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

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


  1. Hello Mr C

    thank you for introducing me to Aziza, who has a voice like a musical instrument...

    Happy days

  2. Cuban:

    Loved being invited into your Sunday musings on life. (Horrified by how you and your children were treated!) Thank you so much for this introduction to Aziza. She is so unique.
    And, of course, the pairing with Bobby Mc. was enchanting. Love the pure, settled-in joy he always exudes.

  3. It is quite a shame racism is everywhere; whether in Spain or England or America-it is there. Sometimes overt, sometimes not so but it all really just needs to go away. Such a shame you had to go thru that experience with your daughter.

  4. I have had some difficulty getting to this point. Clicking to comment has been taking me back to earlier posts of yours.
    However, your account of your own experiences and comments upon the race issues are well made and apposite. I can't commend you enough for the tone and sanity of your remarks. Well done, indeed. I shall look forward with great eagerness to your upcoming post.

  5. Many thanks to you all for your kind feedback.

    Dave, you have to wait for the whole page to load up otherwise you wil be clicking on the 'Linkwithin' gadget which will, as you mentioned, take you to earlier posts.

    Let me make it clear that 99.9% of the people I came across in Spain were lovely, kind and friendly. That's why I like going back. It's a fantastic country with great people. But what I don't like is people casting stones when their own houses are made of glass. John Carlin is actually British and his section is called 'El Corner Inglés' (The English Corner). His comment was sound and nuanced, but I don't think he had to go and compare Spanish society with the British one, especially in light of what's happening with certain minorities in the Iberian nation. That's why i felt compelled to write a riposte to his article.

    Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, these are but some of the social maladies we have to deal with in today's world, that stem, in my opinion, from modern polities' insecurities and lack of confidence in how to address them.

    Many thanks to your all for you wonderful comments.

    Greetings from London.

  6. I am so fucking angry and in tears.

    I am so sorry that your children, never mind you had to be subjected to those losers who ran who could and couldn't go into a toilet.

    Oh my God, I am so frustrated. I am crying and I know that you can take it just like my husband can take it, doesn't mean you like it, but honest to God to do that with children. I seriously cannot wait to the world is rid of those people.

    If only the world was full of intelligent loving people like you, what a place it would be.

    Love to you.

    Renee xoxo

  7. so much music on your blog this week, but how do I stop the lovely Krall tune to listen to the other stuff?? have to work it out!! Glad to hear you are off to some great concerts... looking forward to hearing about them... I am fresh from seeing ruben Blades here in Df... brilliant and have tkts for both Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela plus Gloria Estefan...greetings from DF

  8. Cubano, I have witnessed the same kind of useless arguements about what country is more racist, U.S. or England? I don't know anything about "more than" or better or worse, racism is everywhere, the levels and methods of expression are what differ. I have no tolerance for people who feel no shame about targeting such hateful beliefs at children. You were very cool indeed. I think I would have exploded. The racism that was so studiously denied during the last election is now pouring out and a lot of Americans are shocked. I don't understand why. Racism never goes anywhere until its clearly addressed and centuries of denial have mired this country in a cycle of self-righteousness and finger pointing. Insecurity is part of it but it goes much deeper.
    I'm a big fan of Gigi as well. I don't belief she has been performing over the last few years. I love Aziza's and Bobby's Carmen. I had the privilege of seeing Denyce Graves in Carmen, it's definitely an opera that calls for fire and nuance.

  9. Listening to Aziza is a perfect compliment to reading your piece about race and altercations, verbal graffiti on the walls of our ears. She soothes it all away, with such purity, we can almost believe in our better selves.

  10. you said it, casting stones from a house made a glass. i listen to this with so much compassion in my heart. i couldn't believe your story with your daughter and i couldn't believe the comparison of the two teams. i am always amazed at ignorance and at my own for not realizing how systemic these prejudices are.

  11. Hi Cuban
    There will always be people who hate/fear you, simply because you are different from them and they are desperate to feel superior to somebody, anybody. My two grandsons are black, very intelligent and beautifully behaved, yet they have to work so much harder at everything than their white friends.

    I admire the even tenor of your post, I get so angry that I will lose my temper, thereby playing into the racist's hands.

    Btw, You are introducing me to music I would otherwise not get to know.

  12. There are days when certain people's behavior could drive one to dispair! Reading your stories of personal experience reminds me of the tenor of certain letters to the editor in American newspapers, from people who cannot come to terms that not only white men are born and educated to be leaders. Frightening at times.

  13. Many thanks to all of you for your kind comments.

    Catherine, there are two ways to stop the music: either click on the speaker token on the slide show or mute your computer. Sorry, I know it can be grating sometimes, I tend to do the latter.

    Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  14. That stupid, low life woman was definitely the pot in this case.

  15. You welcome MARIO
    Sorry to read about not that pleasant experience while on Holiday. I hope attending AZIZA's concert may bring a happy smile you your face.

    Many Thanks
    From London

  16. I don't think you would get looks in NY. I'm really sure of that. The world keeps going mad..ego, me me me, unbearable rudeness..Kanye West thinking the Awards ceremony was about himself, Serena Williams having a meltdown, Joe Wilson calling the President a liar..goes on..It won't spread with you, or with me!

  17. Thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  18. Cubano, I felt outraged reading of your experience with your little girl.
    The receptionist's behavior was despicable, to say the least. And, unfortunately, prejudice still exists. Thankfully, so does altruism.

    On a lighter note, I enjoyed the lovely performance of Aziza and Bobby McFarrin. Thank you for introducing them to us. And enjoy the concert.

  19. Ciao Cuban,
    il razzismo é una brutta cosa. Ma purtroppo esiste da sempre, e per questioni di errori umani esisterá credo ancora per molto tempo.
    Il razzismo per me sinceramente non é solo quello contro persone di colore o derivanza. Il razzismo puó avere molte sembianze. E a volte purtroppo non lo si avverte subito.
    Anche se si vanta un paese, un popolo, una cultura, sopra tutti gli altri, anche questo é razzismo! Appunto perché in questo modo vantando un paese, si sminuisce tutti gli altri paesi!
    Inizia spesso con fanatismo, ossessione, per passare a razzismo. Cioé quel razzismo di mettere un popolo sopra ogni altro, in qualsiasi qualitá! Questo é quel tipo di razzismo che non lo si avverte, specie quando si fá parte di quel popolo cosi lodato. Indipendentemente alla realtá!
    Ma il razzismo considriamo una cosa, noi ci viviamo dentro putroppo. Patriotismo a volte é anche una forma di razzismo sottile. Come anche nazionalismo.
    Un tema molto vasto, che riempirebbe qualsiasi spazio.
    Comunque, alla fine io detesto qualsiasi forma di razzismo. Perché razzismo per me non é altro che un sinonimo per stupiditá alla fine ;)

    Bellissimo post Cuban, come abitualmente da te!!

    Un abbraccio da Colonia,
    Salva :)

  20. Cuban, me gustó la delicadeza y mesura con que expresas un sentimiento de rabia e impotencia (sobre el encuentro en Picos de Europa). Curiosamente, hay tantos lugares (cualquier lugar del mundo, diría) en los que la gente cree que su forma de ser o de pensar es la mejor, sin cuestionarse, ni mirar hacia dentro para ver la humanidad compartida. Ojalá podamos construir un mundo alterno en el que no rechazamos la diferencia, sino celebramos lo que tenemos en común...

    un saludo desde California

  21. Cubano, como española que vive en Inglaterra, esto me ha llegado. Que pena que tuvieras esa experiencia en España, pero me alegra ver que sabes tambien que no todos mis compatriotas son iguales.
    Respecto al articulo, totalmente ridiculo comparar un pais con otro, mucho menos relacionarlo con el futbol. Pero me temo que el señor consiguio llamar la atencion hacia su columna que probablemente es lo que queria.
    Espero que te gustara el concierto!

  22. Love to you dear friend.


  23. B, voy a seguir yendo a Espanna porque es una tierra majisima (para usar una de tus expresiones :-D) y prque la gente es linda, sencillamente linda.

    Renee, you're more than welcome.

    Greetings from London.



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