Sunday 29 November 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Recently there has been a spate of articles in the UK on motherhood, fatherhood, working hours and the balance between professional and domestic life. You can arrange those words in any order you wish, especially if you want to highlight priorities and hierarchy, but the outcome will convey the same message: parenting has just got harder.

Harder not because we're still enamoured of the idea of the traditional nuclear family with dad going to work and mum staying home to look after little John and Jane, but because of the many options open to parents in western societies at the end of this century's first decade. The vast goulash of family settings nowadays encompasses everything from single parenthood to gay couples adopting and raising children. And sometimes multiple choices pose difficult quandaries.

However, this should not be interpreted as a call to arms to return to the dark ages when men were the main breadwinners and women the crumbs-gatherers, but rather as a pragmatic analysis of what means to be a parent today in the West. And it goes without saying that my point of view is mainly based on my experience as a father.

The fact that the kernel of many of the aforementioned features and articles points at growing concerns about work-balance amongst women should not be underestimated. One of the milestones of the feminist wave of the 60s and 70s was equal opportunities at work. The fact that as of 30th October women in the UK have been working for free should not go amiss either, but on the whole there are far more opportunities at both junior and senior levels for women to succeed than twenty or thirty years ago. This development in career choice has brought with it positive economic, social, political and psychological changes.

But one of the unintended transformations, or at least one not planned in the long term, in my opinion, was the role of fathers or male carers in child-rearing.

For many years fathers impersonated a character that was a cross between a villain and a buffoon. Smoking and pacing endlessly outside labour wards whilst their partners inside were doing all the hard work, driving the family car on a Sunday afternoon after a long week of getting home late way past little John and Jane's bedtime or waving goodbye to the whole family at the airport as he went on yet another business trip; this was the typical caricature we came to expect of the paterfamilias. And if truth be told, many men enjoyed the ride. What is less known is that in today's topsy-turvy world, men do want more flexibility to be with their children. And unsurprisingly we come across many hurdles.

The first obstacle is fathers from the previous generation or the one before. These dinosaurs succeeded most of the time through sheer hard work and if a balanced domestic life was to be sacrificed, then so be it. And this mindset cut across classes, whether dad was a blue-collar or a white-collar worker the message was the same: bring home the bacon. It should then be expected that they demand the same of their employees.

The second impediment comes from women, paradoxically. And the crux here is generational, too. Like those antiquarian male bosses who are slowly waking up to the fact that female employees can and do become mothers, women from previous generations are gradually realising that for some men a career path can be to become a househusband and looking after his and his partner's children. Yet there's still reluctance in mothers and grandmothers to accept this transformation.

The third challenge we encounter as fathers arrives courtesy of the state. The current paternity leave is still a work in progress, although it has come a long way from when my daughter was born. Nevertheless it still places the emphasis of child-rearing on the mother whilst dad gets a minimum of two weeks off work with payment of just over £120 per week. One of the schemes going through parliament at the moment is how to extend fathers' leave to six months so that both mum and dad (or mum and mum and dad and dad) can take that half year together during their baby's first year.

There are other barriers which I won't mention now because this post would become tedious and repetitive. The message is clear, though: there's a discussion going on in the UK about parenting, and this debate has both positive and negative sides. In my case it has touched me at a personal level.

Recently my wife landed a job as a Special Education Needs Assistant Teacher at our daughter's primary school. Her role is to support a child who suffers from autism. Whereas before she would be the one usually staying at home to look after our children if they got ill, now the situation has changed and I am the one required to step in if one of our little ones is unwell. I am, however, in a lucky position, in that I have a boss, the school's headteacher, who is very open-minded and supportive but when I worked in retail the atmosphere was anything but. And that was one of the reasons why I left the travel industry. Because it was not a child-friendly environment. However, even with that support from my current boss, I still feel guilty when I miss a day at work and have to carry out my duties and responsibilities from home. Why is that? Surely my family should come first. My only explanation is that as a man, I have an in-built device that goes off the minute I have to swap 'real work' for childcare. The former is seen as more relevant and important than the latter. And that, to me, is the issue at the centre of this debate of fathers and male carers adopting a more hands-on approach in child-rearing.

And if anyone thinks that my experience of sharing childcare with my wife is a one-off, he/she will be mistaken. It is a similar situation across the UK but where class and families' purchasing power make a big difference. Men who want to be involved in their children's lives and decide to stay at home to look after them, or to work from home, are usually well-off to begin with. The majority also belong to the so-called chattering classes. There's also a divide across the professional field with more stay-at-home fathers being part of the creative and cultural industries (CCIs) and self-employed sector (and no, I have not got figures to back this claim up, it is chiefly based on observation and my professional experience). Their partners are on an equal footing financially and that goes some way towards addressing the income vs annual inflation conundrum.

But what cannot be denied and I hope my previous paragraph did not put any future dads off, is that fathers do fulfill an important role in a child's life. I was given a book by my wife before our son was born. It was called 'Fatherhood Reclaimed'. On the evidence I've seen in twelve years living in the UK I would say proudly that the outcome of this enhancement of paternal responsibility will be 'Fatherhood Re-Imagined'.

I wonder if David Milliband will be wearing a blue suit next time he meets Hillary Clinton. Alternatively he could do with a blue dress, if he is feeling kinky. Will Vogue be running next a story along the lines of 'Clinton: I did not have sex with David'? Oh, the shame and decadence of it. Have a nice Sunday.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 1st December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 26 November 2009

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

One of my goals when I cook is to try to be as inclusive as possible in my approach to the art of sauces and stews, specifically when it comes to international cuisine. This is not always successful but sometimes the attempt is worth more than the result. My Yassa dish was a typical example.

For some time a brochure from The Tourism and Travel Association of The Gambia lay dormant in my recipes' folder. I kept paging through it but never mustered the courage to knock up one of the succulent dishes recommended by the publication. Until one day, when both my children asked me if I could cook some cod. Without wasting any more time I set out to prepare a dish that would resemble one of the Gambian recipes I had seen in the pamphlet.

There are many ethnic groups living in The Gambia with some of them originating from surrounding countries like Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Mali. So, its cuisine is the result of the influence of these tribes.

Yassa is food of the Jola people who happen to be the fourth largest community in The Gambia. This dish can be made using chicken or fish, but attention, if using the latter, bear in mind that a fish like cod falls apart when you pan-fry it as I discovered to my chagrin. Still, I pulled it off, but my children found the resulting dish a bit too hot, as in spicy hot.


1 whole chicken or 4 fish (jorto or sompat)
salt and pepper to season
1 kg onions
1 clove garlic
1 tbsp mustard (I suggest English mustard)
1 tsp chilli sauce
1 tsp black pepper
6 tbsp vegetable oil
50ml lemon or lime juice
300ml water (if using chicken)
100ml water (if using fish)
1 stock cube
Boiled white rice to serve

1- Clean and trim the chicken or fish, and cut the chicken into quarters. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside to rest.
2- Slice or chop the onions, crush the garlic, and mix both with the mustard, chle sauce and black pepper.
3- Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat and fry the chicken or fish just enough to seal in the flavour. Drain, remove from the pan and set aside.
4- In the remaining oil fry the onion mixture for a few minutes then add the lemon or lime juice, water and stock cube. Stir well, return the chicken or fish, reduce the heat to low, cover, and leave to simmer for 1½hours for chicken, or half an hour for fish, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.

Of course, it goes without saying that the music to go with this spicy dish must have the same hot ingredients. I confess that when I was cooking Yassa the melodies playing in the background were very different from the ones I'm uploading now but since Prince, or the Artist Formerly Known As (insert current appellation here), decided long time ago that his music was above everything and everyone else, I was unable to find a good clip of Musicology - one of my favourite albums and songs. And as for Nuyorican Soul, forget it, 'embedding is disabled by request' is the caption that greets me everytime I try to upload a video on my blog. That's why my first offering tonight is a down-to-earth US artist born to Indian parents and educated both in India and France. Rupa Marya and her polyglot band, The April Fishes, combine Latin grooves, the traditional French chanson, Gypsy beats and Indian ragas to deliver a pungent musical banquet. Enjoy.

Rupa is a hard act to follow, but that's not a problem for Dobet Gnahoré with her explosive and outgoing stage persona. This Ivorian singer, dancer and percussionist has inherited her rich father's tradition, a musician in his own right who performs with the Compagnie Ki Yi Mbock d’Abidjan. Cracking tune, this one is.

And to wrap this post up tonight here's Manu Chao with a classic from his piquant discography. And I hope this time youtube doesn't remove this clip. They've already done it twice. Enjoy.

Copyright 2009

Photo taken from The Thrifty Gourmet.

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 29th November at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 24 November 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (12th Part)

In this week's installment, Zadie asks us to become our own intrepid Marco Polos, our own courageous Columbus and set off on the unknown waters of literature. For parts 1-11, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. and here.

Becoming your own cartographer

When it comes to reading, it's a Kierkegaardian level of commitment that we've forgotten about: intimate, painstaking, with nothing at all to do with Hegelian system-building or theoretical schools, and everything to do with our ethical reality as subjects. You have to make the map of Copenhagen yourself. You have to be open to the idea that Copenhagen might look and feel completely different to what you expected or believed it to be. You have to throw away other people's maps. For example, if you read exclusively in the post-colonial manner, then only a limited number of books will interest you and even those that you are promised are within the genre will often disappoint and irritate, failing to do all the things you had expected they would.

And then it will come to pass that some writers, knowing your taste, will begin to write novels to please you - novels that feel almost as if they have been written by committee. These are the big idea books and for the young particularly, armed with the reading systems for which they paid good money in college, such books look awfully tempting. A success, on these terms, is one that fulfils the model failure, the book that refuses wider relevance. System readers create system writers, writers who can unpack their own novels in front of you, pointing out this theme and that, this subtext, this question of race, this debate about gender. They have the Sunday supplements in mind and their fiction is littered with hooks, ready made for general discussion, perfect for a double page feature.

But what of the novels that don't give themselves easily to such general public discussion? Sometimes it feels like the qualities readers and critics most want to find in novels are those that are antithetical to the writing of a good one. We want a novel to be the "last word" on what it is to be a young Muslim, or an American soldier, or a mother. We want them to be wholly sufficient systems of ideas. We want one man to symbolise a nation. We want a novel to speak for a community or answer some vital question of the day. Like good system-makers, we want a view from nowhere, a panopticon, hovering above the whole scene, taking it in, telling us "how it is".

The problem is, our lives, as good novels well know, are always a partial, failing, view from somewhere . Nabokov wrote a book about an individual child called Lolita, but he correctly predicted it would be read as a general allegory of "Old Europe ravishing young America" or "Young America seducing Old Europe". He survived communist Russia: he knew all about the collectivisation of thought. In the end, Lolita is easy to read if you believe in symbols. It's only an emotional education, only a going-through, only a transformative experience, when you submit to Nabokov's vision, and let Lolita be individual child, not general model.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...', to be published on Thursday 26th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 22 November 2009

Exercises on Free Writing

Dunny arrived late at his own funeral.

A cliché had finally become reality. Ever since he had shaken off the last ounce of dependence on his parents, Dunny’s tardiness had acquired a certain notoriety. There was, for example, the time when he went for a job interview at Matthew & Matthews, the legal firm where he would eventually work until the end of his days. However, the fact that his chances of being employed at the company were almost blown by Dunny himself before getting a second lease of life, goes to prove how lucky he was. Having arrived at his appointment so late that one of the directors mistook him for one of the candidates for the cleaning job, Dunny blurted out all kinds of excuses, blaming everything and everyone. The executive took his CV, shook his hand and sent him home. Little did Dunny know that his resumé would sleep at the bottom of a dozen more.

But as mentioned before, luck was on his side. Little by little the other twelve applicants became unavailable to take up the post. There was the man who liked underwater fishing and was killed by a stingray. There was another one who worked at the Treasury and was followed home by a self-employed aerobics tutor not happy with his tax return. The civil servant ended up in hospital in a coma. A third candidate was badly hurt in a brawl at an Italian restaurant when he tried to claim back the thirty pounds he had paid for a ‘tasteless meal with a service usually found in a Third World country’. In vain he pleaded with the maître d’ that it was the last meal he was having with his son before the latter went abroad to study. He was still beaten up to within an inch of his life by the irate headwaiter.

That was how Dunny got the job that would many years thence make him a partner at Matthew & Matthews and he proved to be such a valuable asset to the company that his schedule was arranged around his time-keeping habits.

And now he was late for his own funeral.


As soon as he entered the room he saw Peter and Paul discussing football as usual. They could not even stop talking about the subject at his own wake! Dunny was sure that Paul was taunting Peter with the success garnered by the team he had supported since he was a small lad, Manchester United. Whereas Peter would probably reply that Arsenal’s young Gunners were the future of British football. Like two handsome, mature deer locking horns during the rutting moon, neither would cede ground. As soon as they saw Dunny, they both looked at their watches, waved at him with serious faces and fell back into their debate straight away.

Unable to touch people and to be touched by them, Dunny mingled with the mourners. It was an odd mix of well-wishing (‘I hope ”the other side” treats you better!’), hidden sarcasm (‘so, will you be in charge of legal affairs “over there”?’) and concern (‘they killed you, man, in the end, they killed you, too much work’). But above all, there were people, many people here, whom Dunny had not seen for several years, even decades.


Penelope was sitting quietly in a corner of the funeral parlour, having a glass of wine. She looked nervously at everyone and everything. Her eyes would take a quick tour of the room, only to rest for several minutes on an inanimate object: a window, a chair, the wooden box.

Penelope had been Dunny’s first love. Intrigued as to what had brought her here he approached her.

Hi, Pen, long time, no see.
Oh, Dunny, sorry, I’m so sorry!' Her sobs had attracted the attention of other well-wishers.’
Sorry about what? For what?His bushy eyebrows arched pronouncedly.
I don’t know, I guess that… oh… I don’t know… I don’t think I ever loved anyone the same way I loved you. And I never told you.
Well, it’s a bit late now, isn’t it?
Penelope looked in Dunny’s eyes. ‘Yes, I know it’s late. Maybe it sounds too cheesy, but I wish I could go with you.
But Pen, our relationship was so long ago, we were in our teens, I died at 64. What happened in the meantime?
Crap. That’s what happened. I just bounced from one lousy relationship to another. The cycle never stopped. As soon as I heard you’d died, I wasted no time. I just… I just did not want you leaving without knowing that… that… there are some people you leave behind who love you.
Thanks, Pen’. Dunny turned around and proceed to the other end of the room wherefrom he could see the hundreds who had gathered to mourn his passing.

His sons stood out amidst the congregation. They had taken after his cockiness, his self-assurance and his nous for business. The elder had his own insurance company whilst his brother was a private contractor in charge of one of the government's flagship academies. Dunny scanned the parlour looking for his widow. The view that greeted him on spotting her froze whatever warmth there was left in his dead body. Denise was talking to Dunny's best friend, Simon. They were sitting close together, maybe too close. Something was up. Dunny walked to the other end of the room. A dark cloud passed over his face wiping out the smile that had adorned it a moment before. As he walked he felt the full weight of his lifeless body on his weak knees. Denise seemed to be whispering something in Simon's ear to which the latter replied with an embarrasing giggle whilst looking at the watch on her right hand. They both looked like two adolescents against the backdrop of the autumnal sun rays streaming through the window.

Then Dunny looked down at his widow and his best friend's hands. Simon was gently squeezing Denise's fingers whilst his right hand cupped her left one. 'No, fuck, no, no, no', muttered Dunny under his breath. He quickened his steps towards the couple. They had not caught sight of him yet. His arrival took them by surprise and they both lowered their heads in unison as if they had choreographed the movement.

'Dunny, mate... I'm sorry that you had to find out this way' Simon was the first to speak.
'What do you mean you're sorry? What the fuck do you mean? You... you are... you were my best friend. How the fuck could you?'
'Don't blame Simon, Dunny. I don't think you could lay the blame on just the one person' Denise's voice sounded calm and assuring. 'Sometimes there are situations and circumstances you just can't predict'.
'How long have you two...?'
'Since before Jack was born'. It was Denise again who had rushed to answer the question.
'Does that mean that Jack...?' Dunny's voice notched up a couple of decibels.
'Both John and Jack are your children, Dunny, if that's what you're wondering. I did not got to Simon for semen, I went to him for emotional support, the kind you were so reluctant to give me. If you're interested, our relationship did not start as a fancy fling, a shag in the middle of some bushes. After I had that second miscarriage I was broken. Inside, I was broken. And what was your response? A pat on the head and a peck on the cheek. Like a dog, Dunny. Like a fucking dog. Simon stepped in involuntarily. And you know what? He has the utmost respect for you...'
'Oh, really, by screwing my wife! My widow, rather.' Dunny began to move his arms frantically and his face became a slideshow where the rictus of anguish and despair played a macabre dance, the horror of which was too much for Simon to watch.
'Sorry, Dunny, I will leave you alone with Denise. I guess that it's better if she explains it all.' Simon dashed off across the room to where his estranged soon-to-be-ex-wife, Letitia, stood.
'Simon rejected me flat out the first time I tried to kiss him.' resumed Denise as soon as the two of them were alone. 'We both realised that I was feeling very delicate and maybe my actions were a consequence of that second successive miscarriage.'
'So, what happened? Did he change his mind and started to chase you?'
'No, I did the chasing. And it was not hard. He had his own problems at home. Letitia was reprimanding him for not wanting to be more of a career man as you were, for not pursuing loftier ambitions. Sometimes Simon and I thought we had married the wrong partner.'
'Denise, but... why did you not tell me? Why did you not talk to me?'
'Oh, Dunny! How many times did I try? Only to be told that "Do you imagine how much work I've got on?", or "If you want to push ahead and become a partner, you won't do it by sitting on your fat ass, you have to be there, you have to be the first one". I gave up.'
'Did you do it at home? Where...? When...?'
'Is that all that matters to you now? Where I fucked Simon? Oh, for God's sake! Men! All you bloody care about is whether he stuck his dick inside me in our marital bed or not. For the record, we never had sex in our house, Dunny! No, we used motels, B&Bs, you name it. But, no, I did not shag your best mate in our bed.' All of a sudden Denise's tears came down in a torrent. 'You were so good with the kids when you were there, but you weren't there very often! And that was the problem! You were not there, Dunny! You were always home late because you were always working until late! You're even late for your own funeral!'

Dunny walked away briskly. He felt as if he was in a nightmare, as if his death was not real. Yet it was real. The heart attack had been real, his rehabilitation, recovery and surprising demise had been real. Locking himself in the toilet he took a long look at himself in the mirror. His dark skin was becoming ashen. His erstwhile strong complexion was already losing its muscular definition. The years of toiling at Matthew & Matthews, followed by a strict exercise regime at the firm's gym and a twice-weekly visit to the exclusive club's sauna had not been enough to save him from what would later become human decomposition. When he came out of the restroom he saw Denise still sitting on the windowsill, her red hair competing amicably with the dying embers of the evening sun. It was clear to Dunny now that the affection between her and Simon had been there for much longer than the actual affair, probably when they first met. Could he have seen it coming? Were there any signs he had missed?



It was Beth, the nurse who had looked after him at the cardio unit whilst he was recovering.

'Beth, hi, how are you?'
'Dunny, I've come to apologise.'
'Apologise for what? You were excellent. Without you I would have died sooner.'
'Dunny, there are things you don't know. That's why I've come to apologise.'
'What do you mean, Beth? What things?'
'The PFI, Dunny...'
'Sorry, you lost me, Beth. The PFI, what's that?'
'Dunny, you didn't need to die. But the company contracted to deliver your cardiac rehabilitation programme pulled out due to a dispute over payment. You and others were literally left to your own devices.'
The frown on Dunny's face became a grimace. 'Was that why suddenly Susan, the doctor, stopped coming?'

Beth nodded silently.

'Was that why I was moved to another ward?'

Beth looked away, her eyes quietly filling up with tears. When she spoke again, the words came out like the lava of a hot, raging volcano underscored by her thick Dublin accent.

'Dunny, I have been a nurse for more than thirty years, but I have never seen the level of incompetence I am seeing now. Susan was part of the downsizing strategy carried out by our contractor. When we raised the matter with them, their response was that they had to operate on a market-oriented action plan. We became a factory, with set targets. When we mentioned the number of patients who would suffer as a result, they asked us to provide numbers. There were probably two dozen people in your ward. That was not their concern, they replied. An occupied bed was not a profitable bed. That was their healthcare strategy: quick in, quick out.'
'Money, Dunny, dirty money. Budgetary shortfalls must be met with a reduction of ten percent of the NHS workforce. That's the message from the management consultants the government employs to conduct their little researches.
'What did Susan say?
'I didn't see her when she left. But I'm sure she was as pissed off as I was. Am.


Dunny made his way to his coffin. Two lines of well-wishers had opened up ranks and were filing on either side of the carpet leading him to his final resting place. 'I didn't need to die, I didn't need to die.' The repetition of these words could not masquerade the deep feeling of regret at not having lived his life differently.

'You were great, Dad!'. John's voice caressed Dunny's shoulders. 'But still, I could never beat you at rugby'.
'Thanks for teaching me how to play chess, Dad'. Jack's low whisper, combined with his short golden curls made Dunny's eyes moist with paternal pride.

Simon's grey ponytail swung from side to side, his face was a mosaic of expressions.

'Take good care of Denise, Simon'. His friend opened his mouth as if to reply, but on second thoughts he just assented mutely.

At the end of one of the lines was Dunny's widow. He looked in her eyes and she in his. No words were exchanged. No words were necessary now.

Dunny climbed the set of steps that led him to his final domicile. Slowly, he crawled into the wooden box and crossed his arms over his chest. His last thought before closing his eyes was: 'Always late in life, but never too early to die'.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 24th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 19 November 2009

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Review)

A couple of weeks ago, Zadie Smith, in the series 'What Makes a Good Writer?', referred to some authors' dream of writing the Perfect Novel (my capitals). Although later on in the same article she explained why the attempt to accomplish this deed is nothing but a chimera, I was left with the impression that indeed many writers do set out to trascend the literary realm in which they inhabit. They want their novels or short stories to be the sole and ultimate authority on the politics, social thinking and economic trends of their time and in order to achieve this they apply an almost mathematical precision to their work.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have writers who effortlessly write jolly good, entertaining books without too much fanfare or razzmatazz and yet capture a country's historical moment with such accuracy that unwittingly they contribute to that nation's collective awakening.

A case in point is the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In 'Half of a Yellow Sun', Ngozi deftly weaves the convoluted stories of two couples into one of the most terrible conflicts to befall that African country: the Biafran war. The novel's name is taken after the emblem that symbolised this state in eastern Nigeria.

Odenigbo is an academic with very strong political views. As a member of the nascent intellectual middle-class of 60s Nigeria he hosts soirées in his house where current world events are discussed amongst glasses of wine and heated, nationalistic poetry. His lover and future wife Olanna, a western-educated woman, returns home from Britain to contribute to what she considers to be her duty: building a better society. She takes up a post as an instructor at the Department of Sociology. Her twin sister Kainene, in the meantime, moves to Port Harcourt to manage her father's business. Richard, Kainene's eventual lover, is a British man recently arrived in the country with the intention of writing a book about Nigeria. However, underpinning these four characters we find one of the most enigmatic and interesting members of the cast: Ugwu, Odenigbo's teenage houseboy.

And it is mainly from Ugwu's point of view that we travel through many of the cultural, linguistic and political issues that 'Half of a Yellow Sun' addresses. From Ugwu's desire to speak English like his master - until Olanna arrives in the scene with her 'luminous language' -, to his ardent sexual longing for Eberechi, the girl whose body he craves. The latter is used effectively by the author to depict how quickly human beings can fall into savagery. When Eberechi confesses to Ugwu that she is sleeping with an army officer, following the outbreak of war and the penury into which the whole country is thrown, Ugwu's reaction is one of disgust and repulsion. How hypocritical, then, that a few pages later we find the same teenager, now nicknamed 'Target Destroyer' participating in the gang-rape of a young woman.

Symbolism is abundant in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'. Odenigbo betrays Olanna with a countrygirl with whom his mother has set him up, albeit against his will. Reluctant to accept Odenigbo's defense that his mother has tricked him into sleeping with the innocent girl, Olanna takes her revenge and beds Richard, her twin sister's boyfriend, unleashing in the process a maelstrom of such magnitude that it's not until the last few pages of the book that Kainene's pardon is finally granted, and even this acquittal is not complete. Parallel to this, the whole country slowly starts to break down, this unrest highlighting sectarian divisions within Nigeria. Odenigbo and Olanna's relationship resembles the country in which they live.

Another symbol can be seen in Kainene's transformation from a sang-froid person into almost a Mother Theresa figure following her close brush with death. At the beginning of the novel Olanna comes across as the idealistic sister whilst her sibling has both her feet firmly planted on earth. But by the end of the book, Kainene, like her country, or at least the Republic of Biafra, has undergone a radical change and her critical approach is replaced by a quixotic nature.

'Half of a Yellow Sun' is a rich bilingual map on which both Igbo and English get equally starring roles, even if the novel is written in the latter. Igbo phrases are interspersed in dialogues and one is never sure whether they are translations of their English equivalents or semantic additions. Either way, it does not matter because it is all conducive to making the reader feel more at home with the book's narrative. But this linguistic duality has other functions. Whereas in the first part, early 60s, language serves to convey class and social interaction, in the second and last chapters, lexicon becomes a matter of life and death literally. Anyone caught speaking Igbo by the insurgents meets an untimely and horrible end.

Another element that stands out in this book is the sex scenes. Chimamanda deftly navigates that difficult Bermuda Triangle of intimacy, carnal desire and love. For instance, I giggled at a scene where Ugwu eavesdrops on Odenigbo and Olanna making love. The naiveté of this passage does not detract from the sensuouness of the actual act.

'Later, after dinner, he tiptoed to Master's bedroom and rested his ear on the door. She was moaning loudly, sounds that seemed so unlike her, so uncontrolled and stirring and throaty. He stood there for a long time, until the moans stopped, and then he went back to his room.'

However, to me personally, one of the most enjoyable moments of this novel is when Ngozi reveals the identity of the author of the 'other book', The World Was Silent When We Died. This work, snippets of a piece written by one of the characters of 'Half of a Yellow Sun', is Chimamanda's strongest political point about who should write the stories of Africa. And as her exquisite, literary landmark shows it should be African themselves.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 22nd November at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 17 November 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (11th Part)

Individual vs General, or Uniqueness against Mass Production? For parts 1-10, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

System readers, system writers

"A work of art," said Nabokov, "has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me."

A writer with such strong opinions would find it hard to survive in the present literary culture, the idea of the "individual reader" having gone into terminal decline. In writing schools, in reading groups, in universities, various general reading systems are offered - the post-colonial, the gendered, the postmodern, the state-of-the-nation and so on. They are like the instructions that come with furniture at IKEA. All one need do is seek out the flatpack novels that most closely resemble the blueprints already to hand. There is always, within each reading system, an ur-novel - the one with which all the other novels are forced into uncomfortable conformity. The first blueprint is drawn from this original novel, which is usually a work of individual brilliance, one that shines so brightly it creates a shadow large enough for a little cottage industry of novels to survive in its shade. Such novels have a guaranteed audience: an appropriate reading system has been created around the first novel and now makes room for them.

This state of affairs might explain some of the present animosity the experimentalist feels for the realist or the cult writer or the bestseller - it's annoying and demoralising to feel that readers are being trained to read only a limited variety of fiction and to recognise as literature only those employing linguistic codes for which they already have the key. The upshot of this is that the intimate and idiosyncratic in fiction is everywhere less valued than the ideologically coherent and general. When the world is nervous, state-of-the-nation novels bring great comfort. The Nobel went to Pasternak, not Nabokov. But then how should we read? What does one tell a young reader struggling to choose from the smorgasbord of theoretical reading "systems" that are put before him or her in an average undergraduate week? Soren Kierkegaard has a useful piece of analogous advice, given to sceptical youths approaching philosophy for the first time: "The youth is an existing doubter. Hovering in doubt and without a foothold for his life, he reaches out for the truth - in order to exist in it."

That's how young readers are, too, when they start out. They are doubters and seekers. They are living in a negative, as Kierkegaard explains it, and so naturally are very susceptible to those who come offering positives like - in the case Kierkegaard is considering - the overwhelming positive of Hegel's "System". But, he warns, whole systems that concern themselves with the experience of being a self will not lead us to truth, for the cogent reason that we cannot fully exist in systems, but only within our own skins. "A philosophy of pure thought," he argues, "is for an existing individual a chimera, if the truth that is sought is something to exist in. To exist under the guidance of pure thought is like travelling in Denmark with the help of a small map of Europe, on which Denmark shows no larger than a steel pen-point - Aye, it is still more impossible."

When we are confronted with a delicate, odd little novel, that pretends to no encyclopaedic knowledge of the world, that offers no journalistic signposts as to its meaning, that is not set in a country at war, or centred around some issue in the papers, we seem to have no idea how to read it. We have our map of Europe and this novel is Denmark, maybe even just Copenhagen. But we've forgotten how to walk round Copenhagen. Frankly, it seems a pointless activity. If fiction is going to be this particular and inimical, we'd rather give it up and read something useful and real like a biography of Stalin.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post 'Half of a Yellow Sun' (Review), to be published on Thursday 19th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 15 November 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Ever since I was a little child I always wanted to learn how to whistle. I think this strong desire set in inside me when I was hospitalised for the first time, aged five. The ward where I stayed for a fortnight was long and narrow with beds propped up against the walls on either side. Humongous Disney cartoons looked down upon the children recovering there and despite the smiling faces of Pluto, Donald, Mickey et al the whole place looked cold, distant and dismal. And yet, what I remember the most was me, standing outside on the balcony of the Pedro Borrás Hospital , or El Infantil as we used to call it, and contracting my thick lips to expel the air inside my lungs. When not sound was forthcoming I would get upset and frustrated. I used to think that the opening my lips formed was too small, or that I had to use my teeth and so I kept trying. But to no avail, I still sounded as if I was blowing on a plate of hot soup.

Most of my friends could whistle. Some of them could produce high-pitched sounds, whereas others had to content themselves with a more chirping one. At least they were able to, but not poor, five-year-old me.

That was why I took it upon myself to learn how to turn my lips into a flute whilst still convalescent in hospital. After breakfast, I would get up from my bed and stand in front of the mirror in the showers and force the air out. And lo and behold, just a couple of days before I was discharged from hospital, a shrill sound came out. Though at first it was a mix between spitting and whistling, eventually it became more distinct and, dare I say, beautiful. I was over the moon.

With the passing of years, I realised that this activity was not just a bit of idle fun, although amusement was part of it. Like singing, whistling could be and had been used as a way of bringing people together. And of course, it had been utilised effectively in what later on became one of my life's ever-lasting affairs: cinema. Who can forget Lauren Bacall in her 'You know how to whistle' scene in 'To Have and To Have Not'? In 'Bridge On the River Kwai' Alec Guinness, playing Colonel Nicholson, arrives in the PoW's camp whistling the famous melody 'Colonel Bogey March', composed by the American Mitchel William Miller. I still marvel at the choreographic perfection of that scene. And away from the cinematic universe and into the musical realm we find the ultimate Piano Man, Billy Joel, whistling his way into and out of 'The Stranger'.

But people don't whistle anymore. I mean in public (I know that we, or at least I, still do it when I am cooking or tidying up around the house). Gone are the days when I would catch a passerby competing with birds' mellifluous singing and the contest would be so close that an Aretha Franklin or Jocelyn Brown would be wheeled in to decide upon a winner. No, nowadays people just make sharp, short sounds through their teeth in a manner that evokes a dog owner summoning his/her canine friend.

That's why my act of rebellion tomorrow when I reach my thirty-eighth year on earth will be to whistle all the way to work and back. A soft pressing of the lips, an instant of spontaneous human musicality (or maybe not, you might say) and a celebration of togetherness. Because as Lauren Bacall said when she defined whistling: 'You just put your lips together and blow'.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 17th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 12 November 2009

Living In A Bilingual World (The One About the Robin Hood of Linguistics)

I have an announcement to make, chicos and chicas: linguistics has grown dreadlocks. And it has adopted anarchy as its preferred method of doing politics.

If the idea of defenders of language sometimes brings an image of a bespectacled, middle-age male scholar wearing a well-worn tweed jacket with leather elbows and a tuft of grey hair decorating his body's attic, then kiss that vision goodbye because the revolution, baby, is here and is happening right now.

Pablo Zulaica is a twenty-seven year old Spaniard from Vitoria, the Basque Country. Fed up with what he, rightly, considered to be beyond-the-pale mistakes on billboards and posters, he armed himself with a bag of portable, adhesive accents and started correcting those advertisements with typos on them.

Although Pablo's actions have been mainly limited to Mexico, where he has resided for the last two years, his enterprise caught the eye of other like-minded folk who could not take the spelling gaffes that polluted our cities anymore. And that's how nowadays from Argentina to New York there are human Tipp-Exes marauding the streets looking for those hideous signs that transgress the boundaries of decent linguistics in order to amend them.

Zulaica has confessed that his is not a political agenda. His aim is to change attitudes to spelling in outdoor advertising not to antagonise people. He wants both businesses and politicians to be more careful with language and to use it properly. Not surprisingly he is the offspring of two journalists and as a young child was always interested in the intricate world of letters and accents.

It was hightime that linguistics found its own Robin Hood and Pablo Zulaica is our principled (totally legal) outlaw. And if you live in London and begin to see grocers' signs with the correct apostrophes on them, please, don't turn me in. It's all in defense of language, guv.

Copyright 2009

Next Post 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 15th November at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 10 November 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (10th Part)

Ha! And did you think that Zadie Smith was going to let us, readers, off the hook? Cracking analysis this week. For parts 1-9, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Note to readers: a novel is a two-way street

A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing - I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own, hard-won, skills to play this piece of music.The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.

This is a conception of "reading" we rarely hear now. And yet, when you practise reading, when you spend time with a book, the old moral of effort and reward is undeniable. Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason.

The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer's style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park. What I'm saying is, a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain. For how many of us feel the world to be as Kafka felt it, too impossibly foreshortened to ride from one village to the next? Or can imagine a world without nouns, as Borges did? How many are willing to be as emotionally generous as Dickens, or to take religious faith as seriously as did Graham Greene? Who among us have Zora Neale Hurston's capacity for joy or Douglas Coupland's strong stomach for the future? Who has the delicacy to tease out Flaubert's faintest nuance, or the patience and the will to follow David Foster Wallace down his intricate recursive spirals of thought?

The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it's a conjurer's trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 12th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 8 November 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

145,240. That's roughly the number of words I read in any given week. And that total does not include publications whose articles I could not access online in order to work out a more accurate estimate. The New Statesman, The Voice, Prospect, The New Yorker, The Economist, these are but some of the weekly or monthly magazines and newspapers I sometimes pick up from my local WH Smith. I also excluded, on purpose, mind you, Libération and Der Spiegel because my forays onto their websites are fewer now. But if I was to add it all up, the actual number would be close to the 270,000 words mark.

270,000 words. I could write a novel with that many vocables. Actually, I always forget that I did start writing one almost eighteen years ago and my tally so far is forty-seven pages. Forty-eight, I managed to finish another scene just now. But, what do these 270,000 words show? They show loyalty to reading certainly and they display a natural craving for knowledge since the bulk of that weekly score is made up by the two newspapers I buy regularly whilst a third is supplied by the novel I am reading at the time of writing this column, "Tess of the D’Urbervilles".

But above all, what my hundred-thousand-plus-a-week-word-count shows is that some people have been starved of information for so long in their lives that we'll just read for the pleasure of reading. It is almost as if we are making up for lost time, or in my case as a Cuban ex-pat, catching up with that past life that happened without me but which is essential in my understanding of the present and the building of the future in my country of destination. It is an attempt to find my way in the current space and time through the power of words.

Shortly after I arrived in London in November '97, I began to commute to West Hampstead. It was then that I acquainted myself with many British newspapers and magazines. Lying scattered on passengers' seats, these various publications turned out to be the litmus test for my subsequent love affair with the world of columns, features, opinions and comments. All of a sudden the 7:57 overground train from King's Cross to Bedford became my private library.

Parallel to this I developed a thirst for visiting bookshops. Whenever possible I would stroll into one of those old and impressive outlets on Charing Cross Road and stay for hours therein. Nearer my previous workplace there was an equally brilliant store as well.

So, twelve years on, what do these 270,000 words mean? Depth, shallowness, earnestness, facetiousness, hope and despondency are but a few of the messages the combination of these words conveys in the passages where they appear. However there's an over-arching sentiment that to me conjures up the need to sit down on the couch with my mate or my favourite mug steaming with hot coffee or mocha to read a newspaper or a book. It is a feeling akin to flying across a vast savannah. Or the equivalent to the emotion that rises up after the rain has stopped and the air feels like the plucked strings of a violin. These 270,000 words bring with them a peaceful kind of happiness that is contradictorily mixed with a type of sadness. Sadness because once I finish reading an article in a magazine or a passage in a book, my short-lived relationship with the author is over. I can go through the same scene or feature again, I can re-read it several times, but I cannot reprise the feeling of anticipation that overwhelmed me before.

Moreover, these 270,000 words are not all top-quality, highbrow (whatever that means these days) writing. There's plently of dross in the mix. And yet, I love how they arrive, many times unannounced, to mingle and rest in front of my eyes. And what would happen if I was to put them in a blender? What would the result be? If we apply the Keith Johnstone's method as seen in his book 'Impro' and which served as the basis for our very own drama group when I was in university, this would the outcome:

Person A (talking to Person B): You're high in the hills of Andalucia, enjoying the views and a rabbit stew, when...
Person B (responding): When Sadler's Wells director Alastair Spalding commissioned four of his associate choreographers to create danceworks "in the spirit of Diaghilev" to celebrate the centenary of the Ballets Russes, the results were always likely to be diverse...
Person A (nodding vigorously): Just use Velcro.
Person B (looking down): Well, it was a little embarrassing. For 40 years this has become my so-called life, and it's a complicated set of issues – the exploitation and genocide of a species, the duplicity of governments, the destruction of an ocean, the poisoning of consumers...

Person A: ...a wife and children, school fees, bills...
Person B (smiling): Ah, control – yes, it's a seductive delusion. Even so, I can totally understand your reticence.
Person A (looking ahead): We will gain more than we will lose by establishing an identity; my tendency would be to risk being more offensive.

And so on. Absurd? Yes, but so is reading 270,000 words per week. I would love to trade my words in the stock market or change them into real money (£270,000? Yeah, dream on!) to be able to visit as many other countries as possible, learn about as many other cultures as it is humanly feasible. But in the meantime, I will keep them with me. They are mine and they make up what I call my life's narrative.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 10th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 5 November 2009

Moolaadé (Review)

An important aspect of global interaction between cultures is that there is, whenever possible, a quid pro quo approach to the exchange. Even if this has not been the case in the economic field oftentimes, at least there is succour in the fact that in many nations different cultures co-exist in almost a peaceful manner, for instance, Malaysia.

But when this trade-off fails, the consequences are disastrous. The reasons for this nonsuccess are multifold but there is one that has always made me scratch my head in total amazement, or should I write, shock: that of human rights and how we view them.

I don't think I am alone in thinking that what happened in Guantanamo during the Bush years was an insult to our human integrity. And the fact that the Obama administration has shown no willingness whatsoever to prosecute those responsible for such cruel acts, is the proverbial salt being rubbed in our collective wound. When in the UK the Metropolitan Police were found guilty of assaulting 'The Big Issue' vendor Ian Tomlinson last April, and causing his death, again the phrase 'human rights' was bandied around.

Why, then, the tepid attitude to female genital mutilation? How come we still refer to it as a 'cultural difference? Where is our outrage to this barbaric practice?

Luckily, we have film-makers like the late Ousmane Sembene to put the record straight. In what became the coda of his excellent body of work, 'Moolaadé', the veteran Senegalese director addressed the issue of FGM and how it affected women. When Collé Gallo Ardo Sy agrees to help a group of four-to-nine-year-olds escape their circumcision ritual and gives them protection (Moolaadé), she sets a series of events in motion, the outcome of which she cannot fathom. But then, Collé is in a better position than many of her co-villagers to assess the damage that will be done to these children. She herself went through the painful process many years ago and she still bears both the physical and mental scars. As a consequence she refuses to have her own daughter circumcised when her time comes, which causes yet more friction between her and the elders. Now, Collé is determined to stick up for these girls and shows her bravery by putting a coloured rope across the entrance to her hut. This is the sign for the Moolaadé and can only be revoked by Collé herself.

In this movie Sembene cleverly uses the analogy of this small village in Burkina Fasso to conduct an X-ray of Africa itself and how practices that have come to be accepted without being properly analysed or discussed are at odds with our modern view of the world. It also helps that his approach is neither gratuitous nor visually violent. Instead we learn of two girls who drown in a nearby river when told they have to go through the ritual. We are shown briefly the small knife used for the circumcisions, we hear off-screen cries. Rather than showing actual gore, Sembene lets us imagine what it's like for girls to go through such criminal procedure. But that his work is thorough and deep there is no doubt.

For starters there's Collé's husband. Although he has more than one wife as it is the custom, he allows them all to have a greater degree of independence than that granted to other spouses. When the elders' council meets to reach an agreement on what to do about Collé, her husband is invited, but he is talked to, rather than consulted. The message is clear, sort out your wife, or deal with the consequences.

Also, the pace of the movie is not as fast as most Western flicks. We are let in on the daily life of a village in Africa and the contrast between how this continent is seen by the first world and by an African film-maker is very stark. No condescension or patronising attitude, Sembene just lets the camera roll. We see women listening to their radios with such fervour that it reminded me of a similar scenario in late 80s Cuba when at 11am most people would be glued to their transistors listening to the famous soap 'El Derecho de Nacer' (The Right to Be Born) on the Cuban-state-censored, Miami-based Radio Marti. We become first-hand witnesses to the banter in which Mercenaire, a travelling trader reputed to be a ladies' man, and the village women indulge. We take front row seats at the ceremony celebrating the arrival from Paris of the son of one of the elders'.

But under this veneer of placidity we encounter a world fraught with tension. And the consequences of this conflict are tragic. Although I was not totally convinced by the ending - thought it a bit over the top -, it did show African women in a different category from the one in which they are usually put. Rather than accepting the elders' decree, Collé rallies a group of women and together they march down to a council meeting to demand that the practice of female genital mutilation stop at once.

According to the World Health Organisation, one of the bodies whose website I checked during my preparations to present the documentary 'Until the Violence Stops' a couple of years ago, FGM 'includes procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons.' According to the Human Rights Act 1998, under its 'Right to Life' article, 'Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law.'

With 'Moolaadé' Ousmane Sembene seriously questions the validity of ancient traditions in today's Africa and places the sacrosanct right to uphold human life above so-called 'cultural differences'. I strongly recommend this film.

Note: I'm sorry that the trailer has Spanish subtitles, I could not find a better one on youtube. Thanks.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 8th November at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 3 November 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (9th Part)

True or false? That was my first reaction to Zadie Smith's statement this week. For parts 1-8, click here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

The dream of a perfect novel drives writers crazy

There is a dream that haunts writers: the dream of the perfect novel. It is a dream that causes only chaos and misery. The dream of this perfect novel is really the dream of a perfect revelation of the self. In America, where the self is so neatly wedded to the social, their dream of the perfect novel is called "The Great American Novel" and requires the revelation of the soul of a nation , not just of a man . . .

Still I think the principle is the same: on both sides of the Atlantic we dream of a novel that tells the truth of experience perfectly. Such a revelation is impossible -it will always be a partial vision, and even a partial vision is incredibly hard to achieve. The reason it is so hard to think of more than a handful of great novels is because the duty I've been talking about - the duty to convey accurately the truth of one's own conception - is a duty of the most demanding kind. If, every 30 years, people complain that there were only a few first-rate novels published, that's because there were only a few. Genius in fiction has always been and always will be extremely rare. Fact is, to tell the truth of your own conception - given the nature of our mediated world, given the shared and ambivalent nature of language, given the elusive, deceitful, deluded nature of the self - truly takes a genius, truly demands of its creator a breed of aesthetic and ethical integrity that makes one's eyes water just thinking about it. But there's no reason to cry. If it's true that first-rate novels are rare, it's also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them.

The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt, and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you'll ever do. It is a writer's duty. It is also a reader's duty. Did I mention that yet?

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Moolaadé' (Review, to be published on Thursday 5th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 1 November 2009

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A few weeks ago I was in a park, in a leafy part of London, with my daughter. It was the kind of summer day that most people have in mind when they think of Britain; sunny but nippy. I had a jumper on and given the park’s location (yuppy, middle-class area), it was a case of leaving my hoodie down and being greeted warmly by passers-by or putting it up and risking a visit by the local bobbie. I chose the former and opened my copy of The Observer as wide as possible.

My daughter was playing in the sandpit and I was completely immersed in the newspaper – maybe reading the excellent Robert McCrum or the deliciously witty and sarcastic Catherine Bennett – when a pair of hazel eyes forced mine to take a detour from the page I was avidly devouring. It was my offspring and she looked quite upset. ‘That boy just hit me and bit me’. What? I asked her with eyes wide open, whilst my eyebrows shot up so high that they could have been used as a bar for a pole vaulting competition. ‘Yes, he just went like this’. And then she showed me how the boy (probably nine or ten) had clipped her on the left temple and sunk his teeth in her arm – though she had been really quick in withdrawing her upper limb before real damage could be done.

At this moment I would like to open a metaphorical bracket to explain to readers, followers and fellow bloggers that when it comes to next of kin, you offend one member of my family and you might as well move to Mars - and face the tough border controls they have there which put the ones at Calais port to shame - because as the famous philosopher Marcellus Wallace said in that treatise on human relationships called ‘Pulp Fiction’, I will go medieval on their a***s. And if they think it is all over when they are in hospital recovering, they’re in for a nasty surprise. I will make sure that they stay awake to watch every single episode of the ‘Jordan and Peter Laid Bare’ DVD series. Back to back to back to back to back to back to back… ad infinitum. They will wish they were in Guantanamo. Or at least they will look at the colour orange in a different light. End of the metaphorical bracket.

After my daughter reported to me what had happened in the sandpit, I was faced with two choices: one, ask her to ignore the child or two, have a word with the culprit's mother. That was when I noticed something else.

The child did not look normal. His movements were brusque and uncoordinated. There was also a somewhat feral approach in his attitude to the toys he was using. As I continued to watch this minor, I realised there was another peculiar spectacle going on.

Out of two dozen children playing in the sandpit when my daughter arrived there was only one left now: my eight-year-old. And she was sitting with me. All the other kiddies had scrambled away. If we'd had an aerial view of the aforementioned small, square enclosure, the child and his mother would have been in the southwestern part whilst most adults and their offspring were in the northeast. Berlin Wall, come back, alles ist entschuldigt.

Then, on closer inspection, another curious element caught my eye: my daughter's aggressor's mother's attire and how out of place it looked amidst the jeans, Birkenstocks and mostly GAP and Next jumpers worn by the other parents. A dark scarf adorned the woman's head, an equally crepuscular, large, long-sleeved blouse covered her upper body whilst a colourful Gypsy skirt took care of her thighs and legs. She was barefoot with both her feet inside the sandpit, whilst her black sandals rested by the sandpit. And she could not speak a word of English. How did I know this? Because I chose option two and went to have a word with her about what her child had done to my daughter. She mumbled the words: 'Me no English'. That was when the penny dropped.

Suddenly my initial rage was replaced by a different feeling. The sentiment that this was an anomalous situation happening to someone who had probably been in a similar position before. It was clear that her child had a mental disability - autism perhaps? -, but what really compounded her ordeal was that she was a foreigner with no command of the English language in a setting which, although inviting, was as hostile as a park in the middle of a block of council flats at twelve o' clock midnight.

This was a double, or rather, triple whammy. Disability is one of those issues that gets brushed under the carpet or overlooked completely so often that one might think we're a nation where 100% of the population is fit and able. And it pains me to say that years ago I would have joined the ranks of parents who were now sitting in the other side of the park waiting for the 'odd' kid to go. Yes, I put my hand up, too.

Disability was never properly discussed at home when I was growing up and on one occasion I remember my younger self pestering my mother about wanting to be a baby again. It was to do with all that attention and affection (not that I lacked any, by the way but I was still an only child then and so you tend to want more all the time). I was probably nine or ten at the time, but my progenitor retorted sharply to my harassment: 'Well, you know, if you do want to be a baby again, you will be like him'. And then she pointed at a boy who lived in our block and had Down's Syndrome. That was the end of me importuning my mother on the same subject. But the image stayed with me and I'm sad to say that not in a positive light.

Fast-forward more than twenty-five years later and once I began to live in the UK I became aware of how hot this topic was and will continue to be. Just recently Andy Burnham, the health secretary, had to come clean about the fact that disability benefits will not be scrapped to fund the new national care service. Phew, what a relief! But why even think about it? Could it have something to do with the 'us' vs 'them' culture that imbues much of our social interaction nowadays? 'I'm active, I can walk, work out and cycle, so anything to do with the less mobile is not my concern'. Until it strikes you, literally.

Five years ago I met Jim. He was an affable man, a natural joker. We were both doing a project management course and he was the soul of the party, so to speak. There was just one tiny difference. Jim had had a stroke when he was in his forties. His right side had been left paralysed and as a consequence he had had to learn how to do everything anew. We became acquaintances after he contacted the organisation I used to work for before. He wanted to use visual art, drawing and painting in this case, to help stroke sufferers regain mobility. It was a beautiful scheme and Jim was so keen to kick off at once. My then boss, a very good painter and teacher in her own right, took over the class and by May 2005, almost nine months after the course had started, Jim's group had the first exhibition at our arts centre. We put it up in the hall because we wanted to raise awareness of stroke and its consequences. We also wanted to fly the flag of optimism, that not everything was lost, that there were ways in which to approach such heavy blows. The exhibition was a success, especially hearing first people's comments on how simple the drawings and painting looked and then seeing their reactions when properly told who the artists (I still refuse to call them students, you should have seen the quality of the works on display, eat your heart out, Tracey Emin, and don't forget to take your messy, unmade bed with you when you move to France, please) were and what they had gone through. Their expressions and attitudes changed totally and were replaced by candour and sympathy instead.

Jim's group also wanted to lobby the local government to fund this initiative long-term. Hence his enrolling on a project management course. Together we learnt how to plan, deliver, monitor and evaluate projects. And I also helped him with the business side of his scheme, as I had just become an advisor for my company (one of those many hats we wear in the public sector and which my post a fortnight ago touched upon light-heartedly). Although, I have not seen Jim for a few years now, I know that his group exists and is very active in our local community.

But if the previous case scenario reads like a success story to some of you, then, in the same way I think that we ought to be just as honest to admit that the future does not augur as well for the child I saw in the park that day. Because as it usually happens within minority groups, besides the external obstacles they face: lack of government funding, target-orientated agenda, short-term strategy, there is also the 'difference within the difference' hurdle to overcome. I have already explained this term before, which is not actually mine, but a friend's and which she first used back in the early 90s when she edited a short-lived gay pamphlet in Havana called 'Huellas' (Foootprints). When it comes to disability, people like Jim are in a better position to earn the public's sympathy vote. That kiddie in the park, unfortunately, is the flipside of our flippant coin. When it comes to mental health, the presumption is that you cannot perform to the best of your abilities, because you don't have any. Time to Change, a programme aimed at ending the discrimination that people with mental health problems face, revealed recently that 92% of Britons would not disclose suffering from a mental disorder lest this admission damaged their career prospects. Shocking, isn't it? I think I ought to translate that article for Mum. Now add the lack of linguistic skills and factor in possible economic deprivation and you will get a fuller picture of what that child's future will look like.

I would have loved to wrap up my column today by saying that in the end we all linked arms in the park and gave a powerful rendition of 'We Are the World' whilst hugging a big tree at the same time. But no, I can't write that because that didn't happen. The parents stayed in their corner and my daughter went back to the sandpit, although she kept to her own little nook - she might be a tough cookie, but, you know, once bitten, twice shy, literally.

What I did see, though, was plenty of love pouring out from that mother. Everytime I looked at her, she was watching her son affectionately. She kept smiling at him, even when he attempted to hit her. You could only marvel at her composure. And that to me was the highlight that day.

This is the first time since I began uploading videos from youtube that I am not completely happy with my choice. I'll explain. The first time I listened to the song that closes this column today was by the exceptional Sinead O'Connor. It was included in her album 'Universal Mother'. I did not know at the time it was a cover version but recently I came across an earlier performance of the track by none other than Luke Kelly. Now, I love Luke's singing and his very own version of 'Dirty Old Town' is amongst my favourites on my youtube channel. But for some reason 'Scorn Not His Simplicity', in my humble opinion, is meant to be sung by a woman. However, since there's no clip on the aforementioned site of Sinead singing the song - and I am loath to upload videos of tunes accompanied just by an album cover - I have decided to give you the option of clicking on the link below and listening to the track as sung by Sinead, or watching Luke performing the same tune. By the way he does a sterling job of it, I just think Sinead's version is better. And needless to say, this post and clip today are dedicated to that mother and child who were playing together in that park, in that leafy part of London. Enjoy.

Sinead O'connor - Scorn Not His Simplicity

Image taken from Candoco Dance Company's website. Candoco is a contemporary dance company of disabled and non-disabled dancers.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 3rd November at 10am (GMT)


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