Saturday, 20 May 2017

London Cycle Diaries: Stamford Hill's Orthodox Jews

London Cycle Diaries is both a cycle-based and cycle-orientated series aimed at "discovering" hidden spots in London from the saddle of my Raleigh.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Diary of Inconsequential Being

Saturday 25th March

I am on my way to collect my daughter. She has decided to go to Thorpe Park with some friends and one of the dads and I agreed on one of us taking them there and the other one bringing them back.

The journey to Thorpe Park goes surprisingly smooth. Too smooth. Just before the M25 meets the M3 I am supposed to take the fifth exit at a roundabout and stay on the A308. For some reason the route seems suddenly awfully long. I am sure it looked a lot shorter on the Google map I consulted before setting off (I don’t use satnav). I keep driving in what I think is the most likely direction. It takes me a couple of minutes to realise that I am hideously lost. I go back to the M25, taking extra care not to join the traffic heading to London. At the roundabout I perform a similar manoeuvre as before. Again, I find myself back on the A308. Again, I get lost.

Finally I pull into a Tesco (future novelists should make that sentence their go-to cliché. There is always a Tesco to pull into, just like “dusk” always “falls”). After a couple of enquiries and suggestions I decide to use my phone’s built-in Google maps app to guide myself to Thorpe Park. To be honest I feel I have no other choice. The two members of staff who help me out look at me as if I am mad after I say that I use neither a satnav nor Google maps.

The voice telling me to pull out of the car park cannot be described as robotic, but neither as human. It is not warm either. But then, again, what do I expect? Coffee and a chocolate muffin? I suddenly feel hungry.

After three quarters of an hour, during which I exhaust my year’s quota of swear words, I find Thorpe Park. All this time my daughter has been trying to get hold of me, concerned that I was not there at the appointed time. When I tell her what has just happened, she just asks: why didn’t you use Google maps?

Sunday 26th March

The papers still carry the Westminster attacker story. It is funny (both strange and ha ha) that Adrian Elms (to call him by his real name) is called a terrorist whereas Jo Cox’s murderer is being given the “lone wolf” label with mental health issues added on to mitigate the effect of his evil act.

The house is eerily silent. It normally is these days. Both my children have given up playing their instruments. My son used to play saxophone first and then went for the guitar. My daughter, on the hand, plumped for cello and later on for flute. There was nothing better than the sound of him playing guitar and her playing flute mid-morning on a Sunday.

Now they both sleep until noon.

I set up the ironing board and switch the telly on. I am being ever so careful and considerate. I know the girls went to bed late last night. As the first goals go in on Match of the Day, I hear the sound of rushed steps on the stairs and eventually voices in the kitchen.

The silence is broken (and that is another cliché for wannabe writers. No worries, I shall invoice you in due course).

Monday 27th March

I am now convinced that we have a birds’ nest in our bush in the front garden. Not being a connoisseur of tweets and songs, I am unable to say what sort of birds they are. All I know is that they sing at night. By at night, I mean, midnight. They must be fearless, too, because the local cats still have not dealt with them in the way that only cats know how to deal with midnight-hour-singing animals of the avian variety. Perhaps, although they sing beautifully (and I can attest to that), they can all copy the Google Maps voice, neither robotic nor warm. Enough to keep the local cats away.

© 2017

Next Post: “London Cycle Diaries”, to be published on Saturday 20th May at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Thoughts in Progress

I was listening to Thought for the Day the other day and the guest speaker said something very interesting. Thought for the Day is Radio Four’s religion-infused, regular section whose main aim is to reflect on contemporary issues from a faith-based perspective. The occasion was the celebration of Buddha’s Wakening or Enlightenment and the guest was Vishvapani , a member of the Buddhist Order.

On explaining how the Buddha’s new understanding of life challenged all the notions that he had had before, Vishvpavani  said that the Buddha had showed people “how to tap the mind's hidden capacities“. This phrase reminded me of an article I had read in the London Review of Books a few days before. The piece was about Noam Chomsky as a linguist and radical political figure. In the former role Noam revolutionised the field of linguistics. The academic position at the time was a distrust of “the ghost in the machine”, i.e., the human mind. Moreover, both philosophy and psychology followed this trend, preferring conventional wisdom to the prospect of having to deal with subjective experience. Chomsky, on the other hand, claimed that there were things we knew innately, even if they did not manifest themselves explicitly.

Having written a column on how to place adjectives correctly in a sentence in the English language more than a week ago and how this “problem” was hardly a problem for native speakers as they could “feel” what the right order was, I see myself in agreement with Chomsky. Knowledge, both the acquisition and possession of it, can be tacit and unconscious. Watch young children forming their own phrases, sometimes not even using the raw material they are given from birth. More than once when overhearing my own children talking when they were little, I caught myself thinking: “How do they know that?

However, I do have certain doubts. If this knowledge is somehow innate, where does it come from originally? Not being religious at all, in fact, being an atheist, I reject the notion that it is planted in our brains by an external agent. Could this knowledge perhaps be a generational phenomenon? The instincts embedded throughout our evolutionary journey through planet Earth. When Chomsky talks about the difference between the I-language of internal, individual structures of meaning versus the E-language of external expression he is onto something. About the same time I read the LRB article, I was also preparing myself for an entry test to study the Online Celta course at International House London. For the last five years I have been looking at the possibility of returning to full-time language teaching. Here is now that opportunity. I have been accepted at IH for a September start.

As a young graduate I remember being really excited about lesson planning. It was a chance to put some of my wacky ideas into practice. One of them was based on maieutics. This was the method used by Socrates to elicit knowledge from the mind of a person by interrogation and insistence on close and logical reason. Whereas Socrates and his followers were more interested in critical thinking I used maieutics to unlock the linguistic power of my students. English being the unofficial lingua franca of the last seventy-odd years, exposure to it, even in socialist, Fidel-run Cuba, meant that many of pupils had already come across some of the expressions I was about to teach them, perhaps unconsciously.

The first answer of the foreign language adult learner is “I don’t know”. Self-consciousness is their worst enemy. That is why determining the context in which one wants to study is fundamental. That context includes using the knowledge acquired both by conscious and unconscious means. This is where Chomsky and Socrates come together, in my view. The former supports the mysterious “ghost in the machine”. This means that my students have the capacity to generate I-language, which at the same time underpins consciousness. Socrates comes in handy when we, teachers, need to unlock the hidden power of learning in adults. Understanding the linguistic complexities of a foreign lexicon is scary. In order to achieve this, I, the teacher, usually take the grown-up back to a childlike state of mind. Socrates was interested in critical thinking; my goal is to show the adult what they know and how much they know.

Are we humans born with an innate sense of knowledge about certain things? Or, is all knowledge acquired empirically? It seems to me that that “ghost” will continue to be debated for many years, even centuries, to come.


© 2017

Next Post: “Diary of an Inconsequential Being”, to be published on Wednesday 17th May at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

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

Yotam Ottolenghi’s chicken and prawn gumbo.
Photograph: Louise Hagger for the Guardian. 

If you read my previous post you will understand why I have chosen this Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe tonight. In his latest column in The Guardian, Yotam waxed lyrical about his love for the cuisine of New Orleans, which he found both complex and cryptic. As an Ottolenghi enthusiast myself, I don't need much encouragement to follow the master. I will be cooking this dish this coming weekend. 

Chicken and prawn gumbo

4 chicken thighs, skin on and bone in
Salt and black pepper
60ml vegetable oil
70g plain flour
3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large onion, peeled and finely diced 
2 green peppers, deseeded and finely diced
2 celery sticks, finely diced
1½ tbsp Cajun spice blend (make your own or buy ready-made)
300g peeled raw prawns 
1 litre chicken stock
2 tbsp tomato paste
200g smoked pork belly (or smoky bacon), cut into 2cm pieces
200g cooked basmati rice (ie, made from about 80g uncooked rice)

Season the chicken with a quarter-teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of black pepper. On a medium flame, heat a tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy-based pan for which you have a lid, lay in the chicken thighs skin-side down and fry for four to five minutes, until golden brown. Turn the thighs, cover the pan, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes, checking once or twice that the chicken isn’t sticking or burning (there should be enough fat in the pan for this not to happen). Transfer the chicken to a plate, leaving the fat in the pan (you should have about two tablespoons).
Add another three tablespoons of oil to the pan and warm gently on a medium heat. Add the flour, whisk to a smooth paste, then cook, whisking often, for 15-20 minutes, until the roux turns into a dark chocolate-coloured paste. Add the garlic, onion, peppers, celery and spice blend, and cook for five minutes, stirring often. Roughly chop five prawns, add to the pan and cook for five minutes, then pour in the stock, 350ml water and the tomato paste. Stir in the smoked pork and a teaspoon of salt, then leave the gumbo to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes more. Meanwhile, remove the skin from the chicken thighs and tear the flesh off the bones in rough 4-5cm chunks.
Once the gumbo has simmered for 20 minutes, stir in the chicken, cook for 10 minutes more, then add the remaining prawns and cooked rice. Check the seasoning, simmer for a final three minutes, until the prawns are just cooked, and serve hot.
This is heavenly food from New Orleans. So, the first melody has to be Dixieland proper. Stand to one side because the saints go marching in, led by the one and only, Mr Louis Armstrong.



That gumbo is thick and filling. That's the way I want my music tonight. Preferably with a bass-driven helping and a guitar-led consistency. Enter Black Sabbath's Paranoid.




Food so exotic makes want to explore the same in music. I love Soapkills and their laid-back sound.




We go as we came. With Armstrong. I have never included the same musician twice in this section. There is enough music to go around. But, for some reason this recipe has given me the New Orleans bug and I cannot resist another dose of good ol' Dixieland. Enjoy.



Next post: "Thoughts in Progress", to be published on Saturday 13th May at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Thoughts in Progress

The first time I heard it I did not hear it at all. I was not prepared for it. I was too young and my parents did not warn me (I am going to blame my parents, especially my dad; I need to blame someone and parents always come in handy). It was not included in my folks’ small record collection. That is, if a bunch of random LPs bundled together in a corner of a minute one-bed flat can be called collection. If truth be told, years later, when I became a fan of it, I was surprised at its absence from our house. After all, my parents, especially my father, were music lovers. My dad was (is, still) a musician, composer and arranger. If someone was capable of appreciating it, it should have been him. Records by Roberto Faz, Orquesta Riverside and La Original de Manzanillo were amongst the few gems that were played at very special occasions on the old, blue record-player (a relic from pre-revolutionary days). These were big bands that had a lot in common with the Glenn Millers and Buddy Riches of this world. Yet, it did not feature at all chez moi. I do not think that it was unknown to them. I just think that they did not get “it”.

Most of the music played at home when I was a child, was of the dance variety. Later on, when my auntie brought home the first cassette player we ever had it was my cousin (big sister, really) who took over DJ-ing duties. However, we still did not tend to listen to Anglophone music very often.

"It", jazz, was surplus to requirements since its demographic was non-existent in our household at the time.

I went to the kind of college (high school for US readers) which defies conventions about Cuban education’s supposed equality. Though uniform-clad, we all knew where we belonged and which tribe was ours. I was in the scruffy, working-class, rock-faithful one. However, I had one good friend in the “Trova” (New Song) gang. Once I happened to be at his house. We were both playing tapes to each other. And there it was: the piercing sound of a trumpet, if not out of tune, out of everything I conceived at the time as “being in tune”. Seeing the frown on my face, my friend asked me: you don’t like Dizzy? Not wanting to be rude, I shrugged my shoulders. Inside, though, I swore never to return.

There is a certain built-in philistinism in the life of a teenager. It is easier, however, to notice it in others than in yourself. Aged fifteen, I listened to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins at my mate’s and found their sound foreign and alien.

1989. I had just turned eighteen in November and was in my first year at university. What was I doing here at midnight, in the lounge where my cousin and her mum slept on foldable beds? What was that sound, low and mellow, coming out of the old, battered Russian radio? Was that the same piercing sound of the trumpet I had rejected fours year before? What had happened?

Let us rewind to the month of February of the same year. Let us go back to the corner of 23rd Avenue and L Street, one of the most popular corners in Havana. There I was, scruffily dressed as usual, in my rocker’s get-up: skintight jeans, oversized shirt and canberras (steel toe-capped Russian boots). I had no plans that night. My jazz-enthusiast friend from college happened to pass by. He was on his way to the Havana Jazz Festival. He had a spare ticket. Would I care to join him? I said no. He would not take no for an answer. After all these years, I think he saw something in me that night. Perhaps the face of the willing convert who refuses to believe he will be inevitably converted. He insisted. My replies became more elliptical and my reasons weaker.

Together we set off, Casa de la Cultura de Plaza-bound.

I would like to say that a full moon flooded the stage and that in the quiet of the night the sound of a saxophone triggered off my epiphany. The truth is rather more prosaic. It was very noisy when we got to the venue. We went inside, which was outside (the concert was outdoors) but then I went back inside.

I went back inside my own mind.

You see, jazz in Cuba did not have a tribe in those years. Correction, it had its own specific tribe, but it did not function like others. Rockers, salsa-lovers, trovas, pop-enthusiasts; they were distinctive. We wore uniforms; we wore our allegiance on our sleeves. Sometimes literally. Jazz, on the other hand, belonged to old people. That is how we saw it, us youn’ uns.

That night I, the refusenik, sat down. I had my speech ready. I imagined that as soon as the concert ended the words would spill out, of their own accord, without any push or shove from me: I only came because of you. No, I didn’t like it. I don’t like jazz. I don’t like jazz. I don’t like jazz.

And then he came on stage and played the trumpet. He, being Arturo Sandoval, Cuba’s foremost trumpeter.

I cried that night. Moreover, I cried, sitting next to my friend, amongst people I did not know. I cried, conscious that as a man I ought not to. That’s what they always said: men don’t cry. Well, I bloody well did. That was the effect Arturo Sandoval had on me that night: uncontrollable tears.  But also joy. I had found yet another layer of my humanity. A metaphysical one perhaps; its abstract nature not fully decipherable prima facie. Whatever had caused that emotion, I had to get more of it.



That is how I found myself in November 1989, in the darkness of our small flat, listening to a radio DJ, more used to playing classical music than compositions by Gershwin and Coltrane. Every Wednesday night between midnight at 1am I would silently come to our lounge, move the radio to our dinner table and switch the kitchen light on. That was the start of my love affair with jazz. That was the gateway to Ella, Billie and Nina. Through CMBF, the aforementioned station, I learnt the difference between bebop and smooth jazz.

Years later, as an adult, and while trying to rationalise my strong, lachrymose reaction to Sandoval’s trumpet-playing all those years before, I came up with a theory for my conversion. My love of rock was partly responsible for my newfound passion. The musical patterns, or lack of them thereof, of a Yes or Pink Floyd track were not dissimilar to the unorthodox approach taken by the likes of Thelonius Monk or Ornette Coleman. At the heart of it, jazz musicians tried to break or bend the rules. My initial mistake, at my friend’s, was trying to understand a phenomenon I deemed “absurd” at the time. It is only when we stop trying that we become more open to music genres we do not comprehend.

In simple terms: my defences were lowered that February night in Havana at the jazz gig. Then, again, since then I have lowered my defences on purpose whenever I am confronted by the new. A couple of years ago it happened, when I saw Bill Laurance and Snarky Puppy at Jazz FM’s Love Supreme Festival. Not knowing what to expect, I prepared myself to welcome the unknown. The result was the sort of experience some people might call religious.

Jazz bares me. In its syncopated/discontinuous, uniform/wandering notes, lies a truth that calls to a part of me. It is there in Roberto Fonseca’s eclecticism and Aziza Mustafa Zadeh’s vocal range. It is there in Sarah Vaughan’s unforgettable voice and Alice Coltrane’s Vedic-influenced, mystical harp. I didn’t find jazz. Jazz found me.



© 2017

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 10th May at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Adjectives and their Order)

Read the two sentences below and tell me which is the correct one:

He is an ugly little fellow.

He is a little ugly fellow.

You guessed right. The first one is the correct one. That is, if we are to go by a paragraph, gone viral last autumn, from a book called The Elements of Eloquence. The extract dealt chiefly with the order in which adjectives in English should appear (only applicable if you’re using more than one adjective per noun): opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. That is why “ugly” (my opinion), comes before “little” (size).

But I bet that you, native English speaker, knew that without bothering to read the why. That is because you “felt” it was the right way. It is a strange phenomenon, this “feeling”. I began to experience it when I started to think in English halfway through my uni years.

This is a life-changing event that does not announce itself. I am not exaggerating with the life bit. Just think of someone having to translate internally every single word and phrase that is said in a conversation before voicing them. It would be exhausting. The way the mind goes from translation-based communication to a native-speaker-level, sentence-building mindset is almost magical. It just happens. One minute you are consulting your grammar book, the next you “feel” that this is the way these adjectives ought to be arranged if you want your sentence to make sense.


Ugly or little? Which one comes first?
English is not a language famous for its rules, yet, there are plenty. The fact that not many people care about enforcing them doesn’t mean that we should ignore them. For instance, I would never think of placing and adjective after a noun in English, the way we generally do in Spanish and other romance languages (in the case of English, since it is a Germanic lexicon, the adjective+noun structure makes sense). It is just a rule we learn by rote and apply it without any second thoughts.

I am not aware that adjectives in Spanish must be ranked following a pre-arranged order. The sentence above could well be “Él es un hombre feo y pequeño” or “Él es un hombre pequeño y feo” (notice the conjunction “y” [and]. That’s another difference between the two languages). Perhaps there is a similar rule that I have not yet discovered but I doubt it. We have far too many linguistic precepts to deal with already to even contemplate adding a new one.

Without blowing my own trumpet, I am pretty sure that I have, unconsciously, placed adjectives in the correct order most of the time since I became a fluent English speaker. But it is always gratifying when we are validated by hitherto unknown laws of grammar or syntax.

© 2017

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

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