Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Killer Opening Songs (Be Here Now by Ray LaMontagne)

When a whisper spooks its way into your soul and a murmur echoes inside the walls of your inner being you know that you're not just in the presence of a musician, but also of an artist.

Ray LaMontagne belongs to that dying breed of artist(e)s who make the ordinary extraordinary and Killer Opening Songs is happy to have him on the lounge tonight. 'Be Here Now', the K.O.S. of his sophomore record, 'Till the Sun Turns Black', seems to materialise out of nothing; its mere existence a mix of brooding and sanguinnes (Don't let your mind get weary/And confused your will be still, don't try/Don't let your heart get heavy/Child, inside you there's a strength that lies).

Ray's craft is based on a world-weariness that belies his almost thirty-eight years. That such a young man could produce two amazing records (his debut album, 'Trouble' was widely acclaimed by critics), one straight after the other in the space of two years, shows an extraordinary ability for song-writing. That he achieved this at the same time as X-Factor and other copycat formats consolidated their hegemony over a repetitive and uninspiring pop market, is Herculean.

'Be Here Now' opens a musical cycle in which each song, in K.O.S.'s opinion, represents the sun's position in the sky during the day. However, regardless of their tempo, all the tracks cover Ray's usual subjects: life, love, heartbreak and optimism. Delivered in a raspy voice, his melodies carry the weight of experience and the hard blows sometimes brought about by vicissitudes.

Special acknowledgements must also go to the production team, above all, Ethan Johns, whose arrangements render this record versatile and varied. 'Three More Days' is good old-fashioned soul-blues, whilst 'You Can Bring Me Flowers' is a jazzlite song that has Miles Davis written all over it. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the aforementioned tracks sit almost in the middle of the album, just as the sun reaches its zenith.

Great voice, simple, yet mature lyrics and a sensitive soul. Tonight Killer Opening Songs wishes Ray LaMontagne a fruitful, long musical career. Here's hoping you enjoy the clip!

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 3rd April at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Spring's here and the rabbit's leading the way again. As soon as the first blossoms appear, my spirit is immediately possessed by an Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired goblin soaking up everything one of my two favourite seasons has to offer (the other one's autumn). Every year my inner elf is guided by the same time-conscious, clothed rabbit. The talking rabbit with a pocket watch. The tweed-jacket rabbit. The stewed rabbit. The in-my-stomach rabbit. I forgot to mention that the gremlin that takes residence inside me is an omnivore. The rabbit's lifespan is very short: from late March until the end of June. Poor rabbit.

However, I do enjoy its company whilst it lasts. Especially this year because instead of leading me down a hole, my little furry, large-eared friend took me on a tour of my cyber-neighbourhood. And the experience was very pleasant. If you're on blogger, you've probably seen the 'Next Blog' option at the top of your computer screen. Ever wondered what lies ahead if you click on it? Hasn't curiosity got the better of you?

Well, it did get the better of me the other day and instead of a hall with locked doors I found a vibrant virtual barrio with open minds. At Rockport 35 RV Park, I met Dianne and Keith who keep readers up to date with the daily goings-on in this town in Texas. At the time of writing the latest news was the birth of Baby Logsdon, a healthy-looking boy who came into this world on 18th March at 6:23pm (these folks are pretty accurate, aren't they are? :-D). The Rockport blog represents that pleasant mix of the quotidian with the extraordinary, a feature that will ring many bells with other fellow bloggers. It's the reporting of a trip to a local vineyard combined with the celebration of St Patrick's Day.

After that short jaunt, rabbit and I came back home (the rule, if any, is that you click on the 'Next Blog' on your own page rather on you neighbour's, otherwise you would be visiting your next-door acquaintance's acquaintance, which would be a bit... odd) and I proceeded to knock on the door of the next tenant on my cyber-block. This one turned out to be Judy's Scraps. Judy is a 'former Navy, and a 43 year survivor of Oral Cancer.' Her blog is an online scrapbook of photos of family and friends. She also collaborates with designers and uses their kits to decorate her pages, which, by the way look very original. This blog showed me the power of cooperation amongst bloggers. I've always been impressed with the organic synergy that materialises when like-minded souls come together, especially when you take into account that their only means of interaction is a keyboard and computer. I'm glad I popped by your blog, Judy. Next time, I'll probably accept your invitation to coffee.

My final stop was at Life's Got Twistered Upside Down, and I'm so happy I left this house for last. You know the offbeat neighbour who polarises people in your local community? Well, this is the one. LGTUD is a wacky space that belongs to a 22-year-old woman with a sense of humour that's really up my street, so it was logical that I stayed for a while to enjoy her writing. First of all, and forgive me if I sound slightly patronising, but I love the fact that the author of LGTUD doesn't text-write, but writes-writes, as in proper-English-writes. Full sentences and appropriate punctuation. Secondly, because her posts are interesting to read. Like the one where one minute she was writing about not being much of a talker when she was younger, then she segued into Twitter and updates, winding up with the tale of a suspiciously looking sixty-year-old man who was walking on his own at 4:30am near her house. Her style might not appeal to people who're not used to words constantly changing fonts and sizes but hey! we're all different. Embrace difference.

There's a downside to virtual neighbourhoods, though. They don't exist. Everytime you click on 'Next blog' a different space appears, thus rendering the notion of a settled community completely meaningless. Also, I cheated a little. I chose the next-door neighbours that would appeal more to my readers. More often than not, I found barren cyber-land where posts had not been updated for aeons, owners who had decamped to greener pastures or blogs whose content was too offensive. Yet, despite these minuses, I loved the experience. At least neither rabbit nor I came across a Queen of Hearts screaming "Off with their heads" at the top of her lungs. Instead, we were both lucky to meet the equivalent of the Mad Hatter's tea party.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Killer Opening Song’, to be published on Wednesday 30th March at 11:59pm

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

"... Home, where my thoughts escape, at home, where my music's playin'
Home, where my love lies waitin' silently for me..."

'Homeward Bound' (Simon and Garfunkel)

Everytime I come back to my London home from a trip abroad there are a handful a songs I have to play as soon as I saunter through my front door. These are tunes that exude domesticity, comfort and warmth. One of them is that timeless classic by Art and Paul, 'Homeward Bound'. The melody works at several levels for me but it is in the chorus where it takes on a special meaning. The 'thoughts' that 'escape' in the track, represent my memories, both conscious and unconscious (it also works when I go back to Cuba; that's also 'home', obviously). The 'music' stands for my domestic surroundings: the familiar sounds, the ordinary lights and the instantly recognisable furniture. Finally that 'love' of which Simon and Garfunkel sing is my next-of-kin; both in Cuba and here in GB.

However, away from the world of D minor chords and C majors, that song also represents how I feel sometimes about certain books. Especially those penned by authors whose works I have never read before and yet they immediately make me feel 'at home'. Have you ever come across a writer whose name might have caught your attention but of whose oeuvre you are unaware? Maybe you've even read the odd little non-fiction piece in a newspaper or magazine, but still, you have not quite got around to dig into their proper opus. When that happens, I tread carefully, especially if the work in question comes with a few awards attached. What if I don't like it?

Nevertheless, that initial apprehension is soon overcome because of the way the writing reflects my preferences. This is not to say that the author's writing is a replica of someone else's. It's based, rather, on how the writer taps into areas of my brain that lead me to that 'homely' feeling. One of them is the one labelled 'humour'.

There's a difference between comic novels/short stories and novels or tales that contain a high level of facetiousness. I rarely come across the former (unless I'm reading Woody Allen, then again, that's almost like an extended version of his erstwhile stand-up act), but I absolutely love the latter. The late Virgilio Piñera, Chimamanda Ngozi, Borges and Kundera are good examples of how serious works of fiction needn't be po-faced. These writers, and many others, achieve hilarity without compromising their narrative. In Ngozi's 'Half of a Yellow Sun' there's plenty of tragedy since the novel is set during the Biafran war. At the same time there are moments of pure mirthfulness that render the piece effortlessly graceful. Not having been exposed to her work before, I finished reading 'Half of...' thinking of delving into her previous novel 'Purple Hibiscus' as soon as possible. Part of the motivation was based on her sense of humour.

When I mention humour in novels and short stories, I don't mean the thousand-laughs-a-minute type. In my case I prefer the slow-cooking, thoughtful kind. It is comicality not as buffoonery, but as wit. Especially when you decode references in a passage that might otherwise be irrelevant. This is the sort of humour that breeds a strong intimacy between reader and writer.

The most recent example I've come across lately is Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall', a historical novel of gargantuan ambitions. What makes Hilary's work so enjoyable is her unconventional approach. She writes about a historical period well covered in schools: Henry VIII's kingdom, his lack of a male heir and his tussle with the pope. However, she injects each character with a believable and dynamic personality. And one of the key elements in making her story believable is her use of humour to convey the deep changes occurring in England in the 1520s.

Recently, the author Howard Jacobson, winner of the Booker prize 2010, wrote "Show me a novel that's not comic and I'll show you a novel that's not doing its job." I half-agree with him and half-disagree. 'Wolf Hall' is not a comic novel per se, and yet it contains many laugh-inducing moments. These become more poignant as we learn of Thomas Cromwell's difficult childhood (he had an abusive father) and the misfortunes that befall him and his family when he loses both his wife and his two daughters. Cromwell's dry and warped sense of humour match his no-nonsense approach to life and it is this fortitude of character that ultimately leads him to become Henry VIII's chief operator. What I think Jacobson is saying in his essay is that novels that lack humour, fail to convey what I call the 'plausibility of life', that fine line between accepting what's happening in a book as an alternative reality (albeit a temporary one) and an outright impossible scenario. We're all aware that it's very unlikely that cars will ever be possessed by supernatural forces, but still that won't deter people from reading Stephen King's 'Christine' and sympathising with Leigh Cabot, the vehicle's main target. Incidentally, if my memory serves me correctly there's hardly any humour in that novel. Come to think of it, after reading my fair share of King's books, I don't recall much mirth in them. Something to consider.

I do agree with Howard that fun should be as much part of a novel's DNA as a strong plot and credible characters. It won't hurt anyone, let alone publishers, in these times of distress and economic uncertainty to include a caption like 'this book is seriously amusing' in the novel's cover. However, a piece of fiction where you're reading jokes from beginning to end is neither taking itself too seriously nor the reader. If I want unadulturated comedy, I'll tune into 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks' on a Monday evening, thank you very much.

Hilary follows in the footsteps of many novelists who have used, or used in the case of those who are no longer amongst the living, humour as an incidental tool. Cervantes did it with 'Don Quijote de la Mancha'. In fact, most people remember the magnum opus of Spanish letters more for its delusional protagonist, his illiterate squire and the absurd adventures they encounter on their way than they do for its groundbreaking literary approach.

In the same way that Simon and Garfunkel's song always reminds me of the comfort I find back home when I return from a trip abroad, humour in a novel, especially one that first introduces me to an author's work, feels as cosy as a quilt on a winter night. Silently cosy.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be posted on Sunday 27th March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. Crackingly good cook, Jamie. Cheeky chappie Jamie. Top bloke, diamond geezer Jamie. You've done it again, mate. True, this time around there was no wordplay involving imminent disrobing. Somehow 'Naked Schoolmaster' wouldn't have cut it the same way 'Naked Chef' did all those years ago. People would have probably thought of a blue movie set in a girls' school. Still your purpose was clear: to bare the iniquities that you think exist within our education system.

For the last few weeks I have been watching Jamie Oliver's new programme, 'Dream School'. Or maybe I should say that for the last few weeks I have been amusing myself with Jamie Oliver's new show, because at the end of the day the intention of both the production team and the Naked Chef himself has been to entertain. Let's leave the whole 'save our kids, our schools and our education system' sloganeering for later, shall we?

The problem the programme poses is the following. Every year almost half of 16-year-olds leave school without the recommended 5 A-C grades at GCSE level. Their future looks bleak and given the current employment situation, it is very likely that they'll end up joining the long dole queue. Which is why Jamie Oliver, not alien to failure in school himself, has taken over a building, revamped it, redecorated it and reopened it as his 'Dream School'. Or an academy, to make it shorter. Twenty youngsters from all walks of life and backgrounds are given a second chance to do better. One of the aims of the series is to try to shine a light on what went wrong with these teenagers. Was it the status quo? Their parents? Their school? Or, how about if they were let down by themselves? In order to answer these questions and in an attemp to get to the bottom of this conundrum, Jamie recruits the help of several celebrities from the fields of politics, the creative and cultural industries, finance, sciences and sport. The majority of them has never taught at a school. Most of them are very well known in their area of expertise and all of them make regular television appearances. The challenge is on.

Or is it? Oh, dear! Who would be a teacher these days. Especially when one minute you're doing Shakespeare at a famous theatre and the next you're given a reality-check by a pack of feral seventen and eighteen-year-olds who've never heard of you and are not interested in the bloke from 'posh Stratford'.

Jamie's intentions are laudable. On that I fully agree with my wife, with whom I've been watching the series. But education is not like cooking, even if in both you have to get the mix of ingredients right.

One of the many mistakes that people make about the art of teaching is that it's easy. Anyone can do it. So, let me be clear about one aspect of it: anyone, and I mean anyone, can waltz into a classroom and teach a class. You don't have to have studied tons and tons of books on pedagogical methods and psychology. But the question is, will your students remember the lesson after it's ended? Will they come away from it thinking that it changed their perspective of the world? Maybe even help them understand that world better?

Because good teachers don't just teach, good teachers educate. And brilliant teachers inspire. And my totally unscientific study of teaching in the UK reveals that there are a lot of brilliant teachers out there.

All of Jamie's guests are outstanding figures in their respective fields, except for, in my humble opinion, the historian David Starkey and Alastair Campbell. The former makes me cringe everytime I see him on television because he lacks the magical touch that a Tristam Hunt, Simon Schama and even, a controversial Niall Ferguson bring to their series. The latter was one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq and one of the most polemic - for want of a more appropriate word - political players in the grand charade that was New Labour. Starkey lacked mettle in his first encounter with his pupils. He lost control of the class and tried to reinstate it by offending one of the students (he called him 'fat'; the student replied by remarking on Starkey's height. Serves you right, David!). However, no matter how excellent these do-gooders are, they lack the nous and sapience that come with the experience of educating. Jamie's celebrities are self-centred by nature. His students, however, lack equilibrium, their centre already having been removed. Mostly by themselves.

And to me that's the main problem at the heart of 'Dream School'. Oliver blames the system. But the system is made up of teachers, support staff, administrators, officials, policy-makers, ministers and many more. Who are you blaming specifically, Jamie? How about focusing on the student who has a brilliant teacher and yet spends his or her whole time speaking in class and inconveniencing Miss/Mrs/Sir? Is the system also to blame?

With this series, Mr Oliver has bitten off more than he can chew, in my opinion. I don't dislike Jamie. I was in favour of his campaign to improve school meals some years ago. Occasionally I join my wife on the couch to watch one of his series, whether it be his trip through the States or his lobbying for healthy food. But on this occasion, I think the programme would have benefited more from a professional approach. Teaching is not like cooking. Unlike the latter, it doesn't end when you switch the oven off.

However, I can't fault Jamie. He's not the only one who's had a pop at the education system. The previous government made it easy for people who'd lost their jobs in the City (London's financial hub) during the 2008 economic meltdown to go into education. A six-month training course and you're a teacher! Would any of those who thought this policy up have put themselves at the mercy of someone who'd taken a crash course in surgery in the same length of time? Recently we had Michael Gove, our new Education Secretary, saying that he wanted to deploy ex-army personnel in our classrooms to instil more discipline in our children. Has the guy seen the mess the military's created in Iraq and Afghanistan?

It's worth remarking, too, that the programme does highlight some of the problems affecting education in the UK. One of the tutors who fared better with the kids was Ellen MacArthur when she took the youngsters out yachting. But then, she didn't have the full class. The message? Smaller class sizes. Professor of Science Robert Winston and world famous photographer Rankin also were also accepted by the pupils because thay had a more hands-on approach. The verdict? Make lessons more interactive.

Still, though, watching the likes of Simon Callow and Rolf Harris complaining about how dfficult was to reach out to the 'yoof', had me pondering if these two same celebs would have allowed the late Peter Graves to pilot their aeroplane just because he played Captain Clarence Oveur in the film of the same name. Simon and Rolf, it is hard to engage with the 'yoof', because you haven't got the skills to do it. That's why teachers teach and you two act and do versions of 'Stairway to Heaven' respectively. Each to their own.

The timing of 'Dream School' is unfortunate, too. Cuts is "le mot d'ordre" nowadays (or 'savings' as most of the government literature euphemistically puts it) and with the menacing 'free schools' movement, spearheaded by the journalist and writer Toby Young, gaining ground, state-run, educational establishments are bracing themselves for difficult times ahead. To paraphrase Roger Waters, Mr Oliver: 'We do need good education/But we don't need no chef control/No cheekie-chappiness in the classroom/Jamie leave teaching alone/Hey, Jamie, leave teachers alone/All in all, they always are the first patsies in the wall/All in all, they always are the first patsies in the wall.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Of Literature and other Abstract Thoughts’, to be published on Wednesday 23rd March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the English Language and its Quirks)

German has its subordinate clauses where the verb is always placed at the end. Spanish and French have the ubiquitous (and difficult!) subjunctive mood to negotiate. Plus two dyed-in-the-wool academies (Real Academia Española and l’Académie Française respectively) with very little time for modern, linguistic twists. And English? Well, the language of the Anglo-Saxons has gone Globish, a lexicon whose existence is deeply rooted in the way the role of English has been reframed in recent decades, becoming anarchic by nature in the process. From Nigeria to Malaysia, Shakespeare's language belongs to no one and to everybody. We speak English in whichever way we want to.

And yet...

There still exists within this lingua franca a trait that is enough to send the sanest of human beings to the nearest madhouse: it is the stark contrast between the spelling and the pronunciation of many words.

If you've ever felt as if you were metaphorically marooned on a deserted island because you couldn't work out how to pronounce and/or tell 'should' or 'sought' apart, then, welcome to the club, my friend. This is the 'Club of Non-Natives Who Thought English Was Easier Because Of Its Grammar, Only To Find Out That Its Pronunciation Vs Spelling Structure Was Anything But'. Long title, I know, but it truly reflects the club's large membership.

Take 'weight' [weyt] and 'height'[hahyt]. We all know what they mean and how to pronounce them. But have you ever stopped to think of what would happen if you tried to utter one of those two words using the articulation of the other? In the case of 'weight' pronounced as 'height', your audience, at best, would try to work out why you're including references to 'biped' or 'Homo Sapiens' in your conversation; at worst you'd be downright misunderstood. With 'height' the situation would be very different. Any attempt to apply the way we pronounce 'weight' to the noun that denotes 'extent or distance upward' will be met with quizzical looks. Why are you asking me what my 'hate' is? You mean my pet hate? Confusing, I know.

One of the reasons for this mess, beautiful and intriguing as it is, though, is that English is not the result of one single linguistic stream. English is the result of centuries and centuries of, sometimes small and sometimes large, geopolitical and historical events, which have brought about deep and significant changes in the way it is spoken and written today. Take Hollywood for instance. Starting in the 1920s and peaking in the '40s its presence and influence have been omnipresent, chiefly in a Europe devastated by the Second World War and in need of escapism. Thus, American English, or at least the brand exported by Tinseltown became the standard by which most countries strove to speak this Germanic language. The examples abound, 'theater' was favoured over 'theatre' and 'color' over 'colour'.

That still leaves the whole phonemes vs graphemes question unanswered. Whereas in a language like French you know that there are three kinds of 'e' sounds whose pronunciation usually matches spelling (yeux, les and chaise, for instance), in English the disparity between what you hear and what you read is abysmal. For example the grapheme [a] can be found in the following words and yet the pronunciation changes each time: hat, adorn, mate, pillage.

Attempts to simplify the spelling of words in English are being made, even if they have not proved to be successful. One reason is that there's no national or international body tasked with the responsibility of safeguarding the English language for future generations. And good on English, I say! Spanish and French have long lagged behind their Germanic counterpart because the two aforementioned academies frown upon neologisms. In the language of Cervantes you have to wait for decades before a new term is admitted in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española despite the fact that it's probably already widely used by Spanish-speakers. By contrast English is dynamic and ever-changing, coining new words and phrases. If only their pronunciation/spelling combination made sense most of the time!

The other night when I began to write this column the first example that came to my head was 'laughter' [lafter] and 'slaughter' [slawter]. Just one letter ('s') separates both words and yet they couldn't be more different. On the news a few years before I'd heard that a wedding in Afghanistan had ended in a bloodbath when the crew of a US fighter jet had mistakenly thought that the shots being fired in the air were projectiles aimed at them. They were instead part of a traditional celebration. In the comfort of my London home I thought of how, through the addition or omission of one letter and a change in pronunciation, a journalist's report could move from elation to tragedy in an instant. A quirky - and dare I say, cruel - trait indeed.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 20th March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Recently one of the teachers in my school was telling one her students off for something he'd done, but instead of giving the pupil a tongue-lashing she tried to get the young'un to understand how his behaviour was at odds with the school ethos. At the same time she attempted to explain to him - with mixed success - what was expected of him in and outside the classroom. Some of the words she used were: manners, tact and communication. One of the reasons why I eavesdropped on her conversation with the student was because, although I'm not part of the class-based staff, I do interact with pupils on a regular basis. I was very impressed with the way she dealt with the situation and by the end I was convinced that the student would have second thoughts before lashing out again.

As someone who grew up at a time when it was still OK to give a pupil a clip round his ear, this new, alternative approach still catches me by surprise. I've probably learnt more about the art of good teaching (including how to address disruptive behaviour) in my two and a half years as a community manager at the school I'm based than I did in my five years at uni and my two years as a language teacher after. At the centre of this process is a philosophical and pedagogical personal U-turn that I think was long overdue. Harsh punishment seldom works in the long term, whereas nurturing civility in children does.

I don't know if you've ever been in the company of someone whose views sit at odds with yours. Someone whose opinions on issues that are dear to you border on the extreme. Maybe you and your companion are at a dinner party, the two of you enjoying the hospitality of a mutual friend. What to do? You can retire to another part of the house, or you can challenge this person's point of view politely. How about if you work closely with someone who represents almost everything you hate? Do you try to reach for a compromise, or do you reject the person flat-out, thus risking the team's stability?

Whatever course of action you decide to take, I'm sure that civility and the message it usually conveys will be a useful tool with which to address your quandary.

I used to believe in the school of hard knocks. My philosophy was that the way to sort out a disagreement was by beating your opponent (verbally) into submission. An unfinished argument was enough to keep me awake at night. My old self still, occasionally, rears his ugly head in the wake of rows and contemplates scenarios that would mirror Dante's version of hell.

Civility, unfortunately, is very often mistaken for cowardice. Any attempt to reach a middle ground is derisively dismissed. And yet, civility is so much needed. The teacher I mentioned at the beginning of my post did not make any judgement on whether the student was right or wrong to be aggrieved. She was more interested in the manner in which the pupil was trying to solve the problem. I applauded her approach because in the long term that child will realise that you win more through polite negotiation and tactful compromise than through all-out aggression.

It's a lesson that, sadly, has not been fully learned in today's world. We still value chest-beating rudeness over good manners sometimes. However, is it a good idea? If, as a result of constant squabbling, people lose their jobs, or don't get the healthcare they need, who is the ass? And who is the dumb pachyderm?

There's another benefit in spousing civility as a powerful ally when confronting difficult issues. It puts the onus on the other person. You say to your opponent, these are my views, which are completely different from yours. But, hey, I'm willing to meet you halfway, as long as we retain the respect we both deserve. Do you not think that people will be willing to engage with you?

Of course, sometimes we have to resort to other methods, like force, for instance, to solve problems. Good manners will simply not do. Tyrants very often laugh off any polite attempts to discuss their rule. Politicians preach civility whilst throwing mud at their foes with the hope that some of it will stick. Disagreements between atheists and religious believers have frequently descended into mere cat-calling with neither party willing to reason with the other. When faced with the above scenarios, harsh measures must fill up the gap usually allocated to civility.

Luckily, though, not everything is lost, although solutions tend to be found at a domestic level rather than in the grand, international arena. For example, in my house my children must abide by a points system, pioneered by my wife, which awards merits to those who comply with the chores they're meant to complete. Within this structure there are minus points, too, and sometimes they are given to those who don't treat other family members respectfully. And that goes for adults, too. Does it work? Yes, it does, most of the time. Yet, I've seen first-hand how easy it is to fall into the habit of name-calling and constant bickering and how difficult it is to get back on track and be nice to your brother/sister/partner again. Civility is a precious commodity whose benefits are manifold and as long as we have teachers, like my colleague, embedding it in our pupils' principles, the future can only bode well.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Living in a Bilingual World’, to be published on Wednesday 16th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

London River (Review)

It's hard to envisage someone trying to create or make sense of beauty when confronted with an atrocity. More so when the barbaric act to which this person bears witness is the consequence of the worst terrorist attack a city's ever seen perpetrated against it. It, then, shouldn't be hard to understand the initial reluctance by writers, musicians, film-makers and artists in general, to address the events that befell London in the summer of 2005.

7/7 will always be etched in our collective memory, not just because of the eerie, iterative numerical combination, but also because it happened a day after the British capital had been confirmed as the host of the 2012 Olympic Games. Suddenly the mood in the streets went from elation to despair.

However, in the end artists did respond, not only to the bombings, but also to some of the events that took place in the wake of the terrorist attack: the shooting of the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes two weeks after 7/7, for instance. Nitin Sawhney's eighth studio album, 'London Undersound', aimed to celebrate and comment on London and its cultural diversity. A memorial to the victims of the carnage was unveiled in Hyde Park in 2009. And film made its own contribution, too, in the form of Chris Morris's satire 'Four Lions' and 'London River', directed by the French director Rachid Bouchareb. The latter, in particular, is a movie about tragedy and loss as much as it is about prejudice and ignorance.

Elisabeth (another five-star performance by Brenda Blethyn) is a farmer on the idyllic island of Guernsey. Her daughter has recently moved to London and seems to be doing well, although mum is unaware of what her offspring's daily life entails. Watching the events of 7/7 unfold on TV, Elisabeth calls her daughter to check she is OK. After leaving countless messages on her mobile and getting no response, she finally takes a train London-bound, leaving her brother in charge of her farm. Upon her arrival in the British capital she comes face-to-face with the havoc wreaked by the terrorist attacks. 'Missing' posters are put up on walls outside underground station by relatives who still don't know the whereabouts of their loved ones. Police stations are stretched to the full by the many enquiries from members of the public. Hospitals can barely cope. The only place Elisabeth resists visiting is the morgue. She still has hopes of finding her daughter alive.

Elisabeth is joined in her search rather fortuitously by African immigrant worker Ousmane (a fine turn by Malian actor Sotigui Kouyaté) although she rejects him at first. Ousmane is looking for his son, whom he hasn't seen since he was six. At some point he fears his boy might have been one of the suicide bombers, or at least had something to do with the atrocity. When Ousmane finds a photo of his son with a group of friends, he immediately recognises Elisabeth's daughter whose 'missing' poster he'd seen before. What follows after is a thoughtful and mature meditation on 7/7 and human relations.

The performances are superb, but so are both the direction and script. In just under an hour and a half, Bouchareb constructs a credible story and craftly allows its main characters to take ownership of it. His is a hands-off approach that benefits greatly from the expertise of Kouyaté and Blethyn. The script is rich in nuances (Elisabeth's conversations in French with Ousmane are a joy to behold and put paid to the notion that all Brits are monolingual. They're not). After the initial froideur from Elisabeth towards Ousmane, the barriers come down. At the centre of the story is the tale of two human beings who are not dissimilar to one another: they both work the soil, Elisabeth as a farmer, Ousmane as a forest worker in France; they have both grown apart from their children, in her case she is surprised to find out that her daughter has taken up Arabic (her daughter and Ousmane's son are also a couple). Ousmane, on the other hand, feels guilty for not having been present in his son's life.

In the end, though, even with the tragic dénouement that engulfs both parents, we're left with the idea that when faced with events like 7/7 it's our common humanity which should/will prevail. Precisely the kind of message that the victims of the London bombing would have liked to hear. This is another must-see film.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 13th March at 10am (GMT)

LONDON RIVER trailer from Trinity Films on Vimeo

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

'It's a little bit like the book I'm reading now.' 'What do you mean?' I asked. 'The language, I mean. It's like the book I'm reading.'

The book was 'The Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid' by Rick Riordan, my interlocutor was my son and the conversation was about the notes that appear inside my copy of the 'Art Tatum - Ben Webster The Album' CD. I wanted to show him what the world would be missing when the ubiquitous mp3 and its army of modern, audio formats finally took over and gave the CD, cassette (remember?) and vinyl the much-vaunted coup de grâce.

The booklet of the aforementiond record is a good example of how digital encoded formats, whilst adept at guaranteeing excellent quality of sound cannot, alas, pull off the same trick, visually and/or informationwise. The opening text in 'The Album' is a testimonial by none other than Count Basie where he regales us with an anecdote about the first time he met Art Tatum. The language is informal, facetious, self-effacing and frank. Probably the reason why it reminded my son of Rick Riordan's book.

To me, the experience of opening a brand-new CD is similar to the unveiling of fresh artwork in a gallery, in that we will reminisce on it in decades to come. Expectation, elation, satisfaction, these are some of the feelings by which I'm overwhelmed whenever I'm presented with a new record. As a non-native who arrived in London when Tower Records was still around, I remember buying music there, ripping the packaging off on the tube and listening to the CD on my player. At the same time I would be reading the lyrics, the sleeve notes or the credits.

Sadly, for my son and his chums this world is fast disappearing. He has just been given an iTunes voucher for his birthday. The problem is that we haven't got iTunes installed at home and I'm not sure that you can download the software on a PC, I think you have to have a Mac. But maybe I'm wrong. The points is that once he downloads the music he wants, it will stream through to his iPod impersonally, facelessly, characterlessly.

What can we do? The popularity of music downloads responds to a demand for faster and easier access, besides the financial benefits it brings: on isolated tracks cost roughly between £0.79 and £0.89 each, compared with the price of entire albums which still fare between ten and thirteen pounds, unless you use the marketplace with its second-hand products. So, if you have a tenner you can mix'n'match mp3s and still walk away with change in your pocket. I admit that if I was thirteen again, that would probably be the route I would take, especially because you don't have to deal with fillers, which most pop albums have. Also, as long as your iPod is teeming with music you and your mates dig, who cares? The downside is that you're only getting tidbits of the bigger picure, in fact you're robbing yourself of the opportunity to listen to a record in its entirety and thus decide which songs would appeal more to your musical taste. I don't think I'm alone in saying that there are certain 'fillers' that have become favourites over the years due to repeated listening.

I don't belong to the anti-iPod brigade. And this post is not a segue from the Bruce 'Wreck on the Highway' Springsteen column last Sunday. That one was about life's priorities vs modern living; this one is about celebrating the many joys that vinyl LPs, CDs and cassettes have brought us over the years and their uncertain future. Besides, all the music I have on my mp3 player comes from my CDs. The quality of the sound is superb and when I'm on the go or sitting on the bus, I thank modern technology for always coming up with ways of enhancing our listening experience. However, I love, LOVE the effort and creativity that go towards putting a record together. It's not just the music, after all that's why you're buying the album. It's the extras: the cover (including the artwork), the inlay, the lyrics, the accompanying booklet notes. It all helps develop an atmosphere, a setting, a background to your acoustic journey.

Let me give you a few examples, chosen at random from my ever-expanding CD shelves. Kristin Hersh's 'Hips and Makers' features artwork by Japanese artist Shinro Ohtake, who, on his website, describes himself as someone who 'takes the world as his source, using journeys, dreams and diaries to examine the inner surface of his layered perceptions'. Listen to Kristin's intimate and emotional compositions at the same time you see the cover and the effect is, at least for me, like intruding on someone's private reverie. Tom Waits' 'Small Change' contains the following quote instead of actual words in the song 'Step Right Up': "For the lyrics to 'Step Right Up' send by prepaid mail a photo of yourself, two dead creeping charlies, and a self addressed stamped envelope to: the Tropicana Motor Hotel, Hollywood, California c/o Young Tom Waits, please allow 30 days for delivery." Genius. 'Essential Brazilian Flavas', a compilation album I got for Christmas some years ago greets the listener with the following provocative quote: "So, let's be controversial from the get-go: there's no such thing as 'typical' Brazilian music". The record's fourteen tracks back up such contentious remark. In the sleeve notes to her third LP, 'Music for Crocodiles', Susheela Raman describes how the album was created. From "rehearsals, spectacular biryanis and bass amp fires at home in London" to Tamilnadu where Susheela set to "work with superb musicians in Chennai (aka Madras)", 'Music for Crocodiles' exudes virtuosity. And the testament is there, in those sleeve notes.

Occasionally CDs become photographic exhibitions. 'Kind of Blue' and 'Sketches of Spain' by the renowned trumpeter Miles Davis are prime examples. Their black and white iconic images are as much evidence of Davis' most creative period as the rich orchestrations the album features.

So, what does the future hold for the recording industry? Will my son and his chums still be able to enjoy all the accoutrements normally associated with LPs and CDs? I hope so, even if they need to be condensed into 140 characters with smileys dotted all over the gaffe.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with the booklet notes to which I referred at the beginning of my post. Here's pianist extraordinaire, composer and bandleader Count Basie relating his first encounter with Art 'Mr Arpeggio' Tatum. Unfortunately I couldn't find a clip of Ben Webster and Art Tatum playing together, so instead I've included two separate clips of these two cool cats teaching a masterclass on how to play piano and saxophone. Enjoy.

"We stopped off there and went into a bar where you could get sandwiches and cigarettes and candy and things like that, and they had a good piano in there. That's the part I will never forget because I made the mistake of sitting down at that piano, and that's when I got my personal introduction to a keyboard monster by the name of Art Tatum. Thats how I met him. I remember that part only too well.

I don't know why I sat at that piano. We were all in there to get a little taste and a little snack, and the piano was there. But it was just sitting there. It wasn't bothering anybody. I just don't know what made me do what I went and did. I went over there and started bothering that piano. I just started foooling around with it, and then I started asking for trouble, and that's just exactly what I got. Because somebody went out and found Art.

That was his hangout. He was just off somewhere waiting for somebody to come in there and start messing with that piano. Someone dumb enough to do something like that, somebody like Basie in there showing off because there were a couple of good-looking girls in the place or something like that. Oh, boy. They brought him in there, and I can still see him and that way he had of walking in his toes with his head kind of tilted.

This was several years before Joe Louis came on the boxing scene and wiped out all of the heavyweight prizefighters, but what happened was just like when a cocky boxer in the gym shows off, sparring around, and when he looked up, he saw Joe coming through the ropes. Because I'm pretty sure I had already heard a lot of tales about old Art. But when I went over there and hopped on that innocent-looking piano, I didn't have any idea I was on his stomping ground.

'I could have told you', one of the girls in the bar said. 'Why didn't you, baby?', I asked. 'Why didn't you?'."

© 2011

Next Post: ‘London River (Review)’, to be published on Wednesday 9th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Let's Talk About...

... Pedestrian Light Controlled crossings. Or as they're commonly known, 'pelican crossings' (nothing to do with the bird, by the way, it's all related to the first letters of the three words, with the 'o' changed to an 'a' to make it sound like the, um... yes... the bird's name).

Unlike its fish-eating, large-billed and totally peaceful, aquatic counterpart, pelican crossings, especially those of the urban variety, could very easily be classified as 'war zones' with UN forces being deployed to safeguard citizens' well-being.

What should be a smooth, trouble-free process, very often turns into a Freddy-Krueger-like scenario. In an ideal situation the Pedestrian Light Control instruct drivers when to stop and those on foot when to cross. When the red figure shows, do not cross. Press the button on the box and wait. Sometimes for ages, I know, I know, but getting scraped off the wheels of an Eddie Stobart lorry is no fun either. As soon as the asexual green figure shows, check the traffic has stopped and cross with care. Did you read that? With care! You would be surprised at the large amount of drivers who believe a green man is like a carte blanche to increase their speed as they drive through the red light and leave behind a trail of maimed bodies and broken limbs. Sometimes there is not sufficient time to cross, so do not start to cross when the green figure is flashing because you'll get run over. Simple as that.

Well, if it was only that easy. Take the pelican crossing on the corners of Kingsway, Southampton Row and High Holborn in Holborn, central London. It's the closest you'll ever come to a real version of 'Battlefield Earth', including actual Psychlos. If it wasn't for the Cuban embassy's proximity to Holborn tube station (a building to which I have to pay a visit every now and then), the Peacock Theatre in the vicinity (we often go there to watch dance shows) and the existence of a Nando's within spitting distance of the underground, I would probably give this corner as wide a berth as possible. For some reason, everytime I'm exposed to this crossing the image of John Travolta as a dreadlocked, nine-foot-tall, sociopathic humanoid is enough to make me regurgitate my half PERI-PERI chicken. And yet his species is not the worst.

Pop by the area during rush-hour and this is the scene that will greet you. Cars speeding down Southampton Row, motorists on High Holborn held by a red light, but revving theirs vehicle up and desperate to shoot off, West End-bound. On the pavement, dozens of commuters are checking their watches and the gaps in the traffic. As soon as there's a lull in the flow, onwards they advance, green man flashing or not. Bolstered by their courage others follow. In the mêlée, drivers slam on their brakes, windows are rolled down, swear words, like the arrows at the Battle of Agincourt, are volleyed towards passers-by. This is, however, the first stage of the conflict. Because then the green figure makes its much desired cameo appearance.

Although I'm not a rugby fan, as I don't understand the sport, I can now perfectly comprehend why it's so popular in the UK. Of course it has to be; it permeates this country's everyday life. The onslaught of pedestrians crossing the corners of High Holborn and Kingsway can only be compared to the advancing, menacing movement of eight forwards at the same time, as they scatter across the pitch, pardon me, the road, I meant the road. Pushing, shoving, elbowing, tackling (yes, I have visual evidence), nudging and entangling (I heard once about a woman who got one of her earrings trapped in a fellow's fly as she tried to duck someone's bag flying overhead. The result was far from hilarious as the lady and the man were both caught on CCTV and the tape was passed on to BBC London News. After watching the images on the Six O' Clock News, the man's wife divorced him on the spot and cited as the main reason that that same morning she had tried to talk her spouse into wearing trousers with a button-fly instead of a zipper one. Of course, the episode according to the man's wife was far from accidental. She was convinced that both the lady-with-the-earring-in-someone's-fastener and her husband were having an affair and had decided to go public with it). You could be forgiven for thinking that once a commuter reaches the other side he or she throws themselves onto the pavement in the same manner a rugby player does when they score a try.

In addition to this rugby motif, the same pedestrian crossing has introduced an Olympic theme. I noticed recently when I was in the area that they had installed a timer. You know, one of those devices that counts down the amount of seconds you have left to cross. Or to live, in some cases. The scenes were too surreal to describe, but suddenly we all turned into amateur versions of Usain Bolt. I know that London will be holding the Olympic Games next year but we certainly don't need this kind of incentive. I can onlly imagine a person, man or woman, it doesn't matter, coming all the way from New Oxford St., spotting the green man at the intersection of Kingsway, Southampton Row and High Holborn and clocking in that he or she has 10 seconds to make it to the other side. This is probably how Sebastian Coe and his team are attempting to discover and use people's natural talent for the long and triple jump competitions. I'm sure there's a gold medal somewhere in there in the making, fellows. Either that or more human posters will be plastered on double-deckers as a result. With Bansky probably making his own contribution by painting a large bill over the person's nose.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 6th March at 10am (GMT)


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