Sunday 30 October 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A few weeks ago I was behind the wheel, as I'm normally these days that I'm in charge of the school run, going about my business as usual. The speed at which I was driving oscillated between twenty and thirty miles per hour, the car window was rolled down whilst a cool morning breeze caressed my face. On the radio John Humphrys was grilling yet another politician. Then, all of a sudden, as I tried to overtake a bus that was stationary, I realised what I was doing and what I was about to do, too. Unwittingly, I'd fallen into a pattern, following the car in front of me without actually thinking of my actions. Had I overtaken the bus on my left, I would have collided with another car coming in the opposite direction. Luckily I managed to brake in time. But not before seriously telling myself off for being so stupid.

It was not the first time that I'd made the same mistake. I once trod on cow dung on a walk through the countryside when I was in uni doing my work experience despite the fact that every single person in front of me had already done it. And moaned about it! At the time I was the head of a brigade working on orange trees and we'd decided to skip work (as we often did) in order to explore the area. No matter that the dozen or so members of my unit sank their wellies and Russian boots in fresh bovine faeces. I was also following the herd, albeit of a different kind.

I sometimes wonder how "hardwired" we are, human beings, to copy other people's actions, the impact this trait has on us and the benefits (if any) they might bring to us.

A case in point is smoking. This is the same example I use when I try to demonstrate to people, like my children for instance, the perils of lighting up. If you smoke, or have smoked at some point in your life, try to go back to that moment when you first held that cigarette in your hand and took the first puff. How did it feel? Nauseating, I think. You probably coughed like mad as well. But you did carry on. Why? Didn't that initial "experiment" put you off? Well, of course not, because all around you your mates were doing the same. Regardless of the discomfort, the teary eyes and the raspiness in their throats, they kept puffing at their roll-ups. To me this is typical of the social networking enviroment in which human beings thrive, but also it illustrates how it can lead to failure. Twenty or thirty years from that first cigarette some of your friends will be paying a visit to their GP to find out about that "dark cloud" in their lungs. Maybe you'll join them.

We build networks through our lives. It's part of man's (generically speaking)gregarious nature. Some of these connections start in school and last well until our twilight years. Others are more ephemeral. But each leaves a mark, no matter how indelible it can be at times.

I've always been interested in human interaction and this was intensified last year when I joined Facebook. Until then I was one of those refuseniks who saw Mark Zuckerberg's creation as an attempt to shorten out attention span even more (as if that was humanly possible) through a combination of LOLs, smileys, emoticons and snaps taken by a shaky hand on a mobile phone. However, I was able to re-connect with old classmates from my uni years and form an online community in which we do a lot of reminiscing. At the centre of this virtual reunion are patterns that are embedded in our genes. It's the reason why one of the members of this online group posted a photo of his wedding the other day and despite the fact that I didn't know him that well, I had a lump in my throat nonetheless. It was the black-and-white-yellow-around-the-edges colour of the photo that did it for me.

These social networks we create when we are younger have upsides like the one described before. They also help us find love and employment. Since we seem to be connected ad infitum, our future partner should ideally be three persons away according to the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game whilst our dream job should just be around the corner. But that's not real life. We know better than to make these assumptions.

The negative impact of copycat behaviour brought about by close human connectedness can be, on the other hand, often fatal: alcoholism, the aforementioned smoking problems and drugs addiction. It usually starts innocently enough and in such a subtle way that before you know it you're in it up to your chest. A spliff is passed around. A drink is shared. A needle is produced. We, humans, are certainly interesting, and so are the networks we beget.

Companies cash in on these interactions, whether they be along the lines of the mistake to which I referred at the beginning of my post (following a pattern set by others), or the individual who stands out in a crowd and defies the "herd mentality" to which he or she is being subjected. Or if you like, it's the clash between T-mobile's carefully choreographed "flash mobs" (groups of people dancing in joyful mood in Liverpool Street Station, east London, for instance) or VO5 and its status quo-approved rebellious stance.

It's amazing that human relations can determine sometimes what we eat, how we vote and how we educate our children. Such a statement, said or written so coldly, would probably provoke a stern response from those of us who believe we have the mental and physical capacity to make decisions about our diet, our political choices and our offspring. But scratch the surface and look closer and you'll occasionally find a complicated microcosm of self-doubts and nagging self-interrogation. Influenced in no small measure by the "herd mentality". Which is one of the reasons why we're fallible and make mistakes. And why some of those gaffes end up on Facebook twenty years later. And yet, there's still a certain beauty in it.

© 2011

Next Post: “The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Review)”, to be published on Wednesday 2nd November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I don't know how many times I walked, cycled or ran past No. 375 on N St., Vedado, Havana, Cuba. Two of my best mates lived around the corner. I used to play baseball in a - then - disused car park nearby. My cousin got married right across the building, in the same mansion-cum-notary where I used to play hide'n'seek week in, week out.

And yet, it never occurred to me that at No. 375, N St., Flat 7, the landscape of Cuban literature was being changed. For the better.

It was at this abode that Virgilio Piñera, one of Cuba's foremost authors (poet, essayist, journalist, playwright and short-story writer) resided for many years after he moved from Guanabo, a borough in the outskirts of Havana. It was here that he penned plays like Dos Viejos Pánicos, a superb meditation on old age.

Considering that I became infatuated with Piñera's literary output in my teens, I would have probably attempted to turn his erstwhile apartment into a shrine if given half the chance. Or who knows, maybe, one day, when I'm filthily rich (there's still hope, not about the "filthy" bit, though) I'll buy the flat and turn it into a museum. I might even be supported in this enterprise by a group of fellow Piñerians.

And all of us, Virgilio enthusiasts, would be in great company. We would join a select group in which we'll find avid Harry Potter fans venerating the home in which JK Rowling lived for many years, blue-plaque stalkers on the lookout for a new sign bearing names of a Conan Doyle or Keats pedigree and Roald Dahl fans contributing some hard cash towards the half million pounds needed to move the shed, in which he wrote many of his best-selling stories, from Buckinghamshire to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.

Sorry, what's that you're saying? Do you want me to run that last item by you again? Don't worry, dear, I shall oblige.

Roald Dahl, he of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox fame, used a little cabin, built in the 1950s, as his writing retreat to pen his world-renowned children's books. The structure was never intended to last, yet, lasted it has and now it's in danger of collapsing. The Dahl family, along with trusts and foundations, are looking to raise around one million pounds for the renovation but the initial press release triggered a public outcry. Most people were of the opinion that the likes of Sophie Dahl and the rest of her clan should be the ones stumping up the full whack, especially when one takes into account how well the author's books still do and the revenue generated by film adaptations like James and the Giant Peach.

The news, however, did make me wonder how far we, as fans (I'm not referring just to Dahl now, though, for his books were never amongst my favourites), are willing to go to achieve the ultimate literary experience and what it really means. I think that nowadays we've gone beyond venerating places of residence and original drafts, the two usual objects of worship, and moved onto the places where the writing supposedly took place, or where some of the author's fictitious characters hung out.

For example the James Joyce Centre includes a walk entitled "In the Footsteps of Leopold Bloom". On its website the blurb states that "This tour explores the background to Joyce’s Ulysses and to Bloom’s thoughts as he crosses the city in search of something to eat in the ‘Lestrygonians’ episode". This is a positive case study as, in my view, this excursion would complement such a sensorial novel. I hope one day to join the jaunt.

However, I think that there might be also an ulterior - and unconscious - motive behind fans' attempt to get a closer look at their favourite writers' digs. I would call it "literary talent by proxy". The person who bought JK Rowling's flat might not just have wanted to breathe in the same air that inspired Rowling to write her Harry Potter series, but also to exhale, in the process, a character in the same mould as Dumbledore. I'm entering the realm of wild speculation here, but he might have thought that living within the same four walls that housed the author might help him produce a novel focusing on a wizard boy whose life is in danger. He might even attempt to write such tale inside a cupboard. Implausible? Yes. But... Well, when it comes to literature, all bets are off.

This situation of readers worshipping - and occasionally buying - the places where their favourite books were written, brings to mind the only time I ever visited Hemingway's old home, La Finca Vigía in Havana. At the time I was in my teens and had yet to read any of his novels. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the light and space in his former residence. This was, after all, the place where Papa Hemingway (who also left his mark in other spots in Havana such as the Ambos Mundos Hotel and the Floridita restaurant) had lived. Fortunately, I didn't feel the urgency to go out and start battling it out with a marlin.

But I still dream of turning Flat 7 at No. 375 on N St. into a museum or exhibition centre where the works by one of Cuba's literary geniuses can finally be acknowledged. Especially as the centenary of his birth (4th August 2012) is fast approaching. So, expect more columns about this key figure of Cuban letters. His name is Virgilio. Virgilio Piñera.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 30th October at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 23 October 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Are you a little, very or not satisfied at all with your life? Fret not, for I'm not about to flog you a drug so that you can achieve that state that some people call "nirvana" and others "communism". We all know what happened after the Summer of Love in '68. Flowers-In-Your-Hair Inc. was created. And let's not even go into the whole Berlin Wall shebang. Stasi anyone?

No, the reason, or rather, reasons, why I'm asking you how satistified you are with your live is because recently l'Insee (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques) asked French people the same question. In a scale of 0 to 10 where the nought represented zero satisfaction and the 10 "very satisfied" (or if you like, a survey where people could go from The Rolling Stones to Alice in Wonderland's Cheshire Cat in no time) the Gallic nation settled for an acceptable 7. And that's even without including the French team's recent success in the rugby world cup at the expense of both England and Wales.

The results do not throw up big surprises. Money still features highly in a person's bien-être, but so does health. Which is welcome news for me as that's one of the ways in which we measure happiness in Cuba. We always wish relatives, friends and work colleagues or classmates "good health". The equivalent of "God bless you!" when someone sneezes is in Cuban Spanish "Salud que haya, que belleza sobra" (May there be health for there's already beauty aplenty). So, it's comforting to know that in the developed world not everything is about bling-bling.

More surprising was to find out that our contentment levels diminish between the ages of 45 and 49. In fact from our early thirties to our late forties one of the graphs in the article shows a steady decline in our sense of well-being. What I would like to know is if this is a modern phenomenon, maybe related to our fast-paced lifestyle, or if it was always thus. From our 50s until our early 70s the curve peaks again which might have something to do with feeling more settled and at ease with our lives.

I wonder if I was to conduct the same study worldwide what the score would be. To go back to my original question: do you belong to the Jagger brigade and "can't get no satisfaction", or have you already purred your way through life to relative bliss like our friend the Cheshire Cat? And if the latter, what are the elements that have contributed to it?

Place of residence, job - or lack of it thereof -, relationship status and children. These are all aspects of a person's life at some point or other and therefore are components that can and do alter patterns, thus bringing about changes in our wellbeing. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and the recent austerity measures introduced by the coalition government in Britain, there's been a spate of commentaries that centre on what we, human beings, should really be focusing on. Our priorities, if you like. And money, not surprisingly, has been given a supporting role. A good example is the section "Thought for the Day", on Radio 4's Today programme. This is a five-minute slot where representatives of different religious faiths (no secular speakers are allowed yet) theorise on contemporary issues. For the last year or so I've noticed a shift in the subjects discussed; from God-related items to more earthly ones such as: empathy, justice and thriftiness. Of course, the Abrahamic faiths have always preached against human flaws like greed, even if the organisations that represent them have occasionally been found guilty of the same sin. But it is not too far-fetched to think that, faced with a money-minded society and the consequences of this mantra, people are beginning to take a long, hard look at the world around them and not just at their bank account.

There was a similar exercise to the French survey a year ago by Britain's equivalent of l'Insee, the Office of National Statistics, when the Prime Minister, David Cameron, asked the organisation to gauge general well-being. It was somewhat marred by the background of protests and discontent that accompanied the press release. Plus, the PM missed an important detail: happiness or satisfaction is a subjective phenomenon. You can speculate on it with graphs and numbers, but in the end some people are chuffed about autumnal days whereas others are frustrated about the fact that their hard-earned qualifications cannot get them the job they believe they deserve (as the French study showed). To try to come up with a happiness index based on the standard GDP model is like attempting to teach ballet to a hippo, Fantasia notwithstanding.

Above all, it comes down to whether you feel less satisfied because "a man comes on the radio/he's tellin' me more and more/about some useless information/supposed to fire my imagination", or if the permanent grin on your face is based more on the abundance of milk and cream around you. Grumpy, aging rocker or cheeky-chappie feline? The choice is yours.

© 2011

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 26th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Photo taken by the blog author.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Endangered Languages)

According to Genesis, the Tower of Babel was supposed to be human beings' way to "reach unto heaven". I think we're all acquainted with what happened in the end: God grew jealous and punished the puny transgressors by confounding their language. No one could understand the other person's speech anymore. And so, that's how New York came into being.

Sorry, did I confuse you, too? Well, just.

Recently I came across an article in The Economist magazine that dealt with one of my favourite topics and this column's raison d'être: languages. In this case the feature focused on the disappearance of a number of unusual tongues, which have found a home in the US metropolis. In order to address this situation a group of academic linguists got together to collect, record and codify grammar, pronunciation, syntax and in some cases traditional songs and stories from a dozen languages. The results are spellbinding: samples range from Mexico to Indonesia. And they're all under the same (metaphorical) roof.

Some people might scoff at the attempt to "rescue" these languages. After all, how many of them, in the history of humankind, have run their course and become extinguished? Surely there must be reasons for that. Disuse, complexity, geopolitics, to name a few. Furthermore, once we welcomed the arrival of a lingua franca, i.e., English, we helped, unintentionally, dig up the grave into which we condemned all these other "esoteric" languages.

But, I can't be the only person who greets news of a research into endangered languages with open arms. For one, the study gets the better of my inner linguistic Snoopy. For instance, in Mahongwe, a language from Gabon, the word manono, translates as “I like” when spoken in soft and flat tones, but “I don’t like” when the first syllable is a tad sharper. No information is given about what happens when you're down with a cold. Then, there's the cultural side of it where we get to learn about oral traditions that, in many cases, are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

I'm not surprised that it's New York where this research is taking place. Although it could have equally happened in London. After all, there's a lot more linguistic diversity in the British capital than in the US metropolis. But with its skycrapers attempting to "reach unto heaven", this modern Babel is the closest we'll get to its biblical counterpart. And you know what? By confounding those hubristic humans, maybe the Lord gave us the best gift of all: a cultural mix that has enriched our human experience.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 23rd October at 10am (GMT)

Image of Ibimeni (Garifuna traditional music from Guatemala), taken from
Black Star Liners blog.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections, Music and Dance

When news first reached me of the death of Apple's trail-blazing wizard, Steven Jobs, a few days ago, I had just completed the first two-hundred pages of Naomi Klein's brilliant and eye-opening book "The Shock Doctrine". Somehow Steven's image as a quasi-messianic entrepeneur blended with the same God-like appeal that Milton Friedman, chief architect of the "laissez-faire" free-market approach, had for decades. I'm not implying they're directly linked. Jobs and Friedman were as similar to each other as a fish and a football are. One was an economist with a strong dislike for central government, the other one was a creative visionary and aesthete. But there were certain parallels between them in that they were both products of the same socioeconomic system which enabled them to pursue analogous goals, albeit in different ways.

For instance, my first brush with one Job's creations, the Apple Mac, came fortuitously eight years ago when I began to work in the arts. There were just a couple of PCs in the office and they were in constant use. That meant that the only machine available was a Mac that belonged to the Chief Executive.

As an uninitiated to one of Jobs' babies I found the computer hard to operate and it frustrated me no end, if truth be told. However, even I had to admit that the Mac's soft, smooth, curved, white box design was a wonder at which to marvel. Besides, since I was neither a visual artist, nor a musician, the machine was not primarily made for me. The myriad menus that allowed composers to mix and re-mix their pieces and photographers to muck around with images were some of the reasons why people parted with their hard-earned cash for this piece of sophisticated machinery.

The other reasons had to do with Jobs' vision. One where the consumer was supposed to reign unchallenged. Also, it was a world where the "i" in his products (iPod, iPhone, iPad), in my view, symbolised the individual, the "I can do" attitude, a sentiment that was vindicated by the many hundreds who always flocked to the unveiling of a new Apple product. Never mind the fact that Steve's company was not what you could consider as niche; having an iPod set you apart from the herd.

In that sense, Friedman's focus on the individual was not a lot different, even if his modus operandi was. According to Naomi Klein, Milton's political and economic trademark was "privatization, government deregulation and deep cuts to social spending". In order to achieve these goals he prescribed the same universal medicine to attentive audiences the world over: shock therapy.

The effects of his ideas are everywhere to see, from Chile to Iraq. Countries with massive debts, people living below the poverty line and corrupt governments. Ultimately the clearest example of Friedman's philosophy was the role of the individual in society. And by individual, read corporations. Unlike Steve Jobs, though, who tapped into a person's individuality, Milton plumped for a more rapacious individualism.

Individuality vs individualism. The former is innate, the latter is nurtured. Capitalism at its best knows how to take full advantage of a person's individual power. It creates a platform where this person can thrive. The challenge is to make this person conscious of the collective/society in which he or she lives and therefore the duties and responsibilities that come with investing capital and making a profit.

By the way, this is not an ode to capitalism or private property, but an acknowledgement to the spirit of adventure and enterprise that Steve Jobs represented. The late Apple founder didn't just create computers and software, he made them sexy. Before him, sitting in front of a computer (a PC, more likely) was a task to be endured. That is, until the arrival of the internet and youtube. All those clips of cats falling over helped us while the hours away on a rainy Saturday afternoon at work.

By contrast, Friedman's entrepreneurial credentials left an indelible mark in countries such as Russia and Argentina, to mention but two. Although his hands didn't get stained with the blood of the victims who were on the wrong side of his ideas, he aggressively pursued a "slash and burn" agenda which in the end gave us Tiannamen Square.

This is not to say that Steve Jobs was a saint whilst Milton was an evil person. They both set out to make money, as much and as quick as possible. In Friedman's case you could even say that there was an altruistic and internationalist streak as he went beyond the geographical borders of his native USA to try to export his ideas to the rest of the world. That his thesis was based on an almost total annihilation of the state was his ruthless and selfish "Mr Hyde" persona lurking in the background. As for Jobs, there have long been accusations of poor working conditions in some of his overseas factories, with one in China being dubbed "i-Nightmare".

However, it is the dilemma of export/import of ideas that first made reflect on both men and the influence they cast and continue to cast on our contemporary society. More specifically, it's the type of capitalism spoused by Friedman that made me think of Cuba.

At the moment my beloved island finds itself on a crossroads. One side points at more government control with the sad, possible outcome of insurgency in the long-term, the other path indicates openness and laxity. The problem with the latter is at what price? If history is anything to judge by, Russia, China and Poland are living testimonies of what happens when former totalitarian states want to experiment with the free market and Friedman's economic electroshock. The result is less democracy and more individualism. My option would be more openness and more opportunities for the many "Steve Jobs" we have in Cuba. This was the man, lest we forget, who made corporations respectable at a time when Nike, McDonald's, Shell and many others were taking a knock from the anti-globalisation and anti-poverty movement. Yet, whilst people railed against sweatshops, they kept texting away on their brand-new iPhones.

Markets cannot be left alone to run our economy any more than we can expect a child not to make a mess if we leave them alone with a set of watercolours and brushes. Milton Friedman and his Chicago School gang were wrong in that respect, in my opinion. What we can actively do with our economy is encourage individuals to grow more daring, to unlock their creative potential and to challenge themselves in a way that will bring some kind of benefit to society; whether their motives are still profit-making or not. Even if you still get renegades like yours truly who's never owned an Apple product in his life.

© 2011

Next Post: “Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Endangered Languages”, to be published on Wednesday 19th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Bamako (Review)

I still remember the first and only time I watched the movie Waiting for Happiness, Abderrahmane Sissako's meditation on migration. It was at an African film festival I had curated and managed and the feature was amongst a number of obscure submissions over whose reception I was fretting somewhat. Yet, I, and the rest of the audience were blown away by the director's subtle images of sand and sea, juxtaposed with a feeling of otherness and a state of limbo.

Whereas in Waiting for Happiness the setting is all whitewashed buildings and almost total tranquillity, Bamako is the opposite. The movie centres on a court case in the Malian capital where the plaintiff seems to be Africa itself and the accused are the World Bank, the IMF and other corporations. Beyond the premises there's the hustle-bustle that characterises an African city. However, to say that the court case is at the centre of the film is somewhat misleading because there are other subplots that are as interesting as, if not more interesting than, the main one. There're the marriage problems between a nightclub singer and her unemployed husband. There's also a photographer, who works part-time for the police, and who records marriages and funerals, choosing the latter over the former because they're 'more real'. There's even an out-of-this-world (and some might think totally unrelated) scene where people are watching a spaghetti western called Death in Timbuktu, starring Danny Glover and the Palestinian film-maker Elia Suleiman.

Sissako's achievement is in presenting an Africa that speaks with its own voice and in its own language. His intention is to celebrate the dignity of those who have very little but without displaying any kind of self-pity. At the same time he avoids the usual pitfalls of laying all the blame at the doors of those who are better off. During the court proceedings we hear stories from both sides. Some of the witnesses are very articulate and others aren't. The magic of the film lies in the combination of an off-the-cuff approach (Sissako has a reputation for hiring non-actors) and a calculated and sophisticated one, especially when it comes to the photography and setting.

The result is a stunning film where the viewer is challenged to come up with his or her own answers and where the protagonist, Africa, gets one of those rare chances to speak its mind. Another one not to miss.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections, Music and Dance”, to be posted on Sunday 16th October at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 9 October 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

There's a very funny, short scene in The King's Speech that had me, in a manner of speaking, rolling on the floor and howling with laughter. It's one of the conversations between stage-actor-cum-speech-therapist, Lionel Logue and monarch-in-waiting Albert Frederick Arthur George, or Bertie as he was known to his family. The specialist is goading the future king to think of and say as many swear words as he can, though the latter is reluctant to bite his bait. Finally, the therapist asks George if he knows the "f" word, to which the stammering royal responds:

"Ffff... fornication?"

What follows thereafter is an explosion of expletives, tumbling out of George's mouth like hundreds of bats flying out of a cave all of a sudden. The scene works because of the self-restraint displayed at first by the soon-to-be last emperor of India, only for him to cave in at the last minute under pressure from his therapist. The distant and cool demeanour crumbles to the ground, revealing a human being who has suffered humiliation and bullying for most of his life. George might not have been expected to occupy the throne (that honour went to his elder brother Edward, who abdicated in the end) but a stiff upper lip was still de rigueur.

It's the same stiff upper lip that still fascinates people all over the world. Was I surprised by the success of The King's Speech? Not a bit.

I've come to see the relationship between the monarchy (and the upper classes by default) and the rest of the British people, not as a love-hate liaison, but as a love-"I couldn't give two hoots" one. Unless you come across a staunch republican, most people feel nonchalant about Lizzie and her son and possible successor, Charlie. You might find people who were reluctant to tune in to Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding last April, but they were the same ones who didn't have any second thoughts about paying for a cinema ticket to go to see The Queen. This poses the following question: Isn't there a contradiction between the modern Cool Britannia picture that was plastered on the cover of newspapers and magazines everywhere in the late nineties and early noughties, and the obsession with all things royal and upper class right now?

The King's Speech is not the only successful product in recent years to have had a strong regal and toff flavour. Upstairs, Downstairs was a drama series originally aired on ITV in the 70s and adapted by the BBC in 2010. The title was a reference to the lives of the masters "upstairs" and the servants "downstairs". It was a ratings winner for the corporation last year. Downtown Abbey, another ITV programme, swept the boards at the Emmys last month. It seems that when it comes to producing a surefire cinema or television winner these days, Blue Blood trumps the British "It" factor any time.

I've no problem with the upper classes, including the monarchy; as an outsider I see them as yet another element of British life. Obviously, I'd sooner they paid more taxes and were responsible for their own upkeep rather than getting us, hoi polloi, to foot the bill. My curiosity is, however, piqued by the apparent contradiction between a country that is growing more and more racially, socially and culturally mixed per day (and this week the BBC marked the tenth anniversary of "mixed race" as an ethnic category on the UK census with the first installment of a three-part series on the subject) and a fascination with the past. Especially with the colonial, imperial one.

From a commercial point of view, this approach is understandable. The Crown sells, toffs in jodhpurs hunting deer in autumnal weather, rake in profits at the box office and, as I write, the dress worn by the Duchess of Cambridge on her wedding day this year has attracted so far approximately 600,000 visitors to Buckingham Palace. The bottom line is that once again Queen PLC+media exposure=Kerching!, above all, from overseas visitors. This transaction has also been helped by a government which is made up of many of those who belong to the "upstairs" class and where, for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes from a privileged background (dad is the 17th holder of a hereditary baronetcy).

One of the downsides, and there are many, is that this newfound love for the type of establishment that Prince Williams represents, belies the true nature of contemporary Britain, especially in urban areas. For instance, the film Notting Hill, with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in the leading roles, took its name after the area where William Thacker's (played by Grant) bookshop was. However, any person acquainted with the neighbourhood would have been shocked to see that black people had been airbrushed out of the movie. On top of that the most famous carnival (and a very multicultural, too) in Europe is called... Notting Hill. But Richard Curtis, the screenwriter, was more interested in creating the illusion of a London that could sell (a London full of eccentrics like Spike, played by Rhys Ifans, greeting the press in his underwear, or toffs like Grant, stammering his way through the film) than the real London in which many of us live.

Another drawback is that romanticising the upper class too much stops us from conducting a critical analysis of their influence on contemporary British society and more importantly on our economy. Right now our cabinet is made up of people who, I'm pretty sure, have never signed on in their lives. Yet, they're the ones introducing austerity measures. That the majority are toffs with trust funds intent on destroying our welfare system, is scant consolation for the supposed success that movies and books based on their lives brings.

It is true that this fixation with the monarchy and the upper classes (and more specifically with notions of Englishness) appeals more to the occasional tourist to the UK, or to the person living abroad, for whom time stopped circa 1920, than to the resident of Blighty. But I've also noticed a growing interest amongst the younger British generation in trends and styles that better suit the Windsors and their ilk. Even some rappers, or as they're called nowdays, "urban artists", draw inspiration from Prince Charles' wardrobe for their clothes designs. Travelling in the opposite direction and probably returning the favour, we have Prince Harry's love for hip-hop and his attempts at MC-ing. I'd be willing to see this exchange as nothing more than a passing fad, but when you have the looming threat of Boris Johnson, mayor of London and another aristocrat, apparently plotting to succeed David Cameron as the next leader of the Tories and possibly eventually becoming Prime Minister, I fret, I seriously do. Because one thing is to amuse oneself with a scene where a future monarch attempts to loosen up his stiff upper lip. And a different one is when that stiff upper lip is the one pronouncing on your future.

© 2011

Next Post: “Bamako (Review)”, to be published on Wednesday 12th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Recently I finally managed to watch director Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland. More than anything else, what I really wanted to know was what the fuss was about and whether the praise heaped on the movie was fairly deserved. What stood out from the word go was that if I hadn't seen the original 1951 film, my feelings towards this recent reworking of Lewis Carroll's classic would have been somewhat ambivalent. Whereas Disney's take on the tale was based on Alice's innocence and curiosity (prevalent in the book), Burton's approach was more adult-minded. As expected, both Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp stole the show with characters who were not that dissimilar from previous wacky and clownish incarnations, especially in the latter's case.

Lately there's been a slew of movies looking to provide a modern take on previous - and occasionally - well-established films. Sometimes the director pulls it off, as in the case of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (though not one belonging to a genre of my preference). There are also instances when the end result fails to satisfy. Above all, when the movie bombs, people often ask themselves why on earth someone would go to the trouble or re-working a classic if they lack the wherewithal to succeed.

However, despite the pros and cons of re-making films, this is part and parcel of the world of celluloid, along with profitable franchises and a frequent formulaic approach to storytelling. But is there any other creative industry where a similar style would be just as easily accepted?

More specifically, would/could we ever conceive of an author re-writing a classic? Including keeping the original title?

With visual arts, for example, the response is swift and simple: plagiarism. But what about literature? Could someone pen a new version of Ulysses, one where the wandering Leopold Bloom, going about his business on that one day, is not just a mere figment in Joyce's imagination, but also a red hot-blooded Jack-Bauer-like figure in charge of an anti-terrorist unit in early 20th century Ireland? With the same Latinised version of the Greek name as its title, of course.

Naturally, we could argue that literature is underpinned by the type of architecture that could well serve as a template for would-be writers. For Alice..., read similar books such as Peter Pan, The Secret Garden and The Jungle Book. Talking animals already made up the bulk of stories in ancient times, with even a moral thrown in at the end for good measure. Woods have rarely shed their image as the ominous sign where "things happened" (sometimes bad ones, ask Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, for instance). In fact you could even say that literature is governed by narrative patterns that attempt to pin down our infinite human experience into the equivalent of ready-made meals, therefore creating a limited variety of plots. The city that is in danger and needs a hero to rescue it (The Pied Piper of Hamelin), the woman who is in love with a man her parents disapprove of (Romeo and Juliet) But a verbatim replica like The Italian Job (the original, a 1969 cinematic vehicle with Michael Caine and Noel Coward, the "modern" version from 2003 with Mark Wahlberg and Donald Sutherland, transported to L.A. and minus Caine's iconic "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!")? No.

Why is that, then? I would say that one of the reasons is that writers, like visual artists (photographers, painters and sculptors, for instance) have a more individual and self-centred approach to their oeuvre. Film-makers, who depend more on a collective, think nothing of re-doing a classic. This could be as a tribute to the original director, or because they think that they can improve on his/her magnum opus. Or simply because there's more money on the table. Which is why we can have Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood movie, but no Pride and Prejudice, the new version by Danielle Steel. I don't think that I'm alone in thinking that a painter re-painting the Mona Lisa would probably take umbrage at him/herself. Same with a writer penning a second Moby Dick.

Or it might be that literature doesn't need dodgy Doppelgängers because it's self-sufficient. In an excellent essay in The Guardian a couple of years ago the playwright David Edgar referred to Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. Combine them at your leisure and you needn't look at For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Color Purple as works to reproduce word by word. There's plenty of fish for everyone in the sea of fiction if you can use your imagination effectively enough.

What does happen, as Robert McCrum stated recently, is that certain authors - some of them already famous in their own right - piggyback on the classics and adapt them to their own genre. One of McCrum's example is Lynn Shepherd's Murder at Mansfield Park, which turns the idyllic estate into a crime scene. It's, in my view, literature's own way of doing what cinema did with Psycho (the original, a superb film from 1960 with Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh; its totally unnecessary carbon copy, a disaster made in 1998 with Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche in the leading roles), although with better results. And an excellent way, I would aver, of keeping us, literature lovers, curiouser and curiouser.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 9th October at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 2 October 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Certain seasons arrive all of a sudden: in later years winter (especially the Christmas period) has been summoned earlier than usual by mince pies that go on display at the end of August; spring showers turn up unexpectedly and summer is like a Houdini act: now you see it, now you don't. Or rather, now you're wearing four layers of clothes, now you're wearing almost nothing.

Autumn, however, floats about, hovers and finally comes down in a choir of rustling leaves. I first notice its appearance when the air takes on a crispy, metallic feel. Not cold, but cool, comforting and translucent. I, then, look around to see the changes. The victorius heather that reigns supreme in summer with its pinkish-purple flowers, sees its territory decimated. The hustle and bustle of June, July and August give way to a slower pace, the better to savour the stillness around you.

This year, September started strangely. Then, again, the weather has been most unusual of late. As I write, temperatures in London are predicted to rise to 27-28 degrees (Celsius). Earlier this month, the remnants of a hurricane that had swept through the eastern coast of the US reached the UK and gave us gales that wouldn't have been out of place on a tropical island in the Caribbean in the middle of October. But still, autumn is here.

Whereas for me winter's monochromatic landscape resembles a painting by Jackson Pollock on LSD, autumn seems to be the product of the soft brush stroke of a Degas or Monet. In the case of the former, an exhibition has just opened at the Royal Academy under the name "Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement".

The pieces on display prove my point about autumn resembling an impressionistic painting. Degas captured hundreds of positions from various angles. Autumn works in shades. Hundreds of them. A leaf is not just either orange or yellow, but auburn and chestnut at the same time. Rumour has it that when asked why he was so interested in ballet dancers, Degas answered that it was because the dance form was all we had left of the combined movement of the Greeks. Autumn is Mummy Nature's last annual plea for life before it is plunged into the darkness of winter. That's why after a slow start, autumn suddenly explodes into a multitude of colours. It's nature's way of saying "I'm still here, still, alive and this is what I have to offer". The same happens in a ballet show when the soloist (man or woman) pirouettes endlessly in the middle of the stage. It's their own way to stand out.

There's a third element. Degas's paintings don't normally depict performances but rehearsals. The effect is a frank, revelatory, behind-the-scenes exposé of the workings of a dance company. To someone, like me, who's been involved in the performing arts for a number of years, Degas's ballet pieces convey a feeling of Nostalgie. Likewise, autumn is synonymous with melancholy and memories. This leads to a contrast between the gold carpet laid out in front of our eyes and the cyan pigment that adorns our insides. Blue might not be the ruling colour in the surrounding landscape (unless you include the sky), but when it comes to soaking up the fresh, morning breeze stirring the coppery leaves above, enjoying the spectacle of nuts-munching squirrels and watching enviously the acorn-collecting children, you're damn right I've got the blues.

© 2011

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 5th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Photos taken by the blog author.


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