Thursday 29 October 2009

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (Review)

In the opening paragraph of 'The Mystery of Marie Rogêt', Edgar Allan Poe writes: 'There are few persons even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrillingly half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly marvellous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them. Such sentiments - for the half-credences of which I speak have never the full force of thought - such sentiments are seldom thoroughly stifled unless by reference to the doctrine of chance, or, as it is technically termed, the Calculus of Probabilities. Now this Calculus is, in its essence, purely mathematical; and thus we have the anomaly of the most rigidly exact in science applied to the shadow and spirituality of the most intangible speculation'.

Of course, Poe was chiefly referring to the phenomenon that Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, the mastermind behind the solutions to puzzles such as The Murders of the The Rue Morgue, scrutinised, analysed and broke down into pieces. But coincidences, if well used, can be and are the backbone of many great novels.

In 'The Night Watch', for instance, Sarah Water tells the story of four characters who are linked to one another by their experiences in wartime London. The way she weaves their personal stories together reminded me of Poe's words, only that in this instance this happenstance is more cause-and-effect than random, as there is a war going on and naturally people gravitate to wherever safety beckons.

'The Night Watch' is an interesting novel in that it uses reverse chronology. It travels from 1947 (first chapter) back through the heavy bombardments of 1944 (second part) to the end-of-the-world atmosphere of 1941 (final episode). Thus we meet the characters through the consequences of their actions, and journey back to what caused them.

The book opens with Kay, one of the main characters, being observed by Duncan - another leading personage - and the latter thinking her a left-over from the global conflict that has just finished. It is chiefly Kay's man's clothes and alertness that lead him to see her in this light. But it's not just Duncan who has this opinion of Kay; passersby, too, jeer at her appearance. Unfortunately they cannot read her thoughts, nor realise that it was during the war that her finest hour had come. Driving an ambulance through bombed-out streets, Kay became alive; she got to write the script of her own novel. Now, all she has left in her life are lonely walks through the very same streets whose devastation she witnessed first-hand and cinemas which she often enters halfway through the film.

The other two main characters that make up the leading quartet are Viv and Helen. The former is Duncan's devoted sister and the latter Kay's former girlfriend's lover. Viv is having an affair with a married man, Reggie, whilst Helen feels anxious about her own relationship with Julia, Kay's ex.

Waters's chaotic narrative is an excellent vehicle through which to witness the sense of dislocation of both the leading and supporting dramatis personae. Through Duncan we are introduced to Mr Mundy, an enigmatic 'uncle', who turns out to be a former warden in the prison where Duncan served time for his role in another man's death. Each incident, no matter how minute, is turned into a piece of the gigantic jigsaw puzzle Sarah has made for the reader. At times, 'The Night Watch' reads like a mystery novel; revelation after revelation lets us know how each character's frame of mind came to be.

It would be simplistic to call this book a gay novel, although the narrative centres around the Kay/Julia/Helen emotional hodgepodge. And Duncan's sexuality is also remarked upon. But 'The Night Watch' goes beyond sexual orientation. It is about class - Fraser, the posh man vs Duncan, the working-class one -, friendship (Mickey and Kay driving an ambulance through war-torn London) and above all about moral attitudes. Viv's abortion scene is harrowing; the secrecy surrounding it all the more unbearable to read when one takes into consideration that in 1947, in the UK, a woman interrupting her own pregnancy ran the risk of being prosecuted. Helen's desire to hold Julia's hand in a park and the latter's reluctance and fear to display any kind of feelings towards her girlfriend, shows how far the gay community has come since the Sexual Offenses Act was amended in the 60s and homosexuality decriminalised.

It felt somewhat strange, at least for me, to read a novel that is preceded by three others I have not read yet. It is almost like arriving at a dinner party as the dessert is being served. But Sarah Waters is a compelling writer. Passages like the following one (Duncan and Fraser in prison after another night air raid has finished and the latter winds up in the former's bed) render the novel its humane and affectionate nature: 'They moved closer together, not further apart. Duncan put up his arm and Fraser raised himself so that the arm could go beneath his head. They settled back into an embrace - as if it were nothing, as if it were easy; as if it weren't two boys, in a prison, in a city being blown and shot to bits; as if it were the most natural thing in the world.'

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 1st November at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 27 October 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (8th Part)

And so, free from duties, can writers, then, write great novels? Zadie Smith, again posing difficult questions. For parts 1-7, click here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

We refuse to be each other

A great novel is the intimation of a metaphysical event you can never know, no matter how long you live, no matter how many people you love: the experience of the world through a consciousness other than your own. And I don't care if that consciousness chooses to spend its time in drawing rooms or in internet networks, I don't care if it uses a corner of a Dorito as its hero, or the charming eldest daughter of a bourgeois family I don't care if it refuses to use the letter 'e' or crosses five continents and two thousand pages.

What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives. And the great joy of fiction is the variety of this process: Austen's prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton's. The dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher.A great piece of fiction can demand that you acknowledge the reality of its wildest proposition, no matter how alien it may be to you. It can also force you to concede the radical otherness lurking within things that appear most familiar. This is why the talented reader understands George Saunders to be as much a realist as Tolstoy, Henry James as much an experimentalist as George Perec.

Great styles represent the interface of "world" and "I", and the very notion of such an interface being different in kind and quality from your own is where the power of fiction resides.Writers fail us when that interface is tailored to our needs, when it panders to the generalities of its day, when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on the television. Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry- we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing - great writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighbourhood, the world has turned Chekhovian: the waitress in the cafe offers a non- sequitur, a dog dances in the street.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (Review)', to be published on Thursday 29th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 25 October 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." G. K. Chesterton

One of the many misconceptions people have about Cubans living abroad is the political views we hold once we settle in a foreign land. After all, having been born and raised – as in my case – under a totalitarian regime, our default position should be ideally in favour of small government, individuality over collectiveness and little financial regulation. In short, laissez-faire, Latin-style.

What a surprise it is then for some of my British and non-British acquaintances when they find out that there are many Cubans currently living in the UK who could be considered to be moderately centre-of-left, or even leftwing (I know a couple of them) and the way they have come to adopting these positions is not through imposition but through choice. What is also less known is that once this political cat’s out of the bag, the consequences are somewhat dangerous.

The main hazard is that the only reference most westerners have of Cubans abroad is that of the exiles in Miami. This is the blueprint that has been passed down for decades. However, generational confrontations in recent years have shown that even this species is facing extinction, as we know it. Right now there’s a large group of younger Cubans, born and bred in Florida and other cities and states of the US who want an immediate stop to the embargo imposed on the Caribbean nation almost four decades ago. This third generation of Cubans (or Cuban-Americans as they style themselves sometimes) want to have the opportunity to walk the streets and sit in the parks their grandparents and parents walked and sat in decades before. And they are doing their utmost to urge the Obama administration to open up the gates, whilst at the same time attempting to talk their own folks and grandparents into changing their mindset in relation to the Cuban government.

So, it should not be surprising that some of us choose to move away from this mêlée taking place in the Sunshine State and opt for more viable, democratic and less partisan positions abroad, as it happened to me, once I got over the shock that beans on toast was the staple of the British diet. Besides, with so many political parties, an august – albeit deeply flawed if the current situation is anything to go by – parliament and a judiciary that still applies the law effectively, I personally felt that involvement in politics was less daunting over here than in my country of origin.

And yet a brief look at the political spectrum in the UK nowadays would put that view to shame. Whereas the roles of the three main political parties were better defined, or at least better shaped, when I arrived in London in 1997, it is harder now to tell them apart. And this puts a voter like me, interested in social issues, in limbo. Policies on matters such as: the minimum wage, small/medium enterprises and their role in the economy, minorities’ rights and the rich/poor divide have been part of my everyday work for the last six years and my approach to them has usually been from a liberal point of view. I would like to keep – and increase eventually - the minimum wage that the Labour government brought in straight after they came to power, I favour low taxation on small and medium businesses (and the incentive to create more social enterprises), I lean towards granting more rights to minority group such as: women, gays, blacks, disabled, amongst others - although the fact that women make up roughly half the labour force in Britain contradicts that 'minority' role. And I would like higher taxes to be levied on the rich and using that surplus to level the playing field in employability and job creation for those in pecuniary difficulties. But you would be hard pressed to find a political party whose policies address these issues in a cogent and coherent manner. Labour’s recent conference was all about damage limitation. And their proposed centralisation won’t do. Not whilst the Iraq issue still hangs over the party’s head like the famous sword of Damocles. Not, whilst MPs continue to moan about the money they are being asked to give back. And above all, not, now that the Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, has been allowed back into government: thrown out of parliament twice, bounced back the same number of times.

The Tories, on the other hand, are the party-elect. Theirs is the next general election to lose. Cameron’s suave character has won him many new advocates. But when it comes to walking the talk, his box of magic tricks is empty. His plans to cut spending are too simplistic, to put it mildly, and they risk alienating the same voters who will be rooting for him come May or June 2010. Plus, last time I checked, Cameron was trying to market his party as the ‘compassionate’ option. Fat chance if the likes of Michael Gove have their way once they are in power. Gove recently outraged the dance world when he said that by encouraging young people to take ‘soft subjects, such as A Level Dance, we are damaging their future chances of being accepted at university (Dance UK News, Issue 74, Winter 2009). And did I mention his proposal to recruit ex-army personnel and involve them in the running of schools? Will they distribute berets to students, too, I wonder?

So, Labour on one hand is target-obsessed whilst the Tories on the other hand are happy to let the economy set sail onto unknown waters. What’s a person, who insists on exercising his democratic right to vote, to do? You’ve probably noticed that I did not include the Liberal Democrats. Well, parliamentary fence-sitters have never struck a strong chord with me. And the Greens are a single-issue party.

That's why I have slowly been changing my mind over the last few years and begun to think that maybe, just maybe, this is a sign of our modern political times. Form over content, presentation over substance. Focus groups and marketing strategies in lieu de the great idea. Gone are the days when the combined efforts of Attlee and Bevan gave the UK its rightly cherished NHS. And love it or loathe it, Thatcher's free market approach was fresh at a time when the Keynesian method of the Callaghan government had apparently failed. This blurring of political lines nowadays and the absence of 'The Bold Concept' has turned Westminster into a place for thinktanks to get together as opposed to being the seat of the British government. Suddenly there's no red (Labour) or blue (Tories) anymore. We're all magenta now.

And it is a similar fate that has befallen the Cuban community abroad. No longer are the lines divided between those who hate Castro and those who feel sympathetic to his regime. In Miami, a city I have never visited but where I have a few acquaintances, the climate has been transformed drastically. This third generation of Cubans who are now in their early-to-mid twenties want less of the confrontational language that permeated earlier Cuban immigrants' mindset and a healthier approach to the island. All of a sudden it's OK to say that one is liberal, centre-of-left, or even leftwing, without being called a Chavez stooge of an apologist for Evo Morales's government.

But whereas the Cuban diaspora has benefited greatly from this panoply of political attitudes, the upshot of the absence of clear, audacious and defined social and economic policies in the British parliament is to risk losing voters. And we all know what happens when you lose voters, don't we? C'mon, guys, be brave, give us that Big Idea, we know you have it.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?' to be published on Tuesday 27th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 22 October 2009

Killer Opening Songs (Crucify by Tori Amos)

For decades now the guitar has come to symbolise the ultimate power in rock and pop, especially in the former. Other instruments have accepted this fate imposed upon them by the almighty six-string musical seducer. But there remains one that has refused to bow its head: the equally commanding piano. And there are so many good examples of artists using the ivories to express their feelings: self-appointed King Arthur's court musician Rick Wakeman from Yes, the Argentinian rocker Fito Páez, the late, unbelievable Nina Simone. All these performers have brought, or brought, as in the case of Nina, an extraordinary level of deftness and mastery to an instrument whose origins were rooted mainly in classical music.

And to this list Killer Opening Songs would like to add the name Tori Amos. For almost twenty years now, this American singer has prowled the mainly male-dominated medium of rock and pop. From the very beginning Tori defied conventions: she avoided early 90s genres such as techno and grunge, her piano-based compositions travelled the diapason of her own troubled religious upbringing and she distanced herself from the Joni Mitchell/Kate Bush dyad.

Tonight K.O.S. is pleased to bring 'Crucify', the opening track of her debut album 'Little Earthquakes'. A very emotive song that touched upon issues like God, self-doubt and victimhood, 'Crucify' set the tone for Tori's singing style. Here's a performer whose voice accordions across low and high notes, never letting up or abating. Let's not forget that it was around those years, '92-'93 that the Mariah Careys and Whitney Houstons claimed their stake in pop's Mount Olympus, leaving as their legacy that yodelling competition they call nowadays 'X Factor' or 'American Idol'. All the more to admire Tori's uncompromising body of work.

But if the voice was exceptional the lyrics were mind-blowing. In passages like 'I've been looking for a savior in these dirty streets/looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets/I've been raising up my hands/Drive another nail in/Just what God needs/One more victim' Tori raises a very important issue: that of victimhood and how to react to it. K.O.S. is of the opinion that some people enjoy suffering and not from a masochistic point of view, but rather from a consciously powerlessness perspective. They enjoy the attention that misery brings and occasionally make a nice living out of that. However in Tori's hands 'Crucify' becomes a parody of adversity: 'Got a kick for a dog/Beggin' for Love/I gotta have my suffering/So that I can have my cross'. The dark humour certainly runs underneath the placid surface of this Killer Opening Song.

All in all, Tori Amos has recorded ten albums, with her latest coming out this autumn. Strong evidence of her quality as an artist and her skills as a pianist. Besides, without Tori we wouldn't have Fiona Apple, would we? Just joking. Enjoy.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' , to be published on Sunday 25th October at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 20 October 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (7th Part)

What are a writer's responsabilities, if any? That's Zadie Smith's question this week. For parts 1-6, click here, here, here, here, here and here.

Do writers have duties?

All this talk of authenticity, of betrayal, presupposes a duty - an obligation that the writers and readers of literature are under. It is deeply unfashionable to conceive of such a thing as a literary duty what that might be, how we might fail to fulfil it. Duty is not a very literary term. These days, when we do speak of literary duties, we mean it from the reader's perspective, as a consumer of literature. We are really speaking of consumer rights. By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so, and this duty has various subsets: the duty to be clear to be interesting and intelligent but never wilfully obscure to write with the average reader in mind to be in good taste. Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule. Novels that submit to a shared vision of entertainment, with characters that speak the recognisable dialogue of the sitcom, with plots that take us down familiar roads and back home again, will always be welcomed. This is not a good time, in literature, to be a curio. Readers seem to wish to be "represented", as they are at the ballot box, and to do this, fiction needs to be general, not particular. In the contemporary fiction market a writer must entertain and be recognisable - anything less is seen as a failure and a rejection of readers.

Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure - but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about. For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world. If that sounds woolly and imprecise, I apologise.

Writing is not a science, and I am speaking to you in the only terms I have to describe what it is I persistently aim for (yet fail to achieve) when I sit in front of my computer. When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment - once you have removed all that warped experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in - what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel: one person's truth as far as it can be rendered through language. This single duty, properly pursued, produces complicated, various results. It's certainly not a call to arms for the autobiographer, although some writers will always mistake the readerly desire for personal truth as their cue to write a treatise or a speech or a thinly disguised memoir in which they themselves are the hero. Fictional truth is a question of perspective, not autobiography. It is what you can't help tell if you write well, it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. It is language as the revelation of a consciousness.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs' to be published on Thursday 22nd October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 18 October 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Me: Forgive me Father for I have sinned.
God (appearing from behind): Really? What have you done?
Me: Ahhhh! Core blimey, mate, you scared the beejesus out of me? What are you doing here?
God: I thought you wanted to have the real McCoy.
Me: I... erm... I... erm... yes... I think that... it's OK, well, since you're here, yes, of course, I mean, you're the top guy, aren't you? You're Herr Commander, you're the one who calls the shots, so if I'm going to confess my sins, better to do it to you than to some perv...
God: Oi, stop it! Nothing's been proved yet. Anyway, what's the problem?
Me: Pumps.
God: Pumps?
Me: Yes, pumps.
God: As in water pumps?
Me: No, those are important. They cause the water to circulate in a car's cooling system.
God: OK, I see, as in ballet pumps, then?
Me: If only! No, pumps, as in those hideous, grotesque, appalling, detestable, horrendous, ghastly, garish, macabre, monstrous...
God: Stop, stop! You're going to wear out the Thesaurus.
Me: Sorry, I just got carried away for a second. But, I can't help it, everytime I see those lightweight, low-cut shoes for women, I... I... I am overcome by an insane desire to destroy them. To crush them.
God: Hmmm... I see. And have you done any crushing lately?
Me: Why do you think I am in this 6-by-8-feet cell?
God: Because you went insane.
Me: You're a clever God. But to be honest with you, now that I look at it retrospectively, what I did was... more than that. I committed murder.
God: Murder?
Me: Against a poor pump. Let me explain the genesis of my condition. To me pumps are perverse. They are objects without a reason. A pair of sandals, for instance, can be worn in summer, or in autumn, with socks on like most male denizens of this country do. Leather boots render female legs elegant and stylish. Converse trainers highlight shapely and well-toned calf muscles. Pumps do nothing of this. They exist for no comprehensible motive. They are the antithesis of footwear. If we attempted to explain their presence amongst us, we would have to apply a dose of metaphysics. Their configuration invites phrenological theories. Their cantankerous nature runs counter to our raison d'être. They have every intention to displease.
God: And that's why you committed your hideous deed?
Me: What overcame me at that moment I can only call it pure lucidity. There I was, in the South Bank, the river on one side, the music on the other. I was shaking my head side to side to the rhythm of the band on stage, completely immersed in sound and beat when I happened to cast my eyes in the direction of a young woman sitting with her boyfriend on the wall. There was nothing abnormal in her countenance, she looked happy. She was clapping and moving her shoulders in unison with the music. Then I looked down to her feet. And there it was, the cause of my misery, bane of my life, the scourge of scourges. A hateful pump was dangling from her dainty foot, a monstrous slip-on. The way it swung from side to side made it look as if it was tracing semicircles of ghastly smiles in the air. I stood there watching it for what seemed an eternity and slowly approached the object of my obsession. Yes, obsession, I know I am obsessed, but isn't obsession part of our human nature? I advanced steadily with my eyes fixed upon her shoe until...
God: Until...
Me: Until I snatched it off her foot. I ran. I ran with all my might. I ran eastwards. The people I ran past kept wondering if I intended to become the new Usain Bolt to which my reply was 'He hasn't got anything on me now'. I ran down the Thames Path, I ran past the London Television Centre. I sprinted past the Shakespeare Globe Theatre. HMS Belfast Southwark Crown Court appeared in front of my eyes like a grim foreboding. But I did not stop. I continued to run, and when my legs gave up, I stood on my hands and carried on. I was finally caught in Deptford. I had fallen, the result of trying to pick my nose whilst attempting to maintain my pace. Everyone thought I was a fetishist until they saw what I had done to the pump.
God: What did you do to it?
Me: You know those pictures they show in ads about dieting, the 'before' and 'after'? Well, let's just say that the pump looked like the 'after' but with the repulsiveness of the 'before'. The mob wanted to lynch me there and then. I can still hear their cries, even now, in this cold cell. I sometimes think I am dreaming.
God: Maybe you are. Perhaps you could get some sleep.
Me: I can't. I keep getting visions of Kanye West turning up and telling me: 'Yo, man, listen, it's cool to dream and all that but I just wanted to tell you, right, that MARTIN LUTHER KING, LIKE, HE HAD THE BEST DREAM OF ALL, you know'. I wake up in a cold sweat and then I look at the bars. It's real.
God: And that's why you're looking for help from the divine.
Me: To be honest with you, you're my last resort. And I never thought I would have to appeal to your support. You see, I'm an atheist.
God: You are what? Oh, no, not another one! Oh, bloody hell! Why, oh, why, does this have to happen to me? Nobody respects God anymore! The other day I had another case, Richard Deakins.
Me: You mean, Dawkins.
God: Yes, that's the one. He was desperately asking for help. Plugging a new book called 'The Atheist's Guide to Christmas', edited by a friend of his, Ariane Sherine. The guy was a total wreck: 'Oh, God, help me, please, make sure that we come on top of Dan Brown's latest yarn.'
Me: So, what did you do?
God: I turned up, as I did to you today and told him to phone my office. He just doesn't know the surprise I have in store for him.
Me: What is it?
God: Well, I got me a new telephone system. You know the type, press one for new converts, press two for the new edition of The Bible, press three if you're a victim of fraud (I'm not based in Nigeria), press four for media enquiries, the list goes on to two hundred and eighty-four options. Hold on the line if you want to be connected to an operator. I forgot to mention that each option branches out into ten more. Richard will go barmy.
Me: And the operator, who is it? St Peter?
God: No, Beelzebub.
Me: ???
God: Don't look at me like that. Look, the guy has fallen in hard times. He was ousted.
Me: Ousted?
God: Yup. Evicted from his own lair. It all happened a year ago when the economic crisis started. So many bankers and City people out of their jobs. Suicides went up by 200%.
Me: I see.
God: They were polite at first when they arrived at Beelzebub's residence. But soon, they began to trade in the flies' stock market. You can imagine the rest.
Me: The market fell.
God: Hit rock bottom. You should have seen the poor guy. He came up to me, his eyes swollen up from all the crying. I had to give him the job. So, he womans the phones every now and then and also doubles up as a tutor at our call centre in India.
Me: Womans the phone? That's a funny phrase!
God: Well, things are not good up there either, my friend. We're also being crunched by the credit situation. I had to amend some of the language in my documents in order to access government funding. Now all is in line with the latest equal opportunities policies.
Me: Well, are you planning to change any of the language in the Holy Book, then? After all, Eve...
God: Shhhh... Don't let the auditors hear you. That's why I'm bringing out a new Christmas edition this year. You know, a clean slate and all that jazz. Anyway, back to you, what are we going to do about you now?
Me: I don't know, I am the unluckiest person in the world.
God: You are what? Hellooooo? Welcome to the real world. I have been carrying the 'bad father' label for many centuries now.
Me: Oh, sorry, I forgot.
God: And all because I left my son alone playing with nails. How was I to know? After all, he was thirty-three. True, he had just moved back in with me. But then again, most Italian men live with their mothers well into their thirties and no one bats an eyelid. Just because he had problems at uni doesn't mean that the kid should not have had a second chance.
Me: Yes, it was that lecturer, wasn't it?
God: Pontius. My son used to muck about in his Pilates class. Well, what do you expect? It wasn't a compulsory subject and the kid just wanted to go out and mingle with people.
Me: Not fair.
God: No, not fair. But that's life, I am a bad father and the other twelve roommates my son boarded with are living la dolce vita. As for you, I think I have a solution.
Me: Really?
God: Yes, Beelzebub happens to have a contact in the legal world. Not from this new batch, though, from the old guard. They go back years and years: Nixon, Reagangate, Clinton/Lewinsky, the guy's been there, done it and bought the blue dress with the stain on it as a memento. Anyway, he owes Beelzebub a couple of favours. So we might be able to do something for you.
Me: Oh, thanks God, many thanks. How can I repay you?
God: Well, some voluntary work in one of the mosques where I temp during the week...
Me: Mosque? But I thought that you were...
God: What? That I was what? Times are hard, mate, I already told you. I have to multitask, they call it 'wearing different hats' in public sector speak. I am also available for bar mitzvahs, by the way.
Me: The voluntary work's fine with me, then.
God: OK, now, how do I get out of here?
Me: I thought you knew, you're God, the omnipresent being, the...
God: Yes, yes, don't remind me who I am. But I forgot my pin number.
Me: Well, there's the door and there's the window and they 're both locked.
God: All right, I guess I will have to lie down here with you.
Me: Will we fit?
God: You seem to forget that I am God and fully malleable.
Me: Yes, you're right. Hurry up, then, lights will go out any minute.

Note: The blog author would like to reassure readers that no deity was harmed during the making of this post. Many thanks.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer' by the British author Zadie Smith, to be published on Tuesday 20th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 15 October 2009

Nowhere In Africa (Review)

For the seasoned biography-reader, the name Stefanie Zweig might at first make him or her do a double take. After all, it is not everyday that we come across with monikers resembling that of the famous Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, who penned, amongst others, important works such as the following texts: 'Joseph Fouché', 'Mary Stuart' and 'Conqueror of the Seas: The Story of Magellan'.

However, it is with the German-Jewish writer Stefanie Zweig's memoir 'Nowhere in Africa' with which we are dealing in this post. This book served as the basis for the 2001 film of the same name.

'Nowhere in Africa' (in German 'Nirgendwo in Afrika') details the travails of the Redlich family as they flee Nazi persecution in their native Silesia only to end up in the middle of the Kenyan countryside. The movie explores the problems they face in adapting to a foreign land, especially Frau Jettel, whilst at the same time looking at the last world conflagration from a different angle.

Whereas most flicks about World War II focus on Europe, the Nazi occupation and the concentration camps, 'Nowhere In Africa' concentrates on the refugee's mindset. And it is an interesting perspective indeed. Walter, the father and a former lawyer, adopts his newfound farmer's role compliantly. His wife, Jettel, hates the locals, loathes the conditions in which they live and pines for her old life. Their daughter, Regina, quickly makes friends with some of the Kenyan kids and adjusts to the new situation. In the midst of all this ordeal, it should not come as a surprise that Walter and Jettel's marriage begins to deteriorate.

When war breaks out the Redlich family is forced to go to a detention camp where men and women are kept separate. Jettel sleeps with a German-speaking British officer to ensure that her family has both a home and work to go back to. Unfortunately her daughter Regina and Walter find out. Once outside their enclosure, Mr Redlich joins the British army, whilst Regina is sent to a boarding school. Jettel stays behind to run the farm. During this time, an old German friend of Walter's, Süsskind, frequents his house, thus planting the idea in the former's head that his wife is having an affair with Süsskind. When the war ends one of the options is to return to Germany, however the couple struggle to come up with a decision. Jettel has finally fallen in love with the country she used to abhor, as well as enjoying the result of her labour. Walter has the opportunity to become a judge in the new Germany.

'Nowhere in Africa' is a film full of symbolisms. From the expansive, open sea the Redlich family crosses to get to Nairobi, to the dry plains in their African surroundings, these tokens suggest freedom and captivity, resolution and impasse. All the characters, from the astute Süsskind to the loyal Owuor, are nuanced, rounded and believable. One of the most poignant moments in the movie for me was when a plague of locusts attack the fields which Jettel and the other farmers have been tending to. We see her first feeling downtrodden and tearful when the swarm becomes too difficult to handle, then we hear the banging on pots and pans by the locals to scare away the insects and see Jettel joining in. Finally, when the pestilence is pushed away we see her face beaming with joy. It's as if at that moment Jettel has had an epiphany that runs along the lines of: 'I belong here, this is home!'.

'Nowhere in Africa' is one of the most sincere tributes to the human disaster caused by the Second World War I have seen in a long time. I strongly recommend it.

I would like to thank both Polly from Sotto Voce and Willow from Life at Willow Manor for reviewing this film on their respective blogs. Without their input it would have probably taken me ages to rent this movie, lazy sod that I can be sometimes. Ta muchly.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 18th October at 10:00am (GMT)

Tuesday 13 October 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (6th Part)

This time Zadie Smith's question is whether we should follow the norm or rebel against it. For parts 1-5, click here, here, here, here and here.

Writing as inauthenticity

Here is another novelist, in another email, answering the question: "How would you define literary failure?"

"I was once asked by a high-school student in an audience in Chennai: 'Why, sir, are you so eager to please?' That's how I tend to define failure - work done for what Heidegger called "Das Mann", the indeterminate "They" who hang over your shoulder, warping your sense of judgment what he (not me) would call your authenticity."

That novelist, like me, I suppose like all of us who came of age under postmodernity, is naturally sceptical of the concept of authenticity, especially what is called "cultural authenticity" - after all, how can any of us be more or less authentic than we are? We were taught that authenticity was meaningless. How, then, to deal with the fact that when we account for our failings, as writers, the feeling that is strongest is a betrayal of one's deepest, authentic self?

That sounds very grand: maybe it's better to start at the simplest denomination of literary betrayal, the critic's favourite, the cliche. What is a cliche except language passed down by Das Mann, used and shop-soiled by so many before you, and in no way the correct jumble of language for the intimate part of your vision you meant to express? With a cliche you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth.

When writers admit to failures they like to admit to the smallest ones - for example, in each of my novels somebody "rummages in their purse" for something because I was too lazy and thoughtless and unawake to separate "purse" from its old, persistent friend "rummage". To rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence - a small enough betrayal of self, but a betrayal all the same. To speak personally, the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life. But it is easy to admit that a sentence makes you wince less easy to confront the fact that for many writers there will be paragraphs, whole characters, whole books through which one sleepwalks and for which "inauthentic" is truly the correct term.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Nowhere in Africa' (Review) to be published on Thursday 15th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 11 October 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Hubert Joanneton (journalist of the French magazine Radio Je Vois Tout): Violeta, you're a poet, composer, upholsterer and painter. If you had to choose one medium, which one would you select?
Violeta Parra: I'd rather keep the people.

Today's column was written some weeks ago. Then last Monday I learned of the death of the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa and a little part of me died that day, too. I felt, right there and then, compelled to modify the content of today's post and turn it, maybe, into a tribute to someone whose heartfelt performances made hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Ibero-Latin people like me feel proud of our rich heritage.

However, I have left most of the original material intact because the topic today is also linked to the art form to which Mercedes Sosa dedicated her life during a singing career that spanned more than five decades: the poet as singer.

It was during my adolescent years in Havana when I finally got the opportunity to choose the music I wanted to listen to - within the narrow confines of the Cuban society of the mid 80s and our government's prohibitions - and the first genre I embraced wholeheartedly was rock and roll. Bluesy, earthquaking, musical notes, became the be-all and end-all of my life's soundtrack. To say that I fell for rock's cliches and platitudes would be stating the bleeding obvious (Twisted Sister anyone? How about Quiet Riot?). But after a childhood where most of the music blaring out of the Made-in-the-USSR Selena radio we had in my house was traditional Cuban rhythms, I craved for a different experience.

During these years I turned my back on anything that had too deep a message and too flimsy a melody. Grand bass hooks, never-ending guitar solos and ear-piercing vocals were all the rage amongst my peers and I am not ashamed to admit that for some years the reigning sound in my life was that of a Fender Stratocaster.

That changed when I reached year 12 in college (high school in the US). One of my mates took me to see Arturo Sandoval at the Havana International Jazz Festival. I tagged along reluctantly and to this day I still remember getting butterflies in my stomach when the famed trumpeter appeared on stage and let rip. He was being supported by Irakere, a famous Cuban band, and they both awakened a strong desire in me to explore this genre further. Jazz is such a liberating and liberated music form that I am still amazed it took me so long to like it and accept it.

What came afterwards when I began university was the result of learning a foreign language in depth - English - and growing older and therefore looking at music from another perspective.

Whereas until then I had paid more attention to rhythm than lyrics, once I had begun to delve into the intricacies of English as a lexicon, I came across the poet as a singer, or a better way of putting it would be a singer who is a poet first and foremost, albeit with a good musical voice. An unexpected addendum was that this process allowed me to re-discover musical gems in my own native tongue. Enter Joaquín Sabina, Leonard Cohen and Joan Manuel Serrat. Enter also Patti Smith.

I was already familiar with the poet-as-a-singer genre. After all, the best example we have in Cuba is Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez, whose compositions feed on the writer's poetic and visually artistic nature. I was familiar, too, with Bob Dylan's songbook, but saw him above all as a performer. And as for the Catalán Serrat, the only tunes that appealed to me when I was younger were his immortal 'Penélope' and 'Mediterráneo'. The rest sounded strange to my teenage ears.

But when in 1991 Cuban television showed a very young Christian Slater playing an independent and rebellious pirate radio station DJ in the film 'Pump Up the Volume' I knew my very own 'Road to Damascus' moment had arrived. The opening track of that film was Leonard Cohen's 'Everybody Knows' and it was these two stanzas that brought the volte face in my life I have so far described: Everybody knows that the boat is leaking/Everybody knows that the captain lied/Everybody got this broken feeling/Like their father or their dog just died(...)Everybody knows that you love me baby/Everybody knows that you really do/Everybody knows that youve been faithful/Ah give or take a night or two/Everybody knows youve been discreet/But there were so many people you just had to meet/Without your clothes/And everybody knows

The softness with which the above lines were delivered, in that peculiarly husky voice Leonard had, made one forget for a minute that he was actually referring to someone who'd just cheated on him. Sublime.

From then on, my musical tastes widened up to include new poets-as-singers - Sabina, Tom Waits - and those to whom my younger years had never given a second chance, i.e., Serrat.

The history of these men and women who put pen to paper to create verses that could or would then be musicalised can be traced back to the ancient troubadours in Europe or griots in west Africa. These were poets (and story-tellers, too, but that's another post) who went after the tales that made up the bulk of their material. They were the purveyors of our folk heritage, never mind in which part of the world you found yourself. They were also the main motif for the appearance of a subgenre: the singer-as-a-poet. Joni Mitchell, please come out from behind that sofa. And you don't need any introduction, Baaba Maal.

And this is where the great Mercedes Sosa comes into the picture. She was the crown jewel of what Dante Alighieri called the fictio rethorica musicaque poita: rhetorical, musical, and poetical fiction. Evidence of that is the song that made her a household name in Iberoamerica, Gracias a la Vida (Thanks to Life). This melody had already been popularised by its author, poet-as-singer Violeta Parra. And yet, when you hear it in Mercedes's rich, alto voice, the emotional range through which it takes you makes you connect deeper with the lyrics: Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto/Me ha dado el sonido y el abecedario/Con él las palabras que pienso y declaro/Madre, amigo, hermano, y luz alumbrando/La ruta del alma del que estoy amando. (sorry, no translation)

Mercedes was not a poet (can I still write 'poetess' in English without any fear of being prosecuted?) and some people might even consider her to be an unnecessarily intrusive element between the poet-as-singer and his/her song. She wasn't a composer either, as far as I know. However, each melody she sang, every song she performed, she made it hers, both through her imposing stage persona and her prodigious voice. And to me that is enough proof, if any was needed, of poetry and the power of it. Here she is, performing one of her most famous numbers, Como la Cigarra (Like the Cicada), originally a poem by the Argentinian writer María Elena Walsh (I'm extremely sorry that I coud not find a good translation on youtube, I hope you can still enjoy it). Thanks.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer' by Zadie Smith, to be published on Tuesday 13th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 8 October 2009

National Poetry Day in the UK

It was National Poetry Day today in the UK and I've waited until - almost - the midnight hour to post my contribution to this nationwide celebration. Regular readers of this blog know that I don't need any excuse to upload poems. Poetry in my view is the subversion of prose and therefore the overthrow of what could otherwise be a lineal narrative. And the three works I present to you tonight bear witnesses to that statement.

Sujata Bhatt was born in India in 1956. Her first three books of poems were published to wide acclaim by Carcanet between 1988 and 1995. The text below was taken from 'Augatora', a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, that frst saw the light in 2000. Sujata's poems have the capacity to take the reader to both real and imagined landscapes and it was this peculiar trait that made me choose this poem as one of my presents to you tonight.

The Woman They call Abuela

Eighty-six-years-old or maybe
eighty-nine - She doesn't know herself
and couldn't care less.

She still works in her field
beside the beach -
Where the sand ends
her field begins -

The Atlantic Ocean rushing through her mind -
She plants potatoes - keeps a duck
to eat the snails.

Thirty-seven years a widow -
Dressed in black, of course -
long socks, black and heavy
even in the heat.

The other day she lifted her skirt
to marvel at her thighs
her young girl's skin white and firm
and untouched by the sun -

She laughed.

The woman they call
abuela -
her voice threaded
sharp with the Andalusian wind -
all these years the noise of the ocean
crashing within her ears - white roses
cover the trellis in her garden.

Thirty-seven years a widow -
She watched Franco's men ride by:
Moroccan mercenaries took over
the bunker in front of her house -

And she watched Rafael Alberti
back from exile
walking by her door -

All these years the noise
of the ocean now breaking
now lulling within her ears -

One of the wonders of the blogosphere is the amount of talent one comes across. I sometimes resemble a lonely rambler roaming from blog to blog, soaking up either their take on a classic piece of art or their own personal contribution to the world of muses and fauns. And Dave from Pics and Poems is no exception. I make sure to pay him a visit at least twice a week, if not more, because he always has interesting subjects on which to debate. Dave is also a marvellous poet, one of those wordsmiths who makes one wonder whether there's a limit to the use of language by humans. Fortunately, there isn't, and when you read the poem below you will understand why. To me it is a very honest and sincere ode to nature and how patient it has been with our excesses, but also in this gem of a poem there lies a cautionary message: mess up with Mama Natura at your own peril. Many thanks, Dave, for allowing me to reproduce your work.

On Turning Over a New Leaf

When the apple tree turned over a new leaf
it began producing plums.

When the pear turned over a new leaf
it brought forth grapes instead.

When the cherry turned over a new leaf
it found acorns on its branches.

When The Book of Life turned over a new leaf
a skeleton crawled out.

When the woods turned over their new leaves
a million tiny creatures saw the sun.

When these turned over the dead leaves
the dust and ash beneath began to smoke.

When humankind turned over its new leaves
it took leave of its senses

and not until it turned again the old leaves
did the trees bring forth their true and ample fruit.

My last offering tonight comes from a poet derided by the Tory press in his time as part of the Cockney School of Poetry. John Keats' sensual imagery, more specifically in his odes, put him on a par with both Shelley and Byron, two other exponents of the renowned Romantic movement.

To Autumn.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Next Post: 'Sunday Morning: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 11th October at 10:00am (GMT)

Tuesday 6 October 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (5th Part)

This week, the question Zadie asks us is: Are we disloyal to ourselves when we write? For parts 1-4, click here, here, here and here.

Writing as self-betrayal

Back to my simple point, which is that writers are in possession of "selfhood", and that the development or otherwise of self has some part to play in literary success or failure. This shameful fact needn't trouble the professor or the critic, but it is naturally of no little significance to writers themselves. Here is the poet Adam Zagajewski, speaking of The Self, in a poem of the same title:

It is small and no more visible than a cricket in August.
It likes to dress up, to masquerade, as all dwarves do.
It lodges between granite blocks, between serviceable truths.
It even fits under a bandage, under adhesive.
Neither custom officers nor their beautiful dogs will find it.
Between hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.

To me, writing is always the attempted revelation of this elusive, multifaceted self, and yet its total revelation - as Zagajewski suggests - is a chimerical impossibility. It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience. Actually, it's impossible to even know what that would mean, although we stubbornly continue to have an idea of it, just as Plato had an idea of the forms. When we write, similarly, we have the idea of a total revelation of truth, but cannot realise it. And so, instead, each writer asks himself which serviceable truths he can live with, which alliances are strong enough to hold. The answers to those questions separate experimentalists from so-called "realists", comics from tragedians, even poets from novelists. In what form , asks the writer, can
I most truthfully describe the world as it is experienced by this particular self?

And it is from that starting point that each writer goes on to make their individual compromise with the self, which is always a compromise with truth as far as the self can know it. That is why the most common feeling, upon re-reading one's own work, is Prufrock's: "That is not it at all . . . that is not what I meant, at all . . ." Writing feels like self-betrayal, like failure.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'National Poetry Day in the UK' to be published on Thursday 8th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 4 October 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. And the first rule of celebrity TV stardom is: you talk about it as much as you can. In fact, you go overboard. You spill the beans everywhere you go. Actually, let's go one better. You grow your own beans (it's to do with being green and all that), you carry them around in your pockets and then you spill them: on the tube, at your parents' Sunday roast when the whole family is present, in Trafalgar Square and of course, on the telly.

Modern polity has taken the renowned Warholian maxim of being famous for fifteen minutes and revamped it for the 21st century: nowadays everyone will be famous through fifteen people. And sometimes fewer.

If not, have a look at the current batch of reality TV celebrities and their contribution to society. Katie Price, aka Jordan and Page 3 model, famously bedded Gareth Gates, a former contestant on Pop Idol, a few years ago and then eloped with Peter Andre - apparently he releases the odd album every now and then - after the two of them met whilst taking part in "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!". The couple split up last May only for Jordan to start dating cage-fighter Alex Reid shortly after, whilst Pete, allegedly, began a romance with ex-Big Brother 'star' (oh, please, no giggling at the back!) Chantelle Houghton. Are you keeping up? What do you mean you are not paying any attention? This is important! This is the stuff that makes headlines nowadays.

When did the world become a gigantic Truman show? When did some people take leave of their senses and allowed the lunatics to take over the asylum?

Just like in the 1998 film featuring Jim Carrey, sometimes I switch the telly on and I feel as if I am in a town where everyone else is an actor or actress. And I am not referring to programmes exploring the realms of fiction. When I recently read that Channel Four was thinking of bringing to an end its infamous Roman circus show, Big Brother, I clapped and cheered on the common sense displayed by my fellow humans. But my ecstasy lasted as long as an ice-cream cone would last in hell, niente. I soon began to imagine how Channel Four would now commission a reality-TV series based on their decision to scrap Big Brother with producers and directors running havoc in the television company's building, vandalising property and painting graffitti on the walls. Cameras would be placed strategically to capture each minute of the action until a teary-eyed programmer was shown in the Diary Room recounting how ashamed he/she felt about defecating on the Director General's mahogany desk. And for some people that would be an American Express moment: priceless.

All facetiousness that my previous words might have conveyed is rendered a more sombre tone when faced with the hideous deeds committed in the name of reality TV and the rewards reaped by it.

Recently the Brazilian city Manaos, capital of the Amazona state, has become a cause célèbre due to a series of events that could well serve as a reminder of how low our society has sunken.

Wallace Souza was a journalist and producer who directed a television programme called Canal Livre, which had a similar format and brief to BBC's 'Crimewatch'. On it, Wallace showed the most sordid aspects of Brazilian society: crimes, assaults, rapes and the like. As many other programmes dealing with the same subjects, Souza's regular outing was a ratings-chaser. And I think we are all full aware of the price some people pay for such high profile.

Wallace acquired such notoriety that he traded his journalistic career for that of a politician. Some people might argue that between a bloodthirsty reality TV producer and a representative of the government there's hardly any difference, but that's a moot point, although perfectly understandable. Wallace became a deputy in the Amazonas state attracting the largest share of the votes amongst the candidates contesting the seat. All was well until the local police arrested a small-time crook. Moacir Moa Jorge da Costa was an ex-copper who doubled up as an assassin for hire. He was guilty of a string of murders and felonies. Under harsh interrogation and possible torture he confessed that indeed he was responsible for these crimes but that he had only been following orders. By whom, you ask? By the charismatic politician Wallace Souza. After the initial shock, the detectives began to piece together all the different missing links from the puzzle and arrived at the conclusion that all the violent acts in which Moacir Moa Jorge da Costa had taken part had featured at some point on Canal Livre whose cameras were always the first one on the crime scene.

Gulp. Yes, I know, I had to do it, too.

Last night I dreamt about an elephant playing chess with a donkey. The latter mocked the former and called it a liar. The elephant struck the table and the board cracked. Sorry, that has no relation to this post whatsoever.

To sum up: Wallace Souza, allegedly, ordered hitmen to carry out horrible crimes so that they could be filmed before any other competitor did. In order to achieve this he commanded an infrastructure made up of both members and ex-members of the police force. Although many of his accomplices are in jail, the politician is still free (as I write) enjoying his impunity. Will the National Assembly take away his exemption from punishment? Only time will tell. But what this tale does show is that Wallace Souza is not the only culprit in this sordid saga.

You see, for the Brazilian deputy to break the law he had to have a motive. I am not implying that Wallace did not have a money-minded conscience. But what he also had was a public eager to switch on and enjoy the debauched episodes on offer. Souza understood his mission and he tried to fulfill it in whichever way he saw fit. Even if that included killing. In the same way an alcoholic reaches for the bottle and promises him/herself that will be the last drink, Wallace's audience kept his avarice alive. That's why I cannot absolve the erstwhile journalist's spectators. The myriad morbid morons who tuned in regularly to watch women in distress, beheaded youngsters and gangs fights are just as accountable as the politician.

It would not be hard for any person with half a brain to reach the conclusion that Souza is a product of our 21st century where the ruling philosophy is that one found in Tina Turner's excellent song 'Private Dancer': I wanna make a million dollars/I wanna live out by the sea/Have a husband and some children/Yeah I guess I want a family. And this principle is not gender-based. Far from it, men apply it as well as women.

And how did Wallace choose his victims? Were they picked up at random? I doubt it. Many were allegedly drug-addicts and prostitutes, gang members or beggars from economically deprived backgrounds. So, there was also an element of class and moral voyeurism. Look at them, the working class. This is what they do. This is how they behave. On this point, one of the most obvious examples that comes to mind is that of Jade Goody, another ex-Big Brother contestant who was demonised and lionised in equal measure before her untimely death earlier this year. Jade lived her life on television until she exhaled for the last time.

If this is the world that awaits us as we are about to wrap up the first decade of the 21st century, then maybe, just maybe, we need to modify Tyler Durden's words in Fight Club: 'Reality TV was the beginning, now it's moved out of the basement, it's called Project Mayhem'.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer', to be published on Tuesday 6th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 1 October 2009

Road Songs (Special Edition)

Amongst the many pleasures I have found in driving there is one that has become an art, at least for me: braking. There are two others to which I will refer in future special editions, but braking merits its own post.

And I am not merely talking about the act of bringing a car to a complete halt by applying force against the friction of the road, but rather the subtle changes that occur as I shift from gear to gear.

The E70 westbound from Cantabria to Asturias recently offered me the chance to enjoy this lesser-known gem. And I’ve come to think of it in the same way a musician regards his/her own playing and/or singing skills, hence the inclusion in this special edition of ‘Road Songs’.

The M25 here in the UK is not a very good place to practise the art of braking. It is usually choc-a-bloc with traffic jams everywhere and rather than enjoying the kinetic energy involved in the process, you end up feeling claustrophobic and on the brink of a road-rage fit. The 'Ocho Vías' motorway on which I drove in Cuba earlier this year was somewhat flat and monotonous, although surprisingly in good conditions, so that's another no-go. How different the picture was in the Spanish countryside. The E70, a long stretch of road that meanders from the Basque Country to Galicia - becoming A8 in the process - had plenty of soft slopes and suave bends (there’ll be another special post on bends, by the way). In the distance rolling hills helter-skeltered through the Iberian landscape. Deep valleys called out to the driver’s attentive eye and the nature lover in me slowed the car down whenever possible and soaked up the surroundings. Tiny hamlets hung on to perilous slopes.

It was this combination of driving - and braking, of course - and music playing on the car stereo that made me wonder if the arts could widen up its scope to include this dissipation of energy as yet another proof of man's creative nature. In the same way a pianist presses a key on his or her instrument to elicit a particular sound, when I press down on the brake pedal the effect sometimes can be that of the coupling of acoustic energy and air to produce sound. And no, it is not of the screeching type, although that happens all too often.

My first example tonight is Maria Rita and her excellent song 'Muito Pouco'. At 2:27, there's a tiny stop of half a second before the music goes up a couple of notches. It is the equivalent of braking smoothly around a bend on a broad motorway, bringing the car from fifth gear down to fourth and then beefing it back up to fifth. Beautiful.

My second offering tonight comes all the way from Italy (I promised more music from that European nation and I'm keeping my word). Eros Ramazzotti brings back memories galore, especially to those who, like me, enjoyed his well-deserved popularity in the early 90s in Cuba. This song, 'Musica E', is so full of stops that it could well be used in a driving lesson, teaching future drivers how to apply the brake, where and when. The way the musicians and singer meander through the melody reminds me of trips on hilly roads. I hope you enjoy it.

Third track tonight has that perfect combination of pop and classical music mixed together. I have always loved Jamiroquai but even I was taken by surprise when this track first came out. And I remember playing it on a loop on my Walkman. At 3:18 the brakes are applied and yet you have the feeling that he has let the musical car coast a little bit, as if not wanting the song to finish. The same sentiment I have when I come to the end of my journey and I brake slowly until it's time to bring the clutch pedal down. Smoothly. Thanks and happy driving!

Photo taken from

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 4th October at 10:00 (GMT)


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