Wednesday, 30 May 2012

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

Well, well, well. So, summer's finally here. And me, the eternal contrarian is not celebrating it with an al fresco salad but with this beauty by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: spiced chicken with dates.

Part of my mission as a parent is to introduce my little ones to different types of food every now and then. The minute I saw this recipe I knew I was onto a winner. Still, I wasn't quite sure how my two children would react to dates as the dried has usually been touch'n'go with them. There have been times when they've been really into dates and some others when they've gone off them. This time around, though, they were licking their fingers at the end. Maybe the chicken helped a bit.

This is one of those dishes where the joy comes from the cooking process. The aromatic combination of onions, garlic, cumin, coriander and cinnamon is enough to bring a touch of summer to the darkest of winters. And the music ain't 'alf bad either, innit?

Photograph: Colin Campbell for the Guardian

Spiced chicken with dates

4 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 chicken, jointed (or about 1.5kg chicken pieces)
2 onions, peeled and diced
2 bay leaves
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cinnamon
150g long-grain rice
80g red or green lentils, rinsed
700ml chicken stock, hot
12 dates, pitted
1 small bunch fresh coriander, stalks removed, leaves picked and torn
20g blanched almonds, toasted

Heat the oil over a medium-high heat in a large casserole. Season the chicken, brown all over and set aside.

Lower the heat and tip the onions and bay leaves into the pan. Sauté, stirring from time to time, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, ground coriander and cinnamon, and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the rice and lentils, stir for a minute until everything is well coated. Return the chicken to the pan, pour over the hot stock, season, cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Stir in the dates, cover again and simmer for 15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the rice and lentils are tender. Remove from the heat, taste and adjust the seasoning, and stir in most of the fresh coriander. Serve with the remaining coriander and flaked almonds scattered over the top.

My first musical number tonight is by an indie band that exudes panache and passion. Ladies and gents, I present to you Spoon's My Mathematical Mind. Who would have thought that rockers made good mathematicians, too? Enjoy.

When Willis Earl Beal came on Jools Holland's show a few weeks, I had to stop ironing straight away (one of my favourite housechores, by the way. I get to watch telly whilst doing it. Don't ask me about creases, though). This guy has an aura when he sings that commands silence and attention. His voice reminds me of the powerful combination of different spieces cooking in the pot. For you, my dear readers and fellow bloggers, Evening's Kiss. Enchanting.

My last choice is all about "dem good ol' days". Remember The Sundays? Remember when this song made your heart skip a beat? This is what I call comfort music and hopefully that spiced chicken will become your comfort food, too, because it's already mine. The Sundays' Here's Where The Story Ends. Nostalgic.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 3rd June at 10am 9GMT)

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

"I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."

Munch's The Scream.
The poem was on the frame of one of the pastel versions of the painting
If someone'd told me that the scenario quoted above had been the inspiration for Edvard Much's The Scream, I'd have thought my interlocutor was talking cobblers. And yet, it's true.

I only found this out recently when a pastel version of said work was auctioned off at Sotheby's to an unnamed buyer for $120m (£74m). Which made ME want to scream, too. But let me deal first with the reason, or reasons, for my incredulousness.

I'd always thought that The Scream had been born out of horror, not amazement at nature. I'd always been under the impression that the figure holding his (I've also always believed it was a bloke, right? Unless early 90s Sinead O' Connor had a doppelganger in Norway in the 1800s) face on that bridge had just seen his worst nightmare walking towards him at a Usain Bolt-like pace. Never did it cross my mind that a "sky turned blood red" and "tongues of fire" could inspire terror. Unless one was to find onself on top of a volcano, of course.

However, a couple of days after I'd read the news about the auction in the paper, I happened to be at home listening to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata whilst looking out of the windows in my lounge. The sun was setting down and it'd been raining quite a lot before. I was just noticing how tall the grass had grown on account of the endless showers we'd just had recently when all of a sudden the sky became a dark, threatening red. The type that presages storms. Or Armageddon, if I were to get really biblical. And yet, I couldn't take my eyes off it. For the next few minutes, nature turned into a Jackson Pollock and threw as many colours as it could at this hitherto grey, grim, vast canvas. Violets mixed with purples, auburns danced with bronzes and crimsons flirted with pinks. It didn't rain. At least, insofar as water falling from the sky, but colours did pour down.

Beethoven's masterpiece was still playing when this polychromatic invasion finished. What I'd just experienced helped me understand what Munch had tried to say with The Scream. On that bridge that evening he'd been witness to one of those rare "eureka moments" nature comes up with every now and then.

You can watch a sunset everyday of your life and appreciate the beauty of it, but not be completely bowled over by it. What I mean is that you're full aware that the twilight will always be there because night follows day. Nature cannot conjure up a magical sunset everyday, and it's aware of it. Pretty ones, yes, but otherworldly? That's a tall order.

However, once in a while, it has a creative moment. And this moment usually follows an impasse. A lull, a period of inactivity or "normality". And then, this revelatory instant catches you unawares. It could be a majestic rainbow after heavy rain, the bluest of blue whilst on a trip to the ocean or a birds chorus waking you up at dawn in the middle of London (it does happen, you know). Whatever the situation, nature has treated you to a special occasion.

Munch grabbed that occasion and regurgitated it in The Scream. And that's what art is sometimes, an act of regurgitation, of giving something back, not just to nature but also to the people by whom we're surrounded. Munch's The Scream was his way of shouting: "I know you won't be able to see this sun setting and these tongues of fire, but I can and I'm telling you that right now, this minute, there's nothing more beautiful on earth". That night I finally got it and it made me want to scream, too. But first I needed to finish listening to Beethoven.

© 2012

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 30th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Most fairy tales have the same beginning: "Once upon a time...". But what if your story starts with "It makes perfect sense that years later I remembered this moment for what it was: a combination of sounds. The incidental prologue provided by windows opening and closing around me on the street, the loud clutter of seats, the shuffling of feet and, of course, the concert itself." What would you say to that?

It'd then make perfect sense to tell you that over the years I've reminisced more about the circumstances surrounding the event and not just about the event itself. Especially the windows. As I walked down 25th St., past the Faculty of Biology, the little stall with the funny, large, coloured umbrella selling hot chocolate and the old, crumbling building on the corner of 25th and G Avenue (official name, Presidents' Avenue, but nobody ever called it that), it was the windows that alerted me to the sound of the city slowly awakening from its sleep on this typically mild, though with a cool breeze, Havana Sunday winter morning in 199... On my way to the theatre, windows kept being snapped open or slammed shut, like a well-orchestrated, choreographic and yet, at the same time wild cacophony of urban sounds. Havana goes to bed late, so it takes its time to shake the bedcovers off.

On the corner of 25th and G I turned left and walked on up the ample avenue with trees on my left side and the Infantil Hospital on my right. I crossed the road and carried on past the improvised graffiti park (my favourite one was "Floods don't occur because of excess of water, but because the country is sinking"). A bend announced that I was now in the vicinity of the Castillo del Príncipe, the fortress whose irregular shape was off-limits for tourists and which loomed large and powerful from the top of the hill where it was situated. In the distance the sound of an open window banging repeatedly against a wall travelled on the wings of this cool morning's breeze. Its loose hinges cried out for a dollop of oil.

I finally arrived at the venue. The Avellaneda Hall of the National Theatre teemed with early risers for this concert by Cuba's National Symphonic Orchestra. The crowd could easily be divided into three groups: the older generation dressed in their Sunday best, the young'uns in their scruffy clothes and both professional and amateur musicians in casual wear sporting their own instruments and surely on their way to a rehearsal or performance after the concert. I was still a young'un in those days. My jumper with the Japanese caption whose meaning I could never really decipher paired up with my bell-bottom black jeans and sandals to give me a somewhat hippyish look.

The auditorium filled up quickly. Those without a seat, like my friends and I, had to make do with the floor. Around us there was a loud clutter of seats snapping shut as a line of shuffling feet carried their owners to the few vacant spaces still remaining. Near me a television camera rendered the concert its formal and official nature; the first one in a series of events which, though short-lived, aimed at bringing the Symphonic closer to new audiences. After a few minutes the lights began to dim. The noise died down. Some throats cleared. A woman behind me whispered in my ear that if I wanted to lie my back against the front of her seat I was welcomed to. I thanked her and slid backwards on my bottom. The curtain rose. Although it was still dark it wasn't difficult to spot the silhouettes of some instruments leaning on the chairs. Suddenly a light came on, illuminating the stage. One by one the musicians made their entrance until, finally, it was the turn of the conductor. Loud applause welcomed him. With his back facing the audience he raised his hands. A thick veil of silence descended on the hall.

It made perfect sense that years later, when he was already settled in London and whilst looking out of the window of his flat on the fifteenth floor of a high rise, he pondered about the circumstances that had made that occasion so special. After all Beethoven's 5th symphony (the first piece on the programme) was a popular choice on CMBF, the radio station that broadcast mostly classical music in his hometown, Havana. So, there shouldn't have been anything extraordinary about this melody or the performance of it. And yet that Sunday carried with it such a sense of importance that he often wondered if there wasn't more to it than met the eye.

Nakedness. He said to himself, as his wife and son slept in the next room. At last he'd cracked it. In that hall that day what he saw was the conductor baring himself, and, in the process offering his vulnerability in exchange for the audience's. It was a scary thing to do, this vulnerability trade-off; he might not have been reciprocated. But from the first da da da daaaaa/da da da daaaaa, this man stripped himself of his armour. And so did the audience of theirs. As soon as the two fortissimo phrases kicked in, the public began shedding the layers of their hitherto black and white lives in order to let this warm, musical moment of colour in.

You can't rehearse magic, he said to himself in the dead silence of the London night. You can put in the long hours, practising technique, layout and lighting. But you can't magic magic magically out of thin air. In order for a concert to be memorable, you need honesty from each and every single musician in the orchestra. They have to be unafraid to call to a part of themselves that might expose them to a hungry and unknown audience. And this can only be achieved by invoking that which underlines our common humanity. Only then is the public also allowed to let go, too.

He came back every single Sunday thereafter to the same theatre, the same hall, to meet almost the same people. The concerts that followed were not the same, though. There were no more goosebumps. This didn't mean that the quality had declined, but rather, that the expectation had grown. Tenfold, maybe.

In that flat, up on the fifteenth floor of a high rise, and whilst looking over a part of London that wasn't dissimilar to the downtown part of Havana where he'd been raised, he thought of the beginning of fairy tales. He also thought of the conductor's symmetrical posture, legs open, his raised arms at equal angles and his baton pointing upwards. He thought of the short silence before the da da da daaaaa. And he thought of how, instead of "Once upon a time...", sometimes it's better to start a story with "It makes perfect sense that years later he remembered this moment for what it was: a combination of sounds. The incidental prologue provided by windows opening and closing around him on the street, the loud clutter of seats, the shuffling of feet and, of course, the concert itself."

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 27th May at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The recent news of John Peel's (the late BBC radio DJ who died in 2004) album collection going online made my heart skip a beat. Not because I was a fan, but because it's always worth celebrating the art of spinning a good record. 
The late BBC disc jockey John Peel
I knew who Peel was but his contribution to British music and his efforts to give musicians a leg-up in the cutthroat world of the music business passed me by. Peel's haul contains 26,000 albums, which makes me wonder what one of his "average" programmes sounded like. Thanks to the BBC (especially BBC4), those who, like me, haven't dwelt long on these isles, have the opportunity every now and then to be introduced to some of these defining moments in the history of pop and rock in the UK.

There was another reason why I got excited over this piece of news and it was based on the admiration I've always felt for radio DJs. Since the late 80s when I began to separate the wheat from the chaff on Cuban radio, I started to pay a closer attention not just to DJs' musical output but also to how they organised their playlists so as to create an atmosphere. There's no point in having 26,000 albums if you don't know how to spin them. It seems to me that John knew exactly which strings to pull and that was one of the elements that endeared him to his followers.

My favourite radio station in my mid to late teens was Radio Ciudad de la Habana ("The capital's young station" as its slogan ran in those days). At a time when most presenters played safe there were people like Ramón Larrea and Juanito Camacho willing to take chances even if the threat of losing their jobs was a possibility.

Reading about John Peel's office at BBC's Radio 1, which was so chaotic that apparently his sidekick Andy Kershaw had to sit on an upturned rubbish bin, reminded me of the first time I visited Radio Ciudad de la Habana.

It was 1994 and three friends of mine and I had just formed an art collective. It was a difficult time. The economic meltdown that had taken hold of Cuba made the dollar shoot up and one "green" was worth up to 130 Cuban pesos in the black market. We'd just had the (in)famous 5th August when riots broke out in Havana and in its wake a second "rafter's crisis" had ensued (the first one was the 1980's Mariel boatlift). The situation was, to put it mildly, rather delicate. In the midst of this, we took over a room at an arts centre in downtown Havana, extending our dominion later to a beautiful patio inside the building and two more rooms. There we arranged concerts, exhibitions and public readings (it was about this time when I started to write in earnest, both poetry and short-stories) every month or, sometimes, every fortnight. We needed to promote the event and so I remembered that there was a very good DJ who worked at Radio Ciudad de la Habana presenting the programme "Hoy" (Today"), the capital's cultural what's-on. The name of the DJ at the time? Carlos Figueroa. Carlos had replaced Alfredo Balmaseda a few years before when the latter left for France. Between the two of them they'd helped me re-discover the type of Cuban music I would have never thought of listening to, let alone playing on my battered stereo. What made them world-class DJs was a combination of wit and humanity. Carlos, in particular, had this habit of remaining silent for three or four seconds straight after a song (especially a classic) had ended. I often wondered whether my old Soviet-era Selena had gone wrong only to hear the DJ tapping a cup with a metallic spoon and saying: "No, your radio is still working fine, but after a track like that, silence is the only fitting response. Fancy a cup of coffee? I'm having mine now, with four sugars, as usual. Because this is Cuba and the rest is piffle." If I ever become a radio DJ, that's one phrase I'll definitely pilfer.

An eclectic taste, a knack for hitting our musical G-spot, sapience, humour and a touch of the eccentric. These are some of the ingredients that, in my opinion, make up a good radio disc jockey. Lauren Laverne, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (Xfm), Trevor Nelson, Lucy Duran and Jo Whiley (BBC) and Tony Blackburn (oh, yes, the old codger! Capitol Gold). These are some of the names off the top of my head that have made me wish at some point in my life I could get behind a mike, too. It makes no difference that you have 40,000 singles in your house, if you come across as an arrogant twerp. At the end of the day, you have to work your audience, you have to work with your audience and you have to work on your audience. Just like Christian Slater's Mark Hunter does in the movie, Pump Up the Volume, the story of a teenager who moves to Arizona and sets up a pirate radio station. In the film, it is his rapport with his listeners, the majority of them adolescents like him, what makes him a cult hero. There's a sad twist in the plot, but the flick overall speaks volumes (no pun intended) about the art of DJing.

As a last example of how a DJ can really make your day, recently I was driving and had BBC Radio 2 on. Terry Wogan, not my favourite deejay if truth be told, was on air. And yet, what he did in the next few minutes was magical. He had a famous actress in the studio whom he asked to choose a song. She plumped for The Drifters' Save the Last Dance For Me. As the first verses kicked in Terry began to ad lib in between the pauses and soon after the actress joined in. The whole affair lasted less than a minute and yet it brought a smile to my face. It just goes to show the power of a good radio DJ.

© 2012

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 23rd May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Killer Opening Songs - Yo-Yo Ma's Prélude from Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007

Good music is all about taking chances. Rock'n'roll colossi performing with symphonic orchestras, blues singers duetting with pop stars and salsa combos reworking soft rock ballads. That's exactly what Yo-Yo Ma did in his 2001 album, "Classic Yo-Yo": take chances. After all, it takes a brave, bold soul to go from Bach to Astor Piazzolla in less than a heartbeat. From the Killer Opening Song, Bach's Prélude from Unaccompanied Cello Suite to the coda, Appalachia Waltz, the record showcases Yo-Yo's wide range of styles.

Alison Krauss, Bobby Mc Ferrin and Itzhak Perlman are just some of the big names the Paris-born cellist enlists on this musical tour de force. His approach is unbiased and creative, which makes it easier for the average classically-oriented listener to access genres he or she might not have previously considered.

It's worth mentioning that the "classic" in the album title refers mainly to the style in which the pieces are played and the timelessness of many of them, not necessarily the genre to which they originally belong. A case in point is the Killer Opening Song, Bach's Prélude from Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007. This is not just a deep, haunting and beautiful melody that lingers in the air long after its two and a half minutes have expired. On "Classic Yo-Yo" it also evidences the simplicity that underscores the entire record. From the striking but uncomplicated album cover to the masterful arrangements, through the prélude Yo-Yo Ma manages to convey sophistication without resorting to complex formulas.

Bach's piece is the perfect opener because usually the suite's mellow arpeggios encourage musicians to travel a wide emotional range. Its short duration is a well-conceived ploy to leave the listener wanting more. Which on this occasion plays nicely into Yo-Yo's hands as the tracks that follow heighten the blurring between styles and sometimes even between the human voice and the cello (as heard on Vocalise, the duet with Bobby McFerrin). Interestingly, it is said that the cello is the instrument that most resembles the human male voice.

The key word that Killer Opening Songs would use to describe the whole record is "intriguing" as Yo-Yo Ma keeps the listener guessing. The opening solo is rich-sounding. His version of Piazzolla's Libertango is exotic and fierce. Gershwin's Prélude swings and sways as befits a timeless number. Finally, Alison Krauss' contribution is deep and soulful. And the name of the track on which she guests? Simple Gifts. As K.O.S. mentioned before, the best things in life sometimes are the simplest ones.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 20th May at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A recent article on stamp-collecting by The New Statesman's sports-writer-in-residence Hunter Davies took me back more than thirty years to a very happy period in my childhood. Davies's piece was an attempt to make sense of Royal Mail's decision to put out truckloads of new issues for the Queen's jubilee and the Olympics and the havoc this will wreak amongst philatelists.

However, his well-written essay brought back memories. About the same time I learnt how to read and write, aged five, and before I started full-time schooling, I fell in love with stamp-collecting.

To a Cuban Londoner (as I've called myself for almost fifteen years now) Hunter uncovers a world of which I wasn't aware. He writes about the vendors under the arches of Charing Cross station, a part of London I associated more with second-hand bookshops (Charing Cross Road is choc-a-bloc with them) than philately. He goes on to explain his thematic preferences (football rather than birds) and his rules for collecting.

Like Davies, I, too, had a small corner I liked to call my own in which I lost track of time and from where my parents, or my mum, usually, had to drag me away. Witth tears in my eyes on a few occasions. It's easy for me to forget now forty autumns after, but some of my happiest moments were lived in the little shop on 27th St., almost on the corner with L St., opposite Havana University's Students' Club, in the heart of Vedado.

I can't remember exactly how I got hooked but I'm sure that stamp-collecting was connected somehow to the illness that kept me company for the better part of five to six years. My stomach ulcer and chronic gastritis meant that I was in and out of hospitals quite often, sometimes for as long as a month. Once out, my parents would treat me to an ice-cream in nearby Coppelia ice-cream parlour, from where I would insist we pop by the Jose Marti bookshop on the corner of L St and 27th. It was there, a few doors down, where I first came across the rectangular and square shapes of stamps. To a child enamoured of nature and sports, being presented with a collection of images of Cuban and foreign fauna and Olympic Games was like manna from heaven. I fell hook, line and sinker for the art of stamp-collecting.

And it was (is) an art. To that truism my several stamp albums can attest. From the way I divided my collections by themes to how I arranged them, there was creativity partout. Sometimes I'd do it by year, or series, or countries, or, in the case of animals by habitat; birds to one side, aquatic animals to another.

There was even an element of the obssessive compulsive about me in those years, in spite of, or maybe because of, my young age. Nobody could touch my stamps with their bare hands. Tweezers had to be used at all times. And, of course, I had a collection of tweezers, too. The plastic ones came in different colours, of which, blue and black were my favourite ones. I also had a pair of silver ones. Certain collections could only be handled with a specific pair of tweezers. I also had a couple of magnifying glasses. One of the activities I loved the most was reading the historical and cultural information on the stamps. In that sense, stamp-collecting was as didactic as delving into the world of Jules Verne.

Moreover, this hobby of mine brought with it a strong, social component. I had lots of friends who shared a passion for stamp-collecting, too. Sometimes we exchanged collections, on other occasions we did a whip-round in order to buy the ones that were outside our purchasing power. I still recall the feeling of excitement that overwhelmed me everytime my mum announced that on our way back from El Infantil hospital we would be stopping at the little philately shop on 27th St. The news was enough for me to forget about the reasons why I'd ended up in hospital again. Thinking about the special issue that Cuba Correos would be bringing out for Spain '82 World Cup gave me an extra boost of energy and quickened my heartbeat.

The onset of puberty and the arrival of adolescence put paid to any notion I still had around those years that I would continue with this pastime beyond my teens. And yet, when I came to live in the UK, I packed two stamp albums in my suitcase. Maybe, at a subconscious level, I thought my children would pick up where I'd left off. But, I must admit that I was rather lazy and failed to inculcate in them the same passion for stamp-collecting I had when I was their age. It usually takes articles like Hunter Davies's to remind me of the many pleasures one can find in this often ignored and yet, very precious hobby.

© 2012

Next Post: "Killer Opening Songs", to be published on Wednesday 16th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

One of the complaints I've often heard from fellow readers is that a particular book is heavy-going or that the opening pages are not challenging enough, namely, they're boring.

Whilst I can't vouch for what appeals to other literature enthusiasts (after all, art is subjective), I can certainly sympathise with their feelings. To that reaction described above, disinterest, I can add another one: that of failing to understand an author's motivation to write about a particular subject. Especially when the issue is close to home and it feels too real to digest.

I came across both case scenarios recently with two novels: We Need to Talk About Kevin and Saturday by Lionel Shriver and Ian McEwan respectively. Although miles apart in style and plot, one touches upon a topic that is highly sensitive and the other one takes a while to get going.

Without giving too much away, We Need to Talk About Kevin is an epistolary novel that deals with the aftermath of a high school massacre in the States. The eponymous Kevin is the son of Eva and Franklin and it is her letters to her estranged husband that make up the novel's well-crafted plot.

Saturday, on the other hand, is a study on human nature through the eyes of a neurosurgeon, Dr Perowne. Again, without wishing to reveal the ending, I shall give you a synopsis of the book. On Saturday 15th February, 2003, as hundreds of thousands of protesters gather to march against the impending invasion of Iraq, Dr Perowne rises earlier than usual. From that moment onwards and for the next twenty-four hours, he is witness to and an active agent in a chain of events that takes him through the whole gamut of human emotions.

The subject on which Lionel Shriver focuses in WNTTAK, an "evil" adolescent who wreaks havoc in his local community, is a difficult one to enjoy, especially if, like me, you're a parent, and even harder if, like me, too, you have a teenage son. I'm not implying that my fourteen-year-old harbours any fantasies of annihilating his classmates but there are some tough questions on parenting in the novel for which I, sadly, had no answers and which made me feel uncomfortable.

That means that if I was to take the moral high ground, I could make a case against Ms Shriver's motivations for writing WNTTAK, especially as she is, as some people have remarked, childless. But would that be fair?

Some time ago I came up with a motto for my blog: filming is neutral, editing is political. What I meant by that was that we, as human beings, have a non-discriminatory, unconscious (and subconscious) approach to the information we receive. That's the filming part. It's not so much the use of a camera to capture a particular moment, but the use of our senses to capture data without curtailment. This information is then synthesised, edited and, occasionally, translated (and I don't just mean from one language to another). That's the political part. The outcome of this process is the creation of a model of reality that is plausible enough for us to get by in the world; en brèf, this reality we have built ourselves, suits us.

When a writer sits down to write a book, poem or play, s/he will be making use of their own reality or "borrowing" someone else's. Whatever method they lay their hands on, the fact of the matter is that they will create a different model of the world to which we're used and up to a certain extent, different from theirs, too. Our duty, if duty if the right word, as readers, is to come to that blank page the author's now filled up with sentences, metaphors and dialogues and strip ourselves of our own white noise. Only then, can we dive headfirst into the novel/poem/short story, whilst leaving behind our own synthesised world. The result can be and usually is cathartic.

Which is why I can't judge We Need to Talk About Kevin from a moral or parental point of view, or even from a liberal perspective. Shriver's book exists in a silent space created by the author. By silent I don't mean quiet, I mean free from outside influences; undisturbed.

If WNTTAK is an uncomfortable read because of the subject matter, its nuances and its non-judgemental approach, then, Saturday is one of those novels on which I would have turned my back twenty-five years ago. It has a slow beginning with the first dozen pages full of ruminations and medical lingo. Why on earth did I press on?

The answer is a question. Sometimes when faced with a book like Saturday, I ask myself: am I ready to read this? And then I realise that what I'm doing is replicating the same questions that the author might have posed to themselves: Should I write about this? And, am I ready?

To answer yes to that question as readers is to access that piece of art (novel/poem/tale) as a concept of itself and to furnish it with our sensory system from which we will, hopefully, derive pleasure and joy.

A cursory glance through my bookshelves the other day threw up the titles of two volumes I've started but never completed and a third one I haven't even begun. The two I dived in but gave up on almost at the outset, are The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker and Paradiso by José Lezama Lima. The one I've never dared to read is Paula by Isabel Allende. In the case of the The Temple and Paradiso, it's their dense prose that killed off my enthusiasm. With Allende it's the subject matter; she writes about the death of her daughter. Too close to home. However, a couple of weeks ago I found myself gravitating towards Lezama Lima's classic and after hesitating a bit, took the plunge. I thought it was incumbent upon me, as a reader, to suspend all previous judgement and preconceptions and enter the author's world and in the process, acquaint myself with his/her tableau of characters. Who knows, I pondered, I might not even find it heavy-going at all. But I will only find that out by reading the book.

© 2012

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

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

One week brings temperatures that could well compete with those in the Caribbean, the next one gives us snow. It's obvious that the unpredictable weather in the UK is not one of the most appealing factors for my fellow Latin compadres and comadres when they decide to settle in Blighty.

However, beyond the influence (or lack of it thereof) that the weather in GB might have on newcomers from the Americas, it's worth asking the question: what motivates Latinamericans to come to live in the UK?

If we go by media reports, including impartial and august bodies like the BBC, the search for a better economic future ranks pretty high. Just in London, more than 113,000 Latinamericans (spearheaded by Brazilians, Colombians and Ecuadorians) reside. Nationwide the figure is roughly 186,000, according to research by Queen Mary University and the NGOs Latin American Women's Rights service and Trust for London. It'd be very interesting to know how the researchers worked out these numbers when there are still so many Latin men and women living illegally in the British isles and a "Latin" category is yet to be created in the census that is carried out every ten years in the UK. In fact, Spanish-speaking immigrants "of a darker blue" who originate from the Caribbean have to content themselves with the box marked "African-Caribbean". Provided I have enough space, I usually write "Hispanic-Chinese-Afro-Latin".

However, is the search for better economic opportunities the sole motive behind the Latin presence in GB? No, we can mention also other reasons like politics and marriage. As an example of the former we can't forget that during my continent's Dark Ages, especially in South America, when terrible dictatorships snatched the power from democratically elected governments, the UK became a temporary and sometimes permanent shelter for activists, political refugees and artists. For instance the Brazilian musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil settled in London in 1969 following their enforced exile by the junta. Their short stay in the UK coincided with one of the more interesting, extraordinary and revolutionary periods in the history of rock and pop. It was the time when bands such as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and T-Rex filled up stadiums and theatres. Years later Veloso admitted that he was heavily influenced by these musical colossi. The evidence can be seen in one of the albums he produced whilst still living in the British capital: London, London.
The second element that explains the growing Latin presence in Great Britain is marriage. This is one of the least mentioned factors, probably because it contrasts with the usual image of Latins as Third World poor people, victims of corrupt governments or ruthless dictatorships. Yet, the truth is that there are many loving, long-lasting partnerships between Latins and Brits, or other nationalities who have settled in the UK.

The advantage of these couplings are manifold: for starters there's the cultural exchange, then, there's also the Latin person's contribution to Britain's multiracial rainbow and last but not least we must factor in the newcomer's professional experience.

I know a Mexican-Irish couple who have six children. Both husband and wife work in the public and voluntary sectors, in her case she is a midwife whilst her consort drives a coach for a community organisation. Their offspring have followed a similar route and chosen careers in the civic and public sector fields. This couple is far from being the only one. A case in point is a Brazilian woman married to a Scot with whom she contributes to her local community, including doing voluntary work at the church she and her husband attend regularly.

It's a truism that those Latin men and women who come to live in Great Britain face barriers such as: discrimination (or invisibility), linguistic hurdles, lack of job opportunities and other social and economic impediments. At the same time, we ought to include marriage amongst the reasons why the Latin community in the UK is in the increase (almos four times in London). Above all, when the effect is positive and visible. And especially when we don't depend on the presence of the snow or the lack of it thereof. It's time to say: With this ring, GB and Latin America, I thee wed.

© 2012

A shorter version of this article appears in the new issue of The Prisma newspaper

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 9th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Urban Diary

There it is again. The invisible hand leading me down this road, so often trod, and yet, still so unknown to me. The heavy traffic resembles an urban forest in motion, racing past me with the tall double deckers looming large like ancient oak trees. This time the hand invites me to walk slower in order to soak up my surroundings better; they're still bathed in the fast-vanishing sunlight. The sky is quickly losing its metallic blue and a cool shiver reminds me that, although spring has arrived, winter's not totally gone yet.

Euston Road, part of the New Road since days of yore, is the last frontier before crossing into north London. I negotiate my way deflty through the thick, early Saturday evening traffic with fellow pedestrians. Together, we all follow the same route travelled by sheep and cattle traders in the 1700s on their way to Smithfield Market. Bearing in mind that some bus drivers don't seem to have learnt how to use the clutch and brake correctly yet, you could be forgiven for thinking that we're still living in the eighteenth century. As cows.

Trees grow on both sides of the three-lane road looking more like a green excuse amidst the sea of concrete office developments around them than natural pieces of this urban jigsaw puzzle. The invisible hand leads me down Duke's Road (off Euston Road) and on to Flaxman Terrace to one of London's temples of dance: The Place, where I'm scheduled to teach a six-week Afro-Cuban dance workshop. Nearby is the Cathedral of Words: The British Library. One has students pirouetting in front of mirrors; the other metaphores and similes dancing off the written pages. In between them both runs Euston Road, on whose surface sheep and cattle traders once walked on their way to the market.

© 2012

Photo taken by the blog author.

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on 7th May at 10am (GMT)


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