Sunday, 30 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I have mentioned here before my parents’ divorce when I was a teenager. What I haven’t done is give details of the long, tortuous process their separation was. One reason is simple to understand: what I reveal about my personal life is I want other people to know. To me there is still such a thing as privacy. The second reason is that the leading characters in what was a three-actor play are still alive and kicking and although my parents can’t speak English (my dad can mumble a bit in it) I wouldn’t like anyone to translate a post in which they are misrepresented. The third reason is that I am still trying to come to terms with what happened in the build-up to my parents’ marital disintegration and the conflicts that ensued thereafter. This post addresses this very third reason.

The trigger for this column was the results of a recent survey published this week by an association of family lawyers called Resolution. Its chief focus was on the damage divorce does to children. According to the poll, some of the harmful effects to youngsters caused by separation were an increase in drug consumption and academic failure, amongst others.

I agree with the study in principle. But I would have also liked to have seen a link between an unhappy marriage and the same effects described above in relation to divorce. Whilst parents splitting up permanently can be detrimental to the mental, physical and spiritual health of a young person, a marriage where there is a lack of respect is equally poisonous.

Think of the little people, please
 When I look back on my childhood, I remember seeing around me friends whose parents had separated. With the sole exception of two (including me), the majority of my mates lived in single households. At that point I had close to twenty friends, enough for two baseball teams with a couple of pinch-hitters on the bench. They felt jealous of me on account of my status as the child with the – still – two married parents, but I saw no reason for their envy since I was the only one who knew what was going on at home. What went on at home was a mix of hostility, rowing, bickering and cheating (my dad on my mum). The fact that this situation stretched for three or four years made it worse. This is, I believe, where the sanctity of the marriage institution comes into question: is it better for a couple to stay together for the sake of their children or go their separate ways and stay on good terms? Resolution’s survey does not address this issue, but why should they? Imagine polling the same amount of young people who averred to psychological, emotional and physical trauma as a consequence of their parents’ divorce and asking them what the situation was like when their folks were still together. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to find out that the damage started earlier, probably long before family lawyers got involved.

My experience was far from unique. I have spoken to other people who survived marital breakdown when they were younger and most of us seem to arrive at the conclusion that when our parents finally read the last rites to their relationship we felt liberated. I know it sounds selfish and unfair but the almost absolute silence that greeted me at home eevry day after my dad upped sticks and moved with his mistress was soothing. That the din that eventually replaced the peace was a combination of my adolescent hormones conflicting with my mother’s anxiety is not relevant to this post today.

When it comes to divorce and its effects on youngsters, I think that sometimes people rush to make comments that lack empirical evidence, either because they are after a soundbite or because deep down they want to uphold the values and morals of institutions they still regard highly, i.e., marriage. It is fair to say that there are amicable separations in which there is minimum damage to children and marital unions that are really a sham. The latter ends up causing more harm and hurt than we might think. That is one survey whose results I would like to see.

© 2014

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 3rd December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Urban Dictionary

Urban Revolutionary (n):        A latter-day species commonly found in the region comprising the postcodes EC1, EC2, E8, N1, N8, NW1 and NW3 in London. Urban revolutionaries are a natural progression from previous species, including the Anarchic Anti-capitalist Protester and the Bearded Socialist. In the case of the Urban Revolutionary, he (also a “she”, but we’ll settle for masculine for now), he is the result of a strange mix of late 90s ‘oxton gentrification and mid-noughties Shoreditch hipsterism.

Urban Revolutionaries are socially active creatures with deep concerns about the state of our world. In this respect their role in society is to be welcomed. However, URs (don’t we love acronyms?) have a weakness: most of their activism happens online. Whereas both the Anti-capitalist Protester (the name is self-explanatory) and the Bearded Socialist took to the streets in the past to show their displeasure at the way our modern polities were run, the Urban Revolutionary’s best friend is the mouse. Not the rodent, but the computer one. And sometimes not even the palm-sized, technological version of a real Muridae, because who needs a pointing device when one has a smartphone?

Fashion-wise, the Urban Revolutionary look is über-chic, poster-boy Russell Brand, from the out-and-proud teeth (in permanent “smirk”mode, especially when interviewed by Evan Davis) to the Jesus-like hair and beard. Tight-fitting T-shirts and skinny jeans complete the sartorial package.

Time for a comeback?
In the past, the battlefield against globalisation was Seattle, for instance. Nowadays it is At the click of a mouse you can start your own petition and the Urban Revolutionary has been at the forefront of this new approach to politics. In his favour, he has the vigour of youth, a good, all-round education and possibly, although not always, an affluent background. On the other hand, critics are quick to point out the short-termism of his campaigns. This could be seen as a detrimental factor in – paradoxically – putting people off politics. Too many campaigns being waged at the same time deprive a social movement of the necessary pabulum it feeds off. There are further complications in that, when trying to mobilise support for a cause he deems just, the Urban Revolutionary might overlook the root causes of the problem. You can quite rightly campaign to ban a misogynist from entering Britain, but it would be better to look at the reasons why some people thought it was a good idea to invite him in the first place. Whilst some might rage at an art exhibition that supposedly denigrates a particular ethnic group, Bob Geldoff and his merry Band Aid 30 get away once again with patronising Africans with the three-decade-old question: Do They Know It’s Christmas? They bloody do, Sir Bob, they bloody do. But sadly, the Urban Revolutionary is not available to start an online petition to stop this musical travesty. He is too busy, clicking, swiping, clicking, swiping, clicking and swiping... ad infinitum.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 30th November at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

You might think that 28 million quid is a lot of dough these days but apparently it ain’t. Well, even two million quid is not a lot, according to Mylene Klass. You can’t even get a decent garage in London for that kind of money to live in, as she reminded the hapless leader of the opposition, Ed Milliband recently. But £28m is not a lot of money either, especially if you are a female artist like Georgia O’ Keeffe. Her Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 sold for that figure last week in New York. However, when compared to her male counterparts, O’ Keeffe’s auctioned piece is dwarfed by the prices fetched by works of art by the likes of Picasso and Pollock. In a sort of journalistic hara-kiri piece, The Guardian’s chief arts critic, Jonathan Jones, blamed men like him who have long championed male artists over female ones.

Jonathan’s article made me think that there were parallels here between female artists and female writers. Even as the landscape of publishing has drastically altered in the last ten to fifteen years with the advent of the internet and all technological developments related to it, the field of literature, prizes and recognition remains very male, and I would dare say, very white, middle-class and middle-aged.  “Field of literature” refers in this case mainly to the perception of it, rather than the output. When it comes to output women might actually outnumber men, although I have not got any figures to back that statement up. It just feels that way. The internet and self-publishing, especially, have served well the female of the species. Yet, here is the crux of the matter. Prolific female writers are still judged on the genre in which they write rather on the transcendence of their work, unlike their male compatriots. Occasionally women are given the keys to the club, but on the whole the Picassos and Pollocks of the written word still guard the entrance. An example that comes to mind is the excellent short-story  writer Alice Munro. Profiled everywhere, from The New Yorker, to The London Review of Books, Alice should be seen as a game-changing writer in her own right. Yet the language most critics use when focusing on her work seems to imply that Alice Munro is a niche or even a cult author. Contrast that with Updike, DeLillo and Franzen. The phrase “The Great American Novel” is never far behind.

Does any of this matter? No, it doesn’t, and it probably wouldn’t if writers were judged solely on merit. But that’s not the reality. The knock-on effect of this perception of some male authors as epoch-making and female writers as niche-creators (chick-lit anyone?) is that literature becomes a marketing playground on which readers are easily duped with shiny toys. Not all readers, granted, many of us can still think for ourselves, but gender division and its implications is a dream scenario for a publicity company. If you want proof of this, how about this: you may think you know who I am but you are wrong. In reality I am a 60-year-old woman who has a disposable income of more than £1,000 a month. My favourite food is Vichysoisse soup (I had to look that name up, by the way) and I enjoy going to the theatre. Oh, and I have a cat. Obviously, you probably know that I don’t have any pets and that I am forty-three years old. Oh, and before I forget, I am a bloke. How did we arrive at that description? Through my love of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels and the few short stories by her I have read in other publications. It turns out that fans of Mantel’s fiction fit the category I mentioned first. According to a YouGov Profiles service we, readers, can be labelled according to the writers we follow. The reality is more complex, as we know, but isn’t this “boxing-in” attitude a consequence of the same phenomenon I explained before? Do you think that fans of Ian McEwan have to worry about being stereotyped? Not a bit, because the author they have been identified with is one of those game-changers, who has been trying to write “The Great British Novel” with his mates Amis and Rushdie since the 80s. Meanwhile Sarah Waters gets on with what she does best: writing brilliant, best-selling novels, but apparently, no epoch-making ones.

Hilary Mantel: reading her makes me change my sex and age
Maybe I am just letting off steam. After all, it’s not every day that I open the paper and realise that someone has changed my sex overnight without my permission, adding a few more years in the process. The irony is that the article about the YouGov Profiles service came straight after one about a campaign gaining ground currently in the UK in which readers want to “let books be books”. This means that books should not come with a tag attached to them that says they are either for boys or girls. I quite agree with the campaign. I’m willing to start another campaign called “Let Readers Be Readers”. My gut feeling is that it would probably change the perception we have, not just of readers, but also of writers and their transcendence. Maybe we could start with a donation of 28 million quid. After all, apparently that’s not a lot of money.

© 2014

Photo taken from The Guardian website

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Thursday 27th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A few years ago I found myself in conversation with a colleague at my previous school but one. She was older than me with grown-up children of her own and inevitably our chat turned to parenting. She was doing most of the talking and I was doing most of the listening as I thought that someone of her experience would have some handy tips for a parent like me, about to embark on the “terrible teenage years” with my son. There was one comment she made, however, that left me questioning some of the strategies my wife and I had deployed when bringing our children up.

My colleague said in all seriousness that she didn’t expect her children to put her in a care home when she reached her twilight years. She wanted to be looked after by her offspring in the comfort of their homes (I imagine that she meant that her children would take turns looking after their mum). I remember being taken aback by her confident and casual manner. It was almost as if she had already arranged her care plans for her elderly years. When I asked her what her children thought about her decision she did not hesitate to answer: “That’s the deal and they know it. I looked after them when they were little. I wiped their bottoms, changed their nappies, I fed them and took them to the doctor’s when they were ill. I expect them to reciprocate when I am unable to fend for myself.”

A question mark on her face: Who is going to look after me?

So, the answer in short was, her children had not been consulted. It was the sort of agreement that tacitly implies that if you are a child you pay back to your parents whatever they invested in you in the first place. At this point I have to add that my ex-colleague was originally from the subcontinent, probably India, although I’m not totally sure. This element is important when it comes to analysing family dynamics. I have noticed, as I’m sure others have, especially those based in the British Isles that families from traditional backgrounds function differently to those in which both parents were born here. My ex-workmate was a sari-wearing, proud Asian mother. We always used to have good conversations in the staff room but it was only on this occasion and in future interactions thereafter that I noticed her mentioning these expectations she had so well described before. Moreover, it transpired through our regular chats that this was the standard in her culture; not just respect for the elders, but also to care for them.

This conversation left me with a puzzle. Have my wife and I been doing the wrong thing? I asked myself. Maybe we should have thought of our mature years and ensured that our children got the message that they were meant to look after us (not at the same time, I hope) because we have done the same all these years for them. Perhaps we ought to treat this period of our children’s lives like a pension fund and put our savings in them. Yet, there is another part of me that says that this is unfair. Please, do not get me wrong, I still think that respect for our elders is paramount and that no matter how ill, infirm or mentally unstable an older person may be, she or he deserves the most humane treatment there is available. At the same time, foisting responsibility on to the young shoulders of our offspring for our well-being might backfire in the long term. I can imagine all kinds of situations arising; none of them conducive to a conscious effort on the part of the young person to soothe and cushion the effects of the passing of life on an older member of society. This is one of those scenarios where coercion, soft or hard, does not work.

It is different in more traditional families, especially those in Africa and Asia. I think that my neck of the woods, Latin America, has for many years been under the influence of western lifestyles and this has had a knock-on effect on family dynamics. Still, there are remnants of this palliative care in some countries, but on the whole, we tend to send our elderly away to care homes to be fed and dressed by strangers. Professionals, yes, but still strangers.

Part of this, I think, lies in the fact that it is less difficult to develop an emotional and affectionate bond for a new-born. With babies, our natural parental instinct kicks in immediately, even from the time they are still in mummy’s belly. There is also the element of a fully conscious individual, us, caring for one who is not fully aware of all the attention she is getting, nor who is giving this attention and what it means. Fast-forward many decades hence and the situation you come across is the following: two fully conscious individuals, one of whom is the aforementioned parent, but now rendered almost powerless by that phenomenon called Time. I am mainly referring to those cases where an older person cannot look after themselves. There are many cases of perfectly independent elderly citizens who lead a healthy, active life well beyond their retirement age. I say to them: “I hope to join your club when I reach your age”. But the truth is that cases of vulnerable older people left to their own devices outnumber those who are self-sufficient. As I mentioned before, the dilemma is the erstwhile child getting to grips with the fact that it is their mum or dad who relies on them now. This situation is further complicated if the relationship between progenitor and offspring has been damaged at some point, or whether one of the parents was an authoritarian figure in the past and this caused frictions in the family unit. The dynamics between grown-up child and aging parent will change drastically with unforeseen consequences for both camps. Furthermore, witnessing the slow and unavoidable physical and mental deterioration of people who until recently were of sound mind and body, might trigger off thoughts of mortality in these grown-up, but still young, children. I would not be surprised if a form of (self) denial were to make its presence known in their attitudes to their parents and other elderly people.

At this point I return to my previous question: is it fair to treat children as an investment or as a pension fund into which we put all our savings hoping to make use of these savings when we hit retirement age? Whilst in more traditional societies this might be the norm, the truth of the matter is that our world is changing fast. A shrinking labour market means that sometimes you will find your dream job not in the vicinity of the house where you grew up with your mum and dad, but thousands of miles away, in another country. Globalisation means that intercultural unions are becoming the norm with the usual relocation. Also, the concept of the nuclear family as we used to know it has been turned on its head – for the better, in my humble opinion – which means that nowadays it is mum and dad, only mum, only dad, mum and mum, dad and dad, or grandparents. All this has a knock-on effect on the way we look after our elders when they can't fend for themselves.

In an ideal world, I would like there to be the option for children of fragile, elderly parents to ensure that the latter can spend the rest of their lives in total comfort in a care home. Or, if the children so wish, the choice to look after their parents in their own house with some support from the government. To me it is giving back rather than paying back (I don’t like that phrase in the context of parenting) to these people, the majority of whom have made a valuable contribution to society.

This is a complex issue, and one that I have only begun to make sense of in recent years as my children keep growing up and I keep getting older. Unconditional love for my little ones means that I ought not to be thinking of any obligation on their part to change my clothes, bathe me or feed me if they don’t want to. At the same time, there is another part of me that would appreciate being cared for by the people to whom I gave life. Or at least not being tossed in the scrapheap as it has happened to others. Now that I have found my voice on this subject, I would love to run into my ex-colleague and ask her how her plans for her twilight years are shaping up. Something tells me that her answer will not have changed.

© 2014

Photo taken from Lens Snippets

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Tuesday 25th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

And in the end what are we all,
A brick from the old Berlin wall?
Somebody’s question or someone’s answer
A puzzle spinning like a dancer?

What are we all? I asked before,
Creatures we are, under the floor,
The maligned rat, the tiny mouse,
In darkness roaming through the house.

We are the dust that in the wind
Became the song that Kansas dreamed
We are the chords of the guitar
Carrying our life’s score very far

What in the end are we, us, all?
The misheard word, the miskicked ball
Sometimes shaming us for years to come
Till we learn that of the bread we’re but one crumb

Is this us in the mirror, us all?
Is this our reflection, no fear to fall?
Or is it the mask we don for the show
Shielding our selves, our ids, our souls

We can be lovers, good friends or traitors
Of our exhibit the sole curators
Of our performance we’re the one actor
One piece, one act. The theme? Fear factor

What are we all, in this one life?
We’re gain and loss, accord and strife
We are the hauling, dragging and pulling
We’re also the thrusting, shoving and pushing

And in the end, what are we all?
Same question, yes, but, please, don’t call
Phone down, give me no answer
I am still learning from the dancer.

Two things first. It is my birthday today and for only the third or fourth time in my life I have dared to write a poem in English.

To the first one of these two things. Although it is an occasion for me to celebrate – and indeed I am celebrating – this birthday poem was inspired by a recent sad experience. Earlier this year we lost an unbelievable colleague at the school where I work. She was a nursery teacher who had been a member of the staff for many, many years, to the point where some of the current teachers and teaching assistants were taught by this amazing teacher when they themselves were little. I got to know this incredible human being very well, despite the fact that when she died I had been at my primary school for less than a year. Some people make you feel welcome just by looking at you. My colleague was one of those people. She also had a great sense of humour. About a year ago to the day she and I attended a training session near King's Cross station. There was a tube strike that day which affected our journey. I got to the venue about ten minutes before she did. But when she came into the room it felt as if she had just lit it up. Some people have that effect. As our headteacher read the tributes written by the staff, the first line of today’s poem started sounding in my head: what are we all? In the end, what are we? That line took my head as its abode and didn’t leave me alone from that day until recently. I knew I had to do something but I didn’t know what or how.

The second thing today. I knew I had a poem in me. Not a short story. I knew it had to be a poem because that line ended in “all”. And I could come up with all kinds of rhymes and combinations to develop the theme. The theme of what? I mentioned fear factor in the poem, but it’s more than that. It’s the theme of mortality and the way we see ourselves and our selves. Whether we believe that we have accomplished everything by the time the Grim Reaper pokes its ugly head in, taps us on our shoulder and tells us it's time to go or we think that there’s a lot of work to be done still. And are we humans really that far apart from the “others” (plants, animals, dust, etc.) that we can afford to behave in such a solipsistic way?


We’re connected in a way of which we might not be aware sometimes. This idea of a gigantic network of people, things and animals might have been hijacked by the New Age brigade and its spin-offs but strip the layers that make us who we are and at the core you will find the dust, the - beautiful – contradictions and the tiny mouse.

I couldn’t give two monkeys about the quality of the poem or lack of it thereof. I really don’t. It's not praise I'm after but steam I'm letting off. I don’t care which style (if any) the poem falls under. That’s why I don’t think I could ever belong to a writers’ collective or rise up to the challenge of writing a sonnet, or haiku, or suchlike on commission. I just couldn’t do it. I feel jealous of people who can, though. I like making up and breaking my own rules. And because I “discovered” the English language on my own at a young age, I have always believed that English and I have a special relationship. Like two brothers or a brother and a sister, or two good mates who fall out every now and then (all those “likes” and “sos”, "sortas" and "kindas" and rising intonation at the end of statements?) but who always find their way back into the friendship.

That still does not deviate from the fact that writing in a foreign language is very hard. Terribly hard. Believe me; I do it day in, day out, week in, week out. I do it as a hobby and professionally. At the same time there’s a pleasure to be had, mixing, stirring, decanting and tasting sentences, words and connectors. I wouldn’t be able to write this blog if I didn’t derive pleasure from doing it.

So, there you have it. A poem inspired by the life and work of an extraordinary person who is sadly no longer amongst us, posted on the day I celebrate adding another candle to this cake I call life and which you might call something else. I would like to raise a glass of apple juice (I’m teetotal, remember) to you all and ask you to keep posing the same question to others and to yourselves: and in the end, what are we all?

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 23rd November at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Urban Diary

Across the road they huddle together. A sea of hoodies paints my urban landscape in dark greys, navy blues and blacks. Splashed all over the front of their tops are famous brands that pay the hoodies nothing for promoting their products. The luminous sign advertising yet another link in the ubiquitous KFC chain is their meeting place, market, Freud's reclining couch and work experience office. I lean against a lamppost whilst waiting for the bus. A couple of bikes with no brakes are ridden, their front wheels are raised and daredevil acts are performed on them. In the middle of the road. A gaggle of laughs elicits from the group and travels steadily and slowly through the evening air, stopping oncoming pedestrians on the spot, making them do a double-take and finally persuading them to cross the street subtly. Ever so subtly. Nobody wants to venture through the sea of hoodies, but nobody wants to be seen avoiding them either.

Perhaps, this is SE15, E8 or N17. It would be different if it were N10. Then the hoodies would not be up, covering the mainly black heads fully, like urban hijabs of the night, but down, with their owners feeling part of the hoodie fraternity without sharing its stigma.

The east-northerly, cool breeze mentioned earlier today on the BBC’s morning weather forecast makes its presence known. The last of the languid rays of the autumn sun dies behind one of the high-rises. The wind suddenly picks up. I spot my bus. As I put my own Chelsea hoodie up and adjust it in a way that it only covers my head up to my hairline, I see out of the corner of my eye a woman take two steps to her left away from me. Just before the bus pulls over and blocks my view I look at the clowder of feline-like figures across the road. And not for the first time I feel some sympathy for them, even if sometimes I am one of those avoiding them, subtly.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 16th November at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Aged fourteen I developed an unhealthy obsession with my physics teacher. I hated him. I wasn’t alone in my aversion to him Most of my (male) classmates shared my visceral loathing. In our eyes he justified our dislike. With his thick moustache and short height he looked caricatural to our adolescent eyes. To make matters worse (for him), he used to ogle our female classmates at every opportunity, even sitting behind his desk in a way in which he could see their knickers when the girls accidentally opened their legs too wide. As a consequence of this animosity (mutual as it turned out; he also hated us), this physics teacher flunked us all boys, five or six of us, in our final year in secondary school. As I waited to re-sit my exam in the early part of the summer holiday I fantasised about hurting him. Hurting him, not killing him.

This is the reason why I find the case of Will Cornick, the adolescent who killed his Spanish teacher, Ann Maguire, so hard to reason out.

My initial reaction was one of disgust and sadness. The latter for the teacher and her family. Apparently she had been a model of an educator, a dedicated, committed professional, always thinking about the children. My disgust was caused mainly when details of the case surfaced. Apparently Will Cornick had already expressed his intentions to hurt Ann Maguire. As sentence was passed this week these alleged facts became reality. Ann Maguire’s murder had not been a spur-of-the-moment act. Will had deliberately targeted his Spanish teacher.

Yet, another side of me emerged and I can’t say that I was surprised to see it, even though this happened at an unconscious level. Being exposed to Will Cornick’s babyish face, splashed across all newspapers and television news bulletins, made me think of my own children, especially my sixteen-year-old son. Will was fifteen when he killed Ann.  He was given life with a minimum tariff of twenty years, although the judge said that he might never be released.

How fair are you?

Whilst I sympathise with Ann Maguire’s family and condemn Will’s actions, I also feel that the sentence reflects more the public mood than actual justice. So many elements conspire against the punishment meted out to Cornick. First of all, he used social media to make his hatred against Ann Maguire as clear and vocal as possible. No one picked up on that despite the fact that we all know that we are being spied upon by government agencies and corporations. Where’s GCHQ when you need it? Secondly, in the wake of the trial there were some reports saying that Cornick himself confessed to wanting to be caught and put in prison. Surely this points at an unstable state of mind. That leads me to the third conclusion which involves the trial itself. Apparently Will Cornick showed no emotion for his actions. But, as the parent of any adolescent can tell you, this is part of teenagers’ personality. They don’t need to kill someone to show you that they don’t care whether it is their responsibility to take the rubbish out every night or not. I might sound glib but what I’m trying to say is that an adolescent is not a fully formed person; they are half way out of childhood and half way on the road to adulthood.

There’s still another side of me that struggles with these feelings of compassion towards Will Cornick. It is the side that is married to a teacher, albeit my wife works at a primary school. According to reports from former colleagues, parents and her own family, Ann Maguire summed up what education is for. She was a kind person who believed in the “innate goodness of children and young people”. So, looking at it from this point of view, Will deserves a harsh punishment. But this harsh punishment must be accompanied by a thorough and far-reaching programme of rehabilitation. He has to understand what he has done. Leaving him in jail forever and ever says more about us as a society than it says about him as a young offender. If a person as young as fifteen murders an outstanding teacher and at sixteen shows no remorse for what they have done, surely alarm bells should ring and professional support must be given.

I confess that I am torn on this issue. Part of me thinks as the father and the other part as the husband. Part of me wants Will Cornick to be punished, but the other part would rather the punishment had an effect on Will’s understanding of what he did and why it was wrong. Teenagers are famous for not knowing right from wrong sometimes. Or choosing not to know, as the cynic inside me would probably say.

I feel that Will Cornick is being made a scapegoat and his sentence used for political purposes. Especially now as we gear up for a general election in six months’ time. Locking Cornick up and throwing away the key masquerades the fact that many young people with chronic mental, social and emotional problems can’t access the services they need because these services have lost their funding and consequently closed.

By murdering Ann Maguire, Will Cornick committed a terrible and despicable crime. But are we punishing him for his actions or are we using him to divert attention from more important issues? Sadly as it usually happens in cases like this, the truth is the real casualty and I'm afraid no one will get a life sentence for killing it.

© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 12th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

How infallible is memory? How fallible is it? How adept are we at retaining and reviving certain moments which, due to their mere ephemeral nature, should have been long forgotten?

Memory is to me a series of framed tableaux vivants we make up and smash as we go through life. The smashing is unintentional and unconscious. The frames are not silent but do have distinctive voices, from tenor alto to inaudible whisper. They are not motionless, but their movements go from sudden spams to en pointe acrobatics. When we try to reconstruct these broken scenes the pieces do not always slot in the same places as before even if the representation at the centre of them is the same.

It follows that sometimes memory is a trickster. It sneaks up on you, unannounced and weaves a web of confusion and uncertainty around you. Was I at the stadium that night or did I watch the game on television? Was I part of the thousands of spectators willing our team to win the final game of the play-offs, or was I tucked in what had been until recently my parents’ bed and which now gave warmth and comfort to my mother and grandmother? I sometimes can remember clearly the roar of the Industriales supporters as if I had been there at the Latinoamericano stadium with them, screaming at the top of our lungs as our team came from behind to tie the game five runs apiece. And so we got to the bottom of the tenth inning...

Certainties abound in my recollections of that unforgettable balmy, Cuban-winter night of January 1986, too. Fact one: Industriales had not won the championship for sixteen years. The last time had been a year before I was born. Fact two: the right-handed pitcher on the mound for Vegueros, the visiting team, was the most lethal forkball pitcher we had ever had in Cuba, Rogelio García. Fact three: on first base, after having singled to right, was a very promising, young outfielder, Javier Méndez. Fact four: appearing in the final episode of this baseball drama was a veteran, left-handed, first baseman...

Memory is to me a series of framed tableaux vivants we make up and smash as we go through life. The shards of the broken scenes I have been able to put together throw back at me images I know to be truthful.

The left-handed, veteran first baseman's grip on the bat, about half an inch between both hands.

The number 40 on his back.

The blue shirt with white trousers, traditional colours of los azulejos.

The left shoulder raised higher than the right one, as he tenses up.

The first pitch.

A ball.

The traditional squat (the hitter).

The walk around the mound (the pitcher).

The pitcher's grip on the ball.

The first two fingers wrapping themselves around the seams.

The release.

The pitcher’s wrist snapping.

The ball’s slow journey towards the plate.

The batter’s right leg’s inward movement.

The swing.

In sport, there is always a silent moment before release. It lasts all of a nanosecond. In its infinitesimal nature are contained the pent-up emotions of a thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of spectators. It is the trajectory of the football as it heads towards goal after being struck by a forward who has just danced his way through the opponent’s defence. It is the killer knockout punch delivered by the boxer as the gloved hand moves quickly away. It is the last couple of inches before the diver’s perfectly straight body breaks into the placid water of the swimming pool.

That silent moment was present that January night, 1986. Was I at the stadium or at home? Memory has a habit of showing itself not in the way we remember it but in the way we sometimes want to remember it. Occasionally I have seen myself sitting on the stands watching many supporters in front of me balancing perilously on the fence, waiting. Waiting for the swing.

The swing. Was there ever a more majestic, more regal swing? Was there ever a swing that carried with it the hopes of thousands of spectators for whom the wait was finally over?

The swing. And then, the voice of one of the television commentators: “there goes the ball, it’s going, it’s going, it’s going, it’s GONE!!! Industriales campeón!

The silent moment as the ball flies higher and further. And then, pandemonium.

Memory is to me a series of framed tableaux vivants we make up and smash as we go through life. The smashing is unintentional and unconscious. The frames are not silent but do have distinctive voices, from tenor alto to inaudible whisper. They are not motionless, but their movements go from sudden spams to en pointe acrobatics. When we try to reconstruct these broken scenes the pieces do not always slot in the same places as before even if the representation at the centre of them is the same.

The events on that January night, 1986, however, were as truthful as I have told you tonight. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas: “The ball you hit out of the park, number 40, Agustín Marquetti, has not yet reached the ground”.

© 2014

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

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Who owns culture? More specifically, when it comes to ethnic minorities, who owns their culture? How are guardians of said culture appointed?

I waited for a while before posting about Exhibition B here. The atmosphere was too toxic and the language too “black and white” (no pun intended) to risk showing my head above the parapet. As a blogger, I have always prided myself on the sort of discussion that happens in my (virtual) space. No matter what I throw at you, fellow bloggers and readers – and I throw a lot – the responses are most of the time respectful and mature, which is probably one of the reasons why my blog has remained troll-free so far.

Sadly, none of this respect and maturity was present when a group of protesters closed Exhibit B down.

For those of you who still don’t know what I’m going on about, Exhibit B was an art installation that was due to open at the Barbican at the end of September before it was cancelled. The show was created by a white South African artist, Brett Bailey, and a cast of black performers and contained disturbing scenes of black subjugation inspired by the 19th and early 20th century “human zoos”. Throughout the exhibition the performers fixed their gaze deliberately on visitors. Some of the scenes were hard to watch – or so I have heard because with the show being closed down I missed the opportunity to have my say – depicting the horrors of the systematic dehumanisation that happened throughout the period of imperial Europe.

Art or an expression of white privilege?
Immediately after the press release went out the battle lines were drawn. On one side stood the censors, acting on behalf of a whole community, or culture, rather, and on the other side were the defenders of free speech and artistic freedom. I found myself on the latter camp. What complicates my position is that I am a black immigrant. In the eyes of those protesting against Exhibit B I have betrayed my people, my culture and my roots; in their eyes I am a Judas.

What we seem to always forget is that Judas gave back those thirty silver coins and I have never taken any to begin with. The irony in this whole “storm in a tea cup” situation is that by forcing an institution as respectable as the Barbican to close an art exhibition, these (self) appointed guardians of black culture have contributed to the same problems they purport to fight against.

As I have argued before in this very space the biggest threat to my existence as a black immigrant in today’s Britain does not come in the shape of a boot worn on a racist thug’s foot, likely as it might be. It comes, more often, in the condescending attitude to me and black immigrants who think like me, that prevails amongst some well-meaning folk (especially those in the upper echelons of power) for whom I am nothing but a category. By denying us a platform from which we can argue issues like this one the protesters against Exhibition B validated those prejudices. Black people can’t think, they are not good at analysing and assessing works of art for what they are.

I’m writing this post in the middle of October, a month when we normally hold Black History Month in the UK. This is an event that does not appeal a great deal to yours truly, despite the fact that I have contributed to it as a performer, as a dance tutor and as a film festival curator and organiser. But still, the thought persists: “Why should we have just the one month to celebrate the many achievements in black culture?”. There should not be a Black History Month but a Black History Year, where you don’t feel the pressure to hire black musicians (usually percussionists because drumming is so African!) at the last minute to show that you are completely “clued-up” about diversity. Actually, scrap the whole Black History Month/Year. Black history exists, it’s palpable and real, deal with it on a day to day basis.

This world of patronising attitudes is the one in which these self-appointed censors operate but they don’t seem to have any awareness of it. The other irony is that the majority of those marching against the show had not seen the installation. The person who started the online petition that ultimately led to the closure of the show, Birmingham-based activist and journalist Sara Myers, said that there should have been prior consultation. She also added that the exhibit was “in very, very bad taste for our community”. Your community? Wait a second, that’s also my community! Lee Jasper, former advisor on equalities to ex-mayor of London, Ken Livingstone said that “black people, not white liberal elites are the best arbiters of the extent to which this exhibition is helping or hindering the challenge of combating racism and prejudice.” Wrong on all accounts, Lee, the best arbiter is you and you only. If, as Bertold Brecht stated “art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”, you, Mr Jasper and your fellow protestors, took away my hammer and, thus, deprived me of the right to shape my reality.

I understand how the process of spear-heading a movement occurs. It can be intentional or totally accidental. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time when discrimination against a particular group takes place and you raise your voice against this treatment in an articulate and clear manner, you might end up as the leader of the pack. It is then that you might start feeling that your views are the right views, the only views even, for everyone on your team, whether they agree with them or not.

I am sure that Sara Myers’ intentions were good. I am not criticising her for that. I am sure that she thought that by getting 23,000 people to sign a petition calling for the closure of a show in a free, democratic society she would somehow contribute to the development of our race. The problem is that Sara Myers is not all black culture. In fact, let me be really controversial here, before black culture there is something called human culture.

Exhibit B was part of that human culture. The fact that both creator and institution had to go to great lengths to convince people that the installation was not racist shows how far we still have to go as a culture. If the installation was or wasn’t racist I would have liked to arrive at that conclusion myself. I don’t need Sara Myers or Dr Kehinde Andres to tell me how to assess a piece of art. The protesters also showed huge contempt towards the performers for whom this was an opportunity to explore their own roots and events from the past in which their forebears were probably involved. By forcing an arts centre to cancel an exhibition under the aegis of freedom of speech these self-appointed guardians of black culture took away the performers and the artist’s freedom of speech. Please, stand to one side, let irony back through in again.

Sadder than the spectacle of so-called defenders of black culture protesting against an arts installation was the Barbican ceding ground. Bigots come in many shapes and forms, not just in the shaven-headed hooligan or the tie-and-suited Ukipper model. They can also be academics who have earned their stripes by writing books about race or activists raising awareness of racism. An arts centre, on the other hand, has a duty towards its users and visitors regardless of their gender, skin colour, (dis) ability, religion, sexual orientation or race. The Barbican shouldn’t have closed down the exhibition. Engagement? Yes. Censorship? No. It looks as though we still haven’t learnt the lessons from Salman Rushdie’s fatwa.

Black culture, or the black community, as Sara Myers called it, is bigger than these self-appointed guardians can imagine. As Aditya Chakraborty, senior economicscommentator for The Guardian, wrote in a thought-provoking column last week, you can be Bengali and black. This is not a combination that springs quickly to most people’s minds. Moreover, black not always is the main identity marker for some of us born outside the UK. Should we then give up on our main identity markers to match Sara and Kehinde’s ideas of blackness?

I will always fight racism whatever shape it takes. But sometimes it is harder to fight it when it comes from people you would otherwise see as your allies.

© 2014

Image taken from The Daily Telegraph

Next Post: “Pieces of Havana, Pieces of Me”, to be published on Wednesday 5th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


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