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)


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