Tuesday 29 September 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (4th Part)

This week Zadie tackles one of the more pressing concerns for aspiring writers. For parts one, two and three click here, here and here.

Tradition versus the individual talent

But before we go any further along that track we find TS Eliot,that most distinguished of critic-practitioners, standing in our way. In his famous essay of 1919, "Tradition and the Individual Talent", Eliot decimated the very idea of individual consciousness, of personality, in writing. There was hardly any such thing, he claimed, and what there was, was not interesting. For Eliot the most individual and successful aspects of a writer's work were precisely those places where his literary ancestors asserted their immortality most vigorously. The poet and his personality were irrelevant, the poetry was everything and the poetry could only be understood through the glass of literary history. That essay is written in so high church a style, with such imperious authority, that even if all your affective experience as a writer is to the contrary, you are intimidated into believing it. "Poetry," says Eliot, "is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion, it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." "The progress of an artist," says Eliot, "is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."

These credos seem so impersonal themselves, so disinterested, that it is easy to forget that young critic-practitioners make the beds they wish to lie in, and it was in Eliot's interest - given the complexity and scandals of his private life and his distaste for intrusion - ruthlessly to separate the personal from the poetry. He was so concerned with privacy that it influences his terminology: everywhere in that essay there is the assumption that personality amounts to simply the biographical facts of one's life - but that is a narrow vision. Personality is much more than autobiographical detail, it's our way of processing the world, our way of being, and it cannot be artificially removed from our activities it is our way of being active.

Eliot may have been ruthlessly impersonal in his writing in the superficial sense (if by that we mean he did not reveal personal details, such as the tricky fact that he had committed his wife to an asylum), but never was a man's work more inflected with his character, with his beliefs about the nature of the world. As for that element of his work that he puts forward as a model of his impersonality - a devotion to tradition - such devotion is the very definition of personality in writing. The choices a writer makes within a tradition - preferring Milton to Moliere, caring for Barth over Barthelme - constitute some of the most personal information we can have about him.

There is no doubt that Eliot's essay, with its promise to "halt at the frontiers of metaphysics or mysticism", is a brilliant demarcation of what is properly within the remit of, as he puts it, "the responsible person interested in poetry". It lays out an entirely reasonable boundary between what we can and cannot say about a piece of writing without embarrassing ourselves. Eliot was honest about wanting both writing and criticism to approach the condition of a science he famously compared a writer to a piece of finely filiated platinum introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide. This analogy has proved a useful aspiration for critics. It has allowed them to believe in the writer as catalyst, entering into a tradition, performing an act of meaningful recombination, and yet leaving no trace of himself, or at least none the critic need worry himself with. Eliot's analogy freed critics to do the independent, radically creative, non- biographical criticism of which they had long dreamt, and to which they have every right. For writers, however, Eliot's analogy just won't do. Fiction writing is not an objective science and writers have selves as well as traditions to understand and assimilate. It is certainly very important, as Eliot argues, that writers should foster an understanding of the cultures and the books of the past, but they also unavoidably exist within the garden of the self and this, too, requires nurture and development. The self is not like platinum - it leaves traces all over the place. Just because Eliot didn't want to talk about it, doesn't mean it isn't there.

Image by Garrincha. To visit his online shop, click here

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Road Songs (Special Edition)' to be published on Thursday 1st October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 27 September 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Bring out the coffin. Call the pallbearers. Make sure the hearse has right of way. Dust off your old copy of 'Stop All The Clocks' by W. H. Auden, last heard in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'. In fact, hire John Hannah to provide the voiceover. And while you're at it, light up a few scented candles. A medley of jasmin and oceanus will do. Have hankies at the ready.

Print journalism is dead.

That's the verdict of Peter Preston at The Observer. Over at The Telegraph, Amanda Andrews informs us that The New York Times will start charging for online content. At The Times, Harold Evans's memoirs, 'My Paper Chase', hark back to a golden era for the written press. The message is loud and clear. The time when a journalist pressed a sheet of paper against a toilet wall editing a story whilst his flies remained open at the urinal and his own body took care of its physiological needs (thanks Ian Jack) has been crushed by that mammoth Leviathan: the internet.

But before we go searching for a priest to carry out the last rites, we need to get a grip and not panic.

A city with no dailies is hard to conceive. Newspapers shape our everyday life. Whether you are a broadsheet reader or enjoy the tawdry tales from the red tops, a nation's identity is also made up of the readership of a particular newspaper. Nouns are even coined as a consequence; apparently I am a Guardianista (without the second home in France, mind). That is why it is difficult for me to heed the trumpets announcing the demise of the once mighty newspapers. How can it be so when there are still thorough analyses, good critic and in-depth research in our regular journals?

True, there are dangers of which we have to be aware. For example, daily publications still have to maintain a degree of independence amongst them. To wit, any partisan attitude must be jettisoned in the interest of a more fair and balanced press. This is not so much to do with editorial content (which responds primarily to regular readers), but with any political alliance (which could alienate those followers).

However, as a way of assuaging our fears of a journalistic debacle we should also observe that dailies are not the only creatures facing extinction. Today's generation marvel at a cassette, ask what an overhead projector is and cannot imagine a time when we all grouped together in someone's lounge to watch a Betamax. Recording companies face the biggest threat ever from internet downloads and cinemas are closing at an alarming rate because people prefer to wait until films come out on DVD.

And if we watch the world of print journalism closely maybe we would find that it would be too premature to sound the death knell just yet. There's nothing at the moment that could occupy its place, 24/7 news notwithstanding. Online content is not infallible and the price we pay for that immediacy most of the time is less content, less depth and more confusion.

So what can be done to save dailies? One route out of this quagmire is to charge for online content, forcing the devoted reader to go and buy the paper's hard copy at the newsagents. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has certainly played around with this idea and the aforementioned newspaper, The New York Times, is dead set on levying a fee for users to access its web content. A commendable effort in the short-term, but unpredictable in the mid and long-term one. For starters, the same users who read newspapers online now (and I am one of those) do so because to invest in two or three dailies is beyond our financial means. My regular dose of news and commentary includes The Guardian, The Independent, The Times (occasionally) and The Telegraph (for its arts coverage). In addition I read Libération and Der Spiegel whenever I can. Start charging for reading their online versions and I will decamp to another publication. Which one? I don't know, I haven't got a plan B, but I won't cough up.

A better solution would be to invest more in the young generation. The children who are in primary school now should start discovering how exciting it is to write for an in-house monthly magazine. Take advantage of little boys and girls' natural curiosity, give them a camera to photograph what happens in their school garden, plant the seed of creativity, sit back and enjoy the results. Get the local paper to feature your school's stories at least once a term and share the success with the pupils. A side effect of this measure would be to improve children's syntax and grammar. No more "who's" for 'whose', "it's (contraction of 'it is')" for 'its (possessive)' or 'their' for "they're". And the aberration 'sort of/kind of' instead of 'somewhat/somehow' would be finally annihilated.

Moreover, government should fund apprenticeships in newspapers. And I am not referring to those half-hearted efforts whereby work experience students are brought in to serve tea and coffee. I'm actually suggesting that they get given their own space within a national broadsheet to voice their opinions. And submit them to the scrutiny that a professional hacker has to go through.

Get rid of confessional and agony aunt/uncle columns. They make for excruciating pain and the majority of them are not funny. I know that I have the right to turn the page if I am not keen on someone describing how awful he/she feels about his/her eyes or tummy shape. But when serious commentary makes way for insipidity of this type, I wonder if print journalism is not digging its own grave.

Another solution is to give a platform to new readers: students (discussed above), minorities (usually talked about but rarely talked to) and immigrants. And it is with the latter group that I identify myself strongly.

After years of reading the state-run Granma newspaper in Cuba, I am still amazed at the fact that my current Saturday journal contains nine sections and that each one offers interesting and valuable information. When I speak to other people born in totalitarian regimes like the Cuban one, be it Poles, Russians or Chinese, the consensus is the same, it will be a very sad day if print journalism disappears one day in the UK, let alone in the rest of the world.

Maybe the panic over the state of the written press is based on the speed with which technology has moved in recent years. Between the patent for the first telephone and the fax machine as we have come to know it today there was a lapse of about a hundred years. Barely a lustrum passed before we could text and take photos on our mobile phones.

However we also need to be aware that fashion is cyclical. If not, look at Mika's latest single, 'We Are Golden', and what is the first image that greets you? A cassette. In 2009. Come back TDK, all is forgiven.

So, is print journalism doomed? In my opinion, it isn't, but it does face a stern test ahead. So, don't write them off yet because if newspapers could talk they would surely be singing that clever refrain included in 'A Mis Cuarenta y Diez' ('At My Forty-Ten') a song by the Spanish singer Joaquín Sabina: Pero sin prisas, que a las misas de réquiem, nunca fui aficionado/que el traje de madera, que estrenaré no está siquiera plantado...(Hasten not for I have never been keen on a Requiem Mass/And the wooden suit I'll wear on my final day has yet to be farmed...

Aziza Mustafa Zadeh's concert the other night at the Cadogan Hall was memorable for three reasons. First, the venue felt perfect for her performance. It was neither too big nor too small, so the atmosphere was that of an intimate evening out with family and friends. Secondly, the two other musicians who accompanied her, Ralf Cetto on bass and Simon Zimbardo on drums, gelled magically around her to provide one of those once-in-a-lifetime nights that London is so good at proffering. And last, the Azerbi pianist herself was superb beyond description. She is one of those few musicians, in my view, who can convey a sense of nostalgia and pining for events yet to be lived. Although she played pieces I had never heard before, the feelings evoked by them were familiar and took me from absolute jubilation to pensive melancholy. Once again, Ali, thank you very much.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?' to be published on Tuesday 29th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 24 September 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Swear Words)

- You know what? In Cuba they would probably arrest you for having that bottle on display in a public place.
- Why?
- Because to us 'cojonudo' is a swear word. It comes from 'cojones', which is as rude as it gets in our neck of the woods.

The man shrugged his shoulders, turned around and began to talk to another customer. After all the Santoña market was buzzing by now and he had a business to attend to. My linguistic grievance could take a bench and sit on it all day if it wanted to. He was not in the mood for pesky busybodies lecturing the locals on what was correct language and what was not.

It never ceases to amaze me the stark differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and that used elsewhere in the Hispanic diaspora. It is not just words and phrases that make their norm distinct, but a whole cultural mindset that makes us outsiders feel more prudish occasionally than a heroine from a Mills & Boon novel.

During my recent holiday in Cantabria I was fascinated and shocked in equal measure by Castilian Spanish. The former occurred when talking to the locals and noticing the familiar 's' sound at the end of words that finished with 'd' as in 'verdad' (truth). They would say 'verdads', the 's' an almost imperceptible sound, but easy to hear. It reminded me of Irish English speakers who add a soft 'sh' sound to words ending in 't'. My consternation, on the other hand, was the result of coming across words that I was used to seeing in veeeery different contexts. Like the aforementioned 'cojonudos', which in this region of northern Spain referred to asparagus. More baffling for me was when I saw a stall in the same market advertising 'Chochitos Ricos' (Cuban female readers, you have no idea how much I have agonised over writing that sentence, please accept my most sincere apologies). Never mind the fact that the word 'rico' translates as 'yummy' or 'nice' into English, it was the other term I blushed over. Ironically, by then I was of a darker hue due to a couple of visits to one of the local beaches. Nevertheless, I still turned a bright red when I read that caption. The word 'chochito' (diminutive) or 'chocho' is a sexual colloquial term - although some people would call it slang - for female genitalia in Cuba and one of those vocables not to be used unless you and the femme en question are very intimate. Would Cuban women be less offended by the fact that this word was casting their privates in a positive light? Bigging them up, so to speak? Would the fact that 'chochito' (and it does sound like a term of endearment, doesn't it?) referred to a local confectionary delicacy lessen its impact?

Later on that day I had the chance to put these questions to the test. I happened to walk past a group of my fellow countryladies who were completely immersed in a discussion about how high the prices at the market still were. I was tempted to interrupt the flow of their conversation and ask them what they had to say about these linguistic peculiarities but on second thoughts I desisted because by then I'd already had enough of 'chochitos' and 'cojonudos'.

First photo taken from flickr.com, the other two images were taken by the blog author.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 27th September at 10am

Tuesday 22 September 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (3rd Part)

And we continue with our fifteen-part series written by the British author Zadie Smith on what makes writing so special. Click here for the first part and here for the second one.

What writers know

First things first: writers do not have perfect or even superior knowledge about the quality or otherwise of their own work - God knows, most writers are quite deluded about the nature of their own talent. But writers do have a different kind of knowledge than either professors or critics. Occasionally it's worth listening to. The insight of the practitioner is, for better or worse, unique.

It's what you find in the criticism of Virginia Woolf, of Iris Murdoch, of Roland Barthes. What unites those very different critics is the confidence with which they made the connection between personality and prose. To be clear: theirs was neither strictly biographical criticism nor prescriptively moral criticism, and nothing they
wrote was reducible to the childish formulations "only good men write good books" or "one must know a man's life to understand his work". But neither did they think of a writer's personality as an irrelevance. They understood style precisely as an expression of personality, in its widest sense. A writer's personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner.

When you understand style in these terms, you don't think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.

Image by Garrincha. To visit his online shop, click here

Copyright 2009

Sunday 20 September 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

My maternal grandmother had rough hands. She had big, calloused hands that knew all about hard labour and vicissitudes. From an early age her wrists, fingers and thumbs learnt how to tame the arid land in her native Guanajay, formerly in the Pinar del Rio province, nowadays Havana.

My grandma's hands were broad with thick fingers, that's why people used to say she had 'manos de isleña' (islander's hands), a reference to those immigrants who arrived in Cuba from the Canary Islands at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. In her case, this claim was more than justified; her own grandfather on her father's side was one of those fortune-seekers who had crossed the Atlantic looking for a better future.

My grandma's hands changed function shortly before Fidel and his troops toppled the Batista's regime in 1959. She moved to Havana with two of her daughters and began to work as a maid. No more would she be tilling the land, planting potatoes, digging her hardened hands into the soil. She would be now serving coffee in delicate china, dusting furniture brought from countries whose name she could hardly pronounce and cleaning floors until they shined.

My grandma's coarse hands' DNA was transferred to both my mother and one of my aunties. The third one would always poke fun at her sisters for having hands like a farmer. Until my mother and auntie ganged up on her. That was one of the stories my mum used to tell me when I was little. And my grandma, sitting nearby, would rub her ancient hands and give us her broad smile.

When I was five, I was diagnosed with stomach ulcer and gastritis. That was the time when my fits started. The pain would half-nelson me to the ground, and I would be kicking and screaming in agony. Not even doctors would attempt to touch me and on a few occasions I had to be restrained and anaesthesised. If I was home, my grandma would approach the bed where I was writhing in distress, and start reading me the 'Oración a Santa Bárbara' (Prayer to Santa Barbara)[1]: 'Gloriosa Santa Bárbara, a ti que puedes interceder para alcanzar la ayuda de Jesucristo, te ruego que protejas a mi nieto, y que lo ayudes para no vivir y morir separado de la gracia de Dios y de los sacramentos...' All the time, one of her chapped hands would travel around my tummy in a circular motion, smoothing the pain. With tears in my eyes, I would clasp her other hand with mine until my stomachache subsided.

My grandma was the epitome of Cuba and Cubans odd relation to religion. She had been raised a Catholic but had a shrine to the African gods in our flat. She worshipped openly except for when my auntie and her daughter, my cousin, had visitors in our house. My auntie was a member of the Communist Party whilst my cousin belonged to the Youth Communist League. One Sunday a strange man came to our house for lunch. After eating, he sat down with my auntie, my mother and my grandma to talk. Slowly he fell asleep. After a while he woke up as if he was in a trance or sleep-walking and started to speak in a weird language. My grandma, however, understood what he said and replied in his lingo. They both formed a chain with their hands and arms and since our flat was very small, the space was reduced. I got up to go to the toilet and on trying to jump over their nexus, they said that, no! no!, I had to break through it. I did so and when I returned from the bathroom the man had come out of his stupor. My grandma caressed my face with her broad hands and told me not to worry; the evil spirits would not harm me anymore. At that moment many of the reservations I had harboured for years finally found an answer: the reason for her wearing sackclothes on the 17th of each month and her disappearance from our house every 17th December[2]; the large coconut in the bottom of one of the bedside-tables in my mum and dad's bedroom - a fetish much derided by my father and located in the only dormitory in our flat - and her passion for medicinal herbs. The babalawo returned a few more times at my grandmother and later my auntie's request and he struck up a good relationship with my family.

Whenever I complained about a problem, my grandmother would say: 'Don't worry, more was lost in the war'. When I asked her to which war she was referring, her reply was short and simple: 'Any. They're all the same'.

One day my grandma happened to pass in front of our telly whilst a speech by Fidel Castro Ruz was being broadcast. She raised her two hands in fury, closing them into two tight fists: 'You're to blame', she bellowed, 'It's your bloody fault that this country is falling apart!'. My cousin admonished her severely and later that evening we all concluded that the first signs of senile dementia had appeared. Or maybe only those who are non compos mentis dare speak the truth without any fear of reprisal.

When my grandmother died in November 2000, my best friend in Cuba sent me an e-mail with the sad news. I remember printing his message off and retiring to the toilet at the far end of the corridor, away from the operations department. I recall clearly how I locked the door behind me and as I read the e-missive again, I began to slide down the wall slowly. One tear made its way across my cheeks and dampened my upper lip whilst my other eye withheld its outpouring of grief for just another second before giving in to the might of my lacrimal glands. I re-read the message many times until the language made sense no more. I cried silently first and in big sobs afterwards. I cried in the way Oliverio Girondo describes weeping in his immortal poem 'Llorar a Lagrima Viva': 'Llorar a lágrima viva. Llorar a chorros. Llorar la digestión. Llorar el sueño. Llorar ante las puertas y los puertos. Llorar de amabilidad y de amarillo. Abrir las canillas, las compuertas del llanto. Empaparnos el alma, la camiseta. Inundar las veredas y los paseos, y salvarnos, a nado, de nuestro llanto...' I cried because I had made my grandmother's life very difficult in her last years. I could not understand her illness, or rather I chose not to. And now, I could not turn back the big and unforgiving wheel of Time. I cried because I would miss her hearty laugh, the one she displayed everytime my family came to visit and asked to be served her speciality, "pollo arrebata'o"(fried chicken in a rush). But above all, I cried, because I would not be able to feel the soft touch of my grandma's rough hands again.

Copyright 2009

[1] Santa Bárbara is one of the most worshipped saints in Cuba. It is commonly found in most houses, together with its Yoruba counterpart, Shango. It is celebrated on 4th December when most followers dress in red and white or just plain red, the colours that symbolise this Catholic/Yoruba deity/orisha.

[2] St Lazarus is another saint widely worshipped in Cuba. Its Yoruba equivalent is Babalu Aye and both the Catholic deity and the African orisha are usually depicted on crutches and with one or two dogs licking his wounds. On 17th December every year, followers of this deity/orisha make a pilgrimage to its sanctuary, El Rincón, outside Havana, wearing sackclothes.

Next Post: 'What Makes a Goood Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 22nd September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 17 September 2009

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

Just as I announced some days ago here's one of those typical Spanish dishes that screams passion! at the visitor. Fabada Asturiana (Asturian Bean and Sausage Pot) is the king (or queen, it's feminine in Spanish) of local delicacies in Asturias. Luckily I had mine in the evening after a strong cup of coffee, otherwise I would have fallen asleep behind the wheel. This is a hearty, plain dish whose richness comes from the cooking process; the smell alone is worth the calories.

Fabada Asturiana (Asturian Bean and Sausage Pot)

1 lb 10 oz dried butter beans (fabas)
1 1/2 lb salt pork belly
1 1/2 lb smoked gammon knuckle or hock, skin slashed
6 black peppercorns, crushed
1 teaspoon paprika
1 pinch of powdered saffron
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoon olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 lb chorizos or smoked sausages
6 oz black pudding


Choose a stockpot that holds at least 10 pint (6 liter). Cover the beans, in a bowl, with plenty of boiling water. Put the salt meat (pork belly, brisket or silverside and gammon bone) into the pot and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, then drain the meat and return to the stockpot.

Drain the beans then add to the pot with the pepper-corns, paprika and saffron and bay leaf. Add 4 pints (2.3 liter) water. Bring slowly to the boil, then simmer very gently on minimum heat for 2 hours. A big pot on a small burner is best, and better still with a heat diffuser (such as the ones used to prepare paella). Check occasionally that the beans are still covered, but do not stir (or they will break up).

Remove the ham bone and salt pork, to cool a little. Strip off the skin and fat, and take about 2 tablespoons of chopped fat for frying. Sweat this in a frying pan. Fry the garlic lightly, then spoon it into the beans.

Fry the sliced sausages and black pudding (discarding artificial casings). Stir into the pot with the pan fat.

Remove all the meat from the gammon bone. Chop it, and the salt pork or beef, and return to the casserole; simmer for a few minutes. Check the seasonings (there should be enough salt from the meat).

This dish is distinctly spicy, so with that in mind the music must be able to provide the same degree of hotness and richness. Rhythm with a kick, if you like.

That's why my first guest tonight is a somewhat youngish Paco de Lucia performing 'Entre Dos Aguas', one of his most famous compositions.

My second choice brings back memories aplenty. And I'm sure it will to those of a 'certain age', too. Little River Band with 'Take It Easy On Me'. Man, alive, singing and chewing gum at the same time, how many people can do that, huh?

The third track tonight is a strong reminder to me personally of why I blog, why I laugh with all my teeth showing, why I live life to the full, why I love. The first lines should be self-explanatory enough to convince anyone that in today's world if someone gives you attention, respect, affection, please, don't turn it away, take it, especially if they carry a plate of hot, steaming fabada asturiana in their hands. In this world, if you read the papers, lord/You know everybody's fighting on with each other/You got no one you can count on, baby/Not even your own brother/So if someone comes along/He's gonna give you some love and affection I'd say get it while you can, yeah!/Honey, get it while you can, Hey, hey, get it while you can/Don't you turn your back on love, no, no!

My last track tonight is a very popular song that needs no introduction. Just go easy on the dancing after you've eaten that rich fabada. Many thanks.

Next Post: Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music, to be published on Sunday 20th September at 10am (GMT)

Copyright 2009

Tuesday 15 September 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (2nd Part)

This is the follow-up to Zadie Smith's tips for (future) writers. Click here for the first part.

The craft that defies craftsmanship

That is the end of the tale of Clive. Its purpose was to suggest that somewhere between a critic's necessary superficiality and a writer's natural dishonesty, the truth of how we judge literary success or failure is lost. It is very hard to get writers to speak frankly about their own work, particularly in a literary market where they are required to be not only writers, but also hucksters selling product. It is always easier to depersonalise the question. In preparation for this essay I emailed many writers (under the promise of anonymity) to ask how they judge their own work. One writer, of a naturally analytical and philosophical bent, replied by refining my simple question into a series of more interesting ones: I've often thought it would be fascinating to ask living writers: "Never mind critics, what do you yourself think is wrong with your writing? How did you dream of your book before it was created? What were your best hopes? How have you let yourself down?" A map of disappointments - that would be a revelation.

Map of disappointments - Nabokov would call that a good title for a bad novel. It strikes me as a suitable guide to the land where writers live, a country I imagine as mostly beach, with hopeful writers standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up, over on the opposite coast, out of reach. Thrusting out of the shoreline are hundreds of piers, or "disappointed bridges", as Joyce called them. Most writers, most of the time, get wet. Why they get wet is of little interest to critics or readers, who can only judge the soggy novel in front of them. But for the people who write novels, what it takes to walk the pier and get to the other side is, to say the least, a matter of some importance. To writers, writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character.

What does it take, after all, to write well? What personal qualities does it require? What personal resources does a bad writer lack? In most areas of human endeavour we are not shy of making these connections between personality and capacity. Why do we never talk about these things when we talk about books?

It's my experience that when a writer meets other writers and the conversation turns to the fault lines of their various prose styles, then you hear a slightly different language than the critic's language. Writers do not say, "My research wasn't sufficiently thorough" or "I thought Casablanca was in Tunisia" or "I seem to reify the idea of femininity" - at least, they don't consider problems like these to be central. They are concerned with the ways in which what they have written reveals or betrays their best or worst selves. Writers feel, for example, that what appear to be bad aesthetic choices very often have an ethical dimension. Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self - vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised.

That's why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great. This is hard for young writers, like Clive, to grasp at first. A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones. There is a rogue element somewhere - for convenience's sake we'll call it the self, although, in less metaphysically challenged times, the "soul" would have done just as well.

In our public literary conversations we are squeamish about the connection between selves and novels. We are repelled by the idea that writing fiction might be, among other things, a question of character. We like to think of fiction as the playground of language, independent of its originator. That's why, in the public imagination, the confession "I did not tell the truth" signifies failure when James Frey says it, and means nothing at all if John Updike says it. I think that fiction writers know different. Though we rarely say it publicly, we know that our fictions are not as disconnected from our selves as you like to imagine and we like to pretend. It is this intimate side of literary failure that is so interesting; the ways in which writers fail on their own terms: private, difficult to express, easy to ridicule, completely unsuited for either the regulatory atmosphere of reviews or the objective interrogation of seminars, and yet, despite all this, true.

Image by Garrincha. To visit his online shop, click here

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum', to be published on Thursday 17th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Copright 2009

Sunday 13 September 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Pots and kettles. Some phrases don't need to display their full linguistic accoutrement. We know what they mean by the merely mention of a couple of words. 'Pots and kettles' is one of those cases. Ditto with certain snobbish and cultural attitudes between nations.

A few years ago the British press had a moment of schadenfreude when some black English football players, whilst playing a friendly game against Spain, were called racist names. To these insults, gestures imitating monkeys were added. I remember seeing most British commentators both on the right and the left side of the political spectrum rubbing their hands gleefully and gloating over this display of uncivilised behaviour. Not here! they cried. We've stamped racism out of football, kicked it out. No more ugly hooligan scenes like those in the 70s and the 80s.

How wrong they were.

But then, how pathetic John Carlin is in El País for likening the natives of Albion to the Viking hordes that invaded these shores centuries ago (original article in Spanish here, awful English translation here). Or for calling the kettlish English Premier League black. Doesn't he realise that he lives in a country that is pot and kettle at the same time?

In his otherwise well-written article dated Sunday 30th August in the aforementioned newspaper, Carlin uses football as an example to illustrate the differences between Spanish and British societies (by the way, he carries down on the same path of many other commentators before him for whom UK and England are interchangeable terms, a contentious point on which Scots, Welsh and Irish would strongly disagree). Obviously my adopted land does not fare very well. John rightly argues that Brits read more and that in our parliament there's less opprobium being heaped upon its members, as opposed to its Spanish counterpart. But then he goes on to make the baleful comparison I mentioned before using Spain as the ancient Greece paragon against the English (again!) Viking hordes.

Maybe if I had not had that 'little' run-in in Picos de Europa the day before coming across John's feature, I would have let it slide. But not anymore. I think it's time to stick up for my second homeland.

When my wife, our children and I arrived in Picos, we quickly took one of the many paths that led into the mountains. Silly us, we did not think of paying the toilet in the main restaurant a visit before venturing into the woods. Luckily for us there was a campsite nearby (El Redondo) and my son and I went in. The receptionist - a middle-aged white woman - was cold and rude and declared in a very stern voice that the toilet facilities were for the exclusive use of the guests. I attributed her aggresive behaviour to the result of seeing many people getting off the cable cars and trying to take advantage of the campsite's restrooms without bothering to wait until they got to the toilets in the main building to satisfy their physiological needs. And they probably left their own rubbish behind. I was understanding and let her know so.

After we'd finished our short walk, my daughter complained of tummy ache and made it very clear to me that she wanted to go to the toilet. I said to her to wait until we reached the cafeteria where there would be bathrooms aplenty. She said she was desperate and I, fearful of a delicate situation with dirty, stinky clothes in a two-hour journey by car, took her to the same campsite to which my son and I had just been.

And that's when all hell broke loose. The woman this time was not just vulgar and verbally abusive, but also racist. She kept saying to someone at the back - son, husband, partner, who knows - that this was 'el mismo negrito de antes' (the same blackie from before). Spanish-speakers will know that the word 'negrito' said in a confrontational tone has the same pejorative sense as the word 'nigger' in English. My daughter was finally allowed in and I almost had to carry her down the stairs, she could barely walk. On the way out I just said to the woman: 'You see? It was a real emergency. She's just an eight-year old human being'.

So, John Carlin, where were we? Oh, yes, you began your article by referring to those two incidents that took place a few weeks ago. The first one was in a match between arch rivals Millwall and West Ham when there was a fracas between fans from both teams and the second one was at West Ham's defender Calum Davenport's house when a bunch of thugs broke in and stabbed him repeteadly on his legs. Yes, these nasty incidents do happen, John and I hate them as much as you do. They happen now less than in the past, but they do still happen. I support a football team, Chelsea, with a long history of violence and hooliganism, not to mention antisemitism. But I also know many supporters who are law-abiding paterfamilias like yours truly and enjoy a jolly good game of football. In fact, when we crashed out to the mighty Barcelona last spring, I was a good sport and congratulated my Barça-supporting mates. Talking of the Catalán team, what were those hideous scenes of alcohol-fuelled violence and bloodthirst in their game against Shakhtar Donetsk, in Monaco in the European Super Cup final about? Please, don't tell me that those were Barça fans.

Pots and kettle, John, pots and kettles.

As a black person, Mr Carlin, I know that I attract attention wherever I go, some of it unwelcome. Factor in single twists that look like dreadlocks and many people wonder what I'm doing at a poetry reading session/ballet show/painting or photography exhibition/delete as appropriate. I am also used to being stared at. It happens in the UK - mainly outside London - and it has happened in Spain. In fact, when I visited Santoña, a small town in Cantabria, I got all kinds of looks. I could have set up a small stall in the market selling the same stares I got: there were some that expressed amusement, others that implied complicity, there were others that showed curiosity, but there were also a few ones that greeted me with utter hostily and contempt. And they came from Spaniards, Mr Carlin.

I am not being romantic about race and other prejudices in the UK. But to draw a comparison between British and Spanish societies using football as a weapon to demonstrate the latter's alleged superiority over the former is plain wrong. Both countries have too long a way to go for one of them to be sitting comfortable whilst laughing smugly at the other's shortcomings. Instead of doing that you could, for instance, concentrate on La Liga. Most Spaniards will tell you that it is a competition between two teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona, where eighteen others get to kick a ball every now and then. Now, that would make a very interesting article.

I mentioned earlier this year that there were two artists whose music I had heard in recent years and whom I would love to see live if I ever had the opportunity to do so. They were the Ethiopian singer Gigi and the Azerbaijani pianist Aziza Mustafa Zadeh. Well guess what? I'm off to see the latter in concert at the Cadogan Hall, 5 Sloane Square, London, SW1X 9DQ on Sunday 20th September at 7:30pm. And I've got front row free tickets to boot, courtsey of the concert promoter.

As I've written before on this space, trying to pigeonhole Aziza's music is like attempting to shoot down stars with a Remington carbine... in broad daylight. She moves easily between jazz and classical musical, and straddles both genres comfortably. Her father, Vagif, was a pianist and composer and her mother, Eliza, a classically-trained singer from Georgia. So, against this creative background, it should not be surprising that Aziza's oeuvre captivates the listener from the word go. And it's not just her piano-playing skills that entice music lovers, but also her collaborations with other performers, like maverick jazz wizard, Al Di Meola, that make Aziza's music one of those rare pleasures to enjoy amidst so much banality and predictability like Girls Aloud and JLS.

Tickets are still on sale now, the number is 020 7730 4500.

For press enquiries, please contact Ali Harestani on 020 8441 9849, 07796 211 301, or you can send an e-mail to ali@tangerineconcerts.com

In the meantime I will leave you with two clips of Aziza doing what she does best: music.

Many thanks to you, Ali, for giving me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch someone whose music crosses so many frontiers.

And if you, my dear fellow blogger, reader, follower are in London next Sunday I hope to see you at the Cadogan Hall. Many thanks.

Next Post: 'What Makes A Good Writer', the second part of a fifteen-week series into the whys and wherefores of writing and reading by the British author Zadie Smith.

Copyright 2009

Thursday 10 September 2009

A Cuban In Cantabria, Spain (Photography)

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 13th September at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 8 September 2009

What Makes a Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (1st Part)

Starting today and for the next fourteen weeks, every Tuesday until 15th December, I will be reproducing an essay written by the British author Zadie Smith for The Guardian's Saturday Review section which was first published on 13th January, 2007. Zadie has penned three novels: 'White Teeth' (turned into a successful television series), 'The Autograph Man' (my favourite book by her so far) and 'On Beauty' (her most accomplished work, according to critics, I loved it). She currently divides her time between the London's Institute of Contemporary Arts where she is a writer-in-residence and Harvard where she is furthering her studies.

I would also like to thank, once again, Ginny Hooker from the Saturday Review team for allowing me to post this thought-provoking article. You're great, Ginny, and just in case I did not make it clear in my e-mail, you deserve a payrise.

There are three reasons why I am publishing this essay now: the first one being that literature has become an intrinsic part of this blog. I review books on a professional level and share a passion for both fiction and non-fiction works with other bloggers. The second reason is that some of the people who visit my blog are writers themselves, the majority of them published authors. I believe that Zadie's musings on the art of writing will generate a healthy debate amongst my readership. The third and last reason is that I have always been attracted to writing's 'how'. The genesis of the project, the development, en bref, the process.

I am lucky to count amongst my acquaintances a Cuban cartoonist like Garrincha. He has very kindly provided the illustrations that go with each post gratis. We had already partnered up before for my 'Living In A Bilingual World' columns and I am happy to say that one of his images has ended up in a book about multilingualism. Although his blog is mostly in Spanish, his humour is universal and therefore not hard to understand. Needless to say he is available for commissions and even has his own online shop (you can visit it here). Garrincha's motto is 'Cartoonist to the End' and it is this conviction plus his quality as an illustrator that led me to ask him to complement the stimulating series to which you are about to be introduced. Please, be aware that the reproduction of images and text is absolutely forbidden and permission must be sought first before copying the content included herein and pasting it somewhere else. Without any further ado, here is the first installment of 'What Makes a Good Writer?'

The tale of Clive

I want you to think of a young man called Clive. Clive is on a familiar literary mission: he wants to write the perfect novel. Clive has a lot going for him: he's intelligent and well read he's made a study of contemporary fiction and can see clearly where his peers have gone wrong. He has read a good deal of rigorous literary theory - those elegant blueprints for novels not yet built - and is now ready to build his own unparalleled house of words. Maybe Clive even teaches novels, takes them apart and puts them back together. If writing is a craft, he has all the skills, every tool. Clive is ready. He clears out the spare room in his flat, invests in an ergonomic chair, and sits down in front of the blank possibility of the Microsoft Word program. Hovering above his desktop he sees the perfect outline of his platonic novel - all he need do is drag it from the ether into the real. He's excited. He begins.

Fast-forward three years. Somehow, despite all Clive's best efforts, the novel he has pulled into existence is not the perfect novel that floated so tantalisingly above his computer. It is, rather, a poor simulacrum, a shadow of a shadow. In the transition from the dream to the real it has shed its aura of perfection its shape is warped, unrecognisable. Something got in the way, something almost impossible to articulate. For example, when it came to fashioning the character of the corrupt Hispanic government economist, Maria Gómez, who is so vital to Clive's central theme of corruption within American identity politics, he found he needed something more than simply "the right words" or "knowledge about economists". Maria Gómez effectively proves his point about the deflated American dream, but in other, ineffable, ways she seems not quite to convince as he'd hoped. He found it hard to get into her silk blouse, her pencil skirt - even harder to get under her skin. And then, later, trying to describe her marriage, he discovered that he wanted to write cleverly and aphoristically about "Marriage" with a capital M far more than he wanted to describe Maria's particular marriage, which, thinking of his own marriage, seemed suddenly a monumentally complex task, particularly if his own wife, Karina, was going to read it. And there are a million other little examples . . . flaws that are not simply flaws of language or design, but rather flaws of . . . what? Him? This thought bothers him for a moment. And then another, far darker thought comes. Is it possible that if he were only the reader, and not the
writer, of this novel, he would think it a failure?

Clive doesn't wallow in such thoughts for long. His book gets an agent, his agent gets a publisher, his novel goes out into the world. It is well received. It turns out that Clive's book smells like literature and looks like literature and maybe even, intermittently, feels like literature, and after a while Clive himself has almost forgotten that strange feeling of untruth, of self-betrayal, that his novel first roused in him. He becomes not only a fan of his own novel, but its great defender. If a critic points out an overindulgence here, a purple passage there, well, then Clive explains this is simply what he intended. It was all to achieve a certain effect. In fact, Clive doesn't mind such criticism: nit-picking of this kind feels superficial compared to the bleak sense he first had that his novel was not only not good, but not true . No one is accusing him of so large a crime. The critics, when they criticise, speak of the paintwork and brickwork of the novel, a bad metaphor, a tedious denouement, and are confident he will fix these little mistakes next time round. As for Maria Gomez, everybody agrees that she is just as you'd imagine a corrupt Hispanic government economist in a pencil skirt to be. Clive is satisfied and vindicated. He begins work on a sequel.

Next Post: 'A Cuban In Cantabria, Spain (Photography)', to be published on Thursday 10th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Copyright 2009

Sunday 6 September 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

If the better way to get to know a big city like New York or London is in the back of a yellow taxi or black cab respectively whilst talking to the - sometimes - affable driver, then the better way to become acquainted with a little town like Isla, in the province of Cantabria, northern Spain, is by talking to the local bookshop owner. And Jesús guided me marvellously through the history and culture of this lesser known area of the Hispanic nation (by the way, why is it that I've never met someone called Jesus in an English-speaking country? Just a thought).

But it was not amongst his more than 40,000 volumes that I first came across Jesús. It was rather whilst he was fulfilling another of his many functions, that of parking attendant. On our first night in Isla, we went out for a bite and had difficulty finding a spot where to park our car. Jesús came to our rescue and pointed at a space that was available. Later I discovered that he was also the local historian and I would not have been surprised if he'd told me that he also delivered the post and did the plumbing for the entire village.

Cantabria is dream of a place. Nestled between the fiercely nationalistic Basque Country to the east and the little-visited region of Asturias to the west, this province has dramatic landscapes, superb beaches and a rich pre-Roman and Celtic culture. Against the usual sun-lounging outdoor life of the Mediterranean, Cantabria looks more conservative and reserved, yet, travellers, beware, for this is a red herring. Raucous tapas bars and cafes decorate their avenues whilst bears and wolves still roam free in the surrounding mountains. Seventy beaches embellish its coast so for the fussy visitor there's plenty to choose from.

According to the local bookshop owner, Jesús, Cantabria leans more towards loyalty to the Spanish Crown than territories like Galicia or the Basque Country. Its main industries are fishing, agriculture and cattle-rearing and you can see immediately why: greenness is everywhere and its coast is largely unspoilt.

A quick check through one of the guides that the owners of the appartment where we stayed had left for us, suggested that driving was recommended. And it is now my turn to do the same favour to anyone thinking of paying a visit to this region of Spain. Please, do hire a car and head for the mountains or the beach, you won't be disappointed. I know that that doesn't sound too eco-friendly or 10:10 but it is just an idea. Alternatively you could borrow a bike for free from the council-run cycling-programme, a brilliant initiative that I would love to see replicated in the UK, especially beyond London. Unfortunately at the moment they don't have bikes for children in Cantabria.

As I mentioned before, driving was strongly recommended and one of the reasons is the road infrastructure. Signs were most of the time accurate and helpful and the state of the motorways was excellent. In fact, there will be three special editions of 'Road Songs' based on my travels around the Cantabrian province. The other reason for getting behind the wheel is the scenery as in when we went west to Picos de Europa.

The way this geographical barrier unveils its beauty to the traveller is the same flirtatious way in which some people unmask their names to strangers in a party: letter by letter and encouraging the other person to have a guess. You know the game, although if your moniker is Jo or Sam, you're out after the second vowel/consonant. Polish names and those from the subcontinent definitely get thumbs-up, especially the former with its various consonants crowding together around each other. Picos de Europa does the same trick. Already, when you get to Unquera you see them in the distance, their peaks reaching up high, trying to tickle the sky's belly. As you enter El Desfiladero de la Hermida (Hermida's Gorge) the landscape begins to change and the temperature gets colder. Along the road the Deva river is visible most of the time and there are stops on the way up where you can rest and dip you toes in its clear waters. The end of the route is Fuente Dé, a cable car station whose name always elicits the same question from Spanish speakers: ¿De qué? The place takes its name after the first syllable of the Deva river.

Once there we decided to take a short walk (average trek lasts more than two hours and we did not have much time) nearby. We were regaled with magnificent views of the lush Cantabrian and Asturian regions.

It was at the end of this journey to Picos de Europa that the culinary highlight of my holiday happened. Stopping in Panes on the way back we had our dinner in a beautiful and family-friendly restaurant. If there is an aspect on which I always like to remark is Spaniards' passion for food. And on this occasion I had Fabada Asturiana (what else but? We were in Asturias after all). This is a thick soup of fabas (big white beans) with pieces of black pudding, bacon and chorizo thrown in. And as you have probably guessed by now that will be my first recipe for my next Food, Music column.

If Picos de Europa was worth the almost two-hour drive there and back, then the city of Castro-Urdiales was just as pleasant a place to visit. In the total opposite direction, east, this former colony of the Roman empire has pride of place in the Cantabrian heart. It is a very dynamic city whose main industry is fishing. Needless to say, the cod I had that night had been freshly caught that morning. Its medieval castle, which since 1853 has also doubled up as lighthouse, is testamente to the rich history of the region, from withstanding and later submitting to the attack by Napoleon's forces to its use as a jail during the Franco years.

This is but a snippet of my recent sojourn in Spain. Everytime I go I feel much closer to its people, its customs and its cuisine. There will be more features focusing on areas like language, photography, music and cooking. And remember, next time you go to a small town, find the local bookshop owner, pronto. By the way, I bought eight or nine titles from him, so he also turned out to be a very efficient salesman. Thanks. Ahhh... and before I forget, the music is still upbeat because even though autumn is knocking at my door, I want to make it wait a little bit outside it. It still feels like summer. Hope you enjoy the tune today.

All photos taken by the blog author.

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', the first instalment of a fifteen-part series on writing and reading by the outstanding British writer Zadie Smith. To be published on Tuesday 8th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Copyright 2009

Thursday 3 September 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About My Accent)

'Where are you from?'

It is the question that has accompanied me for almost twelve years after I relocated to London. It probably stems, I think, from the fact that I have transposed into English a bit of my Havana rapid-fire pronunciation and the chopping or obscuring of sounds at the end of words. Yet, that's not the reason why I get asked about my country of origin sometimes. It is mainly because I sound like someone else.

I have been confused with people as varied and culturally different as one can possibly imagine. On one occasion a lady called the travel agency at which I used to work and asked to speak to the 'young Irish lad who was on the phone just now'. Obviously she was connected through to D, the only Irish guy in the office. But it was not him, not, it was the other 'guy, the one with the American twang'. After a lot of enquiries on the sales-floor where even Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson were involved, the call was put through to our department, operations, and the minute I answered the phone the lady said: 'Oh, it's you, it's you I wanted to speak to!' And she booked a holiday on top. Sweet.

I have also been asked if I am from Mauritius. I could understand the query if I was speaking French before the question was formulated but since I rarely speak the Gallic language nowadays, I take it that there's a sound in my pronunciation that keeps making people think I am Francophone by birth. Ah, well, better to be confused with a sun-kissed Mauritian than a pint-sized French president who needs Cuban heels to boost his puny 5'5''.

And have I mentioned my East London accent? My drummer acquaintance R calls me 'the Cuban Cockney' because when I am in a friendly and relaxing environment I forgo all linguistic correctness and get down and dir'y with me ol' chinas. As the clock ticks by and I become more insouciant, I travel the whole gamut of accents you can find in London, from the, mainly Asian, 'blatant' to the Jamaican 'bredren'.

The different pronunciations that co-exist in the British capital fascinate me. In the same way that Germans will very often say 've' for 'we' and 'ven' for 'when' (watch Michael Ballack, Chelsea's midfielder, in one of his first interviews after joining the London team), Indians and Bangladeshis will often do the same. And I have not even factored in the regional accents one commonly finds when venturing beyond the M25. In Cumbria sheep farmers still count in the old dialect: yan, tan, tether, mether, pip (one, two, three, four, five).

Cross the ocean and USA is about to witness the unveiling of a Regional English Dictionary that has been forty-four years in the making. Time for 'whiffle-minded' (it means 'hesitating' in Maine) and 'devil-strip' (from Ohio, it means the grass border between pavement and road) to be given their own leading roles.

That's why I no longer feel self-conscious as I used to when I first arrived in the UK. At the time I brought with me a strong Boston accent, the result of many post-graduate courses taught by teachers hailing from that city in the States. With the passing of time my inflection changed from a rising intonation at the end of the sentences to a flatter and more nasal one, typical of the Cockney dialect. I began to drop my intervocalic 'Ts' and people could not Adam and Eve how swift my transition was. The apogee of this linguistic transformation came when I could comfortably switch from posh English (whilst still at the travel agency) to a more colloquial one. I knew then I had found my own stasis.

Still, it ain't 'alf bad being taking for a Queens Park Ranger sometimes, innit?

Copyright 2009

Next Post 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 6th September at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Killer Opening Songs (Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin)

Disclaimer: Please, be aware that the following post contains hard rock.

There are three famous guitar riffs that every aspirant to Jimi Hendrix's mantle vows to learn: 'Satisfaction' by The Rolling Stones, 'Smoke on the Water' by Deep Purple and ''Whole Lotta Love' by Led Zeppelin. Pedants will remark to Killer Opening Songs that there's also 'You Really Got Me' by The Kinks and 'Seven Nation Army' by White Stripes not to mention 'All Along the Watchtower' by Monsieur Hendrix, to which K.O.S. will reply, whilst shrugging his muscular shoulders: 'Bah, humbug. Maybe the last two, but not the first one. Nothing against Ray Davies and his boys, but in the scale of "phallic rock" (more about that later) melodies 'You Really...' comes up very short (pun unintended) when compared with the others'.

By the time Led Zeppelin came off stage at the Chatenay Malabry (Piston 70) in Paris on the 6th December, 1969, The Rolling Stones's free concert in Altamont had yet to start and its sad 'end of the sixties' label yet to be coined. In the meantime the Boeing 747 jumbo jet had already made its debut and the first draft lottery in the US since World War II had also taken place. It is in these circumstances that one of the better Killer Opening Songs of all times must be analysed.

Following their well-received debut album, 'Led Zeppelin', released in January 1969, the British band embarked on a series of concerts during the same year promoting material for their sophomore record. From the US to Sweden, from Denmark to Canada, Zep's bluesy, raw sound seduced thousands of youngsters and enticed a whole generation. The chemistry between Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham played a major role in the band's ascension to the pinnacle of rock'n'roll. Although, to be fair, it was the group's 'fifth' member, manager Peter Grant, who made the impossible possible: Led Zeppelin remains one of the few bands (K.O.S. cannot think of any other) that never released singles in its entire musical career in the UK, only albums. A risky strategy when one takes into account that the pop industry had just accepted the three-minute song as the standard commodity. Under Grant's tutelage, the Zep roamed the vast realm of rock music practically unchallenged and it was John Bonham's untimely death that caused the group to disband.

The album 'Led Zeppelin II' built up on the various styles on which Jimmy and the boys drew their influences. And 'Whole Lotta Love' was the perfect Killer Opening Song. Based on a Muddy Waters tune, 'You Need Love, the Zep launched into a free blues riff for the intro until we come to the 'orgasm' mid-section. Plant's voice shouting: 'Woman, you need it!' was a bleed-through from a vocal recorded previously. Page decided to stick with it and 'phallic rock' was born.

I say 'born', but 'phallic rock' (K.O.S.'s term and definition) had been around for years ever since Elvis decided to shake his hips in a manner that horrorised polite US society. After him, most rock musicians, especially guitarists and singers, adopted the same pose with a slight variation here and there: legs wide apart showing off the bulge in their tight blue jeans, hands swinging in a windmill motion à la Towshend, or thrusting their crotch onto their - sometimes mainly female - audience like Mick Jagger. But it was the handsome, blond curl-haired frontman Robert Plant, wild, guitar wizard Jimmy Page and arms-like-a-builder John Bonham who put phalllic rock on the map. I did not forget John Paul Jones. Like many bass guitarists (see John Deacon from Queen), Paul Jones made a huge contribution to the Zep yet remained in the background most of the time.

The composition of phallic rock is as follows: in an ordinary four-strong rock band, two members will align themselves at the rear or sides whilst letting a third one hog the limelight. This third member can be a guitarist or singer, or both. For that see AC/DC, U2 and Black Sabbath. The ultimate aim of this process is to induce a cathartic state in the audience, a release, a visual and auditory orgasm. Hence the mid-section of 'Whole Lotta Love' and the inclusion of a theremin combined with Plant's howling screams of sexual pleasure. When the song debuted in the charts in the States (where it was released as a single) it was cut down to 3:10 instead of the original 5:33 and that orgiastic part excised.

Phallic rock was also characterised by relentless misogyny, rampant machismo and testosterone-fuelled bravado. And The Zep were the epitome of this trend: 'soul of a woman was created below' from 'Dazed and Confused'; "Lyin', cheatin', hurtin, that's all you seem to do. Messin' around with every guy in town (...) Drive me insane, trouble is gonna come to you" from 'Your Time Is Gonna Come'; 'Hey fellas, have you heard the news? You know that Annie's back in town? It won't take long just watch and see how the fellas lay their money down' from 'Heartbreaker'. But in their defense, K.O.S. would like to point out that since so many bands from the 60s and 70s were influenced by the blues from the Deep South and this was a genre not without some controversy in its male/female relationship, bringing the subject of misogyny up feels like nit-picking, especially in the presence of such good music. When Robert Plant sang: 'Squeeze me baby, till the juice runs down my leg/The way you squeeze my lemon, I'm gonna fall right out of bed' he was probably still a virgin.

K.O.S. favourite version of 'Whole Lotta Love' can be found in the 'BBC Sessions', a live, double CD covering a 25-month period in which the Zep sound incorporated elements of jazz and blues. On this record 'Whole Lotta Love' included a blues medley halfway through with songs by Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. Jimmy played a blinder on this number and Plant showed off his vocal prowess whilst the ever hard-working John Paul Jones provided the blood for this phallic rock band to keep its musical ziggurat up. And Bonham? Still pounding those drums up there, or down there, you never know.

'Whole Lotta Love' became an anthem beyond British and US shores. In Cuba K.O.S. used to headbang to it down at El Patio de María ('Maria's Yard', reference only for those in our thirties and forties growing up in 80s Havana) and the free-form mid-section was instantly a hit with the young Cuban generation wanting to liberate themselves from the state dogma. The song has been covered by a wide variety of artists, including this version here (I love it, I use it in one of my compilations tapes when I go out jogging).

Phallic rock faded out in the 80s - although both Kasabian and Kings of Leon are trying to bring it back - when it mutated into 'poodle rock' with the likes of Poison, Bonjovi and Mötley Crüe coming on board and introducing the 30-second guitar solo that became the standard amongst many rock bands, like pseudo-rock outfit, Europe. To the question of whether any female groups ever got a slice of the phallic rock pie, the answer is yes. However, a caveat, the posture adopted by these femmes was usually in tandem with that of Jimmy and his boys, only watered down a bit. See The Bangles and Heart. It is only with female soloists, in K.O.S.'s view, that the whole musical glans/foreskin/prostate connection loses some of its power and deflates (no pun intended, K.O.S. swears). Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple, Patti Smith and Tori Amos (see her own version of 'Whole Lotta Love' here) are just a few examples of music - not just of the hard rock variety - written and performed without checking your crotch first. Unfortunately the establishment -mainly male critics - very often sees the aforementioned singers as nothing but an untamed bevy of succubi spewing out their male victims after a night of orgiastic excess. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

So, without any further ado, here's this week's 'Killer Opening Song'. And that bass hook is pretty good, too, huh?

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 3rd September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Copyright 2009


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