Wednesday 28 September 2011

Let's Talk About...

... car boot sales. Those typically British outdoor markets - especially during spring and summer - where all kind of paraphernalia are put up for sale.

The main objective of a car boot sale ("trunk" in the States) is to get rid of unwanted items, whether they be bric-à-brac or gardening equipment. There's however another unintentional motive.

Car boot sales are the perfect introduction for children to the workings of modern capitalism.

Professional traders selling their cheaply-produced wares at cut-off prices, domestic surplus on display and never-ending haggling; all these elements are the sine qua non of modern capitalism. And children, especially younger ones, lap it up in the same way some people dream of becoming the next Bill Gates.

In preparation for our first car boot sale, my children and my wife divided and labelled the various items that would be put up for sale and worked out how much to charge per unit. There were a few heart-rending moments as toys that had, not so long ago, filled up my children's playtime, were put in the pile. But this was no time for cheesy, Kate Winslet "gather, gather" sentimental moments. There was a trip to Cornwall looming ahead and if my son and daughter wanted to have money to spend, then, they would have to sacrifice some of their precious childhood keepsakes.

As soon as we arrived at the pitch (twelve quid for sale and parking space, not bad, really), we all threw ourselves into action. The merchandise was strategically placed. A bicyle that had seen better days was one of the two items that we were desperate to get rid of. The other one was a tent that had been blown over the fence into our garden and had not been claimed by anyone. In between them both we scattered dinosaurs, small cars, prams, dolls and books. We were ready. Are you watching Greece? This is how you run a business. Default was never a part of our vocabulary that day.

Yet, one issue with which you have to contend at a car boot sale is that everyone has the same idea. After all, we're all there, not just to sell, but also to return home with fewer items than we left. And if we have to start yelling at the top of our lungs, like traders in the City and Wall Street, to attract attention, we'll do it.

Out of my two children, I now know who will be the hedge fund manager. My daughter went from a passive, almost angelic state of on-the-spot salesperson to a hands-on CEO using sophisticated market strategies to generate returns higher than traditional stock and bond investments. She left our pitch and wandered around the cordoned-off field bartering goods, cajoling customers and driving hard bargains. My son, in the meantime, got fed up after a while and sneaked into our car to read his book. He will be the chairman. And when the going gets tough he will probably blame the minions who work on the sales floor.

In my case, I took a closer look at what people were selling. It's not too far-fetched to suggest that a car boot sale is almost a peek into someone's front room. Volumes by Dean Koontz, Danielle Steel and Lynda La Plante were ubiquitous. CDs by the likes of Macy Gray (On How Life Is), Michael Buble, the Spice Girls, Westlife and Will Young convinced me once more that in the UK a lot of people live their lives in the middle of the road, with no fear of ever getting run over. Occasionally a stall would stand out, either by displaying left-of-field music by bands such as Placebo or Garage (I bought their debut album) or books by Ian Mc Ewan and Mark Haddon. But on the whole I was witnessing mass consumerism in a large scale. The result of spur-of-the-moment purchases, which later end up in the scrapheap. Or in a car boot sale. This is what capitalism is about. Buying what you neither need nor - sometimes - really want, yet makes you feel better, because the act of buying - and having - is stronger than the act of saying, no, I don't need it.

However, a car boot sale is a great way of fostering a spirit of enterprise and adventure in the younger generation. After all, if they're careful enough with the merchandise they're selling, including pricing, they're more likely to think in real money terms as opposed to inflated notions of investment. And after what happened three years ago (Lehman, RBS and Northern Rock, I'm talking to you), that can only be a good lesson to learn.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 2nd October at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 25 September 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Back in the day when I was a child in Cuba, there used to be a television programme called San Nicolás del Peladero. The eponymous town at the centre of the sketch show was the fictional setting for the run-ins and tiffs between politicians from – at the time, probably late 1940s, early 50s – Cuba’s two main parties: the Conservatives and the Liberals. In addition to the government legislators, there were also characters deeply rooted in Cuba’s rich theatrical tradition: the mulatto woman, “el gallego” (literally, Galician, as that was the appellation given to most Spaniards who arrived in Cuba at the turn of the 20th century), the bent copper, the tough guy (accompanied by his inseparable knife) and the fashionable aristocrat. The programme launched the career of many actors and actress, whilst it developed the skills and craft of others.

Although the aim was to entertain, San Nicolás del Peladero always had an ulterior motive, and it made no secret of it: deep down inside, the message was, Conservatives and Liberals were the same. The two parties that dominated Cuban politics for half a century until the arrival of Fidel and his band of merry, bearded men in Havana, could hardly been told apart. Thus, I grew up with the idea that being a Liberal wasn’t so dissimilar to being a toff.

Yet, there was always a niggling feeling inside me that grew louder after I moved to the UK. I could, and in the end, did accept the “liberal” tag, but “Conservative”, even with a small “c”? No. That would have been a tad bit too much.

And yet…

They say that as you get older you start developing a more traditional and old-fashioned view of the world. Whereas before your vocabulary was peppered with words such as: evolution (and revolution!), progress and reform, now you feel more comfortable in the realm of terms such as preservation and restoration.

To which I say, where’s the harm in that? After my first decade in London I eventually realised that I was growing a conservative streak, albeit not one of a political nature.

No, my conservatism was rooted more on the original meaning of the Latin word "conservare" (to preserve). It was more related to the maintenance of some traditional attitudes than to an outright support for the status quo.

For instance, I’ve always believed that manners matter in society. How you treat others is just as important as, or, occasionally, more important than the clothes you wear or the car you drive. Opening doors for women, giving your seat up on public transport for someone who needs it more than you do, saying “good morning/afternoon/evening” or “hello” when you run into someone; these were the norms with which I was brought up. It brings out the curmudgeon in me when people try to make a causal link between boorish behaviour nowadays and the attention span deficit brought about by modern technology.

If exposure to bad manners makes me sound like a "Mr Disgruntled from Tunbridge Wells" on the pages of The Daily Telegraph, reckless government decisions lay bare my inner Eustace Tilley, The New Yorker’s long-standing front cover dandy. Take for example the plans earlier this year to sell off England's public forests. The sale would have expected to raise in excess of £150m over a ten-year period. The problem was that the leases being considered for tender were under what's known as "heritage sites" or "heritage forests", in short, woodland that has a very high conservation and recreation value. The government proposals were so ill-thought that opposition against them brought together groups that wouldn't normally be found consorting together like for instance, the Countryside Alliance (pro-hunting) and the Stop the War movement (self-explanatory, really). When it comes to defending the right to walk at one's leisure through one of the many wonderful woods that this nation can proudly boast about, especially on an autumn day, it seems that there's no left or right, but just "conservare".

Another issue where tradition gets the better of me is shopping centres and supermarkets. When I speak to people born and bred in the UK, they can't believe how fast the retail landscape has changed in the last twenty-odd years. The little cornershop, the local fishmonger's, grocer's and butcher's with their misplaced apostrophes. They have all given way to the Tescos, Sainsbury's and Asdas. They have been wiped out to make space for Westfield-style shopping centres in our brand-new, outside-the-box-thinking, cool Britannia. Never mind that with this new architectural approach (some would call it "onslaught") the soul of local communities has been gouged and hundreds, if not thousands, years of history erased. No, what's important is that hideous buildings like the Shard become the vision of the future in this country. Me, I'm happy with the two-up, two-down, red-tiled, standard British house and all its varieties. Keep London and Britain, by default, low-rise. We don't need Manhattan-style skyscrapers, m'lud.

As a forward-thinking and progressive person, I welcome the changes that have resulted in a social and racial melting pot in the UK. I belong to it. I have contributed to it. But I also love this nation's rich heritage. I enjoy walking through its forests, learning about its traditions and visiting its old estates. And no, that doesn't make me a Tory-supporting, wannabe-fox-hunter. It makes me an advocate for the values and morals that underpin our culture and history. I'm sure that even Plutarco, the maire in San Nicolás del Peladero, would agree with that.

© 2011

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 28th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Tiempo Libre's "Secret Radio" (Review)

Like catching the last train home after a night out on the town. That’s how you’re left feeling after listening to three-time Grammy-nominated Cuban music combo Tiempo Libre’s latest album “Secret Radio”. A warm and pleasant sensation, as if you’ve just had the best ball ever.

Coming hot on the heels of their experimental and ground-breaking “Bach in Havana”, a series of compositions by the late German musician given a Latin makeover, Tiempo Libre returns to their familiar timba sound. Theirs is a powerful mix of foot-tapping Afro-Cuban rhythms with layers of intense and sophisticated jazz. The album’s leitmotif is memory as the band members reminisce upon their adolescent years in ‘special period’ Cuba when US radio stations were still frowned upon by the Cuban government. In its eleven tracks “My Secret Radio” tells the immigrant’s story – from the homemade aluminium aerials with which youngsters tried to catch bits and pieces of music from Miami-based radio stations to the shock of starting life in a new country.

There are a few distinguished guests in the record, too. This proves Tiempo Libre’s mass appeal. The band has appeared at prestigious venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, Jazz at Lincoln Centre, the Ravinia Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. No wonder the likes of Albita Rodriguez and Rachelle Fleming had no second thoughts about collaborating with the seven musicians. The former turns up on “Como Hace Años” (Just Like Years Ago), a mellow, soft little number which is a departure from the band’s emblematic, hard-hitting timba. Rachelle guests on “After the Love is Gone”, a cha-cha-cha version of the chart-topper by Earth, Wind & Fire.

Another outstanding song is the instrumental “Aceite” (Oil). This is a tribute to Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie, two of the key figures in the development of Latin jazz. Like its predecessors, “Arroz con Mango”, “Lo Que Esperabas” and the aforementioned “Bach in Havana”, “Secret Radio” boasts excellent arrangements, solid musicianship and great artistic direction. Enough to leave you with that tingling sensation you get when you come back from a concert late at night and you can’t stop humming the closing number.

© 2011

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

Sunday 18 September 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Attempting to understand an act is not the same as condoning it. Whilst one can and does oppose the riots that swept through England in August, we ought to, at the same time, try to make sense of the causes behind them.

I happen to live in one of the areas affected by the lootings. I’m as dumbfounded as everyone else. Why were these vandals destroying our community?

The reasons, when you try to bring logic into the argument, are manifold and inconclusive: growing inequality, loss of parental control, a yawning gap in opportunities in the employment and education markets between the haves and have-nots and a collapse in trust in our politicians, police and media. I could include many more, but you get the gist of it. The younger generation is receiving a message which is the opposite of a L’Oreal advert: they’re not worth it. Their opinions count for nought and when projects and initiatives are kick-started on their behalf, sometimes they stop all of a sudden without a plausible explanation.

A case in point was a local scheme that used to take place near my house. During the half-term and school holidays a team of professional workers led various physical activities for children and adolescents. The sessions were well attended and welcomed by the local community. Both my kids used to go regularly. They made friends there and more importantly they, like the rest of the participants, felt respected and valued. Last autumn the project was scrapped as a result of the cuts introduced by the coalition government without as much as an explanation. This is the key to understanding why young people feel disenfranchised. It’s the lack of ownership and the dearth of opportunities in which they can voice their ideas, suggestions and solutions. When someone’s contribution to society is not being acknowledged, he or she becomes invisible. And in the current situation in the UK it would be a good idea to read the opening page of Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel, “Invisible Man” where the protagonist explains what it feels like to “not be seen” and how he reacts to those who suffer from “poor vision”: “It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

It's worth noticing, too, how the political, economic and social landscape has been radically altered in Britain since Cameron became Ventriloquist In Chief with Nick Clegg as his wooden dummy in May 2010. We're in a situation where the public and voluntary sector has had to withstand a forced scaling down of its workforce, a pay freeze and an increase in the retirement age. Along with this, public services have been put out to tender to a pack of hyena-like private investors circling around our precious assets and waiting for the right moment to strike. Moreover, the state's role is dwindling. The gradual erosion of local government's decision-making, combined with David Cameron's "Big Society" experiment has resulted in the partial or total closure of local libraries, youth clubs, community centres and sports facilities.

It is against this background that the London riots ought to be analysed. And no, I don't believe for a second that the vandals who smashed shops and burned businesses had a political agenda in mind. But that their actions were the result of a volatile social, economic and political situation, there should be no doubt about that.

If a generation ago people were told that "there is no such thing as society", why are we surprised that their offspring is behaving so destructively? The moral values that make up our social scaffolding are no longer based on love towards one's own neighbourhood and neighbours but towards the glamour spilling out of programmes on MTV. And if the Prime Minister is allowed to hire a crook who got sacked from a top-selling newspaper, as his director of communications, then, why should it be any different for the opportunist who makes off with a pair of shoes that don't belong to him and which he picked up from a looted shop? These are some of the questions being asked right now here in Britain. But they fall on dear ears.

One of the salient elements of the riots is how many of those who carried out acts of violence did so without covering their faces. In my opinion, they were declaring their visibility, albeit in the wrong way. The problem is that unless we start seeing the young as active contributors to our society, they will continue to choose unorthodox methods to shake their invisibility off. And as Ralph Ellison wrote, that is seldom successful.

© 2011
Next Post: “Tiempo Libre (Review)”, to be posted on Wednesday 21st September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 14 September 2011

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

September is the twilight month when summer slowly evolves into autumn. Temperatures still hover in the early 20s (Celsius) but already the morning air carries a nippy, crisp and metallic feel. Perfect time, then, for another Nigel Slater's recipe:


tomatoes (large, but not beefsteak) 6
thyme a few bushy sprigs
olive oil
garlic 2 cloves
fresh white breadcrumbs 80g
anchovy fillets 6

Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Slice the tomatoes in half and lay them cut-side up in a shallow baking dish or roasting tin. Remove the thyme leaves from their stems and put them in a small mixing bowl with 80ml of olive oil. Peel and finely crush the garlic cloves and stir into the olive oil with a generous grinding of sea salt and black pepper.

Stir the breadcrumbs into the oil with the anchovy fillets, roughly chopped. Spoon over the tomatoes and bake for 40 minutes or until the tomatoes are tender and the crumbs lightly crisp.

Some of the melodies that could well accompany this dish also carry that nostalgic feel that autumn so naturally conveys.

Georgia Anne Muldrow's free-spirited approach to music is most welcome and on this track, "Roses", you can appreaciate her wide vocal range, going from a smoky, jazzy timbre to a more old-school R'n'B beat. Beautiful.

Yellow is the colour of the leaves falling from the trees in autumn (and orange, red and so on). Yellow is also the colour of Joni Mitchell's famous big taxi. The one that took her old man away and left her ruminating about how "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone". Timeless.

Jazz is famous for its intros. Brubeck's "Take Five", Davies' "So What" and Alice Coltrane's "Turiya & Ramakrishna" to name but three. But my top favourite (at least for the time being) has to be Oscar Peterson and Ben Webster's "Poutin". The timing is just perfect and the synergy between the four musicians is incredible. It's like the peeling, crushing and stirring involved in tonight's recipe. No matter what the vehicle is (nose, eyes and mouth for the food, ear for the music) the destination is the same: the soul.

© 2011

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

Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The furnace door was never opened. The blast of fire we were all expecting never arrived. The Indian summer we were promised back in the spring didn't materialise. It was probably refused entry at Heathrow, what with the new (even stricter) visa regulations. However, it didn't matter. Corwnall still turned out to be special with or without the sun.

We divided our trip in four stages: the first part was from London to Weston-Super Mare, a seaside town just after Bristol. That gave us enough time to rest before carrying on southwestwards. As stopovers go, I have no complaints about Weston-Super-Mare, especially as I managed to get a good and (really!) handy rucksack that was on sale at Millets'. We ate fish and chips sitting on the beachfront whilst watching the sun crawl into bed. There couldn't have been a better start to our holiday,

The next morning we set off early for Cornwall. After approximately an hour and a half the M5 eventually morphed into the A30, Launceston-bound. To our left the Dartmoor National Park gave us views to die for, its moorlands stretching for miles on end and reminding me of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles". Near Launceston, though, the traffic built up unexpectedly. There was no real reason for this jam. There was neither an accident nor were there any road repairs. It was just fellow holiday-makers with barracuda-shaped roofboxes like ours heading into the land of cream teas and pasties. The 50mph signs seemed to mock our slow snail-pace, a speed at which even the renowned Aesopian tortoise would have given us a run for our money. One of the more interesting aspects about a holiday is that at the beginning you can tolerate almost anything: your mind is focused on the destination, rather than on more mundane things such as traffic jams. So, we didn't really mind the addition of three quarters of an hour to our holiday schedule.

We came off the A30 and got on to the A39, and a short while later a sign reading "Padstow" hovered into view. We were there! Well, almost. The campsite where our caravan awaited us was still a few miles ahead.

Compared to the same type of accommodation we had last year in Wales, our new digs were better. The walls looked stronger and the layout was more practical. After putting our rucksacks and bags down we went for a meal out.

The days that followed were idyllical. A local saying proudly proclaimed that just within spitting distance there were "seven bays for seven days". The first one, Harlyn Beach, didn't disappoint, although the waves were gigantic. No wonder Cornwall is a godsend for surfers. My children got in the water straight away, but I refused point blank. It's on occasions like these when I miss the warm waters of my Caribbean Sea. However, despite not enjoying at first the hospitality of the Irish Sea, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a beautiful voice coming out of what looked like someone's backyard covering Bob Marley's "Redemption Song".

The calendar shed a few more pages and eventually we found ourselves in a beautiful consonance of birdsongs, sea breeze, the rustle of the tree leaves and the soft purr of our car engine. We even had a visitor. Our motor headlights caught a rabbit hopping on the road one night and after that we all sharpened our senses in order to spot it again. Then early one evening I stared out of my bedroom and there it was. Perfectly still as if soaking up the quietness of the late afternoon. In fact, it was watching another rabbit. Or not so much watching it as waiting for the right moment to scare it off. In the faux battle that ensued (the other rabbit ceded territory very quickly) our little, large-eared friend was the victor. I kept looking out for its Alice but there wasn't one in tow.

The weather was unpredictable although our itinerary wasn't. We wanted to make the most of our time in Cornwall. With that purpose in mind we made plans every morning depending on the forecast. Sunny or partially cloudy days gave us Treyarnon, Portcothan Bay and Booby's Bay (the best beach of all the ones we visited). Whilst on rainy ones we visited Port Isaac, Tintagel and Padstow itself. They were all little, picturesque towns with plenty of character. These outings also gave me the opportunity to drive down country lanes.

The narrowness of country roads made me think of cars flirting with each other. Side mirrors came so close that they almost kissed one another and you could almost imagine their offspring: a Forssan, a Honsubitshi or a Landaudi. On other occasions I fancied the limited space as a battleground where our wing mirrors represented the swords (carried on the right hand and the reason why people drive on the left in Britain) with which we fought over the right as to who would pass first.

Compared to that enjoyable but also almost claustrophobic scenario the openness of a wider road was very welcome. We escaped southwards a couple of times, first to Penryn and the second time to Falmouth. In the former we walked around a boatyard and in the latter we found a very lively place with plenty of galleries, cafes and shops. It was in Falmouth where I found out about Cornwall's hitherto (at least for me) unknown role in 20th century British impressionism. An exhibition at Falmouth Art Gallery gave me a powerful insight into impressionism's importance in Cornish art.

Driving back we stopped in Truro, Cornwall's only city. We had dinner at a pub called William IV. And let me tell you that if you're looking for good food at reasonable prices, this is the place to go. No wonder we came back the week after.

My only complaint would be that after leaving Truro, I, foolishly, took the wrong turn at a roundabout and we almost ended up in St Austell. Plus it was already nightime. It was probably one of the few times when I felt exposed and vulnerable.

Driving at night has a charm of its own. I like it. But I don't like it that much when I'm tired, I don't know my surroundings and to cap it all, I'm lost. Then, the headlights of the cars behind you ghost in and out, leaving you in a sea of darkness until you chance on the next vehicle coming in the opposite direction.

We changed tactic from then onwards and decided that if we were going to eat out we would have to come back earlier.

Pasties, the sea, art galleries, little shops full of "character" and plenty of Cornish hospitality. I don't think you would be surprised to know that our holiday plans already include a return to Kernow. And I for one can't wait.

© 2011

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 14th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

All photos taken by the blog author

Sunday 4 September 2011

While My MP3 Gently Plays

I'm back in London but my blog's still on a sabbatical. In the meantime here's what my mp3 players has on offer for you today.

Alice Russell arrived by surprise. One night I was jumping from clip to clip on youtube (as you do!) and I suddenly stumbled upon 'Hurry on Now'. From there I went on amazon and got a couple of her albums. Haven't looked back. She deserves more recognition. Proper British soul.

You know you've arrived at that mid-point in your life, not when your kids grow up and leave the nest, or when you can't tie your shoelaces anymore because of the size of your belly, or when you think of Saturday night and the first image that pops into your head is a pair of slippers and a cup of hot chocolate. No, you know that you've hit middle age when you've come full circle and start appreciating and listening attentively to the music you grew up with and which you unconsciously "liked". You didn't really, it's just that it was there, in the background. That's what happened to me recently with the Brazilian singer Roberto Carlos, the soundtrack of many a Cuban of a certain age. I gave up on his music when I became a teenager, but a couple of years ago I found an album with his greatest hits and a trip down memory lane beckoned. What I discovered that night was that I'd never really gone off his music. Amazing voice and extraordinary arrangements, I began to see Roberto Carlos in a different light. Straight from my mp3 to you, "Qué Será de Ti".

This is one of the few pieces from the classical canon to which I can listen when I'm out jogging without pressing the "forward" button. To hear this melody coming on my mp3 player as the sun rises in London whilst I'm running up a hill is possibly one of the most sublime instances of pure synergy between human sensitivity and nature's delicacy. "Air on G-String" by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Sarah Chang on violin.

And we finish this section off,(at least for the time being) with one of the more eccentric frontmen rock's ever produced. There is a handful of singers whose dancing style leaves me clutching my sides, not just out of pure mirth, but also amusement. Prince, Mick Jagger and of course, R.E.M.'s very own Michael Stipe, to name but three. Together with Eddie Vedder's powerful growl, "Begin the Begin" goes up a couple of notches in the scale of musical grandiosity. And this was already a great tune. It just got better. I hope you enjoy it. I'll be back next Sunday. Have a great week!

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


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...