Tuesday, 31 March 2009
The year was 1983. The season was autumn, the beginning of it at any rate. Although, if true be told, we don't have a proper autumn in Cuba, except for the dry yellow leaves one crushes on the ground walking here and there. As the song by Carlos Varela goes: 'Here leaves fall down, too'. That September, though, the air had acquired a crisp, metallic smell which I lapped up on my way to school everyday. I had just started year 7 at a local secondary school (ESBU as we called it in those days) and my younger self was confused as to the changes taking place in my life. The summer before had been difficult to say the least. My mother and father were having terrible marital problems and as a consequence I had failed my first exam ever. This was a situation that would recur in my new educational establishment a couple of years hence. I sought refuge in Crusoe's island to which I arrived on Jules Vernes' submarine. I became familiar with the sounds and letters of the English language for the first time. I wanted to escape, somewhere, anywhere. And I was not even a teenager yet.
In order to get to my secondary school, I had to walk a set of blocks down a busy avenue full of cars and smog. I was in the afternoon session so therefore had the morning to do Physical Education (PE) and Work Education (Educación Laboral). My initial impression when I arrived at the school the first day was that it was not as bad as people made it out to be. I had been told that I was going to the worst secondary school in Havana. I was hoping they would be wrong, but in the end they turned out to be right. After the first few weeks of the new academic year the flimsy coat of paint that had been sprayed across its front was peeling off, revealing centuries-old layers of decay and neglect. The windows had been smashed again. Maybe on year 8's floor? Or was it year 9's? Who cared? Nobody did. Nobody does, still.
From the outset I stood out, but not in a positive light, at least to my classmates. My teachers adored me, I was their little pet, studious and labourious, I always handed in my assignments on time and never wasted class time talking or being silly. All I was missing was the glasses to represent the perfect geek. It goes without saying that I was picked on quickly by the school bullies (although I gave as good as I got) and that my days in school transformed themselves into battlegrounds for survival. If Darwin wanted further proof of his theory of the species, I was the living example of it. And I hated it.
One day after my Work Education morning session the teacher in charge of our class summoned me to her department. She said that there were going to be a group of students who would be selected to join the library scheme. This was a programme whereby all pupils had to take part in library-related activities, whether it be maintenance of the books, administration or registration. I jumped at the idea without any second thoughts.
Some weeks later I made my way up the stairs of the old school building. As I went up the dimly lit stairs (the lift was for only for school staff) the smell of urine hit me in the nostrils and almost knocked me out. It was a habit of year 7 and year 8 students from the afternoon session to pee in the corners of the stairs when exiting the building at the end of the day. At this time of the year the shadows grew longer and the days shorter and with the poor lighting the school had it was nigh impossible to capture the culprits. But we all knew who they were.
On the first floor of the building I reported for my first day at the school library. It was a quaint little room that looked more like a detention cubicle than a place where reading was encouraged. Several slogans hung from the walls and there were publicity flyers for competitions that were never run. The librarian was polite and humorous. I still think after all these years that she was surprised to see that the, by now, famous 'Philosopher' and 'Inglesito (Little Englishman)', my two nicknames at the time, was a black boy with short hair and vivacious eyes. She did crack a couple of politically incorrect jokes which I refuse to reproduce here out of respect for my readers and fellow bloggers. But that has always been the nature of racial relations in Cuba, it's like the uncle who cracks unfunny jokes about the groom at the wedding party but we are too embarrassed or polite to deal with him.
I was told there and then what my responsibilities would be, above all, the librarian said, I was there to learn how a library functioned as this was my part of the school curriculum, albeit not subject to a final examination. I don't need to add that I was over the moon about the opportunity to work in such a creative enviroment; I plunged into the role headfirst. Some of the activies in which I engaged at the time were: book-mending, cataloguing, labelling and filing. My favourite one was book-mending. Averse to blood from a young age I knew that medical school would never be my calling, however there was definitely a magical effect on me whenever I mended a book and brought it back to life. To this day that remains one of my strongest passions and my children can aver to that. Woe betide if either of them ever leaves a book face down with its pages spread-eagled on the floor.
I spent a whole year - academic year, that is - at the library and in between repairing novels by Dumas and filing non-fiction books I would steal a moment or two to read Agatha Christie or Edgar Allan Poe. The skills I acquired in that autumn served me well for the coming winter in '84 when I suddenly found myself at my mum's work instead of being in the countryside with the rest of the school during our work experience. My mum worked then (and still does) at a copyright agency and I was tasked with cabinet-filing. I managed to do it so well that I had extra time to devote myself to one of my passions: reading.
1992. Autumn. Fourth year in university. I had been part of the Carolyn Duval's Improvisation Theatre Workshops (long story behind the name, by the way, maybe in another post) since winter that year and my face was recognisable in certain quarters. Like at the post-graduate teachers' library. This was a room situated at the far end of the Foreign Languages Faculty at the Varona Pedagogic Institute (re-baptised Pedagogic University some time after). Though still an undergraduate student I managed to book myself on a couple of post-graduate courses by the writer Dick Cluster and the drama tutor Wallace Bullock. In the meantime I still attended rehearsals with Danielle Fauteaux, our very own theatre director. In between my involvement in amateur theatre and my role as teaching assistant (alumno ayudante) I managed to sneak into the 'Americans library' (as it used to be called, regardless of the fact that there were Canadians and Brits in there, too) and borrow the books that were officially censored. It was also the beginning of my life-long literary affair with Margaret Atwood's oeuvre, a fling that has lasted well over seventeen years now. Her 'Handmaid's Tale' was haunting and having read it straight after Orwell's '1984' I admit to having had nightmares at the time. My own society was sinking in the miasma of political rhetoric and the veil over my eyes (already pierced) was peeling off once and for all. It was the time also when I discovered Dean Moriarty's thirst for living life to the full in Jack Kerouac's immortal novel 'On the Road'.
Fourteen years after I had climbed up the dirty and dimly-lit stairs of my old school building to start my library stint and continue my life-long love affair with reading and five years after I had become a regular presence at the 'American's library', I found myself in a similar institution in London. My son, a few months old was with me and my wife. The air had acquired a crisp, metallic smell which I lapped up on my way to work everyday. We were there as part of a Parents and Toddlers group, although some of the children were as young as our own offspring. In the UK there is a scheme whereby you can register your child at your local library the minute they are born. It is free and reaps good results in the long-term as I can attest.
Since there are no public libraries in Havana, only the school ones and the main one, Biblioteca Nacional (National Library), I was surprised to see so many in my borough when I arrived in London. It was a real delight to place an order for a book that I had already read years before but whose companionship I sought again, like 'The Idiot' by Dostoyevsky. I attended poetry readings and new releases by children's authors. I also began to perform in public libraries. My story-telling act caught the attention of a few librarians and as a result a group of musicians, a visual artist and me started doing the rounds in some libraries in the British capital.
And yet, this blissful experience is coming to an end, or at least having a makeover, and a very bad one indeed the way I see it. As Rachel Cooke's article points out more and more libraries are closing in the UK per year. As it is usually the case, when culture is left to the technocrats, bureaucrats and Philistines, it suffers. A couple of years ago I signed an online petition to bring dance to the fore and give it the high profile it deserves. Last year I found myself seated next to Sir Ian Mc Kellen at the Young Vic, in south London, with plenty other artists, arts organisations, companies and independent practitioners, passing a 'vote of no confidence' in Arts Council England for its mishandling and mismanagement of its funding scheme. I do not usually put my head above the parapet but sometimes causes call for one to abandon the comfortable fence which one is blithely straddling and jump off it and kick up a fuss, shout, scream and demand. Especially when a building to encourage creativity, imagination and thinking is closed and a new one opens in a shopping centre ('mall' as they call it across the pond).
It is ironic that the word 'library' is a false cognate term in Spanish (read here for more info on the subject of 'cognate' and false cognate' words) as my native tongue comes from the dead Italic lexicon. Although it does stem from Latin 'librārius', the Spanish equivalent is 'biblioteca', not 'librería', the latter translates as 'bookshop'. And as more and more libraries disappear, the selling aspect of a shop is all that remains in lieu de the old 'chest for books', as the government makes space for more retail outlets. The air again has acquired a crisp, metallic smell, but I am not lapping it up anymore.
Note: This post was amended on Thursday 2nd April, 2009. Instead of 'book-binding' which I have never done, it should have read 'book-mending' an activity in which I still engage. I have also included John Harris' article in today's Guardian on the same subject. Thanks.
Sunday, 29 March 2009
Thursday, 26 March 2009
The caption caught my eye immediately. Never mind the fact that the tape contained songs by The Chieftains, Christy Henessy, Sinéad Lohan and Christy Moore amongst other artists; it was those three words that made my eyebrows hug each other for a fleeting instant.
The winter of '96 turned out to be a pretty good one for me. My then girlfriend, now wife, came to stay with my family and me in my flat in Havana for a fortnight and we all got on like a house on fire. I had just attended the Havana's Latin American Film Festival where I had seen a plethora of good movies and as if that wasn't enough the temperature in the Cuban capital was doing exactly what it was supposed to deliver at this time of the year: transforming the morning air into a chilly wind (that the thermometres then shot up to 25-26 Celsius by midday is information that we had better leave aside). Knowing that I was very keen on music and aware of my penchant for Luke Kelly's work, one of my wife's housemates back in the UK, an Irish woman, had made a tape for me together with her (also Irish) sister. The resulting record was riveting to say the least and I remember playing the cassette on a loop on my old battered Walkman, a gift from a French hardcore socialist fellow (nope, neither do I) who had come to visit the University Folkloric Dance Ensemble with which I used to perform in those days.
But it was the cryptic title splayed across the tape's label that puzzled me. Craic Agus Ceol? What could that possibly mean?
The answer arrived unexpectedly some time later when I began to work at a travel agency here in the UK. One of my colleagues was Irish and one day as we were about to break up for Christmas, he said: 'So, what's the craic, mate?' This time I did not let the opportunity slip away and asked D what the word meant. D smiled and exclaimed: 'The craic? The craic's the craic, mate! Sorry, too difficult to explain. It's a feeling that everything's fine, that you're having a good time. That's the craic'.
I would be stating the obvious if I said that I was left even more confused after his enthusiastic reply. Luckily I found (almost) an answer when I spoke to another Irish person.
The word 'craic' (pronounced 'crack') is of English origin (yup, so did I!) and it is used to convey a sense of fun. When utilised with 'agus ceol' it refers to Irish nightlife, so fun and music, there you have it.
Just like my post about the Portuguese word 'saudade' a couple of months ago showed, 'craic' is another of those words that carries the meaning within, rather than externally. And since this term is so warm and tender, at least to me, it is better to leave you tonight with an example of what I think it is good 'craic'. So, enjoy the clip everyone.
Tuesday, 24 March 2009
There are no unmixed blessings in life.
Old Irish proverb
It has been said that at the height of the great Irish Famine between 1845 and 1852 the population of that country was reduced by around 20 percent. Whilst the famine was caused mainly by a potato disease, there were also economic, social and political factors that played a major role in the tragedy.
It is against this grim backdrop that Liam O' Flaherty sets his novel 'Famine' that first saw the light in 1937. The book follows three generations of the Kilmartin family as they attempt to ride the wave of despair and desolation that surrounds them. Brian Kilmartin is the paterfamilias who keeps a strong hand on finances and the running of the household. His wife, Maggie, is the traditional Irish housewife armed with a stern character and a personality moulded on the hardships life has thrown at her. Martin Kilmartin is Brian and Maggie's elder son and who is also married to Mary (née Gleeson). Mary's own family tree occupies a prominent role in the novel. Her father, Barney Gleeson, is the local weaver. The Kilmartins also have another son, Michael, who unfortunately dies later on in the novel.
From the outset O' Flaherty sets the tone for the whole book: dark and thundering skies, dimly-lit interiors and embittered conversations full of rancour and bile between the dwellers of the Kilmartin house. The atmosphere is suffocating and oppressive. This is not the Ireland featured in 20th- and 21st-century tourist brochures with its green pastures and emerald landscapes. This is the Ireland of the potato blight, of English landlords often called 'absentee landlords' on account of them leaving their affairs behind to be managed by agents. Moreover, this is the Ireland of the plague and infanticide (there is a harrowing scene towards the end of the novel where a mother kills her three children in order to be arrested and thus ensure she is fed in jail).
The plot revolves around Brian Kilmartin and his clan, first doing his utmost to save his potato harvest, then ceding power to his son, Martin, and later from the latter to his wife, Mary, when Martin has to flee to the mountains after he is wrongly accused of murdering the English landlord, Mr Chadwick.
Liam's style is descriptive and journalistic, the latter can be seen more specifically in the passages where he uses historical references as a backdrop for a particular scene. The novel's rhythm is fast-paced with short words and sentences. There is not much introspection, with most of the action happening externally. And as befits a novel set in Ireland the majority of his characters are devotedly pious. This religious aspect gives him plenty of room in which to depict the battle between the Catholic and Protestant faiths, an element that underpins most of the novel and that acts as one of the catalysts in the decision to get rid of the English administrator towards the end of the book.
My only criticism of this superb novel is that Liam O' Flaherty falls into clichés sometimes. The English agent, Mr Chadwick, is a good case study to illustrate my point. He is evil to the point of caricature and although there might have been many Mr Chadwicks during this terrible time in Ireland, sadistic men who gloried in their own power and exerted it without second thoughts, a more rounded personality would have made him more believable, at least for me.
This comment, however, should not detract the future reader from the fact that this is a magnificent book with a very strong narrative and an ending that (please, look away now if you are thinking of reading it because a spoiler is about to appear) is as happy as one can imagine in the dire circumstances in which the novel takes place. Mary Kilmartin gives birth to a baby boy at the height of the potato blight. With all around her decaying and people dying she embarks on a ship to the US clandestinely after Martin arranges her, their son and his passage. So, there's a happy ending after all. There are no unmixed blessings in life as the old proverb goes but for Mary and Martin life proves to be the blessing they rightly deserved.
Note: This review is the first of a few post with an Irish theme in them. I know that St Patrick's Day was a week ago but this blog operates in its own time and pace, as you all know. My usual column 'Living in a Bilingual World' will have an Irish flavour this week and the Sunday section 'Song for a Spring Sunday Morning' will feature my latest musical discovery from the Emerald Isle. Many thanks.
Sunday, 22 March 2009
Sunday 22nd February, 8.04am. The thermometre inside the car tells me it's 21 degrees Celsius outside. It still feels a bit nippy, though. In spite of the morning chill, I roll down the windows after I start the car's engine. I stare out into the distance through the windshield. The city still sleeps. As the sun rubs its eyes and lazily puts its sheets away, thus, making space for the moon to have a lie-down now, the first line of my chosen musical companion on this journey stumbles out of the car speakers: 'Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin'. The verses roll out inebriatedly, tasting of last night's excess; the voice is husky and breathy. One by one each line sheds its clothes unashamedly revealing their bare harmonic bodies, relishing their shameless, narcissistic pleasure.
Some songs are inconsolable pieces of music. Think Radiohead's 'Creep'. Some other tunes are an exercise in introspection. Think Tori Amos' 'Cornflake Girl'. And then, we have the songs that seduce us. The tracks that turn us all into versions of Michelle Pfeiffer's Madame Marie de Tourvel, the famous character from 'Dangerous Liaisons'. We become those flustered and willing beings, prudish on the outside whilst slowly burning with desire inside. Leonard Cohen's 'Dance Me To The End Of Love' is one of those songs. The next two lines are the sweet, ripe plum in whose flesh we sink our teeth slowly, scooping the meaty bit with our tongues, darting it playfully side to side, moving it around, sometimes vertically, sometimes horizontally: 'Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in/Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove '. Mr Cohen is a shameless man and I for one don't care one bit. And I bet you don't, either.
Calmly the car dances down Malecon Avenue whilst Cohen's voice dances in my ears. My pulse quickens, the car speed fluctuates between 40 and 50. On my left there's the sea, the bluegreen sea, the feminine sea. Is it any wonder that female orgasm has often been compared to the crashing of waves against the shore? The undertow as powerful a ripple as the initial impact? And just as my X-rated thoughts are about to give my brain a coup d'état Leonard sings: 'Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone/Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon/Show me slowly what I only know the limits of ' And I hold on to the steering wheel as hard as I can whilst an image flashes up in front of my eyes: the contours of my wife's naked body being caressed by the ruffled sheets of the bed in our hotel room. Ah, Mr Cohen, you give marital debauchery a perfect excuse! And you have given me more than enough reasons to post a song for every spring sunday morning from now until June. I tip my hat to you, sir and I am sure that my readers and fellow bloggers will appreciate your talent and that of the artists to come. In the meantime I make a U-turn at the roundabout of G Street and Malecon Avenue. My consort awaits.
Thursday, 19 March 2009
My third and final charge against the theocracies, atheist or religious, and their failure to read properly is this: that the act of true reading is in its very essence democratic.
Consider the nature of what happens when we read a book - and I mean, of course, a work of literature, not an instruction manual or a textbook - in private, unsupervised, un-spied-on, alone. It isn't like a lecture: it's like a conversation. There's a back-and-forthness about it. The book proposes, the reader questions, the book responds, the reader considers. We bring our own preconceptions and expectations, our own intellectual qualities, and our limitations, too, our own previous experiences of reading, our own temperament, our own hopes and fears, our own personality to the encounter.
And we are active about the process. We are in charge of the time, for example. We can choose when to read; we don't have to wait for a timetabled opportunity to open the covers; we can read in the middle of the night, or over breakfast, or during a long summer's evening. And we're in charge of the place where the reading happens; we're not anchored to a piece of unwieldy technology, or required to be present in a particular building along with several hundred other people. We can read in bed, or at the bus stop, or (as I used to do when I was younger and more agile) up a tree.
Nor do we have to read it in a way determined by someone else. We can skim, or we can read it slowly; we can read every word, or we can skip long passages; we can read it in the order in which it presents itself, or we can read it in any order we please; we can look at the last page first, or decide to wait for it; we can put the book down and reflect, or we can go to the library and check what it claims to be fact against another authority; we can assent, or we can disagree.
So our relationship with books is a profoundly, intensely, essentially democratic one. It places demands on the reader, because that is the nature of a democracy: citizens have to play their part. If we don't bring our own best qualities to the encounter, we will bring little away. Furthermore, it isn't static: there is no final, unquestionable, unchanging authority. It's dynamic. It changes and develops as our understanding grows, as our experience of reading - and of life itself -increases. Books we once thought great come to seem shallow and meretricious; books we once thought boring reveal their subtle treasures of wit, their unsuspected shafts of wisdom.
And we become better readers: we learn different ways to read. We learn to distinguish degrees of irony or implication; we pick up references and allusions we might have missed before; we learn to judge the most fruitful way to read this text (as myth, perhaps) or that (as factual record); we become familiar with the strengths and duplicities of metaphor, we know a joke when we see one, we can tell poetry from political history, we can suspend our certainties and learn to tolerate the vertigo of difference.
Of course, democracies don't guarantee that real reading will happen. They just make it possible. Whether it happens or not depends on schools, among other things. And schools are vulnerable to all kinds of pressure, not least that exerted by governments eager to impose "targets", and cut costs, and teach only those things that can be tested. One of the most extraordinary scenes I've ever watched, and one which brings everything I've said in this piece into sharp focus, occurs in the famous videotape of George W Bush receiving the news of the second strike on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As the enemies of democracy hurl their aviation-fuel-laden thunderbolt at the second tower, their minds intoxicated by a fundamentalist reading of a religious text, the leader of the free world sits in a classroom reading a story with children. If only he'd been reading Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, or Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad, or a genuine fairy tale! That would have been a scene to cheer. It would have illustrated values truly worth fighting to preserve. It would have embodied all the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them.
But no. Thanks among other things to his own government's educational policy, the book Bush was reading was one of the most stupefyingly banal and witless things I've ever had the misfortune to see. My Pet Goat (you can find the text easily enough on the internet, and I can't bring myself to quote it) is a drearily functional piece of rubbish designed only to teach phonics. You couldn't read it for pleasure, or for consolation, or for joy, or for wisdom, or for wonder, or for any other human feeling; it is empty, vapid, sterile.
But that was what the president of the United States, and his advisers, thought was worth offering to children. Young people brought up to think that that sort of thing is a real book, and that that sort of activity is what reading is like, will be in no position to see that, for example, it might be worth questioning the US National Park Service's decision to sell in their bookstores a work called Grand Canyon: A Different View, which claims that the canyon was created, like everything else, in six days. But then it may be that the US is already part way to being a theocracy in the sense I mean, one in which the meaning of reading, and of reality itself, is being redefined. In a recent profile of Bush in the New York Times, Ron Suskind recalls: "In the summer of 2002, a senior adviser to Bush told me that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community', which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality'. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works any more,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'"
The democracy of reading exists in the to-and-fro between reader and text, when each is free to engage honestly with the other. The democracy of politics needs the same freedom and honesty in the public realm: freedom from lies and distortions about other candidates, honesty about one's own actions and programmes and sources of information. It's difficult. It's strenuous. The sort of effort it takes was never very common, but it seems to be rarer now than it was. It is quite easy for democracies to forget how to read.
· Philip Pullman 2004
· Extract from Index on Censorship vol 33 Does God Love Democracy? Index On Censorship
Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Six years ago today, a group of Cuban intellectuals, artists and journalists was apprehended by the Cuban police and thrown in jail. They were all convicted of conspiring against the Cuban government and they were all given harsh sentences. Their trial, if we can use that word, was a one-sided affair, where the only body calling the shots was Fidel and his crooks.
Although this blog is not overtly political, it is my belief that writers, artists, performers and journalists should be allowed to express their views on contemporary issues without any fear of backlash. This is the same principle that made me condemn the fatwa issued against the writer Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah twenty years ago as well as denounce the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya a few years ago by Putin's henchmen.
Of the more than 70 Cuban intellectuals arrested six years ago in what has become known as Cuba's Black Spring, more than twenty still remain in Cuban jails in sub-human conditions. They have been tortured and their human rights have been trampled upon. That is why tonight I, along with other bloggers join forces to demand that the Cuban government free all political prisoners that it still keeps in its jails and that it open the way to democracy by allowing its people to form and vote for political parties whose political manifesto is different from the official party line. Only by holding a mirror to itself can a society advance, become more independent and succeed. At present, alas, that is not the case in my country.
Amongst the items I include below there is a letter published in the British newspaper The Guardian on Monday 16th February of the current year and signed by the Writers in Prison Committee English PEN. I also include part of their mission statement (you can read the rest on their website). I also want to include part of an essay by the writer Phililp Pulman on the perils of writing in totalitarian and theocratic societies, a message that is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago under Mao, or sixty years ago under Stalin.
I would like to thank Cat Lucas, English PEN Campaigns Assistant, for allowing me to reproduce their mission statement. I would also like to thank The Guardian Saturday Review team, especially Ginny Hooker once again (for the other favour she did to me before, click here), for authorising me to use Philip Pullman's article. The second part of this post will be published tomorrow at the same time.
Letter in The Guardian
Today is a momentous day for Cuba. Fifty years ago, on 16 February 1959, Fidel Castro brought about the fall of the US-backed dictatorship of Batista and created the western hemisphere's first communist state. 2009 has been a doubly significant year for Cuba, due to President Obama's orders for the closure of Guantánamo Bay. Within a year, the horrific prison conditions against which there have been worldwide protests for the last seven years will cease to exist.
However, there are reportedly over 300 other prisons on the island, many of which are notorious for the ill treatment of political prisoners, who are often deprived of food and water, while guards are known to abuse them both physically and mentally. Many are drugged, left naked for weeks on end or kept in cages. Some resort to self-mutilation in the hope of an early release.
Such treatment has contributed to the rapid decline in health of the many cases of concern to English PEN. In fact, one of the 21 writers, journalists and librarians still detained almost six years after the 2003 Black Spring crackdown on dissidents, reportedly greeted Obama's announcement by saying "When will the world open its eyes and say that the other Guantánamos should be closed?" To mark the anniversary, we are launching our 2009 Cuba Campaign, calling for the early release of these prisoners, and for immediate improvements to their prison conditions, including access to visitors and medical treatment, and removal from hard labour.
Lisa Appignanesi, President
Jonathan Heawood, Director
Carole Seymour-Jones Chair, Writers in prison committee English PEN
Part of PEN's mission statement:
As such, on 16 January 2009, fifty years after Fidel Castro took power, English PEN launched our 2009 Cuba Campaign. The overall aim of our campaign is to bring greater freedom of expression to Cuban citizens in general, but most specifically to our fellow writers, journalists, novelists, poets and dramatists. The areas on which we will be focusing include the following:
Release of prisoners: We will campaign extensively for the early release of the 21 imprisoned writers, journalists and librarians arrested during the 'Black Spring' Crackdown in March 2003. We will also campaign on behalf of the five other Cuban PEN cases imprisoned in violation of their right to free expression. For more information on these cases, please click
You can continue to read the rest of PEN's mission statement here.Essay by Philip Pullman
The war on words
Reading is a democratic activity, argues Philip Pullman, and theocracies discourage it. Khomeini's Iran and the Soviet Union had similarly degraded views of literature - and Bush's America is heading the same way
The Guardian, Saturday 6 November 2004
I start from the position that theocracy is one of the least desirable of all forms of political organisation, and that democracy is a good deal better. But the real division is not between those states that are secular, and therefore democratic, and those that are religious, and therefore totalitarian. I think there is another fault line that is more fundamental and more important than religion. You don't need a belief in God to have a theocracy.
Here are some characteristics of religious power:
There is a holy book, a scripture whose word is inerrant, whose authority is above dispute: as it might be, the works of Karl Marx.
There are prophets and doctors of the church, who interpret the holy book and pronounce on its meaning: as it might be, Lenin, Stalin, Mao.
There is a priesthood with special powers, which can confer blessings and privileges on the laity, or withdraw them, and in which authority tends to concentrate in the hands of elderly men: as it might be, the communist party.
There is the concept of heresy and its punishment: as it might be, Trotskyism.
There is an inquisition with the powers of a secret police force: as it might be, the Cheka, the NKVD, etc.
There is a complex procedural apparatus of betrayal, denunciation, confession, trial and execution: as it might be, the Stalinist terror under Yezhov and Beria and the other state inquisitors.
There is a teleological view of history, according to which human society moves inexorably towards a millennial fulfilment in a golden age: as it might be, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as described by dialectical materialism.
There is a fear and hatred of external unbelievers: as it might be, the imperialist capitalist powers.
There is a fear and hatred of internal demons and witches: as it might be, kulaks or bourgeois deviationists.
There is the notion of pilgrimage to sacred places and holy relics: as it might be, the birthplace of Stalin, or the embalmed corpses in Red Square.
And so on, ad nauseam. In fact, the Soviet Union was one of the most thoroughgoing theocracies the world has ever seen, and it was atheist to its marrow. In this respect, the most dogmatic materialist is functionally equivalent to the most fanatical believer, Stalin's Russia exactly the same as Khomeini's Iran. It isn't belief in God that causes the problem.
The root of the matter is quite different. It is that theocracies don't know how to read, and democracies do.
To begin with, the theocratic cast of mind has low expectations of literature. It thinks that the function of novels and poetry is to present a clear ideological viewpoint, and nothing else. This is brilliantly shown in Azar Nafisi's recent book, Reading Lolita in Tehran (4th Estate, 2004). The author, a professor of English literature in Iran during the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini, tells of her attempts to continue teaching the books she wanted to teach in the increasingly fanatical and narrow-minded atmosphere of the period following the Islamic revolution. In order to discuss the work of Nabokov, Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen or Henry James, she had to resort to various stratagems: to pretend to put the book on trial so as to elicit a "safe" defence of it, to meet with a small group of trustworthy students in her own home and so on.
At one point she is describing the attitude of the authorities to the sort of books she finds most valuable:
"Unable to decipher or understand complications or irregularities, angered by what they considered betrayals in their own ranks, the officials were forced to impose their simple formulas on fiction as they did on life. Just as they censored the colours and tones of reality to suit their black-and-white world, they censored any form of interiority in fiction; ironically, for them as for their ideological opponents, works of imagination that did not carry a political message were deemed dangerous. Thus, in a writer such as Austen, for example, whether they knew it or not, they found a natural adversary."
Works of imagination that did not carry a political message were deemed dangerous - that is, an overt political message. Nafisi is too subtle a reader to think that Jane Austen, or any other great writer, is devoid of political implications, echoes, correspondences; but if they don't stand up and wave a flag and shout slogans, they're invisible, and hence suspect.
And that is true for believers and atheists alike. Here is an extract from a famous resolution of the central committee of the all-union communist party of August 14 1946:
"Recently in Zvezda magazine, along with important and worthwhile works of Soviet writers, there have appeared many worthless, ideologically harmful works. A crude mistake of Zvezda is the offering of a literary platform to the writer MM Zoshchenko, whose productions are alien to Soviet literature. The editorial staff of Zvezda is well aware that Zoshchenko has long specialised in writing empty, vapid and vulgar things, in spreading putrid nonsense, vulgarity and indifference to politics, so as to mislead our young people and poison their consciousness... In addition, Zvezda in every way popularises work by the authoress Akhmatova, whose literary and socio-political physiognomy has been known to Soviet people for a long, long time. Akhmatova is a typical exponent of empty, frivolous poetry that is alien to our people. Permeated by the scent of pessimism and decay, redolent of old-fashioned salon poetry, frozen in the positions of bourgeois-aristocratic aestheticism and decadence - "art for art's sake" - not wanting to progress forward with our people, her verses cause damage to the upbringing of our youth and cannot be tolerated in Soviet literature."
The charge of indifference to politics: there it is again. It is a consistent theme. In 1929, the writer Boris Pilnyak had been denounced by the Stalinist Literary Gazette for offences including "apoliticalness (not being a communist)" (Ian MacDonald, The New Shostakovich 1990). What it amounts to is that if a literary work doesn't openly support your side, then it must be empty, and ought to be condemned.
So the trouble with the way theocracies read is that they have a narrow idea of what literature is: they think it only contains one kind of thing, and has only one purpose, which is a narrowly political one. This is true even of some apparent supporters of literature, such as the leftist activists described by Nafisi, who defended Scott Fitzgerald against the attacks of the Muslim activists on the grounds that "we needed to read fiction like The Great Gatsby because we needed to know about the immorality of American culture. They felt we should read more revolutionary material, but we should read books like this as well, to understand the enemy." The theocratic cast of mind is always reductive whether it's in power or not.
The second charge against the theocracies is that they only know one mode of reading. Because they think there is only one way that books can work, they have only one way of responding to them, and when they try to apply the one way they know to a text that doesn't respond to that reading, trouble follows. There is a good description of two different modes of reading in Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2001). Armstrong is eloquent on the difference between mythos and logos, fundamentally different ways of apprehending the reality of the world. Mythos deals with meaning, with the timeless and constant, with the intuitive, with what can only be fully expressed in art or music or ritual. Logos, by contrast, is the rational, the scientific, the practical; that which can be taken apart and put together again; that which is susceptible to logical explanation.
Both are necessary, both are to be cherished. However, they engage with different aspects of the world, and these days, says Armstrong, they are not equally valued. Her argument is that in modern times, because of the astonishing progress of science and technology, people in the western world "began to think that logos was the only means to truth, and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious". This resulted in the phenomenon of fundamentalism, which, despite its own claims to be a return to the old true ways of understanding the holy book, is not a return of any kind, but something entirely new: "Protestant fundamentalists read the Bible in a literal, rational way that is quite different from the more mystical, allegorical approach of pre-modern spirituality."
Not only Protestants, we might add, and not only the Bible. In March 2002, the BBC reported the publication of a story in several Saudi newspapers about a fire in a school in Mecca. According to the reports, the mutaween, the Saudi religious police, stopped schoolgirls from leaving the blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress. Fifteen girls died as a result. One witness said that he saw three policemen "beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya" (the black robe required by the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam). The father of one of the dead girls said that the school watchman even refused to open the gates to let the girls out. What is this but a failure to read with imaginative understanding, a triumph of literalism and the bare decoding of instructions over human empathy?
The second part of this essay will appear tomorrow.
Monday, 16 March 2009
structure ttt does not follow the traditional lineal pattern although its plot revolves around three main characters in havana in the dying days of the batista regime arsenio eribo and cue form the three sad tigers trio whose daily lives or nocturnal habits rather and existential angst represent the end of an era and the beginning of another one yet like lewis carroll and julio cortazar cabrera infante confounds the reader on purpose a myriad characters are introduced in the first few chapters some of which are taken out before the first third of the book whilst others remain in the periphery this is not a flaw guillermo creates a puzzle that the reader must solve and i for one could feel the authors long shadow casting its spell on me as i turned the pages of his novel whilst a naughty laugh betrayed his presence behind me cabrera infante is a magician whose sleights of hand magic characters out of thin space only to make them disappear with his other hand he is in control and he is having fun so much so that in between the mc announcing showtime at tropicana in chapter one and the epilogue with its intriguing soliloquy he has time to imagine how trotsky's death would be described by some of cubas foremost writers including jose marti jose lezama lima lydia cabrera and alejo carpentier and a chapter where the same story is narrated from two different points of view by husband and wife four times then there is also the page where cabrera infante tries mirror writing an exercise in literary excellency language ttt is a celebration of language and above all cuban spanish i pity the translator that had or has to transpose the novel into another language because he or she had not only to contend with the idioms to which the denizens of my beloved island are so used but also with the cultural references which are harder to explain within the convoluted plot but it is not just cuban spanish that gets to play ball in this joyful novel we also have english and french taking on major roles especially in the chapter called rompecabezas jigsaw puzzle where one of those supporting characters bustrofedon takes his turn on the mic puns tropes similes and hyperboles are just some of the most entertaining games in which cabrera infantes characters delight music ttt is above all a homage to cuban music and especially to the bolero the action takes place most of the time at night in the area comprising habana vieja old havana centro habana central havana and vedado nowadays plaza de la revolucion with its cabarets and night clubs that cabrera infante so well depicts this is a novel that dances around your hand or wriggles on it whether it be boleroing its way around the palm of your hand or guarachaing on the back of it cabrera infante famously said that this was a novel to read at night to which i humbly add this is a novel to talk you into parting with some of your money and finally buying a ticket to cuba specifically havana not that the person reading ttt for the first time will encounter the same scenario upon arriving in the cuban capital but some of the places mentioned in the novel still remain and a stroll up neptuno street towards havana university then right onto l street right again onto 23rd avenue and stopping at the tikoa club or la zorra y el cuervo the fox and the raven on the corner of 23rd and o street will definitely be worth it having grown up in havana listening to most of the music that cabrera infante mentions in this his most famous work i found myself very often here in cold london seized by the nostalgic effects of saudade longing for a bolero to come on the radio performed by either benny more or elena burke ttt was and i believe it still is banned in cuba for reasons that were never clear to me when i was reading it one of the three main characters leans towards the barbudos political manifesto the bearded guerrillas led by fidel and the atmosphere in the novel has a certain air of decadence and corruption so characteristic of the batista era i think that the decision blind and crass in my opinion by the cuban government to not include this masterpiece in cubas literary canon responds to cabrera infantes attitude towards the regime circa 1961 after fidel famously addressed cuban intellectuals warning them that with the revolution everything against the revolution nothing this marked the end of the honeymoon period the cuban leader had enjoyed with cubas most prolific writers and artists ushering in the dark years of which the infamous umaps military units in support of production were the highlight guillermo cabrera infante settled in london from 1965 until his death in the same city in 2005 in an interview given to the revista hispano cubana in 1998 he told the journalist juan carlos sanchez reyes that he hoped that the post castro cuba would become a better place with fewer economic restrictions and with greater opportunities in the same way that ejercicio para un actor left me spellbound twenty years ago ttt has also repeated the experience twenty years later this book is a must read not just for those interested in cuban culture but also for those who love language in its most experimental form
note you might have become aware that punctuation marks capital letters and accents have been absent from my latest posts this is due to a wildcat strike sweeping through the uk now and which has affected the written press modern mobile phone text scribes have remained nonchalant towards the strike to the point of not noticing the changes the crisis was brought about by a fall in the punctuation marks accents and capital letters stockmarket in wall street and the city of london two of the worlds bigger financial centres for this type of commodity and caused also by a new arrival completely legal by the way of foreign accents if you are a resident in the uk you might have noticed the headlines the daily mail took the lead with first they took our jobs now they are taking our commas inside the tabloid richard littlejohn stated that we were all going to hell in a handcart unfortunately the controversial columnist fell off at the end of the sentence he was writing due to the absence of a full stop over at the sun the headline was gotcha above a photo of an alleged asylum seeker flogging question marks near liverpool street station in reality it turned out to be a picture of a younger David Milliband our foreign secretary during his time at corpus christi in oxford the red top apologised to the minister claiming that he looked like an eastern european in the photo and therefore they had decided to run the story the apology was printed on page 15 inside the paper using verdana size 2 font in italics underneath an ad for a ukrainian private escort the guardian and the independent asked british prime ministers barack hussein obama and jon stewart respectively to step in and solve the situation without either broadsheet realising their error the times and telegraph reproduced verbatim david camerons commons intervention on the issue without noticing that it was a copy of the same speech the tory leader had made to the conservative party in his partys autumn conference in 2006 in the meantime the daily star had a semiclad semicolon on its page three and over at the daily express the news was not reported because they could not find any link to princess diana this is the state of affairs here in the uk i hope the situation is resolved quickly so that i can go back to normal many thanks for being so patient
Sunday, 15 March 2009
Friday, 13 March 2009
as your enter the eighth year of your life tomorrow i feel like digging out and caressing one of my favourite mementoes from your earlier days the time when you grabbed my thumb for the first time there was so much energy and vim in that squeeze your mum and i laughed our heads off after because from then on you showed your passion for people by hugging them very tightly whilst sucking in your cheeks it is one of your trademarks gestures now i also remember when i used to sing to you that famous song performed by none other than bola de nieve drume negrita whilst tucking you in bed and you would make the motion of the pau pau with your hands in the air you were only two but you could already recognise a good tune
meine liebe tochter mi chiquipeque ma chère fille i also remember the first word you uttered like your brother you went for the practical agua thus making sure that you would never die of thirst in a spanish speaking country and it made me so proud because you like your brother are the product of this globalised world of ours my dear daughter with your hebrew first name your french middle one and your spanish surnames yes you have big blond curls reaching down your shoulders now yet you are also cuban african chinese spanish english irish gibraltarian yes you are that and a lot more you are my daughter my balletic ballet ballerina expressive and graceful daughter the one who sasses back at me when we are both angry and the one who rushes to someone when they are in need of a cuddle
and the horses did i mention the horses the ones as little as your thumb thumb horses they are trotting about in your bedroom solid equus caballus tamed by your dainty hands brown horses and black and white long haired ones which you love like your mami you love unlike your papi who has never been on one you have touched their mane and fed them and that is why you look after that toy stable we gave you for christmas because you love horses galloping on their four hooves and you dream about them and you tell us about your dream the next day whilst you laugh and your laughter is clear and loud because you laugh with your entire tiny body from the tip of the longest hair follicle in your head to the tip of your big toe mi hijita querida on this day your birthday here is my little pressie for you this beautiful lullaby which brings to mind those occasions on which you ask me to sing the song about the boy who leaves havana and comes across a chinese dog that decides to follow him and how the boy falls for the dog and how he trades the dog he loves so much for a pair of shiny boots and some money and how he is sad after his money runs out and his boots break and how you ask me to explain the song to you and i tell you that it is a song about holding onto what you love and that no amount of money in the world can buy that precious thing and that is why i thought of this traditional lullaby because tonight my darling daughter my little cherub i would like you to dream about horses
besos de tu papi
Wednesday, 11 March 2009
Once inside the hotel room the only sound rushing in after the doors have been shut is the sound of the waves crashing against the old seawall outside the building.
Our lives are made up of songs. Tiny, minute, musical fragments scattered in the ether. Maybe it's Fiona Apple singing that 'I think he let me down/when he didn't disappoint me', Aretha Franklin letting us know that 'when my soul was in the lost and found/you came along to claim it' or Mick Jaggger whispering 'Angie, Angie, where will it lead us from here?/Oh, Angie, dont you weep, all your kisses still taste sweet/I hate that sadness in your eyes'. What we can't deny is that we have chosen tracks at some point in our lives that inform our present state of mind. Elation and despair, it's all part of the transaction in which we enter once we strike up that partnership with Miss Music and sign on the dotted line.
But what happens when we turn our stereos, CD players and iPods off? I'll tell you what happens, we allow the original Killer Opening Song in: nature itself.
During K.O.S. recent sojourn in Cuba, our weekly Introductory Album Track was exposed to the elements in the two hotels at which it stayed. In Havana, it lodged across from Malecon, the seawall that has come to signify so much in Cuba's past and contemporary history. In Ancón, the sea was less than one hundred yards away, its surface flat like a spaceship, and friendly as E.T.
Every morning and night it would be the sea the first and last sound K.O.S. heard on waking up and going to bed respectively. Every time it was a different sound, a different language, a different lyric. Neither Van Morrison, nor Santiago Feliú have the sine qua non to compete against Mamá Natura's spontaneous creative output.
That's why this post is dedicated to the ultimate Killer Opening Song: the sea. But if you don't live anywhere near it, then think of the rustle of dry leaves, the drum-roll of the river and the splash of the spring rain drenching you in its melody. Enjoy cows' low bass notes and birds singing, above all, enjoy nature, for it has the best music to offer and when you come back home, give Stevie Wonder's 'The Secret Life of Plants' another listen. It'll be worth it, I promise:
I can't conceive the nucleus of all/Begins inside a tiny seed/And what we think as insignificant/Provides the purest air we breathe/But who am I to doubt or question the inevitable being/For these are but a few discoveries/We find inside the Secret Life of Plants
A species smaller than the eye can see/Or larger than most living things/And yet we take from it without consent/Our shelter, food, habiliment/But who am I to doubt or question the inevitable being/For these are but a few discoveries /We find inside the Secret Life of Plants
But far too many give them in return/A stomp, cut, drown, or burn/As is they're nothing/But if you ask yourself where would you be/Without them you will find you would not
And some believe antennas are their leaves/That spans beyond our galaxyThey've been, they are and probably will be/Who are the mediocrity/But who am I to doubt or question the inevitable being/For these are but a few discoveries/We find inside the Secret Life of Plants/For these are but a few discoveries/We find inside the Secret Life of Plants
Ancon Peninsula, southern Cuba, February 2009. Photo by the blog's author
Killer Opening Songs (D'Angelo's Brown Sugar)
Killer Opening Songs (Sinéad O'Connor's 'Fire on Babylon')
Killer Opening Songs (Queen's Mustapha)
Killer Opening Songs (Caetano Veloso-Haiti)
Killer Opening Songs (David Bowie - Unwashed and S...
Killer Opening Songs (Massive Attack - Safe From H...
Killer Opening Songs (Bob Brozman)
Killer Opening Songs (Vanessa da Mata - Vermelho)
Killer Opening Songs (The Beatles-Help!)
Killer Opening Songs (Souad Massi-Raoui)
Killer Opening Songs (Habib Koité - Batoumambé)
Killer Opening Songs (Mary Black - No Frontiers)
Killer Opening Songs (Chico Buarque & Milton Nasci...
Killer Opening Songs (David Gilmour - Shine On You...
Killer Opening Songs (Ernesto Lecuona - 'La Compar...
Killer Opening Songs (Chopin 'Fantaisie-Impromptu ...
Killer Opening Songs (He Loves Me by Jill Scott)
Killer Opening Songs (Tracy Chapman - Talkin' 'bout A Revolution)
Killer Opening Songs (Patti Smith - Gloria)
Killer Opening Song (Silvio Rodriguez - Canción del Elegido
Killer Opening Songs (Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit)
Killer Opening Songs (Fela Kuti and Jethro Tull - Jam Session)
Killer Opening Songs (Sting - A Thousand Years)
Killer Opening Songs (Rodrigo y Gabriela - Tamacun)
Killer Opening Songs (Susheela Raman - Ganapati)
Monday, 9 March 2009
- What happened? A car crash.
- Why did it happen? Because one of the drivers was drunk.
- How did it happen? One of the cars drove through a red light.
- Where was the accident? Just down the road.
- When did it happen? Just a few minutes ago.
- Who was involved? Two young drivers.
- Did you see it? No, I didn't.
If the same was applied to British politics nowadays, most politicians would walk away having flunked this most elementary of tests. How many times have I been listening to or watching those two Cancerberi of British radio and television, John Humphreys and Jeremy Paxman respectively asking a politician a 'yes' or 'no' question only for the latter to begin his/her answer with the words: 'The issue, John/Jeremy, is...'. Or how about the old well-worn phrase: 'With all due respect, I think that we're missing the wider picture here...'?
Jeremy Paxman famously asked the then Home Secretary Michael Howard the same question fourteen times on Newsnight back in the nineties without the Tory politician providing a straight and satisfactory answer in any way. It's one of those youtube moments that you have to watch to believe.
Nowadays, interviewees eschew the responsibility of answering questions by not answering them at all. A few days ago Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, turned up on Radio Four to discuss the current economic situation in the UK. He might as well have discussed the recent dismissal of Luiz Felipe Scolari from Chelsea for all I cared. One by one, the questions Darling was being asked by John Humphreys fell into a void into which we, listeners, were imaginarily sucked as the government representative's perennial patronising and condescending tone reminded us that in its almost twelve years in power New Labour had a splendid track record in social, economic and political issues. OK, Al, mate, just don't mention Iraq.
There are three elements I blame for this reticence in linguistics when it comes to politics. The first one is the art of spin. Spin doctors have become skillful masters of deceit and deception. For a classic example, look at Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former advisor, number 10's number 2 and one of the main architects of the ill-fated invasion to Iraq in 2003. The second factor is a cynical public. We are discontent with the status quo but even when a politician steps forward and gives us a straight answer (a very rare phenomenon these days as I explained before) we still pillory them. Question Time has become a Roman arena where the audience's thumbs remain pointing to the ground no matter whether the member of parliament addressing the question/issue provides a viable offer or not. The what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg predicament (are we cynical because politicians are a bunch of demagogues or are politicians so passive because we're never satisfied?) is another subject into which I will stray another time, but it's worth mentioning that this dilemma cuts both ways. The third element is a media desperate to satisty its audience's short attention span. I think that the UK has some of the better newspapers, radio stations and television channels in the world. Despite the many scandals that have besieged it recently, the BBC is still good value for money and I pay my TV licence with gusto. But when the media pummel politician after politician unfairly for raising serious issues it is doing us neither a service nor justice to those who represent the government. When snarling at politicians masquerades as earnest commentary then we need to call the media's bluff.
This is not to excuse politicians' laissez-faire attitude when it comes to reporting to the people who matter: us, the electorare. And of course, it is not a phenomenon that occurs only in the British Isles. Last year when Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, president of Cuba's National Assembly, was challenged by a university student as to why he was not allowed to visit Che's memorial in Bolivia, the spot where he was killed, with his family, the Cuban dignitary huffed and puffed through the answer but did not begin his reply with the most important word: 'Because...'
In the commercial world, meanwhile, the correct use of the adverbs and pronouns mentioned at the beginning of this feature has served companies like L'Oreal very well. The French cosmetics giant struck lucky with its 'Because you're worth it' campaign a few years back despite the fact that, on second thoughts, it might not have suited everyone. Can you imagine if the question had been: 'Why am I all wrinkled up like a prune, abandoned by my partner, left with four mouths to feed and unemployed'? Yes, you 're right, sometimes a 'With all due respect...' reply is a much better option.