Sunday 15 December 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

This is my last post before going into my usual one-month hibernation. Today I would like to focus my attention (and yours, too) on the books, films and albums which stood out for me in 2013.

This was a bumper year for me in literature, music and cinema. I finally got to read Zadie Smith’s latest novel, NW, Milan Kundera’s earlier works, Life is Elsewhere and Laughable Loves and William Burroughs’ Marmite-like Naked Lunch (either you like or you don’t. I fall in the former camp). I have also finished the year on a high with a re-read of one of my favourite Cuban novels, Memories of the Underdevelopment. Bearing in mind that I am writing this post about ten days before it’s due to come out, there could still be nice surprises ahead.

Unfortunately, because of the high price of cinema tickets, we do not get to go to the pictures a lot, which means we miss out on new releases. That is where Lovefilm comes in. We can tailor our movie time as a family and with a few exceptions most of the films that follow have a 12-certifcate. This year we have seen Badlands, High Fidelity (again!), The Killing Fields, Death of a Salesman (the one with Dustin Hoffman and a very young John Malkovich, who also had a supporting role in The Killing Fields), Ivan’s Childhood (based on a short-story that became my long-lasting companion when I was a child), The 400 Blows, The Truman Show (again!), A Soldier’s Story, Macbeth (Polanski’s version with a superb Francesca Annis playing Lady Macbeth), Gandhi, I am Cuba, Coriolanus (one of my favourite performances by Ralph Fiennes an Vanessa Redgrave. This is the movie that should be shown to presidents and prime ministers everywhere before they decide to invade another country), Pink Floyd-The Wall (again!) and the visually striking The Tree of Life. Funny, isn’t it? I started the year with Malick and ended the year with Malick. I say, who needs the local multiplex with this wealth of movies?

I have left music for the end because you all know how much music gets played on this blog. My most recent purchase was four albums by The Black Keys: The Big Come Up, Attack and Release, Brothers and El Camino. I can’t stop playing them. Theirs is raw, unadulterated blues-rock, with the emphasis on blues. Earlier in the year I got (finally!) Laura Marling’s four albums. I wrote about Laura back in the summer in one of my regular columns, Killer Opening Songs. Another record which I bought this year and which has been growing on me slowly is Mike Ladd’s Negrophilia, an organic synergy of jazz, house and hip-hop. Anoushka Shankar provided me with a beautiful, sensuous and spiritual soundtrack to my summer holidays with Rise, an album that shows off her excellent skills as an arranger, producer and composer. Dutch singer Nynke was the surprise package this year. I bought her album Alter after reading about it in Songlines magazine. I was not disappointed at all. Nynke’s music is hard to classify. I would call her a good, really strong pop artist with a strong folk influence. A serendipitous discovery was Yasmine Hamdan, the Lebanese singer whose debut record Ya Nass, found its way into my CD collection by chance. I was on You Tube, as you do, checking up clips by musicians from here, there and everywhere, when up pops this unknown (to me) artist. I was hooked immediately to her husky voice and electronica-infused arrangements. In this end-of-the-year review I cannot leave out the Brazilian brigade. 2013 was the year when I bought the whole Original Album Series by none other than Elis Regina, Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil. Five classic records per CD. A snip at less than a tenner for the whole lot. I also purchased The Definitive Collection by Caetano Veloso and Jorge Ben (the latter of Mas, Que Nada!). 40 tracks per artist, double-CD issue, low price, win-win. Beautiful! Having grown up in Cuba listening to all these great albums, I have been on a trip down memory lane this whole year. The icing on my musical cake was A Curva Da Cintura, a collaboration between two Brazilian singers, Arnaldo Antunes and Edgard Scandurra and the Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté. The only word I have for this album is poetic. That pretty much could describe my year, too.

I will be back on Sunday 12th January. In the meantime, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

what woke me up at the same time every time in those years was not the sound of the mass being conducted in the flat downstairs no it was not the mix of violins and batá drums led by the elderly gentleman who dedicated this celebrations to his recently departed wife it was as if the world of afrocuban music and the classical one came together for just one night and oshún was more than honey queen sensuous woman feminine oshún and changó was more than lightning and genitals it was a pure symbiotic union but it was not this music that woke me up it was not the screams coming from the next door neighbour the one with the three sons one of whom was around my age the woman who always said within earshot i ain’t looking for no man me no i don’t wanna give my children no stepdad but that did not stop her from landing a different partner almost every year on christmas eve nochebuena was to be spent in company she said even if it was a short lived one she did not wake me up with her passionate screams and commands of así papito aprovéchame toda que los niños no están aquí así mi cielito tócame como tú sabes the x rated material coming out of her mouth was enough to make my mother give her the cold shoulder the next day and grass her up to the chairman of our comité de defensa de la revolución she did not however wake me up nor did the dog campeón was called that lived downstairs a bulldog that looked so much like its owner that you always wondered who led who by the lead the dog was the clue to what woke me up because its owner woke up too at the same time every time in those years and the dog immediately began to bark in the direction of our flat the dog knew and its owner knew that my grandmother had just finished making our christmas eve supper the roast pork that would be served the day after twenty fourth of december with my mum dad cousin auntie and nana presiding over the table the pork that had been killed at my relatives in the countryside a few days before probably killed with one stab because as one of my great uncles used to say you have to know where to plunge the knife if you do not do it right the pig begins to cry like a child and uno se apendeja you get cold feet mi’jo you cannot get cold feet when you kill a pig only once remember just once  he was the one also carrying this beast on his shoulders several miles to our house in havana so that my grandmother could cook her famous pork cracklings now that was what woke me up one minute my bed was my safe sanctuary after a whole day in school and an afternoon playing hide and seek with my friends in and around buildings that had slowly wrinkled up over the years and given up trying to hide their cracks the next minute the smell lured me out of the sheets or duvet if it was nippy as sometimes december was and my bare feet led me to the kitchen and my still somnolent eight year old voice said one mima only one and my grandma with a smile from ear to ear with the big earrings that she wore between seventeen and thirty first of december babalú st lazarus and new years eve bookended her outfits going from sackclothes to bright yellow dresses fished out a crackling in the still hot pot patted it dry on a piece of paper and put it in my mouth my eight year old mouth saying you know pork meat is the gossipiest of the meats mi’jo because it lets the whole neighbourhood know when it is being cooked all this she said to me with my hands rubbing my eyes with my mum behind me making sure that my sleep would not be further interrupted with my dad working that night maybe in a cabaret or nightclub with my auntie and cousin in deep slumber even with the lounge light on sometimes a second pork crackling followed a rarity as the big clocks hands marched slowly toward midnight to turn twenty third into twenty fourth and many a barrio in havana underwent a change of mood not even fifty revolutions would rid cubans of their traditional christmas eve rice and peas plantains roast pork salad consisting of lettuce tomatoes cucumber and raw onion yuca con mojo and the unforgettable chicharrones the pork cracklings that woke up the neighbour and his dog that woke up my eight year old younger self at the same time every time in those years

© 2013

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

Sunday 8 December 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I have written here before about what I have come to call “genetic determinism”. This is the theory that seeks to explain human beings’ socioeconomic success in life through their genetic inheritance. Or the opposite: failure to do well because of their DNA. In my opinion this analysis is reductive and narrow-minded. Recently I thought of it again on the back of an article and a speech.

To the speech first. Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was in hot water a few days ago once again for claiming that the reason some people struggled in life was because of their low IQs. We will not even go into the IQ test that Mr Johnson failed publicly on a radio phone-in less than a week later after his speech. Suffice to say that the person who runs one of the most important cities in the world does not know the price of a one-way ticket between Angel and London Bridge. Scrape the surface of his address, though, and you will find Boris’s comments very dangerous, which is usually the case with the “blond menace”. Behind his bonhomie and (faux) gaiety hides a ruthless and ambitious politician. On picking on minimum-wage workers, Boris replayed a theory espoused by a new current of scientists and specialists. The one that aims to convince policy-makers, educators and politicians that genes contribute significantly to a person’s academic achievement and later success in life. Moreover, supporters of this proposition suggest creating special classes of schools for gifted and talented children.

What will determine his future: nature or nurture?
This leads me to the article. Under the contentious title We can't ignore the evidence; genes affect social mobility, psychologist Jill Boucher recently rose in defence of the likes of Dominic Cummings, advisor to Secretary of State for Education in the United Kingdom, Michael Gove. Cummings has been a key figure in many of Gove latest school reforms (and U-turns). He is part of the Tory agenda of segregating students between achievers and non-achievers. What struck me about Boucher’s article was that she used her two adopted children as examples of what academic potential – or lack of it thereof – could do to a young person’s future. I confess that when she said how one of her sons “could no more have reached a C grade in GCSE maths than I could jump over a five-bar gate” made me cringe. I hope that neither of them reads her feature.

Both Boris and Jill ignore many factors in a child’s life, especially during her/his early years: they barely mentioned parents or carers and their influence. Environment was brought up by Jill, but as a passing comment, when it is actually one of the most important elements in a child’s education. The role that domestic finances play in a family’s aspirations was conspicuous by its absence.

The danger of brushing aside all these aspects is that we enter an either/or territory. We begin to see our offspring as, either the sporty type, or the arty type, the studious type or the naughty type, instead of seeing their personality as free-flowing, open-ended and adaptable. Another negative consequence is that focusing on genes gives parents (ironically, those responsible for children’s genes) an easy cop-out. The knock-on effect is that schools, then, have to fill up the gap where at-home learning should go.

However, whilst it is hard to find a redeeming feature in Boris Johnson’s speech, Jill Boucher’s article, by contrast, finishes with a very good reflection and one which I would like to share with you today, regardless of whether you decide to click on the link I provided above and which takes you straight to her essay. Jill criticises the language used when politicians talk about social mobility. It is always “up”, she states. And working class people are forever aspiring to become middle-class ones and moving “up” the ladder. I agree with her that the value system we currently have in our society places too much emphasis on wealth and social status. Not everyone wants to be a banker, doctor, engineer, teacher or lawyer. Some people are happy being football coaches, youth workers or road-sweepers. They, too, deserve our respect and admiration. Regardless of their genetic make-up.

© 2013

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 11th December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

It has been more than six months since I last read a book of fiction. Tonight, as this post goes live the situation will have changed. For the next couple of days I will be re-reading Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of the Underdevelopment), Cuban author Edmundo Desnoes’ magnum opus.

This decision to read non-fiction for so long was not taken deliberately. For my Easter holidays last April I took three books to Havana with me, one of which I was about to finish. The second one was The Help, which didn’t appeal much to me (entertaining, but playing to a certain audience of which I, sadly, did not consider myself a part) and then Jerusalem arrived. That set a chain of events in motion that culminated last week with me devouring the final pages of an epistolary memoir. Volver sobre mis Pasos (Going Back) is an intimate and candid portrait of the late Cuban film director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, a.k.a. Titón. Through the letters he wrote to fellow film-makers, officials of the Cuban government, friends, colleagues, his children and his wife, we gain access to the life of one of the most fascinating figures of Ibero-American cinema in the last fifty years. It seems to me, more than six months down the line, that the decision to read so much non-fiction was an attempt to forget The Help’s cliché-ridden style.

Yes, but how real is it?
What kind of readers are we? Non-fiction or fiction ones? In my experience we usually veer towards one of these two genres. I confess that I fall in the fiction camp. Most of the time you will catch me reading novels, collections of short stories or even plays (not my favourite read, I admit). I do, occasionally, wander into the realm of fact-based literature but I am always careful with my choices. The reason why for the last six months I read non-fiction uninterruptedly was because each book brought a different feature to the table. A feature or a group of features, that drew me heavily into its narrative.
Fiction is born from the disappearance of the self and the appearance of a third person that replaces this self. This metaphorical third person can be, ironically, narrated in the first person singular (Dr Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd comes to mind, especially that innovative twist at the end). This process is dialectic in and of itself, whether that be pursuing a truth the writer wants us to find, or arguing two views without leading the reader to think that only one of them is valid. Of course, I am referring to good books. Mediocre books give you the solution to the puzzle on page eight. The rest is just entertainment.

Where, then, does non-fiction lie? Do essayists and historians give up their selves for a metaphorical third person? If they do, that would imply bias. I certainly noticed it in Jerusalem, especially towards the end as the plot moves to the present-day. Bear in mind also that the book’s author, Simon Sebag Montefiore is a renowned novelist in his own right. That means that this biography of the holiest of cities is not just a historical and cultural account of the peoples who have inhabited it but also a gripping, page-turning thriller that starts with Titus’ siege of Jerusalem in 70AD and continues with Suleiman the Magnificent, the Crusades, the life of Jesus, etc. Eat your heart out, Ian Fleming! And you thought your James Bond was tough.

This – gentle – battle between non-fiction and fiction reminds me of the question short story authors are often asked: when will they finally write their long-awaited novel? The assumption that short stories are not real literature or that they are a lesser form, resonates with me when I analyse non-fiction versus fiction. Usually one is maligned at the expense of the other.

For starters we question the writer’s neutrality. I did that, too, when I read last summer Víctor Jara’s biography, written by his widow. To be honest, I did not mind Joan Jara’s bias; after all she was the one who had to identify her husband’s dead body in the morgue. I would lose any sense of neutrality straight away. But we do tend to think that the author has an axe to grind and by choosing a fact-based narrative they will render their vendetta a more veritable argument. Secondly, the absence of a deus ex machina device, as they have in fiction, limits the author describing real-life events somewhat. Where fiction provides a twist (even one that had not hitherto been hinted at), non-fiction supplies more conjecture. I am more lenient towards the former in regards to plot but expect a lot more from the latter when it comes to conclusions. However, does the word “history” not come from the Latin “historia”, via the Greek “historía”, which means “learning or knowing by enquiry”? This is where I think fiction and non-fiction cross paths. Both are attempts at answering questions, as well as asking them. They do choose different tools, though.

Memorias del Subdesarrollo is that kind of novella that blurs the line between the fictitious and the real; a style I really like. There was also another reason for me to take up non-fiction again. The book was adapted for the big screen by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the same man whose letters accompanied me for the last three weeks. A beautiful segue, I say, between non-fiction and fiction.

© 2013

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

Sunday 1 December 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

If I ruled the world” is a regular section that appears in the monthly magazine Prospect. Because of its location, on page eight of the publication, it is usually the first feature I read. There is always a nice mix of the idealistic and the zany, the romantic and the pragmatic.

I have often wondered how I would answer the question: “What would you do if you could rule the world?” Maybe because my response would probably be: “I’d rather pass up the chance, thank you very much”. This is not based on any self-deprecatory trait of my personality (I don’t do self-deprecation really), but on common sense. If I ruled the world, I would probably make a hash of it.

But, just like the writers, musicians, academics and politicians who are invited month in and month out by Prospect to describe what they would do if they were put in sole charge of our nations, lives, institutions and resources, I will volunteer my reflections on what a world governed by me would be like.

The temptation, according to what I have seen in some cases, is to aim high. World peace, for instance. That is too high for me. Even for a pacifist like me, that would be too ambitious and unachievable a goal to realise. What I’d rather do is educate people in such a way that wars would become a loss-making enterprise instead of the profiting business they are. Attack the motivation and the causes; that would be my way.

This would set the mood for further measures. Education would play an important role in any policy I implemented as the world’s ruler. All children would be entitled to try their hands at a musical instrument for free from the age of five. You read that right, instead of preparing our little ones for their first batch of assessments at six (in the UK), children would be making a racket on pianos, xylophones, drums and tambourines. That leads me to my next idea: children would not start formal school until the age of seven. That is already the reality in some countries around the world, like for instance, in Scandinavia. I’d sooner children played more and explored their surroundings better than chaining them to a desk and chair from the age of four.

In order to grant children this freedom parents would have to have a more flexible childcare arrangement. I would make both maternity and paternity leave so appetising that mum and dad would find it hard to say no. I would also guarantee equal leave time for both fathers/male carers and mothers/female carers. On the question of how I would fund this initiative, the answer is: taxation. Of course, if parents still insist on working long hours straight after their offspring is born, leaving them in nursery or in the care of strangers (sorry, I meant “child-minders”) for twelve hours Monday to Friday, they will have that option, too. My responsibility then would be to ensure that that “wee, little bairn” would have access to the best psychologist/psychiatrist possible. I would even be willing to fund that service if asked nicely.

Under my rule I would stimulate small and medium businesses and would support them financially through revenues raised from big companies. I would not strangle private enterprise, on the contrary, I would encourage it, but at the same time I would also raise awareness – through education, there’s that word again – of the need to think of the collective even if professional success arrives through individual power.

On culture I would go big. I would fund orchestras and ensembles. I would allow theatres and arts centres to commission non-mainstream and cutting-edge pieces whose main goal would be to stimulate independent thinking. Galleries and museums would remain free, as most of them still are in Great Britain. I would fund schools to use the arts as an active element in learning.

As a world ruler I would make the learning of foreign languages compulsory. That would be probably the only dictatorial measure my regnum would include. Since I would be in charge of all the peoples of planet Earth, it would make sense to make communication easier. Children would be exposed to foreign languages from an early age. There would not be negative comments along the lines of “I’m not good at languages”, or “I’m too old to learn another language”. Learning a foreign language is contextual, meaning that you appropriate the learning process and turn it to whatever suits you better.

Healthcare and education would be free under my rule. Gratis also would be provision for the elderly in their twilight years. I have always believed that we owe the previous generation a lot for the many benefits we enjoy nowadays.

Last, but not least, is the economy. To me a mixed economy is the key to success. I would also foster a sense of individual identity. Every country in the world knows what it is good at. Therefore I would encourage manufacturing, the creative and cultural industries, fishing, farming, business (both private and social enterprises) and tourism. Under my rule, men and women would earn the same if they were doing the same job.

All of the above would guarantee a period of stability and satisfaction. How long would I govern for? I have no idea and that is the tricky bit. Give yourself a handful of years and you will run out of time before any of these measures becomes reality. Try to think long-term and you are entering dangerous territory. As in Mugabe/Castro/Tito/Mao/Chávez/Stalin territory. That is probably why, if someone were to ask me: “What would you do if you could rule the world”, my reply would be “I’d rather pass up the chance, thank you very much”. Even if that lost me a slot in Prospect magazine. Even if it meant I would have to wait for world peace a bit longer.

© 2013

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 4th
December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Let's Talk...

... About Christmas. And excuse me whilst I channel my inner Scrooge. From now on I won’t be so much the “A Cuban in London” as “the Cuban version of Ebenezer in London”. I bet you anything that the first comment left in the box below tonight will be “Bah, humbug”. Well, bah-humbug back to you, my friend!

When does Christmas really start? Is it when mince pies go on sale (I saw some on a display window in Shropshire back in August when I was there. I kid you not!), or perhaps when my weekend papers begin to assault my senses with endless John Lewis, PC World/Currys and M&S A5 catalogues? How about when the lights of your town centre are switched on? Mine have been beaming out their Christmassy electric energy since mid-November.

Let’s talk about Christmas indeed. More specifically about our modern notion of the birth of one of the most important figures in the history of mankind: Santa Claus.

Despite my previous words, I do not despise Christmas. But, not having been brought up with the tradition (we used to celebrate Christmas’ Eve back home. However, even that was hush-hush as Fidel’s government clamped down on all things religious), I find myself at a loss over what is considered proper Crimbo etiquette. What I have noticed is that there is an unhealthy commodification around this yearly celebration.

That is why I think that Scrooge was on to something. You might have thought I was joking when I invoked his spirit at the beginning but, in reality, Charles Dickens gave us a visionary in Ebenezer. A prophet who saw the shape of future Christmas to come. Or at least the ghost of them.

Miser or visionary?
Scrooge has always been accused of being tight-fisted. Yet what he really represented was the resistance to the market forces that were already making themselves felt in Victorian Britain. He was thrift versus future profligacy. He got labelled (undeservedly in my opinion) a miser. How unfair, I say! All he was doing was alerting the world to the Wongas of the noughties. The payday loan companies whose annual interest rates can reach up to 5,000%. True, Scrooge lost his fiancée Belle. His critics blame his procrastination. He wanted to hit the jackpot before saying “I do”. But what man does not want to provide for his beloved? Especially in those pre-feminism years when women still did not have the vote and marriage was just another way to keep them down? I think Scrooge was way ahead of his time here and by hoarding saving his money, he taught future generations how to administer their cash better.

Ebenezer did not despise the poor. He loved them! But he knew what was coming to them. He could smell it (God, he had a huge nose. At least in the screen versions). Bad credit cards habits, debts, round-the-clock advertising, mental and spiritual poisoning of the young, you name it, our modern version of the yuletide season covers them all.

Let’s talk about Christmas. Especially, let’s talk about the real meaning of it now that secularism has given the Overweight Citizen from the North Pole the heave-ho-ho-ho. Is it family time with Morecambe and Wise on telly? Clad in our new PJs and gorging on chocolates? Frantically and aggressively tearing up the impressively wrapped presents from friends and relatives? Taking a selfie? Discreetly putting aside one of the aforementioned presents? Checking your status on Facebook, whilst your mum goes to the kitchen to check on the turkey? Discussing the meaning of life? Having yet another chocolate and promising yourself that “no, no, this will be the last one”? Taking another selfie?

Scrooge’s intention was to rein in this excess. Maybe he went about it the wrong way. But his message of simplicity ought to be heeded in our current race to exterminate ourselves through shopping. In the meantime, pass us some mince pies, will you?

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 1st December at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 24 November 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

What to think of Russell Brand’s recent guest-editorial slot in The New Statesman? Or of his (now) famous interview with combative, impatient, veteran Newsnight anchor, Jeremy Paxman? The issue at stake was an important one, democracy, and how our current political representatives have failed it. Yet, in the end it was Russell Brand, the comedian, Russell Brand the actor and Russell Brand, the womaniser, who hogged the limelight. I’m not sure that was Russell’s intention, but like a bull terrier, whose reputation as an aggressive dog follows it everywhere, so is Brand punished for previous misdemeanours.

You can’t fault him for putting his agenda on the table from the word go when he took temporary charge of the political magazine The New Statesman. According to Brand, imagining the overthrow of the current political system is the only way I can be enthused about politics.

My problem, if I can call it problem, is that I am also enthused about politics. Whilst I agree with Brand’s core message that the status quo needs shaking and parts of it need dismantling, I disagree with his methods.

Politics has definitely taken a blow in recent years in the UK. I have (sadly) witnessed its downfall. From the euphoria that surrounded New Labour in 1997 when it came to power (I had just arrived in London) to the hundreds of thousands who marched against the illegal invasion of Iraq, I have had an almost front-row seat in all these events. At this point, British humour compels me to ask myself the question: and you’re still here? How come you haven’t taken the first flight back to Cuba?

Because it’s not that simple. Because politics – and politicians – are not that straightforward. If they were, we would have reached Utopia many centuries ago. We tend to see the political process as a system created by politicians and acted on by politicians. Democracy follows from that notion and therefore, when politicians fail, politics fail and, inevitably, democracy fails.

I believe that democracy is a system you create on a daily basis. This “you” is “us”, really, those of us who, through our attitude, alertness, morals, respect to each other and collective responsibility, take the bull by the horns, so to speak. We should never export these ingredients to politicians hoping they will make the soup for us. From that point of view, I agree with Russell Brand’s call to a “revolution of consciousness”. To me, however, this social movement would include the ballot as well.

I have lost count of how many times I have heard or read people saying that they can’t be bothered to vote because “all politicians are the same”. First of all, not all politicians are the same, just like not all police officers are the same, not all doctors are the same and not all athletes are the same. Some sportspeople even cheat, did you know that? Imagine if I were to say, based on the Armstrong case, that all cyclists are cheats. Why, then, do we change the language when talking about the people who are supposed to represent us?

Because they are an easy target. More importantly, they divert attention from the collective responsibility I mentioned before and our failure to act it out. This is not to excuse wrong behaviour. Members of parliament, prime ministers, deputy prime ministers, presidents and vice-presidents, must be held accountable for the decisions they make. However, they do not operate in isolation and they should never be allowed to do so. They are part of society and so are we.

That is one of the reasons why I still vote. Unlike Russell, I have not got the privilege of being apathetic. I know that the box I tick, the candidate I choose and the party I support might let me down, but I am willing to accept that as a side effect, if by my actions I can still keep our imperfect, deeply flawed and hypocrisy-ridden democracy alive.

The best case scenario of my decision to vote is a programme like Sure Start, guaranteeing every child in Great Britain the best beginning in life through a combination of family, education and health support. The worst case scenario is an illegal invasion like the one in Iraq in 2003. If I were to abstain one of the consequences would be the one I have already seen played out in other parts of the UK. What if by withdrawing my vote (which everyone is entitled to do), I brought in the kind of person I disliked so much that I would then try to vote him/her out of office? Ironic? Yes. Scary? Even more.

That is what Russell Brand conveniently forgets. He is in a position where the jackboot worn by the heavily tattooed, racist, fascist thug from the England Defence League or the British National Party will not reach him. I am not in that position, I am the one who will get his head kicked in because a member of parliament or councillor with racist views has been elected in my borough or ward. Even if they do not succeed in passing the laws they and their supporters want, they can create a very hostile environment for people like me. Yet, that would be, methinks, the last thing on Brand’s mind.

I do not disagree with Russell when he writes or talks about the disenfranchisement of young people in Britain today. I agree with him that the current political climate generates apathy. But apathy is breeding ground, not just for unpopular politicians, but for the ones with the nasty, hardcore right-wing views. I would like to believe that Russell hates them as much as I do.

Like many before him, Brand does not offer any solutions. Or he does, but they are of the wishy-washy, woolly type you find amongst adherents to the Socialist Workers’ Party, a body about which the less I write, the better for everybody. The way forward for him is a two-pronged one: spirituality leads one end, whilst politics (I thought he despised it!) leads the other. I must confess I lost faith in him a little when he explained how he had arrived at this spiritual Damascene conversion. To cut the story short, it involved a trip to a slum in Kenya, another trip weeks later to a fashion show in Paris and a guilty conscience. The political solution he mentioned before? Conspicuous by its absence.

Unlike his detractors, I like Russell Brand’s style. In fact, I still miss his weekly football column in The Guardian. In his essay in The New Statesman, he articulated very well the frustrations many of us feel. He also did it in his interview with Paxman. It is true that there is a bit of the cheeky-monkey about him, but at least he does not organise concerts on behalf of a whole continent and “forgets” to include musicians from that continent (Bob Geldoff, I’m talking to you). But democracy needs more than yet another namby-pamby manifesto. What democracy needs is a shot in the arm. What Russell Brand is suggesting is a shot in the head.

© 2013

Next Post: “Let’s Talk...”, to be published on Wednesday 27th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Killer Opening Songs (Illusion by Gregory Porter)

Every now and then a singer comes along who, on first listen, knocks you off your feet. His voice sounds fresh and yet it also has a touch of the old classic about it, his compositions have a modern approach but with a strong nod to the past.

The artist Killer Opening Songs has in mind is LA-born, but currently Brooklyn-based, new jazz sensation Gregory Porter.

Porter’s blues-baritone voice has been ubiquitous in the last couple of years. Not just his voice, mind, but also his tremendous physical presence. A bear of a man, this gentle giant would have been a loss to the jazz world had a shoulder injury not put paid to his American football career. He had been offered a full scholarship to San Diego University based on his sporting prowess. This is one of those occasions when K.O.S. has to say to itself: “what if...?”

Luckily, there’s no “what if...?”. Porter’s debut album, Water, was released in 2010 and it immediately earned the newcomer a Grammy nomination. It is easy to imagine why. The Killer Opening Song, Illusion, slowly peels away the layers of Porter’s many talents from the outset. What renders the track poignant is the subject matter: heartbreak. Not just any heartbreak, this is heartbreak that burns inside, that leaves myriad unanswered questions behind: “I've been searching all the corners of my room/sweeping dust and memories beneath the carpet that we purchased/somewhere on some cool retreat, somewhere in Africa somewhere

That is just the start of what can be considered already a soul classic. As autumn songs go, this K.O.S. works perfectly for this time of the year, Porter’s articulate lyrics against a background of fallen yellow, orange and auburn leaves. In fact the weather plays an important part in this Killer Opening Song, with the singer building up a beautiful and yet painful simile based on his emotional paralysis: I've been checking for the weather and the time/I'm like a bag above that's dropped and drifting in the wind/that blows from hurricanes that comes just after grey clouds fill my eyes.

Honeyed tones, however, is not the only distinctive feature of Water. This is a very well-balanced album moving from musical brawn (1960 What?) to the title track, an invitation to address life’s essential questions using one of nature’s essential elements. The record closes with one of the better covers K.O.S. has heard recently, an a capella version of Feeling Good, a composition made famous by the inimitable Nina Simone. Well, Gregory Porter’s take on it is just as good.

If you are looking for a satisfying, all-round jazz CD with a dash of blues and old soul thrown in for good measure, Water is the album. And it all starts with Illusion, a monster of a Killer Opening Song.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 24th November at 10am (GMT)

Saturday 16 November 2013

Birthday post: no reflections, just music

I wanted to be witty and original today. I wanted to write about Russell Brand's recent slot as a guest-editor at The New Statesman and the brouhaha that ensued. That post should have actually come out tomorrow. But instead, I will celebrate my birthday today with just a beautiful and bluesy clip that says more about my zest for life than I could possibly summon up in a few paragraphs. I am that piano and keyboard at the beginning, I am Boz's soulful voice and I am his guitar. Have a great weekend!

Next Post: "Killer Opening Songs", to be published on Wednesday 20th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 13 November 2013

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

This is one of those rare occasions when I will be able to write about a recipe I cooked recently... as in last night. With leftovers for tonight, too, because I cooked enough for two days. I must confess that I was a bit apprehensive at first because I have never made risotto, but the way it came out was worth the effort (maybe next time I will add in a little bit more of water so that it’s less sticky. It wasn’t bad, but the grain wasn’t as loose as I normally like my rice to be). It there was a prize for pretty dishes, I would have entered this recipe when it came out of the oven. All credit goes to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Baked chicken with tomatoes and rice

This is a take on chicken cacciatore. Serves six.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 chicken, jointed into 6 pieces (or 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken portions)
2 onions, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
125g risotto rice, such as arborio
150ml dry white wine
1 tbsp tomato purée
400g tinned tomatoes, crushed
500ml chicken stock
About 150g black or green olives (optional)
A little fresh thyme, to finish

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Put a large frying pan on a medium-high heat and add the oil. Season the chicken pieces well and, in two batches, brown in the hot pan. Transfer to a large oven dish, skin side up, and when all the chicken is browned, roast it for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, turn the heat right down under the frying pan. If need be, pour off any excess fat (you want only one to two tablespoons of fat left in the pan). Add the onions and sweat gently for 10 minutes, until soft, then add the garlic and oregano, and cook for a few minutes more.

Stir in the rice for a minute or two, then add the wine and increase the heat so it is bubbling. Simmer for a couple of minutes, stirring, until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the tomato purée, then add the tinned tomatoes and stock, and bring back to a boil. Season to taste.

All this should fill the chicken's initial 20 minutes' cooking. Tip the rice mix into the chicken dish, making sure no grains are left on top of the meat, where they won't cook. Scatter in the olives, if using, and roast for 30 minutes longer, by which time the rice should be swollen and tender. Leave to sit for 10-15 minutes, check the seasoning, scatter with thyme and serve.

The music to go with this dish must look and sound good. That’s why my first choice is Terence Trent D’Arby’s sultry Sign Your Name. 1988 was a good vintage year for pop music. Whilst Sting was trotting around New York like the Englishman he was, Manhattan-born D’Arby was releasing his debut album Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby. One of the hit singles was Sign Your Name, which in its own way makes me think of that lovely chicken getting browned on all sides.

We continue with Iron and Wine, the stage name of Samuel Beam, a Californian singer-songwriter. His songs, like Winter Prayers, are the sort of melodies that make autumn all the more beautiful and dishes like baked chicken with tomatoes and rice all the more enjoyable.

I don’t know about you but when I see chicken sizzling on the pan it makes think of Brazilian music, especially of percussion. USA-born but Rio de Janeiro resident Maga Bo is one of the better examples of what the phenomenon of globalisation can do to music as long as there is sharing and not conquest. No Balanço da Canoa is one of those tunes that will keep you tapping your feet and shaking your shoulders slowly.

I leave you tonight with a slow, beautifully crafted short blues number. John Lee Hooker’s Tupelo reminds me of that chicken, risotto and tomatoes baking nicely in the oven. I hope you enjoyed tonight’s mix of food and music.

Photo taken from The Guardian

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 17th November at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 10 November 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As I approach my sixteenth year of residence on these shores, memories arrive like the waves of a hurricane: gigantic, menacing and coiled up like a cobra ready to attack. One of them is that of Brits’ relationship with food. In 1997 I had just come from a country where both the economic crisis and the ensuing scarcity had sounded the death knell for meal choice (you basically ate whatever you got hold of).  My recollections in that last year in Cuba were of happier childhood times when sitting around a table to devour a roast hog was an occasion to celebrate. Not just from an alimentary point of view, mind, but also from a family-get-together perspective.

It was only when I travelled to the Basque country, in northern Spain, after living in the UK for more than a year, at the end of ’98 and tried their pub grub four or five times in my four days there that I realised that Brits had – in those years – an awkward relationship with food. My theory was backed up years later by comments made by some of my British acquaintances.

Before the advent of gourmet cuisine and the appearance of what seems on the outside to be a more sophisticated menu (possibly catering to a more sophisticated palate), I noticed that Brits saw food as something to get out of the way. Not all British people, by the way, and not in all settings. For instance urban London differed from rural Devon. I was in the latter in the year 2000 to attend a friend’s wedding. After the event my wife, our son (my daughter hadn’t been born yet) and I stayed in the area for a few extra days. We visited a restaurants and pubs and the natives’ approach to food was somewhat different to what I’d seen in The Big Smoke. Here, in the English countryside, I saw people who looked happy when they tucked into a juicy steak. In my mind this was a stark contrast to what I had experienced in outings with my colleagues of the travel agency at which I used to work. I remember going out to Indian restaurants, pizza parlours and pubs and the attitude of my confrères towards the sequence starter-main course-dessert was one of total nonchalance. There was no discrimination between apéritif and pudding. This wasn’t so much food for the soul but food for the stomach. To me both are important; food should be nourishment for our souls as well as for our tummies. The exception to this rule was the traditional Sunday roast which has, luckily, not disappeared completely (I don't think it ever will), even if its presence as a family-puller has somewhat been curtailed.

Does my burger look big in this?
This approach to food has changed over the years in Britain and I count myself lucky to have witnessed the transformation. I am not alone in thinking that. When I speak to people born and bred here they, too, express surprise that the British palate has become more discerning and perceptive when it comes to culinary matters. Yet, this metamorphosis has not arrived without new challenges.

The Britain I first saw in 1997 was still dominated by the Delia Smiths of this world. Delia has been a renowned cook writer and television presenter for over forty years. Her heart-warming recipes are what critics would describe as Middle-England cuisine. Delia was not really on my radar as I became acquainted with British food (I don’t just mean food sold in Britain but also traditional dishes. At this point I would like to add that British cuisine gets a bad, undeserved reputation. I think it should be celebrated more. Just my humble opinion, guv). I kept seeing her on telly but I was looking for something more exciting with which to experiment.

Enter Jamie Oliver. I know he is like Marmite, people either love him or hate him. But he did change the face of British food for better. And I mean food consumed both at home and outside in restaurants and pubs. From Jamie onwards I noticed that suddenly the change I mentioned before had not only taken place but it had also brought about side effects.

At least in London in the last ten or twelve years many people don’t just want to try new recipes but want to be seen tucking into new dishes. This has developed into a phenomenon I’ve come to call “foodshion” (that’s a mash-up between “food” and “fashion”, just in case you didn’t get it). Weekend newspapers have large cook supplement pull-outs, chefs’ autobiographies top bestsellers’ lists and make up the bulk of the upcoming Christmas present-buying frenzy and fast food joints have slowly transformed themselves into gourmet fash-food eateries (another mash-up there) without the negative greasy-spoon connotation.

To me that means that we have now gone over to the other side. Add in the mix of ingredients (sorry, I couldn’t resist that pun) a preoccupation with weight, dieting regimes and eating disorders and the current food scenario in the UK is very different to the one I saw when my plane landed in Gatwick sixteen years ago. On the plus side, we have more variety, even if this new range of food seems to respond more to a ruthless commoditisation under capitalist market forces. On the minus side, food is now yet another front on which people’s social and economic status is judged. Given the current financial climate, that picture hardly bodes well for the future. Meanwhile, we are having “toad in the hole” tonight for dinner. It doesn’t get more British than that and I couldn’t give two figs if it is upmarket grub or not. It is good, hearty, soul food and to me that’s all that counts.

© 2013

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 13th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


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