Sunday 29 July 2012

Coffee and Music

It's hard to believe that this band's been going for 50 years, but yes, they have. And this track shows why they're still pretty much at the top of their game, with the likes of Maroon 5 wanting to "move like Jagger". Enjoy.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Coffee and Music

I'm now officially on holidays and as usual the music I'll be playing on the blog will have that extra bite, like this track by the fantastic Laura Marling, accompanied by Mumford & Sons and the Dharohar Project. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday 15 July 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

On your marks, get set, and... what's that? Oh, no, SAS troops rushing down the stands, tanks breaking through the walls into the stadium. Usain Bolt standing in the middle of the track, looking confused like Aleksandr Orlov. What's caused this pandemonium?

Someone decided to light up a fake cigarette in a "no smoking" area.

If the above scenario looks like a joke to you, then, think again. A very real, similar event took place just a few days ago near Lichfield, Staffordshire when the passengers of a coach bound for Victoria station, London, were forced to evacuate the vehicle amidst fears that there was a bomb on board.
The ancient Olympics. Not a brand in sight

Welcome to London's Olympic Games 2012!

I've been trying my best to leave my cynic's mask at home these days but it almost feels as if the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games doesn't want me to. In between scares from the sponsors about what products I'm allowed to bring into the venues with me and which ones will leave me with a hefty fine, scares about the budget (that was ages ago and it was never sorted out. We were way over then and still are) and scares about tickets availability and allocation (it's just transpired that a huge chunk of them are going to corporate guests) my initial enthusiasm for the Olympic Games has diminished. Not that I was ever over the moon about them in the first place. Although I do confess to having felt proud for a nanosecond when I found out that the British capital was to be the host.

What is it about big sports showcases that makes otherwise responsible adults behave like over-excited children in a sweets shop? Already London 2012 is shaping up to be a sponsor- and brand-driven fest (and, pardoning the pun, a "feast" for the lucky few who will be making a few bob out of hoi polloi). Have a McDonald's for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Down the plastic-texture burger with a good ol' XL-sized bucket of Coca Cola. Dessert will come courtesy of a Cadbury's chocolate bar. And get drunk later on (although for those whose teams do well in the medals table, this will probably start early in the morning) Heineken. You see? I just sorted your diet. For a fortnight. Someone, please, pass us the sick bag.

I'm not being Mr Curmudgeon here, although this might be the first step towards my Cuban persona being taken over by a British one. I'm a sports enthusiast. I support an English football team (Chelsea), two international ones (Brazil and Argentina. There's an oxymoron for you) and still root for my hometown baseball team (Industriales). The concept of money in sports is not alien to me either. To Chelsea, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich's favourite toy, I can add The New York Yankees, the team I support in the Major League in the US. But I take all this fan's malarkey with a pinch of salt. The time when I wouldn't talk to a girlfriend because Industriales had lost to Vegueros in Cuba's Baseball Championship are happily over.

The Olympics are different. If you go by their history they should, in theory at least, call to a nobler part of us. In ancient Greece conflicts used to be put on hold until the games finished. And as far as I know there were no brands to advertise.

However London 2012 is slowly becoming the prostitute of the sports arena. And I profusely apologise to those involved in this trade. I mean no offense to you. But what's been happening for the last couple of years in the British capital is the closest you'll come to getting shafted for dosh.

I've personally been there before, in Cuba. In 1991 we staged the Panamerican Games, a sports meeting held every four years between countries from North, Central, South America and the Caribbean. In 1991, however, the "special period" (or economic crisis to give it its proper name) was in full swing in Cuba and the Panam Games (as they were known) were seen by many as an unnecessary waste of money. In hindsight, we were right. Security was tight. Athletes, foreign television crews and tourists were encouraged by Cuban officials not to mingle with the locals, except for designated areas to which the guests were taken (the US delegation, especially, was under close surveillance. Needless to say, the government's efforts were pretty useless. The Yanks did whatever took their fancy). The immediate outcome of the games was an apartheid-style split down the middle between those who had access to the new tourist facilites and those who didn't. As someone who had just finished his second year in university and had secured a summer job for the first time ever at a nearby hotel, I experienced first-hand this division. The Capri Hotel where I worked for six weeks in '91, was one of the three venues where the US television crews stayed. I saw corruption, bribery and theft almost on a daily basis amongst the hotel staff, including senior management and security personnel. This was the beginning of a terrible period in our socio-economic and political history and I still strongly believe that the catalyst was the Panamerican Games.

Fast-forward to London 2012 and what have we got? A famous area in east London, Stratford, whose reputation owes more to deprivation than middle-class aspiration. Yet the Games were meant to change that perception and inject much-needed cash into its regeneration programme. Instead what we have ended up with is a military lockdown. Which has had to come into force because G4S (the company tasked with providing the security personnel) cannot guarante the supply of the 13,700 guards it was contracted to deliver. Shambles doesn't even begin to cover it.

Snipers on roofs, a total takeover by the likes of McDonald's and Coca Cola and foul weather. I know that once the Olympics get going I will join my wife and children on the sofa (we have not got any tickets to any of the events, of course) or maybe at Trafalgar Square (apparently they'll have a big screen there and the National Gallery, one of my favourite places in London as you all know, is also in the vicinity) and cheer for Cuban and British athletes. And once the Games are over, I will join friends and colleagues to whinge about the opening ceremony, the technical glitches and the weather. To which I can only reply: Dear A Cuban In London, your transformation is complete. You are now a truly British citizen.

And this is all for me for the time being. I will come back in the second week of September to let you all know how the Olympic Games went. That is, if I survive them! :-) The blog will not be closed, though. I will have a mix of music and past posts to entertain you all. Since I'm doing the stay-cation holiday this year it's very likely that I will carry on visiting your blogs and reading your fabulous posts. Have a brilliant summer break.

© 2012

Next Post: “Coffee and Music”, to be published on Sunday 22nd July at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Virgin territory. That's where I've been for the last ten days. An unexplored terrain that has allowed me to come into contact with a plethora of life stories and characters deftly brought to life by a very skillful journalist/novelist.

Linda Grant is an author with whom I was only acquainted through the columns she's penned occasionally for The Guardian and The New Statesman. On the strength of her articles and essays, I decided to put one of her books in my Christmas wishlist: The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel. It hasn't disappointed me. Linda focuses on the human behind the mask, whether it be Israeli or Palestinian. Judgements are rarely made, assumptions left behind and any attempt to understand the hatred (and love, because that also exists) shared by both sides is based on the experience of those living in Israel first and foremost.

To me, however, it all looks rather new. And that's because when it comes to the decades-long enmity between Arabs and Jews, I'm very ignorant. Involuntarily ignorant, I hasten to add. And there are strong reasons for this into which I will go later.

Non-fiction writing occupies a special place in my books collection. It's the territory to which I decamp when I want a slice of real life, served by an author with an insider's knowledge of the subject. Whether it is a memoir, a biography or an observation, it matters not. I crave this treat especially when I've finished a heavy volume. In my case I had just read Cuba's very own Ulysses, Paradiso, and I longed for a less complicated narrative.

Less complicated shouldn't be understood as "easy" or "banal". Linda is a clever writer, with a very timely sense of humour. Just when you think the book is leading you into dire waters, she rescues you and puts you safely on shore. She is impartial and non-judgemental but also has strong words for both sides. That element appealed to me a great deal, since sometimes non-fiction, especially where politics are involved, can be very boring. More specifically the kind of politics that have an effect on current conflicts (think of the Northern Ireland situation). Some authors bestride the fence so much that occasionally I feel like shouting at them to take a side, for God's sake!

That, luckily, doesn't happen in The People on the Street. Beginning with a short account of Linda's childhood in Liverpool and her confrontation with her Polish-born father in her teenage years and moving swiftly to her brief stay in Israel in 2003, the book is full of portraits of the people who make up this nation. Some passages invite the reader to put him/herself in the shoes of the citizens. Here's an example:

"If you are a Palestinian, the Zionist state must seem to you like a relentless military machine, cold, heartless, inhiman, ruthlessly efficient in its domination."

But then, a couple of pages later she redresses the balance when a pro-Palestinian, Israeli woman declares à propos de a woman suicide bomber who had pretended to be disabled in order to avoid the metal detector at the checkpoint: "That woman did a big disservice to her people and her own gender. It's the same as when they transported military equipment in ambulances."

As a reader, when I choose a non-fiction book as a temporary companion, I find myself unconsciously demanding evidence of the topic written about. Especially when it deals with well-known events. A couple of autobiographies come to mind: The Long Road to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and If This Is a Man/The Truce by Primo Levi. The South African freedom fighter is a great storyteller but sometimes whilst reading his magnum opus I felt as if he were protecting me from something bigger, like a great danger looming large over me. Like the full horror of the apartheid system. I didn't like that. I'm old enough to withstand whatever life throws at me. Also, I wasn't expecting him to be ambivalent about the struggle for which he'd given up so much. And yet, this trait also endeared him to me and made him more human in my eyes. With Primo Levi there was a similar dilemma. Did I want to read yet another book about the Holocaust? But you would be wrong to think that all this ex-chemist from Turin wanted to write about was Auschwitz. If This Is a Man and The Truce are more about human endurance and survival. I confess that I went looking for the average tale of torture, gas chambers and Nazi brutality. Instead I found a beautifully written account of what is like to live through hell. And come out of it alive.

Do we, as readers, sometimes prejudge the content and, above all, the message of a non-fiction book based on what we expect of the author? And is this approach ever right? My ignorance of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict stems from my Cuban upbringing and education. We were never told that Israelis were Jews. And that's for starters. Whenever Israel was in the news, it was usually spoken about in a derogatory way because of its closeness to the US government. I grew up without being able to make any distinction between an Israeli tank knocking down a house belonging to an Arab family, and a Palestinian suicide bomber. Thus, it's through authors like Linda Grant and their unbiased position that I've become more acquainted with the history of this rather controversial and heavily disputed territory. And she seems to share my view. Here's her own opinion on writers' duties (if any): "Contemporary readers make great, perhaps intolerable demands of literature; they require it more and more to bear witness, to conform to the work of journalists, to make a moral case. People are always asking writers if they think that art can change the world..."

Just like it happened to me when I finished Nelson Mandela and Primo Levi's autobiographies, I find myself now trekking through a terrain that, although widely known and discussed, is slowly revealing itself to me. Despite my doubts, The Long Road to Freedom gave me a very good insight into the kind of fight Mandela and the ANC waged against the racist South African government. Primo's book taught me about survival and resistance, also showing me along the way that you needn't be explicit about horrors in order to get the reader to understand them. Linda Grant's The People on the Streets has convinced me that when it comes to political non-fiction, it's better to have an open mind. After all, that'll be the only 4x4 we'll need to explore what for many of us will be virgin territory.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 15th July at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 8 July 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

For the last few months I have been writing for the online, multicultural, London-based, weekly magazine, The Prisma. The subjects on which I've focused are similar to the ones I've written about here on my blog, but the style is less personal and more journalistic. Except for the feature below. This was an interview I conducted with one of the better and more versatile percussionists I've ever come across. I've also been lucky to work with David Pattman, the man who makes the big iyá "talk". With this article I wanted to give readers a snippet of a lesser-known aspect of London, one which doesn't normally make it into tourist guides, but of which I'm equally proud.

The original feature was written in Spanish (one of the conditions of The Prisma, as it caters mainly to the Latin community in the UK) and the English translation (not by me, by the way) appears straight after. I hope you enjoy it.

Londres baila al ritmo de los tambores yorubas

De cómo la capital británica le ha dado la bienvenida a una cultura centenaria. De cómo se abre una puerta para llegar al corazón de este lenguaje secreto y sagrado.
Las voces de los músicos dejan escapar la melodía por la rendija de la puerta entreabierta. Sin acompañamiento de la percusión, esta parte de la ceremonia (oru cantado) toma precedencia sobre las otras.

Es privada y sacramental. Le sigue el oru del igbodu, un conjunto de mudas oraciones que solamente pueden expresarse a través del poder de los tres tambores batá. Esta sección también es exclusiva tanto para los consagrados en el rito como para los neófitos.

Inmediatamente después llega el oru del eya aranla donde voz, percusión y baile se unen para abrir el corro a todos los presentes, creyentes o no. El orden de los cantos es el mismo que en los dos orus anteriores. Por último arriba el sabroso güemilere, la fiesta en la que no importa orden ni desorden, solamente la celebración al orisha que se le toca.

La escena anterior, sin embargo, no toma lugar en los Pocitos, Cayo Hueso o los Sitios, barrios populares de la Ciudad de la Habana, sino en Brixton, área en el sur de Londres, capital del Reino Unido. ¿Cómo es posible esto?

La respuesta la provee David Pattman, músico y omo añá (maestro tamborero), distinción que es la más alta entre los percusionistas del tipo de música afrocubana que se conoce como santería, y que tiene sus orígenes en una de las culturas más influyentes en la Cuba colonial y post-colonial: la lucumí o yoruba.

Pattman cuenta que empezó su carrera como artista en el mundo de la salsa hace más de veinte años, pero que siempre quiso ir más allá de la mera presentación escénica. Fue su intención desde el principio conocer los secretos del tambor, ese diccionario rítmico que no sólo se percute, sino que también revela la esencia de tantas culturas africanas.

David, que nació y se crió en Londres, empezó como baterista a la precoz edad de once años, en 1972 y desde entonces ha tenido una carrera exitosa en agrupaciones como las de Roberto Plá y Snowboy.

Para el novicio que no esté familiarizado con la cultura yoruba, quizás le sorprenda ver a David (apodado “El Rubio del Sabor” en el ámbito afrocubano), sentado con el itótele sobre sus piernas, o sacándole chispas al iyá (el mas importante de los tres tambores bata).

Sin embargo, según él, no hay nada de extraño en un fenómeno que justifica la posición de Londres como uno de las ciudades más cosmopolitas del mundo. Además, añade Pattman, la esencia del yoruba es incluir, no excluir; se acepta a todo el mundo independientemente de raza, nacionalidad o sexo.

Este ultimo comentario es una de las razones por las que la santería, como se le llama en Cuba ha sido tan popular como, o más popular que el catolicismo, la religión “oficial” (Cuba es un estado laico) en la isla caribeña. Desde sus orígenes a fines del siglo dieciocho, cuando empezó como la manifestación del sincretismo entre santos cristianos y yorubas, el culto a deidades como Elegguá, Ochún y Changó ha mantenido siempre un carácter descentralizado y espontáneo.

Este es el mismo rasgo que se divisa en Londres. Es una escena, que como bien dice David, es pequeña, pero donde existe mucho respeto hacia el baile, el canto y el toque de tambor. Al antes mencionado Brixton hay que sumarle barriadas en los cuatro rincones de la capital. Y no solamente en esta urbe se le toca a los orishas, también se les hace fiestas en Brighton, Leeds y Norfolk.

David menciona otro aspecto que hace que se distinga la presencia de esta cultura africana en el Reino Unido: el aprendizaje. De la misma forma que Pattman se juró como omo añá en el 2004, existen unos ocho o nueve percusionistas con el mismo título en Gran Bretaña que, según él cuenta, han ido a Cuba a estudiar los ritos, cantos y formas tradicionales de hacer “conversar” a los antiguos tambores batá, muchos de ellos construidos en la isla por esclavos que se empeñaban en mantener su legado cultural y creencias a pesar del látigo y el bocabajo.

A juicio de Pattman, aprender este lenguaje secreto y sagrado es el objetivo último del tumbador. Como asevera él, no es la distinción de ser un maestro tamborero lo que vale sino las puertas que se abren hacia otro mundo.

En este caso, es un mundo que cuenta con tres símbolos principales: los tambores batá, divididos en el diminuto okónkolo, el mediano itótele y el gigante iyá. Símbolos que, gracias a David y otros músicos de igual calibre, juntos a la cornamusa escocesa, el berimbau brasileño y la cítara hindú tienen ya su lugar asegurado en el patrimonio cultural británico.

Para Pattman esta situación no tiene nada de particular. Como el bien dice, Londres siempre ha sido una ciudad diversa y cultural. En sus propias palabras, la cultura de la capital británica es su misma diversidad.

Y sin embargo, todavía resulta increíble que un fenómeno como la Regla de Ocha, que es la unificación en un solo cuerpo litúrgico de los diferentes cultos yorubas o la Regla de Ifa, sagrada orden de los babalawos (sacerdotes), tengan seguidores en una sociedad que se vuelve cada vez más lega.

Quizás sea porque, reflexiona David, aquellos que están metidos de lleno en la cultura lucumí, independientemente de tener afiliaciones religiosas con la misma o no, la respetan como un conjunto de tradiciones ancestrales que se han mantenido casi intactas a pesar de siglos de persecuciones, prohibiciones y prejuicios. Además, Pattman plantea que a un nivel personal, el aprendizaje de los tambores batá trajo consigo un tipo de disciplina distinto. Como dice él, muchos percusionistas pueden tocar el iyá, pero, ¿quién puede hacerlo “conversar”?

El futuro es promisorio, de acuerdo a David. Hay más gente aprendiendo cantos y bailes yorubas en el Reino Unido. Y por supuesto existe ya una nueva cantera de músicos que quiere aprender los antiguos ritmos que llevaron los esclavos encadenados de la tierra lucumí a la mayor isla de las Antillas. Pero esta vez, el eco de los tres tambores batá no se oirá solamente en el malecón habanero, sino también en el Támesis londinense.
De cómo la capital británica le ha dado la bienvenida a una cultura centenaria. De cómo se abre una puerta para llegar al corazón de este lenguaje secreto y sagrado.

Next Post: "Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts", to be published on Wednesday 11th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

London dances to the rhythm of the Yoruba drums

How the British capital has welcomed a centuries-old culture, and how to open a door to reach the heart of this secret and sacred language.

The voices of the musicians let the melody escape through the crack in the door ajar. With no percussion accompaniment, this part of the ceremony (sung oru) takes precedence over the others.

It is private and sacramental. It is followed by the Igbodu oru, a set of silent prayers that can only be expressed through the power of the three bata drums. This section is also unique for both those enshrined in the rite and for newcomers.

Immediately after, the oru of eya aranla comes, where voice, percussion and dance come together to open the circle to all those present, believers or not. The order of the chants is the same as in the two previous orus. Finally, the amazing güemilere comes in, the celebration in which neither order nor disorder matters, only the celebration of the orisha which is being played to.

However, the previous scene does not take place in los Pocitos, Cayo Hueso, or los Sitios, which are neighbourhoods of Havana. It takes place in Brixton, an area in south London, the capital of the UK. But how is this possible?

The answer to this is provided by David Pattman, a musician and omo añá (master drummer), a distinction which is the highest among the percussionists of the Afro-Cuban style of music known as Santeria, which has its origins in one of the most influential cultures in the colonial and post-colonial Cuba: The Lucumi or Yoruba.

Pattman says that he began his career as an artist in the world of salsa over a period of 20 years, but always wanted to go beyond the mere presentation stage. It was his intention from the beginning to know the secrets of the drum, the rhythmic dictionary that is not only played but also reveals the essence of many African cultures.

David, who was born and raised in London, began as a drummer at the precocious age of 11 in 1972, and has since had a successful career in groups such as Roberto Pla and Snowboy.

For the novice who is unfamiliar with the Yoruba culture, they may be surprised to see David, nicknamed El Rubio del Sabor (literally the Blond Man with flavour) in the Afro-Cuban field, sitting with the itótele on his lap, or making sparks come out of the iyá (the most important of the three bata drums).

However, according to Pattman, there is nothing strange about a phenomenon that justifies the status of London as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. He adds that the essence of the Yoruba is to include and not to exclude; it accepts everyone regardless of race, nationality or gender.

This last comment is one of the reasons why Santeria, as it is called in Cuba, has been as popular as or even more popular than Catholicism, the ‘official’ religion on the Caribbean island (Cuba is a secular state). From its origins in the late eighteenth century when it started as the manifestation of syncretism between Christian and Yoruba saints, worshipping deities such as Eleggua, Oshun and Chango has always been maintained as a decentralised and spontaneous act.

This is the same trait that can be seen in London. It is a scene which as David describes, is small, but where there is much respect for dancing, singing and drumming. To the aforementioned Brixton, other neighbourhoods in the four corners of the capital must be added. And it is not just in this city in which the orishas are played to; there are other celebrations in Brighton, Leeds and Norfolk.

David mentions another aspect that distinguishes the presence of this African culture in the UK: The act of learning. In the same way Pattman was sworn in as omo añá in 2004, there are about eight or nine drummers with the same title in Britain who, according to him, have gone to Cuba to study the rituals, songs and traditional ways of making the old bata drums ‘talk’, many of which were built on the island by slaves who were determined to maintain their heritage and beliefs in spite of the whipping and beating.

According to Pattman, learning this secret and sacred language is the ultimate goal of the Yoruba drummer. As he says, it’s not the distinction of being a drummer; it’s worth it for the doors it opens onto another world.

In this case, it is a world that consists of three main symbols: The Bata drums, divided into the tiny okónkolo, the medium itótele and the giant iyá. Symbols which, thanks to David and other musicians of equal calibre, have already secured their place in British cultural heritage alongside the Scottish bagpipes, the Brazilian Berimbau and the Indian Sitar.

To Pattman this situation is nothing special. As he says, London has always been a diverse and cultural city. In his words, the culture of the British capital lies in its very diversity.

And yet, it is still amazing that a phenomenon such as the Rule of Ocha, which is the unification into a single liturgical body of different Yoruba cultures or the Rule of Ifa, the sacred order of babalawos (priests), should have followers in a society that is becoming more and more secular.

Perhaps it’s because, David reflects, those who are deeply involved in Lucumi culture, regardless of similar religious affiliations or not, respect it as a set of ancient traditions that have remained almost intact despite centuries of persecution, prohibitions and prejudices. In addition, Pattman states that on a personal level, learning the Bata drums brought a different kind of discipline. As he says, many drummers can play the iya, but how many can make it ‘talk’?

The future is promising, according to David. There are more people learning Yoruba songs and dances in the U.K. And of course there is already a new pool of musicians who want to learn the ancient rhythms that the slaves chained to the Lucumi soil brought to largest island of the Antilles. But this time, the echo of the three bata drums will be heard not only on the Havana coast, but also on the Thames in London.

Next Post: "Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts", to be published on Wednesday 11th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Urban Diary

As soon as you turn right from St Martin's Place, you see the sign. Hanging from the side of the building, it boasts its message loud and proud: free admission.
This is a regular pilgrimage for me. The National Gallery is one of those places in London to which I repair whenever I have the opportunity. Today my wife and our children have gone off to visit my father-in-law and I find myself emerging from Leicester Square tube station into a beautiful sunny morning sans famille.

Once I get to the building I head for Room 43 straight away. I have a couple of hours to spare and want to lose myself in the realm of impressionism, one of my two favourite art movements (the other one is surrealism).

Manet and Monet greet me like an old friend. In almost fifteen years in the UK, I have probably been in this room half a dozen times. And I never tire of it. Or of the National Gallery.

The instituition was established in the 1820s as a way to address the lack of a British equivalent to the great state collections of continental Europe. It welcomes everyone: adults on their own, families and students.
Room 43 for me is the reverse of Room 101 in 1984. I never want to leave it. There are very few places - except for home, of course, both in Cuba and here in London - where I feel more at ease than here. I walk over Monet's Japanese Bridge  and run down Alfred Sisley's Small Meadows in Spring. I even allow Manet's feline from Woman with a Cat to purr on my lap.

But today I make another "discovery". I leave my usual haunt and venture forth into Room 44 and immediately "it" catches my eye. What is "it"? I've never seen "it" before. Is "it" a new acquisition? I ask one of the invigilators. No, they reply, that painting's been there for ages. How come I've never noticed it? I ask myself silently.

It is the sea that really grabs me. Théo van Rysselberghe's Coastal Scene dances off the canvas. A tiny cluster of white and blue dots sprinkled across the surface. The effect is calming. I want to be there, I tell myself. I have already been there, I correct myself immediately. In Oban, Scotland. In Cantabria, Spain. In Cardigan, Wales. In Cornwall, England. I recognise this landscape. And yet it's eerie and foreign at the same time. It has a sense of otherness. Which I understand when I read about the painter's style. Beyond impressionism. There's still the flickering brushstroke and the effects of light and colour. But there're also more defined lines. The known unknown.

I remain transfixed on the spot for a few minutes, soaking up the atmosphere from the picture. After a while I head for the shop where I buy a guide to surrealism. I leave the museum, stop outside and turn around. The sign still boasts the same caption loud and proud: free admission. And may it continue!

Photo of the National Gallery taken by the blog author

Photo of the "Coastal Scene" taken from the National Gallery website

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 8th July at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 1 July 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Forgive me Father for I have sinned.

What has he done now? You might be wondering.

Well, I'm guilty of siding with the enemy. I should be prosecuted for treason. Pushed up against a wall in front of the firing squad.

And what's my crime you might be asking yourselves?

Becoming addicted to Sky Arts.

As the Leveson enquiry marches on and the sordid relationship between media magnate Rupert Murdoch and the British press is finally cracked open for everyone to see, I've secretly become hooked on one of the Australian-American's lesser-known products: Sky Arts.

It all began about a year ago when I was flicking through television channels, bored of so much pap on the box. I, then, alighted on a programme about the grunge scene in Seattle in the early 19902. The depth of the commentary and the length of the show confused me at first. I thought I had stumbled upon one of the regular Friday music nights on BBC4. But no, this programme was being broadcast bang in the middle of the week. And it was part of my Freeview package.

From that moment on, my mornings and evenings began to fill up with the sounds and images of Sky Arts. Whether it was repeats of Actors Studio between 6am and 7am with the inimitable James Lipton, or a new series of Great Artists, presented by art historian Tim Marlow at 7pm, I tried not to miss it. Sometimes I lay on the floor, stretching my hamstrings after a strenuous run, whilst at the same time being comforted by In Confidence, a programme where Laurie Taylor interviews celebrity guests and seeks to dig out their real characters.

Sky Arts began life as Artsworld in 2000 and it was only when BSkyB (yes, that BSkyB!) rescued it from closure, that it became the powerhouse it is now. Sky Arts is divided into two channels and it's not hard to see why from a marketing perspective. Sky Arts 1 caters to the younger, hipper, so-called mid-brow section of the culture market. Sky Arts 2, on the other hand, with its broadcasts of entire operas and ballets, appeals more to the high-brow end of the spectrum. I'm normally not keen on terms like mid- and high-brow (and don't even get me started on low-brow). I think that in this time and age it's harder for "purists" to find unadulterated cultural forms. For instance, recently Sky Arts 2 screened a whole night of ballet. I loved it. Then, again, I've been a ballet enthusiast for more than twenty years now. Yet, when I flicked over to Sky Arts 1, they were broadcasting an old concert by The Who in Rockpalast, Germany. Needless to say, although the programme had already started, I watched it until the end.

But both mid- and high-brow are marketing terms and they would probably explain much of the regular schedule. I gather that the template used by the Sky Arts was the same the BBC applied to its BBC3 and BBC4. Only that the former is not match for Sky Arts 1 and the latter is the closest the BBC comes to Sky Arts 1, let alone, 2.

Part of the reason why Sky Arts has been able to get a firm grip on the culture market is that it takes chances. The nature of the BBC, its closest competitor, is still that of a public-funded channel. This means that every decision is scrutinised more on a value-for-money basis than subscription-only options like the one Sky Arts presents.

The other element to consider when analysing Sky Arts rich, creative putput is that some of its content is recycled material first churned out by... the BBC. Recently I've been enjoying Playhouse Presents, a series of one-off, half-hour dramas with luminaries from the stage, television and cinema such as David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Sheila Hancock and Alison Steadman. This is a replacement for the single TV play, which disappeared in the early 80s. Similarly, The Southbank Show died a slow death on ITV, only to be revived for Sky Arts 1 earlier this year.

This must-watch status causes a lot of headache to right-thinking liberals like yours truly. On the one hand, we have a company owned by a man who apparently didn't know or didn't want to know that his employees were hacking into people's phones. Not just those of famous celebrities, mind you, but also of those of a murdered teenage girl and the victims of the 7/7 attacks on London. As it's been shown in the Leveson inquiry in the last year or so, Murdoch and his company, News Corporation, browbeat politicians and when possible tried to influence key decisions, like the recent BSkyB takeover bid. On the other hand, he is a magnate who still believes in the power of newspapers (even if he did close one down, The News of the World) and macromanages editorial content (although The Sun, one of his titles, has not been very critical of Murdoch's phone-hacking sins).

Meanwhile the BBC is facing budget cuts and it will be difficult to see the channel rising up to the challenge posed by Sky Arts, even if the latter is still subscription-only (or part of a Freeview package. But then, again, I'm still forking out for extra content on top of my terrestrial programming). I don't want to join those who love to knock Auntie but I can't see the Beeb winning the battle in this one. Not when BBC3's almost entire output consists of continuous repeats of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.

Do I feel guilty of promoting the "enemy" with this column? Part of me does and part of me doesn't. The latter prefers to think that I live in the best of the possible worlds. A world in which I have access to Sky Arts 1 and 2, but I also have BBC4 (and 1 and 2).

© 2012

Next Post: "Urban Diary", to be published on Wednesday 4th July at 11:59pm (GMT)


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