Saturday, 28 November 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

The more I look at it, the more the lobster resembles a handset. An impossible handset, I will give you that, but a handset nonetheless. Of course I am talking about Dali’s “lobster telephone”.

The surrealist object was on my mind recently because I have been following Sky Arts series “Landscape Artist of the Year”. I have not watched the final yet, so, please, no spoilers, if you, too, are keen on the show.

There have not been any surrealist paintings per se so far (well, none that I would call “orthodox surrealism”, which in itself would be an oxymoron, since surrealism was a mould-breaking movement). There have been a few “surprises”, though. This is where the “lobster” comes into the picture (pun almost intended). When it comes to landscaping, we expect the finished work on the canvas to match the view in front of it. In the semi-final, the view contestants had to work on was Tower Bridge. Two of them, however, did away with conventions and came up with bizarre but highly creative pieces. Their risk-taking approach was all the odder when one takes into account that Tower Bridge has been one of London’s most easily recognisable landmarks for almost a century and a half.

This is not a lobster
From a layperson’s point of view, when I see a painting of a land-, city- or sea-scape, I unconsciously expect it to resemble the geography it represents. I should clarify that that was maybe thirty-odd years ago before my first brush with impressionism. Ever since I discovered that movement I began falling more for the “mood” of a piece than for the painter’s “loyalty” to their surroundings. If we are to believe arts specialists – and I see no reason why not to occasionally – visual art began as an aesthetic response to the artist’s environment. Look at those drawings in caves and think of our ancestors attempting to capture the exact physical features of bisons, perhaps without the skills that evolution would provide them with in years to come. Nevertheless, the intention was there already. The impulse to leave a mark behind, a mark that was faithful to the landscape that gave them shelter and food.

This is what art did for so many centuries. It created reality-based patterns that were easily recognisable. Familiarity won over risk-taking. Impressionism, Dadaism, surrealism and modernism brought new challenges to the game, not just for practitioners, but also for us, art lovers. Suddenly, a pipe was not a pipe and a urinal could be displayed in an art gallery. Back to Sky Arts’ “Landscape Artist of the Year” and what I have enjoyed the most is how contestants have been given free rein to “ruin” a perfect view. I am joking, of course, for all works have been, in my humble opinion, of the highest quality. Yet, a few have defied convention and their owners are the ones who have been rewarded with a place in the final and the opportunity of a ten-thousand-pound commission from the National Trust. Reminds me of that lobster somewhat and the role of crustaceans in the development of visual arts in human history.

© 2015

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 2nd December at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

London, my London

This post is about that crossing. But before we get to that crossing, let me take you by the hand and give you a mini-tour of a very peculiar corner of north-west London.

Golders Green is a recent, 19th century development with a Jewish-rich history. If Hackney’s Stamford Hill is better known for its Orthodox Jews, then, Golders Green’s “people of the book” are more representative of the middle-class families who settled in the area after Golders Green tube station opened. From Ashkenazims to Sephardims, it is thought that by the late 50s a quarter of the population in this area was Jewish.

Cycling on Finchley Road is one of the ways to discover this lesser-known London gem. Just a little curious fact: when you hear the word “avenue”, do not think of a wide, big, long road, but very often, think of a small, narrow one. Finchley Road would be called an “avenue” in any other city, including Havana, but here it is merely a “road”, or at most, a “high road”.

If this post were about the usually impressive-looking British countryside, I would be using terms such as hedgerow trees, pastoral land and woodland. Instead, I must resort, dear reader, to urban adjectives such as gentrification, young professionals and café culture. The well-kept tarmac made for a smooth surface on which to cycle. At some point I felt almost as if I were gliding. This coupled with the fact that Finchley Road is long and slopy made for interesting double-takes of little shops and businesses. In fact, Finchley Road felt like a preamble to West Hampstead. At the traffic lights with Fortune Green Road on my right, I recognised the area I was in immediately. I used to work here.

West End Lane has changed beyond recognition. It had already changed drastically by the time I joined the travel agency where I spent five and a half years of my life as a tour-operator. Still, one landmark remained almost intact amongst the Nando’s and Japanese eateries: West End Lane Books. This was one of my favourite stops after work on the way to the train station. I still remember the musty smell inside and on this day I could not resist saying hello to this old friend. I strolled into the building and it felt as if every shelf in the bookshop had leant forward to acknowledge my presence. That of an erstwhile regular who has not been in for almost twelve and a half years. West End Lane Books is in a league of its own. At any point the visitor will have access to approximately 10,000 titles in stock. The staff are still knowledgeable and polite.

The nostalgic-tinted encounter with the bookshop gave me the special oomph I needed to complete my journey and that I did. Straight down district-splitting West End Lane I carried on. On one side the blurred boundary with still-Irish stronghold Kilburn where the Tricycle Theatre has provided a fertile ground for up-and-coming left-of-field playwrights.

A distinctive element of London’s urban geography is its confusing and bizarre postcode system, as I mentioned in a previous post. After turning right from West End Lane onto Compayne Gardens, I cycled alternatively between NW6 and NW8. Of course, part of the reason was that, as I explained at the beginning of this series, I was focusing more on the discovery of what to me London’s hidden gems were (not necessarily landmarks or tourist sites). Culture and history over fame. Even with a little bit of architecture thrown in for good measure. All in all, the journey along these mainly deserted roads with picturesque houses and flats was an enjoyable experience. So much so, that all of a sudden, that crossing appeared and… Well, I shall stop my narration here as I leave you pondering who made that crossing as renowned as it has been for many decades. And if you do not know the answer to that question then, well… I cannot help you, reader. You are on your own.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 28th November at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

A few years ago a fellow blogger sent me an e-mail with a link in it asking me if I was interested in joining some kind of online protest. I cannot recall all the details but it was something to do with turning my blog into some kind of virtual Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner. The soap-box, sadly, was not included.

My answer at the time is the same answer I would give now to anyone asking me the same question: I do not normally use my blog for those purposes. Whatever is going on in the world, I let it sink in first and then, if I can add something constructive to the online debate, I will do so. There have been a few exceptions, but overall that has been a rule of mine to follow all these years as a blogger. The reason for this is that too often I find a knee-jerk reaction to events that call for a thorough analysis and that includes my own gut reaction. For a second, or a minute or a day, I stop thinking like a normal human being and become a vindictive monster hell-bent on revenge.

The terrorist acts in Beirut and Paris last week, and Mali only yesterday attest to this. The reactions have been of the binary kind: on the one hand, we have had plenty of well-meaning displays of solidarity, chiefly with the people murdered in the French capital. I, too, have joined those for the last seven days both on Twitter and Facebook. On the other hand there has been the usual crass response to the terrorist crisis, such as Donald Trump’s comments that he would give Muslims “a special form of identification that noted their religion”. Just in case you have been hiding under a rock all this time, Donald Trump aspires to be the president of the United States of America.

When I hear or read comments like that, my first question is: why do we adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to terrorism when this scourge is a multi-layered issue? If the solution were bombing the little buggers out of their miserable existence, that would have been done long time ago. It would have taken years but at least governments would have concentrated on just that one solution. But the sort of terrorism that we have come across for the last fourteen years is of a different kind with its very specific cycle of life, or death, as it has shown itself to be.

Do not get me wrong. To me, fighting Daesh is still a priority, even going the military way. At the same time, I would like our governments to think more creatively even if in the long run some of the financial rewards they have enjoyed so far fade into oblivion. Human life is more important than exports in my humble opinion.

First of all, consider the enemy. In normal warfare, no matter how hard, long-running or dirty the war is, your opponent will want to go back home in one piece. There have been heroic acts of immolation in history but most of the time soldiers on both sides have always wanted to stay alive. When it comes to fundamentalists, they do not care whether they are killed in what they call combat or if they are not. In fact, martyrdom renders them superheroes to other wannabe-terrorists. My suggestion is that we stop using words such as “battlefield” when talking about a massacre like the one at the Bataclan theatre. That was murder. Murder in cold blood. The people who murdered the concert-goers were murderers, killers. They were not, at least for me, soldiers. Because Daesh is not an army, it is a loose association of idiots guided by a twisted ideology based on the wrong interpretation of a sacred text.

Not Paris, but Beirut

Secondly, cut the supply. This will be the hardest measure to implement. Cut the supply of weapons, for instance. As far as I know Daesh is not a weapons manufacturer, nor do they have weapon-manufacturing facilities. This means that they are getting their guns from various sources: direct sale from trustworthy companies or individuals, theft and bribe. Direct sale should be easy to stop as it leaves a paper trail behind it. In this time and age with NSA and GCHQ knowing what goes on in almost every single household in Britain and the US, their intelligence could come in handy to follow the clues from warehouse to buyer. When it comes to theft, the west has to get its act together. For too long the arms industry has enjoyed a challenge-free existence because very rarely the weapons it has sold to rogue states and dictatorships affected their own citizens. Not anymore. The guns, submachine guns and other heavy artillery used by Daesh in their military drills and skirmishes can be traced back to the arsenal sold to countries in the Middle East and Asia, including, surprise, surprise!, Syria. This is the windfall to which I referred before and which has caused untold misery. Cut the supply of weapons and where will that leave Daesh? It is not the same to practice with the latest state-of-the-art automatic gun, stolen from a dead American, Afghan or Iraqi soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq, than to carry out exercises using only knives and pretend weapons. Knives can still kill, but they will not kill as many as those who were murdered in Beirut or at the Bataclan in Paris. It goes without saying that a radical measure like this one, a ban on all weapons sales, would be opposed by almost every single arms manufacturer in the world. The question is: what do we value more, arms exports or human lives?

The third element to take into consideration is the make-up of Daesh, especially the young people joining this terrorist organisation. That is another supply we ought to cut, nip it in the bud, so to speak. Why are some of our young people, especially Muslims, attracted to this gallery of cartoonish characters called Daesh? Maybe if we stopped laughing at Donald Trump et al and we started listening to their poisonous message and accepting it for what it is, a message said in earnest without any hint of irony, we could start making some progress towards engaging some of our young Muslim population in a productive dialogue. Two important disclaimers here: the first one if that this is not an attack on free speech. Donald Trump can say what he wants to as long as he can justify it. Same with British politicians, especially those who are pointing their finger at the refugee crisis and calling it a Trojan horse (oh, no, sorry, that was Donald again!). Just a little reminder: the 7/7 bombers did not come to the UK as refugees; neither did the perpetrators of 9/11. I could carry on. The second disclaimer is that not all young Muslims want to join Daesh. I know I am stating he bleeding truth but sometimes the bleeding truth must be stated to avoid confusion and misinterpretation.

The fourth element is the way the media deals with terrorism, mainly the new fundamentalism. If I am honest, I only found out about Beirut through Paris. Paris got much of the coverage. The sad outcome of this is that resentment will grow in a community that already feels beleaguered. By focusing on Beirut, Mali, Nigeria and other places where Daesh or a similar terrorist cell has struck, we begin to see the people in that part of the world as equals and not as AN OTHER.

I could list more elements that I believe would eventually deal effectively with this terrorist crisis. I think that the two most important factors are the arms industry and the disaffection of the youth. Prioritise human lives over the arms trade and work on the young, their aspirations and frustrations. This will not eliminate Daesh, but it will cut the supply of weaponry and personnel from which they are benefitting at the moment. I admit it is not a perfect solution and that it will take time, but then again this new kind of terrorism is not black and white but rather grey with blood stains on it.

© 2015

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 25th November at 6pm (GMT)

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Summer Tale for an Autumn Morning

It is my birthday tomorrow, Monday 16th November, and as I do every year I have prepared something special and unusual to share with my fellow bloggers and readers, even if I don't really believe in birthdays that much. The story below was born three years ago during the London Olympics and especially that much talked-about Super Saturday (yes, I know, three years. But I needed to work on the characters and the plot and... Oh, who am I kidding? I'm just lazy). Like most short stories I have written on this blog in the past, this one is a draft that I will go back to and work on some more. At the moment, though, I'm quite enjoying where it's headed and I'm happy with it. Have a great week.


This is a train. This is a train leaving Bush Hill Park, Enfield, north London, bound for Liverpool Street, east London. This is a train that contains few passengers. Amongst these passengers there is a couple. An ordinary-looking couple. A run-of-the-mill couple. A couple you wouldn’t stop to look at more than once on the street. Yet this is no ordinary-looking couple. This is a couple with a secret. Her secret. Which the man in the couple has just found out today despite the fact they have been together fifteen years.

This is a train that contains a couple in which the man thinks he knows everything about his wife. But there is a reason why his wife has been holding something back.


This is not a story about shame but about its aftermath. The feelings it triggers. The scars it leaves behind. This is a story that takes place on a train bound for a popular station, a station at which many passengers regularly alight, especially on a Saturday evening like this, seeking the myriad pleasures London has to offer.

Why now? He asks. They are on their way to a school reunion. That might explain the “why now? She is bound to run into Father Nicholas at the gathering. As she mentions his name her grip tightens on the kitchen knife she took just before leaving the house. Father Nicholas, whom she calls “that man” in her tale. According to Gloria, who phoned her up a few days ago, “that man” is still in touch with some of the pupils from her old girls’ school. He must be now… what... seventy-three… four? Who knows? Who cares? He is still alive. And that to her, matters more than his age.

Gloria sounded worried on the phone because she is the only person who knows what happened. And now her husband knows, too. When “it” happened, she was too ashamed to tell anyone else. She kept thinking she’d get pregnant. Not that she knew a lot about reproduction at the time. The little she knew she learnt it from Gloria. As soon as the lights went out in the long and narrow girls’ dormitory the two of them started their barely audible, whispered dialogue. They were two thirteen-year-olds tempting fate and defying the nuns’ curfew.

But Father Nicholas knew. He knew about the nocturnal conversations and he knew which girl was the vulnerable one. Not Gloria. Oh, no! Gloria was a fighter. Absent father and a mother who gave up on her because her daughter was “an accident I didn’t ask God for”. Gloria talked back. Gloria asked awkward questions. Gloria wore make-up once to mass for which she was severely punished. The very visible welts on her skin did nothing to placate her rebellious nature.

Sitting now on the overground next to her husband, she has a memory of herself being the opposite of Gloria. She was always clingy, too dependent. The perfect victim for “that man”.

Their train arrives at White Hart Lane. A blood-soaked sky can be seen to the west. Normally at this time of the day, there would still be people hanging out here during the football season, if there was a late kick-off. The platform is almost empty. It’s funny how the Olympics give the impression that the streets of London are swarming with crowds and yet that has not been the case. She read the other day in the paper that theatres and tourist spots in the West End are not getting the windfall they were expecting because visitors prefer to head for East London instead. The carriage they occupy has only three other passengers. She never felt comfortable with the idea of the Olympics. All that money wasted on a fortnight exhibition of brawn and little brain. On top of that there is the heat this year to deal with. She cannot stand the heat. Please, no more of this Indian summer, give me a good ol’ British downpour instead. That has become her refrain during the months of June, July and August so far. A fat pearly drop of sweat travels from her left cheek down her neck and nestles in between her breasts.

So, how many times did he do it? Her husband’s question is asked in a low, neutral voice, betraying no emotion. Twice, her tremulous voice responds. The first time she remembers seeing father Nicholas’s silhouette at the door of her dormitory. The light from the full moon streaming through one of the half-closed windows gave him a spectral apparition. His black cassock highlighted the paleness of his face. His black buckle-less shoes made no sound and yet she was completely sure that she could hear heavy footsteps getting closer to her bed.  After spotting him at the door she drew the bedcover over her head, but she still could feel him approaching. All of a sudden the heavy footsteps stopped. His hand removed her shelter. He bent down and...

For many years after that night I kept thinking that while he was raping me I was being watched by all the girls in the dormitory, her voice, like her husband’s sounds cold and detached. I had a recurring nightmare, she continues, in which the lights came on as he was still... doing that... and I felt... oh God! She turns towards her husband, pushes her face against his shoulder and wraps her right arm around his neck. Her sobs are inaudible. The few, scattered passengers in their carriage fail to notice that she is crying. Her husband knows about the nightmares. She still has them, but instead of her bad dreams being populated by cut-out cardboard figures from her ex-school, they are now inhabited by real people she has been involved with. Her previous two husbands, for instance. And Gloria. Ever-present Gloria. Her husband’s left hand slides down her hair and nape and goes back up, stopping at her crown. He massages her head, pressing his thumb down lightly and making tiny circles with it. He knows she loves that and were they at home now and in different circumstances, this would probably be a signal to begin their slow but always satisfying love-making. It is also the way he comforts her whenever she has one of her recurring nightmares. She thinks back to an earlier, merrier memory in the day, of bedsprings creaking and feels a pang of disappointment which causes her to shudder slightly. She disentangles herself from her other half. His massage is the same, but somehow it doesn’t feel right. Are you OK? She asks him. He doesn’t look in her eyes. Did he...? Did he...? The words want to come out but she knows he is struggling to utter them. Did he… penetrate you? Yes, she says. He raped me, that means that he penetrated me. Better to get it over with, she thinks. That’s probably why his caresses feel so mechanical, because… wait, no, that's not it, he wants validation. That‘s why he asked the question. Maybe he thought that by rape I meant sexual assault. Maybe he is blaming me. He won’t admit it but he is probably thinking that I brought this problem onto myself. She is no longer feeling so confident that her husband of fifteen years is in a position to understand what Father Nicholas did to her and the others. After all, she has only found out about the other girls recently.

Bastard! His voice is still low but his anger is perceptible. Fucking bastard! How could he do it with so many of you around? Although his tone is not accusatory, she feels as if she is the one in the dock.


Your Honour, members of the jury, passengers of this train, world! I plead not guilty. Yes, you heard that right. I plead not guilty to being raped by a Catholic priest whom my family, especially my mother, completely trusted. I was thirteen, Your Honour, with the memory of my first period still fresh in my mind. Unlike Gloria, I was besotted with the Holy Book. Gloria already had doubts then, but to me the Bible was my only anchor at a time when I was unmoored. There was no story in it that didn’t speak to me, that didn’t relate to me somehow. My devotion pleased my mother who led her own life according to the strictest of religious codes. She lived in desperate fear of committing a sin. That’s why it was so easy for Father Nicholas to do what he did to me. His demeanour mixed the disciplinarian and the friendly, with an emphasis on the former rather than the latter. My mother welcomed this unsolicited support in the middle of yet another crisis with my father. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that when it came to Father Nicholas in those years the capital ‘F’ became very quickly a lower case ‘f’.”


He didn’t make his intentions clear from the start. Instead, he groomed me. She likes using that verb now, “groom”; she knows what it means and it gives her a sense of control over the event even if she cannot get rid of the memory. Gloria realised straight away but I was too focused on my Bible studies to notice. At the convent I always stayed behind with “that man”to go over a particular passage. His big, calloused hands would usually find a way to make contact with my small, delicate fingers, guiding them across the page. If I made a mistake, he would play the old, uncle character, all laughs and bad jokes. But there was also an angry side to him. If he felt that his rule was being contested, that I or any of the other girls was straying too far from the line, he didn’t hesitate to punish us.

It is strange to hear her own narration coming out so freely, untroubled by doubts and awkward pauses, albeit punctuated by irregular sobs. Perhaps that is the reason why her husband is so tense. He might be expecting the same tension in return. Yet she has grown a thicker skin over the years. “That man” loomed large over her life. There were the failed relationships to begin with, followed quickly by two marriages that broke down leaving behind a taste similar to sand in the mouth. The first husband, of Irish stock, an alcoholic; the second one, a Ghanaian with a peculiar sense of humour and a rather idiosyncratic view of women, a gambler. She also severed ties with Catholicism for good. This happened in her early 20s when she had not yet moved to London. At the time she felt like a child who dashes down the stairs on Christmas Day only to find that the white-bearded fellow and his elves have made off with the gifts during the night. It was not just that Christmas did not exist but also that Santa (if real) was a thief. Sexually speaking she had only recently begun to know herself. Certainly her current spouse was partly responsible for this progress but she had, so to speak, taken the reins of her own horse and was guiding it to a place where she felt she belonged.

And then, all of a sudden, the phone call from Gloria and the idea to get together with the girls. Joy was swiftly followed by rancour and hatred. A deep-seated hatred that manifested itself when she found out only yesterday that “that man” would be at the party. Gloria rang her again to say that she had no idea Father Nicholas was going to be there when she first belled her. Gloria wanted her to know that she could cancel and it would be all right.

She tightens her grip on the knife.

She decided not to cancel. She explained to Gloria that she needed to deal with this situation once and for all, the sooner the better. What she left unsaid was the other thought: she did not want to let Gloria down. Gloria’s life had been a wreck since leaving the convent. Although the two friends rarely met in the flesh they did keep in touch by phone and now in the modern era of social media via Facebook. Through third parties she found out about Gloria’s problems with drugs, self-harm, alcohol, eating disorders and men. Whenever she tried to approach the subject as a friend, Gloria fobbed her off. Once she almost jumped on a train to rush to Gloria’s side when she saw a photo her friend had posted on Facebook. In it Gloria looked emaciated, wasted, wafer-thin and lifeless. The smileys and LOLs underneath the picture could not conceal the problem: not just the physical deterioration but also the self-deception that was so characteristic of Gloria’s personality. She knew that in people who thought themselves strong and self-sufficient addictions could take longer to detect and address because of self-denial. Gloria had always hated the pity-coated language people used when referring to addicts. To Gloria, her addictions were quirks: Other people have addictions. I have quirks. I am a quirky person. Fancy another shot? And down the tequila shot went.

I’m not blaming you, her husband is still keeping the same neutral, low voice. I think that you’ve gone through a lot of crap already but, I’m sorry, but… I can’t help thinking that there must have been someone there at the convent you could have spoken to.

someone there at the convent you could have spoken to. “That man” was about thirty-six or thirty-seven when he raped her. He had built a good, solid reputation at the convent and in the local community. He was well-respected. Would her husband be able to understand that no one would have believed her had she spilled the beans? A thirteen-year old from a soon-to-be broken home?  They would have said: Count your blessings, child. Father Nicholas is a good man who does a lot for people. I have seen him come to your house many times to mediate between your mum and dad. Without him, your folks would have gone their separate ways long ago. What you are saying makes no sense. The Father made a vow to God, the highest authority there is. He wouldn’t break that vow for someone like you.

She remains silent, though. She knows that even if she explains he still won’t believe her. It’s complicated, not as easy as you might think, that is as far as she goes. She moves her head away from his dreadlocked mane. Her right hand lets go of his left hand. As she looks out the train window she catches her reflection on the glass. Her hair is a splodge of red (her natural colour) and grey (the invader).

Because I want to exorcise my demons, she finds herself answering his original question, why now? This is her only chance. Now, today, in this reunion, where she is also bound to run into other victims. They have not spoken as a group about what happened to them whilst at the convent but if she fires the first salvo, if she confronts this vile man, maybe the other girls, women now… What do you think you’ll do when you see him? She tightens her grip on the kitchen knife again. I just want the truth. I just want him to admit what he did. Will she make a scandal? She is not a scandal-prone person. It is just not part of her personality. She likes doing things quietly without standing out or attracting attention. For instance, her decision to remain child-free was made without any fuss, or tears. When her mother asked her, she just replied: I’m not the mother type. In reality what she really wanted to say was: I just don’t want to turn out to be a mother like you. How quickly we transfer guilt to another person! Her husband to her, she to her mother. Shame does that to people. And “that man”? Could anyone transfer any sort of guilt to him? Would “that man” be capable of feeling guilt?

When Gloria rang her the second time she told her that she had forgotten to tell her that Father Nicholas had finally been caught a few years ago. Perhaps Gloria had said it to console her; a way to ease the burden weighing heavily on her friend’s shoulders. In reality she learnt from another ex-student that all Father Nicholas got was a soft slap on the wrist and the suggestion that maybe it was time for him to retire. Now, on this train going from the suburbs of north London to the hustle-bustle of Liverpool Street, she wonders for the first time if she will be capable of carrying out her plan as hastily arranged. For haste had featured prominently when she decided to grab the kitchen knife. She knew she was not a murderer. But would she be considered one when people found out about her motives?

Something strange happens at some of the stations the train pulls into. Figures she recognises from her dreams – nightmares – board the train. At Stamford Hill, her first husband hops on and remains by the doors as they close. His lips move but no sound comes out of them. Finally she is able to make out the words: You are that you are. At Hackney Downs, against the background formed by the match-box-shaped mid-rise buildings on Amhurst Road, barely visible above the platform wall, she catches sight of her second spouse. He, however, does not get on. Instead he holds a big sign for her eyes only. The letters are red against a white background: He will not repent! In Bethnal Green, a woman, as emaciated-looking as Gloria, boards the train ahead of a sari-wearing women-only group. Gloria’s Doppelgänger sits across her, fixing her eyes on her the whole time. All of a sudden she says: O daughter of Eve, so as you call upon me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you are about to do, and I shall not mind. Were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you.

Next stop is Liverpool Street Station, where this train will terminate. Please, take your belongings with you”. The voice on the Tannoy jolts her back to life. She turns to her husband and the expression on his face leaves her puzzled. Does he still blame her, or worse, does he feel pity for her? Are you all right? We don’t have to go if you’re not feeling all right. You know what, when I married you, I married you not just for the good times but also for the shitty ones. I need some time to think and the space to do so. Right now I don’t know what I’ll do when I meet this “character”. You know me, I’m not violent but… you’ve been through so much crap, sweetheart. It’s just that this is a bit too much. Thank God I haven’t got one of the kitchen knives on me now. I don’t know what I’d do if I did.

They get off the train. At first they do not hold hands. She remembers that she was the one who took her hand away from his on the train. Her husband is pensive now that he has finished his speech. He has hardly looked at her since her confession. If she were a gambler she would put a wager on him turning around now and walking away, not back home, but somewhere else. Probably walking out of this story, for this tale must be as painful for him as it is for her.

As soon as they go through the ticket barriers the glare of a BBC-broadcasting giant screen catches their eyes. The image of a grinning Mo Farah causes fellow passengers to come closer to the screen. The volume is turned up. Fragments of conversations mix with the live commentary on the screen: Martha? John? Oh, nice to meet you. Nice to meet you, too. Been watching the Games? Yes, and waiting for you. The third gold medal for Great Britain this evening. This will go down as one of the great, great nights of British athletics certainly. They leave the crowd and almost robotically climb on the escalator Old Broad Street-bound. On their way up they exchange glances and call out each other's names, almost in a whisper. It is an acknowledgement that they are here, still together. As they come out of the station a drop falls on her nose. She looks up and notices that the sky has turned a splodge of dark grey right above them and light pink further east where the Olympic Stadium is. She softens her grip on the kitchen knife inside her bag and grabs firmly her husband’s hand. This time, she does not let go.

© 2015

Next Post:” Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 21st November at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

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

Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

I've heard a lot about kale recently. This recipe might just serve as an introduction for me to this vegetable and its benefits. Plus, it is autumn and that means, Nigel Slater's cooking!

Sweet potato and kale bubble and squeak recipe

The recipe
Peel 1kg of sweet potatoes and cut them into large pieces. Place them in a steamer basket or colander and steam over boiling water for about 30-40 minutes, until tender to the point of a knife.

In a dry frying pan, toast ½ tsp of cumin seed and ½ tsp of chilli flakes. Remove and mix them with ½ tsp of sweet, mild, ground paprika.

Lift the sweet potatoes out, tip them into a bowl (or the saucepan emptied of its water) and mash them thoroughly with a good 50g of butter, some salt and a grinding of black pepper, and the toasted cumin, chilli and paprika.

Remove the tough stalks from 150g of kale (you need 100g trimmed weight). Cook the kale for a minute or two in a saucepan with about 1cm of water, covered by a lid. Drain and roughly chop.

Fold the kale into the sweet potato. Pile into a dish, top with a few knobs of butter and bake for about 25 minutes until lightly crisped on the top. Serves 2, generously.

The trick
A steamer basket or a colander, balanced over a pan of boiling water, is probably a more successful way of cooking sweet potato than boiling it. The exceptionally soft flesh will collapse if cooked in water and produce a soggy mash. Toast the cumin seeds and chilli flakes in a dry frying pan, using no oil or butter, watching very carefully, as they will burn in a heartbeat.

The twist
Some floury Maris Pipers will be good here instead of the sweet potato, or use half potato and half celeriac. Kale is just one of the suitable brassicas: Brussels sprouts, savoy cabbage or purple kale will all work well. Sprouts are best quartered, shredded or separated into individual leaves. Fold small pieces of cheese, a good 150g, through the hot potato when it is mashed. Blue cheeses work exceptionally well here, in which case I would omit the cumin.

The music

I would like to start this section tonight with my latest musical crush, Karine Polwart. I have just had a few of her CDs ordered for my birthday. You can judge by yourselves. Her voice sounds like pure autumn gold.

Another lady is my second guest tonight. All the way from Spain it is the hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners pop sensation, Bebe. Another voice that bubbles like the bubble and squeak recipe I have offered you tonight. Caution, though, this is no easy-listening pop, but pop with meaning and depth. Just like autumn.

Another CD I am getting soon. This is the type of collaboration I love, the sort of coming-together that makes music the beautiful human phenomenon it is. Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal, the former, a kora player, the latter, a cellist, creating magic. Just like autumn food.

Next Post: "Summer Tale for an Autumn Day", to be published on Sunday 15th November at 10am (GMT)

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

In 2012 a blogger called Nate Silver predicted the outcome of the US election accurately to everyone’s amazement. In 2015 the results of the British general election shocked many: most people thought Labour’s Ed Milliband would win or at least that another coalition would be formed. From this we could conclude that US analysts are better than their UK counterparts when it comes to psephological matters.

That would be wrong, though. The only field of expertise to which both groups could claim is to a lack of basic understanding of the madness of crowds.

I am not using the phrase “madness of crowds” randomly. This is the title of a regular column by writer Will Self in The New Statesman which is based on a book by Scottish-born 19th-century author Charles Mackay: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

I confess that I have not read the book yet, but I do find the subject fascinating. Why did people in the 1800s latch on to a catchphrase like "What a shocking bad hat!"? what motivated them? Likewise, how can you predict the results of a general election? What method(s) do you use to achieve your objective? What motivates someone to vote for a particular politician? Are people (crowds) so easy to second-guess? Are we that obvious in our motives and intentions, political or otherwise?

No, we are not. There was a method to Nate Silver’s approach, although by the time I read the job title “biostatiscian” (belonging to one of the experts who broke down Nate’s method into tiny little pieces) I was running in the opposite direction. To me, Nate just got lucky. Plus, he is an online poker player. Make of that what you wish.

Genius or just plain good luck? (Photograph: Mike McGregor for the Observer Mike McGregor/Observer)
The UK election, on the other hand, felt more “normal”, if normal is the right word here. I would say that in turning out to be so unpredictable it rendered the process human. We, humans, are completely unpredictable. If there is some succour to be had in our dealings with each other in real life is that there is something called civic society in which the rule of law still works.  Otherwise it would be daggers at dawn every time we rub each other up the wrong way. And still…

Generally speaking, polls and surveys make excellent material for Sunday morning shows and late-night television programmes, but really we are as hard to crack as the hardest nut there is out there.

This thought came to me recently when I read of the decision of Cardiff University women’s officer to no-platform the academic and writer Germaine Greer for comments she had made about transgender people, especially women. I did not agree with Ms Greer’s views, yet, was I surprised by her stand? No, she has always been polemic and may she continue to be so. In no-platforming someone of Germaine’s stature, the women’s officer, Rachael Melhuish was depriving Cardiff University students of a much-needed opportunity “to make the predictable unpredictable”. Incidentally, Germaine’s talk at the institution was about women and power in the 20th century, nothing to do with transgender issues.

To make the predictable unpredictable is to me the default setting of us, human beings. With so many identity markers around, why settle for one in order to please a crowd? It is precisely the nature of crowds and the madness of them that makes humans the unique beings we are. I would predict that nine times out of ten, if I were to stand in front of a lion, tiger, crocodile or swim with sharks, I would be attacked. Not because the animal “would want to harm me”, but because that is their nature: to hunt and/or to defend themselves from danger. I would be seen either as enemy or food. Or both.  They are predators, I am the prey. We, humans, are less predictable. If I pick a fight with someone on the street there is a good chance that one of us will try to talk sense into the other person. Or we could attempt to do one another in. Either way, there is not “nine out of ten”, scenario, because the outcome would change from human to human. To go back to my first example, had Obama had a stronger opponent in 2012, I dare to say that Nate Silver’s predictions would not have been so accurate. Over here if more people had “come out” as Conservative-supporting voters before May, we would have had none of that Ed-Milliband-as-Prime-Minister-in-waiting nonsense. It is, sadly, the stigma associated with voting Tory that made people hide their real voting intentions on election night. And I say that as a sandal-wearing, muesli-eating. Guardian-reading leftie. At the same time, I am concerned that in making assumptions about people (and what are polls but assumptions?) we ignore their individuality and the many traits that make up their personality. Why assume that the author of The Female Eunuch, a ground-breaking, trail-blazing feminist volume, would automatically sympathise with transgender women?  Likewise, why assume that a council-estate-raised, working-class man of Iranian descent will inevitably join the Labour party or vote for them?

In my short life I have learnt quite a few valuable lessons. One of them is about people, their motives and their identities. To condense someone into one single identity is almost to condemn them to a lifelong sentence of being seen through myopic eyes. We are more than that. We are the small components that make up the madness of crowds.

© 2015

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 11th November at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I only did realise after the seventh or eighth day in succession. It was the craving that did it. Window of our office semi-open (just the tiniest of gaps, enough to avoid the heater's steam from misting up the glass) and the sweet aroma of croissant wafting up to the operations department where I worked at the time. The smell awakened a primal instinct inside me and I could not wait until lunchtime to dash downstairs and part with my usual two or three quid for my regular prandial treat. That’s when I knew I was developing a problem. A croissant-and-hot-chocolate addiction by literary proxy.

I was reading Joanne Harris’ Chocolat at the time.

Forgettable plot and clichéd characters but sublime food. This is how I remember this novel. It all came back a few days ago when I read an article about memorable meals in books.

Cuisine can play an important role in literature as the feature states. I still remember Leopold Bloom’s liver slices fried with crustcrumbs in Ulysses. And what to say about that Cuban masterpiece, Paradiso by Lezama Lima? Banana soup (probably plantain), beetroot salad and roast turkey amongst other succulent ingredients.

Feeling peckish?

I imagine that authors are presented with a choice when including food in their narrative: be descriptive or suggestive. If I remember correctly the latter applies to Chocolat, which is probably the reason why every morning and afternoon for less than a fortnight (I read the book very quickly. As I mentioned before, if the plot had been like the food…) I would add an almond croissant and hot chocolate to my breakfast and the butter version and same hot beverage to my lunch after the main course. Descriptive meals tend to leave this madeleine-chaser somewhat cold.
I like my food. I am not afraid to say that. And when it comes to literature, I like “happening” upon food. A good example is in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, when Ugwu arrives at Odenigbo’s house to apply for a position as a houseboy and sees a “a roasted, shimmering chicken” in the kitchen. He touches the chicken and to me that moment even has erotic connotations, bearing in mind that when it comes to epicurean matters, carnal desires can and do often make a cameo.

Talking of eroticism, I have occasionally heard comparisons between sex and food scenes and even a sort of continuum drawn between the two. I do not dispute that. Some writers do use food as a preamble to sexual intercourse between characters. However, sex scenes very often feel “flat” (in my humble opinion), due to a lack of honesty. Either the author is doing too much or too little. Let us not forget that sex is, whether we like it or not, linked to our innermost, primitive selves. Inevitably conclusions about who we are or what we want in bed will be reached, no matter how detached we claim to be from our dramatis personae. With food, on the other hand, it is different. No revelation is necessary. We can disassociate completely from the meal we knock up. I’ve read very precise descriptions of Asian food, including the sourcing of ingredients, the cooking of them and the methods used, from non-Asian writers, as if they had been born in the subcontinent and lived there all their lives. Part of it could be the fact that we live in such an intricately connected, globalised world that geographical barriers count for nothing anymore. Plus, in cosmopolitan cities such as London, Paris or New York, there is always the opportunity of delving into other cultures and getting to know them properly without really being part of them. This, of course, will include food, too. Which is probably why I went through my croissant-binge stage. Chocolat takes place in France and at the time of reading it my office was sandwiched between two French pattiseries. Well, at least the Indian restaurant was a few doors further down, otherwise, well, who knows what would have happened?

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 7th November at 6pm (GMT)


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