Sunday 27 February 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I recently bought a new camera for the team I head. A photo one, I mean. I was a bit fed up with our old optical device and its battery-operated mechanism. Taking advantage of a little underspending we had in our budget, I went for a brand-new, digital model.

Now, I'd be the first to admit that when it comes to modern gadgets I'm not the smartest of fellows. It takes me a while to get from A to B. But, get there I usually do. On this occasion I had the instructions in one hand and the camera in the other one and I was trying to work out the different buttons and functions. One of the latter was how to turn the photo operation into a video one. I pressed the relevant button and voilà!, I was able to make a three-second-long short clip. That's when the problem started.

After a while I wanted to reverse to the photo function but was unable to do it. I kept pressing the same button I'd pressed before and each time I was prompted to the main menu which, obviously contained all the operations associated with videos, but not with photos. I spent probably a good thirty minutes until my natural curiosity led me to press the shutter and... yes, you probably imagine the rest. The camera went back to its original and more important function: that of taking photographic images.

Later that evening on my way back home I had Bruce Springsteen's 'Wreck On the Highway' on my mp3 player. And it suddenly dawned on me how modern technology has come to complicate our lives so much, leaving a trail of anxiety behind it everywhere it goes. The earlier camera episode had put me in a foul mood as I couldn't quite figure out which button to press. A device that should have been a source of happiness - the photos taken by the team members would have a better quality henceforth - had instead given me cause for despair. Pretty much like I feel everytime I'm faced with a piece of furniture from Ikea, for instance.

The Boss's song, however, reminded me that not everything in life need be Daedalean. 'Wreck on the Highway', the coda of Springsteen's fifth album, 'The River', is a simple, short story made up of three characters, two of which never get to know each other and yet are intricately linked. The effect of both lyrics and music is chilling to say the least.

In its twenty verses there isn't one single metaphore or simile. What we have instead is a tale about misfortune and love told from the point of a man who goes home at the end of his working day. Whilst driving back to his house he comes across the eponymous accident on the motorway. According to him, 'There was blood and glass all over/And there was nobody there but me/As the rain tumbled down hard and cold/I seen a young man lying by the side of the road/He cried Mister, won’t you help me please.' We can only guess that the man stays with the dying fellow by his side because he later watches an ambulance driving him away. He then imagines a girlfriend or wife being woken up by 'state trooper knocking in the middle of the night/To say your baby died in a wreck on the highway'. The last stanza finds the man reflecting on the scene he was exposed to before he tells us how sometimes he sits in the dark to watch his 'baby as she sleeps/Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight/I just lay there awake in the middle of the night/Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway'.

That a trope-free song like this has a such powerful hold on me is due in no small part to a combination of factors. First of all, two of Springsteen's cast of three are passive members in his tale. The victim of the car accident just utters one line, which is all about getting help. He probably realises that he is going to die anyway but another part of him thinks there might still be a way out. This approach renders the passage personal as we've probably met people in real life who have been involved in car accidents, maybe we're those people ourselves, scarred mentally and/or physically for life. Springsteen's working man's partner is the other passive character in this story. She is the recipient of the man's anxiety when he wakes up in the middle of the night, watches her sleep and thinks of how lucky he is to have her.

Because of the inaction of two of Bruce's trio of personages, we're left to create a narrative for them. That's the second element. It means in this case to ignore their foibles and concentrate on their virtues, or virtue rather, as this consists mainly of being pondered upon by the working man. The victim probably has a girlfriend or young wife, thus hinting at a blossoming life himself. But beyond that we're in the dark. What if he was a violent man who beat his partner up? What if they had a terrible altercation, he rushed out in his car and crashed it as a result? Any of these theories are soon relinquished as we're presented with the ominous knock on the door by the state trooper in the middle of the night. This line taps right into our basic instict. Some of us have some experience of being roused from a heavy sleep by the doorbell in the small hours. It's the harbinger of tragedy. The working man's 'baby' is the final link in this sequence. As he climbs in bed and holds her tight, he is probably thinking how fortunate he is, even if they might have had a terrible row the night before over whose turn it was to do the washing up.

The third reason why 'Wreckage on the Highway' has such a powerful effect on me is the music itself. The combination of organ and guitar add an ethereal atmosphere to the song, especially at the beginning, whereas the voice and drums adopt a more mundane and nonchalant tone. It's not strange to find the organ providing this otherwordly timbre. After all, it was the instrument of choice in many churches in centuries past. It was commonly found perched right up, near the top, the better to be closer to God, apparently. However in this instance it finds a formidable rival in Springsteen who sings in a casual way about what could be just another day in this working man's life. Together, organ, guitar and voice come up with a message delivered in the simplest of terms: live your life to the full, because you don't know if the next victim on the highway will be you.

On my walk back home that evening I imagined that the man who witnesses the wreck in the song, had probably had a tough day at work, maybe even struggling to work out a new gadget (not a digital camera, obviously, this track is from 1980, plus the man was most likely to be a blue-collar worker as that was the type of person Springsteen chiefly wrote and sang about). But I often thought that he'd had his share of problems and faced with that car accident on the way home, he suddenly realised that no matter how complicated life is, you can lose it in a second. That's how simple it is, too. About the same time this happened, I got an e-mail from an American poet who had been following my blog since earlier this year. He had travelled to Cuba some time ago and, in a tribute to his grandmother - also a poet -, had left some of her poetry books in the shelves of bookshops. Yes, I know, pretty subversive. But what I liked the most was that after an initial electronic exchange, he sent me his own work, "iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About". It contains one of the funnier and wittier introductions I've ever read:

"This is a book of poetry. If you are reading this right now, I
am surprised. I’m shocked. I am jolted that there is nothing
good on TV, that your Wii is not more tempting, or that you
would not instead enjoy managing Fantasy Football or
taking a walk. Sure you would not rather read the Twilight
saga? Face it, if you do not read the Twilight saga, you and
your prom date are going to have very little to talk about.

Sometimes we're so immersed in our little technological, modern, celebrity-filled world. A world that makes us angry and frustrated when we fail to grasp the importance of this or that function in our new gadget, that drives us mad with its coldness when we don't get a response from our brand-new, state-of-the-art, sophisticated devices because machines, unfortunately, are not very good at responding. It is at times like these, that I switch off and tune in to the Boss and like that man at the end of his working day, think of the 'wreck on the highway'.

© 2011

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 2nd March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

The lights are down, the auditorium is in semi-darkness, nervous coughs can be heard here and there, the expectation mounts, anxiety kicks in. Someone rushes out of their seat, onto the aisle and up the corridor. A last-minute trip to the lavatory perhaps? Two presenters walk to the front of the stage carrying an envelope with them. They're both world-famous celebrities. They take turns in reading out the nominees' names. After some slight banter, they then proceed to open the envelope. The male presenter looks at the camera and out of his mouth the following words come out: "And the Oscar goes to..." The female presenter picks up from where he leaves off and finishes the sentence: "Hillary Mantel". Or is it Jonathan Franzen? Or how about Jacqueline Wilson? Maya Angelou? Margaret Atwood? Salman Rushdie?

The odds are that you won't hear any of those names this coming Sunday 27th February at the 83rd Academy Awards. And why should you, anyway? After all Rushdie et al are not actors, they didn't learn their craft in drama school but in front of a typewriter/keyboard. Leave acting to actors, I hear you say. Yet could there be something else to it? Should we not acknowledge writers' contribution to arts not just as fine écrivains but also as purveyors of drama, suspense and, above all, well-researched characters?

That an author's knack lies in his or her power of luring us into the thick forest of their narrative without caring one jot what dangerous creatures and plants we'll encounter in it, is beyond dispute. And I make no distinction between a novel, a short story or a poem. Whenever you come across well-written fiction, you are exposing yourself to somebody else's world. The writer will use his or her power of make-believe to unveil secrets that he or she might not even be aware of, and should they realise that they're sharing too much, they will be in a position to claim that all was done under the auspice of fiction. Meanwhile their work will - hopefully - affect you both consciously and unconsciously.

And yet, we would never think of labelling that kind of writing as acting. Maybe it's to do with the lack of physicality. Reading is - mostly - a passive activity, whereas acting, even when a performer is merely sitting on a chair, suggests movement. But to me there's no much difference between Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' with its fragmented storyline and a novel like 'Small Island' by the British writer Andrea Levy with its divided monologues.

'Small Island' tells the story of Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert and Bernard in the aftermath of the Second World War. Queenie is married to Bernard who is sent away to fight in the conflict. She has all but given up any hope of seeing him come back and decides to let out the rooms in her house to Gilbert and Hortense, a married couple who have just arrived from Jamaica. Through flashbacks we learn of the leading characters' previous circumstances.

However, the most significant element in the novel is the use of monologues to signal different points of view. To this one must add the use of various norms of spoken English, from Queenie's medley of Received Pronunciation and the vernacular to Gilbert's Jamaican patois.

Levy's chief achievement is to provide an individual platform for each of her four characters to develop. Except for Bernard, whose contribution is shorter (not strange given that he is more talked about than doing the actual talking), the other three are used deftly by Andrea to depict an important period in British history as accurately as possible. Like a thespian who is well-versed in the art of imbuing his or her characters with their own peculiar traits and quirks, Levy performs a similar trick by making the reader see the world through the eyes of just the one personage in each chapter.

Easy as it might sound, the perils of writing in different voices are various, but one stands out: credibility. The writer owes it to the readers to make his characters' points of view believable, nuanced and distinct, otherwise the charge of implausibility will rear its ugly head. Under normal circumstances in most works of fiction there are usually one or two weak characters that we, as readers, think could do with some tweaking here and there. When the point of view shifts to the first person singular, we feel that our responsibility has increased tenfold. Same with actors. A performer doing rep will probaly take part in a matinée production of 'Much Ado About Nothing' and later on will play Iago in a very different setting. It's not just the lines he will have to learn, but the gestures and mannerisms that set both characters apart.

This is the feat that Andrea Levy pulled off with 'Small Island'. In order to write as accurately as she did about an era that preceded her (she was born in 1956) she had to inhabit the role of each and every member of her dramatis personae. The result is an amazing novel whose views on class, gender and race are precious material for people like me, interested in the UK's rich history, even if this information arrives in the form of ficton. It's also further evidence that the drama techniques pioneered by the likes of Stanislavski, Brecht and Artaud have escaped the narrow confines of theatre and affected the literary landscape, albeit unconsciously. I seriously doubt that Levy sat in front of her keyboard and thought of disturbing the reader's subconscious mind through a mix of light, sound and visual images which would take precedence over the written word. And yet in 'Small Island', I found myself sometimes focusing more on the visual stimulus than the accompanying text, as in this passage when Hortense arrives at Queenie's house for the first time:

"But when I pressed this doorbell I did not hear a ring. No ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling. I pressed once more in case the doorbell was not operational. The house, I could see, was shabby. Mark you, shabby in a grand sort of a way. I was sure this house could once have been home to a doctor or a lawyer or perhaps a friend of a friend of the king's. Only the house of someone high-class would have pillars at the doorway. Ornate pillars that twisted with elaborate design. The glass stained with coloured pictures as a church would have. It was true that some were missing, replaced by cardboard and strips of white tape. But who knows what devilish deeds Mr Hitler's bombs carried out during the war?"

Of course, authors' natural shy disposition (the majority, that is, some others are unashamed publicity-seekers. Stop hiding, Rushdie! I'm talking to you!) makes them unlikely performing material. And they do get their just reward for occasionally researching and becoming their characters. The Bookers, Whitbreads and Oranges attest to that. However, with the amalgamation of many art forms (sculpture with dance, poetry with video) it's not too far-fetched to believe that at some point in the near future we'll see a world-famous celebrity saying: 'And the Oscar goes to... the author'.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 27th February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 20 February 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Scarcely ten miles away from Munich, the former concentration camp at Dachau still casts a tenebrous shadow. It was here where the words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' greeted thousands of prisoners, many of which would end up in the infamous gas chambers.

That the British Prime Minister David Cameron chose these surroundings to deliver his speech on multiculturalism in Britain a fortnight ago - and its failures, according to him -, could be thought to be at best, crass and careless and at worst, downright offensive, given the cuts the coalition government over which he presides is introducing in the UK. That the main target of his address was the Muslim community is also confusing, as only a few weeks before, a member of his own party, Baroness Warsi was complaining to all and sundry that Islamophobia had finally 'passed the dinner table test'. Either Mr Cameron is planning to throw a dinner party, had no intention whatsoever of inviting the co-chairman of the Conservative Party to it and instead of coming clear about it opted for a veiled approach, or the Tories are not talking to each other.

So, multiculturalism is finished. समाप्त. Bitmiş. Terminado.

Except that from where I'm sitting the view is rather different. Let me take you on a tour of my neighbourhood.

Our first stop is the market. Purely because it's a famous one. Long hailed as one of the obligatory stops for visitors not just from other parts of London, but also outside it, like Essex, this is a place steeped in history. The stock is plentiful, the prices reasonable and the quality of the products good. This market has seen no shortage of immigrants, from Cockneys in the 70s to Somalis today. Let me stand in the middle of the piazza, I close my eyes and what do I hear? Probably about seven or eight different languages, except for English, in less than five minutes. And that includes my mother tongue, Spanish, too. I open my eyes and what do I see? A Kurdish fishmonger. An Iraqi guy who sells suitcases. A Trinidadian man who runs one of the many clothes stalls in the indoor square. The woman from whom I buy my son's hair gel regularly is from Ghana. The voices of many of the fruit'n'veg vendors betray their London origin: "Free for a poun'! Free apples for a poun'! Come and take yer free apples for a poun'! A poun' for free apples, for a pound'! You aw'right, luv? How's it goin', mate'. I count three butchers' in about three hundred yards; one of them sells halal meat. It's usually full.

If I step outside the market and walk down the main thoroughfare, I will have, on my right hand side, the hairdresser's where, every three months or so, I have my hair done. It's run by a Nigerian woman from the Calabar region. Further down the road I spot two or three Turkish kebab shops and a bit further ahead our local community house. Its tenants include a Tamil organisation, a Caribbean association and a Bangladeshi forum. Whenever I am in the mood for a Proustian madeleine - and not of the involuntary kind - I pop by the Polish deli. It stocks all the products I used to enjoy as a kid when most of our imports still came from the former Eastern socialist bloc.

So, is multiculturalism working or not? It depends on what you're looking for and what you'd like your answer to be. If you're seeking disharmony and enmity, you'll find it in plenty of places, like the aforementioned market. I once saw one of the fruit'n'veg sellers give a Muslim woman a dressing-down on account of her lack of linguistic skills. By the same token, if you want to make a case for multiculturalism, spend an hour in the in-shops and you'll see a lot of people from various nationalities and speaking different languages getting on well with each other.

It is true that in his speech in Munich, Cameron was very specific about who he was addressing: those non-violent Muslim groups in Britain that, according to him, were apparently somewhat ambiguous about British moral values. But the downside was that in using the word 'multiculturalism', he somehow tarred all migrant communities with the same dirty brush.

It is daunting, even at the best of times, to move to a new country. Regardless of whether you arrive at it in the back of a lorry or on a Cubana flight, the reality of upping sticks and settling down in a foreign land can be traumatic. It's natural then, that immigrants tend to stay in their own comfort zone. They gravitate towards areas where they can speak in their own language and eat their traditional food. One of the tasks for the host nation is how to welcome and benefit from these new arrivals. There're also duties and responsibilities for the newcomers, though, namely, how to integrate and adopt the laws and rules of their new home. For that to happen several mechanisms must be in place, such as: language courses (fundamental in the process of integration), acknowledgement of the immigrant's culture and at the same time awareness of and respect for the host country's own values and way of life. Another aspect to consider is the influence some institutions will have on immigrants and how they will make their settling down process easier, for instance, schools, libraries and community centres. Politics plays an important role as the language used very often by politicians when discussing migration borders on the zenophobic. We want to feel that we're not a burden but an asset, especially for the economy. It is this latter element that complements my list of mechanisms that must work in unison if, as a society, we're to take advantage of immigrants' input. In difficult economic times, like the ones through which we're going now, our contribution is fundamental. Most immigrants I've met, and I include myself in that large group, want to work. Through our taxes we ensure that we have access to free education and free health care.

If the above structures are in place, the pluses of multiculturalism will outnumber the minuses. However, at present, the government headed by the same person who gave that speech in Munich is applying scythe-style sweeping cuts to most services that directly or indirectly benefit immigrants. For instance Esol (English for speakers of other languages) provision will see a reduction of up to 32 per cent this year. This cruel measure will isolate even more members of communities that are already quite passive in terms of integrating into British society. There's even an ironic twist in this decision to cut funding to Esol. Many colleges had been specially earmarked to deliver Esol courses as a direct route to British citizenship. Now they won't be able to. Who said the British Prime Minister didn''t have a sense of humour?

Libraries face a very uncertain future with many put down for closure. I have lost count of all the times I've seen immigrant families in my local 'temple of knowledge' with their little ones reading books in their own language. On many occasions I've seen the same parents, who a couple of years before could not articulate one word in English, reading a book in the language of Shakespeare to their children. So much for Mr Cameron's criticism of multiculturalism.

But I can't lay all the blame at No 10's door. The liberal left must take part of the flak, too. That also means yours truly. Because most of the time, when discussing multiculturalism, progressive folks speak in a way that might come across a tad bit patronising. Read journalist Madeleine Bunting's riposte to Cameron's speech and you'll see what I mean: "Multiculturalism is dead, long live multiculturalism. It's not a slogan that slips easily off the tongue, but it's the only one that seemed to capture the bizarre dissonance of a media abuzz with David Cameron's speech in Munich on the failed policies of "state multiculturalism" and my Saturday morning shopping in Hackney's Ridley Road in east London. Dozens of nationalities jostle for the best vegetables, dresses, blankets and cookware. The air is full of the smell of Turkish bread and African salted fish, the stalls are heaped with yams and chilis. The street traders' banter is littered with the Cockney endearments of love and darling. No one is dewy-eyed about this kind of London – there is too much poverty for that – but for all its many shortcomings, there is something extraordinary about how Britain has accommodated this hyper-diversity." Madeleine's description of her regular Saturday shopping outing is not that different from my own experience at the market near my house. But dig further and this is what you will find.

Both Madeleine and I praise immigrants' contribution to UK society in terms of cuisine and groceries. We enjoy the Turkish kebab shop and often order a takeaway from an Indian restaurant. I go to an African hairdresser's to have my hair done whilst Madeleine jostles with the rest of her neighbours for the best of vegetables. But all the jobs described before are menial. We can't discuss multiculturalism in terms of representation in the media and Parliament, because there's very little. That's a mitigating factor for both Bunting and me, though, in that turbans and saris are hardly ever seen on telly unless someone is discussing the Asian experience or talking about Bollywood movies. Black faces are conspicuous by their absence unless the subject to debate centres on knife crime or troubled youth.

And that's the real problem. The multicultural experience comes with a high price attached to it. If you're Bangladeshi and you're willing to slave your hours away working in a hot kitchen preparing curries for the Kaffee Klatsch set, you're welcome. But the minute you want to stray into the territory usually dominated by middle-class, middle-aged white men, then questions will be asked and eyebrows will be raised. No wonder Madeleine and I enjoy the UK's multicultural vibe so much. Everyone seems to know their place.

That David Cameron chose to criticise multiculturalism at a time when his government is making it difficult for immigrant communities to integrate is a bit rich, coming as it does from someone who has plenty of millionaires in his cabinet. But that we, on the progressive, liberal side, have not got many arguments to counteract beyond praising immigrants' cuisine and batik-dyed clothes shops, is equally embarrassing. The only way to prove that multiculturalism has worked and continues to work in the UK, is by flagging up our contribution to British society in all areas, even if those areas remain off-limits for many people from ethnic minorities. Let's start with a trickle until we have a flow. That way the likes of Cameron will probably have second thoughts before slagging off a process that started centuries ago. After all, there's never been a fixed British identity. This country's culture and economics have been enhanced by accepting the reality of community pluralism.

Last, a message for our Prime Minister. Next time you're planning to scapegoat an entire group of people, i.e., immigrants, please, make sure that you choose a less controversial backdrop, Herr Cameron.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘ Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts’, to be published on Wednesday 23rd February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Image taken from
Cultural Geography Blog

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Killer Opening Songs (Ser O No Ser/To Be Or Not To Be)

If you thought that with the release of the recent album 'AfroCubism', a collaboration of artists from Africa and Cuba, the music from the Caribbean island had reached its apex, think again. There's a new kid in town and she's rocking the house!

Danay Suárez is the latest Cuban talent to emerge from what has already become a springboard for creative expression. And Killer Opening Songs is proud to promote such honest efforts. Since 2007 Havana Cultura's sessions have become a cauldron where visual artists, dancers and musicians mix and showcase their remarkable skills.

In Danay's case, the opportunity arose when Gilles Peterson, creative director of Havana Cultura, got together with Roberto Fonseca and other musicians to rehearse for an upcoming European tour. The sessions were so successful that Gilles booked an extra day to record a few songs with Danay. The result is an amazing EP which shows off Sanchez's vocal prowess and Fonseca's superb musical arrangements.

The album's K.O.S., 'Ser O No Ser' ('To Be Or Not To Be'), weaves the Shakespearean motif into a medley of piano riffs, lyrical solos (from every instrument, including a mesmerising double bass effort by Omar Gonzalez) and vocal improvisation. The song also contains a line with probably one of the most acerbic remarks about Cuban society in recent years, in this case about prostitution ("There are materials aplenty/and they don't cost a penny/ in a warehouse inside your body/In order to build a better future for you/you need to leave your hang-ups behind"). The track ends with Danay's soothing voice intoning that Afro-Cuban classic 'Drume Negrita' (Sleep Little Black Girl).

The second track, 'Hay Un Lugar' ('There's a Place') is pure late-night, laid-back, smoky jazz. Listening to Suarez's vocal, there's no doubt that comparisons will be made with Billie Holiday, even if they might be a bit rushed.

Third song, 'Guajira' ('Peasant Woman') is a typical 'guajira-son', namely, a countryside melody built on layers of Cuba's traditional son, the rhythm that served as the basis for salsa. Once again, Fonseca riffs on the piano whilst Danay's melodic voice seems to be addressing an errant lover.

The last piece on the EP, 'En Lo Profundo' ('In the Depth') is an Afro-Cuban onslaught supported by a piano refrain. The combination of Bantu-inspired, repetitive drumming patterns (excellently executed by percussionist Vince Vella) with Danay's soaring vocals will surely remind listeners of live performances by Jill Scott or early Rachelle Ferrell.

Suárez joins an elite group of contemporary Cuban singers who refuse to be pigeonholed by genre. Guitar-wielding Yusa is often referred to as Cuba's version of Tracy Chapman whilst hip hop artist Telmary has been likened to Lauryn Hill. However these comparisons miss the versatility that characterises these singers' creative output. Danay completes this triumvirate with a voice which travels the gamut of emotions: from a strong, powerful tone to a more lyrical and harmonious one. Killer Opening Songs hopes that you enjoy the clip below. It can't stop playing it on its mp3.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 20th February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 13 February 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Did Sarah Palin pull the trigger?

I admit that at times I had thoughts where I would face up to him, overpower him, probably even kill him. Although I was already a teenager by then, the bullying had started years before when I was still a child and by the time I turned fourteen I'd had enough. A basketball, a couple of baseballs, a few toys; they had all been snatched away by my tormentor. There was a time when I dreamt of mustering up the courage to confront him, to stand up to him. But I always failed. Sometimes, when he was around, I even wished he would take his frustration out on somebody else. And that, too, happened. More than thirty years later I feel ashamed of those thoughts.

Did Sarah Palin pull the trigger?

One of the scenarios I often imagined involved him trying to take something away from me yet again and me producing a gun in order to stop him. In my head I could clearly see the look of surprise in his eyes as the compact and steel body of my weapon made me look taller, stronger and more powerful. In my mind I even had a ready-made speech for the occasion, a panegyric full of bravado, accentuated by the barrel of my gun aiming at him. Give me my ball back! I would shout whilst waving my 6.85in. x 1.18in. at him. I would then tell him to beat it. I would probably aim at his feet and fire a couple of rounds. Although I wanted to get rid of him, I didn't want to kill-him-kill-him, but just to kill-him-scare-him, maybe kill him a little bit, but not totally.

One day we were playing baseball, or maybe basketball, details elude me now. All I know is that at some point during the game he pushed me, probably thinking that I wouldn't retaliate, but I did. It was probably about the time my situation at home, with my parents splitting up, had reached a nadir, so there was an external factor to consider. I reacted instinctively. I don't think I made a conscious decision, if I had - and that's what I've come to believe over the years - I probably wouldn't have dared to jump on him, push him to the ground and hit him. A fight ensued. There was no winner; we both ended up on the ground with dirty clothes and blood on our noses. But there was no more bullying afterwards.

Oftentimes I have wondered whether, given the opportunity and the possession of a weapon, I would have gunned my tormentor down instead of using my knuckles.

Luckily for him, and also for me, there's never been a Second Ammendment in Cuba.

Did Sarah Palin pull the trigger?

Roughly one hundred thousand people are killed or injured in the US every year as a result of gun incidents. By contrast the death toll in Viet Nam between 1965 and 1968 was in the thousands. That doesn't make the latter right, it makes the whole situation illogical. That the US has had an aggressive foreign policy for most of its existence is plain for everyone to see. That it has had the same hawk-like approach against its own population is, to put it mildly, baffling.

Regardless of whether Jared Lee Loughner was a loner with mental health issues or not (it's ironic that he wasn't branded a terrorist, imagine if his name had been Mohammed), he would never have shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords if he had not had the chance of buying a gun. Or he would have had a tougher time trying to find a weapon with which to carry out his dastardly act. But the Glock 19 he used can be purchased anywhere in Arizona where it's completely legal to walk around with a concealed weapon in your pocket.

The attempt on Giffords' life (which also caused the death of a nine-year-old girl, my daughter's age as it happens) follows a too familiar pattern. An atrocity occurs resulting in a public outcry for tighter gun controls and then... life carries on until the next time a Jared Lee Loughner or a Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech, April 2007) decides to go on a killing spree. And the aegis under which all these massacres happen is the Second Amendment to the United Constitution. It states that 'the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.' However this statute was only meant to repel foreign invaders, not to maim and kill US citizens. It's ironic that the worst attack on American soil happened two-hundred and fourteen years and six days after the Constitution was first read aloud to representatives of the government. And yet the possession of firearms could not save the Twin Towers, nor the people inside them. Passengers are not allowed to take guns on planes with them.

You might be wondering why I'm writing about a problem that in principle doesn't concern me. After all the UK has one of the lowest gun crime rates. There are three reasons. The first one is that many of the bloggers and readers who visit this blog are either US citizens or reside there. Through this medium we have forged a bond, albeit virtual, and with that nexus comes a flurry of feelings and emotions: friendship, respect, admiration, affection. It would be sad to lose an invisible fellow blogger to the warm muzzle of a gun. The second reason is that I would like to know what you think about this problem. What is your opinion about the right for people to bear arms and the consequences of it? Thirdly, to me it's absurd that the country that endorsed 'liberty' as one of the unalienable rights to strive for in its Declaration of Independence, continues to toss that right aside flippantly in favour of a law that has proved to undermine that freedom. Liberty dies with the gun victim.

And it's that third reason the one into which I would like to delve further. No matter how liberal or rightwing the incumbent at the White House is, possession of firearms is the one item on the political agenda they try not to touch. For all president Obama's call to unity at the funeral of the victims of Jared's terrorist act (let's call a spade a spade, shall we?), he still shows the same reticence to even address that Second Amendment. A clause, by the way, which appears in a document that many people have heard of but have rarely read.

In a brilliant essay in The New Yorker recently ('The Commandments', 17th January), the writer Jill Lapore laid bare some of the myths surrounding the US Constitution. And one of them is how it has been hijacked by the Republicans (and the Tea Party) to use as a weapon with which to hit the Democrats. One of the aspects that surprised me the most is that the former very often don't know what they're talking about as they haven't read the document in question. A good example is Christine O’Donnell, who, in the run-up to the mid-term elections, asked his opponent Chris Coons where in the Constitution the separation between church and state was mentioned. In the First Amendment, Coons replied. O’Donnell lost. But in the rush to do as much damage to their political opponents, the Republicans and their sidekicks from the Tea Party movement often overlook the importance of what Lapore calls 'those four pages of parchment'. And the effects of their shortsightedness are frequently lethal.

So, did Sarah Palin pull the trigger?

No, she did not. Or at least she is not to blame for the Arizona shooting any more than we can blame JD Salinger for John Lennon's murder or Jodie Foster for the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981. At the same time, neither the American writer, nor the Hollywood actress designed a map which they put on their website dotted with 20 gunsight-style crosshairs over 20 congressional districts occupied by Democrats who had voted for Obama's healthcare reform. One of those government representatives, incidentally, was Gabrielle Gifford.

No, Sarah Palin did not pull the trigger. But, at the same time, she did not act responsibly. When you start attacking your political opponents using language like: "We’ll keep clinging to our Constitution, our guns, and our religion, and you can keep the change" or "Don't Retreat! Reload", you're encouraging your supporters to adopt methods that might otherwise be thought unorthodox. Like loading a gun, aiming it at a US Congresswoman and firing it.

In my view, part of the problem surrounding people's right to bear arms as a self-defence mechanism comes from a separation of perception and reality. To back up my theory I'll use an excellent article by my favourite journalist, Gary Younge, who recently wrote about the dichotomy that exists between the widespread admiration for the army in the US and the knowledge of what said army does, especially abroad.

If I may use a similar analogy, we know that guns maim and kill people. Even that younger, adolescent version of myself was aware of that. But sometimes we imagine death in abstract terms, as in pretend-death, not real-death, as in not kill-kill, but kill-a-little-kill-and-then-you're-back-on-your-feet-again-kill. That's probably, I hope, what Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and co. have in mind when they use their warmongering, political rhetoric. They mean kill-only-to-scare-you-softie-liberal-Democrat-kill, but not kill-kill. But this separation between the perception of what a gun does and the actual outcome of it is swiftly given a reality-check when yet another innocent victim dies.

Would that younger me have picked up a gun to defend myself against my tormentor if given the chance? I don't know. On the spur of the moment anything would have been possible then. I can't help thinking, though, that right now, in the US, a window blind is being closed down on another innocent person's spring years, condemning them to an eternal winter.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Killer Opening Songs’, to be published on Wednesday 16th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

We need a Facebook campaign. We need to take immediate action. And we need a colour, too. Georgia had a rose revolution, Ukraine an orange one. Burma went for saffron to enliven its social uprising whilst Iran's one gave us a spring green. And as we saw recently in Tunisia jasmine was the scent and tincture that permeated their insurrection. Let's have, then, a silver-letters revolution. Let's rally our argent-uniformed troops against the Philistines bent on wreaking havoc on one of humankind's cultural bastions: the local library.

I have already stated in previous posts how valuable I think libraries are. In one of my 'Living in a Bilingual World' columns, I explained the influence they'd exerted over me in certain periods of my life. They still do.

Libraries are not just books warehouses. They are essential to a person's cultural education throughout his or her life. As class-levellers, they help bring down barriers, since anyone can use them. They can also be utilised as mid- and long-term tools to prepare a person for his or her professional future (the nature of which is rather uncertain in the current climate). A child's library card (obtained when he or she is still an infant) is a passport to freedom, a guarantee that they will not be prisoner number 46664 locked away on Ignorance Island.

And now this cultural treasure is under threat. At the time of writing local councils are considering shutting down hundreds of libraries across the country. From North Yorkshire to Fulham the effect of the axe will be heavily felt.

The argument is still the same as it was when Labour was in power: libraries cost too much money to run and their role is no longer crystal clear. The onset of the digital age has dealt a deadly blow to a service whose main remit is still to act as a cornucopia where books, newspapers, magazines and other materials may be read or borrowed. That libraries have actually enhanced their functions to include CDs and DVDs amongst a range of options open to the public has not been factored in. Regarding the financial cost, I could understand it, especially under the present circumstances. But then that argument is turned on its head when you notice that the government lacks the same zeal in pursuing tax-evaders, whose contributions could rake in billions of pounds for our recessionary economy.

One of the ideas bandied about when discussing what to do with local libraries is to use volunteers instead of paid staff. It would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic. Volunteers already do an incredible amount of work in local libraries, so nothing new there. What they can't offer is the know-how that comes with years of training and experience. Somebody ought to take a cup of nice, strong, aromatic coffee to Downing Street to wake David Cameron up. His 'Big Society' dream was already happening whilst he was busy developing his PR portfolio. My local library has always acted as a hub for a wide range of activities: from parents and toddlers groups (my son went to one when he was little) to internet access.

I'll give you an example of how paid staff cannot be disposed of willy-nilly in favour of volunteers. A couple of years ago I decided to write a post about Johann Sebastian Bach. I went online first and after perusing a few websites, I decided on two titles. I contacted my local library and asked them if they had the books I wanted. They didn't, but they could request them from another library, one which wasn't even in my own borough but several miles away. I placed my order and before you could say 'Johann', both books were ready for collection within days of my initial phone call. My experience was, however, far from exceptional, but rather the norm.

Of all the cuts the government has either brought forward or is proposing, this is one of the crueller ones. It strikes at the heart of a person's cultural perspective in life, especially if his or her financial circumstances are below average.

I suggest two ways of counteracting Downing Street's barbarian hordes' attack on our libraries. And both methods are peaceful. In fact they follow in the footsteps of those protesters who decided to make a statement about Tony Blair's biography when it was first published last year. They placed it in the crime section.

One solution I propose is to create mobile libraries on trains and buses, although the latter is more impractical due to there being fewer seats available, especially during rush-hour. There are already mobile libraries in the UK, but they, too, are under threat, especially because in their case fuel is also added to the operating costs. However, what I am proposing is that whenever possible you take a slim volume with you (or a few, depending on what kind of bag you carry around) and leave it/them behind you on the overground/underground. It doesn't matter whether it is fiction, poetry or autobiography, what it's important is the intention. You're leaving it for someone else to read. Be creative, too. How about using a couple of empty seats on the London (Victoria)-to-Brighton service as a bookshelf for your collection, for instance? You could even leave your future customer a little card with it. Then, that person would pass your book(s) onto the next one and so on. You would become the anonymous donor who benefits society as a whole. And with no tax-avoider tag to fear.

My second suggestion is for every person, who has been or will be affected by local councils' plans to close down libraries, to post a book to their local government representative. Inundate your borough's civic centre with tomes by the likes of Tolkien and Alice Walker. Send them with a covering letter, explaining how much these books mean to you. Even better if the volume you're posting was first borrowed from your local library many years before and it made a huge impact on your life then. Dig out that dusted poetry collection by Rabindranath Tagore and leave it at the civic centre's front desk marked 'For the Attention Of the Leader of the Council'. Be bold and send books in other languages, too. After all, recent modern foreign languages GCSE results in the UK still make for grim reading. So, enlist the Sartres and Flauberts (en français), the Goethes and the Brechts (auf Deutsch) and the Lezamas and Dulce Marías (en español) in your crusade. Go the extra step and send a few books to Downing Street, too. Imagine that. A whole country reminding the Prime Minister what his duties to literacy are.

We need a silver-letters revolution. Silver because it's an elegant, distinctive and dignified colour. Just like literature. And my choice of book to send? Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 'The Little Prince'. It contains one of the more appropriate quotes for the battle ahead: 'It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.' Is the government's heart malfunctioning to such a great extent that it can no longer see?

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on Sunday 13th February at 10am (GMT)

Photo taken from the London Borough of Hillingdon’s

Sunday 6 February 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Last Sunday I had a mind-blowing experience. I went on a trip through a desert. True, lush vegetation could be spotted in the distance but in order to get to it, I had to negotiate plenty of arid land. My only companion was a 4x4 that helped me navigate the cracks, potholes and rare little bushes I found on the uneven terrain. Last Sunday I had the experience of a lifetime.

Sorry, I forgot to mention that this happened in the comfort of my own house. To be more specific, the above scenario took place whilst I was sprawled on the couch in the lounge.

Because last Sunday I travelled across someone's face.

It's not everyday that you're greeted by an A2 image of someone whose oeuvre you've adored all your life. Someone who fronted a band you followed and whose music you still worship. Yet, that was exactly what happened last weekend when I opened the New Review supplement in The Observer. There, on the front page, the smirk of one Robert Plant (above) was all the encouragement I needed to sit down and enjoy one of the better interviews I've read for a long time.

However, as I devoured every word of the exchange between Ed Vulliamy and the erstwhile Led Zeppelin singer, a niggling thought kept pestering me. In fact, the intrusive reflection came with a name attached to it: Miriam O'Reilly.

If you live in the UK, you will probably have heard of and/or read about the former BBC presenter's win in her age-discrimination case against the corporation. O'Reilly (right), who is 53, was axed from the show 'Countryfile' a couple of years ago when the programme moved from its regular Sunday morning slot to the evening time. Prior to the change, the ex-BBC presenter faced a barrage of insults: from one director allegedly warning her about her wrinkles to another one mentioning Botox. Even a cameraman apparently waved a can of black spray in front of her to cover her white roots. Unsurprisingly, her ability to perform her job was not once factored into the equation.

The reason why O'Reilly's name was on my mind as I read the interview with Robert Plant was that I kept wondering what a similar image on the front of a Sunday supplement with a fifty- or sixty-something woman would read like. It's a rhetorical question, though, for the answer would be: the main focus would be on her age and looks.

A recent piece on Annette Bening and her starring role in the film 'The Kids Are All Right', concentrated more on the fact that at 52 she hasn't had 'anything' done, than on her thespian skills. Thought the article was mostly positive, I kept asking myself at the time if I would ever read a similar feature on Jack Nicholson or Harrison Ford's facial features.

It's not a secret that as a society we're not very often comfortable with the idea of ageing. And that's putting it midly. What is disconcerting is that this attitude is more conspicuous when women are the subject of the discussion. O'Reilly follows in the footsteps of Anna Ford (62 when she 'left' her job as a newsreader at the BBC, rumours say that she was forced to go), Arlene Phillips (ex-judge of 'Strictly Come Dancing' and deemed past her use-by date) and Moira Stuart (another ex-newsreader at the BBC who apparently did not fit in the corporation's plans for HD television). Is ageism, then, intrincately linked to sexism?

In an almost comical turn of events, days after O'Reilly's win, Ed Davey, the government's employment relations minister, announced that the coalition was planning to phase out the retirement age at 65. That means that employers cannot force people out of their jobs on account of their age. If only the BBC executives had waited another couple of years! They'd probably still have their former Countryfile presenter, they wouldn't have lost face with the British public and should any of those folks in the shires complain about O'Reilly's wrinkles (unlikely, I know, I'm sure that they have mirrors in their big, massive mansions), the Beeb would have retorted, ' Well, guess what? She can stay for as long as she wants. The government says so'. But no, that wasn't the case and now there's a lot of head-scratching and soul-searching at Auntie's headquarters.

And if the above doesn't sound ironic enough, here's a further twist. Just a few weeks ago scientists in Boston suggested that there might be treatments soon to slow or even reverse the process of ageing. So, in less than a fortnight middle-aged and elderly citizens of this nation were treated to a cocktail of news through which they discovered that they could work for as long as they wanted to, provided that their employer was not the BBC, or a similar media outlet. And should life do what it always does and run its natural course, would you believe it, there's this magical potion/cream/pill that can help you, yes, you, oldie! delay the process of ageing, or even reverse it. Ha! You'll look eighteen again, you'll even look younger than your grandchildren. In fact, people will probably stop your offspring in the street and ask them how old their newborn (that's you) is. And still people thought that 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' was just a movie. It's the blueprint for the future, my dear fellows!

Joking aside, the obsession with age we're witnessing nowadays borders on the sinister. And the fact that it is women who feel more of this pressure to remain young, could be construed as yet another misogynistic attempt to rein in the female of the species. In a few weeks, a famous ceremony will take place in a certain part of LA. Along with the glitz and glamour there will probably be muted mobile phones in the audience vibrating to the sound of messages left by some of the stars' plastic surgery specialists with clear indications on which un-Botoxed eyebrow to raise whenever a cameraperson is in the vicinity. It goes without saying that any attempt at laughing on the part of the aforementioned celebrities will be deeply frowned upon (no pun intended, but oh, the irony of it!) by their medical advisors. Preposterous as this scenario might seem, it's already made inroads into our daily, un-celeb life.

When I took my imaginary trek across Robert Plant's face last Sunday, each line, wrinkle and furrow told me a unique story. It was a tale that combined triumphs (we can safely say that Led Zeppelin was the summa cum laude of rock'n'roll) and pitfalls (One of Plant's children, his son Karac, died aged five in 1977 and the singer almost packed it all in at the time). Botox those cracks away and you're left with no history. As one of the Zep's more famous songs goes: 'There's a lady who's sure/All that glitters is gold', we had better reassure the lady in question that she is the glittering gold, wrinkles or not. And I'm sure that she'll enjoy her journey up that stairway to heaven even more.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts’, to be published on Wednesday 9th February at 11:59pm (GMT

Photo of Robert Plant by Gregg Delman

Photo of Miriam O'Reilly taken from

Wednesday 2 February 2011

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

I recently fell ill with a cold. It was nothing serious but given the fact that I rarely get sick, it was one of those one-off events that scares you more than they affect you. However, the reason why I remember that my catarrh was of the mild variety was because I did not lose my sense of smell. Usually when you have a cold, your nose blocks up and you're left feeling frustrated about all the odours you can't now enjoy. But, you know, as long as chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi continue to exist, there's no need to fear that your organ of smell will be affected by a cold. Ottolenghi's recipes can unblock the most stubborn of noses.

My wife cooks a version of this dish at home and the aroma coming from the pan is just as delicious as the one you'll get when you knock this up next time it's your turn in the kitchen.

Basmati and wild rice with chickpeas, currants and herbs

50g wild rice
2 tbsp olive oil
220g basmati rice
Salt and black pepper
330ml boiling water
2 tsp cumin seeds
1½ tsp curry powder
240g cooked chickpeas (tinned are fine), drained
180ml sunflower oil
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
½ tbsp plain flour
100g currants
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp chopped coriander
1 tbsp chopped dill

Put the wild rice in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of water, bring to a boil and simmer for 40 minutes, until cooked but still quite firm. Drain and set aside.

To cook the basmati rice, pour a teaspoon of olive oil into a medium saucepan and place on high heat. Add the rice and a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and stir as it warms up. Add the boiling water, reduce the heat to minimum, cover with a tight lid and leave for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, lift off the lid, cover the pot with a tea towel, then put the lid on top and leave to rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the chickpeas. Heat the remaining olive oil in a small saucepan. Add the cumin and curry powder, and after a couple of seconds add the chickpeas and a quarter-teaspoon of salt; act fast, or the spices may burn. Stir for a minute or two, just to heat the chickpeas, then transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Wipe the pan clean, add the sunflower oil and place on a high heat. Once the oil is hot, mix the onion and flour with your hands. Take some of the mix and carefully place in the oil. Fry for two or three minutes, until golden-brown, transfer to kitchen paper and sprinkle with salt. Repeat in batches until all the onion is fried.

Finally, add both types of rice to the chickpea bowl, along with the currants, herbs and fried onion. Stir and season to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

For a recipe that has 'wild' in its name, there can only be equally untamed music to match it. That's why my first musical choice is a bluesy, Brazilian song that makes me jump out of pure joy whenever I think of the combination of black pepper, cumin seeds and curry powder. Hmmm... spicy.

This is one of those foot-tapping tracks. I love it especially when I walk to work and it comes on my mp3 player. And now I love it even more, when I think of that basmati rice cooking slowly on the hot hob. And yes, that's Damon Albarn on guitar. Rhythmic.

Last track tonight comes from someone who never ceases to amaze me. Fatboy Slim is one of those DJs whom the word 'versatility' defines pretty well. This is a groovy, funky tune that brings to mind the scent of parsley and chopped coriander. Beat that Mr Flu! Be aware that there's some mild swearing halfway through the song, although I think it's bleeped. Tasty.

Yotam Ottolenghi is chef/patron of Ottolenghi in London.

Photograph: Colin Campbell for the Guardian

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be published on 6th February at 10am (GMT)


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