Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Queen's English)

Language is a funny thing. Just imagine, we're 7 billion souls in the world today and if I was to write this post in Spanish, more than three quarters of my regular readers wouldn't understand it. Similarly, if some of you opted to communicate in vernacular Scottish or Punjabi slang, I would be floored. It just goes to show what a diverse bunch we, humans, are.

That's why we've always tended to simplify words, phrases and sentences. Create linguistic shortcuts, if you like. Looking for a common denominator, a template to which we can default in order to communicate better with each other. Languages don't just exist as tools to get our message across, but also as canvasses on which we experiment and give free rein to our imagination. The first time I heard a conversation between a London-born Asian guy (of Indian ancestry) and a Jamaican patois-speaking black man. I was clueless about what they were saying but spellbound by the musicality of their lexicon. Later on I found out that the Asian guy had adopted rhythmic linguistic patterns from his interlocutor's Jamaican lilt, whilst his counterpart had done a similar thing but in an Asian style.

All this probably explains why, faced with an ever-expanding globalised world, groups like the Queen's English Society are destined to fail. In the era of textspeak and 140-character-long speeches, not a lot of people care about the difference between "refute" and "rebut".

I pity the QES, because I'm also a stickler for good grammar and syntax. I don't mind neologisms and modern-day slang, as long as the speaker knows how to use proper language. "Proper" in this context shouldn't be confused with the snobbish attitude that some people display towards those they think inferior just because they use different words or phrases, or have a different accent. I mean it in the sense of having the capacity to communicate in a way that most people will understand you. I welcome English's all-inclusive approach to importing words and phrases from other languages. But I also think that we're letting the next generation down when we don't tell them that they shouldn't say "Peter is more intelligent then Paul". That's what I call bad English, or bad language.

However, I think that the Queen's English Society shot itself in the foot when they came up with their name, even if it was forty years ago. I mean, Queen's English? Really? At a time when on BBC Breakfast News, Middlesbrough-born, business reporter Stephanie McGovern's melodic northern accent is a welcome wake-up call for this blogger at ten to seven every morning? And she even mixes it with Irish dancing? Really, Queen's English? Forty years ago they should have seen that the game was up when the 60s introduced us to swinging London.

Language exists in a constant state of motion, changing and moving forward like the society around which it develops. Most languages carry with them subtleties and nuances that render them elegant, regardless of whether this amounts to no more than the word "blatant" uttered by am Asian young man to emphasise an idea. To pick on certain dialects or forms of speech, like the Queen's English Society used to do, smacks of snobbery.

Moreover, what I've found as a non-native speaker is that English is by its very nature subversive and so are its users. I don't believe that in a country like the UK, someone would come up with a body like the Academia Real de la Lengua Española to act as a judge and adjudicate on all matters linguistic.

This dogmatic approach to language displayed by the QES has also infitrated other sections of society. If not, look at the recent outcry by the Church of England about government plans to change the law and enable gay couples to marry. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Armageddon had arrived. Just because the definition of marriage as the union of two persons of opposite gender is deeply embedded in the English language doesn't mean that in this time and age we have to follow the same linguistic rule to the letter. To me, the motive of the Anglican church is clear: they want to claim ownership of the legal definiton of human relationships. But with an ever dwindling membership, can the Church really afford to be so blind? Even followers of its faith have expressed support for the changes. We already have civil partnerships, why not go the extra mile and grant gay unions the right to marry, too?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we're a diverse bunch. And as it sadly happened to the Queen's English Society, those who fail to adapt to the demands of modern living, including the way we speak now, fall by the wayside. I'm not saying that the same fate awaits the Church of England, but as everyone knows God moves in mysterious ways.


Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 1st July at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A book review, an essay and a column made me ponder recently on the whys and wherefores of our politcal preferences.

The review was written by David Cameron's former speechwriter, Ian Birrell. His target was The Righteous Minds, an essay-cum-book that offers an insight into why people vote for conservative policies, if not governments. The author, Jonathan Haidt, is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. His theories are interesting, if only because they seem to answer some questions whilst posing news ones.

For Jonathan, whose essay appeared as a tie-in for the book release a few weeks after the review, those who sit on the right side of the political spectrum care as much about society as those on the left, even if sometimes some of us might think otherwise. In his opinion, this caring attitude chimes with voters who are interested in values, not programmes, especially government-backed ones. And paradoxically, conservatives have a broader and more mixed palette of ideas, as opposed to the left's single-minded approach. Whereas rightwingers can invoke family ties, personal responsibility and an entrepeneurial spirit, liberals will more likely want to extend a safety net that covers all members of society.

So far, somehow it makes sense. That would go some way to explain why Reagan and Thatcher were voted in in the midst of two difficult economic periods in the US and UK respectively. It wasn't just the promise of a get-rich-quick future, but also a return to values voters treasured more.

In his essay, Jonathan uses the analogy of taste to illustrate why voters lean towards specific flavours, albeit from a moral perspective. Our tongues respond to five classes of chemicals: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savoury. Although sugary foods get the thumbs-up as the most appealing of these five tastes, most of us opt for a hot, filling meal as a proper dinner.

In a similar way Haidt has identified six areas that affect our moral palate: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. According to him, liberals score highly in care/harm and liberty/oppression but are outsmarted by conservatives in matters to do with group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity (and not just in a religious context).

Jonathan's theory is that in times of (economical) distress like the one we're undergoing now, people are keener on order and authority and less on nurturing governments.

The only problem with this analysis is that recent events have shown the opposite. France has just elected a left-wing president who wants to raise corporate tax to 75% for companies making more than one million euros per annum. Although Greeks have just voted a rightwing government in, conservative prime minister Mr Samaras is being forced to form a coalition with centre-left parties. And over in Spain, Mariano Rajoy is having problems spelling the word "bailout" to puzzled Spaniards. You can sense that the tide is turning in Europe, and the way it's going is more towards people wanting nurturing as well as order and authority. Especially authority that doesn't tell porkies.

Maybe Jonathan's theory suits the US political scene more. After all, this is election year and the White House incumbent, Barack Obama, faces his sternest test yet. That of the follow-up album. Any musician worth their salt will tell you that if your debut album sells well and has a couple of chart-topping singles, people (including your own fans) will watch very closely what you do with your sophomore record. Do you break away from the format that brought you success or do you stick to the same accolade-winning formula? Not that Obama's last four years have been a fun ride. He hasn't been able or willing to implement the left-of-centre agenda he promised during his bid for the presidency in 2008. And in Mitt Romney, he has a very different opponent to Mc Cain. For starters, Romney has made the core base of the Republican Party forget about his Mormonism, which shows cleverness. Let's not forget that Mormons are not viewed benignly by Republican voters. Questions about care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation are, then, pertinent. If Romney can demonstrate that he stands for individual liberties against Obama's supposed "nanny state", the latter will not able to stroll to victory as he did four years ago against the dyad McCain/Palin.

That however is on the other side of the pond. Haidt's mention of the UK brought a robust riposte from George Monbiot, eco-warrior par excellence. This is the third element of the trio I mentioned at the beginning. George disagrees with Jonathan's theory of political "taste buds" and blames the lack of support for leftwing policies (in the UK) on voters' apathy. He has got a point. Traditional Labour followers tended to come from a blue-collar background. But once Labour revamped itself and became "New Labour", many of working-class people felt betrayed and gave up on the party. They didn't, however, decamp to the Tories, but chose to stay home on election day.
BBC sitcom "Only Fools and Horses", but were Del Boy and the rest of the gang secret Tories? Photograph: Imagenet
Moreover, it seems to me that British voters are more cynical than their US counterparts. Although I lack the political insight that living in the United States would probably give me, it appears from my vantage point that American elections are as much of a personality competition as they are about policies. Already pundits are predicting a "surprise" in November. All because Romney, unlike Mc Cain, has not got "dodgy shoulders". Contrast that with British people's reaction to the coalition's budget cuts, and the political situation couldn't be more different. There have been protests, strikes (including by teachers and doctors) and government U-turns aplenty since 2010. Our prime minister might be a posh, suave, smooth-talker, but that won't save him from the chop come election day in 2015, if not before.

Jonathan's book (which I've yet to read) sounds interesting and his essay, if not totally convincing, does throw some light on our voting habits. But I think it takes more than just having a political sweet'n'sour palate, metaphorically speaking, to talk voters into pledging their allegiance to a particular party. If you don't believe me, ask the Greeks.

© 2012

Next Post: “Living in a Bilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 27th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Dawn (a short story)

Writing a blog for five years has brought many joys, not least, becoming part of a like-minded community which, albeit virtual, shares many of my views and with whom I can discuss pretty much everything.

Now that sense of fulfillment has been enhanced by the publication of my first ever work of fiction in a British newspaper. Dawn started life as a draft on this very blog a couple of years ago and it was your feedback, fellow bloggers and readers, that encouraged me to work on it more and submit it earlier this year to The Voice's "Your Tale" section. You can read the first draft here and the final copy appears below. Credit for the beautiful photo accompanying my story goes to Helena Smith, the author of the "Eat Hackney" blog and a great photographer. Let's hope this is not the last time Helena and I collaborate on a project together. Many thanks. Your feedback will be very welcomed.

Is he asleep?” he asks.

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

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

Silence. The unsayable is usually followed by quietness. This is not what she came here for, however. She saw the balcony light on, heard the soft, mellow notes of Miles Davis’s A Kind of Blue playing and knew he was out there. She found him with a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other one.

Their eyes kiss. It's a lingering, embracing kiss, the type they know they’ll never be able to replicate with their lips.

"How bad is he?" He offers her a puff of his cigarette and pushes the glass of wine towards her. He sounds worried, but maybe he just wants to break the uncomfortable silence. There are good days and bad days, she replies, lately we've had a good run. But you can never be certain. He will die very soon. Of that we're all sure. The tumour is too advanced. Hence the holidays. Radiotherapy, chemotherapy, oncologist, surgeon. A whole new vocabulary I never expected to learn. She pauses and looks outside the balcony. The surrounding Andalusian landscape reminds her of the time when she wanted to learn Arabic.

He looks at her. From where he is sitting, he can just make out her naked body underneath her camisole. The full moon outlines her fine features: her wrinkled face, her strong shoulders; the result of many a lap in her local swimming pool. He looks at her curly black hair, set against the paleness of her skin. White streaks already crowd her mane. He looks at her breasts, pointing slightly downwards, as if trying to tickle her rounded, protruding belly; the carrier of three beautiful children. His eyes keep travelling southwards to her legs. Her negligee is ankle-length, but still he is able to see her well-shaped, veiny legs and her strong thighs. Even the incipient cellulite sits well on her body.

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

"It's OK. It doesn't hurt to look". She smiles. "Is your wife asleep, too?"

He nods. “She had a terrible headache last night”, he says. As usual, he thinks. His eyes focus on the whitewashed Spanish village near their cortijo, now bathed in a silver light in this early-morning darkness. He remembers the walk the four of them took two days ago around the town's tree-filled square and cobbled streets. Her husband was really looking forward to it. He was in high spirits, there had been a gap in his verbal glitches; maybe the treatment was working after all. He kept talking the whole time, emphasising each points with his hands.

He remembers the walk well. He also remembers his wife. They held hands at first like two adolescents in love, until they began to argue. It was over some petty issue. As it's the norm these days. And then the hands went their own separate ways, like their owners. Sometimes his current situation reminds him of a driver leaving the windshield wipers on when the rain ends. That screeching sound that diverts the driver’s attention from the traffic for a split second before the wipers are switched off. That's how his relationship feels at the moment. But he can't bring himself to halt the wipers.

"Things are not going very well for you either, are they?" her voice is calm.
"No, you could say that a tumour is also killing my relationship".
"I think you're wrong. I fell out of love with him before he was diagnosed. His condition has just made things... more difficult"
"You mean, to leave him?"
"Yes. Who would like to be thought of as the bitch who dumped her husband when the going got tough?"
"Then, there's no hope for me? For us?"

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

Their eyes are not kissing anymore; their lips are. Like in the movies. Her nightgown comes off, his trousers are removed. His face is stroked and his nipples pinched. Her body is journeyed upon. Like in the movies. Gasping noises and muffled laughter are heard. Thrusts, abandon and elation are felt. Like in the movies.

Except that...

That doesn't happen.

As Davis, Coltrane et al launch into All Blues, she takes a long puff of his cigarette and another swig of his wine. He is still leaning against the door frame on his chair. She is sitting down on the floor now. They’re both immobile, but their mouths do not remain motionless. There are many words pouring forth at great speed, trying to make sense of the lack of a plan B. He married for life, but his relationship is floundering He doesn’t blame his wife; he is just as guilty as she is. But it’s painful to bear witness to your own life heading for a car-crash scenario in slow motion. There are their two kids to consider for starters. And then, there’s you. He comes clear. It’s been building up slowly, but surely. She nods. He continues. It was your humour, our conversations, your maturity, your confidence. Nothing to do with my body, then, she replies. Oh no, I didn’t mean that, he laughs. I know, she responds, staring at him like a mother who’s just caught her teenage son hiding a top-shelf magazine under his bed. It’s her turn now. I loved and then un-loved, she says. He was… is… wonderful. He’s always supported my teaching career, despite, or on top of, rather, his own successful one. Always on hand to take care of the kids whenever I was marking or staying behind, regardless of whether he had a film to review or not. But there was no romance. I can’t remember who killed it first, but I was ready to leave when he was diagnosed. Would you have left him for me? He asks, anxiously. Would you have left your wife for me? She retorts.

His silence is seized by her to press on, unchallenged. I, too, fell for you many years ago. Same reasons you gave, plus your body, she smiles. I always saw you as more than a friend. Whenever you discussed your difficult upbringing, the black child adopted by two successful, white, middle-class academics, I listened. I sympathised with your search for an identity. I have utmost respect for your work as a travel writer, especially because there aren’t many authors in that field who look like you. Through our conversations I felt an intimacy developing between us.

She suddenly changes her tone: I’m at my wits' end. I recently wrote to the Guardian’s Family Supplement’s ‘A letter to…’ I addressed my correspondence “to my husband’s tumour”. Just leave him, alone, I begged, leave us alone, leave ME alone!

He is crying in silence. Strangled sobs that punctuate her narration. As dawn breaks, the bonus track, Flamenco Sketches, kicks in. The nascent sun spreads its orange carpet over the Alpujarras mountains. Their eyes may be bloodshot but they are still locked in a long, lingering kiss.

© 2012

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 24th June at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Let's Talk About...

... supermarkets. Those modern Leviathans that swallow everything in sight: small, independent retailers, customers, public space and our money. After all, how many of us can resist  the "Buy 2 for the price of 1" offer on Foxtons chocolate bars? Not manym methinks. Hmmm... I'm licking my lips right now.

In the dragon's den
To our ever-increasing godless society, supermarkets represent the ultimate deity. The altar at which we worship once a week. Or as in my case, the cathedral-on-wheels that drops my shopping off on my doorstep every seven days. But like many mortals, occasionally I prefer to submit myself to the more sadistic and intimate humiliation of entering Monstro's lair. Or its mouth, to be more specific. If Captain Ahab had been a real person and if he'd ever been put through the whole "unexpected item in the bagging area" experience, he would have forgotten about his bitten-off leg and gone for the 3x2 tuna packs instead of chasing after a whale.

Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose. Modern temples where a chairman's cunning divine inspiration magics the whole garden section into an oasis-themed party that makes customers forget about their own rain-soaked clothes. Where grown-ups shed their inhibitions momentarily and race their shopping trolleys down the aisles with their children inside releasing their inner Lewis Hamilton (or maybe that's just me). Where, à propos de racing and trolleys, lanes in the annual buidl-up to Christmas resemble the M25 during a bank holiday weekend. Including road rage, or shall we say, trolley rage.

The first time I set foot in a supermarket in Britain, I thought I was back at the airport. Can you imagine? Arriving in London after a 10-hour flight, waiting for seven hours in immigration to be waved through, finally hitting my then girlfriend and now wife's bed late that night, waking up the next morning totally jet-lagged and being driven to a supermarket after breakfast. I remember asking my partner: am I back in Gatwick?

Supermarkets are the places where you will find fruit that is so abnormal, or subnormal, or supernormal (take your pick), that it doesn't go off after seven days. I've been known for letting pears ripen for a whole fortnight and yet, after all that time, I still can't sink my teeth into them, so hard they are.

Like everything in life there are pluses and minuses when it comes to supermarkets and their ubiquity. As an example of the former we have the concentration of many varied products under one roof, which saves time and (sometimes) money, especially to people who lead busy lives. I'm sure that there will be a time when a a person will enter a supermarket as a virgin and will leave it with a spouse, a mortgage and a... job? Nah, not even Tesco can manage that these days. But you get the gist: just like New Yorkers are proud to say that what you can't find in the Big Apple doesn't exist, supermarkets might be able to boast a similar argument.

The big minus is, of course, the side effects of this expansion. One of them usually manifests itself in the wiping out of smaller, independent shops, some of which have been run by members of the same family for decades. In this instance, supermarkets act like arrogant Goliaths, steamrollering over planning regulations and (most of the time) having their way when it comes to pitching up their tent (which you can purchase in the heavily discounted camping gear section) in towns and villages around the country. Against this modern Philistine giant, the valiant, family-friendly local, independent-shop-owner David has practically no chance, no matter how good his sling is. A sling that will very likely end up in the toys aisle, or near the till, alongside the items that are meant to catch your eye as you get ready to pay, thus, making you part with more of your dosh.

Let's talk about supermarkets, monopolistic and monopsonistic beasts that they are. But whilst we debate if their empire signifies progress or backwardness, I hope you don't mind if I finish this tub of Ben & Jerry's Core Dough-ble Whammy. Only half price at Sainsbury's, you know.

© 2012

Next Post: “Dawn (a short story)”, to be published on Sunday 17th June at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I thought that by now the red, white and blue bunting would have come down but then I remembered that we still have the Euro Cup and the Olympics coming up. So, it will be a while before the colours that identify the Union Jack are put away. Not that I mind, though. They're also the colours of the Cuban flag.

Anyhoo, I hope Lizzy II had a jolly good time. It was a pretty decent shindig by the looks of it, even if it ended up costing us, taxpayers, £1.4bn according to Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, half of which came from lost production because of the long weekend bank holiday.

What I've seen in Britain so far is a love-hate relationship with the Queen. It's hard to fathom that the amount of people who turned up for the Jubilee concert on Monday (10,000 balloted ticket-holders inside Buckingham Palace, plus a further 250,000 in the park outsidet) was roughly the same number who marched against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. So, one could say that the country dances to the tune of  "Not In My Name" on the one hand and Cliff Richards on the other.

To say that opinions were divided on the matter of the royal hootenanny is the understatement of the century. But to say that the rift was obvious is going a tad bit too far. Probably the most conspicuous opposition came from BBC4 which broadcast the first installment of its three-part series "Punk Britannia" the day before the pageant. Yet, even that was somewhat toned down by the fact they omitted The Sex Pistols' anthemic God Save the Queen (God save the queen/She ain't no human being/There is no future/In England's dreaming). Maybe Prince Charles called Auntie to tell them to treat Mummy well.

Apparently it's a good time to be a royal right now. Their PR machine has been gaining ground ever since that "small business" with Diana made Elizabeth II seem a little out of touch with her subjects. To neutrals, this whole aristocratic revival and the various reactions to it, is like mana from heaven. It provides an invaluable update on current British attitudes towards the monarch and her progeny.
The British and Cuban flags: they share the same colours and not a dragon in sght

Of course, I'm talking from a London-centric point of view. I doubt the denizens of Wales share the same impartial opinion. For starters the Union Jack, created in 1606, includes Scotland and Northern Ireland, but no Wales, as the latter had already been part of England since 1282. Never mind, my dear Cymru chums, there's no dragon in the Cuban flag, either, and we share the same colours with the Union Jack. Plus, we were a British colony for eleven months back in 1762. And you know what? I don't harbour any hard feelings towards her majesty. Here, dear, have another jubilee-themed cupcake.

Going back to the PR machine that's put he royal family centre stage again, I think that they've pulled it off. Talking to older British people, I get the impression that it's a new type of monarchy that's coming to the fore. Prince Charles turns up to read the weather with his wife in tow. Last year his elder son, William, married his longstanding girlfriend, Kate Middleton, someone who would have been considered a "commoner" years ago and no one bat an eyelid. In fact, we, taxpayers, paid for their lavish wedding. And I didn't get an invite. Maybe, the Welsh have a point. Prince Harry goes from a swastika-wearing 20-year-old to a faux-Jamaican-patois-speaking Usain Bolt admirer. Whatever Clarence House is doing, it is hitting the target right in the middle. In austerity-ridden Britain, people came out on the streets in their thousands, if not in their hundreds of thousands, to celebrate the sixty years on the throne of a woman whose husband, Prince Phillip, once asked the black politician Lord Taylor of Warwick: "And what exotic part of the world do you come from?" And yet, there was more concern for the poor, old codger's bladder last weekend than for the 30 upaid jobseekers left stranded under London Bridge before the river pageant on Sunday.

How to interpret the reactions to the queen's jubilee? I don't know. That's my honest answer. The majority of people I've spoken to, seem to be quite blasé about it. In fact they go as far as saying that it's better to have a queen who doesn't seek publicity (she doesn't give interviews) than politicians who whore themselves out in public in an attempt to seem "normal". I have to admit that these people have a point. Standing alone, sans husband on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on Tuesday (her consort was rushed to hospital on Sunday), Lizzy II's grin cried out "The Loneliness of the Long-Reigning Monarch". And yet, she soldiered on.

That last element, resilience, might be the key factor in this royal renaissance. One image from Sunday's jubilee pageant is still engraved in my mind. It is that of the members of the Royal College of Music chamber choir standing on the deck of the Royal Philharmonic barge, singing their hearts and souls out whilst the rain lashed down on them. That, as many of those interviewed averred, is the image the queen conveys, despite the fact that she's not one of the 99% who're bearing the brunt of the cuts introduced by a coalition with no mandate to do so. I would go so far as to say that many people in the UK do not expect the queen to rule, just to entertain them. And based on the spectacle of the last few days, that's reason enough to get the bunting out.

© 2012

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 13th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Urban Diary

And now that May's rain has moved off, what am I left with? Memories, that's what. Both distant and recent. The latter are still found in the puddles children hop over when they run past the new Turkish restaurant on the high street. The one that also doubles up as a banqueting hall. Where, in the menu, Cs wiggle their tails until they become "Çs" and lower Gs don inverted hats and turn into "ğs".

The puddles also bring back distant memories of May's first rainfall and how we used to welcome it in Cuba. According to an old tradition, getting caught in the fifth month's first washout brought you good luck. As children we used to seek out the signs in the overcast, dark, granite sky. But most of the time all we found was yet more humidity.

Until one day when, all of a sudden, we were caught unawares.

Then, we all came out to play. In the pouring rain, we would all stay. Down wet, marble floors we would slide, on our bare bellies, moving from side to side. In yards and corridors we played hide'n'seek, whilst in a flat nearby the rain created a leak.

Those distant memories contrast with the spectacle before my eyes now. Two weeks ago, the high street was flooded. People weren't looking up to the skies, closing their eyes and letting the pouring rain glide down their faces. They were running away from it. And I was one of them. They were asking themselves "When will it stop raining?", not "This presages good luck".

We had hail, with stones so big that they could well have been used as a football by the local five-a-side that meets every Sunday near my house. We had so much thunder and lightning that I was led to believe that London had suddenly become the dominion of Shangó and Oyá, two of the more popular orishas in Cuba. I feared for plants and their diet. Their roots gorging on so much water. So many nutrients all at once. Would this endless rain cause an eating disorder epidemic amongst our shrubs?

But after the rain ended and the sun shone on my little London corner a thought assaulted me. Neither in the newly revamped shopping centre's marble floors, nor in building corridors nor in houses, had I seen children sliding on the floor on their bellies when the skies opened. And it suddenly occurred to me that in spite of May's first rainfall, or maybe because of it, all those years ago, I'd been a lucky boy indeed. Very lucky.

Photo taken by the blog author

© 2012

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

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I chuckled all the way through a recent article by Jonathan Jones on Damien Hirst's latest exhibition at the White Cube Bermonsey in London. I wasn't laughing at Jonathan, I hasten to add, to me he is one of the finest art critics around, but at the tone of his review.
It's right behind you, Spielberg!

His opening salvo was a direct comparison between Hirst and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of the sons of Libya's late dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, who had an exhibit in a specially built pavillion in Kensington Gardens in 2002. Jonathan calls Damien deluded and goes on to accuse the British artist of arrogance and stupidity. I assume that The Guardian's art critic will not be amongst the recipients of Hirst's Christmas cards this year. Unless the latter improvises on the shark motif of his 1991 work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living to design them.

I always love a spat between critics and artists. The way both groups face each other off, sometimes stooping to playground insults is, at least to an outsider like me, highly amusing.

I've no truck with Damien Hirst as an artist. In fact I've never been completely swayed by the whole YBA (Young British Artists) movement. I wasn't in this country when it started and by the time I caught on to it, via an unmade bed by Tracey Emin, I was hearing more about the price some of the pieces on sale were fetching than about the actual quality of the work exhibited.

Which doesn't excuse Jones' outburst. He's clearly someone who's been close to Hirst's work from the very beginning. His own column, albeit highly inflammatory at the outset, tones down the harshness eventually and ends with a plea: "Seriously – Mr Hirst – I am talking to you. It seems you have no one around you to say this: stop, now. Shut up the shed. I say this as a longtime admirer, not an enemy". However, no matter how passionate Jonathan feels about Hirst's alleged crime (make art?) he (Jones) comes across as a übercritic, a creature so caught up in his own world, and his own ways, that it's almost as if here were saying in his tirade: well, it's my way or the highway, honey.

Jones' review turns him into the type of critic who is meritocratic in form, but conservative in essence. That is, he acknowledges good art, even championing at times the non-conventional kind and believes that artists should be judged on the quality of their work. But when it comes to slamming down his judgement on a particular piece or exhibition, it's his opinion and only his opinion that counts. If being a critic (or reviewer) is all about expressing your own personal taste and belief based on your professional experience, then being an artist is all about telling your truth based on the way you conceive the world. At some point, or rather, quite often, the two sides will collide. And a consensus should be reached. The critic, on the one hand, must keep an open mind about the reality to which he or she is being exposed, that is, the artist's reality. And the artist?

That's the other side of the coin. A coin whose metallic skin is harder to work out with the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, as they have not only become great artists in their own right (and here's me acknowledging their contribution rather than slamming down my own judgement) but also entrepeneurs. In Hirst's case, for instance, his recent For the Love of God, a sculpture in the shape of a skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, was deemed "the most expensive piece of contemporary art ever created,". It's hard not to think that the sound Damien is more used to hearing nowadays is the Kerching! of yet another piece being sold at a stratospheric price than that of nails falling on the floor as his paintings are being hung. Even his installations are mounted by a professional and knowledgeable team of people who, I'm sure, doesn't get the same financial retribution he does. In that sense Jonathan's plea was a way of getting Hirst to reverse to a younger self who might have been truer to his art than in awe of Mr Money.

There's still another element to bear in mind. And it's the fact that usually critics are not artists themselves. Michael Billington doesn't write plays, he gets paid to review them. Alexis Petridis waxes lyrical about new musical releases, but I've yet to listen to one of his own scores, if he's ever produced one. In literature, however, the playing field is more levelled. Authors tend to review other authors even if this also leads to the occasional verbal fracas (Ferguson vs Mishra, anyone?). But going back to the visual arts, it is my understanding that when you do a major in art, you're required to also study other subjects like art history, for instance. Nevertheless, when you take a degree in the history of art, studio experience is not required. To wit, an art historian or critic needn't be an artist in order to write about art or review art exhibitions. And yet, without that insider's knowledge and hands-on understanding of what the proces of making art entails, it is difficult to make a sound and unbiased judgement on a particular piece of work. As far as I know Jonathan Jones is not an artist.

Was he right, however, to chastise Damien Hirst (and Tracey Emin, too. Her own exhibit in her native Margate was heavily criticised by Jonathan)? It's up to you to decide, reader/fellow blogger. A self-indulgent artist vs a one-track-minded critic. You take your pick but don't forget, I'll be right behind you, chuckling all the way through.

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 6th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


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