Sunday 30 June 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

So, B.O., what happened, bro? We all had so many hopes, and dashed them you have so far and left us against the ropes.

Let’s talk about you, B.O. No, not the stench one normally has to put up with on the London Underground when pushed up against a fellow passenger’s armpit. No, the B.O. I want to discuss today has capital letters and rules – apparently – over the richest country of the world.

Do we need to change the caption?
Let’s talk about Barack Obama.

We were all there, weren’t we? Well, some of us were. November 2008. That historic night is still seared in my memory, despite the fact I am not American and it’s unlikely I will ever get to vote in a general election there. But, I, too, left my cynical pragmatism aside and for one night allowed myself to dream.

How wrong I was. I don’t mean to say that getting behind Obama was a mistake. I don’t mean to say either that the US would have been better served by the McCain/Palin axis of evil/stupidity. What I really, really mean is that I should have been less idealistic and more reality-rooted. Presidents, like prime ministers are not subjected to normal laws like us, earthlings. Their line-managers are not the teachers, doctors and community leaders who put them in pole position. No, presidents and prime ministers report to Mr Power. And Mr Power sits a healthy distance away from the rest of us, Mr and Mrs Powerless.

When Mr Power coughs up, he (for it is usually a “he”, although there are some “shes”, too) doesn’t just cough up for the privilege of electing whom he thinks will respond better to his interests. He will also pay for the candidate-turned-president/prime minister’s transformation from a moderate to a demagogue.

Obama the candidate was a firebrand. Notice the past tense. Obama the president is a hawk. True, dressed as a dove and more articulate than former Hawk-in-Chief George W Bush, but a hawk nonetheless. He has not closed Guantanamo as he promised during his election campaign and the drone attacks he has ordered on suspect terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan have caused untold civilian casualties.

Small wonder, then, that Obama’s approval ratings have taken a dive. And along with it public trust in him has also collapsed. What makes it harder to bear is that he was the candidate sporting the “Yes, we can” motto. Now that “Yes, we can” stands more for “Yes, we can spy more, bomb more countries and still torture people in Guantanamo”.

Am I being unfair? What do you reckon? After all, Obama did not force anyone to jump on his “hope” bandwagon. Remember, he never claimed to be a radical, we turned him into one. Furthermore, the “hope” he came to symbolise could only be translated into success if the change that was supposed to come with it was shared equally and not entrusted just to one single person. From that point of view we should take ownership of our collective disappointment in Obama. We might have projected a utopia on a person whose top priority on taking office might have been to distance himself from his predecessor by adopting a more moderate agenda. We ought to also take into account Republicans’ opposition to some of Obama’s reforms, like his Health Care Plan known as Obamacare.

However, that does not excuse his support for Mr Power. Obama was elected to change the lives of Mr and Mrs Powerless. It is fair to say that many Americans are still waiting for that change.

From the serious to the absurd. You have to hand it to certain celebrities sometimes. Just when you think they cannot get any more ego-centric and stupid, they... well, they carve their names in the Guinness World records as the thickest beings ever to populate planet Earth. I would happily trade a Kanye West and Kim Kardashian for a couple of dinosaurs. Preferably the cute, herbivore type. Diplodocus, anyone?

The latest act of idiocy comes from, he of hip-hop combo The Black Eyed Peas and one of the judges on BBC’s The Voice. Apparently he’s got into a verbal spat with Pharrell Williams, one half of hip-hop duo The Neptunes. The latter has just come up with a new brand, i am OTHER. has allegedly claimed that he owns the copyright to the phrase “

Don’t look at me like that. I kid you not. Forget Waterloo in 1815 and Moscow in 1942. This is the mother of all battles, ladies and gentleman! And it’s happening right here, right now, in front of our very eyes.

Just a message for Forget Pharrell for a second, son. You have bigger fish to fry. Here are some of  the people who came before Pharrell and whom you are going to have to fight if you want to have your way:

Kirk Douglas (I am Spartacus)

Dr Seuss (I do not like green eggs and ham/I do not like them, Sam I am)

God (I Am that I Am)

The English language (latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary or equivalent)

The list goes on, but you know what? I am done with stupid celebrities for today. Have a great week, folks.

© 2013

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 3rd July at 11:59pm MT)

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Killer Opening Songs (Ghosts by Laura Marling)

Besides her highly creative album cover designs and unpredictable titles (I Speak Because I Can and A Creature I Don’t Know come to mind) Laura Marling has managed to carve a niche for herself in the always difficult music industry. She has been a trailblazer for the last five years at a moment when the UK is awash with female singer songwriters. What makes Marling different from the Adeles, Duffys and (sadly late) Amys of this world is her ability to match arresting lyrics with beautiful and innovative arrangements.

Her debut album Alas I Cannot Swim is a good example of the above. At times poetic and at other times direct, the record showcases an artist who, despite her young age – she was barely eighteen when the album came out – displays the savvy incarnation of an older and more experienced woman. Ghosts, the Killer Opening Song is a classic example. The melody starts in third person singular telling the uncomplicated story of a man en route to meet his girlfriend/lover. Listeners are invited to follow him as “He walked down a busy street/Staring solely at his feet/Clutching pictures of past lovers at his side/Stood at the table where she sat/ And removed his hat/In respect of her presence/Presents her with the pictures and says: "These are just ghosts that broke my heart before I met you. These are just ghosts that broke my heart before I met you"

Already the tone is set. This is not going to be easy; he seems to be saying to his girlfriend/lover. He has skeletons in his closet. Or rather, ghosts.

Songs like this one make Alas I Cannot Swim a unique record and one that has made Laura Marling a kind of folk pin-up for people who don’t really listen to folk. Not that she cares about labels and categories. She just wants to make music. And with four albums to her name in a very short time (Once I Was an Eagle was released this year and it is fantastic), Killer Opening Songs doesn’t believe that her immediate goal is to become the figurehead of a movement. Laura has a lot to say, write and sing about and does it in the most impressive and liberated way.

As an Introductory Track With Murderous Intentions Ghost hints at this forward thinking approach, mixed with the sensibility of old folk. On which, a quick note, if Marling is folk, K.O.S. is a master of klezmer. Her style, if anyone attempted to categorise it would have to be pop with influences from folk and prog-rock (especially in her latest album). Her songwriting owes a lot to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, but her arrangements would not be out of place on an Emerson, Lake and Palmer LP, or even Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (If comes to mind). At the same time Laura Marling’s sound is her own.

The rest of the record continues in a similar vein of strong vocals, accordion riffs (Crawled Out of the Sea) and sombre drums (Night Terror). What is more important: Laura Marling is addictive. Get Alas I Cannot Swim and you will be getting the three albums that followed. All thanks to Ghosts, the Killer Opening Song.

© 2013

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

Sunday 23 June 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Hey, you, who are reading this. Not you, my regular reader/fellow blogger. I am talking to the other one. The person who is actually watching me write this first draft on blogger, whilst I leave behind innocent - but incriminating, in that person's eyes - cyber-footprints.

I am talking to you, Big Brother. Or Big Sister, or Big Voyeur. You, who are watching me write about you.

It is not that I am afraid of you invading my privacy.  I am one of those people who have nothing to hide. So, no fear there, but I am concerned, you see. Concerned that you could make some kind of rash decision based on information you think incriminates me. It is all subjective, I know, but that makes it worse, because, on the one hand, what are the grounds for your surveillance? The words I have just typed? Or the thought that just crossed my mind? You can read the former but you can’t see the latter. On the other hand, are you not supposed to protect me? So, why are you tracking my activities? What kind of protection is that?

The type of protection that, according to you, will stop terrorists from killing me. Under your aegis I am meant to feel safe. You are like a, one-size-fits-all, gigantic blanket that makes all its citizens cozy and warm. Like Pink Floyd’s Mother, but, let us change the eponymous character for the real villain of this story, NSA: NSA's gonna put all its fears into you/ NSA's gonna keep you right here under its wing/ NSA won't let you fly, but it might let you sing. Only the melodies NSA decides, obviously. For NSA, think also GCHQ, but that quite didn't have the same effect with the Floyd tune. It goes without saying that NSA will then build the wall. A circular one, like Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Like the one in Cuba’s Isle of Pines, Presidio Modelo. But it is easy to mock the Cuban government for its zealous surveillance of its citizens. After all, I got used to it. I had to, I had no other choice. Yet, the US, the UK? The supposed “land of the free”?

The problem is that we are not free, are we? That is the awful truth. In Cuba I was in the hands of the government and here I am in the hands of powerful corporations. Google, Facebook, Skype, it is like a roll-call of our modern interactive, networking life. The way we communicate. And all the time the CIA is there, behind our backs. Watching us. To the person reading this blog post before I hit the “publish” button: what do you get from this? Do you get a kick out of it like Stasi agents used to do in the former GDR when they spied on unsuspecting folk? Or do you really think that you are fulfilling your patriotic duty by keeping an eye on what I write, what I order from Amazon and what I watch on You Tube? I know that your unintended goal is to make me go gaga. To turn me into paranoid wreck, looking everywhere. I admit that ever since the story about NSA broke out recently I have been checking behind me occasionally, whether I am out running or on the bus, or on my bike. I could become a real-life Will Smith in Enemy of the State in no time and I wouldn’t even be able to get support from a Gene Hackman-like agent. To top it all, our Foreign Secretary William Hague said last week that every intercept had to be authorised by him personally. What is it with this government and centralised power? I thought totalitarianism was a feature of rogue regimes like North Korea, China and Cuba. In a country where we get a new parliament every four or five years we, citizens, should have a vote on whether we want every conversation we have, e-mail we send or clip of cat falling over we see on You Tube, scrutinised. The legality of this process seems also to escape NSA and GCHQ. I cannot be the only person who sees the surveillance of millions of American and British citizens as unlawful.

So, there you have it, Mr Big Brother, or Miss Grand Sister, I now come to the end of my post. I would like to know what you achieved by spying on this draft. Please, take your mask off and join us in the comments section. My cyber-sisters and brothers await you. We have the questions, you owe us the answers.

© 2013

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 26th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 19 June 2013

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

The official summer season kicks off in two days but this blog owner has been suffering its effects for a couple of months already. Due to the prolonged cold weather we had after March when spring should have arrived, pollen has appeared later than usual. And that goes for tree pollen and pollen from flowers. So, you could say that I have been under a double attack in the last ten or twelve weeks, except for my fortnight holiday in Cuba back in April.

This is the reason why my recipe tonight carries sugar up its sleeve, to me summer is sugar, I have no idea why. This is one dessert I will be making very soon if I can just get over the fact I have to include rum. You see, I’m teetotal. But I confess it’s the pineapple that’s done the trick for me.

I came across this pudding in the pages of The Guardian’s new(ish) Cook supplement and knew immediately I had stumbled upon one of those delights my family will be asking for again, again and again. Words by The Soul Food Girls Supper Club, by the way.

Pineapple and rum upside-down cake with hot buttered rum sauce

For the cake

435g pineapple rings, drained
2 large eggs
125g golden caster sugar
150g plain flour, sifted
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
50g unsalted butter, melted
Zest of ½ a lemon
75ml semi-skimmed milk
3 tbsp dark Jamaican rum
For the sauce
100g light brown muscovado sugar
120ml double cream
120ml dark Jamaican rum
2 tbsp unsalted butter

Grease a round cake tin and preheat the oven to 175C/350F/gas mark 4. Line the bottom of the tin with pineapple rings – you may need to squeeze them in a bit to make them fit. Cut the remaining rings in half and line the sides. In a bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar together until light and frothy. In a separate bowl, combine the flour and baking powder and mix well. Add the flour mixture to the eggs and sugar, and combine well. Add the butter, lemon zest, vanilla extract, milk and rum and mix well. Pour the cake mixture on top of the pineapple rings and bake for about 40 minutes until it has risen, is a light brown colour and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let the cake sit for about 5 minutes before turning out on to a wire rack to cool completely. The bottom (the top when it's upside down) of the cake will look underdone: this is because the pineapples are so moist, but the rest of the cake will be fine – so don't worry! To make the sauce, stir the sugar and cream in a saucepan over a medium heat until melted and it has become well combined. Add the rum and allow to simmer until slightly thickened. Add the butter and stir until melted. Pour over the cake while hot and serve immediately.

For more recipes visit

The music to go with this recipe has to make the listener melt like the sugar and cream in the saucepan. The kind of melody that makes you go: “I’m easy like Sunday morning”. That’s why I am going to start with the still little-known Alice Russell. What must Alice do to be better known by soul and jazz lovers? There was a time when her albums Under the Munka Moon 1 and 2 were played back to back to back in my house. Breakdown is the reason why. Beautiful harmonies with a strong voice.

From Alice we go to a duo of whom I haven’t heard anything for ages. Jazzyfatnastees is summer and vanilla extract, in all their sultry glory. Enjoy.

Why is it that a lot of social uprisings and riots take place in the summer? Gordon Lightfoot wrote about the Detroit riots in the 60s in his immortal song, Black Day in July. It’s only a couple of years ago that London was ablaze in the summer and look at Turkey and Brazil now (although it's autumn time in the souther hemisphere, I hasten to add. But I'm looking at it from our "summer" point of view). That’s why my third musical offering tonight comes from the godfather of rap, the late Gil Scott-Heron and one of his more consciously social compositions, B Movie, inspired by the also late former US president Ronald Reagan. Timeless tune.

Yasmine Hamdan is a new singer in my music collection. I love her voice, her projection, her arrangements. To me, here’s someone who doesn’t want to be labelled as “exotic other”, which is, sadly, the attitude I find very often amongst lovers of the wrongly called “world music” (I thought all music was world music!). Anyway, Samar, from the album Ya Nass, is beautiful.

We finish with Stevie, or rather his daughter Aisha Morris joining her dad in a duet of a song that needs no introduction. This is summer, mi gente, it might not be my favourite season, but with that pineapple and rum dessert I can put up with anything. Bring it on!

© 2013

Photo taken from The Guardian

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

Sunday 16 June 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Another week and another example of the sport I have come to call teacher-bashing. Teaching and non-teaching staff alike are the contemporary equivalent of a punch bag. Feeling frustrated? Blame teachers. Bang! Right hand hook. Your flat got broken into and your telly stolen? Education nowadays is the pits! Uppercut. The future looks grim because there are no job prospects for the next generation? Take it out on support staff? Come to think of it, what’s that. support staff? What do they do all day? And why do we need so many learning support assistants, teaching assistants, learning mentors and parent support advisors? Back in my day, it was just Mr or Mrs Smith with cane in hand. Argh! This country’s going to the dogs. Left hand jab. Hit the floor. Are you happy now? Is this country really going to the dogs because of teachers and support staff?

No, it isn’t. And as chance would have it I happen to belong to what they call support staff in a school. So, let me stand up for my colleagues, whether members of the teaching personnel or part of the work force that deals with vulnerable children and/or parents.

The latest lashing to leave an unwanted welt on the already swollen and bruised body of the teaching profession was given by none other than Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted chief inspector. He reckons that pupils in comprehensive schools are not being challenged enough. For those who, like me, still struggle to understand the British education system, a comprehensive is a non-selective secondary school that provides an entitlement curriculum. It offers a wider range of subjects including vocational ones. The figure quoted by Michael Wilshaw this week in an interview on Radio 4 was 65%. That is approximately the percentage of pupils who fall way below the target they were set when they began their Year 7. To clarify matters more, a student labelled as “most able”, the category to which Mr Wilshaw referred, is the one who achieves a level 5 or above for both reading and maths in his/her Sats test at eleven years old. That is where the problem lies, in my opinion.

If I were to use my experience of education in Cuba when I was growing up, my conclusion would be that exams in primary school serve no purpose and cause unwanted – and unforeseen at the time of planning such exams – problems. And I write as someone who sat exams from Year 1 (or 1st Grade as others might know it) all the way through to Year 12 in college (or high school). Of course, I also had tests in university. Sometimes, when I look back on my student days all I remember is half-term tests and final exams.

Great formation, but is it good education?
Fast-forward to the present and every time my fifteen-year-old son has an exam now, he goes into panic mode. He knows the drill: you can go out with your mates for a couple of hours only after you revise. You have to be home by such and such time and continue to revise. And tomorrow, Sunday? Oh, well, you know the answer to that one. However, when his assessments consist of coursework which he has to complete managing his own time, coming up with his own resources and set as homework to be handed in in a week or two, he is more relaxed, motivated, and puts in the hours. This week, the Secretary of State for Education, another Michael, but Gove in this case, also made an announcement. He wants to overhaul the whole GCSE system, get rid of coursework and bring in the much-hated final test at the end of Year 10 (GCSE year).

Don’t they ever learn? Politicians, I mean? Especially those, like Mr Gove, with no classroom experience whatsoever? The current GCSE uses methods which, although still flawed, give a more realistic picture of where the student sits in the academic spectrum. Bringing back the traditional exam where students will sit silently in three or four rows and sweat it out for a couple of hours will backfire. For starters, that was the type of test I had to sit when I was younger and I always used to hit the books a couple of days before. So, no deep thinking and reasoning there. Secondly, it will affect the learning experience in the classroom (and there was silly me thinking that Mr Gove wanted to improve teaching, not ruin it), because teachers will be teaching with one thought in mind: out of these thirty souls, I need to have at least a good 70 or 75% passing rate. Because who would, in her/his right mind would like to offend Sir Michael (Wilshaw) with his 65%? And whilst we are on this 65% figure, would it also be possible to find out how many students who move up to secondary school without the required Level 4 go on to achieve good GCSE grades, please? Because that would be a good indicator of how good these students' teachers have been in working closely with them in order to bring them up to scratch. But then that wouldn't make good headlines. "Teachers in the UK are doing a good job! They are raising standards!" No, it's not a good headline. The other unwanted consequence of the 65% quote is that it cause a schism to appear between primary and secondary schools where the latter blame the former for not giving pupils the necessary academic foundation they will need later on. Primaries could well retort that in the case of "most able" children who then fail to get good GCSEs it's secondaries' fault for not working hard enough with students who already have had a good headstart. It would be like a never-ending cycle in which no one wins and the only loser is the students. Our children. Your children. Tomorrow's adults.

Is that the type of education we want? I work with professionals who love teaching and working with children. They motivate them, guide them, and mentor them. Yes, you get the occasional bad apple in the bag that spoils the reputation of the others. But isn’t that the same with almost any other profession? I have never met a parent in my line of work who hasn’t wanted her/his child to do well. Never. Maybe they don’t know how to go about it, or perhaps they had a traumatic experience in school. Yet, parents ALWAYS want their children to do well.

If I have an advice for Gove and co. is: find out what it is that makes some people go into education. Is it the money? Is it the holidays? It could be for some, I am not saying it is not. But the majority of education professionals I have met in my life (and I have met more than Gove surely has. I WAS ONCE A PROPER TEACHER!) seriously believe that they have the capacity to teach the next generation. They trust their abilities and life experience to educate children regardless of background, race or nationality or anything else. They are not perfect; they are human and make mistakes as a result. But I don’t think I am alone in thinking that they would welcome more praise than condemnation, especially from those who should be supportive. If, however, Gove and Wilshaw can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the excellent teaching that exists in this country, then, maybe a reworking of Pink Floyd’s famous Another Brick on the Wall will have to do the trick: We don’t need no confrontation/We don’t need no Gove control/Your dark sarcasm is not wanted/Michaels, leave teachers alone/Hey! Michaels, leave teachers alone/Otherwise we will put you both up against the wall/ Otherwise we will put you both up against the wall. Sometimes punch bags need to talk back, don’t you think?

© 2013

Image taken from

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 19th June at 11:59 (GMT)

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Urban Diary

Black helmet on? Check. Yellow fluorescent high-vis jacket on? Check. Yellow fluorescent ankle straps on? Check. Black gloves on? Check. Tires fully pumped and padlock in its holder? Check. My daily bicycle journey is about to begin. And along the way I will be entertained by the sound of this unique, urban orchestra called London.

Some people think that only in the countryside can one hear the unmistakable at-dawn song of the cuckoo. The sign that announces the arrival of spring (sadly about to exit in nine days). These people, country mice to me, city rodent, will brag about the effects of the cuck-oo... cuck-oo call: the feeling of nature as a collective force invading one’s senses with an early morning choir of bird songs, including the Cuculus canorus. Some people believe that only the beautiful and verdant British countryside can provide this soundtrack where the cuckoo becomes the soloist.

These people are almost right.

Almost, for there is however a sound similar to the cuckoo’s call in my regular cycling experience. It comes from the soft purr of cars pulling out of their driveways, ready to join the matutinal rush-hour. It escapes through the high-pitched voices of children walking to school near my house and calling out the names of their classmates. It becomes noise when I reach the intersection of two wide, famous, busy roads and drivers go mad on their horns, tooting them with an enthusiasm that is hard to match as they fight for their right to go first at the traffic lights. But even this din is welcomed. Sometimes, mind. It is usually followed by a semi-silence as I cycle on, the rustle of the few trees lined up along the avenue sounding like the deep sigh of a sleeping baby.

A guy coming out of a van and slamming the door in the process catches me unguarded. The banging sound tells me that not all drivers check their blind spot before venturing out on to the road. He is unloading bread, milk and other products at an off-licence. I turn left at the next corner, carry on and within five or six minutes I am at work. Despite my love for the British countryside, I don’t envy rural mice. I am a proud city rodent on his bike, soaking up the sounds of our own urban version of the cuckoo’s call.

© 2013

Photo taken from

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

Sunday 9 June 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As I write these lines I have the music of Dutch singer Nynke playing out of my stereo and filling up my kitchen with beautiful and hypnotic notes. Although she sings in Frisian, a language only spoken in the northern part of The Netherlands, her compositions take in genres such as fado and flamenco. It’s difficult to describe her music when, one, I’m not a musician and, two, Nynke doesn’t follow conventional musical patterns.

And neither did Stravinsky. With all the celebrations we have had so far in the UK to mark the centenary of the Russian composer’s Rite of Spring, it has been a good opportunity to become acquainted once again with one of the 20th century’s greatest composers. I won’t write about the riot that apparently ensued as soon as the bassoon broke free and unchallenged at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1913. I would like to reflect, instead, on the extents to which some musicians, like Stravinsky (and Nynke), go in order to break with musical orthodoxy.

In that sense the Russian maestro was not alone. Schoenberg, an Austrian composer and painter, had already made inroads in the German expressionist movement with a heterodox approach to music. So had Anton Webern, a follower of Schoenberg. Abstract and discordant melodies were the way to go. No more Handel, Mozart and Beethoven. Let’s polarise the audience, these musicians seemed to say. Either you like us or you don’t.

I am of the opinion that sometimes culture needs this type of shake-up. We (journalistic “we”, by the way) become so used to our comfort zone. We breakfast, lunch and dine in it. We grow accustomed to its nooks and crannies and as time moves on it is hard to come out of this me-myself-and-I lair we have created. This cave we have customised to suit our artistic needs. Until one day, when we find ourselves sitting in the auditorium of a half-full – or half-empty, depending on your view – theatre and we are exposed. Exposed by the musician or musicians on stage, with their atonal experimental melodies. First reactions are important. Are you being receptive? Never mind what you think of the music, how do you feel about it? To me the latter question matters more than any rational thought you might possess. It puts me straight away in the composer’s shoes. The woman who dances herself to death in The Sacrificial Dance in The Rite echoes, in my view, Stravinsky’s travails when he wrote the score. I feel her demise, because I feel Stravinsky’s agony. Of all the versions I have seen (not many, by the way; probably three or four) of this particular section, my favourite is the late Pina Bausch’s. In fact, that’s my favourite Rite, too; all of it. Pina’s choreography conveyed both the primitivism and sophistication of Stravinsky’s music in a way that not many other versions have done.

The first time I heard The Rite I found it ugly and beautiful, vulgar and refined at the same time. The same has happened with other artists’ works. Not so much the ugly and vulgar part of it, but more like a strange and alien sense of otherworldliness. The only way I can describe them, and here I include Nynke’s music, too, is like a bassoon breaking free and unchallenged in the middle of a silent theatre. Ready to shake us up.

© 2013

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 12th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Words and Their Meanings)

The word “radical” has an interesting history. It’s a term that, in the political sense, is the equivalent of “reform” or “reformist”. Hence when you say “radical reforms”, you’re indulging in a bit of pleonasm. However, whether you’re being redundant or not, “radical” is one of those words we need nowadays, especially to separate the wheat from the chaff at Westminster. Michael Gove’s educational reforms are not radical, whether they are a pleonasm or not, they’re stupid.

The reason why I have been musing over the term “radical” is that it’s one of those words whose meaning used to evoke images of someone advocating deep economic, political and social transformation. Very rarely did it refer to extremists, even if some radicals did make use of non-conventional, unorthodox methods to achieve their aims. I don’t mean to sound conservative (small “c”) or precious about language – English or Spanish, or both. Languages change, that’s what they do. They evolve over time. But sometimes I am puzzled as to how some terms lose some of their meaning.

Take the word “gay”, for instance. No longer does this word mean “having or showing a merry, lively mood”. No, it either means “homosexual”, or – and this is the coup de grâce – “lame, rubbish”. It was former Radio 1 DJ and misogynist-in-chief at the BBC, Chris Moyles, who made use of the latter meaning more often. Why? How do you go from being cheerful to being stupid? At the moment I am about to finish Jerusalem, a wonderful, doorstopper of a book about the history and culture of that beautiful city. One I would like to visit someday. The text is full of quotes and references to times and people gone by. Some of the passages talk about “gay this” and “gay that”, always conveying a sense of joy and happiness. It’s hard to read these sentences without feeling annoyed at the glib use of the word “gay” nowadays.

Of course, sometimes linguistic developments do have a deep social effect. In Cuba the equivalent of the word “millionaire” – “millonario” - was given a revamp after the triumph of the Revolution. It no longer meant a person who had millions stashed away in the bank, but someone who went the extra mile on the sugar cane field and whose labour resulted in "millions" of tonnes of Cuba's former main economic staple. The impact this change had on our collective psyche was that in a very short time we began to see farmers and other country folk in a different light and as a consequence accorded them more respect.

Back to the word “radical” and one of the ways it has been used recently is as an adjective to describe the actions of the two men who killed Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London a fortnight ago. Whilst I agree with the noun to which the word “radical” has been annexed, “fundamentalist”, I think it’s misleading to think that these two murderers had social, economic and political reforms in mind. To me a radical person is s/he who seeks a thorough reorganisation of society, the wo/man who wants to eliminate privilege and inequality. I am all for linguistic evolution and forward-thinking when it comes to languages. Sometimes, though, it is better to call a spade a spade. What those two men did in the streets of London was not radical. It was savage, cruel and inhuman.

© 2013

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

Sunday 2 June 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

According to historical records, El Libertador Simón Bolívar, a military and political leader who played a key role in Latin America’s independence wars against Spain's colonial rule in the early 19th century, came from a wealthy family. From a similar background sprang John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who, as US president in the early 1960s, oversaw rapid GDP growth in an ailing economy. Equally, Karl Marx, economist and intellectual was born into a well-off middle class family.

Besides their liberal views, the three men mentioned above all shared a common denominator: their rich backgrounds. They, like many other progressive world leaders and historical figures, came from a class that was not meant to give the great unwashed a second thought.

But give it a second thought they did. In the case of Karl Marx, it was his theory on labour, its relation to capital and how the latter affected the proletariat that gave rise to the socialist ideals that culminated in the Russian revolution in 1917.

The story of the middle- (or sometimes upper-) class intellectual who sides with the poor is quite well known. Many have trodden the same path and many more will. Under the belief that everyone in society should be treated equally, well-heeled folk stand up for their working class brothers and sisters.

Do we need them, though? The question is relevant in 21st century Britain, especially in times when social mobility has stalled and economic stagnation has taken root.

Karl Marx came from a middle-class family but sided with the poor
As a lifestyle to aspire to, the middle-class might occasionally act like a yardstick for those with ambitions and the drive to improve their chances and those of their children’s. But as a measure of the free market theory that suggests that lower taxes for the rich contribute to an increase of living standards for the poor, the middle-class would not be good evidence. For a good example of this, go back to 2008 and see where the economic crisis originated and who caused it.

Of course, the middle-class brings with it a wealth of knowledge and resources in the struggle against the status quo to which the working class has not got much access. Many times it’s the petit bourgeoisie the one with the long-term vision. That this capacity to anticipate future developments and plan responses to them might not be grounded on the same reality lived by Joe and Joanna Public doesn’t take away the contribution that the middle class has made throughout history. They are the ones who have the ideology, who write the theories and who on occasions can see the bigger picture. We do have to take into account, though, that when, for instance, Bolívar emerged as a charismatic military strategist in early 19th century, the image he had in his mind was Napoleon’s coronation in Paris. That event was a world away from the plight of the indigenous peoples in South America.

However, sometimes when I read articles in newspapers and magazines they seem to convey the message that were it not for the middle-class, working class folk wouldn’t be able to look after themselves. The language in which this type of opinion is usually formulated can be thought of as patronising and insulting. For some the working class has become the perfect excuse to decry the state of Britain today. From tabloids laying into alleged “scroungers” and single mothers from council estates to forward-thinking broadsheets asking covertly: “Why can’t they be more like us?”, everyone has their favourite story to tell about those at the bottom of the ladder. Except for those at the bottom of the ladder.

We live in depressing and exciting times. Depressing because the economy has stalled for a good five years now and the current chancellor’s plan of “cut, cut, cut” is not working. On top of that he hasn’t got a plan B either. Exciting, because I sense a political change in the air. This time, though, this change is coming from the bottom up, as the Los Indignados movement in Spain has shown.

In his famous novel, 1984, Orwell explains how the middle class uses the lower class to topple the upper class and thus become the new ruling class themselves. It happened in Russia (despite Marx’s socialist influence); it happened and continues to happen in Latin America where radical, revolutionary movements usually morph into dictatorial ones with a new and loyal middle-class joined to the government by the hip. It also happens in the UK where the three main parties are mainly made up of members (including the Primer Minister) who have never held blue-collar jobs in their lives and have almost no experience of what living as a working class person is like.

Against this background, the only good outcome of the current economic crisis is a levelling of the playing field in which the middle-class can’t claim to have the upper hand or be the trail-blazer anymore in its struggle against the class system. Whether the working class can fill up that void remains to be seen, but I feel optimistic. I really do.

© 2013

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 5th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


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