Thursday 29 April 2010

Feminism: Has It Gone Wrong? (2nd Part)

And tonight we finish the debate about feminism that we started last Tuesday 27th April. To read the first part, including the five bloggers' biographies, click here.

4- It looks like womanhood - whatever that means, and please, contribute your own thoughts to the definition of that word - and feminism are mutual friends and foes, depending on the context and the individual. What's your take on it?

Deborah: As feminism celebrated being female, it had a distinct tendency to decry femininity. While it would be simplistic to view femininity as a ‘one size fits all’ concept, so is it incorrect to assume that the level of importance placed by an individual woman on ‘feminine’ pursuits, interests or perspectives is in inverse proportion to her belief in, or commitment to the basic tenets of feminism. The extremes of the early movement have been tempered over the years, but the debate over whether a woman can be ‘not feminine enough’ or ‘too feminine’, still goes on. I can’t speak for women in general, but my experience of the difficulty making choices that allowed me to be flexible and true to myself without appearing to betray what I expected of myself as a feminist was shared by a number of female friends of my age. An ideology that suggested compromise with men was essentially subjugation and that what could be termed classic feminine urges to nourish and support were evidence of our lack of self-worth (to name but two examples), contributed negatively to the already complex dance of the sexes. On the other hand, influenced by women who were competent and confident, whose perspectives had value, whose goals were humanistic, and who committed themselves to a better world for women made me proud to be female, more confident to be who I was without measuring myself against the almost wholly male-centered standards of pre-feminist society. It took a few decades for me to realize that feminism and femininity could happily co-exist, and the irony of that is that it took a man to convince me of it.

Hema: What is womanhood? There is no one universal definition for it, because it means different things to different women. In fact, I would take it a step further and say that the word means different things to the same woman in different contexts. Womanhood (free of all cultural connotations attached to it), for me, is basically defined by the sum of all the principles a woman holds dear. I do not agree that depending upon the woman in question and the context in which she finds herself, feminism and womanhood are rivals. If a woman’s view of feminism (because even this word has many layers to it) is in-line with the principles she upholds, then she could be a feminist and still be true to her definition of womanhood.We hear every day about women (in their own confessions) who are forced to compromise on their integrity, among other things, to achieve success. It is my belief that in cases such as this (where the woman has the luxury of thinking about success as opposed to survival), there has been a deviation between the woman’s ideals and her definition of success, or there wouldn’t even be a question of a compromise. And her choice that led to the compromise is a personal one, and cannot be blamed on feminism.

Miriam Levine: “Womanhood” refers to the adult stage of life after girlhood. For me, the word “womanhood,” connotes maturity, strength, and wisdom, qualities hardly in conflict with feminism.

T. Allen Mercado: Womanhood? Laughs. "Isms" really complicate things, don't they? Speaking for myself, my womanhood and feminism are mutual friends. One of the ways I broach/defend the topic when it arises, which is often, is by reminding my friends/colleagues/etc. that feminism is about equality and choice. Therefore, there are and will always be facets of the movement (I prefer lifestyle) I opt against, because I have the freedom to do so.

Catherine: I see ‘womanhood’ in two different ways. It is the biological extras that come with being female – primarily being a mother and thus a caregiver, which for many women is a privilege, and something to strive towards. Other women see child-bearing as a hindrance to an independent life, cutting short or diminishing any potential career, but of course, bearing children is not a prerequisite to womanhood – rather womanhood is a prerequisite to having children, and women have the choice not to have children if they don’t want them (I cannot comment on any pressure that women who don’t want children may face, as I have never encountered that myself, though I am sure it exists).
The other side of womanhood does limit women, to the point where I question how much of me is me, and how much of me is ‘woman’. This womanhood is what we see in the media, in advertising, in all women around us everyday; women feed this image of womanhood, and this is what fuels the type of repression Charlotte Raven talks about in her article. The image of the pretty, feminine woman in the frilly apron is exactly the same in its nature as the heartless career bitch in a suit, and both are as stilting to women’s progress as each other.

5- In the same way that market forces created the metrosexual man at the end of the 90s and beginning of the 2000s (clean-shaved chins, a more effeminate look and Brazilian waxes, although I would definitely stop at the latter), the same consumerist, publicity machine gave birth to pole-dancing, guilt-free promiscuity and alcohol-fuelled hen nights. Female liberation or misogynous Neo-colonisation?

Deborah: Neither. It’s a posture, depicting sex as currency and masquerading as the seeking of some basic truth. It’s as limiting as any of the pre-feminist ideals and expectations of women. Sexuality is a complex, nuanced, aspect of being human and highly individual, as any sex therapist or will tell you. Any media- or marketing- based perspective that reduces sex to mere sensation or sensationalism or appearance should be regarded with the scepticism it deserves. We lose—all of us—when we give in to the suggestion that there is an ideal expression of sexuality, particularly when it is flavoured by self-interest and personal power.

Hema: Can we blame this new phenomenon entirely on consumerism?This is definitely not female liberation. If it is, then it is implied that all those (majority, I would like to point out) women who refuse to embrace this so-called trend are: subjugated, down-trodden, and uncouth. Also, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it colonization, because that would imply that the larger chunk of today’s women think that way, which is untrue. If anything, this tendency is as much a personal choice, on a case by case basis, as anything else. And why should it be called misogynous, when women are the ones facilitating this shift, to the most extent, by choosing such a lifestyle? I blame it on a combination of: excess of love for themselves, a skewed definition of success, and the fashionable “I’m worth it” attitude going overboard.

Miriam Levine: Exotic dancing, strip tease, belly dancing existed long before the market forces of the 90s. Remember Salome. Most men like this visual stimulation. However, pole dancing, etc. demeans women: they become brainless objects. I’d be interested in what these women have to say about their work. I once heard a talk by a showgirl in Las Vegas. She spoke as she gave a demonstration of how she put on her make-up. She was articulate and gracious—nothing like the pole dancers in The Sopranos. How much promiscuity actually exists? Cheers for women dining and drinking together. What’s the matter with hens? They lay delicious eggs. I prefer free-range, so let’s free them from cages. Keep in mind the long tradition of poker playing and bowling nights-out for men. Think of private men’s clubs! Come on!

T. Allen Mercado: I'm compelled to go with the latter, and I'm not lumping all participants under that clause, but somewhere along the way-even the best intentions at reclaiming, expressing and/or defining our sexuality went awry. Does it surprise me? Not at all. Historically this has been the Achilles' heel of most "isms". I certainly think a series of one-ups on the generations' previous led to the decline we see now, much like a game of Jenga.

Catherine: This aspect of feminism has the potential to be argued forever by two women standing at different angles. The way I see it, women who express their sexuality on their sleeves are fuelling sexual repression amongst all women. However liberating or enjoyable they may find pole-dancing, they are putting a beacon over all women as sex objects and performing animals. I’m certainly not saying that women who wear miniskirts are asking to be raped, but there is a reason that one in three women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and I don’t think that is only down to men. Men are presented with the image of sexually ‘liberated’ women every day, putting themselves out on the table to be ogled at, twisting their bodies around poles with such pleasure, wearing tacky penis-shaped headbands and feather boas as they stumble out of bars. This is not liberation that we are seeing; this is pure sexual repression, desperately calling out ‘look at me’ as the human inside the promiscuous outfit hides behind the image of society’s sex godess. Surely, to be liberated is to say no to this misogynous idea of sexualised women?

Next Post: 'Sunday Morning: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 2nd May at 10:00am (GMT)

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Feminism: Has It Gone Wrong? (1st Part)

Note: In order to understand the content of the following post you need to read the introductory one, here.

At no point, when I conceived this debate after reading Charlotte Raven's article in The Guardian (read the original text here), did I predict the amazing response I've had from both the five participants in the discussion and those who decided not to take part but still e-mailed their opinions through. As I mentioned in a message to one of the five bloggers whose comments you'll read in a minute, tonight's first part and next Thursday's second instalment of this discussion threw me a few years back when I used to organise a monthly off-the-cuff session at an arts centre where I was one of the project managers. From 2004 until 2008, when the company closed down, I brought a diverse bunch of artists (mainly performers) to one of the most deprived areas in London, where I've also happened to live for many years now. From those sessions it is the film-screenings that I always remember the best because they introduced both the audience and me to a cornucopia of independent directors and companies of which I had never heard. After each film we used to have a Q&A session with the producer and or director. I chaired these post-screening debates and besides having specialists on the panel I always invited other parties whose work was relevant to the topic addressed by the film.

And that was the same sentiment that overcame me as soon as I started getting your replies about feminism and its role in today's society. As I trudged through your answers, my dear fellow bloggers, I felt like a child in a sweet shop. Sometimes I nodded in agreement, occasionally I shook my head, but above all, you made me think and I hope readers will walk away tonight giving more thought to some of the issues you raised.

As promised all bloggers' biographies have been posted and you'll see that they all come from different walks of life. Some of you did not send any photos, so I've taken the liberty of using your blogs byline pictures and I hope that's OK. I've also linked all your blogs or websites.

What else can I add? Well, that I had a ball drafting the questions, receiving and reading your answers, preparing the posts (don't miss the second part on Thursday 29th April at 11:59pm GMT) and now I look forward to digesting your feedback. Without any further ado, let the debate commence.

Deborah (The Temptation of Words): Anglo-Canadian by birth and culture, I spend most of my time in the south of France with my favourite Belgian, and the rest in the shadow of the Rockies in the thoroughly enjoyable company of whichever of my three grown children happens to be there.

Hema (Wading Through Words): I currently live in the U.S, but I grew up in India; I draw inspiration for my writing from my rich and diverse cultural heritage. I am a software engineer by training and a writer by choice.

T. Allen Mercado (Tea and Honey Bread): mixed media artist, award winning essayist, wife and un/homeschooling mother of two. She concedes to a near unhealthy fascination with the human condition and writes about it often from the perspective of a neurotic humanist, womanist, pacifist, socialist. She is also an occasional pessimist.

Miriam Levine (Miriam Levine's website): Born in Paterson, New Jersey, Miriam Levine now divides her time between Florida and Massachusetts. Currently she is at work on a new novel and a poetry collection. She is Professor Emerita at Framingham State College, where she chaired the English Department and was Coordinator of the Arts and Humanities Program.
Catherine Smith (Jumbleberry Orchard): I am a postgraduate student in linguistics, currently living alone in a small flat in York. I grew up in an ex-mining town in West Yorkshire, with hardworking parents who have achieved a lot from very little. My parents always encouraged me to work hard and to be independent, and pushed me hard to achieve good results; getting a good education and an exciting career has always been their priority for me.

1- Feminism has often been accused of being a movement led by and directly benefiting middle-class, educated, western women, thus, overlooking the role played by many female activists on the frontline of social and political struggles, such as: domestic violence, pay inequity, restrictions on reproductive rights. What do you think about it?

Deborah: I do tend to agree that a form of two-tier feminism exists, although the feminist leaders of the 60s and 70s gave enormous impetus to what was a more isolated, under-the-radar struggle to bring greater freedom and equality to women. While the well-educated and articulate, high-profile and media-savvy principals of the feminist movement may have had greater appeal to an audience of their peers, the emergence of public debate and personal discourse fuelled a wave of awareness that gave front-line activists a support base and a credibility that might have otherwise been much longer to arrive – if ever. For the generation that followed the first major wave of contemporary feminists, however, the message and the movement have been diluted. My daughter’s generation has assumed the fact of both their equality and their right to access education, professional success and reproductive freedom but for many of them, feminism ends there. The activists who work in the ‘gritty’ areas—for the rights and betterment of the lives of sex-trade workers, immigrant child-care providers, native women (in Canada) and low-literate women, don’t get a lot of attention from those who have benefitted from the social change effected by their predecessors. For them—and even for many of us who came of age during the Golden Age of Feminism—the deal seems done. We got what we were after, didn’t we? Well, some of us did, and many more didn’t. In British Columbia, for instance, scores of women have disappeared off the streets of Vancouver in the last 15 years – and for much of that time, there was no reaction from the media or the police. It was only because of the constant efforts of family members and women’s activists that the magnitude of this loss was finally acknowledged and the push to open an investigation was resisted for far too long. It’s all too tempting to suspect that the victims’ public invisibility was due to their gender, their poverty and their line of work, which was in some cases was in fact the sex trade, but in many others was just incorrectly assumed to be the case. Ergo, they’re not that important, or they got what they were asking for. This is a case in point where the feminist movement has made very little difference, where—not unlike the economically comfortable middle classes of the West who remain largely uninvolved with the problems of the developing world—those who have reaped the incomplete rewards of contemporary feminism have taken what they needed to be comfortable, and left the rest.

Hema: I would agree with this assessment, only when it comes to feminism as an organized movement. As a teenager in India, in the 80s, I knew of a woman (as just one example) who used to buy school supplies every year for her neighbor’s daughter, so that that girl wouldn’t have to drop out of school for lack of money. So, that lady helped empower a girl-child by supporting her education. Did she do it keeping in mind the concept of ‘feminism’? Probably not. Just because she has not been part of the bigger movement, does that make her any less of a feminist? No.I think the basic philosophy behind feminism – struggle for gender equality - is practiced every day, either at grassroots level inside many homes, or on a bigger scale by female social activists and such all across the globe. However, feminism as an organized movement has been more or less a western concept (or restricted to cities, for the most part, elsewhere in the world). Overall, my take on feminism resonates very much with that of Sarojini Naidu – a poet and a prominent voice in the nationalist and women’s movements during India’s freedom struggle. She once said (I paraphrase) that she wouldn’t call herself a feminist because to do so would be to acknowledge that women are weak, and hence need an organized movement to uplift themselves.

T. Allen Mercado: Women of color who served on the front lines and fought for civil rights/human rights aren't lauded for their contributions to the feminist movement, this is clear and a topic of intensity. Part of me resents the "othering", while the other embraces the greater picture. I am not just a feminist. Feminism is but one link in the chain. This is exceptionally important to recognize as we encounter the complex subtleties of gender and how it is both defined, accepted and understood.

Miriam Levine: In America, in the nineteenth century, educated feminists were tremendously influential in the Abolitionist movement that helped end slavery. Feminists fought for the right to vote, a right that helped all women. More recently, feminists continue to struggle against domestic violence, which affects all classes! They are also in the forefront of efforts to guarantee reproductive rights, and access to birth control and abortion. In 1971 more than three hundred French women stood up and publicly stated that they had had an abortion. Following their example, in its first issue in 1972, Ms. Magazine published a petition “in which 53 well-known U.S. women declared that they had undergone abortions.”

Catherine: I agree that Western women are feeling most (if not all) of the benefits of the feminist movement, but then it was Western women who started and carried out the revolution in the first place. In Europe and America we are blessed with the overall freedom of our societies; the struggle for equal rights was always going to be easier in countries which prioritise democracy and human rights. The worldwide battle has a long way to go, but there is a strong movement of liberated women who are involved in struggling for those women who are still waiting for their freedom. I believe that these issues are being tackled, if very slowly. If a movement is going to be lead at all, it will always be those who feel they have a voice who will lead it; in this case, it is the educated middle-class women who can speak the loudest, possibly as a result of being the principle benefactors. However, it could be that these women don’t actually benefit from the feminist movement as they don’t actually need to; they are not the women suffering in social and political struggles. Many female activists living through real struggles may well see the Western idea of feminism in its stereotype: a plight to gain equality with men in terms of money, power and social respect. This stereotypical Western feminist is a far throw from the women suffering from circumcision, violence and forced pregnancy on every side of the globe; these issues go beyond feminism to fundamental human rights.

2- It seems that sometimes feminism is not compatible with women's freedom to choose, especially if that choice sometimes hinders their own progress. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Deborah: It’s difficult to address the issue of ‘feminism’ without a definition of what it was, and what it has become. As a woman who came of age in the early 70s, I now see some aspects of the feminism of that era as restrictive, in the sense that its philosophy was frequently oppositional. In the push for equity of pay, of opportunity, of power and control based solely on gender, there was little room for disagreement without appearing to be ‘unenlightened’ or ‘under the thumb’. There was a lot of pressure on women from each other to discard everything they had ever learned, accepted and even enjoyed about their female-ness, or how they related to men, in order to become New Women. Not a lot of tolerance for individual circumstances, preferences, or the potential for an attitude of entitlement to backfire both personally and professionally. Feminism has lightened up since then in some ways, but the debate that still rages on about ‘having it all’ and the ambivalence still widely expressed about professional women who maintain their careers while raising a family on the one hand, and the often disparaging depiction of women who elect to focus on their children on the other, clearly demonstrates that we haven’t come to terms with anybody’s freedom to choose.

Hema: At the height of the feminist movement (and by that I mean the 1960s and 70s), this may have been partly true. (I concede this point with some reluctance because my impressions are from having read books and watched television shows about that time period, for lack of a more objective data for myself – I was too young in the 70s to have had first-hand understanding of the movement’s ideology and workings.) During those days, if a woman chose of her own accord to give up a high-paying corporate job (for instance) to stay home and nurture her kids, then she’d have been labeled anti-feminist. I would like to believe (though I don’t have concrete data either way) that the feminist movement ideally did not begin this way, and that this kind of hindrance to a woman’s personal choice was a radical off-shoot of the original campaign, as it usually happens with organized movements over time. These days, I believe women definitely have more freedom (in view of feminism, at least) to make their own choices, based upon their own perception of progress, and not be tagged for it one way or the other.

T. Allen Mercado: Within the Black community this is a highly divisive topic. Freedom of choice is heavily slanted in favor of having children and marriage versus career advancement and activism. The church and family mores within our community are certainly foes of feminism. To that end, as stated in my answer to question one. Black feminism is so heavily shrouded under the umbrella of equality as a whole, that much of the detail is lost in the bigger picture.

Miriam Levine: It is hardly Feminism that restricts women’s right to choose. Think of the church, think of fundamentalist religions that often dictate dress, sexual relations, child-bearing, work life, domestic life, etc., etc. Women who break those rules sometimes risk death. In contrast, Feminism fights for individual freedom. While conditions have improved in the work place, the business world still restricts women. Can anyone cite important examples of Feminists speaking against women who choose to have children, not to work outside the home, etc.? As a feminist, I am horrified by those feet and back destroying spike heels so much in fashion and by so much of cosmetic surgery, but I wouldn’t take away women’s right to choose no matter how much the shoes hobble their steps, no matter how painful the surgery. I’m all for fashion that liberates the female body. Spike shoes restrict; cosmetic surgery is painful and not long lasting. The best thing women can do for themselves is to get an education and keep physically active. I believe it is economic and historical forces that influence progress for better or worse.

Catherine: As a woman with a good education, just about to start out in my first career, I feel incredible pressure to do what I’m capable of, and not necessarily what I actually want to do. I don’t know whether this stems from my position as a woman in a situation of potential success, or if this is an instinct general to men and women alike. I do know, however, that I want to bring up my own children, and in many ways, revert to that stereotypical domestic lifestyle that women fought so hard to free themselves from. I know I’m not alone in this choice, and I know that many women are unsure about giving up on their personal dreams to pursue a domestic lifestyle: does it mean we are giving ourselves away to our gender roles by fulfilling a basic human instinct to nurture our offspring? Even so, progress in terms of career only comes at the expense of this instinct, and choosing to stay at home and bring up a family comes at the expense of a successful career (at the extremes of the spectrum); at the end of the day, feminism has to stop somewhere and let nature take over. If women are to reproduce, then their babies need to be looked after; either way women must choose, and if that is not compatible with feminism then there must be limits to feminism’s compatibility with nature.

3- The author appears to believe that writers and journalists are the only 'thinking women'. What's your opinion about it?

Deborah: The author’s comparison sampling is a bit limited, confined as it seems to be to female celebrities and media personalities on the one hand, and intellectuals on the other. It has distinct echoes of the eternal (and absurd) conflict between brains and beauty (in whatever form you see it) with the supposition that women cannot be endowed with the one, and have any semblance of the other. Because the media, in its various forms, tends to reflect and define the most evident—or are they just the most entertaining?—attitudes and sociological trends, the error can be made to believe that what we read/hear/watch on television is true of a majority. It is not. There are thinking women a-plenty out here beyond the tabloids, the celebrity press, the sometimes limited research and accompanying dubious conclusions of serious writers and sociological commentators, who tell us how they think they see it

Hema: I would like to give the author the benefit of the doubt, since she’s not in front of me to defend her stance, that she used writers and journalists in that context as examples of ‘thinking women’, not as all-encompassing categories of the same. Even then she would have done better to include others from disparate walks of life.If I am being too generous and the author did mean it when she said that writers and journalists are the only thinking women, then she couldn’t be more off the mark. Let’s take a woman who does menial labor for daily wages as but one instance of women who couldn’t be any farther in the spectrum from the thinking women that the author has come up with. The woman in our example - who would often be considered uneducated in the traditional sense of the word - is usually wise and astute; and at most times she shoulders the burden of her whole – usually large – family. She may not be making momentous political and judicial decisions everyday that would make or break the country’s future, but she definitely is thinking about things that are far more important to her family’s survival. Just because her thoughts are more practical and immediate, do we have the right to trivialize them?

T. Allen Mercado: The author, as it appears to me discusses theories gleaned from several publications, hence her comment about writers and journalists in par. 2. I believe she was calling upon other writers and journalists-albeit after the fact -to counter the views expressed (successfully promoted and sold) by Price and others of the same vein. Exclusionary, perhaps-but it read to me that she was critiquing/admonishing a group of her peers.

Miriam Levine: I didn’t get that impression from the article.

Catherine: I can’t really say I have an opinion. I can only disagree! Since she is a journalist herself it seems reasonable that she would use this position as her viewpoint into other situations; I didn’t interpret any suggestion of thinking being exclusive to female writers and journalists, but if this is the case, well, I’m neither a writer nor a journalist, yet I would probably say I’m a ‘thinking woman’!

The 2nd Part will be published on Thursday 29th April at 11:59pm (GMT)

Saturday 24 April 2010

Killer Opening Songs (I Feel the Earth Move)

Comfort music is like comfort food: a simple, familiar dish better served when you return home after some time away. Or as in Killer Opening Songs's case, after three weeks (volcanic ash cloud included). And amongst the melodies that could be included in K.O.S.'s canon there are a few you might recognise and probably even use to induce that feeling of well-being and satisfaction. Macy Gray's debut album 'On How Life Is' comes to mind straight away. And so does Fiona Apple's 'When the Pawn' (the full title is 'When the Pawn Hits the Conflict He Thinks Like a King', but let's not get picky). In Spanish, Killer Opening Songs plumps for the music of Joaquin Sabina ('Fisica y Quimica'), whereas the Algerian singer Souad Massi fills up K.O.S.'s heart with warm and nostalgic tunes ('Deb').

Yet, when discussing comfort music, space should be made to include one of the more flavourful albums ever made: 'Tapestry' by US singer, songwriter and pianist Carole King.

Whereas most records will contain at least one weak track or filler (sometimes two or three depending on the length), 'Tapestry' is one of those rare musical outings where each song is a standalone hit. No wonder it spent fifteen consecutive weeks at number one in the US (according to wiki) and six years in the charts. The album combines King's wide vocal spectrum with stellar musical arrangement. From racy melodies, like for instance the Killer Opening Song, 'I Feel the Earth Move' to mellow ballads, like 'You've Got a Friend', this is a pop record where the artist's creative vision calls the shots.

The Murderous Introductory Track is a good example. 'I Feel the Earth Move' mixes upbeat piano rhythm (Carol's), energetic vocals (her again), wild guitar chords (Danny Kootch) and a good partnership between Joel O'Brien and Charles Larkey on drums and electric bass respectively. The latter two remain on the sidelines so as not to overshadow piano and guitar, but they still make their presence felt. The other element that makes this track as enjoyable as a plate of steak with rice and black beans is the way the piano comes in between each phrase at the beginning to accentuate the rhythm: 'I feel the earth (piano) move (piano) under my feet/I feel the sky tum-b-ling down - tum-b-ling down...' The image it presents to me is polished harshness, a raw track, but a cheerful one, too.

When K.O.S. first heard this album he was taken aback by the contrast between the sense of placidity and domesticity conveyed by the cover - Carole King sitting barefoot by the window, enveloped in a shadow of blue hues, kitty cat nearby, curtains open and letting the sunlight in - and the bold tone of the Killer Opening Song. But with the passing of time and after listening to it many times he realised that both album cover and content are intricately linked. They provide that ultimate feeling of homecoming and heart-filling: it is comfort music and you're invited to tuck in.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Feminism: Has It Gone Wrong', to be published on Tuesday 27th April at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 18 April 2010

Greatest Hits - Bonus Track 'Road Songs'

Yes, I know that last Thursday's post ought to have been the coda of this short Greatest Hits compilation. But... but... but... how to explain it? Certain events in life combine so many disparate elements and yet the end result is of such a unique and beautiful nature that not writing about them should be considered a criminal offense and the perpetrator forced to spend a whole afternoon with the shadow chancellor George Osborne whilst the latter attempts to explain his policies in regards to the British economy. Anyway, I digress. Why the bonus track?

Because a few weeks ago I was behind the wheel, driving through Ally Pally (that's Alexandra Park for non-London residents) en route to a school pantomime organised by a friend of my wife's, when a traffic jam forced me to ponder whether it was better to get out of the car and follow Kate Bush's advice ('Be running up that road/Be running up that hill') or wait for the congestion to die down in the comfort of my automobile and continue to listen to Alice Russell's marvellous and funky 'Under the Munka Moon 2'. I did the latter and was rewarded with one of those moments of pure, poetic beauty that you cannot predict. On my left handside, there was a splendid view of north and northeast London, behind me a female driver was shaking her arms frantically to the beat of a song. I tried to make out what she was singing but to no avail. Never mind what tune she was belting out, it was still great to see someone giving it all. And almost in front of me the sun was going down, a massive orange beach ball ready to plop! down an ocean of low-rise buildings. And then, this post came to mind. Because as if the absurdity and beauty of this moment was not enough, I was on a hill and had to juggle constantly clutch, gas pedal and hand-brake to keep the car either in motion or stationery. This post came out first in 2007, one of my very first ones and I have a soft spot for it. I hope you enjoy it. Many thanks, my holidays are almost over and I'm glad to be back.

One of the pleasures of driving I have found in my short life behind the wheel is the way inconsequential moments become enjoyable and trascendental even if they happen only for half a second. Or a couple of minutes, as it were.

Take reversing. Or reversing down a slope. Or reversing down a slope in your driveway. And now, cast your mind, if you will, to that split second, when you take the hand brake off, lift your foot off the clutch pedal and your car rolls backwards very slowly. There is no gas and you are allowing Newton's law to gently decide the motion. At the same time you keep checking your rearview mirror, your blind spot and you half-turn around to make sure that there is no one behind you. Yet that little instant registers in your mind as a magical moment, where all the gears conjure up a self-expressive movement. Like dancing. Or music.

And some bands have the same gear movement. Take Portishead. It was a fortuitous incident that led me to become acquainted with the music by this British band, so-called dinner party artists par excellence, a distinction that I suppose will not have gone down very well with Beth Gibbons et al. After all, Portishead exudes quality and élan. The way their songs ease in, unannouncedly and discreetly is bewitching. And in this live version you can see why. Whenever I watch this video, I think of the gears of my car rolling one into the other, moving forwards... or backwards. And though I'm not a smoker, that ciggie in Beth's hand is bewitching, to say the least.

Back in April 1997 when I visited Britain for the first time there was one artist everyone kept talking about. Very often my then girlfriend, now wife, had her album playing in the car wherever we went. Back in Havana a month after, my love for her music showed no signs of abating, contrariwise, it increased. And although she has not enjoyed the same success her debut album brought her, Erykah Badu remains an example of what R&B should be about, good lyrics, good rhythm and a never-ending desire to innovate. I saw her at Brixton Academy a few years ago and it was one of those concerts that lodge in your mind to stay and never depart. Smooth voice, just like a car's rolling gears.

Only recenlty I've been able to play the Buena Vista Social Club album again. And it is not a coincidence that this happened after I passed my driving test. When I arrived in the UK for good in November 1997, it seemed to me that wherever I went, the minute they found out I was Cuban, they would plug in the Buena Vista Social Club record as a way to show that they were in tandem with what was going on in my tiny island. Little did they know that many Cubans in Cuba DID NOT LIKE the record and thought it dated. Timba was the beat to dance to. Only when it started reaping prizes and rewards a little bit more of attention was paid to it back in my country. I even remember on one occasion when we went to someone's house in Highgate and the bloke had Lou Reed's 'New York' album on the stereo. That's probably my favourite Lou Reed's record ever and then I saw the neat pile of CDs resting near the stereo: 'Buena Vista Social Club', 'Introducing Rubén González' and 'Afro-Cuban All Stars'. Inside me I was pleading with him not to change the music and I could see the puzzlement in his eyes as to whether to switch to what he thought would make me feel more at home or dig his heels in and keep Reed on the stereo. In the end our little telepathic moment worked and he left Lou Reed on. Recently I was in the car with Dave Patman, one of the better percussionists this country has ever produced and someone I respect and whose work I appreciate a lot. Also we have worked together on many occasions. I had a song on by the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and we both noticed that the tune had the same melodic structure as 'Chan Chan' by Compay Segundo. If you can lay your hands on the title track of Baaba Maal's album 'Missing You (Mi Yeewnii)' you'll see what I mean. In the meantime, enjoy this musical alternative to the more traditional hand brake, clutch pedal and gas combination.

Copyright 2007

Just an update to let you know that I'm still currently in Kuala Lumpur and due to the volcanic ash cloud I won't be returning to London until next week. Therefore the debate about feminism scheduled for Tuesday 20th April will be moved to a later date. Apologies for the inconvenience. Thanks to all of you who have continued to visit me during my absence and whenever possible I will pop by your blogs.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 6 'Zadie Smith'

The last tune from this posts' compilation is the thirteenth installment of British author Zadie Smith's essay 'What Makes A Good Writer?', which was uploaded weekly on my blog between September and December last year. This was probably my favourite part, although as readers and fellow bloggers will remember the whole series was both challenging and thought-provoking. I hope you'll enjoy it again. Many thanks.

Corrective criticism, AKA failing to be the sort of thing I rather like

Far from the system critic there is another critic, let's call him the corrective critic, who prides himself on belonging to no school, who feels he knows his own mind. He is essentially meritocratic, interested only in what is good, and good for all time. If a reputation is artificially inflated he will deflate it if another is unrecognised he will be its champion, regardless of fashion. He is not, as Kingsley Amis once accused his son of being, a leaf in the wind of trend. His criticism is the expression of personal taste and personal belief - the most beautiful kind of criticism, in my opinion. But there is something odd here: he fears that his personal taste is not sufficient. It is not enough for him to say, as the novelist has, this is what I love, this what I believe. He must also make his taste a general law. It is his way or the highway. To understand the problem with corrective criticism, we have to return more fully to the idea of a writer's duty. I said earlier that it was each writer's duty to tell the truth of their conception of the world. It follows that each writer's duty is different, for their independent visions must necessarily each have a different emphasis, a different urgency. In his Varieties of Religious Experience William James, while discussing religious subjectivity, gives a piece of advice the corrective critic would do well to heed: Each, from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each must deal with in a unique manner. One of us must soften himself, another must harden himself one must yield a point, another must stand firm, - in order the better to defend the position assigned him. If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.

This is really a posh way of saying different strokes for different folks, a simple enough truth and yet one the corrective critic refuses to recognise. He has decided there is only one worthy mission in literature. It is a fortunate coincidence that it happens to coincide with his own prejudices and preferences. The pointlessness of penalising Bret Easton Ellis for failing to be Philip Roth, or giving Thomas Bernhard a rap on the knuckles for failing to be Alice Munro, does not occur to him. All he sees are writers who lack the qualities he has decided are the definition of good literature. But while it may be true that Douglas Coupland understands little of the pastoral, Coupland understands the outlines of a cubicle perfectly, and his failure to comprehend the first is his illumination of the second. And although it's certainly the case that Philip Larkin was incompetent when it came to the idea of women, it happens that women were not his business - his business was death.

If the corrective critic were not so intent upon looking for one quality through it all he would notice that these apparent lacks are also aspects of each writer's strength - but he seeks the sentence of literature, not the syllables. Committed to his theory, he defines his theory as"literature" itself, recasting his own failure of imagination as a principle of aesthetics. And while there is nothing wrong with believing in a certain quality in novels over any other quality, it is vitally important that one recognise one's own beliefs. The corrective critic is like one of William James's cocky atheists, believing everything else is subjective belief except his own objective atheism. It is important that we recognise, for example, that the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani fundamentally does not believe the world to be as David Foster Wallace believes it to be. That's what Wallace Stegner meant when he called the novel the"dramatisation of belief". And a response to a novel, a piece of literary criticism, is also a dramatisation of belief. We are honest about our literary tastes when we recognise that if a piece of fiction appears to fails us, if we reject it, part of what we are rejecting is what that fiction believes.

Copyright 2009

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

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 5 'Phallic Rock'

I'm still on holidays but as promised here comes my fifth track from this Greatest Hits compilation. And to open tonight's session I will borrow those immortal words by music philosopher Rob Gordon (aka John Cusack) in that famous cinematic treatise called 'High Fidelity'. To understand where the name 'Killer Opening Song' came originally from, one need only read Rob's - or John's, you decide - musings on the importance of an introductory track:

'The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don't wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules...'

First posted in September last year and making another cameo appearance now. Thank you, I hope you enjoy it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2009

Sunday 11 April 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Bliss to me is being on holidays in a country as steeped in culture and history as Malaysia, surrounded by people you care about and who return selflessly the same sentiment.

Bliss is also when my mp3 player picks up my favourite tracks to accompany me on my way around Londontown.

But it's your own mp3 player, silly! I hear you shout out, of course, it'll showcase the songs you like! Hmmm... yes, you're right, but certain songs 'are more favourite than others', to misquote George Orwell. And occasionally my little gadget plays the tune I want to listen to at the precise moment I want to hear it. And believe you me, the effect is magical.

When I walk, I crave music that sets my pulse racing. And when I'm sitting in one of the carriages of the London Underground, I like music I can read to, or that stimulates my mind. Just the other day when I went to St Thomas hospital for a dental appointment my morning trip began with 'Jimmy Jazz' by the Clash. This was followed by Jorge Ben's 'Carolina Carol Bela'. Already I was in the mood to face the dentist's drill. Once on the bus, my mp3 decided to calm down a bit because it probably saw me open my newspaper. That's why it changed the tempo and played 'Turiya and Ramakrishna' by Alice Coltrane. The combination of reading an array of well-written, absorbing and provocative articles and Alice's magical sound reminded me of Spring tuning its violin for its first April concert. And the mood continued as I made my way down the escalator and onto the platform. My mp3 picked up Led Zeppelin's 'Going to California' to make my journey more special. There are lines in that song that always make giggle but this one comes top: 'Find a queen without a king/They say she plays guitar and cries and sings, la-la-la-la'. It's that la-la-la at the end that does it for me; playfulness and gaiety mixed together. Ahhh... bliss. The message behind 'Raros Peinados Nuevos' by Charly Garcia about not confirming to stereotypes always takes me back to my year 12 and my work experience in the countryside. A guitar, a bottle of rum and hoarse Cuban voices pretending to sing and talk like one of the most famous Argentinian pop and rock musicians. Plus my daughter loves that song nowadays and used to have the lyrics pasted on one of the walls of her bedroom. Sometimes she asks me to sing it to her. I changed at Green Park and how did my mp3 know that I was on the move again? I only ask because why on earth did it select the raw 'Rock It (Prime Jive)' by Queen? I - almost - skipped all the way to the platform of the Jubilee Line. By the time I arrived at London Bridge station, my music box had a string of tunes lined up to make that final third of the journey an unforgettable experience: 'Que Pasa' by the Horace Silver Quintet, Nuyorican Soul's 'It's Alright, I Feel It' (with Jocelyn Brown on vocals. Did you read that well? Jocelyn Brown, on vocals! Oh, mi querido eme-pe-tres, you bring me so much bliss!), the acoustic version of 'Bedda At Home' by Jill Scott (He's the kind that breaks it down/And curls my toes, woo woo woo baby ow, just change 'he' for 'she and you'll know what's going through my mind). And just as I walked past the Lupus unit on my left handside at the hospital, my mp3 decided to relax a little bit again and regaled me this time with Janis Joplin's 'Mercedes Benz'. The singer's famous 'That's it' at the end of the track saw me into the waiting room. And that, ladies and gentlemen is bliss to me.

Image taken from

Thursday 8 April 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 4 'Roberto Uría'

Holidays needn't be an excuse to stop one from using one's brain and Malaysia and Thailand - if I end up going there after all - will be/are great opportunities to explore the rich culture(s) that co-exist in these Asian nations. In the meantime I shall leave you now with a post that was first published in September 2008.

Why is Leslie Caron Crying? By Roberto Uría

The Institute of Meteorology said today will be a warm, sunny day. And, after juggling probabilities and percentages of rain, wind and surf, concluded that the maximum temperatures this afternoon will vary between twenty-nine and thirty-two degrees centigrade. It might have been a warm, sunny day, but I woke up feeling cold – that kind of cold that starts in your stomach - and windy, with a wave of panic running through my whole body. I’m practically rainy. Wintry.

After they brought me into the world, there were considerable family disputes over my name. Hector versus Alejandro, Enrique versus Jorge. How about Hugo? How about Javier? In the end, Francisco won out. But all these years I’ve been Panchito and, on occasion, Panchy (with a ‘y’ instead of ‘i’ to make it sexier)… Except that I’ve come to prefer Leslie Caron more than any other name. It’s so musical, so European. And besides, my bosom buddies admit that there’s quite a resemblance between the actress and myself. We have the same grace, the same celestial quality…

I belong to a ‘holy family, just about perfect, the kind you don’t find anymore. With a mother, a father, adorable little sister, a dog and lots of plants, it’s a close-knit bunch, foreign to me. The house, of course, is the classic little nest, decorated and decorous. So it seems I turn out to be the only gray cloud spoiling the prosperity of an oh-so-blue sky.

Because, it has to be said the dialectic didn’t work well on me, or else, it worked so well as to not comply with the imperfections of our time. I don’t know. The fact is that the members of my family, like almost everyone, are ‘useful beings’, ‘so-cial-ly-pro-duc-tive’, wage-earners of progress and conformity, saints and virgins, bastions of the economy. And I, for my own sad part, feel alone like a butterfly or a snail: I am a beautiful parasite. I take the time to make myself attractive and happy here and now and don’t think about the ever-so-revered tomorrow, which increasingly promises to be atomic or neutronic or I-don’t-know-what all…

I quit school because it bores me to tears spending five or six hours a day with specialists, cramming with diagrams, preconceptions, a succession of disasters and mistakes, false perspectives and redundancies. I got sick of it, that’s all. And screw the future.

And where could I earn my salt from the sweat off my brow? Where, without being cremated in the cold oven of timetables and meetings? These are such barbarous times! As Attila would say.

I choose to be ‘gay’. The most explosive gaiety is mine; each stretch of the street, the city, is my stage, and I am the most sought-after starlet. I bury myself under a heap of sequins and mercury lights, I hope I don’t perish under the weight of my own lights…. That’s why I adore bus stops, parks, shops and markets, lines at movie theaters. Of course, there’s never been a public bathroom on my resume. I’m too much of a hypochondriac and a romantic for that still. What I like are flowers, music – Barbra Streisand is my idol - ice cream, and a sunny beach, the ocean spray and all the people, especially the people, good heavens! Really, practically naked! What a charming little country! It’s the enchanted isle of gorgeous men. Everyone is beautiful. Everywhere I go, strong, young men of all shapes and colors encircle and devour me. They’re mammoths who crush you with all their vitality. They encircle me – like ‘a necklace of throbbing sexual oysters,’ as Neruda would say – and yet so few ever belong to me. Watching isn’t bad, but it’s better to touch.

To touch: to perish. An instant, a wing-beat and then swift flight, on the back a relentlessly epidermic era. What a way to inflict damage! But anyway…

The fact is that I stop in front of the mirror and always look at myself and end up asking, ‘What will become of this queen? What am I going to do with you, Leslie Caron? Why did I have to be like this?’ I’ve tried to change, but I can’t manage to find anything that truly interests me. Not anything or anyone. The majority of people I just feel sorry for. They’re empty, so fake, they just move through the narrow margins of the designs imposed upon them. I chose this bondage. I didn’t choose myself, but I accept the cards I’ve been dealt and play my own deadly game just like anyone else. It’s like eye color. I don’t like mine, but since I need to see there’s no choice but to use the eyes I’ve got. And oh, the things I’ve seen and will see!

I’ve seen a father who works too much and has ‘meetings’ even more; who, when he’s not off fishing with his work buddies, runs around with other women; a father who has never remembered his children’s birthdays.

I’ve seen a mother who works like a dog; who imprisons herself within her own cold-cream-slathered skin; who, when she’s not suffering the macho antics of her husband, sets her son to brushing her wigs and goes off to forget her woes. I’ve seen a sister who marries a guy just because he has a house in Miramar and a VCR and an exceedingly long et cetera; a sister who goes and leaves her queen brother without trousseau, practically naked. And how everyone envies her! Yes, I see it clearly.

And I’ll see a poor, crestfallen fairy, all wrinkled and lonely, with no family, no friends to speak of, perhaps surrounded by a few cronies as old and ostentatious as he is. A fairy hoping to someday see the end f this daily chain of deaths she has been subjected to. I’m not committed to the future and I’m not being dramatic and I hope to God it won’t really be quite like that. But what is to be done? What miracle could change the course of these visions?

And sometimes I say screw my fear of wrinkles and I let myself charge an exorbitant amount and (believe me) I cry and cry like a baby. Yes, I wake up cold and rainy, and that’s how I take my revenge on the perfect backdrop of a warm, sunny day and sadistic realities.

And if someone were to ask, ‘Why is Leslie Caron crying?’ the only answer would be, ‘Because life’s a bitch.’

Translated by Lisa Dillman.

This tale is included in the anthology of Cuban stories ‘
The Voice of the Turtle’, edited by Peter Bush and published by Quartet Books Ltd.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 3 'Jung Chang'

Still on holidays and this week song number three holds its long and slender neck quite elegantly above the water. I hope you enjoy this post, which first saw the light in March 2008.

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards
False gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough
What else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine
But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only.

'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)'
Bringing It All Back Home
Bob Dylan (1965)

I close the book and shut my eyes. I clench my fists and open my soul. The tears in my eyes well up. My pulse races. My breathing increases. Outside, my body is inert. Inside, my body is a volcano about to erupt. But it's alright, Ma, I am just bleeding. I do not want to cry here, though. I am at the hairdresser's. My long single twists have not been touched for a few months and the untangling process is claiming my scalp as a victim. But my pain is not of the follicle variety. It has to do with the death of roughly 30 million people. 'Is it hurting?' 'No, it's fine'. 'You shouldn't leave your hair unattended for so long'. 'Yes, I know, but you know, lack of time'. 30 million people. Or maybe it was 20 or 40. Who cares? One man, supported by mainly an idea contributed to the demise of millions of his compatriots. What prices paradise? What prices Heaven? How can you measure a panacea in human lives? And is there a measure unit to assess how many humans are needed in order to achieve someone's utopia? 'I hope those watery eyes are not the result of my comb'. 'Oh no, don't worry, you have to do what you have to do and I have been too careless with my hair'. No, my watery eyes were the result of reading someone's story about worshipping a leader whose actions brought suffering and devastation on her family. For the next three hours as the hairdresser continues to do my hair I carry on reading (a different book now) but my mind wanders back to the one I have just closed. As soon as she finishes ('Well, remember, don't leave your hair tangle up so much, come back in six or seven weeks', 'OK, I will') I go out into the London night. It is drizzling (or spitting, as they say here), perfect weather to let out my tears. I switch the taps on and allow my feelings for those victims of utopias everywhere to show.

Certain books have the capacity to ask us questions, others, aim at providing answers. And then there are books that just open themselves to us, untroubled but with problems, blithe, yet serious. They deliver the content in ways we are unaccustomed to.

Wild Swans is one of those books.

Written by a Chinese woman, Jung Chang, the book traces the history of that Asian nation in the twentieth century through the eyes of three generations of Chinese women, Jung's grandmother, her mother and herself. From the time when concubines were still a commodity down to Mao's last years, Wild Swans is not just a memoir, but also a literary documentary with even a photographic feel to it. Jung Chang's descriptions of the Chinese countryside provide the book with a sentiment of infinity and vastness. The sheer size of the land serves as a background for all the political and economic battles that roll out in the fifty-odd years the memoir covers.

As the empire is overthrown in 1911, there follows a succession of historical events culminating in Mao's Cultural Revolution upon which the Chinese people have very little say and direct influence, yet bear the brunt of the fallout.

Needless to say it is the section that covers Mao's years where my attention focused the most. The reasons stemmed from a desire to know more about an event whose significance was hardly ever discussed in Cuba when I was younger, but there was also an appeal that felt more personal, since Jung's life and mine mirror each other up to a certain extent.

Chang left China when she was 26 in 1978. I left Cuba when I was twenty-six years old in 1997. Jung majored in English language. So did I. The Chinese author found her 'knight without armour' in Britain. Although I found my 'lady under no distress' in Cuba, I can identify myself with her feelings for her other half. From an early age she showed a passion for books and it was this zeal that kept her sane throughout her hardship. In the early to mid-nineties as the Cuban economy nose-dived I was commonly found on buses, backs of lorries and any other means of transport reading placidly a novel by Jane Austen or George Orwell (the latter, in secret for reasons we all know) whilst all around me the world collapsed.

En brèf, Wild Swans was a reminder of a bigger truth. Whether it be a socialist, fascist or theocratic state, people's oppression and the means to carry it through changes very little. One of the most telling moments in the book is when Jung Chang, still a firm believer in Mao Zedong's policies, wonders how it is possible to whip up the frenzy that most of her compatriots seem to suffer from and that leads them to carry out violent acts. What is it that turns normal, law-abiding citizens into beasts whose thirst for blood overcomes even the minutest sense of respect for fellow human beings?

The only possible answer I have is a cynical one. We already have those traits and provided the puppeteer is capable enough, he/she will be abel to trigger off a series of emotions and feelings that will act as a catalyst for us to carry out these hideous deeds. That will irremediably lead to chaos and destruction. Recent events support my theory. Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Rwanda. The situation is probably all the more despondent if the main colluding element is the state, the one body in charge of protecting us.

According to Jung Chang, Mao Zedong did not have a secret police, Stasi-, G2-, or KBG-style. He did not need to. His own people acted as both aggressor and defender at the same time. This fact reminded me of a comment made by Milan Kundera in his outstanding novel 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', already quoted on my blog a few times. On referring to the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, when Soviet troops invaded the country and comitted all kinds of atrocities, the author says:

'Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they executed many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.'

There is no doubt that Mao was a murderer. Whether he knew what was happening in China or not (the excuse that some apologists and revisionists like to hang on to) under his mandate, the truth is that many innocent people died as a result of his narrow-minded and totalitarian attitude. But what about those who helped him? Let's go back to Kundera:

'Whether they knew or not is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn't know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?'

And now let's read Jung Chang's comment on Mao's 'success' as a leader:

'He was, it seemed to me, a really restless fight promoter by nature, and good at it. He understood ugly human instincts such as envy and resentment, and knew how to mobilise them for his ends. He ruled by getting people to hate each other. In doing so, he got ordinary Chinese to carry out any of the tasks undertaken in other dictatorships by professional elites. Mao had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship.'

From which my conclusion is, in the making of a dictator we all collude. Some, more passively than others, but we are all in it together. And no, this is not a pleasant thought. Because when I was reading Wild Swans (which I had to put aside a few times as there were parts too painful to read) I was suddenly reminded of the time when I could have done something. And yet, I remained silent. Or rather, I sat on the fence.

In 1992, on my way to my twenty-first birthday and half-way through my English course, I came across the subject Scientific Socialism, already downgraded from Scientific Communism, in uni. The lecturer was affable and friendly and we did not think much of the content of his classes. He was a joker and that was enough. One day, my classmate Luis Gustavo, who had been at El Saúl Delgado College with me and whom I knew very well, stood up to answer one of the teacher's questions: Was there freedom of speech in Cuba? Luis had a brilliant mind and he gave him a really thorough reply as to why he did not think that people in Cuba enjoyed the benefit of discussing and debating their ideas freely. The lecturer's reaction was curt and abrupt. I was called next to comment on Luis' remarks. Since year 12 when I spoke against one of my classmates' expulsion from college I had garnered a reputation for being something of an articulate and rational person. Now it was my big moment of showing the same capacity for oratory to defend my friend. However, I failed. I chickened out. At the eleventh hour I looked into my future and forgot his. I babbled incoherently about a different matter, thus, diverting attention from the real important issue my friend had just called attention to. The lecturer understood, my class understood, I think that even Luis Gustavo understood. There are many tales like mine in Wild Swans and this was partly the reason why Maoism triumphed where other systems had failed. Because they had people like me who put their personal interests above the ideals they cherished: the rule of law, independence of mind, rationality, accountability and respect for human and civic rights. As a consequence of his remarks, Luis Gustavo was expelled from uni. The lecturer was never the same again. I was never the same again, either. A sense of guilt overwhelmed me for a long time thereafter. After a while, though, that feeling of culpability subsided. Wild Swans brought to mind what happens when we all become bricks of the same wall. Our solid surface provides the façade against which everyone crashes. And those who crash today will probably be bricks tomorrow.

The ending of Wild Swans serves as a reminder that sometimes happiness is found elsewhere, even if one is separated from one's country of birth. Even if one, Ma, is still bleeding.

Copyright 2008

Sunday 4 April 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee and Music

I might have gone on holidays but I haven't forgot about our weekly rendezvous. Have a good Sunday.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 2 'Margaret Atwood'

I should all be packed up now and ready to go. Malaysia, here we come!

Second track from my Greatest Hits album is a post that came out on the eve of Obama's historical election in November 2008. On that occasion I requested permission from The Guardian to reproduce an essay written by Margaret Atwood and luckily I was granted it.

We all have them: the building with the dome, late Victorian, solid masonry, stone lions in front of it the brick houses, three-storey, with or without fretwork, wood or painted iron, which now bear the word Historic on tasteful enamelled or bronze plaques and can be visited most days except Monday; the roses, big ones, of a variety that were not here before. Before what? Before the ships landed, we all had ships landing before the men in beaver hats, sailor hats, top hats, hats anyway, got out of the ships before the native inhabitants shot the men in hats with arrows or befriended them and saved them from starvation, we all had native inhabitants.

Arrows or not, it didn't stop the men in hats, or not for long, and they had flags too, we all had flags, flags that were not the same flags as the flags we have now. The native inhabitants did not have hats or flags, or not as such, and so something had to be done. There are the pictures of the things being done, the before and after pictures you might say, painted by the painters who turned up right on cue, we all had painters. They painted the native inhabitants in their colourful, hatless attire, they painted the men in hats, they painted the wives and children of the men in hats, once they had wives and children, once they had three-storey brick houses to put them in. They painted the brave new animals and birds, plentiful then, they painted the landscapes, before and after, and sometimes during, with axes and fire busily at work, you can see some of these paintings in the Historic houses and some of them in the museums.

We go into the museums, where we muse. We muse about the time before, we muse about the something that was done, we muse about the native inhabitants, who had a bad time of it at our hands despite arrows, or, conversely, despite helpfulness. They were ravaged by disease: nobody painted that. Also hunted down, shot, clubbed over the head, robbed and so forth. We muse about these things and we feel terrible. We did that , we think, to them . We say the word them, believing we know what we mean by it we say the word we , even though we were not born at the time, even though our parents were not born, even though the ancestors of our ancestors may have come from somewhere else entirely, some place with dubious hats and with a flag quite different from the one that was wafted ashore here, on the wind, on the ill wind that (we also muse) has blown us quite a lot of good. We eat well, the lights go on most of the time, the roofs on the whole do not leak, the wheels turn round.

As for them, our capital cities have names made from their names, and so do our brands of beer, and some but not all of the items we fob off on tourists. We make free with the word authentic . We are enamoured of hyphens, as well: our word, their word, joined at the hip. Sometimes they turn up in our museums, without hats, in their colourful clothing from before, singing authentic songs, pretending to be themselves. It's a paying job. But at moments, from time to time, at dusk perhaps, when the moths and the night-blooming flowers come out, our hands smell of blood. Just the odd whiff. We did that, to them.

But who are we now, apart from the question Who are we now? We all share that question. Who are we, now, inside the we corral, the we pallisade, the we fortress, and who are they? Is that them , landing in their illicit boats, at night? Is that them, sneaking in here with outlandish hats, with flags we can't even imagine? Should we befriend them or shoot them with arrows? What are their plans, immediate, long-term, and will these plans of theirs serve us right? It's a constant worry, this we, this them.

And there you have it, in one word, or possibly two: post-colonial.

(C) OW Toad. From Bottle, by Margaret Atwood, published in a limited edition by Hay Festival Press on May 28, 2004 (


I would like to thank
The Saturday Review team from The Guardian, especially Ginny Hooker, for kindly allowing me to reproduce this text.

Image taken from Wikimedia. No permission was sought for its reproduction. Should the copyright holder(s) want me to remove it, I will comply with their request immediately.

And of course, I would also like to thank our dear Canadian literary wonder, Margaret Atwood, without whose intellect, wit and creativity the world would be a poorer place.


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