Sunday 24 April 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee and Music

Regarding today's clip, all I can say is that Jorge Ben would be proud. Rock on, Rosalia!

Yup, I'm still on holidays. Enjoy your Easter break, too.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee and Music

Well, I'm still away on holidays but couldn't resist the temptation to play this sublime melody by the Modfather.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Jane (not her real name) is a gadget freak and serious social networker. She has the obligatory iPhone and iPad (she recently queued up in the small hours in London's West End, to buy the newly released iPad 2), plus a Blackberry. She is on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and has just joined Groupme. Her (old) iPod lies in the bottom of a drawer in her bedroom. She's thinking of passing it on to her brother. But there's a small problem: Jane's younger sibling already has a smartphone. Jane used to have a page on myspace, but she hasn't updated it for yonks because the once-leading entertainment site has lost its cachet. Even her profile on Bebo is not attractive anymore. Jane, who is in her mid-to-late teens, talks in rapid-fire, slang-filled, short sentences and writes in text-speak. She wants to go to university to study digital media. Her dream job is to work for Apple, or a similar big corporation. Will she succeed?

The answer to that question depends on whether Michael Gove, our current Education Secretary, can win the battle to revamp - some people call it overhaul - the national curriculum. Under new guidelines, the government is intent on bringing a more 'traditional' approach to the content taught in British classrooms. Latin has been mentioned once again. History will be given a higher profile. That should, ideally, suit Peter.

Peter (not his real name) is passionate about the classics. Although not a technophobe, his gadgets trove pales in comparison to Jane's: just an old mobile and a 2GB mp3 player. He spends most of his time - and money - on researching ancient history and reading and analysing classical literature. His short-term goal is to study Humanities, preferably at a top British university. His long-term ambition is to become a historian à la Simon Schama, presenting television programmes on the subjects he loves.

In an ideal world, Peter would be a shoo-in for Michael Gove's English baccalaureate. If he gets good grades in maths and at least one science he'll probably laugh through his GCSEs because the other three elements that make up the bulk of the E-bac, as it's commonly known (a foreign language, English and one humanities subject) are the topics in which Peter is chiefly interested. So, he won't find it hard to get good results. However, Peter's future looks more ominous than Jane's.

At this moment, and before I carry on, I must own up to a certain bias. I like the English baccaulaureate. I know it's fashionable nowadays amongst my compadres and comadres in the liberal and progressive media to indulge in a little bit of Gove-bashing, but at least the guy is acknowledging that the belles lettres have as much a role to play in contemporary Britain as physics and chemistry. And he's also recognising foreign languages' contribution to our globalised economy, an approach that goes some way to ameliorate New Labour's mistake in getting rid of the compulsory modern foreign language GCSE. The problem is that this whole revolution comes at a time when we're playing catch-up with technology.

In terms of employability, Jane is in a much better position than Peter. Should she want to branch out into music, for instance, when she finishes her degree, there's nothing to stop her from doing so. Worldwide technology, business and the creative sector have almost merged into one single entity driving global economies forward. Peter, on the other hand, is passionate about subjects that no longer engage the student population as they once did. The 'shuffling' bit of what I've come to label 'the shuffling generation' (©™) accepts the contributions of language, history and literature as long as they don't exceed the one-hundred and forty characters limit and can be mixed and re-mixed. Gove's ideas, though laudable, place him next to the T-Rex and Brontosaurus in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. He is looking for purity in a world where the word 'cross' has taken permanent residence in most terms to do with education. We speak of 'cross-curricular' activities with the same ease with which we describe spring blossoms.

You'll probably wonder if this column is a déjà vu moment, but rest assured, it isn't. I have written about education before and will continue to do so because a) I work at a school, albeit one involved in primary education and b) both my children are growing up and in my son's case he will be sitting his GCSEs in a couple of years. As I mentioned before, the E-bac looks tantalising, but my main preoccupation is whether my children will be able to find employment in an ever-increasingly uncertain job market. Furthermore, given their proclivity towards the arts - my son plays piano, saxophone and has been attending a street-dance class for over a term now; my daughter plays piano, cello and practises ballet and tap every week - the scope for them to find work that is both fulfilling and well-remunerated will be narrower, not wider.

At this moment in time, I don't know whether in the UK we're moving towards a more employment-orientated curriculum or a more 'holistic' one. Sometimes it feels as if it's the former. Relevance of one's qualifications is still paramount, especially where the practical is linked to the theoretical. In that respect this digital age continues to satisfy a generation with a short attention span and a truncated language bank. On the other hand, progression is still rooted in academic achievement, namely, the combination of subjects studied (come back History, please, do not walk away Maths, where do you think you're going French?). A CV written in text-speak is put at the bottom of the pile, if not given the heave-ho straight away.

My ideal case scenario would be a curriculum where the likes of Peter are convinced of the need to embrace new, cutting-edge techonology fully without seeing it as a threat to traditional forms of teaching and learning. In Jane's case, I would try to make her see how her job prospects would increase tenfold were she able to spell correctly and speak coherently. However, under current government guidelines, neither scenario will be likely to materialise because what we have right now is a political divide along the lines of traditional versus new. Unsurprisingly, the questions of what is to be taught, how it is to be taught, to whom it is to be taught, when and where, are not being asked. Rather than a both/and solution, the coalition and the opposition are locked in an either/or battle. Add tuition fees to the mix, social mobility at an all-time low and unemployment amongst the young on the increase, and Jane and Peter are the real losers. And no smartphone or History Channel will counteract that.

© 2011

And this is 'see you later' from me. I will be away during the Easter break and it's very unlikely that I will be in touch with you, my cyber-friends. But I promise to visit your blogs as much as I can. In the meantime, I will either be uploading music clips on Sunday or re-posting old columns, so stick around and keep the virtual conversation flowing. Have a brilliant holiday!

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee and Music', to be published on Sunday 17th April at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Road Songs

Are your a nodder, or a tapper? A screamer or a finger-snapper? Or maybe you go for introspection, your face an unreadable tableau of well-concealed emotions.

Fret not, for this is not a survey about outlandish sexual practices, but rather the myriad expressions I come across whenever I am behind the wheel. Once more spring has lifted the curtain to the annual spectacle that Britain becomes as soon as winter gives way to temperatures in their late teens. Minus the stroppiness and the talk-back.

Listening to music whilst driving is an activity in which we all indulge. Pardon me for being so absolute, but I don't think there's anyone out there who has not hummed his or her way through an entire school run whilst the little ones wreak havoc in the back. However, have you ever stopped to look at your fellow drivers? Especially when they seem to be carried away by the sheer power of the music they're playing? I mentioned this phenomenon briefly in a post last year, but it's only lately that my attention has been turned once again to motorists who cruise through our roads adopting various guises in the process.

For instance, the screamer is easy to spot. He or she will have a wide smile on their face whilst belting out an anthemic pop song at the top of their lungs; a melody usually of the mainstream variety. Like Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)", for example. Especially the chorus at the end: "Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, Saturday's alright..."

I wouldn't recommend snapping your fingers whilst you're driving, but nothing can stop you from doing so when stationary and waiting for the lights to change. I can clearly picture you attempting to keep time to Tennessee Ernie Ford's '16 Tons'.

If, on the other hand, you're a combination of nodder and tapper, then the next track is for you. The simple drumbeat in this song is enough to send the most earnest of drivers into a serious head-and-hands workout. Better still if you're wearing some jewellery. Tapping with both your ringed and ringless fingers on the wheel alternatively will produce some amazing musical results. Trust me, I've been there. And, lest I forget, the young woman in the clip below is none other than Penélope Cruz. I think this was her very first public appearance, although I could be wrong.

Last, but not least, it's the pensive driver. Your inscrutable face is the Da Vince Code of the road. The mystery I've always wanted to solve. I know that you're listening to music in the comfort of your car, I can see you mouthing the lyrics, your gaze lost in the distance, as you wait for pedestrians to cross the street. But, what I'm desperate to find out is: what's playing on your car stereo? In the absence of a concrete answer, however, let's hazard a guess: you're listening to Sevara Nazarkhan, the Uzbek singer, songwriter and doutar player. And let's leave it at that, shall we? As for me, I'm a combination of all the types described above. Because nothing beats a good song on the road.

© 2011

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

Sunday 3 April 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

It's an image that still haunts me. The silent, devastatingly advancing waters, obliterating everything on their way. The houses that fall like a deck of cards and are pushed away as if they were toy cars in a giant's box. And then, there's the look on the victims' faces, returning two simple questions to the television cameras: Why? How come?

There are no words with which I can describe my feelings when footage of the recent earthquake in Japan and subsequent tsunami first filtered through. Above all, what really affected me was the silence. It was an eerie scene, to see this solid, black mass of water pressing on, undeterred. And yet hardly a noise came from the television set.

By contrast, the soundtrack to the recent uprising in Libya has been a cacophony of roaring planes, heavy gunfire and Qaddafi's manic voice ranting and raving against the coalition's bombing campaign. Once more civilians find themselves trapped between a dictator's desperate attempts to cling to power and the possibility of getting killed by a foreign allied group's projectiles. As in the natural disaster in Japan, the images streaming through from Benghazi and thereabouts, are daunting.

What unites both humanitarian crises, dreadful as they are, is the public response they've triggered off. It's almost as if we, passive witnesses, are intent on proving wrong the theory that suggests that our reaction to events of this scale depends on the death toll. It is a common belief, and one I would not dare to refute completely, but with which I slightly disagree, that the higher the number of victims, the lesser attention we pay. In my own humble opinion the way we show our sensitivity towards disasters, whether natural or man-made, depends on other factors, too.

The first one is preconceptions, or to put it more bluntly, prejudice and bias. Last summer's floods in Pakistan killed more than 1,500 people and affected approximately fourteen million. An event of this magnitude should have, ideally, spurred the international community into action. However, judging by what I read in newspapers and magazines and what I saw on television, support for the victims was inconsistent and came mainly from Muslim groups both in Pakistan and abroad. At the heart of this lukewarm response was the image of Pakistan as a terrorists' haven, so often portrayed by the media. That leads me to the second factor.

Exposure is fundamental in how we feel about natural disasters. Especially exposure in the media. Japan is a First World country and plenty of Westerners go there to work and live. It's also part of those nations of which we think in benevolent terms, i.e., we don't think about them at all. We're aware of Japan's role in international finance and technology, we're acquainted with its developed economy and we never cease to remark on Japanese tourists and their diminutive cameras, happily snapping away wherever they go. It makes sense, then, that when an earthquake strikes this Asian country, we're united in grief with its people. In the case of Libya, our sympathy is born out of association. One by one the regimes in North Africa have been tumbling down like dominoes. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that we sided with the rebels who rose against Qaddafi straight away. We probably thought it would be a matter of days before the despot went the same way as Mubarak and Ben Ali. But, that's not how it's panned out. The Libyan leader continues to hold to power and as I write this post his forces have regained part of rebel territory, coalition bombing campaign notwithstanding.

The other element as to why sometimes we're more or less capable of empathising with victims of humanitarian crises is context. And numbers don't really come into play. When an earthquake struck the western coast of Haiti in 2010 causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the response from the international community was immediate. Thus, the theory that stipulates that humans have a limit of how much horror they can put up with is flimsy, in my view. Note, please, that I'm not dismissing the argument per se, but rather trying to widen up its scope, making it more flexible and malleable. I believe that there's a threshold in humans when it comes to empathising with victims of catastrophe. For instance, I contributed a small donation to the Haiti relief effort last year by means of an event I attended and which was organised by a friend of mine. Her aim was to raise awareness of the influence of Haitian folklore on Cuban culture, and more specifically, on Afro-Cuban culture. Yet, I have never given money to the dozen or so charities whose leaflets fall out of my weekend's papers and magazines. It's not that I don't think that the African child dying of malnutrition or the Asian baby born with a cleft palate is less deserving than the victims of the Haiti earthquake. It's to do with repetition. The African child's image in The Guardian's Weekend supplement, is the same one that appears in The New Statesman and The Economist. In my case, at least, it's not being unempathic, but being discerning.

Which is why the image of the tidal wave that devastated Japan's north-east coast still haunts me. It's the silence that accompanies the footage, a muteness that could well arrive in the middle of a still night. With fatal consequences.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Road Songs’, to be published on Wednesday 6th April at 11:59pm (GMT)


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