Wednesday 29 June 2011

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

This is not a normal column tonight. For the first time ever I have a guest on "Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum". And what a guest she is! Photographer, travel writer and chronicler of her barrio. She has already been featured here as part of a photography exhibition on Cuba I reviewed last year. She also recently started her own blog, Eat Hackney (, and that was the main reason why I asked Helena Smith to be your hostess tonight. That invitation's given me another idea. How about opening the space up to you, readers and fellow bloggers so that we can share recipes and music? This would be only for the duration of the summer. Usually this is a time when blogs are barren lands but how about turning them into lush and fruitful forests of culinary knowledge? The format is simple. You can do as Helena did and write about your barrio, your little neck of the woods and what makes it so different from the rest of the world when it comes to food. Submit a recipe you really like. It can be one you cook yourself, or one that reminds you of someone. In Helena's case, it's her mum's roast chicken with almonds and herbed rice. And then, there's the music. What music do you think should go with that recipe? Or maybe melodies you're listening to as you're cooking it. Whatever you decide, there must be music. If unsure, just read the title of this section. Please, make sure that you send me links to proper clips (official videos or live performances) and that they are embeddable so that I can upload them. Deadline is Friday 15th July. In the meantime, I'll leave you with our host for tonight Helena Smith. ¡Gracias Helena!

I’ve been lucky to travel a lot as a guidebook writer and photographer, and I’m an enthusiastic eater wherever I go. But the place where I live, the London borough of Hackney, is such a diverse place that it occurred to me I could make a global food journey on the doorstep. You can eat every kind of cuisine here: Nigerian, Georgian, Caribbean, Italian, all varieties of Indian… the list is pretty much endless.

I love the way that food evokes home for different communities: it’s a way of sharing precious traditions and memories. I want to celebrate this with my new blog Eat Hackney, and in my own way counter David Cameron’s nonsense soundbite about multiculturalism not working in Britain. I just interviewed the French/Algerian owner of L’Epicerie in Clapton, and he said his deli works better here than it would in France, because we’re more open and curious about food. By extension, I think we’ve become more open to other cultures, and we’re a richer and more interesting country as a result.

The dish that conjures home for me is Robert Carrier’s Roast Chicken with Almonds and Herbed Rice. When my Mum asked me what I wanted for my birthday or other treat, it was always this dish, elided to chickenandalmondsandraisinsandrice. You can see how often my Mum cooked this from the photo of the little book, published in 1971. [picture below] It seems an old fashioned recipe now as the chicken is drowned in butter, but this is what makes it so delicious.

I grew up in a small village in central Scotland with big windows and mountain views, and the soundtrack to the Sunday roast was jazz, which my folks love. So my first cooking track is Fats Waller, who I adore for his joyous naughtiness and irresistible piano playing. As this is a feature about cooking I’ll choose You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew. I love the way he rhymes “Paree” with “only one for me”…

I always listen to loud music when I cook, and alternate cooking with dancing. I’m a big fan of Cuban music – of course! – so I’ve chosen Homenaje a Benny Moré by Gente de Zona which makes me chuck down the wooden spoon for a boogie. Ai Mama!

Another favourite dance track is Tonkara by Staff Benda Bilili from Kinshasa. Most of the band are severely disabled as a result of polio. I saw them at the Roundhouse recently and it was pure joy to see them dance, and to hear their super high-energy Afro funk, with those trickly guitar sounds and pretty melodies. I lived in Africa when I was a kid, and this reminds me of another landscape and another home, with a different mountain view.

Roast Chicken with Almonds and Herbed Rice

Large chicken
90g seedless raisins
100–140g butter
Salt and pepper
1 chicken liver
4–5 tbsp corn oil
1 large onion
340g long grain rice
1 1/2 chicken stock cubes
1 tsp dried thyme
90g flaked almonds

Soak raisins in warm water to plump them up.

Preheat oven to moderately hot (200ºC, 400ºF).

Season 2–3 tbs of the butter with salt and pepper, kneading it thoroughly with your fingertips. Divide seasoned butter in half, flatten out slightly and slip a piece right down between the skin and meat of each chicken breast, loosening the skin away from breast gently with your fingers.

Season the bird inside with salt and pepper; add chicken liver and 2 tbsp butter. Rub outside of chicken generously with salt and pepper and spread with remaining butter.

Roast chicken with for 1hr to 1hr 15min, or until tender and crisp, turning it occasionally. Halfway through cooking time, baste with 2–3 tbsp boiling water.

Meanwhile, prepare rice: heat oil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add finely chopped onion and sauté gently until soft and golden. Stir in rice and continue to sauté gently, stirring, until each grain is separate and golden.

Dissolve chicken stock cubes in 1 1/4 pints boiling water.

Remove rice from heat and stir in stock and cried thyme. Cover and simmer very gently for about 15 minutes, or until rice is tender and fluffy, but not overcooked, and all the liquid has been absorbed, Stir gently with a fork two or three times while rice is cooking. (If necessary, it can be kept in a buttered bowl covered with a folded cloth over a saucepan of hot water until chicken is ready).

Arrange rice on heated serving dish. Place well-drained, roasted chicken on top and keep hot while you finish sauce.

Transfer roasting tin with buttery chicken juices to top of stove. Add flaked almonds and sauté until a deep golden colour, stirring constantly. Remove almonds from tin with a slotted spoon and keep hot.

Drain raisins thoroughly and add them to the roasting tin with 2 to 3 tbsp boiling water. Simmer for about 2 minutes, scraping bottom and side of pan with a wooden spoon. Season to taste with more salt and pepper if necessary, and spoon buttery sauce over chicken and rice.

Sprinkle with sautéed almonds and serve immediately.

© 2011

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 3rd July at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 26 June 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

On Mondays I'm Joe, the lorry driver, travelling from the UK to mainland Europe via Dover and writing a blog about my experiences on the road. On Tuesday I'm Robert, a bespectacled librarian who works at the British Library Museum and who loves misplacing books whilst checking people's reactions. I also have a cyber-space where I describe my activities. Then, on Wednesday I'm Leonard, a stroppy teenager who hates his name and calls himself Fido. Under this guise I like roaming the neighbourhood and scaring people with my zombie outfit. My online diary is full of funny entries, like the one about Mrs Waller and how she wet herself when I jumped on her from behind late one night when she was out walking her dog. The canine also made a little puddle itself. From Thursday to Saturday I'm Bruce Patel, the soft-hearted bouncer who works at an alternative Bollywood club. I even have a tilaka on my forehead. And, of course, I write a blog about what it's like to be a security guard at a nightclub. Burly, stocky and intimidating I may look, but, remember, I have a kind soul.

On Sundays I'm the Lesbian in Damascus.

Why should we be surprised that the Gay Girl who made the uprising in Syria feel much closer turned out to be an Edinburgh-based bloke originally from the States? After all we had already been warned, back in the early 90s that when it came to the world wide web "You can be anything you want to be/Just turn yourself into anything you think that you could ever be/Be free with your tempo be free, be free/Surrender your ego, be free, be free to yourself!" ("Innuendo" by Queen). Of course, the British band were not singing about the multiple personality disorder that the net encourages in some people, but you could say their words were prescient.

Oh, the internet, don't you just love it? Whilst hundreds, if not thousands of people were out on the streets in Damascus, risking their lives to change the system and gays, especially, feared for their well-being, not just for daring to protest against the status quo, but also for their sexual orientation, a man amused himself by...

Enough! No, really, it's beyond the pale. The irony of it (if I can still muster a smile) is that this news came out a few days after VS Naipul let it be known that he found no woman writer his literary match. Sorry, did I just make you choke on your muesli? I beg your pardon. Please, sit down, because Laurel and Hardy are back, and this time they have teamed up with the Keystone Cops and the Marx Brothers. Oh, my sides!

According to V (I hope he doesn't mind me calling him that), "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me." He went on to explain that this was because women, not being complete masters of a house, had a narrow view of the world. I think he might have got stuck in the 1860s, Victorian England. Time to drag him to my house where my wife would definitely give V a crash course on gender equality.

I admit that as a writer, I like Naipul. I read and intend to re-read In a Free State because of the sense of displacement it conveys and the loose narrative. Half a Life has a quasi-autobiographical feel to it. His novels don't follow a single structure; on the contrary, they're multilayered. In the same way that Alice Munro's writing is multilayered, or Zora Neale Hurston's. And they're female writers.

The problem with V is that he's chosen the wrong target. Writing has become so homogeneous that it's hard to tell male and female writers apart. The "lad culture" from the 90s gave way to the metrosexual movement from the early noughties. Same with women and the whole "ladette" malarkey. It was swiftly followed by the "Bridget Jones" brigade. Where and when the - literary - market calls the shots, writing is neither feminine nor masculine. As long as it sells a bloke in the Jeremy Clarkson mould could very well pen a novel that belongs in the chick-lit genre.

That's why I wasn't surprised to find out that the Gay Girl in Damascus blog was a hoax. A few times fellow cyber-diarists and readers have been surprised to learn that I'm actually a straight, black man from downtown Havana with an incurable reading habit (not that I'm looking to be "cured", either) and strong opinions. Blimey, I would have thought that my cynical and warped sense would have given the game away, exposing a blokeish streak. But no. Maybe it's to do with the way I write or the subjects I choose, but some of you have stencilled a skirt on me. So, VS Naipaul's theory doesn't apply. And why should it? Does the mention of midwives, children and marriage in books only apply to women? Hell, no. In Midnight's Children there's plenty of talk about marriage and children. Plus Rushdie really goes to town with emotions, one of the elements that is said to characterise women's writing.

What should have really happened is that someone should have given the Gay Girl in Damascus blog to V to read. And then sit on a corner quietly whilst the author of A House for Mr Biswas analysed and digested the information in front of him before pronouncing on the gender of the writer. How to interpret a passage like this one: "What a time to be in Syria! What a time to be an Arab! What a time to be alive! These are the thoughts flashing through my mind right now … I want to rush out in the street and celebrate (and will as soon as I finish writing this) …" For the life of me I cannot see evidence of vaginal or penile influence in the excerpt above. Can you, my dear peeps?

It's time to realise, and accept, too, that when it comes to writing online and adopting an identity to go with it, Margritte's famous caption "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" is given a modern makeover along the lines of "Ceci n'est pas un homme, mais n'est pas une femme nonplus". Enough to shock even Jean Baudrillard.

© 2011

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 29th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Out of all the jobs I've done and applied for in my professional life, there's one that still sticks in my mind: publicity officer for a foundation that organises residential creative writing courses. What inspired me to fill out a form with the hope of being accepted? A multitude of reasons. The one that stands out the most, however, is that I've always been intrigued about what lies behind the teaching of creative writing.

One way or another I've addressed this topic before in this space and I'm not about to repeat myself. To me writing in its simplest form is both a mundane and an extraordinary activity. The former because we do it every day without even thinking about it, the latter because, when you look at all the effort that goes into arranging words in a particular order so that they make sense, it's quite a deep mental process with which we're faced. So, why can't we be creative in the same easy way in which we produce endless paragraphs without any second thoughts? And what does this process depend on?

Creative writing courses have increased in popularity in the last ten years. This is not at all surprising. Even though the print industry (including books) is on its dying throes we still dream of our magnum opus. The novel that will define an era and blaze the trail for aspiring young'uns or, in a more realistic scenario, just pay the bills. Would I be right in stating that we all carry a fiction volume inside us? I think I would. However, whether your tome belongs to the War and Peace variety or The World is Full of Married Men category is ultimately your decision.

The question, though, remains the same: how can you teach someone a craft that, by logic, invites different responses? Isn't this didactic approach a contradiction? Writing should ideally be a vehicle for someone to unlock his/her conscious and subconscious mind, thus, the process becomes a two-way system: we, the readers, access that person's fantasy world whilst they use us as guinea pigs to explore and experiment with - sometimes - implausible plots. In other words, you can't just teach someone how to write a novel. They can only write it.

Where creative writing courses can contribute, however, is in providing a safe haven for discussing your work without expecting it to be slaughtered, quartered and hung out to dry. The art of writing carries within an element of exposure and not everyone has the temerity to display their work to all and sundry. And I haven't even mentioned critics. So, coaching is fundamental in those early stages.

Then, again, what kind of writing are we discussing here? I have defaulted, almost automatically, to novel-writing or short-story writing. But there are people who write screenplays, plays and radio sketches. What about them? Do they need that extra boost? In my opinion, given what would-be writers expect of creative courses, teaching someone how to write effectively and efficiently for television, for instance, could be compared to what steroids did to the famous baseball slugger Barry Bonds: destroy the level playing field. As it happens in music, most tutors will create a structure that their pupils will almost blindly follow. Unlike music, however, writing is a more anarchic activity, one that doesn't necessarily demand solfège exercises or theory.

I didn't get the job with the foundation. And I'm somewhat glad I didn't (although another part of me still feels mortified about being rejected), because I would have posed so many questions to my employers about the pros and cons of creative writing courses that they would have wondered why on earth I had applied to work for an organisation whose main remit was to offer budding writers places of solace and rest where they could find inspiration. I sometimes ask myself the same question.

I don't deny that there are many benefits in attending tutorials led by published authors. In my opinion, though, the key element, or elements, to focus on are not necessarily writing per se and the styles in which to do it, but other factors such as: how to find a good agent, how to deal with publicists, how to take advantage of the internet. It's true that this approach takes away the romantic side of writing, but at least it provides wannabe écrivains with a realistic outlook of the contemporary literary world.

Can creative writing be taught and would I pay for it? To the first question my reply is yes, but only broadly, without messing with the student's voice. Note that I mention voice and not style. To me a style is more generic (sci-fi, horror, chick-lit). A voice, however, is unique. In the little fiction writing I've done, both in Spanish and in English, humour has always been the ubiquitous ingredient. I can't do without it. Would I pay for a creative writing course? I would if I had the money and an immediate plan. I would probably keep my options open, meaning that whilst I would definitely look at novel- or short-story writing as my more desired goals in the long-term, I wouldn't turn down the opportunity to produce a play or a script. The main attraction for me would be, though, to learn more about the nuances of the English language. And with more and more non-native speakers picking up a pen or sitting down in front of a keyboard in order to write fiction in English, that might be where the future of creative writing lies. You heard it here first.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 26th June at 10am (GMT)

Photo taken from the website
Creative Writing Courses

Sunday 19 June 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Maybe it's time to go beyond judicial paths, law enforcement and government-backed strategies. Perhaps the last resort we have left is to invoke the words uttered by Louise Sawyer (played by Susan Sarandon in the film "Thelma and Louise") when confronting her friend's attacker in the car park: "Sounds like you got a real fucked up idea of fun. Turn around. In the future, when a woman's crying like that, she isn't having any fun!"


Dominique Strauss-Khan's chambermaid's tale, Ken Clarke's comments about what should and should not be considered "serious rape", Arnold "The Governator" Schwarzenegger's housekeeping arrangements and Weiner's weiner. Really, it's too much. Maybe the world did end on the 21st of May and I'm now just waking up in a post-Rapture society.

To be fair to "Hasta la vista, baby" and Mr-Congressman-I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours, neither of the two men used physical violence. The only party that could claim abuse is Mr Weiner's salami. Nevermind, dealing with that member should ideally be easier than dealing with a member of the US Senate.

However, what's been evident these last few weeks is that when it comes to us, men, and sex, anything and everything goes. Whether they are serious allegations as in DSK's case, or Mr Terminator's extra-marital activities, the response has been mostly a shrug of the shoulders and a: "What did you expect?" To which I would add: "After all, they all are in positions of power and know exactly how to abuse it, and more fundamentally, how to get away with it".

Strauss-Kahn is not alien to the "seducer" reputation. Which in itself is not a felony, I hasten to add. But when you put together all the stories of his supposed sexually aggressive behaviour towards women and his alleged sexual harassment of female journalists, you know that the "smoking gun" is not too far. Of course, DSK being the managing director (ex- now) of the IMF, his public image was always going to work in his favour. But should it?

Certain commentators have tried to difuse the volatile situation bringing up mitigating elements. One of them is that Dominique doesn't fit the profile of a rapist. As if rapists walked about with slogans on their T-shirts that read: "I raped a woman and all I got was this lousy T-shirt". No. There isn't a profile for rapists because rape has no face. It can happen to anyone, anytime. It can even happen to men. Which is why Ken Clarke's remarks on sexual violence were ill-advised.

The justice minister was in hot water recently when he attempted to differentiate between "serious" rape and other types (by which he probably means, rapey-rapey, some are fakey) in a radio interview. Just to be clear, can penetration without mutual consent ever be brushed aside flippantly? Answers on a postcard, please, preferably with Lady Justitia, blindfold off and whipcracking Kenny's hide. Clarke's - confusing - message, however, is not an anomaly. Dress a woman in a short skirt and send her out on a night on the town and most people will think that, if she was to be sexually assaulted or raped, it's because she had it coming. In that respect the recent Slutwalk here in London was effective in that it raised awareness about the fact that when women dress sexily they're not doing it for men's amusement. At least not most of the time.

Rape is not about sex, but about power, both displaying and boasting about it. If the aforementioned lady in the short skirt doesn't grant her suitor what he's after, especially given her attire, then she must be punished. For daring to provoke.

Ken Clarke's comments echo attitudes that persist beyond the UK's geographical borders. Sexual violence has already been used as a weapon of war for centuries. Look at the Congo, for example. In South Africa rape is used as a "corrective tool". There, it's lesbians who are the target of the misogynists. However, whether you're a woman living in Libya and fall prey to Qaddafi's hordes (apparently he pumps his thugs up with Viagra pills so that they can "function" better) or a female City worker looking for a good time on a Saturday night the message is the same: you need to be taught a lesson, either for not wanting to have sex or for wanting it too much.

Which is where Weiner's misdemeanour comes into the picture. What he did was pure "flashing". Nothing more, nothing less. And we already know what we (or rather, women) should do when confronted by a person who indecently exposes himself. Is that all you got? I've seen bigger ones, darling. But on choosing a social networking site to display his goods, Weiner, stupidly, put himself - and his career- at risk. It's worth noting that this is the man who's been one of the more consistent critics of the Republicans' attempt to stall Obama's healthcare reforms. But the bulge in his underwear came first (no pun intended).

Arnold's affair with his housekeeper is the straw that broke the camel's back. Ever since he became governor of California, he's been plagued by claims that he has touched women in a sexual manner without their consent. The Terminator's simply brushed all of these allegations aside retorting that sometimes, yes, he misbehaved, so what? It sounds a bit like the uncle who gets tipsy at your wedding and starts flirting with everyone, including your (married) mother-in-law. So what? It's just a bit of fun, isn't it?

The immediate effect of the misdeeds carried out by these "naughty men" (and the jury's still out on DSK, as in, literally out) is the deafening din to which women are subjected, similar to the opening sequence of Pink Floyd's "Money"; a cacophony of rattling cash registers and discordant coins playing on a loop in which each till shouts out a different message "You got raped for wearing provocative clothes/You got raped for wearing conservative clothes/You got raped for being a slut/You got raped for being a prude". To which the only reply can be: "when a woman's crying like that, she isn't having any fun!"


© 2011

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Scrabble)

I think it's fair to say that you could hear the collective roar of disapproval all the way from Croydon to Enfield and from Hillingdon to Havering as "thang", "Wiki", "grrl", "aloo" and "innit" were unveiled recently as the latest additions to the Collins Scrabble Dictionary. Linguistic mutability rarely causes such commotion. However, beyond the complaints about whether the terms above are mispronunciations or genuine neologisms, the stench of snobbery was so strong that it almost made me pass out when I read the news.

As a relatively newcomer to Scrabble - and irregular player to boot - I can't see what the fuss is about. The game is democracy at work. For starters it's not about how well you know your Thesaurus but how well you take advantage of the premium squares. That's why I, a non-native, can give a person born and bred in the UK a run for his or her money. Secondly, although proper nouns are not allowed, words that have other uses as common nouns are, for instance "John" and "john" (loo).

With this linguistic laxity in place, you would have thought that Scrabblists (did I just make up that word? Can I use it in my next game?) wouldn't think much of terms like "thang, "grrl" and "innit". But no, a fuss has been kicked up. Albeit a quiet one like when someone lets one drop on a crammed lift and all eyes alight politely and silently on the bald, portly, scruffy, short bloke when all the time it was the lady with the Dior dress and the Jimmy Choos who's stunk up the vertical transport. It's not just hoi polloi who fart, you know.

However, I can, up to a certain extent, understand the outcry about "thang" and "grrl". In the case of the former, what's to stop someone from taking this neologism to its next logical conclusion: "thingy". Six letters instead of five; we're talking triple-word squares here. With "grrl", the situation is more complicated. How do we know it's two "Rs" and not three or four? How about if someone like me, who is in the habit of rolling his "Rs" extends the number of letters to seven? That's all my tiles gone in one go.

With "innit", though, there should be space for more leniency. After all, this phrase (derived from "ain't it?") acts as a common denominator, a linguistic peace-keeper that comes to our aid whenever we forget what verb to use at the end of a sentence, as in "he comes everyday, doesn't he?", instead of "is he?", which wouldn't make sense. "Innit" solves that problem. Besides, it's the English response to the French "n'est-ce pas?" and the German "wahr nicht?". "Innit" is a social leveller.

But, obviously, because it's the province of the young and the great unwashed, it should be ignored. Well, I'll tell you what, I'll be using it next time I play Scrabble. Especially if I'm lumped with a "u" and an "x", as I have been in the past, much too often. After all, how many chances do you ever get to accommodate the word "uxorious" across the board?

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 19th June at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 12 June 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I recently had to deal with mental block. Not mine, I hasten to add, but one that took brief possession of one of the members of our school newspaper team. I oversee the group's editorial output and on this occasion I had asked one of the young journalists to write an article about an event in which she had taken part.

"I can't think of anything to write", she cried. I understand, I replied. And I did, indeed. But my approach to the task in hand was different to hers. I could see millions of ideas in her little brain desperate to come out; she, on the other hand, could see nothing but a blank page.

Was she being dumb? No. Was she being difficult? Not at all. Was she probably underestimating her own intelligence? Aha! Now, we're talking.

The rise of the machines has resulted in an overhaul of the way we, humans, analyse phenomena. Whereas before, trial and error would be the recommended methods (and you don't get more trial and error than when a child plays with Lego) nowadays we're so reliant on computers that we've ceded even our mental processes to them. Think of it as outsourcing our grey matter to a PC kitted out with the latest Windows software.

This 'contracting out' theory has grown in popularity in recent decades as our gadgets have become more sophisticated and easier to use. The latest pronouncement on this matter came, unintentionally, courtesy of Stephen Hawking, who, in an exclusive interview with The Guardian, said: "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark". Most people focused their attention on Hawking's anti-religious sentiments, but I couldn't help thinking that Stephen had got it wrong when it came to the dichotomy of brain vs computer.

Imagine a computer - or humanoid - in pursuit of a long-term goal. In order to achieve it, it will have to overcome other computers chasing after the same objective. In addition to its planned calculations, the computer will have to make a few ad lib ones. Parallel to this, its internal mechanism will be dependent on fuses and cables, which will, with the passing of time, corrode and phase out. Without a clear notion of a lifespan in front of it or the significance of it (Twenty years? Maybe fifty?) the computer will devote the same time and effort to all tasks, without discriminating one against the other. It's very unlikely that it will complete the task it set out to do as it will probably burn itself out in the process.

This is one of the reasons why, no matter how hard we try, we, humans, will never be able to come up with a machine that can replicate our condition. It's not just the emotional and spiritual parts of our existence that are beyond the reach of the future Homo Robotnik, but also the wealth and diversity of the linguistic arsenal with which we're equipped from an early age.

On this issue of language, I'd like to take you back to a book I read and reviewed last year. It was "Multilinguals are...?" by Madalena Cruz-Ferreira. In it, the Portuguese author debunks the myth of the brain as a hard disk, with "its contents stored in more or less neat compartments". Although her approach owes more to raising awareness of multilingualism than discussing neuroscience, her words carry a very important message about the way in which we should see and use our brain.

Our daily conversations are peppered with exclamations, interruptions, 'wells', 'ums' and 'likes'. We wrap our language up in the safe comfort of our mannerisms and physical gestures, like a blanket that shelters us from the cold. If I may use the same example of the computer pursuing a long-term goal, when it comes to humans in the same situation, we would probably give up on the task altogether if it proved too onerous. Or maybe, we would go the other way and sacrifice everything in our life to achieve the long-desired dream. Or maybe we would top ouselves off out of frustration. Because being human sucks sometimes, and no computer would be able to replicate that feeling.

I'm pleased to report, though, that that member of the school newspaper editorial team did, in the end, crack on and got on with the job of writing her piece. Although her article has not been finalised at the time of writing, there was a big smile on her face when she finished her first draft. And that's another human trait beyond the reach of the machines: elation after disappointment.

© 2011

Next Post: “ Living in a Bilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 15th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 8 June 2011

While My MP3 Gently Plays

I read all your your blogs and see the love you're spreading/While my mp3 gently plays.

With a little help from my friend George and the rest of his mates, the Fab Four, I hereby introduce a new section tonight. Every now and then I will upload clips of songs that are playing on my mp3 player (exact model on the left). Just because, really. There's no reason behind this new creation other than to share the music I love with you, fellow bloggers and readers. These are the melodies that make me smile, weep or run faster (when I'm out jogging, I must clarify!).

I'll kick this new section off with Gladys "Bobi" Cespedes, a superb Cuban musician, singer, dancer, lecturer and historian. For the last forty-odd years Bobi has been at the vanguard of the Afro-Cuban cultural movement in the States, performing mainly in the San Francisco Bay area, New York, Florida and LA. If you have heard Conjunto Cespedes - fronted by her - then her distinguishable voice will be familiar. A voice that conveys both warmth and depth. Enjoy.

Fiona Apple's songs are always on my mp3 player. Whether I'm walking, or sitting on the Tube, or out jogging, I must have some Apple on (and as GPs usually say "an Apple a day keeps the doctor away"). As an artist Fiona exudes maturity and her innovative and cutting-edge brand of pop is light years away from the bland mix to which we've grown accustomed. Let's share some of her music, shall we?

It was the cover that did it. When I bought Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" some years ago, it was the image of Horace's dad smoking a cigar that made me part with my money for a record that has the last word in swinging, deep groove. Electrifying.

I always make it a point to have an anthemic, hands-in-the-air, lighters-aloft, stadium-filler on my mp3 player. And Oasis ticks all the boxes. Especially their old songs. And it doesn't get more bombastic than "Don't Look Back in Anger". Does it bring back any memories?

These are the tunes on my mp3 player. What are you listening to on your gadget?

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 12th June at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 5 June 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Asked once from where he got his inspiration, the late Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solás answered: I just go out and live. Now, I might or might not be right about his exact words, but the message was clear: for him life acted as a catalyst which spurred him on to make movies. The mundane, the quotidian; that was what motivated Solás. Not least in his magnum opus, Lucía, a film about three women living in different moments of Cuba's history. That ordinariness is present in the Lucía of 1895, Viscontiesque influence, notwithstanding. It is again found in the second story, set against the backdrop of the Machado dictatorship and it's ubiquituous in the final instalment, which takes place in the '60s as the Revolution gathers pace.

This approach to everyday events by artists and the use they make of them to transcend or otherwise, has been on my mind lately as I've just reached the mid point of Virgilio Piñera's Teatro Completo. Virgilio was Cuba's foremost writer and Teatro Completo is a collection of all his plays, some of which I'd already read and others which I hadn't. Piñera carved a very creative - though not always successful - career out of the mundane and ordinary. His innovative approach is there in Electra Garrigó, arguably the first play ever written in the style that would later become theatre of the absurd (Ionescu's The Bald Soprano premiered in 1950 in Paris, whereas Electra was written in 1941 and first saw the light in 1948 in Havana), it's also present in Aire Frío, Virgilio's semi-autobiographical family drama. Piñera's art was grounded in the local and recognisable. When Luz Marina complains endlessly about the heat in the first act of Aire Frío, her words acquire a meaning much deeper than at first glimpsed. Beyond the usual moan about the omnipresent hot weather in Cuba, there lies a message of frustration and disappointment; of being locked in a non-stopping carousel in an underveloped society.

For whom do writers writer? For whom do painters paint? For whom do film-makers make films? These questions have been circling my head lately like vultures following a pride of lions to see what they can scavenge.

It seems to me that some of the art - and I include literature in this definition, too - under whose infuence we have remained for centuries was created for a specific audience, and had even a somewhat ephemeral touch to it at the time. The Mona Lisa is the face of a local woman who is shown neither smiling nor grimacing. Yet, it is this ambiguity that has secured her position in the artistic canon. Bach's approach to music was at times minimalist and repetitive, a style that we could say was a precursor, in a way, to the work of contemporary composers such as Phillip Glass. However, his work has been acknowledged, and quite rightly so, as ground-breaking.

Was transcendence in these artists' minds when they set to create their masterpieces? I doubt it. Leonardo da Vinci was a protégé of Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, by whom he was often commissioned to work on different projects. Any of his designs or models could have become as famous as the Mona Lisa. In Bach's case, he was not just a composer, but also an arranger and teacher. For these two artists their craft was a way of paying their bills. Hardly the romantic idea transcendence stands for, but reality nonetheless.

If I was to answer the three questions I asked before I would say that writers, painters and film-makers write, paint and make films for themselves first and foremost. Which is not to say that the end result is so labyrinthine that only they hold the key to the entrance and exit of the maze. No, it means that the art the artist creates must satisfy the artist above all. Of course, I've left out mortgage, bills and family on purpose. Please, don't burst my bubble yet. But my theory is the same: art is grounded on localism, the immediate and the quotidian. This is what makes The Beatles' A Day In the Life a segue to Joyce's tale about a day in the life of Leopold Bloom. Furthermore, art and its significance also depend on context.

Frida Kahlo used her body - almost literally - as her main inspiration. That her art exceeded all expectations can be pinned down not just to her creative prowess (and her famous partner, Diego Rivera), but also to her personal circumstances. Same with Picasso's Guernica. Without the historical backdrop of Italian and German warplanes laying waste to the eponymous town, his painting (commisioned by the Spanish Republican movement) would have joined the ranks of many others that have shown throughout the centuries the tragedy and suffering armed conflicts inflict. Another example is Korda's iconic photo of Che Guevara, which was actually shelved until El Guerrillero Heroico set off to export his radical ideas on how to make a revolution to Africa and Latin America. Then it became the must-have fashion item of wannabe revolutionaries the world over.

There are, however, cases of artists, including writers, who want to transcend at all costs and therefore make their works as inaccessible as possible, in the hope that only those belonging to a selected group can decipher their message. Sometimes even the act of decoding said work of art is tantamount to sacrilege; so much they want to rise above everything and everyone. Or on other occasions they go after the big themes, which is why there was so much controversy over Franzen's latest novel, Freedom and the way it seemed to want to depict and sum up quite ambitiously an entire era: the US before and after 9/11.

In my case, I prefer the artist who thinks local but whose art goes global, whether he/she intends it or not. And in that category I place Gil Scott-Heron, who sadly died a few days ago. Of all his trail-blazing songs, The Revoluton Will Not Be Televised, B-Movie, Lady Day and John Coltrane, the one to which I've always felt more affinity is Brother. It appears in his debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. When he sings 'We deal in too many externals, brother/Always afros, handshakes and dashikis/Never can a man build a working structure for black capitalism/Always does the man read Mao or Fanon', the message the melody conveys goes beyond the harangue to which Gil subjects his black brethren. The fact that a track featured in an album whose title refers to an address in New York makes me feel that way is testament to Scott-Heron's ability to transcend.

True art, in my opinion is grounded in the local and the quotidian. Virgilio, Kahlo and Scott-Heron knew it. That's why they went out and lived.

© 2011

Next Post: 'While My MP3 Gently Plays', to be published on Wednesday 8th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Back when cities were nothing but mere villages there were four standard pillars whose synergy was central to the efficient functioning of the community: the church, the town hall, the school and the court. If the law didn't deal with you properly, the Lord would.

I grew up in a similar set-up but, with the exception of the religious institution, the symbols differed greatly: a bar, a radio station, a church and a park. Whatever couldn't be solved by the Bloke Upstairs, could be settled by a bottle of rum in no time. The diminishing influence of Catholicism (helped substantially by a government bent on imposing its own version of religion) meant that when it came to alienating themselves from the tropical ennui Cuban socialism stood for, people, mainly men, decamped to the "barcito de la esquina".

At a very young age I became acquainted with some of the characters who frequented this bar. Since my father was a famous musician (please, understand, 'famous' by Cuban standards; he appeared on a few television programmes with his band and performed many times on the aforementioned radio station) many times the local drunkards would find their way to our flat and ask "¿El músico está?". To what my mother, already used to this ilk, would reply: "No, he isn't, but also if he was, he wouldn't be joining you. You know that". Never mind her obvious discomfort, a couple of nights later they would knock on our door again. These were the same characters dozing off on one of the benches of the nearby park and waking up in a pool of their own vomit. As I grazed my knees climbing walls, they plunged deeper in their own inferno.

Amidst this heterogeneous dramatis personae, there was a man I remember perfectly. Maybe, because the last time I saw him alive I was already in my teenage years and the sight of his hands shaking uncontrollably has stayed with me all these years. He had also been a pianist like my dad, but he'd fallen prey to alcohol and had not been able to beat it. One night, he actually came into our house and sat down. Hardly any of the local drunkards went beyond our front door. But, surprisingly my mum let him in this time. She was not nervous at all, but I was. The guy was a wreck. He was in such an intoxicated state that he called my mother by several names. He also asked for money. In his breath I smelled the acrid stench of death. In his smile I saw a limping Ms Hope boarding a train that read Despair on the front. I remember thinking then, no newspaper will write about this man, he will make no headlines, he will die and someone else will take his seat at the bar and he'll probably ask his new drinking partner: "What's become of So and So?", "Didn't you hear?" they'll reply. "He died". And at the thought of that word "die", my adolescent body would jerk as violently as the guy's veiny hands.

After he left that night, my mum gave our sofa a thorough clean. She used alcohol. She used a special type of alcohol to wipe clean a sofa on which an alcoholic had sat down. Of such ironies is life made.

On Sundays there was an extra pillar to our shapeless square (the park, the radio station and the church were lined up on the same road, only the bar remained defiantly apart, like a drunkard who refuses to accept that it's closing time): dominoes. Decades before, families would have filed past our building on a Sunday morning on their way to the house of God, dressed to the nines. But now the only sartorial requisite was a vest, a pair of shorts and metede'os. The stage was set, the lights dimmed and the actors had learnt their lines...

... And the sight of Bacchus's followers arriving at 10 or 11am, an hour before the bar opened...

... And the old Selena radio (jukeboxes had ceased to exist by then) blaring out old boleros and sones courtesy of Rosillo's Discoteca Popular de Radio Progreso, La Onda de la Alegría...

... And the banging of domino pieces on the table once the game started. The square piece of furniture would normally come from Juanita's, whilst the cajones would be provided by El Jabao. The same Jabao who would turn the temporary seats into percussion instruments as soon as the rum flowed and the mood turned festive...

... And the furtive glances of some of the players, looking around to see if there were any coppers nearby. The bets, the money passing hands, the child running, coming out of nowhere and being told to put "dos pesos al 33 fijo y tres al 1 corrido que soñé con tiñosa con barba ayer por la noche". Yeah, he dreamt of a bearded vulture, he played the 33 and 1 hoping to get a "parlé". The Voice of the Táchira ruled over the game, but that guy, he would have to wait until Monday to find out if the bearded vulture had brought him fortune. Because it was Sunday then. Day of rest... and libations...

... And the wife who came to take her husband home because he was drinking their money away. He was legless, beyond recognition and she wrestled with him, dragging him away and looking up to the sky at the same time, asking, imploring, begging, cursing Santa Barbara bendita, mi'ja, que salación es esta, coño, que mal yo le hecho al mundo, Dios mío...

... And wallets came out and more alcohol was bought. And the sound of the domino pieces hitting hard on the table was deafening: "Oye, asere, no me mates la mía, chama", "Coño, consorte, suelta la gorda, no te quedes más con ella". yes, the fat one, let go of her, there was never political correctness in el barcito or when playing dominoes. There was always El Tuerto, El Mongo, El Flaco, El Gordo, El Gamba'o. No fear of linguistic reprisals. Language was the real social leveller. I call you what I want, you do the same...

... And wallets kept coming out. But this time, not taken out by their owners. The alcohol kept flowing and money disappeared, some in the direction of the bar, some to someone's house...

... And the guy who ran the bar talking to me one day: "You, study, right? You hear me? You, study, because you don't want to end up like me". And his face, another day, beaming, when the film crew rolled into our neighbourhood and chose his bar as the set for a movie. It wasn't the first time, though, but before, he'd been told to close the bar because the film demanded that the whole area be cordoned off. This time, though, it was a co-production and there were foreigners around and he'd been told to let the locals in and pretend that it was a normal day. Well, what is a normal day, uh? He asked himself. Everyday is a normal day around here. And I don't know whether him chewing gum was because he wanted to impress los extranjeros or because he really thougth his ship had come in...

... And when I sat down in the cinema a year later, to watch the movie in which the barcito de la esquina featured in the very first scene, and when I found out that the movie had been shortlisted for the Oscar as the Best Foreign Film, I thought of the local drunkards, of the dramatis personae, of the four pillars, of the dominoes game, of the drunkards going from the bar to the radio station to be part of the live audience of one of the more popular programmes in Cuba, and then, going back to the bar for a nightcap, only that it wasn't just the one nightcap, this night had to be capped several times...

... And them, later, much later, probably sleeping their binge off in one of the park benches or the piss-soaked floor outside the church....

Because in a city like Havana, if God didn't deal with you properly, the bar (one of the four pillars) would.

© 2011

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 5th June at 10am (GMT)


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