Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Cubafonía by Daymé Arocena

Daymé Arocena’s outstanding second album, Cubafonía, can be summed up in two words: maturity and intensity. The former can be evidenced in her approach to song-writing and arranging. It is bold and with a take-no-prisoners attitude. Opener Eleggua combines multi-layered vocals with looped bass and horns. This is followed by a lively party number, La Rumba Soy Yo. Scatting her way through parts of the song, Daymé reminds the listener that she is a pretty good jazz singer in her own right.

The intensity is found throughout the record, mainly in the first six tracks.  Lo Que Fue builds up slowly, starting with Daymé’s signature low rasp and ending with a Cuban descarga. Maybe Tomorrow (sung in English) deals with hope. Infectious Negra Caridad is a throwback to Cuba’s 1940s and 50s big band golden era. That a 24-year-old can hold her own belting tunes that the great late Celia Cruz took years to master, speaks volumes about Arocena’s standing in the Cuban musical scene at the moment.

The largest island of the Caribbean has always been a hotbed of creativity. However, for the last twenty-odd years the sounds coming out of my country of birth are more boundary-breaking and genre-defying than ever. Daymé joins Roberto Fonseca, Yusa, Danay Suárez and Telmary in the search for an identity which, although still recognisably Cuban, is not afraid to draw from other influences. A good example of this is Cómo, a ballad that would not be out of place in a record by Jill Scott. Performed confidently in both English and Spanish, the track shows off Arocena’s softer and more reflective side.

Special mention to Ángel, a minimalist composition (pared back percussion and piano) in which Daymé demonstrates a total vocal control. And also to the closer, Valentine (in which the chanteuse goes from English to French, to Spanish), a cute changüi number.

Cubafonía is a must-have for any jazz/Latin music aficionado. On the strength of this outing, I can only see a brighter future for Daymé Arocena.

© 2017

Next Post: “One-Minute Cycle Diaries”, to be published on Saturday 29th April at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Thoughts in Progress

No sooner had the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced that there would be a general election on June 8th than the political obituary of the Labour Party was quickly drafted up. Pallbearers were contacted (perhaps Blair and Campbell would do the honours?). Flower shops were e-mailed. What size should the wreath be? And just what song or anthem would be appropriate to play as the coffin was being lowered into the ground?

Here we go again

For the third year in a row the British electorate goes to the polls. Fourth, if you live north of the border. Remember the Scottish referendum in 2014? Bet you had already forgotten about that one. Well, Nicole Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party leader, she is calling for another one. If that sentence does not provoke mental – as well as physical, but mainly mental – fatigue in you, then, congratulations! You have finally succeeded in transitioning into a robot. Your future is secured. It is us, mere mortals, who have reason to worry.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

Although Labour lags well behind the Conservatives in the polls (remember those? They were supposed to be very accurate, until they got Brexit and Trump wrong), May and co. have not had an easy ride. Had you asked me back in July last year if Jeremy Corbyn had any chances of getting Labour’s fortunes back on track, I would had said no. Just like that, a rotund no. After Cameron’s cowardly exit (he and Osborne got us into this Brexit mess and rather than face the music, they both abandoned the ship while it was sinking), May was seen as a safe pair of hands. Even I cast my usual cynicism aside and read Labour’s last rites quietly as soon as Thatcher 2.0 moved into Downing Street. Despite the Brexit-related imbroglio in which Mrs May found herself, she began her premiership with a firm hand.

But the honeymoon is over and Theresa knows it. She is the prime minister under whose guard the Chancellor of the Exchequer broke a Tory election pledge on national insurance. She U-turned on that decision. She is the cheerleader for the return of grammar schools. Even her own MPs are against the idea. There has not been much talk of grammar schools recently. She is the leader who went to Washington to meet the new incumbent in the White House. To say that she did not make much of an impression on him or anyone else worldwide would be the understatement of the century. Here is someone who probably thought that by not giving away much about herself she would be able to breeze through the next four years until the general election of 2020. Yet, keeping one’s privacy (good) does not equate to being boring (bad). Theresa May is boring and she has been shown up by someone who has problems creating punchlines for his own jokes. Jeremy Corbyn looks and sounds like a member of the public watching a stand-up show who has suddenly been asked to come on the stage to finish the act of the top comedian on the bill because she or he has been taken ill. Standing in the spotlight and faced with a hundred expectant faces, Mr Corbyn tries out his best jokes, only to see them falling flat on their faces, stepped on and kicked away by a demanding audience.

And yet, only two weeks ago, before May made her unexpected announcement, the Labour party put out a set of policies that were electorate-friendly enough. Not too scary, not too loony-left-sounding, just sensible enough that people could see Jeremy Corbyn in a different light, with a new pair of glasses, if you like.

Mrs May has been dealt a terrible hand with Brexit. She is the Remain-voting politician who has to negotiate a hard Brexit with the EU. In addition to that, salaries have stagnated and job prospects look grim. From a safe pair of hands ten months ago, she has turned into the grim reaper. Burying recovery, real or potential.

Enough has happened in the last year to convince me that the political landscape has grown more unpredictable per day. This works in Corbyn’s favour. I would probably advise him to ditch the “socialist” tag and concentrate on a progressive agenda. It is also the turn for Corbyn’s merry band of followers to stand up and be counted. The Tories are not interested in anyone else but themselves. Their motivation is not just Brexit, but the total annihilation of the Labour party. Victory on 8th June would also send a powerful message to those pesky Scots with their demand for a second referendum. Faced with these grim prospects, Labour supporters have nothing to lose. Go for broke, then. Canvass on every street, knock on every door. Remember, you have nothing to lose.

I doubt Jeremy Corbyn will be our next prime minister. That would be taking unpredictability to a whole different level. However, good results in the general election for Labour will make a dent on the Conservative armour. A coalition would be a realistic target and one that Jeremy should pursue. Whatever the outcome, I do not think that the pallbearers will be used just yet.

© 2017

Next Post: “Cubafonia”, to be published on Wednesday 26th April at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

A fellow parent confessed to me recently that she was struggling with her adolescent daughter. Her behaviour was erratic, she had lied on a couple of occasions and she was lagging behind in her exams. All part and parcel of parenting, I thought. Then, she made a comment that left me scratching my head for a nanosecond before realising what she meant: “You see, I don’t want to be like those other parents”. She didn’t point at anyone in particular, there were no other parents around us and she kept her eyes firmly on the ground as she spoke. Whether she was feeling embarrassed or guilty, I don’t know. What I did know was what she meant by “those other parents”.

Retrospective analysis is a powerful tool. Especially for those with no past in the country to which they have relocated. I came to live in London facing the imminent arrival of my son (my wife was heavily pregnant) and an almost-zero knowledge on parenting on arrival. Whatever I had experienced during my previous stay in Londontown (just the one month) was nothing compared to upping sticks and moving here permanently. Talk about challenges! A new culture, new ways of being, expectations (both of myself and of my future home) and a baby craving attention.

A few of the difficulties were overcome pretty soon. I found a job and I got used to the British accent (especially the London twang) almost immediately. It was the parenting bit that took me longer (has taken me longer, I should write). That is why I was able to understand this fellow parent’s concern.

As soon as I settled in London, I, ever the observant, began to listen carefully to what people said and to watch what they did. The outcome of this gave me a powerful insight into the world of parenting in the UK.

Being a parent/carer is not easy. Along with education it is the profession that almost everyone has an opinion on, whether parents themselves or not. Note the use of the word “profession”. Being a parent is a job, just not a paid one. We are raising little human beings with the hope they will become responsible citizens in the future.

What that parent was telling me on that day corroborated the suspicions I had long harboured about parenting in the UK: it is a much divided element of society with a silo mentality that conspires against the very world we want to create for our children.

Let us go back to that parent for a second. What she was confessing to me would not have made anyone bat an eyelid. In fact, we would all have chimed in with our own anecdotes of stroppy teenagers. Yet, the more I scratched the surface, the more I realised she was being snobbish.

Look at the gates of a modern primary or secondary school in Britain and you will be exposed to a modern urban zoo. Whether a comprehensive or an academy, it is the same spectacle: parents forming their own mini-tribes and clans with very strict rules on who is allowed to join in. Forget The Who singing “the kids are alright”. It’s the adults who are screwed up.

Class, I noticed in those early years when my son was in reception, had an overarching, albeit thinly-veiled, influence on parents’ integration into the school community. The scruffy-looking, hair-up-in-a-bun, chain-smoking parent – usually, a mum – was shunned. The 4x4-driving, high-flying, dapper-looking progenitor was welcome. As I mentioned before, this was not openly done. Like a secret language, the way parents interacted with each other was full of codes and signals.

What this other parent really meant when talking to me was that she did not want to be seen as a rubbish parent. After all she did not yell at her daughter on the street. Or, give her fast food for breakfast and dinner. Or, she was not the type who refused to play with her little one, choosing to be on her mobile 24/7 instead. No, she was the other kind: the one who used to take her bairn to the museum, who always took advantage of free drama workshops or who baked cakes together with her daughter.

Let me say something really controversial: there is no such thing as a rubbish parent. There is, however, challenging parenting. How could there not be? You go from thinking mainly of yourself (OK, maybe, the boy/girlfriend, too) to caring for another human being who, in the first years of their life, cannot articulate clearly what their needs are. It is enough to make someone want to blow their brains off. Add ingredients such as class, race, gender and age and public perceptions of them and you have a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, with the government’s latest announcements on the new education policy, there will be even more division in the school community. The proposed return of grammar schools and the expansion of academies will contribute to the entrenchment of privilege. Those parents with greater means will flood the grammar school a mile away, whilst the local comp, unable to compete, will just die a slow death. Guess whose children will attend the former and whose the latter? 4x4 glamour parent’s and chain-smoker’s respectively.

My answer to my fellow parent’s worries was that sometimes we need to get to know the other parent before rushing to judge them on their appearance. An appearance that occasionally includes a sign hanging from their neck with the caption "Please, touch me with a bargepole". By the same token that parenting is hard, it is unfortunately an opportunity to get up on one’s high horse and point our accusing finger to all and sundry. As Philip Larkin said: “They f*** you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do”. The trick is in understanding that this is never intentional. Remember: there is no such thing as a rubbish parent. But, boy, is parenting challenging!

As usual, this is my last column before the Easter break. I hope you have a very relaxing time and get to do all the things you have been planning to do but have not found time to. I know I will be doing more cycling around London (if my bike allows me to). I shall return late April. Until then, take care of yourselves.

© 2017

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Let's Talk About...

the good old days. C’mon, you know what I’m on about. We live in times when even people in their early 30s preface their sentences with: “Do you remember when…?” When, what, exactly? When you were born and Thatcher was in power

Let’s talk about a certain epidemic sweeping through these isles. It’s a “selective memory” condition that reminisces about past times, carefully and skilfully leaves the bad bits out and focuses mainly on the good ones.

It is not an ailment that affects solely the Brits. I had the opportunity to see the same phenomenon in my country of birth when I visited last summer. Perhaps, because Castro’s demise was imminent, but I ran into people who went out of their way to romanticise a past they had only slagged off three years before on my previous visit.

The elements that make up this “golden era” evocation in the UK are different, though. We live in times when technology, to mention but one factor, has challenged normal conventions. Social norms, educational practices, human interactions, they have all been transformed. For many, these changes have been for the worse. Loss of manners, addiction to gadgets and lack of social etiquette are some of the side-effects of swiping and scrolling. It is natural, therefore, to look at the emotional spaces carved out in one’s childhood as a comfortable refuge to inhabit.

But beware. Bygone eras do not come all under the same banner and with the same content. Let’s talk about the good old days, but what years exactly? Before the 1910s, you say? If you were a woman you did not have the vote. If you were poor there was no free healthcare and seeing one’s offspring dying was common. 1930s? Rise of antisemitism in Europe, so, if you were a Jew, you were not safe. 1940s? There was a war going on. And whilst Britain fought on the side of what I call “the good guys”, the truth is that when your city is being bombed to bits, you do not look back on those days with fondness but rather with horror. 1950s? OK, I’ll give you that one, but only if you were not gay, you did not need an abortion and you were not black (the racially-motivated Notting Hill riots took place in 1958).

This is not to say that these eras lacked pluses. There were many: outdoor play was part and parcel of growing up; allergies were not as rife as now (as spring time comes upon us, I am already fretting over which allergy will attack me first: pollen-caused hay fever, the tree variety or the grass type?); dieting was mainly the preserve of celebrities and community carried a real meaning.
Say what about my health?

The danger is that as our future becomes more frightening we retreat further away from it. And by moving away we invariably drift towards that “past as a foreign country”. Of course they do things differently there. For starters, they have not got mobile phones. They did, however, cane you. Remember that?

Let’s talk about the good old days. But when we do, let us remember, too, that not everything was rosy pink. Outside toilets, bullying, bigotry, and domestic violence were so normal that people would not bat an eyelid if you brought these subjects up in conversation. That is why I think it is better to think that no era was golden. They all had their pros and cons and idealising them does no one any favours. Plus, at least we have mobile phones now, don’t you think?

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 25th March at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

Before you carry on reading this column, please, do the following: stand in front of a mirror, preferably a full-length one and ask yourself this question: what am I? Not, who are you? You know who you are, but what you are will pose a different challenge to answer. Then, come back to my blog and post a short, one- or two-line response below.

At some point in the last ten to twelve years I posed a similar question to myself. Before that time, however, I never queried what I was. Or at least, not consciously. If ever the question arose, it came from someone, rather than from me.

I would wager (and I am not the betting type) that your answers included categories such as age, race, complexion, body shape and height. Some might have ventured a bit further and included their sexual orientation and politics.

How many of you started your response with the phrase: I am a human being?

There is no catch in this post. Like you for a long time I described myself as Cuban, male, black, young (still and forever), able-bodied, neither tall, nor short, slim and muscular, straight, leftwing (but not romantic), cynical and pragmatic. Two lines that established what I was. No priority in that list. Yet, at some point the pragmatic has taken over the Cuban. Other times the Cuban has replaced the black as a bigger identity marker.

However, hidden under all these thick layers there was one trait that I shared with every other man or woman on Planet Earth: our human experience. What is it about us humans that compels us to “dress up” this essential feature with countless other elements?

Our starting point in life, barring location and economic status, is similar. We cry most of the time as we come out of the womb; we immediately gravitate towards our mother’s breast, seeking nourishment. We react warmly to affection. We begin the long, arduous process of living, knowing that our individual choices must not hurt others, that we are responsible not only for ourselves but also for the world at large.

The challenge is that at some point in our lives and at a very early stage for some, we also start to layer up our identity. The markers we choose might or might not be of our own volition but the decision to act on them is ours.

The reason why I have been thinking about identity markers and our common humanity is the situation of refugees in Europe. The dangers these people face is threefold. First, their situation back home. Second, the journey many have to undertake to reach what they would consider a safe sanctuary. Third, but by no means least, the new life they have to carve out in a land to which they never thought of emigrating in the first place.

The thinking on refugees is usually framed in terms of economic cost: how much is it to feed them, clothe them, house them and employ them? The discussion very rarely delves deeper into the reasons why people with reasonable life standards would risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean or war zones to get to Europe. If we did, we would probably find an index finger pointing back at us. On the one hand, our military industry demands that more wars be waged. Otherwise, how on earth would we manage to sell our weapons? On the other hand, our economic choices have a knock-on effect on Third World countries and their capacity for self-reliance.

I described myself as a cynic a few paragraphs before. Nevertheless, I have confidence in the world we live. I am also a romantic (not of the “plastic socialist” type, though) and believe that the majority of human interactions involve millions of acts of kindness and co-operation. Part of the reason why I hold these beliefs (note the use of what is commonly seen as religious language. I am reclaiming it) is that many years ago I, too, stood in front of a full-length mirror and asked myself what I was. The first answer I came up with still resonates to this day: human.

© 2017

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd March at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Language in our Post-Truth Times)

Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of Trump’s presidency so far is its effect on translators. I know that I’m going out on a limb here, translators being bottom of the heap when it comes to the White House’s incumbent’s chief victims. Nonetheless, it is an issue I feel pressed to raise, being a part-time (and very occasional) translator.

Our work is usually fraught with linguistic booby-traps and idiomatic swamps. One minute, you are on safe ground and you feel confident of what you are producing. The next minute you are sinking in quicksand and even a bilingual dictionary is of no help at all. It is a cruel world out there already for translators. Therefore we do not need Monsieur Trump to add to our calamities.

The problem arises from the president’s (every time I type the words “Donald Trump” and “president of the USA” in the same sentence, I get a mixed reaction. One is uncontrollable laughter followed by endless crying. Maybe I should work on a translation for those feelings and put it on a T-shirt to sell) use of the English language. He very rarely means what he says and he does not say much. Unless you count his constant tautology.

Take the word “bad”. I have enough on my plate with the “yoot” of today using this adjective to describe something or someone as “good”. Yes, you read that right. “Bad” is not “bad”, but “good”.

For Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief, however, “bad” is something he disagrees with, not necessarily something that lacks quality, i.e., not good. Which would automatically qualify the thing or the person as “good” (if you ask me). It serves Trump’s simplistic, binary vision of the world to offer this black and white concept. Agree with the Muslim travel ban? Good. Disagree? Bad.
How do you translate that hair again?

But as a translator, I work on ideas, not just words. That means that a sentence like “A lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!” is bound to give me sleepless nights. Note how straightforward it is (muchos tipos malos por ahí), and yet, we know that the majority of people Trump targets are law-abiding Muslims. Therefore, I cannot agree with the word “bad” even if my job is only to translate.

The president is not alone. On this side of the Atlantic, former education secretary Michael Gove lashed out at experts just before the Brexit vote, stating that “people had had enough” of them. The translation of the word “expert” into Spanish is “experto/a”. In both English and Spanish it means “a person who has a special skill or knowledge in some particular field. Well, not anymore. I am not sure whether to go for the dictionary definition (specialist), or Gove’s one (conman, especially of the EU-financed variety). What if the translation is for a Brexiteer? What if Trump’s entourage hires me covertly to translate important documents? Highly unlikely, I know, but you can never be too sure.

It is not just those who worry about civil liberties and human rights who are troubled by what is going on in both Europe and the States. It is also linguists, translators and academics who wonder if our language will ever be the same. After all, what is the translation for “fake news” again? “Noticias falsas”, you say? But the other side claims they are part of an alternative facts world. Pass me the smelling salts, will you! At least that phrase is an easy one to translate.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 18th March at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

Nancy Sinatra once sang: “Well, these boots are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do/One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you”. It is not just Miss Sinatra‘s sassiness that sets up apart but also what we do with our footwear.
My boots turn twenty this year. Notice the use of “my” in the previous sentence. I did not write “I have a pair of boots that turns twenty this year”. I could have, though. I have more than one pair of boots, including hiking ones. But when I say “my boots”, there is only one pair that counts. My Mexican boots, bought in 1997, end of February or beginning of March after I found out that I had been given my tourist visa to visit London.

Although I have forgotten the month and date, I do remember the day when I purchased my boots. It was a typical winter’s day in Havana with the temperature hovering in the mid-20s. That morning I went to the British embassy in Miramar, western Havana, and after getting my paperwork in order decided to hit the streets of Old Havana, in the east, for a while.

The first shoe boutique in the Cuban capital – to my knowledge – had recently opened on Obispo Street, a pedestrian-only road that was flanked by shops, paladares and crafts business on either side. It was on one of its corners where I first laid eyes on a mahogany-coloured pair of Mexican boots. They were dear, I won’t lie. The fact I cannot remember the price probably tells you how embarrassed I felt at the time at coughing up much-worked-for cash in exchange for such luxury product. The money came from my free-lancing. It was a fruitful period for me; in addition to my interpreting and translation services I taught Spanish to foreign students.

From that moment I put my boots on, winter/spring ‘97 to now, writing this post in the quiet of my house, listening to Beethoven’s Sonatas performed by Daniel Baremboim, my faithful boots have always been by my side. As if to remind me of their longevity, today one of them paid a visit to our local cobbler’s (yes, believe it or not, we still have a cobbler) and it now has its heel glued back on.

James Taylor’s lines “Winter, spring, summer or fall/All you've got to do is call/And I'll be there, ye, ye, ye/You've got a friend” could well have been written with my boots in mind. They are the ones singing the verses. On my feet they travelled to Dominican Republic, Spain (three times), Cuba (twice) and various places in Britain, including Oban (Scotland), Dorset, Cornwall and Woolacombe (England). They have been worn to pedal down the streets of Londontown and I’ve walked with them from Oxford Street, where it meets Charing Cross Road, to Lambeth Bridge via Whitehall and Abindgon Street. I have got hot and sweaty whilst dancing with them on (in fact, that’s how the heel on the right one came off a year and a half ago).

In a world of unbridled consumerism it would be easy to dismiss my unshakeable and unconditional love for my boots as romantic tomfoolery. Well, I’d better come clear then: I am a hopeless, romantic fool sometimes. Only sometimes, mind, the rest of the time I am a romantic with 99% of reality in my head. Occasionally, I tell that 99% to go very far and stay with that 1% that more than makes up for the missing percentage.

Last autumn, for the first time in two decades I looked in a catalogue for a similar pair of boots to my Mexican ones. I guess that in the back of my mind the idea of the inevitable was forming. My old friends will give up the ghost one day and, whilst nothing can replace them, contemplating alternatives did not feel like treachery. However, I got so upset at the thought of losing my dear, old boots that I closed the pages of the brochure in my hands.

Here's to you, my faithful boots!

It is strange to think of inanimate objects, like shoewear, as friends. It is normal to fall for cats, dogs and other pets and see our relationship with them in the same light as a friendship with another human being. Yet, to me, the fact that this pair of tough, solid, well-made boots have endured for so long and have made such a big impact on my life is proof that sometimes friends are not of the chase-the-ball kind, or the roll-over-the-floor-while-I-tickle-your-belly type. Sometimes all they want is to be worn. Over and over again. All over the city, the countryside and near the sea. Now, whether you decide to walk over someone with them on, well, that one is up to you. And I certainly am not that sassy.

© 2017

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 15th Marchat 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Urban Diary

I set off on my run in the mid afternoon sun. As I close the front door of my house, I listen to two voices inside me: one comes from my mind, the other one from my body. Together they either help me achieve my goal or make me give up half way through. My marathon is in almost four weeks’ time and I aim to complete seventeen miles today. I plan to “break the wall”, that invisible, mental construct that defeats runners of all ages, genders and abilities. Last year as I trained for the same event, the Brighton Marathon, I came across certain features in my personality to which I had not paid proper attention before, resilience and stubbornness being two of them (mind you, the latter has been known to me for several years). The “wall-breaking” moment brought about changes in the way I saw running and the elements I needed to work on in order to succeed.

Today both voices are in agreement: you can do it. Still, I look for mental and visual stimulation. Being well acquainted with the route I will be covering makes my physical effort less demanding.

Massed and compact front lawns announce timidly the arrival of spring. Small, buttercup-coloured daisies stand out amongst the lush green, a green that is the result of heavy downfalls (including Storm Doris) in London in the last fortnight. With the temperature in double figures, but certainly not in the teens yet and a weak sun bleeding orange rays I take the first step.

Up and down I go around my urban jungle. After a while the route becomes flatter and my pace steadies. As if in direct contradiction with my surroundings my energy levels rise as the day slowly dies. By the time I reach mile fifteenth, the sun is but a spark behind the buildings on the high road. I get home submerged in darkness. I check my mileage and I feel pleased about reaching my goal. For some strange reason I think back on the buttercup-coloured daisies, springing up amidst the lush green of people’s front lawns.

© 2017

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 11th March at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

The human experience is a moment-hopping journey. Random memories coalesce together in the hope we can make sense of our existence, of who we are, why we are here. We weave a consciously lineal narrative into our voyage through the world and yet our subconscious releases these stories like a bundle of pick-up sticks in a game of Mikado.

Snap! There we are, aged six and our front tooth has just come out. We smile at everyone without fear or shame. The hole in our denture defies ridicule and encourages individuality. Distant is still the feeling of embarrassment that will plague our future years, whenever we are asked on to the dance floor.

Snap! There we are, sitting by ourselves on the cracked wall next to the abandoned, weed-strewn, communal garden. We are the acne-afflicted teenager with pain in his heart and no Plan B on how to deal with it. Yesterday we rose to kiss our loved one. Standing on toes, raised heels. Raised hopes. Dashed now.

Snap! We are the young adult with a frown on our face and a letter in our hand explaining mortgage rates. Our ship moves ever so slowly away from harbour. Soon, we will not have tranquil waters anymore. Instead we will be at the mercy of the ever-changing weather. The letter sits on the table. The mortgage rates fluctuate in the stock market. We are building our monument to Nostalgia.

Nostalgia. Self-lacerating and yet so welcome. One minute you are the mature, decisive adult who handles each child-related emergency with pragmatism and sang froid. The next minute, you are an emotional wreck as memories of that cracked wall flash up in your mind.

Nostalgia. Indulgence in the past or fear of the future? Traps that Time sets for us, unsuspecting humans, or tools to re-imagine easily forgotten eras?

The ball I threw while playing in the park has not yet reached the ground. No, it moved in whimsical ways and continues to move that way. Neither lineally nor predictably, but randomly. Like a bundle of pick-up sticks in a game of Mikado. Ready to be released.

© 2017

Photo by the blog author

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 8th March at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

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

 Photograph: Louise Hagger for the Guardian.

Maybe it is the success I had recently with a chicken and avocado salad I made for a colleague’s leaving do at work, but I am getting bolder with my veg and spices. This recipe comes courtesy of one of my favourite cooks, Yotam Ottolenghi. My only addition would be a Scotch bonnet chilli. Just to give the salad a bit of a kick.

Moroccan carrot salad with orange and pistachio

The orange blossom is a lovely addition to the dressing, but don’t buy a whole bottle just for the sake of a quarter-teaspoon. This salad is still lovely without it. Serves four.
650g carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
2 oranges, peeled and cut into 1cm pieces
½ small garlic clove, peeled and crushed
50g pistachios, toasted and chopped
20g coriander leaves
15g mint leaves

For the dressing

3 tbsp olive oil
¼ tsp orange blossom water (optional)
2 tsp honey
1½ tsp cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
3 tbsp lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk the dressing ingredients in a bowl with half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Add the salad ingredients, toss to coat and serve.

The music to go with this recipe must have that fresh feel, too. And because it is winter, it must also have that heart-warming quality that this season’s food has. First up are the Four Tops. Just because this song exudes the joy that fills up my kitchen when I’m cooking. Enjoy.

His voice is velvety, smooth and utterly ethereal. Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work is as good as, if not better than, the original. It goes hand in hand with our crisp, spicy salad.

We finish with a fine daughter of Africa. Malian singer song-writer Oumou Sangare’s soulful voice is one that suits our aromatic salad very well.

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 4th March at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Thoughts in Progress

If we do not work on our exterior, our internal characterisation as well as its conception will not reach the audience. Thus spoke Tortsov, theatre and school director whose collaboration with the great theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski formed the basis of the latter’s book An Actor Prepares. His words were on my mind recently as I watched a group of smokers carefully.

Observing them at a distance I came to the following conclusion: they all looked as if they wanted to hold something, anything, all the time. The cigarette in their hands was a mere prop. It could have been any other object, a glass, a dumbbell or a pencil, but I guess the effect would have been less dramatic. This was the second outcome of my observation: their cigarette-holding exercise was a performance.

As a race, we humans are prop-friendly or prop-obsessed (depending on how close we feel towards them). The current mobile phone craze has given us yet another excuse to handle an object. Never mind that the constant swiping and screen-glancing make mobile phone users walking hazards, all they are focused on is the public, unintentional, off-the-cuff (unasked-for) performance they are regaling to an uninterested audience.

This is not a new phenomenon. Go back a few decades and you will notice that cigarettes and alcohol were the go-to props of the day. I have just gone on You Tube to watch a collage of fag-filled clips of the unforgettable Bette Davis. At less than a minute long, the amount of smoke in the video is enough to make you cough. You even forget for a moment that you are watching the late American star … on your computer.

You might disagree with me on the following statement but I do believe that nobody held a ciggie like Ms Davis. Hand on hip, or looking intently in the other person’s eyes, or slowly walking down a set of stairs, or putting the stogy butt out, there was always class in her acting. Precisely what Tortsov insisted that his students have. In another chapter he talks about an actor’s presence on stage, how some have an aura that precedes them even before they utter a word. They could read the telephone book to the whole theatre and still no one would get up to leave. Props very often have a certain influence on this total control of actor over public.

Now, that's the way to hold it

When I was still doing theatre back in my 20s one of my main concerns was what to do about my hands. Not being a smoker or a heavy drinker myself, I did not have the habit of permanently holding an object. To this day I remember my lessons in each of the groups to which I belonged. Once we had a masterclass with a renowned professional Cuban actor. At the end of the session he approached me and said sternly: “I liked your performance. You have a good voice, perfect spatial sense and clear articulation. But your hands let you down. They are all over the gaffe. Rein them in. You are in command. Rein them in.”

I did not mind his comment, it was true. The issue was that I seriously did not know what to do with my hands. The most common mistake for two actors rehearsing a scene is to put their hands in their pockets (if they have them), cross their arms or adopt the teapot pose (hands on hips).

Perhaps this is what Shakespeare had in mind when he stated that “All the world’s a stage”. Now, I wonder what he ever did with his hands. Or perhaps, he was a smoker.

© 2017

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 1st March at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I recently cycled along the River Lee Navigation. For those of you who are not acquainted with one of London and Hertfordshire’s (a county just outside the British capital to the north) most picturesque routes I would strongly recommend that you keep it in mind if you ever visit the UK. The unbroken path is perfect for walking and biking. I have made this trip before but on this occasion I went much further up.

Travelling from someone near east London up to Cheshunt the journey took me through some of the most scenic open spaces ever. As it is the custom with me when I am cycling on a traffic-free route, I went into reverie mode, whilst at the same time paying close attention to the path and the people walking or cycling on it.

I do not know if poetry has the same effect on you, fellow bloggers and readers, but in my case I have always seen it as evocative. A poem like Ode to a Nightingale makes me think more of the feelings that led Keats to compose the piece and the sentiments it continues to trigger to this day. The bird in question becomes secondary or even non-existent.

This is exactly what happened that day on the towpath of the River Lee Navigation. Perhaps it was the peace around me, the calm water, the stationery boats, the slow pace, both amongst walkers and cyclists and the overpowering sense of history that triggered off a deep spiritual connection to my immediate environment. As I neared the Lee Valley White Water Centre I saw a wall (or the remains of it) on my right handside with a crack running down the middle. I stopped on one side of the path for a couple of minutes and watched the concrete entity closer.

In the context of everything I had seen so far the wall was ugly. It broke the harmony of the urban and rural mix I had cycled past up to now on my way to Hertfordshire. Yet, all the same I felt that there was a reason for that wall to be part of this bucolic landscape. All of a sudden, lines from Fleur Adcock’s poem Against Coupling came to my mind. I could not remember the whole piece (I very rarely remember entire poems by heart) but I did recall the following verses: “There is much to be said for abandoning this no longer novel exercise/for not’ participating in total experience’.

The strange thing was that whereas Fleur was writing about the need for occasional alienation in a couple (temporary “uncoupling”, if you like), I was looking at the wall in a whole different light. To me it was an object that refused to conform to the beauty standards that the canal had unwittingly imposed. It was an unremarkable wall by any definition. One that could be found anywhere else in the world: South Africa, Thailand, Cuba. However, to me it only made sense in that moment, surrounded by cormorants, herons and oak trees.

I carried on, still thinking of the odd relationship between that wall’s ordinariness and inelegance and the canal’s exuberance. And how poetry married (at least in my head) the two of them somehow.

© 2017

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 25th February at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Thoughts in Progress

In Denzel Washington’s latest film, as both actor and director, there is an unusual supporting character. Fences features a baseball hanging by a thin rope in the back garden of the house shared by Washington’s Troy, his wife Rose (played by Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo).  Though inanimate, this ball serves as a witness to all the tribulations of this black family in post-war US. Hit every which way by Troy and his son Cory, this baseball is also a metaphor for how we shape our lives and how far we can go in determining our own destiny.

To me this baseball also reminded me of the recent US election. Before you close down your browser sending my post in the process to the land of oblivion, I would like you to give me a few minutes of your time. I am fully aware that we are all now pretty Trumped-out (his latest press conference being a case in point. How low can the guy go? Well, you ain’t seen the bottom yet, I suppose). The dust has now settled. To quote Leonard Cohen: “Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich”. Except that it was not a good guy who lost but a woman.

It would be arrogant of me to attempt to figure out why Hillary Clinton lost to a misogynist, racist, sexist and xenophobe. Plenty of opinion pieces have been churned out since November. But what I cannot stop thinking about is the reasons why her manifesto might not have struck a chord with most voters. To recap, Clinton lost the election, but won the popular vote. You could say that electoral changes are needed urgently in the US and you would be right. Yet, that would be like trying to hit that ball in Troy’s garden out of the park. That ball ain’t going nowhere.  It’s still hanging on a rope.

Team Clinton bashed out a series of proposals and ideas that they thought would capture the public’s imagination. Overall, I thought, sitting comfortably on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, that they banked more on the Trump’s machine imploding than they themselves causing their explosion. Wrong. When your opponent realises that the ball you’re hitting is not moving, they grow stronger, not weaker. In order to get at Trump team Clinton had to untie that baseball and play real ball with it.

That would have meant casting your net much wider, beyond identity politics. I will not delve deep into identity politics in this post because I am in the process of drafting one up on the left and the case for/against identity politics.  The truth is, however, that Clinton got caught up in a feminist/multicultural/gay-friendly agenda. Nothing wrong with that. But what is eating most Americans right now is where the next dime is going to come from.

When Barack Obama entered office in 2009, one of his first actions was to summon the top banking executives. Remember that this was post-2008-crisis and Wall Street was on its knees. The usual villains, politicians, had been given a short-lived respite, to be replaced by bankers. At that point president Obama could have asked for the moon to be delivered on a silver plate and every single person in the room would have coughed up enough money for a space expedition leaving the next day. But Barack dithered and bankers smelled blood. Instead of the far-reaching economic reforms that were needed then, all bankers got was a slap on the wrist and, guess what, within a couple of years, the multi-million-pound bonuses made a comeback.

This was the financial situation Clinton inherited as the Democrat front-runner. Never mind the fact that under Obama more jobs were created than during Bush’s eight-year reign. Never mind that Obamacare became an immediate safeguard for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of families. The crux of the matter was still, a lot of rich people were getting richer and poor people poorer. Obama, for all his credentials as a liberal and the hope he represented, explicitly stated in that strikingly beautiful poster (remember?) was seen as part of the same machinery that had ceded ground to China and had allowed Putin’s Russia to start calling the shots on the international stage.

By the time Clinton entered the frame, the electorate was jaded. Cynical voters are the toughest to turn around, especially if one of the candidates comes from what could be assumed to be a dynasty (Bill Clinton served two terms as president. Chelsea Clinton has already been discussed as a possible candidate for 2024 or 2028). It was not Clinton’s fault that the election went to Donald. It was, as I said at the start, a combination of factors. One of them was the Democrats focusing on policies that might have gone down well with the already-converted but did very little to enthuse the fence-sitters, the refuseniks, the hard-to-reach.

Donald Trump is not infallible and he definitely is not unbeatable. I seriously doubt he will be re-elected in 2020. But, and this is an important “but”, for the Democrats to win the White House again, they will have to untie that baseball and take it to places where they are rarely seen, engaging voters whom they barely know or whose views they disparage. Clinton got the vote of mainly poor, young, Latin and black women (four different categories in themselves).  Trump’s camp was the beneficiary of chiefly white women from a working-class background and rural areas.

An average baseball game lasts nine innings. We are barely in the bottom of the first. Hitting a baseball on a string makes good practice but it is not the real game. The real game is won by the team with most runs. Already team Trump has made a few gaffes. What Democrats need to do now is to capitalise on those players who have reached base. What’s the next step: steal or sacrifice bunt, or both? How about going for the big swing? Whatever happens, it is about putting runs on that scoreboard. Untie that baseball and hit it hard. Just hit it as hard as you can.

© 2017

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd February at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Birthday Post

This post and video are dedicated to my mother, who turns 80 on Tuesday, 14th February. I love you, mum, always have, always will. The poem was written by the late Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish.

Next Post: "Thoughts in Progress", to be published on Saturday 18th February at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Diary of Inconsequential Being

Saturday 26th November

A sequence of events not connected to one another and yet eerily linked. Early morning and intertwined limbs (my wife’s and mine) disentangle slowly. I get up to go to the toilet and as I sit down the phone rings (simultaneously. Now, that’s what I call a coincidence). I return to the bedroom to find my spouse handing me the blower: “It’s from the BBC”, she says. I grab the telephone and sit on the edge of the bed.

Fidel Castro Ruz has died. The female voice on the other side is calm and reassuring as if she were concerned about my wellbeing. She would like me to come to the BBC World Service studio and do a series of interviews throughout the day. I remember that I have guests coming tonight for my birthday gathering, ten days after I turned forty-five.

I agree to come in but only until twelve noon. After all, no bearded geezer will stop me from indulging in one of my favourite pastimes: cooking for a group of friends. I jump in the shower. A taxi, paid for by the corporation, picks me up.

Later on, as I’m mixing paprika, coriander and other herbs and spices in the pan, I think back to the events of the day. The naïve Dr and writer who alternated slots with me and whose comments were cliché-ridden; the “expert” on Cuba who refused to give straightforward answers to questions related to the socioeconomic and political situation in my island and opted instead for the well-used formula of highlighting deficiencies in British polity to cover up for Castro’s mistakes. I look back on the crowds in Miami dancing on the streets and the poisonous, right-wing Fox News-driven one-sided reports on American television. And I think to myself: Not to offend non-Cubans, but if even a fraction of those Fidel-supporting westerners had thrown their lot with my people decades ago when we needed them, upping sticks in the process and going to live on the island like Cubans, depending on a ration card for their next meal, maybe, just maybe, we would have arrived at the much-vaunted socialist paradise long time ago. Same with those who disparage our right to make our decisions. If, instead of sniping from the sides, they had ended their ineffective blockade decades ago, maybe, just maybe, Fidel’s grip on power would not have lasted that long and he would have not repressed his own people whilst using the embargo as an easy, go-to excuse.

The meal is a success.

Sunday 27th November

My wife has put some seeds out for the birds and through the lounge window I see them eating them. This gives me an idea: perhaps I could film the scene in a sort of Blair Witch Project-style format. Handheld camera capturing nature at its purest and most innocent in metropolitan London. But not today, it’s cloudy and there is not much light. You can barely tell the birds from the trees. It is so overcast that only when the flutter of wings becomes obvious can you be sure that there is animal presence in our back garden. Of the feather variety. Definitely tomorrow.

Monday 28th November

I give up on the Blair Witch Project idea. There aren’t that many birds in our garden and the ones that pay a visit are, how to put it nicely, rather boring. Only when one of the cats tries its luck by hiding in the dry and sparse grass, something interesting happens. But the cats are clumsy and the birds are quick.

Tuesday 29th November

Whilst getting my bike from the side passage I see a couple of wood pigeons behaving strangely. The one I take to be a male pigeon is pushing its beak in between the other’s legs (which I assume it is a female). At first it looks like some sort of game or courtship. But, then I think I spot a look of disgust and fear in the female’s eyes. As if it did not ask, nor want to be a part of this. I stay still, watching the male attempting once more to peck at or grab something from between the female’s legs. The female starts to retreat. I think, rather amused and shocked at the same time: who knows, maybe in the same way I have been watching the birds through the lounge window, they have been watching my telly, following the US election, faces and beaks stuck to the glass, without me noticing them. It might explain also some of the bullying behaviour when it comes to seeds consumption. I consider the Blair Witch Project idea once more.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 11th February at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Thoughts in Progress

In David and Goliath’s famous tale, little, plucky David uses just one single slingshot to slay the 9-foot, 9-inch, Philistine giant. The story came to my mind last week when I saw some of the football scores of the English League FA Cup.

This is one of the oldest, or probably the oldest soccer cup knockout competition in the world, stretching all the way back to the 1871-2 season. Most fans and pundits alike look forward to rounds three and four in early and late January when teams, usually from the lower leagues, face their counterparts from the Premier League and the Football League Championship. The main attraction here is to see the cash-rich, bon-vivant “Goliaths” slugging it out against the more money-conscious, thrifty “Davids”.

This time around results did not disappoint. For round five we already have a couple of non-league sides that, I am confident, will give a fair amount of headaches to the teams (several places above them) that play them.

The David vs Goliath story calls to the inner hero inside us. The person who, regardless of the circumstances, rises up against power. That the power in this instance is represented by a three-metre-tall Brobdingnagian renders the legend more visually striking. We can almost touch Goliath’s bronze helmet and be dazzled by the javelin he carries on his back. This is an all-too perfect narrative of little guy against mighty foe.

Or little guy against the state. The government. The status quo. The elite.

You can delete as appropriate in the above sentence but to me the message is the same: something strange has happened to the David vs Goliath story. The roles have been reversed and the message blurred.

To carry on with my football analogy, let’s imagine now that that non-league side, conqueror of a Premier League or Championship behemoth, is not as helpless as it looks. Yes, it might still play its home games in a 10,000-seat-maximum-capacity stadium but it has recently been bought by a Thailand- or Singapore-based billionaire with a very clear vision: to turn the club into a money-making venture.

Suddenly there is no David against Goliath scenario, but a Goliath against Goliath one. This is a tough sell to pull off which is why the figure of David is always invoked at some point.

We live in times when the Goliaths of this world keep telling us that they are actually Davids getting their slingshots ready to hurl stones on our behalf. Personally, I do not want anyone to protect me whilst hurting others. I want to have a say on how the slingshot is used, against whom and if it is needed at all. The more we cast doubts on those Goliaths dressing up as Davids and expose them as the frauds they are, the less we will live to regret foregoing our precious and hard-earned liberties.

One way to fight back against this false narrative of little guy against powerful state is by highlighting Goliath’s weaknesses. When he addresses the Israelis, he is all boast and pomp. Same with some of our alternative-facts makers. They cannot stop obsessing about size (crowds, hands, you name it). It is worth remembering what happens to David after he defeats Goliath. He marries one of King Saul’s daughters but eventually falls out of favour with the monarch to such an extent that even Jonathan, Saul’s son, is asked to end David’s life. This means that those Goliaths-as-Davids are also prone to internecine fighting. Their weakness is our strength. If not, ask Samson. Oh, well, that one is for another day.

© 2017

Next Post: “Diary of Inconsequential Being”, to be published on Wednesday 8th February at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Killer Opening Songs (Cubano Chant by Roberto Fonseca)

Hot on the heels of its musically horizon-expanding predecessor, Yo, comes Roberto Fonseca’s new album ABUC (Cuba, spelled backwards). Once again, the young Cuban pianist delivers a high-quality product full of rhythmical gold nuggets.

Whereas Yo was brawnier and gutsier, from the (perhaps D’Angelo-inspired?) naked-torso front cover to the dizzying piano riffs, ABUC, by comparison, is a much calmer affair. There are still heavy and maddening piano riffs, but the production overall is more balanced. It is also more inward-looking. While Yo looked towards Africa as a bridge-building musical link in the well-acknowledged Afro-Cuban chain, ABUC focuses more on Cuban traditional rhythms.

A good example of this is the Killer Opening Song, written, not by a Cuban, but by an American pianist. Ray Bryant was born in Philadelphia and gained notoriety when he played with the likes of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. Cubano Chant was one of his more popular compositions.

The way Roberto tackles the tune is so cleverly done that the resulting melody sounds as if it has just been written now instead of more than sixty years ago. Rather than going for speed, as Oscar Peterson famously did when he covered Cubano Chant, he goes for compactness. Horns, percussion and piano jump in from the outset, hand in hand together, each performer taking turns to shine in their own right. Fonseca is not just a very skillful pianist; he has also surrounded himself with very good arrangers. That much is evident from the different layers that peel away as each musician does their solo.

K.O.S. mentioned differences between Yo and ABUC at the beginning of this post. One of the more obvious ones is the guests list. Afro-centric Yo had singers Fatoumate Diawara, Algerian Faudel Amil and Senegalese Assane Mboup. By contrast, UBAC boasts Cuban legends such as Eliades Ochoa, the Aragón Orchestra and Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal.

Listening to Fonseca’s latest album is almost like taking a history lesson on Cuban music, especially in the 20th century. From the intensity of Afro Mambo to Asere Monina Bonco (with its nod to the oft-misunderstood Abakuá culture), this is an album that wears its Cubanness on its sleeve. The final piece, Velas y Flores is perhaps the perfect example. A mid-song monologue by Roberto Fonseca about what being Cuban means is the sort of life-affirming incantation that makes the denizens of the largest island in the Antilles so proud of their country.

Once more, the Killer Opening Song is the one that opens these richly-textured musical floodgates.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 4th February at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Thoughts in Progress

In life sometimes we are torn between using our head or our heart when faced with certain events. Pragmatism may be my default setting, but the romantic in me also takes hold occasionally. Especially when it comes to good art.

One of the more poignant and difficult to watch movie scenes I have seen in my life is the opening of Saving Private Ryan. In its sheer, brutal brevity (almost half an hour of a 169-minute-long film) lie many of the unpalatable elements that make me hate war. Yet, this graphic, unforgettable sequence is a magnet to which my artistic sensibility is drawn like a hapless moth trapped in a spider’s web, watching its hungry host(ess) getting ever so closer, knowing its fateful dénouement and yet, being unable to do anything about it.

Until recently I had never managed to go beyond that opening scene. I usually left the room afterwards. The footage is too real, like war archive material. Were it grainier and more worn-out-looking, it could pass off as a documentary. This was not, however, the only reason why I refused to sit through the almost-three-hour-long film. The artistry of it is too enticing, too alluring. This is not cinema-cinema, but cinema-as-dance. These men are not at the mercy of Ares, but Terpsichore. The only sound we hear at the start comes from the untamed sea, waves crashing on the shore of Omaha Beach. The first sign of human life to which we are exposed is not the myriad helmeted heads bent down on the boats but a trembling hand trying to uncap a bottle of water. The camera pans out slowly, revealing lines of soldiers, a couple of them being sick. This is not a regiment but a corps du ballet and Spielberg is monsieur le choreographer.

Dance carries poetry within and so does Saving Private Ryan. It is hard for me, though, to accept this verse-inspired narrative. To equate the carnage of human beings (even when the motives for the killing are noble) to one of the most beautiful literary genres feels wrong. And yet, as I watched the movie recently I thought of other war-themed works of art that had inspired in me a similar love-hate dichotomy. One of them was also a film, Waltz with Bashir, an animation about the Sabra and Shatila massacre. In a scene I can only describe as surrealistic, one of the Israeli officers grabs a submachine gun and begins dancing a waltz (hence the movie title) in the middle of the road as shots rain down on him from nearby buildings without killing him. The gun in his hands never stops releasing bullet after bullet but the effect of the whole setup is hypnotic. You cannot take your eyes off this daring figure, moving almost en pointe down the street and surviving.

Another example is Picasso’s Guernica. It never grabbed me as much as it did other people. I wanted to see what they saw but all my eyes were able to capture was muddledness. Until one day in my late teens when I saw the picture again and all of a sudden each figure in the composition fell into place like a jigsaw puzzle. I saw chaos, but the chaos provoked by war. In its mouths, fully open and skywards pointing, there was a cry for peace.

Michael Longley’s poem Wounds was also on my mind as I watched Saving Private Ryan. Especially the lines: “Now, with military honours of a kind/With his badges, his medals like rainbows/His spinning compass, I bury beside him/Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of/Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.” Go back to Spielberg’s movie and watch how the camera zooms in on the men’s faces as they are about to land. It picks them up, one by one, stopping no longer than two seconds. Two seconds. That’s all it takes to provide the viewer with the real experience of war. War as a killing vehicle. War as an act of defence. War as cinematography. As dance. As art. Even though I hate it, still, war as art.

© 2017

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 1st February at 6pm (GMT)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...