny legs, her strong thighs. Even the incipient cellulite sits well on her body.

He catches her catching him looking at her. He feels embarrassed but doesn't blush. His dark skin won't let him.

"It's OK. It doesn't hurt to look". She smiles. She wants to add, I like the way you look at me. It makes me feel desired. But she doesn't dare to utter the words. His wife might hear her.

"Is your wife asleep, too?"

He nods. She had a headache, he says. As usual, he thinks. His eyes focus on the whitewashed Spanish village, near their cortijo. He remembers the walk they took two days ago, around the town's tree-filled square and cobbled streets. Her husband was really looking forward to it. He was in high spirits, there had been a gap in his verbal glitches, maybe the treatment was working after all. He kept talking the whole time, word after word, stringing sentences together, emphasising each points with his hands. Funny that, he doesn't remember her husband gesticulating as much before... Is that what happens when you get a brain tumour that affects your speech? Do you start talking with your limbs? He remembers the walk well. Yes, he does. He also remembers his wife. Holding hands with her at first like two adolescents in love, until they began to argue. Inevitably. It was over some petty issue. As it's the norm these days. And then the hands went their own separate ways, like their owners. When did their relationship stop working? Sometimes his current situation reminds him of a driver leaving the windshield wipers on when the rain ends. The squealing, dry sound that diverts the driver's attention from the traffic for a split second. That's how his relationship feels at the moment. But he can't bring himself to halt the wipers.

"Things are not going very well, are they?", her voice is calm and low but there's no mistake that there's some hope in her question.

"No, you could say that a tumour is also killing my relationship".
"I think you're wrong. I fell out of love with him before he was diagnosed. His condition has just made things... more difficult"
"You mean, to leave him?"
"Yes. Who would like to be tarred with the 'cruel wife' label?"
"Then, there's no hope for me? For us?"

He's never gone this far before. He realises now that their conversation up to this moment has been mere background music for their feelings.

Suddenly they are on the floor. Like in the movies. He slips her nightgown off whilst she removes his trousers. He is naked waist-up. Like in the movies. They kiss passionately and silently. She strokes his face and pinches his nipples. The onset of middle age has given him a potbelly, against which she rubs her body. His hands travel from her neck to her legs. And in between them. Like in the movies. There is muffled laughter and gasping noises. Thrusts, abandon, repressed frustration and elation. Like in the movies. And after ten minutes, they both lie side by side.

Except that...

That doesn't happen.

What does happen is that they both stay where they are, her sitting now on the marbled floor, him still leaning against the door frame on his chair. Immobile. But their mouths do not remain motionless. There are words pouring forth at great velocity, many words, trying to make sense of the lack of a plan B. He married for life, but can’t help seeing his relationship fading out. He doesn’t blame his wife; he is just as guilty as she is. But it’s painful to bear witness to your own life heading for a car-crash scenario, in slow motion. There are the two kids to consider. Kids, he thinks, yes, university kids. Spongers, he calls them sometimes. He laughs. And then, there’s you. He comes clear. It’s been building up slowly, but surely. She nods. He continues, it was your humour, our conversations, your maturity, your confidence. Nothing to do with my body, then, she replies. Oh no, it's not that, he laughs. An embarrassed person's laugh. He didn’t mean that, he says. I know, she responds, like a mother who’s just caught her teenage son hiding a top-shelf magazine under his bed. It’s her turn now. I loved and then un-loved, she says. He was, is (do we start talking in the past about our partners only when we are thinking of cheating on them, she thinks), wonderful. He always supported me in my teaching career, despite, or on top of, rather, his own successful literary one. Always on hand to take care of the kids whenever I was marking or staying behind, volunteering for the school fête. But there was no romance. I can’t remember who killed it first, but I was ready to leave when… Would you have left him for me? He asks, anxiously. Would you have left your wife for me? She retorts.

His silence is seized by her to press on, unchallenged. I, too, fell for you many years ago. Same reasons you gave, plus your body, she smiles. I always saw you as more than a friend. Whenever you discussed your difficult upbringing and how you fought your way through, to be who and where you are today; I felt an intimacy developing between us.

Suddenly she changes the subject. She is at her wits' end, she admits. Recently she wrote to the Guardian’s Family Supplement’s ‘A letter to…’. She addressed her missive to her husband’s illness, she says. "Dear Mr Tumour", she began her correspondence, "I think that it's hightime you stopped showing your displeasure at my husband's writing. It is true that he has just killed the protagonist of many of his books, Dr Spürhund. As a crime writer that could be considered suicidal, but that was a decision made by his agent and publisher. Nothing to do with my husband. It was to do with sales, with new media, e-books, marketing. That's no reason, Mr Tumour, for you to fog his brain, to blur his speech, to rid him of his language, because language is what he trades in. Would you deprive a sculptor of his arms? My husband used to sculpt beautiful sentences, extraordinary passages, crafted carefully after many hours locked in his room." The letter continued in the same tragicomic vein, "Do you know that he says that because 'tumour' rhymes with 'humour' he can now swear as much as he likes? And he immediately corroborates this finding by saying 'poppycock' repeteadly, lowering his voice when pronouncing the first two syllables. Who knows, maybe his last word before he dies will be 'cock'..."

He is crying. In silence. Strangled sobs that punctuate her narration. Dawn breaks. The nascent sun spreads its orange carpet over the Alpujarras mountains. This was once the dominion of Aben Humeya, the last Moorish king of Al-Andalus. Today is the realm of repressed sentiments. Her eyes are bloodshot. Although, if it is a consequence of the dry air, lack of sleep, or absence of love, nobody knows.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Linguistic Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 28th November at 10am (GMT)

Image taken from Our new life in Andalucia Spain Big Blog

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Birthday Post: Reflections and Music

Last week on my way to work I saw a leaf slowly falling down from a tree. As soon as it touched the floor, Bach's 'Keyboard Concerto No. 7 - Andante' kicked off on my mp3 player. On the surface there was nothing strange in that scene. We're in autumn with trees performing their annual strip-tease as usual, whenever I don't cycle to work, I walk and I usually take my mp3 player with me. I've got a few pieces by Bach on it. But there was a different smell. a different feel in the air this time around. Then it hit me. That leaf, was not just a leaf, it was a page coming off my life's calendar. I was about to turn forty-minus-one. It was nature's way of telling me that I was (am) getting older. Maybe wiser, too? I don't know, I hope so.

The second movement of Bach's 'Keyboard Concerto' has an interesting story behind it. According to Wiki, the musician intended to compose a full harpsichord concerto but didn't alter much the strings parts, resulting in the keyboard instrument being overwhelmed by the rest of the ensemble. You can almost hear the piano in the second movement (Andante) wanting to free itself from the cello, violin and viola's claws (especially at 3:46 in the clip below), only for the latter three to trap it again.

In certain ways my life's been like that, usually seeking to gain and preserve my independence. Sometimes, especially when I still lived in Cuba, this struggle was played against the backdrop of a gigantic Greek chorus whose main intention was to say my lines. The only problem was that being the proud owner of a good voice, I didn't see the need for a translator. There were times when the ensemble took it upon itself to place a mask on my face to hide my true feelings. It was usually a smiley one. A thespian emoticon, if you like.

But at some point in my life I shook off the yoke of that F Murray Abraham-like figure ('Mighty Aphrodite' by Woody Allen, since you ask). The results were mixed: success followed by failure followed by success. Yet, isn't that what life's about? Who wants to be pinned down by a tyranny of strings when there's a whole world of ivories to aspire to? Unlike Bach's concerto, I've been satisfied thus far with my solo role. My harpsichord escaped the violin and viola's claws many years ago and it's not returning to their grasp any time soon.

That falling leaf, set ablaze by the most colourful autumn we've had in years in the UK, Bach's musical in-fighting playing in my ears, my birthday less than a week away. This is what Kundera would call 'a chain of fortuitous events', the concept that underlined his 1984 masterpiece 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. But instead of being trapped in a 'ménage à quatre', like Tereza, Tomas, Sabina and Franz, I am walking, unshackled and unbound, on a magic carpet woven by the dexterous hand of Mother Nature and made up of red-gold, copper-tinted, yellow-tinged leaves. Autumn always reminds me why I'm glad to live where I live, with whom I live and how I live. Here's a toast to myself on my fortieth-minus-one birthday and, also, to my beloved city, Havana, with which I share my birthday (although she is four-hundred and fifty-two years older). And to you, fellow blogger, thanks for reading me.

© 2010

Photo by the blog author

Next Post: ‘Exercises on Free Writing’, to be published on Sunday 21st November at 10am (GMT)

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum

I love avocadoes. And now my son does, too, which fills my heart with glee. It is said that if you were to be stranded on an island and you had the opportunity to choose just one kind of food that you could eat every day in order to survive, avocado would be the most appropriate and healthiest option. It contains a high percentage of monounsaturated fat, vitamins B, E and K and fibre.

In Cuba we have a funny way of finding out whether to use an avocado for salad or dip/paste. We shake the fruit close to our ear (cue puzzling looks from other customers in my local supermarket) and if we hear the seed inside it moving, that means it can be added to any green salad you're preparing. We call that type of avocado, 'aguacate aguachento' (watery avocado). If the seed remains static, we press our fingers on the fruit skin instead to assess its ripeness. If they sink, then we go for the paste.

Guacamole is not very common in Cuba as it is in Mexico and other Latin countries in Central America. Hence my introduction to this dish came only when I was in my twenties, courtesy of a Mexican family who lived in Havana at the time and with which I was acquainted. I found their guacamole quite spicy for my taste, if truth be told, but after almost thirteen years in Britain where I've had th pleasure of occasionally tucking into Mexican food, I've grown accustomed to the hotness (as in spicy).

The recipe below is by Felicity Cloake, a writer specialising in food and drink. I have to admit that I don't include tomatoes when I make my guacamole, just try to keep it as simple as possible. Plus, I like using lemon juice as opposed to lime, or garlic dressing if I haven't got any lemons. This recipe is perfect as a light lunch on a rainy day, followed by some hot 'mate', drunk, preferably in a customised gourd. Just, you know, to keep things as Latin as possible.


1–3 fresh green chillies, depending on heat, and your taste, finely chopped
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
Handful of fresh coriander, roughly chopped
3 ripe avocados
1 ripe medium tomato, cut into 3mm dice
Juice of 1 lime

1. Put a teaspoon each of the chilli, onion and coriander into a pestle and mortar, along with a pinch of coarse salt, and grind to a paste.

2. Peel the avocados and remove the stone. Cut into cubes, then mash into a chunky paste, leaving some pieces intact.

3. Stir the chilli paste into the avocado, and then gently fold in the tomatoes and the rest of the onions, chilli and coriander. Add lime juice and salt to taste. Serve immediately, or cover the surface with cling film and refrigerate.

And if we're to keep things as Latin as possible, then it should follow that my first musical offering tonight has Latin written all over it. Late Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer joined forces with the British pop band, Gorillaz, and together they released this gem of a song. Full, like a ripe avocado.

To me, grinding the chilli, onions and coriander is like listening to Franz Ferdinand's guitars. The workout I get from combining those ingredients in a mortar is similar to the syncopated beat of the Scottish band. Marvellous.

Once my guacamole is ready, it's time to sit down, put my feet up and enjoy it. Just the way I enjoy how Caetano's voice sounds: mature, confident and serene. The water is boiling and pretty soon I'll have a gourd with steaming 'mate' in hand. Happy eating!

© 2010

Next Post: 'Birthday Post: Reflections and Music', to be published on Tuesday 16th November at 12:01am (GMT)

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Vertical Road (Review)

"I died from minerality and became vegetable;
And from vegetativeness I died and became animal,
I died from animality and became man.
Then why fear disappearance through death?
Next time I shall die
Bringing forth wings and feathers like angels;
After that, soaring higher than angels -
What you cannot imagine,
I shall be that."

Rumi (Persian poet and philosopher)

It could have gone so wrong for Akram Khan's latest work, 'Vertical Road'. With its nod to Sufi traditions, its lack of script but abundance of isolated ideas, Khan's new choreography could have come across as an alienating and pretentious piece of pseudo-art. Instead, though, the innovative director has created yet another masterpiece which will definitely take its place next to his very own magnum opuses 'Sacred Monsters' (featuring ballerina Sylvie Guillem) and 'zero degrees' (a collaboration with fellow performer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, sculptor Antony Gormley and musician Nitin Sawhney).

Coincidentally, it's Sawhney's score that underlines this, at times delicate and at times disturbing, piece (second clip below). A Jesus-lookalike dancer, Salah El Brogy, stands behind a large screen on one side of the stage. On the other side seven dancers reach out to this god-like presence. Are they on a quest to find their spirituality? Is El Brogy their collective past? For the next hour or so the performers go from one extreme to the other, from convulsive, jerky movements to more lyrical and poetic ones, thus, bringing a much needed vulnerability to a choreography that has a visceral and raw outlook.

According to Akram Khan (first clip below), the inspiration for 'Vertical Road' came from his own questioning about the need for spirituality in today's world. Hence the upwards movements representing the quest towards a more unembodied approach to our lives, whilst the horizontal motions stand for our lives as we know them. But that's as far as any coherent theory about this work goes. The piece has a life of its own. I would dare to say that in the same way Pollock allowed his brushes to do the talking for him in his abstract works (all that spilling paid off in the end, methinks), Khan uses his eight dancers' energy and strength to explore issues such as collective past, violence and love.

The music is loud, raw and brutal and, mixed with an almost bare stage, complements perfectly the spiritual message Khan is intent on conveying. Yet, inside this musical onslaught theres is a discernible frailty. I wasn't surprised when (spoiler alert!!!) the screen is ripped at the end.

When I read Rumi's poem in the programme before the show I prepared myself for an abstract piece where the place spirituality occupies in the world nowadays would be given a metaphorical interpretation by Khan's eight dancers. At the end of the show I realised that the person 'performing' the figure of speech was Akram himself. In my opinion he was explaining what his mission as an artist was. 'Vertical Road' was his way of saying "Next time I shall die (...)What you cannot imagine, I shall be that."

© 2010

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum', to be published on Thursday 11th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Recently, whilst watching BBC News, I faced what I can only call an 'emotional and rational cataclysm'. One of the presenters was interviewing a woman whose only son had been violently murdered by a local gang. Some of the culprits had been given life sentences, but after six or seven years they were about to be released. In the studio with the aforementioned mother was an expert in law who tried to explain the reason behind the change in the offenders' punishment.

This was yet another occasion on which I felt every part of my body reaching out to another person for whom, in my view, justice had not been fully done. This woman's pain, on talking about her son and how he'd been set upon by a bunch of low-lifes, was palpable and real. My emotions ranged from anger at the gang members, who had apparently shown no remorse for their actions, to despair at yet more evidence of human failure. But then came the law analyst's intervention. He spoke of broken homes and shattered dreams, of wasted childhoods, of an imbalance between physical growth and mental development. My mood changed. Doubts crept in. Then. the mother held the floor again. Pictures of the criminals were shown and my anger returned. To say that I felt like a tennis ball being hit from side to side during that debate would be an understatement. It was only when someone mentioned the 'c' word that I realised what I was going through.

'Compassion' comes from the Latin 'compassiō' (fellow feeling). However, to a Spanish speaker, when said quickly, the term might be a bit confusing: 'compasión' vs 'con pasión'. The former translates as 'compassion' into English, whereas the latter comes back as 'with passion'. There is a rule in Spanish that dictates that in any word where the letters 'b' and 'p' are preceded by 'n', the 'n' is changed to an 'm', hence the confusion sometimes when you hear people talking of 'compasión' or 'con pasión'. That the mother was talking with passion should come as no surprise. After all it was her son who had been savagely murdered by thugs. But still, when the expert explained how these young criminals needed love and compassion above all, I felt my liberal self pick a fight with my animal instinct.

What is it about the efforts to commiserate with transgressors that brings us down a couple of notches on our human scale? How often have I caught myself thinking: 'Hanging would be too good for him/her/them!' only to be repelled (well, only just) at my attitude afterwards? Do you, readers and fellow bloggers, feel the same?

In a world where many times we're not even waiting for the other party to finish his or her side of the argument before we press on to put our final point across, is it surprising that sympathy is going the same way as the Bengal tiger, towards extinction? I confess that I used to belong to the ‘an eye for an eye’ brigade, but experience has convinced me that when you retaliate against an unjust action, or what you think it's an unjust action, the reaction you get is almost the same as spitting against a 200-mile-per-hour gale strong wind. You’re the only who’s going to get hurt. And then you have to hurt the other party even more. Which is why, over the years, I have shifted the centre of discussion or debate from me to us, you and me.

But I would be lying if I wrote that when I look at mugshots of criminals I remain undisturbed. No. I want them punished. Harshly. Severely. As that mother on the BBC channel said: “Doesn’t life mean life? Doesn’t taking someone’s life mean that yours will not be spared?” And wasn’t she right, though? I might have shifted the centre of discussion or debate, but the goalposts still remain in place, dug in the mud.

Compassion is usually confused with pity, so I guess the Germans got it right when they decided that their term would be as un-Latin as possible. In the Teutonic language compassion translates as ‘Mitgefühl’ and the verb is ‘mitfühlen', namely, ‘to feel with’. In that sense, the expert on law was asking us to leave aside our prejudices and ‘feel’ the culprits’ pain. There’re a couple of small problems with that approach, though. Occasionally when we use a microscope to analyse a person’s upbringing and surroundings up close, trying to understand how they are capable of committing an atrocious act, we are in fact giving them a free ticket to Victimhood Island. After all, we know that killing someone else is wrong, even more so when there’s no apparent cause. The other dilemma is that where do we stop? Should we sympathise with Mao for the millions he killed in China? Who knows, maybe he had a lousy childhood. Should we feel compassion towards Hitler for not making it as a painter and forget about Die Endlösung?

Taking into account the kind of society in which we live today, I am of the opinion that we need more compassion, not less, especially when humiliation and aggressiveness have become so common. But every time I think of that woman on BBC News, I feel the wind pushing my ‘Compassion’ boat in her direction and not in the direction of her son’s murderers.

© 2010

Next Post: ‘Vertical Road’ (Review), to be published on Tuesday 9th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Let's Talk About...

... art critics. And by art critics, I mean any expert who opines on literature or visual arts. Those creatures that spew venom through their yellowed teeth, leaving their rotten-banana-scented breath everywhere they go. I know Halloween's come and gone, but did anyone think of going out dressed as an art critic?

Before I move on, though, a disclaimer. This post is NOT about Judith Mackrell, Philip French, Luke Jennings, Robert McCrum and Germaine Greer. Well, not about Germaine when she's the in-form writer who can wax lyrical about any subject from knitting to Aboriginal art. But when she behaves vituperatively towards her targets, then... well, I guess she is just being an art critic.

The art critic is that human subspecies (I know, I know, some people would probably scoff at the 'human' bit) for whom nothing has had any value since Picasso and Lawrence Olivier graced our exhibition rooms and stages many moons ago. Any new act, upcoming writer, innovative technique is met with derision and comparison: "Ha! That was already being done in 194...!" He or she is the one that likened Radiohead to Pink Floyd when the former came about in the 90s and who later put Coldplay in the same category. No, you pillock! None of these bands are the same. They appeared in different eras, with distinctive musical aims. But you would be wasting your time. The art critic is two of the three proverbial monkeys rolled into one: See and hear no evil, but speak it very well indeed!

The genesis of an art critic is an interesting phenomenon. The gestation period lasts many years but the signs appear at an early age. He or she is the child for whom the mashed potato is never tender enough, the climbing frame has architectural flaws or his/her art lessons in school do not pose any challenge. As they move through puberty art critics are commonly found to be without partners of their own, but always willing to pounce on what they think are defects in the personality of their friends' other halves. When questioned why they don't put their own courtship theories to the test, their replies are usually the same. No one is ever good enough for them.

As a result of evolution the art critic's forefinger is longer than the rest of humans. Plus he/she has an extra digit, which they place vertically on their lips to silence those who oppose their opinions. That's why it's so easy to recognise them. They're always pointing at faults and shutting people up. And they always seem to think that their opinion matters. In fact, their opinion does matter, unfortunately. But occasionally critics abandon the safety of their cosy and warm lair and venture into subjects of which they have very little or no knowledge at all. And the results are disastrous. Like Stephen Fry's recent comments on women's sexuality. I would have never believed that amongst Stephen’s many talents, being a connoisseur of female libido was one of them. But that’s exactly what happens when a critic thinks that it’s his or her divine right to have an opinion about everything.

The art critic’s skin is so thick that he/she is oblivious to the effect their words have on the public. As readers, we might not care one jot about what a book critic writes about a novel or biography, but you can bet the author will be chewing his or her nails over the outcome. Occasionally, art critics get their comeuppance. Punches are thrown in post-screening parties; glasses of water are hurled at private views at these overgrown schoolchildren that pass off as experts, passages in fiction books dispose discreetly of these know-it-alls. I don’t condone violence, but don’t we love it when the underdog, i.e., the artist, gets his/her own back?

Sometimes we confuse critics and reviewers. It’s an easy mistake to make. Let’s see if I can shine some light on this matter. The former contains the latter. A critic is also a reviewer, but his or her role goes beyond the reporting of a concert, dance show or photography exhibition. A reviewer, on the other hand, has a more flexible and informal outlook. I review shows, books and CDs, but I am not a critic, even if my expertise in certain fields could make me one. A reviewer also has a passion for his or her subject, an approach, that, sadly, the critic has long abandoned. A critic works, a reviewer enjoys.

Just in case you think that I am advocating the elimination of critics henceforth, perish the thought. As illustrated at the beginning of this column, there are critics whose pieces I seek and whose reviews I read, even if I know I will never attend or visit the concert or exhibition they are discussing. A critic is necessary, in my opinion. What is not needed is the bile. I understand that certain artists deserve the opprobrium heaped on them by critics, but it’s when the cultural pages of a newspaper or magazine become the equivalent of a gladiatorial arena in Roman times that I start fretting. Critical sadism masqueraded as quality writing? No, thanks, but no. Small wonder, then, that there were never any flying dinosaurs. They were all terrestrial. If we are to believe the history of evolution and the evidence unearthed by archaeologists, we have to situate critics at the same time as dinosaurs roamed the earth. I’m sure that at some point, T-Rex and its compadres tried to grow wings to fly to more fertile lands, only for the critics to say: “Wings? Who do you think you are? A Pterodactyl?” And at that precise moment, a meteorite struck the earth. We were left with cockroaches… and art critics.

© 2010

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 7th November at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

La Lectrice/The Reader (Review)

I'm sure that you will agree with me, my lovely book-worm readers, that going to bed with Atwood or Rushdie is one of those pleasures in life that cannot be measured. Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, that of me advocating licentious literary displays, let me come clear. I'm referring to the simple act of reading in bed. Or being read to, which is better.

That's the premise at the centre of "La Lectrice" (The Reader), a French film from 1988 that I watched again recently. Constance (played superbly by Miou-Miou) is in bed with her boyfriend, to whom she is reading a novel aloud. Inspired by the book's main character, Marie, who hires her services out as a reader, Constance decides to do something similar. From here onwards fiction and reality combine together seamlessly to create a tale where the boundaries of what's
reality combine together seamlessly to create a tale where the boundaries of what's genuine and what’s not very often confuse the viewer.

Constance/Marie’s clients include a disabled young man, a general’s widow with strong communist leanings, a company director who can’t handle social interaction very well and a lascivious judge. Along the way we’re taken on a journey through some of literature’s classical works. Tolstoy, Duras and Sade are just some of the authors who cameo in the film.

La Lectrice” poses various questions: is reading a solitary activity or can it be shared? If shared, do you have to possess a particular voice to read to another person or an audience, or will your ordinary one do just as well? Can being read to change the way we interact with people?

The film benefits from a strong direction (Michel Deville) and leads, but occasionally it affects a false tone of sophistication. On top of that some of the nude scenes are gratuitous, in my opinion, especially after the playful atmosphere at the beginning. Saying that, Constance/Marie’s decision at the end of the film to refuse to read to the lascivious magistrate and his friends a passage from Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom”, is evidence that Miou Miou’s character is anything but a puppet.

I would recommend that you watch this film with a group of like-minded friends who are as keen on reading as you are, preferably on a Saturday night. Who knows, you might even arrange a reading session after!

© 2010

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Thursday 4th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

"It feels as if she's always been there, on the other side of my mind, knowing what the other half is thinking all the time." It was a typically cool evening in early December, mid 90s Havana. The annual Latin American Film Festival was in full swing and in between shows my friend A and I were discussing her love life. "If you'd asked me months ago if I would ever feel like this for another... you know... I don't know... I would have laughed in your face, but now... I just can't stop thinking about her. It's so... confusing". It was. And for me, too. My friend A was in a new relationship. But unlike her previous partner, her current squeeze was a woman.

Less than a year before my friend A, her then boyfriend, my girlfriend at the time and I attended a concert by the Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes. I remember thinking at the time that A was the happiest I'd ever seen her since meeting a year before in uni. She confessed to me that she'd just come out of a long streak of short, failed relationships. But the guy she was seeing now was the one. She had no doubts. And neither did I.

What happened then in those intervening ten or eleven months? D happened.

Human sexuality is one of those fascinating areas that provoke both awe and inhibition in equal measure. Introduce the subject at a dinner party and the floor usually clears in the same way it does when a lame DJ makes a bad musical decision in a club. If there is a no-no when we are in polite company it is the discussion of politics and/or sex (and quite often the two of them go hand in hand). Unless, that is, we're in a small, intimate environment, with friends who will not judge us harshly or unfairly for the comments we might make. On the other hand, if your companions are strangers or acquaintances, the conversation might feel a tad bit uncomfortable.

Why? I guess that it comes from two sources: one is the image we present to the world, the other one is fierce ownership of the still waters that run deep inside us. My friend A was a second year university student at the time she started her relationship with D. She came from a stable home, with parents happily married, sister studying engineering (and coming out of the closet, too, shortly after A), good academic results and a strong network of friends, of which I had just recently became a member. To the outside world, she was the standard heterosexual woman, the opposite of the butch caricature with which lesbians are still unfortunately identified. That was the image she presented to the world. But inside her an emotional turmoil threatened to derail her. After all, can we prescribe sexual orientation?

That's where the second element comes in. Regardless of what society demands of us, we always have our inner world in which to seek refuge. What happens when we retrieve to our lair and we watch our feelings and thoughts in a gigantic plasma screen? What happens when those notions and sentiments do not conform to the stereotype expected of us? I, along other friends of A's, were there when she confronted her sexuality. At the time that long period in which she learnt about herself, about love and above all, about loving another woman, was also educational for me. As a former homophobe (yes, I hang my head in shame, but at the same time, I must declare that homophobia was, and probably still is, endemic in most Cuban schools at the time. Sadly, it's the same situation in many countries around the world, including the UK), I had a close insight into A's life which convinced me that when it came to affairs of the heart, gays and straights were joined by the same umbilical cord. It wasn't just my friend A who unwittingly helped me in this process. Another close friend of A and mine, (D, not her girlfriend, but a young man) was also homosexual and he became my best pal until I left Cuba in '97.

The key in A's development as a person who found the strength to come out of the closet years after - alas, not with her first girlfriend - was how she turned her back on that first element I mentioned earlier, the image we present to the world, whilst slowly embracing the second: her inner self. It was a process that I can only compare with how the sun breaks through the tree branches on a cold autumn morning after an overcast sky, even if the analogy sounds corny.

One of the misleading notions about people who 'cross over to the other side' is that it's all about sex. And yet, I don't remember either A or D (male) making much fuss about it. In fact, I recall asking A that question in relation to her former beau and her response was that though she'd had enjoyed intercourse with him, with her new partner it was different. For starters, there was much more talk and mutual hobbies, not just physicality, but even when they got physical, it was often cushioned by reciprocality. Secondly, there was a connection, a strong tie that bound them together.

Same-sex relationships, sadly, are the easy target of many modern societies, developed or not. Just recently in the US, president Obama has released a video to draw attention to the problems and dilemmas faced by gay teenagers in that country after a spate of suicides amongst homosexual adolescents called for more direct intervention. Compare Obama's attitude with the malevolent, American-imported, world of gay-to-straight conversion already taking place here in the UK, according to research carried out by journalist Patrick Strudwick, and you might understand why so many homosexuals still seek the (false) comfort of the closet, rather than accepting who they are. Add religion to the mix and being an out and proud gay person is as explosive as dynamite.

Human sexuality cannot be prescribed anymore than you can make a final decision, aged seven, about the colour of shoes you will be wearing for the rest of your life. One of my wife's better friends (female) lives in cohabitation with a guy who was gay for most of his life, including having long-term, meaningful relationships. Yet he fell for my wife's friend so strongly that they even started a family together.

Still, mention of this in the pub on Friday night could lead to your spending the rest of your professional career with the 'office weirdo' label stamped on your forehead. And yet, I know, from experience and from watching people around me, that sexuality is never black and white.

My friend A lives now in Spain, in what I'd like to imagine is a fulfilling and beautiful relationship. And although we have not seen each other for many years, this post is my way of thanking her for existing, for being my friend and for helping me look at the world with less mist on my lenses. Because the mist is always there, sometimes it's denser, sometimes less so, but it's how we learn to cope with it that counts.

© 2010

Next Post: "La Lectrice/The Reader (Review)", to be published on Tuesday 2nd November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum

By the time you read this post I will have probably licked my plate clean. Oh, yes, I belong to the don't-leave-anything-on-your-plate-don't-waste-any-food brigade. Especially when presented with yet another succulent Nigel Slater's recipe. I also admit that I had never made gravy before so I was looking forward to adding another plus to my burgeoning cook's CV. When it comes to sauces, though, I fall on the thick side of the argument. Give me a gravy with curves, full of bulkiness and compactness any time.

Liver and Bacon (the words for the recipe are Nigel's)

For the gravy: slowly cook 2 large onions, peeled and thickly sliced, in 50g butter until pale gold, soft and sweet. Add a level tbsp of flour. Brown lightly then stir in 300ml of stock. Simmer for 20 minutes then serve with the liver. Fry or grill the liver and bacon, allowing 150g liver per person and 2 rashers of bacon. Some mashed potato would be good here.

Cook the onions very slowly and the liver very fast. The usual cooking time suggested for fried onions is often underestimated. They take a good 15-20 minutes to cook evenly. Hurrying the procedure will forfeit sweetness. Grill the liver for a minute or two. The pan must be searingly hot so the inside stays pink while the outer crust forms.

This is food for the soul and I'm a soul man. It should follow then that my first musical offering tonight is Sam and Dave's timeless anthem, "Soul Man". Tuck in!

From 60s US soul to proper, heartfelt, Spanish flamenco-pop. Malagueño Toni Zenet is a recent discovery, courtesy of a fellow Spanish blogger, but I already have a couple of his albums on my amazon to-buy list. This tune translates as "Dreaming of You" and it's as autumnal as liver and bacon. Enjoy.

And last, but not least, here's one of those songs that makes you want to stay in as soon as the streetlights are switched on and the nights draw in. Céu has one of those voices that you are unlikely to find in a post-Crimbo, January sale. This woman's vocals can only be purchased at a unique shop called 'Soul'. Heart-warming as thick onion gravy.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 31st October at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Sometimes certain passages in a book remind me of a good old, fat, hand-rolled Cuban cigar. Before I carry on, though, a small disclaimer. This post is not product-placement for any company nor an endorsement of smoking. Smoking kills and I have no intention whatsoever of picking up that habit in the next two-hundred years. What this post is about is the process. That process that turns a green tobacco leaf into a world-class cigar and how, in my opinion, it can be compared with the similar method whereby a bunch of words can be transformed into a well-written scene.

But what have cigars got to do with writing, I hear you ask? In order to answer that question I need to give you some background information on work experience in Cuba and how it functioned when I was a teenager. From the age of twelve at secondary school we were supposed to go to work on the countryside for approximately forty-five days between January and February every year. This was usually called escuela al campo (countryside school). The aim was a noble one: to instill the spirit of collectivism in us and to bring us closer to the soil, source of our nourishment. The reality, however, was completely different and rather prosaic. The only activities we were interested in were the three 'Ls' (especially if you were in your mid-to-late teens): getting lagered, laid and lazy. I missed the first four years of my escuela al campo through illness but eventually I joined the ranks of hormonal adolescents looking to escape parental control through the usual mix of booze and sex.

I was sixteen and in college (high school in the US and other countries) when one cold morning my peers and I alighted in Pinar del Río, Cuba's westernmost province. The job we were given, as befit this region, was in the tobacco fields. The tasks were various: collecting the leaves, sewing them and curing them. The head of my brigade happened to be a close friend of mine, and that was reason enough for me to skive my way through the whole stay. Days were spent swimming in a nearby river or going for long walks with a bunch of fellow slackers. It was with them that I learnt about the process of rolling a cigar.

Just in case you think that you can grab a few tobacco leaves and mould them into one of those famous Montecristos or Partagás made famous by Hollywood movies, please, take some time to reconsider your decision. You might be in for a nasty surprise. First of all, tobacco leaves are cured indoors, in special huts or cottages, hence the sewing. They are, first of all, threaded together in a line and put on long poles. The sticks are then placed inside the hut with the greener leaves at the bottom and the more 'mature' ones at the top. Try smoking the uncured leaves and you risk poisoning yourself (pesticides were still in use around those years, I don't know now). But if you attempt to take the leaves at the top you're also taking a gamble; tobacco huts are very tall (think of a three or four-storey building) and if you slip off a pole you might fall to your death, as it, sadly, happened to a couple of youngsters from another college at the time I was doing my work experience.

My friends took a chance on the green leaves and used to sit outside the cabins or in the middle of the fields (anywhere was fine as long as you were out of the teachers' sight) rolling their future cigars whilst chewing the fat. I observed them many a time and always marvelled at their ability to wrap the thin tobacco leaves without losing the thread of our conversation. The ultimate goal, however, was to lie back and enjoy the fruit of their - unofficial - labour. Puff after puff delivered a certain drunkenness and stupor that enveloped them like a thick cloud. Some of the more inane and yet deep colloquies I've had in my life took place during these dopey sessions. But, as I mentioned before, it was the process of 'rolling up' that I really paid attention to.

It's the same with some scenes in certain novels. Especially those passages of a descriptive nature. I find the same care and concentration on minutest details. It feels as if the author is carving out a wooden sculpture with his or her bare hands, moulding the words to suit their taste. 'Rolling up', you could call it. By way of explanation, I will give you an example that appears in the book that's kept my mind busy for the last few weeks, "Uncle Tom's Cabin". This scene appears in Chapter XI, Volume I, 'In which property gets into an improper state of mind'. It is the prelude to George's debate with Mr Wilson, his former employer. The passage takes place in a B&B or hostal where slave-traders mix with merchants and farmers. I love the way Harriet Beecher Stowe sets the tone for the events that are about to unfold:

"In fact, everybody in the room bore on his head this characteristic emblem of man's sovereignty; whether it were felt hat, palm-leaf, greasy beaver, or fine new chapeau, there it reposed with true republican independence. In truth, it appeared to be the characteristic mark of every indivdual. Some wore them tipped rakishly to one side - these were your men of humor, jolly, free-and-easy dogs; some had them jammed independently down over their noses - these were your hard characters, thorough men, who, when they wore their hats, wanted to wear them, and to wear them just as they had a mind to; there were those who had them set far over back - wide, awake men, who wanted to a clear prospect; while careless men, who did not know, or care, how their hats sat, had them shaking about in all directions. The various hats, in fact, were quite a Shakespearean tragedy."

A passage that could otherwise be thought inconsenquential ends up being essential, in my opinion. First of all, there're the humorous observations about how folks in this neck of the woods wear their hats. The language is simple but full of details. The description smells as fresh as the morning dew-perfumed bottom three leaves of the tobacco plant, the ones you pick up first. Secondly, there're the psychological remarks: "there were those who had them set far over back - wide, awake men, who wanted to a clear prospect; while careless men, who did not know, or care, how their hats sat, had them shaking about in all directions." That reminded me of my friends' assessment of their 'roll-ups' after lighting them. Not that they cared that much, the intention always being getting high. Last, but not least, there's that reference to Shakespeare, a little nod that caught me unawares the first time I read the novel and which I enjoyed even more the second time around. You would never try to link the hats donned by a room full of men, mostly slave-traders, to "the Bard of Avon", but somehow the passage pulls it off beautifully. In pretty much the same way, my friends were able to converse about disparate subjects without a care in the world. What to an outsider was mostly gobbledegook, to us it made perfect sense. I forgot to mention that as the only person who didn't smoke in the group, I had the most fun.

I believe that there are many more examples of scenes in both fiction and non-fiction that could be compared with the simple and creative art of hand-rolling a Cuban cigar. And if that sounds like free advertising for you to go away now and light up, I don't care, suit yourself. Though not a smoker myself, I know what kind of 'roll-up' I will be sitting down to enjoy tonight. Here's a clue: it has words and pages.

© 2010

Next Post: "Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum", to be published on Thursday 28th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


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