Sunday 25 July 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

'She did not really like her. She would not be the in a hurry to find fault, but she suspected that there was no elegance; - ease, but no elegance. - She was almost sure that for a young woman, a stranger, a bride, there was too much ease. Her person was rather good; her face not unpretty; but neither feature, nor air, nor manner, were elegant. Emma thought at least it would turn out so.'

Save period and dramatis personae, you could be forgiven for thinking the above fragment had been extracted from a newspaper in present-day UK. More specifically, you could be forgiven for believing that what you were reading was, not a passage from Jane Austen's 'Emma', but rather, the British press initial reaction to our coalition government.

Honeymoon periods are not supposed to last long. Daily grind and cohabitation put paid to that notion pretty quickly. However, pre-emptive strikes against yet-to-be-tried political systems are just as childish.

A few months ago I wrote a post on this blog about how and why I became a cynic (you can read it here). It's ironic that I have now to do a volte-face and assume a Pollyanna position (well, semi-Pollyanna, let's not push it).

Like many around the country I was aghast when I saw David Cameron arriving at Buckingham Palace last May for his appointment with the Queen in order to be ordained as prime minister. Different feelings coursed through my veins, the majority of a negative nature. But when he announced that his government would be a dual split with the Liberal Democrats rather than a Tory autocracy, I breathed a sigh of relief. And that's when the problems began.

Contradictory, I know, but then politics is contradictory. The first measures taken by the incumbent Clegg/Cameron duo (and, please, please, journalists and political commentators everywhere, stop referring to those two as if they were in a civil partnership; it's tiring, boring and detrimental to gays. It was probably funny for one nanosecond, but the joke's wearing thin now) were actually quite progressive: their decision to stop the database, to cancel out the building of a third runway at Heathrow airport, to lower the prison population (Ken Clarke waxing lyrical on Radio Four's 'Today' programme about how it's necessary to transform our penal system was as surprising as it was welcomed). These were brave and bold steps that gave the impression that here was the fresh start people were asking for and that Labour had failed to provide for many years. However, like a pack of sweets-deprived gang of five-year-olds the media continued to hound its prey. For an example of the idiocy displayed by the British media, please, click here to watch a clip of the edition of the popular BBC programme 'Have I Got News You' that came out straight after the general election. At 3:55, journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer (of the Daily Express, a tabloid rag that malfunctions the day it doesn't carry a story about Princess Diana and it still is faulty when it does) seems to have a problem grasping the concept of a coalition government. Thank God for 'The Thick of It' Chris Addison who puts her and any other puzzled hacks in their place.

The price, we, the population, pay for this pirahna approach is that when problems do occur, we no longer have the energy to combat them. Because we've wasted it in mindless drills, usually led by a voracious media. And dear me, there are problems aplenty now!

As I wrote before, honeymoon periods have a short lifespan. And the one this coalition enjoyed with the electorate was brought to an abrupt halt as soon as David Laws, the (now ex-) Chief Secretary to the Treasury, resigned from the government in June following false claims for expenses. The latest instalment in this I-don't-love-you-anymore saga was Michael Gove's, the education secretary, botch-up in cancelling out Labour's Building Schools for the Future programme. He mistakenly had suspended capital spending for 715 schools which thought they could go ahead with projects they had in the pipeline. Mr Gove was forced to apologise in the House of Commons. And as if to add more snow to the avalanche of political malapropisms rushing towards us, we had a few days ago Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, saying he wanted to shake up the NHS in order to 'liberate' it. Is Lansley the new Mandela? A freedom fighter heretofore in disguise? The long-term effect of Lansley's plans will be the elimination of one of the services of which most British people (and I've got the evidence to back me up) are proud. But as I mentioned before, our brio is wasted debating whether Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretaty, should resign or not, following allegations that he'd cheated on his wife.

There are two issues to consider in the current political and economic climate. One is that cuts are necessary, and that not all of them are bad, and the other is that we need to learn which fights to pick. Otherwise we'll sound samey-samey. As an example of the former, Stephen Jones's column in Times Education Supplement (the TES, Friday July 9, 2010) was a breath of fresh air amidst so many voices crying out: 'No cuts!'. Stephen writes about the Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations, otherwise known as quangos. Contrary to their name, these are bodies created by the government which are allowed to spend taxpayers' money (that's you and me, reader) but are not accountable to us. Just in education, Stephen reckons there are thirty-three out of more than a thousand. A small amount one might think, but due to the ever-changing nature of quangos (and that's got to do more with their funding streams than volition) it's hard to keep a tab on all of them. Jones sets off on an expedition to find out more about these organisations and the results are hilarious... and sad. Here's he, trying to learn about the Further Education Unit: 'I determined the other day to find out all about the work of the Further Education Unit (FEU). I was too late - by 15 years. In 1995, the FEU became the Further Education Development Agency (FEDA). Don’t bother looking for that either: it was humanely put down in 2000 when the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) was founded.'

What the example above shows is that when the coalition government recently announced that it was going to get rid of a few quangos, several voices rose in unison to protest. Actually, based on the evidence presented by Jones and other education practitioners, I don't think we would miss many of these (government-backed) non-governmental organisations. In fact, I don't believe we would notice their disappearance either.

Our concentration would better be placed, in my opinion, on press releases coming from Whitehall regarding Cameron's Big Society. An idea that was first mooted during the running to the general election by Team Cameron, it was discarded just before the first television debate. It has re-appeared recently and this time it arrived at the same time as the budgets cuts were announced. The fact that David and Nick are asking people to do more unpaid work in their local community should be placed in the same context as private sector's deliverers of public services being given even more free rein to come in and kick out voluntary and community groups that have a long-standing, trusting and fruitful relationship with their members. Now, that's a battle worth fighting for.

The fact that Jane Austen's Emma is right about Mrs Elton (the character alluded to in the opening paragraph of today's post) does not validate the former's attitude. It's true that Mrs Elton turns out to be snobbish, annoying and controlling (the passage where Mrs Elton tells Jane Fairfax not to go to the post office again because if the lattter gets caught in the rain she will get a cold, is excruciating) but that doesn't mean that Emma is right. Innocent until proven guilty? Or the other way around? Even an old cynic like me would know which one to choose.

© 2010

This is all from me for the time being, my lovely readers and fellow bloggers. I'm shooting off on holidays to the wonderful Welsh countryside, so forgive me, my cyber-friends, for not visiting your beautiful bloggy-houses as often as I usually do because I will be incommunicado. Yes, that's right, no telephone (or mobile), no television, no computer, nothing. Just family, greenery, beach and books (and yoga in the morning. There, that's a nice sequitur to last week's column). I'm planning to re-read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and finally sit down and devour (and hopefully enjoy) Karen Armstrong's 'A History of God'. I will also take my Shakespeare's Sonnets Volume, which I rarely leave behind when I'm away. I tend to appreciate his poetry more than his plays. Saying that, a re-read of 'Othello' beckons some time soon.

In the meantime, my blog will remain active. Continuing with the same idea I had before the Easter break of posting a selection of 'Greatest Hits', you will (hopefully) read some of my earlier columns, when I was just a wee, teeny, blogger, back in 2007.

It's been fantastic reading your blogs and sharing ideas and opinions. I realise that not always we've agreed on certain issues, but respect has always been present in both posting and feedback, and for that I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart. Have a nice summer break, everyone.

Next Post: Greatest Hits - 7 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be posted on Sunday 1st August at 10am (GMT)

Thursday 22 July 2010

The Squid and the Whale (Review)

Sophie: Yeah. I mean, it's gross when he turns into the bug, but I love how matter of fact everything is.
Walt Berkman: Yeah, it's very Kafkaesque.
Sophie: [
She looks at him oddly. She laughs] Cause it's written by Franz Kafka.
Walt Berkman: Right. I mean, clearly.

Disfunctionality usually thrives in the most trivial and inconsequential situations. When teenager Walt Berkman lies to his girlfriend about him having read 'Metamorphosis', his words are the latest porky in a long string of untruths, starting with him appropriating Pink Floyd's 'Hey You', performing it at a festival in his school and trying to pass it off as his own composition. But then, as the saying goes, 'like father, like son'.

'The Squid and the Whale' deals with the disfunctionality created by the estrangement of two parents in modern New York. University professor Bernard Berkman (played superbly by Jeff Daniels) is a successful lecturer but his writing career is in the doldrums. His wife, Joan (Laura Linney excels in her role), on the other hand, is gaining ground with her literary efforts. Their separation brings about a conflict that pits their two sons against each other with unforeseen consequences. Adolescent Walt sides with his father and starts copying him. Meanwhile, younger sibling Frank stays with his mum and his behaviour goes from erratic to abnormal.

Based on director Noah Baumbach's true childhood experiences, 'The Squid...' is a film that touches upon various subjects with subliminal messages galore. The beginning of the movie is soundtracked by young Walt intoning Roger Waters' immortal words: 'Hey you, out there in the cold/Getting lonely, getting old/Can you feel me?'. It's a way of letting us know that angst will be part of the film's emotional landscape. Frank gets into trouble for using semen to smear the books in his school library as well as a locker. That could well be a response to her mother Joan starting an affair with Frank's tennis teacher. Or it could be Frank's way of reacting to his father's snobbish personality.

The movie benefits from an intelligent script, a balanced mix of comedy and drama, sound direction and good performances from both leading and supporting actors. Furthermore, 'The Squid...' is part of a crop of films about the Big Apple, that are filling the gap left behind by director Woody Allen, when he upped sticks and decided to use Europe as his headquarters. We've had 'Synecdoche, New York' and before that 'Being John Malkovich', two vehicles, amongst others, that sought to make sense of existential quandaries. The difference is that in 'The Squid...' Jeff Daniels' Bernard Berkman comes across as a jealous, self-indulgent, chauvinistic has-been, as opposed to a troubled soul like Philip Seymour Hoffman's Caden Cotard or John Cusack's Craig Schwartz.

An acerbic divorce, sexual misbehaviour and plagiarism. It makes one not want to be part of the Berkman clan, yet, how delightful to be given the opportunity by director Noah Baumbach to become a fly on the wall and enjoy the spectacle. I hope you will, too.

© 2010

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

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Killer Opening Songs (Mi Primo Juan by Chambao)

Success comes in different guises and forms. Sometimes it has unforeseen consequences, and not always these are the desired ones. Take Chambao, for instance. Killer Opening Songs was enthralled by the flamenco-electronic band's debut album 'Endorfinas en la Mente'. María del Mar's (La Mari) tender voice, excellent arrangements, lyrics that sought to explore everyday life; they were all elements of a pop outfit that was in full control of map, compass and binoculars and knew the way to their chosen destination very well. That's why it's slightly annoying that the Malaga-born combo has more of a reputation as 'flamenco chill' than as a good pop band. The danger of being classified as the former is that it lumps them together with all kinds of Frankestein-like creations, the aim of which is to provide a calm and relaxing soundtrack to Ibiza-style evening dinner parties. K.O.S. is of the opinion that this approach could dilute the message that Chambao conveys in songs like 'Ahí Estás Tú', a song about making the right decisions in life ('Esa pregunta que te haces sin responder/Dentro de ti está la respuesta para saber/Tú eres el que decide el camino a escoger/Hay muchas cosas buenas y malas, elige bien', sorry no translation this time).

But let's leave behind the category in which recording companies continue to put Chambao and let's focus instead on the band's sophomore record, 'Pokito a Poko' ('Little by Little'), where the Andalusian combo kept on experimenting with new sounds and harmonies. Their trademark of distant handclaps mixed with guitar and voice are still present, but they are accompanied by other influences as heard in the Latin-tinged 'Roé por la Escalera' ('I Rolled Down the Stairs').

The Killer Opening Song, 'Mi Primo Juan', is one of the saddest songs ever written about cancer (at least that's the condition to which K.O.S. believes Chambao is referring) and yet it still manages to sound upbeat. We witness how Juan goes to the doctor’s because he’s not feeling very well and on finding out what the problem with him is, the physicians refuse to tell him ('Esta es la historia de mi primo Juan/que fue al hospital por que se encontraba mal/los doctores que lo vieron to’ los días/y ninguno le decía que tenía'). Eventually, he gets worse until he can’t eat or drink anything other than fruit and water. In such a short tune, Chambao deals with traditional vs alternative medicine, the police’s attitude to Juan growing ‘yerba’ (good wordplay on ‘grass’) and chemotherapy’s failure to halt the devastating illness ('mi primo fue a por yerba pa’ huma/por que la quimioterapia lo está dejando fatal/ya no, ya no se ríe igual mi primo/ya no, ya no se ríe mi primo igual...').

Flamenco chill? You must be joking! Killer Opening Songs wishes La Mari, Roberto Cantero, Oliver Sierra, Toni Romero, Toni Cantero, Juan Heredia and Pepe Cielo a long and prosperous music career as one of pop’s most innovative and experimental bands.

© 2010

Next Post: 'The Squid and the Whale' (Review), to be posted on Thursday 22nd July at 11:59m (GMT)

Sunday 18 July 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The drums. The three drums. The three talking drums. The three talking drums conversing in the ancient language of the Yoruba kingdom. In the centre of the room, a man is leading a warm-up to the syncopated rhythm of these three African drums. His students adopt various positions under his careful gaze. To the untrained eye they are standard dance poses. However, to a keener observer, these exercises are as rooted in tradition as the drums to whose rhythm they are being performed. Only that the tradition wasn't brought on a slave ship from Africa, but it belongs to a different country in a different continent. These movements are the property of the nation that gave us Ganesha and Kali.

Daylight robbery has never felt this good before. The above scene took place some weeks ago at The Place, the venue that is synonymous with dance in London. The teacher was yours truly and the class was part of the on-going programme of the Cuban School of Arts, a company aimed at promoting Cuban culture (and specifically dance) in the UK. I was the guest tutor and thief-in-chief. Why the latter title, you perhaps are wondering? Because I was using yoga, or more specifically, asanas, as part of my warm-up.

Recently yoga has been in the news for reasons that have less to do with its ancient origins and more to do with the styles that it has spawned, or should we say with trends that have used its name to justify the creation of new disciplines. An Indian government body has started filming hundreds of poses in the hope that people understand where the millennia-old physical and mental practice was born.

But will it have the desired effect? Can someone patent spirituality?

I touched upon this subject recently in a previous Sunday column (click here to read it) but whereas on that occasion I wrote about how religion, and in particular the Abrahamic faiths, has gained control of spirituality, today I am addressing the dichotomy of tradition vs modernity.

In principle, Dr Vinod Kumar Gupta, head of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library in Delhi, was right when he told The Guardian that: "People are claiming they are doing something different from the original yoga when they are not. Yoga originated in India. People cannot claim to invent a new yoga when they have not." Moreover, yoga is a complex system of Hindu philosophy advocating and prescribing a course of physical and mental disciplines whose aim is to promote control of body and mind. When I introduced the Downward Facing Dog and Cobra positions - amongst others - in my classes years ago, I did it because I was interested in the balance, strength and flexibility gained as a consequence of performing these exercises. The philosophical bit was left out. So, yes, I can see why Dr Gupta and co. are upset.

However, one side-effect of cultural exports is that traditions change and with the passing of time aspects of it are cast off. A few days ago I posted a review of a streetdance show, 'Insane in the Brain'. Streetdance is rooted in hip-hop, hip-hop is the synergy of four elements: MCing, DJing, dancing (as in break-dancing) and graffiti. Nowadays this symbiosis is no longer rigid. You can go to shows where there might be an MC or a DJ, but it's not necessary. However, the dance element is always present.

Same with yoga. From naked yoga to the yoga/pilates hybrid many fitness centres advertise, the mystical, spiritual aspect has been abandoned in favour of a more 'shed-a-few-pounds' approach. It is a shame, but it's the price many ancient cultures pay when their traditions are transported across the seas and land in gyms and dance studios. Despite the fact that the mention of 'yogic influences' was present in my promotional blurb when I first introduced the Hindulite practice to my students, I still got a few raised eyebrows everytime I began the warm-up. They were not hostile, mind, and they mainly came from people who did yoga in their spare time and were wondering what the heck I was doing. I think the confusion arose from the fact that Afro-Cuban dance and yoga might not be compatible. Well, not vis-à-vis. However, the presence of this spiritual discipline in dance goes back many decades. In fact one of the pioneers of modern dance in Cuba, Ramiro Guerra, influenced by the American choreographer Martha Graham, combined yoga and pilates successfully during his tenure with Cuba's Contemporary Dance Company.

The biggest threat yoga faces, according to its followers, is the myriad brands that have sprung up in recent years. Add to this marketing and publicity, and it's no wonder that studios from L.A. to London are bursting at the seams with people wanting a slice of 'Eastern philosophy', without the philosophical component. At the same time, it should be remembered that yoga means 'oneness and unity', that is unity with one's self and surroundings. It's important to understand this because the asanas are not the end, or even the means to the end. They are just a small part of a huge system, of which mantras and music are other elements. So, even if government departments in India wanted to patent this ancient discipline, they would only be addressing one side of the argument.

Which, in a way, lets 'thieves' like me off the hook. Because, believe you me, my dear readers, there's nothing like doing the Crane pose to the sound of the okónkolo, itótele and iyá. Those drums, those three drums, those three talking drums conversing in the ancient language of the Yoruba kingdom whilst shaking hands with Ganesha and Kali.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Tuesday 20th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 15 July 2010

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

To celebrate Spain's success in the World Cup this section will be concentrating once more (as if we needed an excuse) on the cuisine from that Iberian nation. And this time we do it supported by a tapas specialist, Inés Ortega. According to Inés, "in principle tapas is a slice of bread topped with any ingredients, served hot or cold, and eaten with fingers or a fork. It's something to be done before a meal, but then tapas can often replace a meal. The point of tapas is that you're not locked into a formal meal. There's very little commitment in sampling tapa." (taken from Observer Foood Monthly, May 2010). So, what are we waiting for? Let's tuck in!

Octopus with paprika

Serves 6

1kg octopus
175ml olive oil
1 pinch hot paprika
salt (optional)

To tenderise the octopus it is best to freeze it before cooking. To cook it, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, add the frozen octopus and cook for about 35 minutes, or until tender. You will need to test it, as the length of time depends on the age and size of the octopus. Drain well and rinse under cold running water. Remove and discard any remaining dark skin and cut the meat into small pieces with kitchen scissors.

Place the pieces in a bowl, pour the oil over them, season with salt, if desired, and sprinkle with hot paprika to taste. Mix well to ensure the octopus is thoroughly coated and serve immediately.
If this is not possible, transfer the octopus and oil to a heatproof bowl, cover with aluminium foil and keep warm in the oven until needed.

As a variation, you can also heat 175ml olive oil in a pan, add 25g roughly chopped onion and 1 garlic clove and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes. Remove the onion and garlic with a slotted spoon and discard. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in sweet paprika to taste. Add the flavoured oil to the octopus pieces, mix well and serve immediately.

I have selected a playlist that will leave you licking your fingers in the same way as the above dish. We open with Chris Botti & David Sanborn and their version of 'Flamenco Sketches', originally composed by Miles Davis for his album 'A Kind of Blue'. Great cover, this one is, and you also get to eat Pandora's nemesis, a relative of Paul, the omniscient octopus.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I came across Ben E. King, of 'Stand by Me' fame, and realised that he was the guy who had written 'Spanish Harlem', a song associated more often with Aretha Franklin. This performance is superb, I hope you enjoy it.

And to wrap tonight's session up and also to coincide with one of the hottest British summers in years, we're going off camping on a 'Spanish Caravan' accompanied by The Doors. This band deserves their own post, so amazing they were. Here's to the Spanish football team and to La Madre Patria. ¡Olé!

© 2010

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

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Insane in the Brain (Review)

There are instances of artistic audacity that would bewilder even the strongest advocate for culture and creativity. For instance, what do you when you are presented with a piece based on a novel written by one of the most famous counter-cultural figures in US literature? Or when said book spawns a successful Broadway adaptation starring Kirk Douglas and Gene Wilder? Or when the play is then turned into a multi-award-winning movie, including best picture, best director and best actor?

And yet this is what the Swedish company 'Bounce' did with 'Insane in the Brain', a choreography based on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". This is a title that one associates more with Jack Nicholson's free-spirited McMurphy going to war against the strict rule imposed by Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched than with streetdance.

Using the same psychiatric hospital setting, the hip-hop company's piece depicts the grim environment in which inmates are kept. As it happens in the novel, play and film, they are all under the rule of the cold and sadistic nurse Mildred Ratched. One day, a new patient, Randall Patrick McMurphy is transferred from a criminal unit to the mental institution since there is uncertainty about his diagnosis. From the beginning, when introductions are made, both guards and hospital residents are aware that the new arrival poses a challenge to Nurse Ratched's omnipotent governance. What follows after is a battle where human rights, society's miopia and misconceptions about mental illness all have leading roles.

Bounce is a rather unusual streetdance company in that their dramatic range works as well as their dance skills. To say that they are amazing performers would be mild to the extreme. The level of creativity, vision and risk-taking are formidable. And although there are references in the piece that are not suitable for a family-orientated matinee (oral sex, the 'f' word gratuitously used, a love-making scene that lasted far too long), the mix of different media and the bold approach to street dance are brilliant.

But there's another knock-on effect brought unwittingly by 'Insane in the Brain' (a title borrowed from the Cypress Hill track that is included in the show): maybe this is hip-hop's 'Philipic' moment. In the same way that Demosthenes raged against Philip of Macedon (hence the name) in the 4th century B.C., streetdance has been steadily and consistently raising its voice against the establishment. 'Insane in the Brain' is just the latest instalment of a trend that has seen the popular urban genre move away from its origins in 70s New York and adopt a more experimental and challenging style. In the last few years we've had Zoo Nation's 'Into the Hoods' (inspired by 'Little Red Riding Hood') showing off its street credo to full houses in the West End. Last December my wife and I took our children, not to a traditional Christmas pantomime of the 'He's behind you!' variety, but to Boy Blue Entertainment's 'Pied Piper' (based on the 'Pied Piper of Hamelin') at the Barbican. Again, the company performed to a sell-out crowd. What the two aforementioned shows have in common is that they have delved into the world of fairy tales, a literary style that one might not see at first as a match for the display of strength, speed and dexterity that hip-hop demands. And if we step away from dance for just a nanosecond and go into music, the fairy tale genre also features in urban music. In MC Solaar's 2001 album 'Cinquième As' the song 'La Belle et le Bad Boy' is a reworking of 'Beauty and the Beast', the only difference is that 'la Bête' is a criminal and the 'beauty' gets killed in the end as a consequence of following him ('Des projectiles partent quand une BM freine/Quand elle tombe, il a les larmes aux yeux/Deux balles de 22. Vingt deux ans adieu/Le contexte est plus fort que le concept/Son mec s'est jette dans les flammes il faut qu'il se lave avec'). More Bonnie and Clyde than Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve but you get the gist: hip-hop has raised its game.

Moreover, the stories from which Zoo Nation, Boy Blue Entertainment and Bounce have drawn their inspiration - whether they be fairy tales or counter-culture masterpieces - mirror streetdance's position in the performing arts world. Like Little Red, hip-hop has had to brave its way through the woods in order to arrive at, share and enjoy the spotlight with all the other dance styles. 'Insane in the Brain' could very well be depicting urban dance in the form of McMurphy rebelling against the narrow-mindedness of officials who tend to look down on streetdance as a lower category of bodily motion.

Bounce has created a truly spectacular show where each routine seems to outsmart the previous one. The beginning of the show depicting the symptoms of split personality condition is highly imaginative. The nightime bed choreography reminded me of the start of Pink Floyd's 'Money' in terms of synchronisation and harmony. The electro-shock sequence, set to System of a Down's 'P.L.U.C.K', conveys the pain and horror of a practice that was considered normal until a few decades ago. And while we're on the music, the tracks selected for the piece show how versatile this company is. They don't restrict themselves to just hip-hop melodies. From Mongo Santamaria's 'Watermelon Man' to Astor Piazzola's 'Libertango', Bounce shows an extraordinary ability to incorporate different rhythms into its routine .

The mad energy of 'Insane in the Brain' is a good example of how streetdance can be edgy and enterprising at the same time. Being deliriously bonkers never felt so good.

© 2010

Note: I've uploaded three clips so that you can experience Bounce's creative power to the max. The first one is a promotional video by Sadler's Wells Theatre prior to the premiere of 'Insane in the Brain' in 2008. The second and third ones are extracts from the piece. I hope you enjoy them.

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum', to be published on Thursday 15th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 11 July 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Picture the following situation:

A woman is married to a violent man. He beats her senseless every time he thinks she's done something wrong. Her family and friends keep telling her to leave him, yet she can't bring herself to do it. One day, after a brutal thumping that almost costs her her life, she packs up her bags and leaves. Initially, she has to go to a women's refuge because her former husband is still looking for her, bent on revenge. Eventually and after a lot of support from her next-of-kin, government agencies and friends, she regains control of her life. Years after this sad episode, she meets another man.

This new fellow has the right attitude from the word go. He is kind, mature, and sensitive. He knows about her previous problems and avoids mentioning them. Her relatives are happy; her friends are over the moon. After a few months of courtship the woman and the man get married. The woman can't believe her luck.

Until one day when they have an argument. He immediately brings up the unpleasant experiences she went through with her previous partner. He blames her. He tells her she is a good for nothing 'spoiled little girl'. He never raises his hand, not even his voice, but there's no mistaking what his intentions are: to put her down. His tirade is so brutal that she ends up in the toilet, collapsed on the floor, crying her eyes out.

The next morning she doesn't turn up at work. Instead she calls her best friend. She tells her everything that happened. Her friend can't believe his ears. Her husband, the adoring lover, capable of such cruelty? No, her friend can't simply believe it. Surely the woman is overreacting. The woman goes next to her mother's. To her she confides the same story. Her mother shakes her head and says: 'Maybe he's having a hard time at work. Why don't you leave him alone?'

Everywhere the woman goes, people keep making the same comment: "At least he is not beating you like your ex-. Why are you complaining? Can't you see that the guy's got too much on his plate? Look at the way you live, look at how sensitive he is. Other women would walk barefoot over broken glass to be given the opportunity you have'. Faced with comments like these, the woman withdraws slowly into her own world. The verbal abuse, however, doesn't stop, it continues relentlessly and consistently.

That's the end of the story. My question to you readers and fellow bloggers is: is the woman better off with a violent partner, with whom she knows where she stands, or is the effect of domestic abuse ameliorated by the fact that it's carried out verbally and not physically?

Don't answer, though. For that is not this week's topic.

The situation I described above - and which might have made some of you flinch a bit, so close to reality it is - is a template I use whenever I discuss different subjects such as benign vs malign dictatorships, autocratic rule or imperial power. It is the latter about which I have been thinking for the last few weeks.

Recently Michael Gove, the new education secretary, announced plans to revamp the education system, in particular, he is intent on rescuing some subjects that have lost their popularity, specifically history. In order to achieve this, he has enlisted the support of Niall Ferguson, whose book 'Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World' was turned into a television series on Channel 4 a few years ago. Nothing wrong with that, you'd probably say. Niall is probably one of the top historians of his generation. I saw the three-part-series on the aforementioned channel and learnt a great deal about the British Empire of which I was unaware before. Niall has also had a successful career across the pond, teaching history at Harvard University.

The problem, however, starts when you delve a bit deeper into Mr Ferguson's rationale and the long-term effect this could have on an impressionable young generation, more used to screen celebs (and you could consider Niall as a minor one in his field) than textbooks. Niall is actually on record as justifying the need to have a more imperial approach in the 21st century. This is a thesis he explained in the follow-up to 'Empire': 'Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire', another book with a television series tie-in. When I look at the multicultural city in which I dwell and then look at the likes of Ferguson revising and rehabilitating imperialism and colonialism, I feel despondent. The future doesn't augur well.

For starters the notion of a benign colonial power is a misleading one, but one I've heard many times in conversations. For some people, Britain was not as ruthless as Spain and Portugal whereas France treated her subjects magnanimously. Unless they happened to be Algerians who had fought in the Second World War.

The teaching of history is a thorny area, especially when it takes place in the country on whose dominions the quote 'the sun never sets on the British Empire' was based. I have no experience whatsoever of student life in the UK, it is only through my children's eyes that I'm living the history syllabus now. That's why I keep an open mind about the curriculum. But as someone born and bred in a former colony, the whole benign vs malign empire malarkey rankles a wee bit.

When you conquer, pillage, loot and keep another country under your control it matters not one jot whether you are doing it with the best of intentions or not. Same with the woman with the violent ex and her current husband. The fact that the former abused her physically and the latter verbally doesn't change the outcome: lack of self-esteem, depression, emotional crisis and self-blame, to mention but a few problems. With nations the effects are similar: identity crisis, economic dependence, lack of long-term vision. It takes years to sort out this mess, if ever. Moreover, the British colonial approach was far from benign. According to Eduardo Galeano in his book ‘Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina’, following the occupation of Havana, the British took only eleven months to ship in the amount of African slaves that would have normally taken them fifteen years to bring.

India, Kenya and Ireland bear witness to the repression, land theft and enslavement to which the British Empire subjected its colonies. Whatever benefits the colonial expansion may have brought, like a system of jurisprudence modelled on the British one and technological progress, it cannot possibly mitigate the havoc wreaked by, for example, the 1947 partition in India where close to a million people died as a consequence of displacement and civil strife. How Ferguson will deal with these facts is anyone's guess, but I would strongly advocate against decontaminating the British imperial record. Especially when the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are still ringing in our ears.

The impression that the British Empire was gracious where the Portuguese and Spanish ones were barbarous is probably based on the fact that whereas the latter two settled in most of their colonies, the British had an exploitation and/or settlement policy. That is, some colonies were used chiefly for exploitation whilst others served as permanent residences. I don't think I need to say which ones benefitted the most from the infrastructure created by the conquistadores.

The repercussion, however, of this benevolent vs malevolent empire conundrum, is far-reaching and could do untold damage to a younger generation whom we're trying to educate on the importance of seeing different cultures as equal. The level to which this good vs bad imperial power fistfight has stooped would be sometimes risible if it wasn't so dangerous. Let me give you one example. Over the last five years the historian and writer David Elstein has been at pains trying to convince to anyone who would listen that the British did not kill as many Kikuyu in Kenya as previously thought. In a letter written to The New York Review of Books à propos de 'Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya' by Caroline Elkins (click here to read the letter), Mr Elstein goes on to explain that the number of deaths quoted in the book are wrong because of discrepancies between population growth and the figure of people actually murdered. I confess that I almost stopped reading when he mentioned that 'Elkins disbelieves the official figure of 12,000 Mau Mau deaths and 80,000 Mau Mau detainees in the seven-year Emergency. She suggests “hundreds of thousands” of Kikuyu died at British hands—perhaps 300,000.'

It appears that Elstein has more of a problem with a 288,000 death toll alleged discordance than with the fact that civilians were murdered. Same with the woman and her relatives and friends: they see her current verbally abusing husband as less of a threat because he uses his tongue as opposed to his hands.

If the government's intentions about revamping history are honest, then more analysis, rational debate and long-term vision need to be at the core of their project. Less fixation on kings and queen, or the Nazis, for that matter, would be a good place to start. As for Britain's imperial past, in my opinion it was just as devastating as that woman's husband's mental bullying. Sometimes tongue-lashings hurt more than fists.

Pandora's World Cup Box

'I swear' - Pandora said to me the other day - 'that when I reincarnate, I will come back as an octopus. At least I will have a pretty good chance at guessing who will make it to the final of the World Cup. My prediction of France against England in the last eight? I was wrong. The Gallic team gave up too quickly and the English came up short. My hunch of an Argentina vs Spain semifinal? The Argies couldn't quite learn their tango routine on time and buckled under the pressure of Löw's starlets. I mean, I'm all right about being upstaged by someone like Medusa, at least she can turn people into stone, but overshadowed by an eight-tentacle Chávez-lookalike?' Oh, the shame of it.

Pandora can only wonder what deputy prime minister Nick Clegg's domestic atmosphere will be like on Sunday when Dutch Mama and Spanish wife sit together to watch the final. Is that the reason why he will be part of the welcoming committee for Pope Benedict's visit to the UK, despite the fact that Nick is an atheist? Maybe he is looking for divine advice. Only Heaven knows.

And this is the end of Pandora's World Cup Box. Cracking goals and tantrums, sportmanship and dubious decisions. They will all come back four years hence. Goodbye.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Insane in the Brain' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 13th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 8 July 2010

Yella (Review)

What if we try to escape from our past by running away into another dimension? What if that dimension is literally figurative instead of a construct of our minds? And what if that past caught up with us later in the unlikeliest of scenarios?

These are some of the questions that German director Christian Petzold tries to answer with 'Yella', a pessimistic, grim drama, which centres on the life of a woman (Nina Hoss) whose life is turned upside down when she attempts to leave her hometown for a new life and job with better prospects. Tragedy strikes when her violent ex-husband turns up on the day she is leaving, gives her a lift to the station and then tries to kill her by driving his car into a near river. Yella manages to escape and eventually she reaches her destination but discovers the job she was promised was a hoax. It doesn’t exist. It is in these circumstances that she meets Phillip, an unscrupulous investor, whose main agenda is to roam the country looking for smaller companies of which he can take advantage. Yella turns out to be a formidable sidekick and soon the two of them become a lethal duet, cheating their way into and out of deals. Parallel to this, Yella begins to experience small paranormal moments where she can hear voices or sounds from her past. Her former husband, thought dead, also starts to stalk her and when her relationship with Phillip moves from the professional to the amorous, her ex- makes an unwelcome appearance.

'Yella' is a visually striking film, that moves from a desolate East Germany - where the leading character's hometown is located - to the western side of the country. The landscape is a combination of urban modernity and vast fields.The movie also delves into the still unsolvable issue of East vs West. In recent years, German cinema has addressed this topic in flicks such as: ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ and ‘The Lives of Others’. The former is a comedy whilst the latter is a faithful and painful account of the role the Stasi played in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Germans. 'Yella', by contrast, could be considered a metaphysical thriller, more in the mould of the 'X Files'. However, I couldn't help noticing that it is the East German woman who gets corrupted by the West German ruthless businessman.

Having come out in 2007, 'Yella' is also quite a prescient movie in that it foretells the crisis that venture capitalism unleashed on an unsuspecting world a year later. The world of hedge funds, acquisitions and mergers is well illustrated, mixing moments of witty facetiousness (for instance, when Phillip explains to Yella the theory of the crossed-fingers-hands-behind-the-neck position) with instants of utter desperation which wouldn't look out of place in a David Lynch or Ken Loach film.

And the ending? I usually include spoilers in my film reviews. But not this time. You have to watch the ending. The first time I saw it I was confused. The more I thought about it afterwards, and the more I analyse it now with the benefit of hindsight, the more I've come to the conclusion that the ending is the icing on the cake of a powerful critique of modern society's self-harming tendencies.

© 2010

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

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

One of my favourite tunes a few summers ago was Goldfrapp's 'Ooh La La' from their album 'Supernature'. The mix of synths and bass was superb and the video (you can watch it here, but do expect to be dazzled by the flashing lights and the white/silvery costumes) was a beautiful combination of glam-rock and disco. However, what I loved above all was the raunchy lyrics ('Switch me on/Turn me up/Don't want it Baudelaire/Just glitter lust/Switch me on/Turn me up/I want to touch you/You're just made for love') and especially the refrain with its: 'I need la la la la la la/I need ooh la la la la/I need la la la la la la/I need ooh la la la la'. There's no reason to wreck one's brain trying to figure out where the title of the song came from.

Lately, though, this song has been playing on my head for reasons other than its quality. Like its refrain, made for hedonistic, sweltering summer nights, the world of literature is awash with half-muttered thoughts, non-sensical text and pixieish innuendos. When it came to choosing a piece to illustrate my thesis tonight, I didn't have to think twice, for there is a poem that perfectly encapsulates the saucy 'I need ooh la la la la' attitude: ee cummings' 'may i feel said he' (his lower case in both the title and most of the poem).

'may i feel said he
(i'll squeal said she
just once said he)
it's fun said she

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

(let's go said he
not too far said she
what's too far said he
where you are said she)

may i stay said he
which way said she
like this said he
if you kiss said she

may i move said he
is it love said she)
if you're willing said he
(but you're killing said she

but it's life said he
but your wife said she
now said he)
ow said she

(tiptop said he
don't stop said she
oh no said he)
go slow said she

(cccome?said he
ummm said she)
you're divine!said he
(you are Mine said she)'

There are many elements on display here that make this poem innovative and traditional at the same time. The rhyming pattern is syntactically avantgarde, supported chiefly by the author's decision to alternate the personal pronouns 'he' and 'she' at the end of each verse. Secondly, the absence of punctuation shifts the responsibility onto the reader, to pause as and when he/she wishes. I tend to read it in the same way one would read a sonnet. Only that in this poem one is presented with sentences of four or five syllables each. That's where the traditional factor comes in. Although given a modern twist, this is a love poem above all. Sadly, it is thought that Cummings was describing an adulterous situation.

The 'I need ooh la la la la' approach is omnipresent in the poem. We don't know what made the woman change her mind after saying she would squeal if he touched her. We can only imagine. Likewise, when the author writes '(tiptop said he/don't stop said she/oh no said he)/go slow said she' we can only laugh as adults do when they're let in on a naughty joke.

The masterstroke, to me, is that capital 'm' in 'Mine' (that's how it appears on Poem Hunter) amidst a sea of lower-case letters. It subverts what was previously subversive tone and syntax. It leaves the reader with a half-chewed, non-sensical question floating above his/her head. I think that were ee cummings around today, he would probably be thinking analogue synths, disco beats, racy tunes and raunchy I need ooh la la la las.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Yella' (Review), to be published on Thursday 8th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 4 July 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I met Fatimah (not her real name) in 2004, roughly eight or nine months after I started to work with a local arts organisation. We had some space left in our big office and decided to use it for 'hotdesking'. One of the companies that took up our offer was the borough's asylum seeker unit. Its staff were friendly and we all got on very well. Contrary to the idea the mainstream media have of refugees and asylum seekers (by the way, they are two different categories) the majority of the clients were very polite and always willing to engage in conversation with us, even though they still lacked a basic command of the English language.

It was in these circumstances in which Fatimah came into our office one day.

My then colleague and later line-manager was showing me a few paintings he had received from a local artist for a forthcoming exhibition at one of our galleries. We were both analysing the visual works (him more than me, as that was his forte) when I caught sight of this woman trying to steal a glance in our direction. I summoned her over and as soon as she finished her interview she approached my colleague's desk. She could barely speak English but there was a very distinct and clear phrase that emanated from her lips: 'Me like...', upon which a gesture signifying drawing let her hands trace several circles in the air, like a dancer in mid air attempting to compete with a bird. Both my colleague and I said: 'Draw' simultaneously and she agreed. A few days later she returned and on this occasion she brought some of her own pieces. They were breath-taking. The colours were vibrant, the themes were all to do with nature. Plenty of trees and animals. My colleague suggested that she use one of our spaces to exhibit her work. His words made her smile. Or at least, I would like to believe so. For I was never able to find out.

Fatimah was wrapped from head to toe in a burqa.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year or so, there's no way you could have escaped the controversy surrounding this article of clothing. The most vociferous opinion so far has been expressed by president Nicolas Sarkozy, who has spoken out vehemently against the wearing of the burqa by Muslim women in France. At the moment a parliamentary commission is looking at whether to ban the aforementioned garment in public in the Gallic nation.

If truth be told, I felt uncomfortable talking to Fatimah whilst her face and eyes were covered by a mesh screen. I'm used to looking in people's eyes when I speak to them, to observing their mannerisms and gestures in an unconscious attempt to match their body language with the words coming out of their mouths. With Fatimah this bridge of communication was broken from the outset.

At the same time, Fatimah was a very rare case of a Muslim woman wearing a burqa in my neck of the woods. Most female followers of Islam in my neighbourhood wear a headscarf or just go about their business in plain clothes without any religious symbols decorating their bodies (I've noticed this attitude more in Turkish women). Therefore it was less difficult for me to accept Fatimah's dress code and focus more on the fact that she was very enthusiastic about painting.

Yet, right now Europe is undergoing one of those periods of the soul-searching variety that would put troubled Sartre and his cabal of existentialists to shame. Belgium has legislated against the wearing of both the niqab and the burqa, Italy is thinking of introducing similar measures, whilst in the Netherlands nationwide bans are being considered. The main reason given for these clampdowns is the upholding of Muslim women's human rights. However, in an ironic twist of fate, the Council of State, France's equivalent of the High Court in the UK, has declared that any ban on the veil would be an infringement of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Furthermore, the niqab/burqa issue doesn't pertain to a single political camp. On the one hand, people on the left point at repression and violation of Muslim women's human rights and I have no problem with that. After all, the veil, according to Islam scholars, is not compulsory, nor does the Qur'an make it a requirement. There are many documented cases, mainly in Iran and the Gulf states, where the practice started, of women being forced to cover themselves head to toe under penalty of being punished severely. On the other hand, those of a more conservative disposition see the veil as a threat to secularism and national identity, especially an affront to Christianity. What neither group seems to want to address is what happens when the woman in question chooses to wear the attire of her own volition. Liberals and lefties, for instance, are in a quandary when it comes to dealing with Islam. If not, look at ex-mayor of London, Ken Livingstone offering a friendly hand to the controversial Egyptian cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a man who has publicly condoned suicide attacks and vilified gays. Nice one, Ken! So, it’s OK to hug a man who thinks that there’s nothing wrong with a husband beating his wife ‘lightly’. So much for human rights for our Muslim sisters. I remember when my daughter was presented with a hijab (a headscarf worn by Muslim women, sometimes including a veil that covers the face except for the eyes) by her Somali friend in school and the reaction she got the minute she put it on outside the school gates. Once we were in a park, in a part of London more associated with open-minded Britain and yet, all eyes were on my daughter and me, trying to decipher what was going on. Was she...? Or wasn't she?

This is the dilemma that is keeping Europe awake at night. Shall we 'liberate women from their prison' by banning the clothes they might (and that 'might' carries several interpretations) have chosen themselves? Also, bearing in mind that, for instance, only 0.1 percent of approximately two million Muslim women in France wear the burqa or niqab, this whole brouhaha is more a ratings-chaser for Sarkozy than a more altruistic approach to human rights for the daughters of Islam.

In case you think that I'm a supporter of the veil, let me be clear about it. No, I'm not. But neither am I an opponent. Provided that the woman has not been coerced or forced into wearing it, she can dress as she likes. And I've seen my own share of creative and fanciful designs of hijabs, niqabs and burqas, to realise that not always it is a patriarchal decision the one that drives a woman to trade jeans for a full-on, body shroud. When France introduced a ban on the wearing of religious symbols in civic buildings I applauded it. That's because, to me a town hall, for instance, represents democracy at local, regional and national level and the citizens who come to it should be treated equally, regardless of creed, colour, sexual orientation, ability (mental or physical) or gender. For that to happen, the individual must also divest himself/herself of anything that might create division and religion has a pretty good record of being used for that purpose. However, when a government, like the French one, wants to move the ban on to the public sphere, I find myself shaking my head and tut-tutting the idea. Why? Because it's counterproductive and will alienate people who are already on their side. Plus, how are they going to legislate whether a woman is forced to wear the veil or not? And does that include visitors from overseas? It is, I think, clear proof that when it comes to Islam, the attitudes I've come across more often are of the 'Oh, poor, little darling, you must be feeling awful with that thing on your face', or 'Well, if they don't want to take it off, they can bugger off to wherever they came from'. However, my local college is struggling to find government funding to offer free ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) lessons to... you guessed it, recent arrivals in the UK, amongst which Muslim women feature prominently (my borough has seen an increase of Somali women). We can't give them the basic tools with which they can make inroads in the country they've settled, but we're ready to prosecute them on the clothes they wear? Really? I think the word 'priorities' should be inserted somewhere in this argument. For starters, we need more resources for the hundreds - if not thousands - of Muslim women who are victim of domestic violence, rape and forced marriages.

As for Fatimah, I only saw her once more. There was no exhibition of her work in the end, excellent as it was, nonetheless. Maybe she had an abusive husband who didn't let her do it, maybe she didn't have a bullying partner but changed her mind. Maybe she chose to wear her burqa herself, or maybe she was coerced into it. I don't know. All I know and remember clearly is that the last time we saw each other, she said: 'Me like... draw'.

Pandora's World Cup Box

One of the upsides of South Africa 2010 has been a better understanding of Pandora's cultural make-up of her little London corner. No nationwide census can beat a flag waving from a car or draped down the front of a house. That's how she knows that there are far more Chileans than she thought before (she believed there were none), plenty of Ghanians (although that could also be solidarity with the only African nation left in the competition at the time of writing), Serbians and Slovakians in abundance (the quantity is determined by a simple equation: actual number of flags spotted+estimation before event=six in this case for each nation). And obviously the Brazilians and Spaniards are ubiquitous everywhere she goes, whether it be her local part or the library just down the road. Yellow, green and red hues have formed an unlikely alliance - or do we just call it coalition? - in these heady and austere times. That's why our beautiful goddess proposes that henceforth census-takers carry out their work every four years in the summer whilst the Football World Cup is on. A quick head count of flags being waved and borne on main roads and side streets should do the trick. And the census-taker gets to wear short trousers and eat ice-cream, too.

At long last Pandora has found the answer to England’s shambolic World Cup campaign. It’s not really the fault of Capello and his men but that of bureaucracy and red tape. Unbeknownst to the England camp, South Africa had adopted similar measures to those being introduced by Theresa May here in the UK this week to curb the number of immigrants arriving in the country. Only that the African country had begun well before the tournament. Problems with information and paperwork meant that the English team was forced to leave behind invaluable defenders like Courage, Adroitness and Strength. Up midfield the situation got worse because the arch-famous Resilience was denied his visa. It’s remarkable that his influence on the English language harks back to the Second World War. Yet, this distinguished veteran of the most universal of all sports had to content himself with a day out in the British sun. And what about forwards like Precision and Sharpness? No wonder Wayne Rooney cut such a dejected figure out there on his own waiting for a long ball to arrive from heaven. Luckily for signore Capello, he was not the only victim of this bureaucratic fiasco. France was not allowed to take Cohesion and Harmony, whilst Italy had to play without Vigour and Desire.

He should have gone to Specsavers’ moment of the World Cup so far: the two linesmen who presided over the games between England and Germany and Argentina vs Mexico. It’s not new technology we need in football, but a couple of owls on every corner of the pitch. Anyway, that’s just Pandora’s modest opinion.

Pandora wonders if you can help her find her kitten. She placed an ad in the national press yesterday but to no avail, so far there hasn't been any news. The ad reads: 'Missing kitten "Argy" is very much wanted back by her owner. The cat has light blue and white stripes and also responds to the name "Argentinian defense". It has been missing since 3pm yesterday Saturday 3rd July. Last seen in Green Point Stadium, Cape Town, South Africa. Please, if spotted, do not get too Klose to her as she gets frightened easily. If you find her and you think Argy is hungry, feed her milk, but, please, avoid giving her Müller Light yoghurt. And last but not least, if you're a Marxist enthusiast, don't let her see your works by Friedrich Engels on your shelves at home. She will probably freak out and try to escape. If found, return to Buenos Aires. A second-class stamp will do, she doesn't deserve more. Distinctive feature: a stapled stomach and a Che Guevara tattoo.' Your kind help, readers and fellow bloggers, will be much appreciated.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts', to be published on Tuesday 6th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 1 July 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Preposition 'En')

- Were you at the theatre last night?
- No, I was in the theatre.
- But I asked you to meet me at the theatre, not inside it.
- I'm sorry, darling, I didn't realise that you meant outside the theatre.
- Of course, you didn't sweetheart, you never notice anything...
- What do you mean...?
- That you're always oblivious to the world around you. I could have said I would meet you on the theatre and you wouldn't have dared to look up to see if I was lying on the roof.
- That's quite unfair, dear. Especially when...

Oh, and people still wonder why the divorce rate is going up worldwide. As long as we have this confusion over the use of a preposition that indicates inclusion, people will be often floored as to when to meet someone at the cinema or in the cinema. When to put food on the table or on the boot of the car. Unless you want to leave a trail of rice and peas all over the M5 on your way to Devon.

There are two eternal problems I've had with the English language for as long as I can remember. One is pronunciation. The fact that a word can change the manner in which you utter it just by modifying or adding one or more letters is still mystifying to me (for instance, famous and infamous). The other one is prepositions and specifically 'in'. I've lost count of the number of times I've had to change posts on (or is that 'in'?) this blog because I think I've used 'in' wrongly.

It all comes from the fact that in Spanish we only have one preposition to deal with the 'at the theatre', 'on the table' and ' in the car' scenarios. We just say 'en'. It follows then that when a Spanish speaker learns another language, like for instance German, he or she is never sure whether to use 'auf', 'bei' or 'in' and will wind up using the incorrect preposition. For example, if you are 'an dem Tisch/am Tisch' people will interact with you at a dinner party. Nevertheless, if you insist on being 'auf dem Tisch', people will leave you alone and your only company will be the house children. You'll be behaving like them, because you will be sitting on the table, instead of at the table, which is what 'am Tisch' translates as. I'm sure Franz Ferdinand's (the archduke, not the band) life would have been spared had the perpetrators been taught the correct use of the phrase 'beim Erzherzog zu sein'. That didn't mean to put a bullet between his eyes, Michael (sorry, that was a reference to the band). The fact that in the Teutonic lexicon one has the dativ and akkusativ cases makes things worse. So it's time to turn our backs away from the Germanic languages and head for the safety of romance langua...

Why are you laughing? Just because I was about to say that romance languages such as French, Portuguese and Italian were safer in terms of prepos... Why are you still scoffing at me? What's that you're saying? That... it's the same? No, it isn't. For instance, in French...

Actually, you're right. Spanish-speakers are not better off when they switch to one of our sister languages. Oh, dear, where's that coalition spirit? We need a bit of Cleggza-Camza factor now. If you were to use the Spanish 'en' in French all the time to signify inclusion you would be making gargantuan errors. Because, say, that you were in Switzerland, you would be speaking en français, sitting dans le théâtre and finding out what's au programme.

So, my dear readers and fellow bloggers, it's time to retire to the safety of my own language. How would that opening passage read in Spanish, then?

- ¿Tú estabas en el teatro ayer por la noche? Were you at the theatre last night?
- Sí, yo estaba en el teatro. Yes, I was in the theatre.
- ¿Pero dónde estabas? Yo estaba afuera del teatro. But where were you ? I was outside the theatre.
- Lo siento querida, no me di cuenta que querias decir afuera. I'm sorry, darling, I didn't realise that you meant outside the theatre.
- Por supuesto, corazón. Nunca te das cuenta de nada. Of course, you didn't sweetheart, you never notice anything...
- ¿Que tú quieres decir? What do you mean...?
- Que te pasan carretas y carretones y no te das cuenta. Yo podria haberte dicho que me iba a encontrar contigo encima del teatro y no hubieras ni siquiera mirado para arriba para ver si estaba en el techo. That you're always oblivious to the world around you. I could have said I would meet you on the theatre and you wouldn't have dared to look up to see if I was lying on the roof.
- Eso no es justo, sobre todo cuando... That's quite unfair, dear. Especially when...

You probably noticed it yourselves. Hispanic asssistance notwithstanding, that passage is still confusing and as far from being resolved as the England football team are from winning even a five-a-side Sunday league impromptu tournament. No, Spanish can do nothing for that couple. They don't need a linguist but a Relate counsellor.

© 2010

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


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