Wednesday 29 May 2013

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

For six years now I have blogging non-stop, except during holiday periods, when I usually take a break. Since June 2007 I have been putting out at least a blogpost per week (at some point it was three weekly columns) about subjects that interest me: music, literature, food and the role of fathers/male carers in today’s world, to name a few. You could say that with his broad palette of ideas and topics I have kept my muse active – and in full-time employment; very important in these economically straitened times. I would agree with that. I am one of those lucky souls who seem to have something to wax lyrical about on a regular basis. However, after reading a recent article in The New Yorker about writer’s block I was left speechless and pensive. Have I been really lucky? Is writer’s block a fact or a myth?

Of course, to call myself a writer is taking my online hobby a bit too far and possibly even giving it a gravitas that you might think it lacks. Yet, I use the word writer in its broadest sense, i.e., “a person who writes”, not, “a person who writes books and sells by the dozen”.

John McPhee, the author of the article in The New Yorker, is a writer, as in a “person who writes books and sells by the dozen”. Almost thirty books so far, plus countless pieces for the aforementioned magazine and Time. He is not someone I would picture as having ever suffered from writer’s block. And yet...

McPhee begins his piece with a hypothetical Joel, one of the many Joels who write to him asking him advice on their mental obstructions. John's answer is a mix of comedy and pragmatism. He asks Joel to think of a grizzly bear. When words fail to materialise to describe what this grizzly bear gets up to, McPhee asks Joel to write to his mother about the grizzly bear, and also about his frustration, his desperation and, above all, his block. Once he gets off his chest whatever he wants to tell his mother, the student (for I am assuming that Mr McPhee is a writing tutor) deletes all the references to his progenitor and has only the grizzly bear to deal with. Afresh.

We used to employ a similar technique at the impro troupe of which I was part when I was in uni. It worked wonders. The only difference was that we left the mother's bits in, too. We used to sit in a circle and someone would start a story with a sentence, say: “Peter went to the park”. Another actor had to annex another line whilst repeating the same one, for instance. “Peter went to the park and found a coin”. The key was in coming up with the next sentence in three seconds or less. If someone hesitated, they were asked to sit outside the circle. The other important element was to keep the story moving forward. Sometimes the instructor demanded that no one use conjunctions that could stem the flow, such as: but, however, yet, nevertheless, etc. The game was fun and it contributed to quick-thinking.

Does writer’s block spring from lack of this mental agility? Or should we look for the genesis of it in the disparity between a writer’s expectation(s) and the reality she/he faces? John McPhee’s facetious assertion that “You could be Joel, even if your name is Jenny. Or Julie,, Jillian, Jim, Jane, Joe. You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are struck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose is seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.

Now, you probably understand why I didn’t call myself a writer in the narrow sense of the word at the beginning of this post. If I ever do finish that damned novel I have been working on for years, I wouldn't like to give birth to stillborn sentences. I would like my passages – if/when they are ever born – to weigh between ten and eleven pounds and to be delivered naturally. Preferably in a little pool. I love water births.

But you see John’s point. Being a writer means dealing with the idea that you won’t like what you produce very much; especially first drafts. It is this panic of exposing yourself, revealing your innermost truths, what sometimes hinders good authors from becoming great authors. First drafts are like first auditions for amateur actors. You are suddenly facing a whole audience (your future comrades-in-arms in the am-dram troupe) and you are being asked to play a paedophile in an improvisation exercise. Self-consciousness doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Is it inevitable, writer’s block? Is it like chicken pox or measles, which you are bound to get at some point in your life (and cast your mind back and remember your parents and how happy they were if you caught them when little)?

This is one of those puzzles for which I have no answer. I spend an awful lot of time online visiting other blogs and I never cease to be amazed by other fellow bloggers’ constant literary output and the outstanding quality of it. The Claudias, Brians, Marys, Daves and Pats of this world write and post poems on a regular basis, many times following a prompt. They don’t seem to suffer from any mental impediment. Is writer’s block a myth, then? And if real, is it self-inflicted?

No, I don’t think it is a myth, or self-inflicted. I guess that sometimes as readers, especially if you read lots of books, you will, sooner or later, be affected at a conscious level by the author in whose work you are engrossed. That could explain the constant change of style and voice in that first draft.

The other factor could well be the “Who am I kidding” question, which John McPhee still asks himself after more than forty-odd years of writing. That’s certainly happened to me. Before writing this post I checked the last time I had put pen to paper to write a poem. April 2005. That’s more than eight years ago. There’s a poetry competition coming up now in June in Argentina and I had a few ideas for half a dozen poem. Plus my muse has been flying low and close around, and... Who am I kidding?

Of all the art forms, writing is, perhaps, the most perversely intimate and open at the same time. Perverse, because there is a wilfulness about it. Like one of Laura Marling's album titles, I Speak Because I Can. Or I Write Because I Can, as some people might put it. Intimate, because like it or not, there will be elements of your own life that will seep into your writing. And open because ultimately a writer (blogger or the one who sells books by the dozen) wants to be read.

No wonder writing is such an existential ordeal. Even our hypothetical friend, the grizzly bear, would agree with that.

© 2013

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

Sunday 26 May 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I am not in the habit of writing about the same subject twice in a row but after my Sunday post last week on masculinity and the way the media (mis)represents it sometimes, I am coming back today to the same issue. This was prompted by an article I read last week by author and co-founder of Fathers Direct, Jack O'Sullivan.

O’Sullivan’s column focused on the dearth of male voices talking about men and the reasons for it. He is right in a way. Why aren’t George Monbiot, Simon Jenkins, Jonathan Freedland and Martin Kettle joining the debate on masculinity? As Mr O’Sullivan states, “Men's absence from the debate has dramatic consequences, making it overwhelmingly negative.” This negativity trickles through to the next generation and thus the cycle continues. What is more, this unhelpful approach is conducive to a stereotypical view of the male of the species. Women have no qualms about addressing difficult issues. And men? We clam up apparently.

And yet, reality is so different. As O’Sullivan writes, this debate with genuine male participation and leadership aspirational and authentically male agenda would be much welcome. “The centrepiece would be today's extraordinary transformation of masculinity. A huge transition is taking place in all our lives, as we redefine our relationships with women, with our children, with work, with our sexuality. History may judge it to be a faster and more profound change even than the developments in women's lives.” I loved that last paragraph. The key word is “transition”. We’re not the cavemen of yesteryear. Yes, it’s true that the recent stories about teenage girls’ abuse, rape and misogyny have reinforced the view that certain men are not to be trusted. But we are also the ones demanding a more flexible paternal leave, equal rights for women and recognition of the importance of fathers/male carers in children’s lives. The problem is that our voices are rarely heard.

Jack answers this conundrum brilliantly. According to him we, like women, have taken a long time to escape the confines of our gender. Whether it is in our relationships with women – amorous or not – and/or with other men – gay or straight – we are evolving. The 21st century Responsible Dad came out of this mix, even though his habitat was mainly urban. These are achievements to celebrate, but we don’t seem to be too good at doing it.

Where I believe Mr O’Sullivan is somewhat misguided is when he pits this lack of awareness of men’s position in contemporary Britain against feminism. In his own words, “feminism has reinforced rather than challenged – or even acknowledged – matriarchy.” Two points I would like to make on that statement. The first one is that feminism was a reaction rather than an action. It was a way for women to fight for the rights they had been denied ever since the Greeks invented democracy and excluded them and slaves from it. Without feminism the right to vote, for instance, would not have been won. So, when male voices are drowned by female commentators, is not because of feminism, it is because of the woman behind the opinion. Laurie Penny and Julie Bindel are an extension of the women's liberation movement. Martin Kettle et al lack that urgency because they - we - live in a male-dominated world.

The second point concerns the absence of men writing and talking about male issues. It might be the case that journalists, intellectuals, authors inter alia, don’t think these topics are important enough to even address them. This is partly because of a misconception that matters to do with family, feelings and emotions (relationships and children’s upbringing come to mine) belong solely in the province of women, whilst men are left to deal with the Big Issue(s). In a way this situation mirrors literature. How many times have I not heard critics deride women’s books as just a compendium of emotions and feelings? Shout out James Joyce and modernism will follow straight after like a playful dog up to get the ball its owner holds in his hand. Scream “The Great American Novel” and see how Herman Melville and Scott Fitzgerald come to blows over a place in the queue. What about female writers, though? Oh, they are OK, but they can only write about feelings and stuff, you know, “wimmin things”. I think that Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Hilary Mantel would have something to say about that. But the misconception remains, men deal with the grand theme, women are better at chick-lit.

That’s the reason why Simon Jenkins (usually critical of Britain’s foreign policy), George Monbiot (the UK's foremost champion and defender of the environment) and Martin Kettle (wrong about the future of British dance) can’t bring themselves to write about masculinity per se, its place in modern society, its changes and challenges. They are all too busy addressing the “important” issues such as terrorism, climate change and Nick Clegg’s role in the coalition. Until they and the rest of the male commentariat realise that they have as much of a stake in raising awareness of what Jack O’Sullivan calls a revolution in masculinity as everyone else, the only debate about men will continue to be led by women. And that doesn’t help either party.

© 2013

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 29th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Lets Talk About...

... you, driver-cum-DJ, with your window completely rolled down and your music blasting out, invading everyone’s territory. Now that we’re approaching summer (not that you’d know, what with the couple of polar bears I recently ran into on my way to work and the penguin directing the traffic near my digs, this is neither spring nor early summer, but a-guest-that-overstayed-its-welcome winter) you have wasted no time in letting us know, fellow drivers, pedestrians and those eternal scapegoats of the road, cyclists, what your musical preferences are. And how they differ to almost everybody else’s.

You’re easily recognisable in your shiny, black or silver, convertible BMW, Porsche or such-like, imagining that you’re cruising down Miami Beach, when you really are going up Ally Pally and you can’t go faster than third gear. But that doesn’t matter, because you have your music. Did I say music? No, make that MUSIC!!! Because that’s how it feels to us poor, mere mortals, as we succumb to your 420W output power. For your, Mr DJ, car entertainment is not limited to your own boundaries. No, your playlist is Julius Caesar, Bonaparte and Saladin all rolled into one, conquering street after street, bloc after bloc, listener (willing or not) after listener. Occasionally I have pulled up next to you at a set of traffic lights, only to see your smile (hmmm... no, smirk, rather) drawn across your face, like a Picasso painting. Often the words by the famous artist come to mind: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction”. And you know what? When you create that playlist with Nicki Minaj and co.? You are destroying good taste. The fact that the decibel levels coming out of your car are enough to propel Felix Baumgartner twenty-four miles back up into space are beside the point to you. No, the only thing in which you’re interested is in having lyrics like the ones below belting out of your motor to all and sundry:

P-p-p-p punch line Queen, no boxer though/Might pull up in a Porsche, no boxster though/Tell a hater,"Yo, don't you got cocks to blow?"/Tell 'em Kangaroo Nick, I'll box a ho/Shoulda shoulda said I got 5 in a possible/Don't go against Nicki, Impossible/I done came through with my wrist on Popsicle/Man these hoes couldn't ball with a Testicle/Nigga-nigga-nigga-nigga

Apologies to my readers. That’s not the kind of language I use in real life, or the type you’re used to on my blog. But, if we’re going talk about Mr DJ, evidence is needed. I would trade summer for autumn and winter (despite my dislike for the latter) just to keep Mr DJ at bay. Alas, with the first rays of spring sunshine, he (usually a “he”, although Lady DJ is quite common) is out in a flash, one hand on the wheel, windows rolled down and music – dare we call it that? – blasting out from his car stereo. Come back, Napoleon, all is forgotten, including your hand in your shirt. Anything is preferable to Mr DJ and his playlist.

© 2013

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

Sunday 19 May 2013

Sunday Mornings:Coffee, Reflections and Music

Last week a man retired after working continuously at the same organisation for twenty-six years. In the process he won a clutch of awards, earned the respect of millions and put said organisation centre-stage at world level.

Last week a man retired after working continuously at the same organisation for twenty-six years. In the process he abused people verbally, ignored rules and even assaulted members of his team physically.

You’re not seeing double and I’m not going crazy. But forgive me if I fail to be moved by the sycophantic tributes that have flown in Alex Ferguson’s (“Sir” Alex Ferguson, my God, how could I forget?) direction since he announced he was stepping down as Manchester United manager.

A word of caution first, though. This is not a “disgruntled Chelsea fan from SW6” type of post. I am the first one to recognise that in a world as fickle and unpredictable as the world of football is, a head coach who has lasted at a club for more than a quarter of a century is a feat. And not a mean one, at that. In fact, I don’t think that Alex’s tenure as United manager will be equalled, let alone surpassed any time soon. But it’s not his stature as a sports tactician I am questioning but the example he has set up as a man.

As Laurie Penny said recently à propos of Diane Abbot‘s speech to the thinktank Demos, there’s a crisis of masculinity in the UK now. Young men feel ignored and frustrated and tend to lash out as a consequence. There are many reasons for this state of affairs: unemployment, lack of prospects, confusion about the role of men in society. The list goes on. And yet in the midst of this crisis we choose to celebrate a man who has been known for flying off the handle at players (both his and others’) and referees. If there’s a football manager that typifies male aggression and bullying, Sir Alex Ferguson is that person.

I’m not making a scapegoat of “Fergie”. But I find it ironic that broadsheet papers that regularly carry reports on how domestic violence has increased, the many rape centres that have been closed and the effect that certain pop lyrics have on early sexualisation amongst teenagers and children, choose to bend themselves backwards to a man who didn’t have any second thoughts about throwing a boot at one of his players. Said player ended up with stitches on his eyebrow. You can still acknowledge how good the man was as a football manager, but there’s no need for special Sunday supplements.

As chance would have it, a week after Sir Alex retired, David Beckham, one of Manchester United former stars, also decided to hang his boots. Having played for the Red Devils, Real Madrid, LA Galaxy and Paris St-Germain, Beckham is living proof of how modern football has welcomed globalisation with open arms. And deep pockets. There’s another side, though, to the Beckham character. The key word to understanding this other side is the word “ambassador”. He was an ambassador during London’s bid to host the Olympics last year. He was an ambassador during the games and he will continue to be an ambassador during his “retirement”. Lord Sebastian Coe will make sure of that. And you don’t become a high-ranked spokesman of British sport by being boorish. What’s set Beckham apart from the Fergies of this world is his sportsmanship on and off the field.

Brand “Beckham” is the yin to Ferguson’s yang. Whilst David never had many difficulties in showing his more delicate side (remember that sarong?), Ferguson stopped having post-matches interviews with the BBC after the latter made a series of allegations about Alex’s son, Jason, a football agent, in a documentary in 2004. So, basically, a broadcaster has to ask permission from Sir Alex first before it does its duty. Beckham symbolised at some point the early noughties’ new masculinity, comfortable in its femininity. On the other hand Ferguson, typifying old-fashioned male chauvinism, attributed this attitude to David’s marriage to Posh Spice and his joining the celebrity world. Beckham was soon off-loaded to Real Madrid.

We could carry on like this forever but the problem as I see it is that there is still too much machismo around. Sir Alan Sugar (the boss in the television programme The Apprentice) expects contestants to kowtow to him, and if they don’t, he will point his finger at them (which is rather rude, by the way) and and let them know that “You’re fired”. No wonder men are confused. Between women’s achievements such as the pill, abortion rights and a more inclusive job market and the eradication of the idea of men as sole bread-winners, it is easy to see why the so-called “stronger sex” is a bit wobbly at the knees. And yet, this contrasts with what we see on our television sets and what we read about in the papers. Last year David Haye, former heavyweight champion, got into a famous brawl with his fellow British boxer Dereck Chisora after the latter lost to Vitali Klitschko. The ugly scenes were captured on live telly. However, months  later Haye was allowed to get into the ring to fight Dereck Chisora in a match that resembled more two deer rutting. Meanwhile our boys are watching... and learning.

If we are to address this “crisis of masculinity”, the first course of action would have to be to see masculinity as a wide-ranging concept and not defined by phallus size, number of female partners or performance in bed. Alcohol/drug misuse and poor sexual education would have to be reclassified as high priority. Father-friendly parenting classes would have to become part of the long-term vision, not just for Number 10, but also for local councils. Full front-pages dedicated to boot-throwing managers would be relegated to the back pages. And under no circumstances would there special Sunday supplements.

© 2013

Next Post: “Lets’ Talk About...”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Killer Opening Songs (One Love by Clinton Fearon)

When Killer Opening Songs wrote about roots reggae band The Congos a few years ago, it stated very clearly that Bob Marley had not invented the genre. And the more our regular music section listens to this syncopated blend of calypso, blues and rock’n’roll, the more it is convinced that it is important to acknowledge other artists who have excelled in this particular field.
One of those giants of reggae music whose oeuvre ought to have a higher profile is Clinton Fearon. Originally a member of The Gladiators, a band that found fame in the 70s, Fearon was the bassist guitarist with the hearty baritone voice.
Although he did not sing lead vocals at The Gladiators very often, when he did it, Clinton stood out. If you're asking why, his latest album Heart and Soul will answer your question. It’s because his is an authentic voice with the power to move the listener. There’re no gimmicks in his delivery, just heart and soul.
One Love is the Killer Opening Song that unrolls this rich, musical tapestry. Pregnant with a strong social message, this is one of those melodies that linger long in the mind for days and weeks on end.
One love hear the children singing
One love they are singing in the background
One love hear the children shouting
One love they are shouting in the background
Where is equal rights and justice
It's nowhere to be found it's nowhere to be found
If you got it in your bosom your bosom
Check it out check it out
So that we all can be can be redeem
The beauty of One Love, and Heart and Soul by extent, is Fearon’s intimate approach. You feel as if he were sitting next to you shooting the breeze, trying to fix the world, guitar in hand.
Ahhh, yes, the guitar! His playing style is uncomplicated and yet so skilful. On the clip below he comes across as someone who has an extra limb, a six-stringed one; so comfortable he looks with that guitar in hand. One Love is followed by Let Jah Be Praised, an ode to Jah, or Yahweh (Jehovah). Again, his voice is crisp and clear, telling you that “Remember I'm not a preacher man/Remember I'm not a teacher man/I'm only singing you my song oh yeah oh yeah/Don't want Jah glory goes to waste oh no so.” Chatty Chatty Mouth touches on politics whilst I’m Not Crying shows defiance and audacity.
Heart and Soul is one of those magic records, made even more magical by One Love, the Killer Opening Song.
© 2013
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 19th May at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 12 May 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The recent news of the ticking-off British actress Helen Mirren gave to agroup of drummers making a hell of racket outside London’s Gielgud Theatre had me in stitches. The percussionists were promoting a gay and transgender festival but, without meaning to, were also causing distress amongst the audience watching The Audience, the play that had just earned Dame Mirren an Olivier Award the week before. Elenita came out during the interval dressed in full royal regalia and had a stern word with the musicians.

Humourous as this news was, it also made me think about theatre protocol. Especially those other instances when uncertainty gets the better of us. For example, when to applaud.

A few years ago I went to a Saturday morning classical concert at a church near where I live. This was part of a series of events organised by the local community in conjunction with the religious authorities based in the building. On this beautiful summer morning we were treated to works by Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt by a highly professional and successful quartet of strings and piano. I enjoyed almost the whole concert. The key word here is “almost”. What stopped me from getting lost completely in the music was the applause given by some members of the audience after each movement had been played.

Honestly I felt at a loss then. I had always believed that at a classical concert one clapped only after the whole piece had been performed and not in between movements. Plus, the “happy-clappers” were of one or two generations before mine. They were the same ones who had given me the “what is he doing here?” stare minutes before (let’s not go there, shall we? I’ll leave that one for another post) and therefore I assumed that they would have been well versed in the arts of when to applaud and when not to.

Another theory that sprung up in my head was that this was a British custom. I dismissed that one quickly, though. Neither my mother-in-law, nor my wife had put their hands together.

Applause in theatres is one of those areas I am never sure about. Take ballet, for instance. From the moment I became a fan in my mid-teens, I knew exactly when to clap and when to keep quiet. Not that it was always that orthodox. With a soloist or a pas de deux it was easier; once he/she/they finished doing their turns and the man and woman alternated showing off their prowess, it was the audience’s turn to reciprocate. Occasionally, though, a dancer performed an amazing move and the public broke into spontaneous applause. There were other times when we did it to show sympathy. Many years ago, my favourite ballerina ever, Lorna Feijóo, slipped calamitously during a performance of the Swan Lake. Suddenly there was a sharp intake of breath amongst the attending public. Lorna got up, dusted herself off - literally, by the way, oh, yes that was my girl! - and performed the thirty-two fouettés of the Black Swan as if nothing had happened. Well, we all went wild at the Grand Theatre of Havana.

Another time, if my memory serves me right, it was a play, not a dance, that got the audience on their feet and clapping like mad. It was during the premiere of Manteca (Lard), to me, the most radical play of 90s Cuba. Jorge Cao, one of the three actors on stage, turned towards the audience and delivered what seemed to me at the time a very clear and unsubtle message: He’s always there, wherever I go, he’s always there. We have to do something. If you (turning to the actor playing his brother) don’t do it, I’ll do it. I’ll have to... The public didn’t let him finish. In the small space that the Café Teatro Bertolt Brecht afforded us we all rose in unison and put our hands together in a compact and solid applause for what we thought naively was a critique of the then president Fidel Castro (spoiler alert! It wasn’t, the play centred on a pig the family was torn between killing and not killing for New Year’s Eve). The three actors (two men and one woman playing their sister) froze mid-action until the applause died down.

Was it good etiquette? I’ve no idea. And neither have I any about the half dozen elderly citizens who clapped after each movement at that Sunday morning concert I mentioned before. On that occasion, however, I felt inconvenienced. Maybe I should have worn my royal clothes, including crown and sceptre.

© 2013

Photo taken from

Next Post: Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 15th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 8 May 2013

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

One of my fondest memories of my recent stay in Cuba was an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero where we spent five nights. Although the hotel was basic (the rating couldn't have been higher than three stars, and this is from an ex-tour-operator), the staff were friendly and the food well cooked. It was a wonderful occasion for me to rekindle my love for offal.

Offal gets a bad reputation frequently. All those bloody intestines making us feel like vultures picking over the remains of a dead animal. Yet, I love viscera. And I agree with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's  who recently said that "meat-eaters ought to eat all the parts of an animal, not just the pretty bits". Apparently he has an Offal Manifesto. This column is my way of signing up to it.

Paprikash of hearts and livers

2 lamb or pigs' hearts
500g lamb or pigs' liver
2 tbsp olive, rapeseed or sunflower oil (or lard)
1kg onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tbsp smoked paprika (or Spanish pimentón)
2 tsp hot paprika
200ml tomato passata
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the hearts in half lengthways and trim out the coarse ventricles. Rinse the hearts in cold water, and pat dry. Trim any coarse sinews off the liver and cut it into four pieces.

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a heavy casserole, add the onions and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent. Add all the paprika, stir in well and cook for a couple of minutes.

Heat the rest of the oil in a separate pan and brown all the offal pieces in it, turning occasionally so they colour all over. Add the offal to the onion pot, together with the passata and a small glass of water. Bring to a very gentle simmer and cover. Cook over the lowest possible heat or in a very low oven (120C/250C/gas mark ½) for at least two hours, until the meat is very tender. Check occasionally, turning and adding a little water if it looks dry.

When the meat is cooked, check the consistency of the sauce: it should be thick, rich and pulpy. If need be, cook it for a few more minutes. Adjust the seasoning as necessary. You could finish the dish by stirring in a spoonful of soured cream or, as I prefer to do, just take soured cream to the table to serve with it. Accompany with mash or rice.

The music to go with this recipe MUST be rich in content. Just like the ubiquitous iron in lamb or pigs' livers. That's why my first musical offer is Cuban artist WIlliam Vivanco with a little number whose genre I could very well call "Afro-trova". Olokun is one of the deities commonly found in the Yoruba pnatheon. He is the owner of the depths of the ocean. Enjoy.

Hear that sizzling sound? It's Babe Ruth's bluesy sound. Ha, bet you'd already forgot about this band! Well, let me tell you something, this is an usual blog that likes to promote itself as the place where music and food go hand in hand together. Now, Gimmie Some Leg, will ya?

And after such a hearty meal of hearts and livers (no pun intended), how about some chocolate? But only if you have it Tom Waits' style. And if you don't fancy any, I'll have your portion, thank you very much. Happy eating!

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

Photo taken from

Sunday 5 May 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflection and Music

Shame, this country’s sinking in shame and it doesn’t even know it. My interlocutor was in his early 20s but his voice sounded like that of a man in his 60s. One of his feet was up against the wall outside the block of flats where I had grown up in Havana. People are angry, he continued, but that anger is projected either, inwards and therefore winds up as self-annihilation, or outwards towards the weaker ones. They know who is or are, rather, responsible for this country’s problems but no one wants to talk about it. Only in the church, nowadays, he said caressing, his crucifix, do you find the same morals and ethics you used to come across years ago.

Havana waking up
He might not have been older than twenty-five, but this young man was representative of the people I spoke to in my latest visit to Cuba. It had been more than four years since I had last been and there were changes to digest. I wasn’t sure, though, whether they were the right changes. Whereas four years ago I had had a similar conversation with four or five young people who discussed their dreams and hopes with me quite openly, this time I had the opportunity to sit down (or stand outside my building) with other youngsters. In my previous visit the news about Fidel passing the baton to his “younger” brother (almost eighty-two-years-old and counting) was almost the only topic my audience wanted to talk about. Nobody imagined in their wildest dreams that Modesto Castro was going to put his modesty to one side and go for an outright “sell-sell-sell” approach to solve Cuba’s economic woes. Houses? For sale. Cars? For sale? Bodies? For sale. Well, the latter had been on display since the late 80s when the first prostitutes, nicknamed “jineteras” (a variation of the Spanish word, “jinete”, “horserider”) sprang up overnight in the main streets in Havana and expanded throughout the country.

In 2009, however, when talking to these four or five young people, I realised that none of them saw the solution to their problems by relocating abroad. Whatever they were thinking of, leaving Cuba for good was not – at the moment – the immediate step for them. I remember them questioning me thoroughly on my job, what I earned (I didn’t disclose my salary, and told them that was private information), what my wife and I used our wages for and the cost of living in the UK. Each one of these late-teenagers of early-twenty-something gave me the same answer with variations: I want the same, mulato, and I want it now. I don’t want to have it when I’m sixty or seventy. I want to have the right to travel if I want to, to set up a business if I want to, and to send my child to school if I want to. The determination in their eyes (I spoke to each youngster separately) made me shudder a bit. What if they couldn’t have what they wanted? Would they rebel?
Che for sale

No. Four years down the line, one of those young people is in the States now. He didn’t want to wait, so he left for a country in which he won’t have free healthcare. But, I can hear him asking me, what’s the point of free healthcare when you don’t fall ill very often? What happens the rest of the time when you’re healthy?

This is the dilemma that the Cuban government hasn’t cracked for more than fifty years. It was OK when we had free subsidies from the former Soviet Union, but now that we are in a “normal period” (I’m fed up with the whole “special period” label. “Special” was when we had the full support of the old socialist bloc. This is what “normal” would have looked like since 1959) the state hasn’t got a clue as to what to do with the economy. In the meantime, though, it is haemorrhaging generations who are either leaving the country in droves or drinking themselves to an early death. Raúl and co. think that by conjuring the (very real) spectre of the US embargo, shout out a few revolutionary slogans and go on demonstrations people will be satisfied. That might have been the reality when I was a child, but it hasn’t been the reality for the last twenty-five years. That’s a quarter of a century, a generation lost to political incompetence and narrow-mindedness. The average salary of a Cuban nowadays doesn’t amount to more than ten pounds per month. Even those in higher wages, say, 800 pesos, struggle to make ends meet because erstwhile community spirit has given way to a dog-eat-dog type of society. It’s hard for a foreigner, regardless of where s/he sits on the political spectrum, to understand Cuba without living the life of a Cuban. It’s not a black-and-white issue like that affecting someone else in another developing country. Nevertheless, it’s a life whose complexity ought to be accepted and not condemned or patronised. Sadly, these are the default positions of those who opine on my country. And they won’t, unfortunately, contribute anything towards the elimination of that feeling of shame my interlocutor mentioned at the beginning.


Photos by the blog author

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 8th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Urban Diary (in Havana)

There is hardly a breeze and the midday sun is hitting hard on the cobblestoned road. The sky is light blue. The longer I spend in my country of birth the more the sun is showing off its strength, a little at a time. As if it were trying to impress me. A few tourist-looking tourists watch a line of schoolchildren crossing. A few tourist-looking locals watch the tourists watching the children, ready for their next predatory move. The pavement under the children’s feet suddenly looks more solid, as in future-solid. On noticing this, my cynicism wanes a bit. But just a bit.

Winter never came to Havana this year, they keep telling me and when it did, it came too late and therefore crashed with a beautiful, albeit short spring which quickly turned into early summer. The schoolchildren fan themselves in the midst of the midday sun.

The line is not a straight one. Small groups of children shuffle about and talk to each other restlessly. Where are they headed? I wonder. They carry big rucksacks. Some of the boys have traded their white shirt for a T-shirt, whilst keeping their beet-red short trousers.

Now they file past the entrance of what used to be the Ministry of Education, a hideous construction that breaks up the architectural harmony in old Havana. The building still sits on Obispo Boulevard, Bishop’s Boulevard, mitreless and pointless.

I catch snippets of the children’s conversation as I press the shutter of my camera. What’s your favourite bird? What does your father/mother do? Why aren’t you friends with X anymore?

I carry on walking with my family in tow. On the corner of Aguiar and Obispo I run into a figure whose face looks familiar. He vanishes in the crowd. I turn and turn trying to spot him again. Where have I seen him before? Out of the corner of my left eye I detect a sharp and quick movement. For a split second our eyes meet. He disappears, making no sound but leaving the mark of a childhood memory lived thirty-odd years ago. I am suddenly brought back to life by the voices of the schoolchildren. Up above, in the light blue sky, the midday sun continues to show off its strength, a little at a time.


Photo taken by the blog author

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


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