Sunday 14 December 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A rolled down car window open to the elements on a cold autumnal evening might not be the first place one thinks of when it comes to finding a common bond with our fellow humans. But that was exactly what happened a few weeks ago as I was cycling home from work. For a fleeting instant and for less than twenty yards, a car and my bike found themselves almost side to side. Just as the vehicle was about to turn left, through the rolled down window I caught the notes of a melody I had not heard for many years...

“... my lips search for your lips/and I’m hungry for your touch/there’s so much left unspoken...

... and I’m falling apart all around you/and all I can do is surrender... I automatically finished the rest of the verse in my head as I cycled on.

Queen’s One Year of Love was the third track on their highly successful album A Kind of Magic from 1986 (it was also part of the soundtrack of the movie Highlander). Perhaps less known than the record’s standout hits One Vision, Friends Will Be Friends and the title track, it is still a beautiful song in its own right. It is also a cheesy melody. Even I, long-time Queen fan (as in real Queen fan, album tracks Queen fan as opposed to Greatest Hits Queen fan), have to admit that One Year of Love has “cheesy” written all over its schmaltzy face. But I never cared before and I still don’t. And on this chilly November evening I cared even less. The serendipitous combination of car and bike pulling up together at the junction, turning to the same side and the open window through which the lines “...and no one ever told me that love would hurt so much/and pain is so close to pleasure...” wafted into the cold early evening air made me believe that here was another human being connecting with me somehow on a deep musical level. It is not that I was surprised that someone was listening to Queen, it is simply that not many people would listen to this particular track at all. Most of the music that blares out of car stereos, flats and shops in my little patch in London, falls under two categories: chart/hip hop music or non-Anglo-Saxon tunes. The latter are usually Turkish, Kurdish, Somali, Hindu, Greek and in recent years Eastern European songs. Occasionally some reggae joins the chart/hip hop duopoly, played mainly by the guy who runs the bike shop just down the road.

An open car window, a handshake of the soul
I couldn’t see if the driver of the car next to me was a man or a woman, what s/he looked like or even what type of motor s/he was driving. The one, single element that stayed with me was this song that united us both for a few precious seconds. When people ask me what makes me a humanist I point at examples like this one. They might be seen as simple, but in their simplicity lies a more complex understanding of the ties that bind us, humans, together. A few days after my musical experience I came across a column by the priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington church, Giles Fraser, on humanism. I like Giles’ writing and I tend to agree with a lot of what he says but on this occasion I thought he was slightly wide of the mark. He cast doubts on humanism’s ability to value irrational beings in the same way as rational ones. I do not think that his comments were fair on humanism or humanists. To me humanism seeks to establish a common identity amongst all those who inhabit this planet, rational or irrational. Of course, we, humans, can make sense of this/these identity marker(s) consciously whilst cats cannot, or willows for that matter. That does not mean we think less of then; it only means we see them in a different light, but we still value their contribution to our world.

It is strange what a rolled down car window open to the elements on a cold autumnal evening can do to one’s intellect. But combine that with an unexpected song and you have yet another reason to believe that we have more traits in common as humans than some might think. Let’s have a toast to that, shall we?

This is my last post before I disappear for a month as I always do at this time of the year. It has been a very good twelve months during which I have listened to some fantastic music, read some great books and watched some very interesting and thought-provoking movies. Of course, I have also visited many good blogs on which I have seen some breath-taking photos, read some amazing poetry and well-crafted, entertaining posts. One of the reasons why I continue to blog after seven and a half years is that I feel part of a big family, an accepting family that keeps growing and getting stronger. Thank you all for your continuous feedback and support. And thank you for existing, too.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 11th January at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Taking the Plunge)

It is that time of the year when I think of the books, music and movies that made a deep impact on me in the previous twelve months. I usually share this information with you, my dear fellow bloggers and readers, in my last post of December but tonight I would rather use the space where I regularly muse on our multilingual world to promote two books I know some of you might enjoy. One of them I read over the summer just before I got on the plane to France. The other one I have just started and I can’t put down. Both volumes are my must-reads of 2014.

The first book is a novel called Heureux les Heureux. The title is taken after a line in a poem by the late, renowned Argentinian poet, essayist and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges. What catches the eyes immediately is the way this roman is structured: each chapter is a monologue through which the reader gets acquainted with the characters whilst the plot unravels. Bearing in mind that the author, Yasmina Reza is also a playwright, I found myself at times wondering where the bracketed and italicised stage directions had gone. The second book is called D’Autres Vies que la Mienne and deals with the aftermath of the terrible tsunami that devastated South East Asia ten years ago in 2004. It was an interesting and intriguing interview with the author, Emmanuel Carrère, in The Observer that made me want to investigate his writing further.

It was also the fact that both books were available in French.

I don’t read in French as much as I used to years ago and this has always been a cause for regret in my case. After spending three years learning the language and becoming fluent in it, I lost many of my oral and listening skills when I relocated to the UK. That is the reason why going back to the Gallic lexicon feels usually like travelling to another country, a familiar and friendly land, if only in my mind.

One of my two books of the year

Those of you who speak more than language and are fluent in it/them will probably recognise this phenomenon. It has probably been a while since you dabbled in unusual grammar and syntax constructions, so you get a book in the language in which you want to regain your fluency and you dip your big toe in the water first. No headfirst plunge, mind you, just a shy re-acquaintance. If the water is too cold, you close that first page and go back to your warm comfort zone. I did it a few years ago with a novel in German and I regret it now. My advice is, plough on, and make sure that you understand the reason why the water feels cold. You see, you have not swum in this beach for a long time. So, you must wade in the water first, and then little by little, ensuring you have got a firm footing (i.e., a good dictionary) you carry on, until the water level reaches your waist. It is only then, that you dive headfirst.

That is how reading in a foreign language, especially French and German (and more the former than the latter) feels to me. Like immersing myself in the vastness of a great big ocean. Along the way I am helped by friendly winks and nudges that reassure me I’ll be supported on my journey. In the case of books written in French I feel as if there is always an ellipsis hanging over the pages. Not a clear-cut omission of items in order to avoid repetition, but rather a mark or marks along the lines of  “...” that signify the sentiments and emotions left unexplained. Both Heureux les Heureux and D’Autres Vies que la Mienne are full of examples. In the former there is a character called Paola Suares, who is sleeping with a married man, Luc Condamine. Since his wife is not home, he decides to take Paola to his house. The scene that follows is full of small, descriptive details that render the situation absurd. Whilst he is taking his clothes off, ready to have sex with her, Paola is showing more interest in the house décor: “Luc a défait sa braguette. J’ai attend un peu. Il a libéré son sexe et tout à coup j’ai réalisé que le canapé était turquoise. Un turquoise chatoyant sous la lumière artificielle d’alcôve, et j’ai pensé qu’au milieu de reste était assez surprenant d’avoir choisi cette couleur de canapé. Je me suis demande qui était responsable de la décoration dans ce couple.” There is humour in the scene as well. The man unfastens his trousers but his female companion is more interested in the couch and its colour. The chapter ends on a more serious note, though, with Paola stating the obvious: you will never leave all this, will you? Luc’s elliptical response indicates that there is a suppression of thoughts. Thoughts that will come out in his monologue, pages later, but which, for the time being, will remain under wraps.

Those of us who live in a multilingual world, even if we forsake one of the languages in which we are fluent for a while, always have the opportunity to come back and take the plunge. But do not be afraid to dip your big toe in first. Should the water be cold, plough on, please, do plough on.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 14th December at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 7 December 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Dear Britain,

I never intended to make this letter public. You see, you and I have had our disagreements over the years but on the whole our relationship has been rather solid. I love you, Blighty, royal warts and all. But this latest twist of events in your current social affairs has got me worried.

I thought that the tide had turned against working class people. In my innocent Cuban mind, to call someone “working class” in 21st century Britain was to liken them to skivers, benefits fraudsters and scroungers. In this respect I had come to the conclusion that the Cameron-led coalition had unfortunately won.

How wrong I was. Not on the working class bit, mind you. They are still seen as “chavs” with all the negative bias that that word conveys. No, I was wrong because it is not just hoi polloi who are despised, but also posh people. Who would have thought that the very upper class so admired – envied, some might say – by many denizens on this pleasant and beautiful land are also derided and mocked?

Don’t believe me? Exhibit A: Andrew Mitchell. Now, if you are resident in the UK, you probably remember what got Andie in hot water last year. Apparently the former Conservative cabinet minister called a policeman a “pleb” after a verbal spat with the officer outside the Downing Street gate. Let’s forget for a moment the rather patronising comment by the high court judge who oversaw the case. To quote him verbatim, our learned friend opined that the officer in question was not the sort of man “who had the wit, the imagination... to invent in the spur of the moment what a senior cabinet minister would have said to him”. Make of that what you will. But what to say of Andrew Mitchell? Or rather, what did the papers say of him? They went for his jugular. At the centre of their attack on Mr Mitchell was that word, “pleb”. Like a swearword let out accidentally in a roomful of children in a nursery, this is one of those terms that has the label “toxic” scribbled all over it. It is also a word that carries with it a sense of superiority and entitlement on the part of the user.

I've made my point, you pleb! Now, I shall cycle off.

Sense of superiority could be the link to our Exhibit B: David Mellor. Another Conservative former cabinet minister, Mr Mellor found himself recently in a black cab with his wife leaving Buckingham Palace. Following a disagreement with the driver over which route to take, David Mellor proceeded to give the taxi driver a piece of his toff mind. What ensued was a volley of insults from the politician to the cabbie, from calling him a “smart-arsed little git” to that old do-you-know-who-I-am chestnut “I’ve been in the Cabinet, I’m an award-winning broadcaster, I’m a Queen ’s Counsel. You think that your experiences are anything compared to mine?” Unfortunately for David, the cab driver was recording him all along. On finding out that his arrogant tirade had been captured on record, Mr Mellor told a tabloid: “I will leave the public to judge his actions”.

I will leave you readers to judge his actions, too. And those of Andrew Mitchell. Two specimens who suffer from the same self-delusional illness that apparently makes its victims behave like total idiots. Idiots with a sense of superiority.

But Britain, back to you. I thought, I honestly thought that you would side with these two “sweaty, stupid little shits” (to use David Mellor’s words when confronting the cab driver. Don’t you love it when a supposedly erudite man stoops so low to show off his power?). After all, according to a recent documentary called Posh People: Inside Tatler, we are apparently fascinated by the lives of those who live “upstairs” whilst laughing at those who live “downstairs”. Yet, this is not what happened to David and Andrew. They were taken apart by both right-wing and left-wing media. Could it be that we are witnessing a grand occasion in the history of class in this nation? The moment when the playing field is finally being levelled? Or, could the reason be a more mundane one? Editors need to sell more newspapers and both stories were too good to take into consideration decades-old political allegiances. Let rip and rake in the profits.

Still, Britain, you owe me an answer. Proles or toffs? Plebs or posh? Who is really Public Enemy Number One?

Yours truly,

Your Favourite Cuban In London

© 2014

Photo taken from The Daily Telegraph

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 10th December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Killer Opening Songs (Song For My Father by Horace Silver)

Kind of Blue is the go-to album for people who are first introduced to jazz. Whether initially averse to the genre or curious about its intrinsic musical patterns, neophytes are usually given Miles Davis 1959 masterpiece as a way to join the ever-expanding jazz community. That is why Kind of Blue has remained such a powerful symbol of the coolness of jazz.

This is not fair on other equally ground-breaking records, however. There’s Alice Coltrane’s harp-driven, lyrical and sublime third album, Ptah, the El Daoud, Mary Lou Williams’ groovy and blues-infused Free Spirits and ass-kicking (pardon K.O.S.’s French) Horace Silver’s 1965 LP Song forMy Father.

Killer Opening Songs will concentrate on the third of these three albums tonight. Inspired by a trip Horace Silver made to Brazil, Song for My Father was one of Blue Note’s signature records from the sixties. Silver’s mother was of Irish and black descent, and his father was originally from Cape Verde. The influence of this ethnic mix on Horace is what makes Song for My Father such an enjoyable record.

Equally, part of what makes the record successful is the Killer Opening Song, the title song that is dedicated to Horace’s father, John Tavares Silva. This melody is quintessential hard bop with a funk element added in for good measure. Uncharacteristically it is not the binomial of drum and bass that kicks off the track but Horace’s deeply, swinging, groovy piano accompanied by tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson (although in the clip below both trumpet and saxophone come in at the same time at the outset). The feel of not just the Introductory Track with Murder Tendencies but of the whole album is one of ebullience and optimism. Calcutta Cutie has an air of eeriness about it whilst Que Pasa is a foot-tapping, catchy little number.

Now that Christmas is almost here, maybe it’s time to revisit your gift lists (if you are in the habit of making them up) and include this gem of a record. After all, it is not only Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue that has the knack to express the coolness of jazz, but also Horace Silver’s Song for My Father. And once again it is partly down to the Killer Opening Song.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 7th December at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 30 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I have mentioned here before my parents’ divorce when I was a teenager. What I haven’t done is give details of the long, tortuous process their separation was. One reason is simple to understand: what I reveal about my personal life is I want other people to know. To me there is still such a thing as privacy. The second reason is that the leading characters in what was a three-actor play are still alive and kicking and although my parents can’t speak English (my dad can mumble a bit in it) I wouldn’t like anyone to translate a post in which they are misrepresented. The third reason is that I am still trying to come to terms with what happened in the build-up to my parents’ marital disintegration and the conflicts that ensued thereafter. This post addresses this very third reason.

The trigger for this column was the results of a recent survey published this week by an association of family lawyers called Resolution. Its chief focus was on the damage divorce does to children. According to the poll, some of the harmful effects to youngsters caused by separation were an increase in drug consumption and academic failure, amongst others.

I agree with the study in principle. But I would have also liked to have seen a link between an unhappy marriage and the same effects described above in relation to divorce. Whilst parents splitting up permanently can be detrimental to the mental, physical and spiritual health of a young person, a marriage where there is a lack of respect is equally poisonous.

Think of the little people, please
 When I look back on my childhood, I remember seeing around me friends whose parents had separated. With the sole exception of two (including me), the majority of my mates lived in single households. At that point I had close to twenty friends, enough for two baseball teams with a couple of pinch-hitters on the bench. They felt jealous of me on account of my status as the child with the – still – two married parents, but I saw no reason for their envy since I was the only one who knew what was going on at home. What went on at home was a mix of hostility, rowing, bickering and cheating (my dad on my mum). The fact that this situation stretched for three or four years made it worse. This is, I believe, where the sanctity of the marriage institution comes into question: is it better for a couple to stay together for the sake of their children or go their separate ways and stay on good terms? Resolution’s survey does not address this issue, but why should they? Imagine polling the same amount of young people who averred to psychological, emotional and physical trauma as a consequence of their parents’ divorce and asking them what the situation was like when their folks were still together. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to find out that the damage started earlier, probably long before family lawyers got involved.

My experience was far from unique. I have spoken to other people who survived marital breakdown when they were younger and most of us seem to arrive at the conclusion that when our parents finally read the last rites to their relationship we felt liberated. I know it sounds selfish and unfair but the almost absolute silence that greeted me at home eevry day after my dad upped sticks and moved with his mistress was soothing. That the din that eventually replaced the peace was a combination of my adolescent hormones conflicting with my mother’s anxiety is not relevant to this post today.

When it comes to divorce and its effects on youngsters, I think that sometimes people rush to make comments that lack empirical evidence, either because they are after a soundbite or because deep down they want to uphold the values and morals of institutions they still regard highly, i.e., marriage. It is fair to say that there are amicable separations in which there is minimum damage to children and marital unions that are really a sham. The latter ends up causing more harm and hurt than we might think. That is one survey whose results I would like to see.

© 2014

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 3rd December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 27 November 2014

Urban Dictionary

Urban Revolutionary (n):        A latter-day species commonly found in the region comprising the postcodes EC1, EC2, E8, N1, N8, NW1 and NW3 in London. Urban revolutionaries are a natural progression from previous species, including the Anarchic Anti-capitalist Protester and the Bearded Socialist. In the case of the Urban Revolutionary, he (also a “she”, but we’ll settle for masculine for now), he is the result of a strange mix of late 90s ‘oxton gentrification and mid-noughties Shoreditch hipsterism.

Urban Revolutionaries are socially active creatures with deep concerns about the state of our world. In this respect their role in society is to be welcomed. However, URs (don’t we love acronyms?) have a weakness: most of their activism happens online. Whereas both the Anti-capitalist Protester (the name is self-explanatory) and the Bearded Socialist took to the streets in the past to show their displeasure at the way our modern polities were run, the Urban Revolutionary’s best friend is the mouse. Not the rodent, but the computer one. And sometimes not even the palm-sized, technological version of a real Muridae, because who needs a pointing device when one has a smartphone?

Fashion-wise, the Urban Revolutionary look is über-chic, poster-boy Russell Brand, from the out-and-proud teeth (in permanent “smirk”mode, especially when interviewed by Evan Davis) to the Jesus-like hair and beard. Tight-fitting T-shirts and skinny jeans complete the sartorial package.

Time for a comeback?
In the past, the battlefield against globalisation was Seattle, for instance. Nowadays it is At the click of a mouse you can start your own petition and the Urban Revolutionary has been at the forefront of this new approach to politics. In his favour, he has the vigour of youth, a good, all-round education and possibly, although not always, an affluent background. On the other hand, critics are quick to point out the short-termism of his campaigns. This could be seen as a detrimental factor in – paradoxically – putting people off politics. Too many campaigns being waged at the same time deprive a social movement of the necessary pabulum it feeds off. There are further complications in that, when trying to mobilise support for a cause he deems just, the Urban Revolutionary might overlook the root causes of the problem. You can quite rightly campaign to ban a misogynist from entering Britain, but it would be better to look at the reasons why some people thought it was a good idea to invite him in the first place. Whilst some might rage at an art exhibition that supposedly denigrates a particular ethnic group, Bob Geldoff and his merry Band Aid 30 get away once again with patronising Africans with the three-decade-old question: Do They Know It’s Christmas? They bloody do, Sir Bob, they bloody do. But sadly, the Urban Revolutionary is not available to start an online petition to stop this musical travesty. He is too busy, clicking, swiping, clicking, swiping, clicking and swiping... ad infinitum.

© 2014

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

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

You might think that 28 million quid is a lot of dough these days but apparently it ain’t. Well, even two million quid is not a lot, according to Mylene Klass. You can’t even get a decent garage in London for that kind of money to live in, as she reminded the hapless leader of the opposition, Ed Milliband recently. But £28m is not a lot of money either, especially if you are a female artist like Georgia O’ Keeffe. Her Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 sold for that figure last week in New York. However, when compared to her male counterparts, O’ Keeffe’s auctioned piece is dwarfed by the prices fetched by works of art by the likes of Picasso and Pollock. In a sort of journalistic hara-kiri piece, The Guardian’s chief arts critic, Jonathan Jones, blamed men like him who have long championed male artists over female ones.

Jonathan’s article made me think that there were parallels here between female artists and female writers. Even as the landscape of publishing has drastically altered in the last ten to fifteen years with the advent of the internet and all technological developments related to it, the field of literature, prizes and recognition remains very male, and I would dare say, very white, middle-class and middle-aged.  “Field of literature” refers in this case mainly to the perception of it, rather than the output. When it comes to output women might actually outnumber men, although I have not got any figures to back that statement up. It just feels that way. The internet and self-publishing, especially, have served well the female of the species. Yet, here is the crux of the matter. Prolific female writers are still judged on the genre in which they write rather on the transcendence of their work, unlike their male compatriots. Occasionally women are given the keys to the club, but on the whole the Picassos and Pollocks of the written word still guard the entrance. An example that comes to mind is the excellent short-story  writer Alice Munro. Profiled everywhere, from The New Yorker, to The London Review of Books, Alice should be seen as a game-changing writer in her own right. Yet the language most critics use when focusing on her work seems to imply that Alice Munro is a niche or even a cult author. Contrast that with Updike, DeLillo and Franzen. The phrase “The Great American Novel” is never far behind.

Does any of this matter? No, it doesn’t, and it probably wouldn’t if writers were judged solely on merit. But that’s not the reality. The knock-on effect of this perception of some male authors as epoch-making and female writers as niche-creators (chick-lit anyone?) is that literature becomes a marketing playground on which readers are easily duped with shiny toys. Not all readers, granted, many of us can still think for ourselves, but gender division and its implications is a dream scenario for a publicity company. If you want proof of this, how about this: you may think you know who I am but you are wrong. In reality I am a 60-year-old woman who has a disposable income of more than £1,000 a month. My favourite food is Vichysoisse soup (I had to look that name up, by the way) and I enjoy going to the theatre. Oh, and I have a cat. Obviously, you probably know that I don’t have any pets and that I am forty-three years old. Oh, and before I forget, I am a bloke. How did we arrive at that description? Through my love of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels and the few short stories by her I have read in other publications. It turns out that fans of Mantel’s fiction fit the category I mentioned first. According to a YouGov Profiles service we, readers, can be labelled according to the writers we follow. The reality is more complex, as we know, but isn’t this “boxing-in” attitude a consequence of the same phenomenon I explained before? Do you think that fans of Ian McEwan have to worry about being stereotyped? Not a bit, because the author they have been identified with is one of those game-changers, who has been trying to write “The Great British Novel” with his mates Amis and Rushdie since the 80s. Meanwhile Sarah Waters gets on with what she does best: writing brilliant, best-selling novels, but apparently, no epoch-making ones.

Hilary Mantel: reading her makes me change my sex and age
Maybe I am just letting off steam. After all, it’s not every day that I open the paper and realise that someone has changed my sex overnight without my permission, adding a few more years in the process. The irony is that the article about the YouGov Profiles service came straight after one about a campaign gaining ground currently in the UK in which readers want to “let books be books”. This means that books should not come with a tag attached to them that says they are either for boys or girls. I quite agree with the campaign. I’m willing to start another campaign called “Let Readers Be Readers”. My gut feeling is that it would probably change the perception we have, not just of readers, but also of writers and their transcendence. Maybe we could start with a donation of 28 million quid. After all, apparently that’s not a lot of money.

© 2014

Photo taken from The Guardian website

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Thursday 27th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 23 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A few years ago I found myself in conversation with a colleague at my previous school but one. She was older than me with grown-up children of her own and inevitably our chat turned to parenting. She was doing most of the talking and I was doing most of the listening as I thought that someone of her experience would have some handy tips for a parent like me, about to embark on the “terrible teenage years” with my son. There was one comment she made, however, that left me questioning some of the strategies my wife and I had deployed when bringing our children up.

My colleague said in all seriousness that she didn’t expect her children to put her in a care home when she reached her twilight years. She wanted to be looked after by her offspring in the comfort of their homes (I imagine that she meant that her children would take turns looking after their mum). I remember being taken aback by her confident and casual manner. It was almost as if she had already arranged her care plans for her elderly years. When I asked her what her children thought about her decision she did not hesitate to answer: “That’s the deal and they know it. I looked after them when they were little. I wiped their bottoms, changed their nappies, I fed them and took them to the doctor’s when they were ill. I expect them to reciprocate when I am unable to fend for myself.”

A question mark on her face: Who is going to look after me?

So, the answer in short was, her children had not been consulted. It was the sort of agreement that tacitly implies that if you are a child you pay back to your parents whatever they invested in you in the first place. At this point I have to add that my ex-colleague was originally from the subcontinent, probably India, although I’m not totally sure. This element is important when it comes to analysing family dynamics. I have noticed, as I’m sure others have, especially those based in the British Isles that families from traditional backgrounds function differently to those in which both parents were born here. My ex-workmate was a sari-wearing, proud Asian mother. We always used to have good conversations in the staff room but it was only on this occasion and in future interactions thereafter that I noticed her mentioning these expectations she had so well described before. Moreover, it transpired through our regular chats that this was the standard in her culture; not just respect for the elders, but also to care for them.

This conversation left me with a puzzle. Have my wife and I been doing the wrong thing? I asked myself. Maybe we should have thought of our mature years and ensured that our children got the message that they were meant to look after us (not at the same time, I hope) because we have done the same all these years for them. Perhaps we ought to treat this period of our children’s lives like a pension fund and put our savings in them. Yet, there is another part of me that says that this is unfair. Please, do not get me wrong, I still think that respect for our elders is paramount and that no matter how ill, infirm or mentally unstable an older person may be, she or he deserves the most humane treatment there is available. At the same time, foisting responsibility on to the young shoulders of our offspring for our well-being might backfire in the long term. I can imagine all kinds of situations arising; none of them conducive to a conscious effort on the part of the young person to soothe and cushion the effects of the passing of life on an older member of society. This is one of those scenarios where coercion, soft or hard, does not work.

It is different in more traditional families, especially those in Africa and Asia. I think that my neck of the woods, Latin America, has for many years been under the influence of western lifestyles and this has had a knock-on effect on family dynamics. Still, there are remnants of this palliative care in some countries, but on the whole, we tend to send our elderly away to care homes to be fed and dressed by strangers. Professionals, yes, but still strangers.

Part of this, I think, lies in the fact that it is less difficult to develop an emotional and affectionate bond for a new-born. With babies, our natural parental instinct kicks in immediately, even from the time they are still in mummy’s belly. There is also the element of a fully conscious individual, us, caring for one who is not fully aware of all the attention she is getting, nor who is giving this attention and what it means. Fast-forward many decades hence and the situation you come across is the following: two fully conscious individuals, one of whom is the aforementioned parent, but now rendered almost powerless by that phenomenon called Time. I am mainly referring to those cases where an older person cannot look after themselves. There are many cases of perfectly independent elderly citizens who lead a healthy, active life well beyond their retirement age. I say to them: “I hope to join your club when I reach your age”. But the truth is that cases of vulnerable older people left to their own devices outnumber those who are self-sufficient. As I mentioned before, the dilemma is the erstwhile child getting to grips with the fact that it is their mum or dad who relies on them now. This situation is further complicated if the relationship between progenitor and offspring has been damaged at some point, or whether one of the parents was an authoritarian figure in the past and this caused frictions in the family unit. The dynamics between grown-up child and aging parent will change drastically with unforeseen consequences for both camps. Furthermore, witnessing the slow and unavoidable physical and mental deterioration of people who until recently were of sound mind and body, might trigger off thoughts of mortality in these grown-up, but still young, children. I would not be surprised if a form of (self) denial were to make its presence known in their attitudes to their parents and other elderly people.

At this point I return to my previous question: is it fair to treat children as an investment or as a pension fund into which we put all our savings hoping to make use of these savings when we hit retirement age? Whilst in more traditional societies this might be the norm, the truth of the matter is that our world is changing fast. A shrinking labour market means that sometimes you will find your dream job not in the vicinity of the house where you grew up with your mum and dad, but thousands of miles away, in another country. Globalisation means that intercultural unions are becoming the norm with the usual relocation. Also, the concept of the nuclear family as we used to know it has been turned on its head – for the better, in my humble opinion – which means that nowadays it is mum and dad, only mum, only dad, mum and mum, dad and dad, or grandparents. All this has a knock-on effect on the way we look after our elders when they can't fend for themselves.

In an ideal world, I would like there to be the option for children of fragile, elderly parents to ensure that the latter can spend the rest of their lives in total comfort in a care home. Or, if the children so wish, the choice to look after their parents in their own house with some support from the government. To me it is giving back rather than paying back (I don’t like that phrase in the context of parenting) to these people, the majority of whom have made a valuable contribution to society.

This is a complex issue, and one that I have only begun to make sense of in recent years as my children keep growing up and I keep getting older. Unconditional love for my little ones means that I ought not to be thinking of any obligation on their part to change my clothes, bathe me or feed me if they don’t want to. At the same time, there is another part of me that would appreciate being cared for by the people to whom I gave life. Or at least not being tossed in the scrapheap as it has happened to others. Now that I have found my voice on this subject, I would love to run into my ex-colleague and ask her how her plans for her twilight years are shaping up. Something tells me that her answer will not have changed.

© 2014

Photo taken from Lens Snippets

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Tuesday 25th November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 16 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

And in the end what are we all,
A brick from the old Berlin wall?
Somebody’s question or someone’s answer
A puzzle spinning like a dancer?

What are we all? I asked before,
Creatures we are, under the floor,
The maligned rat, the tiny mouse,
In darkness roaming through the house.

We are the dust that in the wind
Became the song that Kansas dreamed
We are the chords of the guitar
Carrying our life’s score very far

What in the end are we, us, all?
The misheard word, the miskicked ball
Sometimes shaming us for years to come
Till we learn that of the bread we’re but one crumb

Is this us in the mirror, us all?
Is this our reflection, no fear to fall?
Or is it the mask we don for the show
Shielding our selves, our ids, our souls

We can be lovers, good friends or traitors
Of our exhibit the sole curators
Of our performance we’re the one actor
One piece, one act. The theme? Fear factor

What are we all, in this one life?
We’re gain and loss, accord and strife
We are the hauling, dragging and pulling
We’re also the thrusting, shoving and pushing

And in the end, what are we all?
Same question, yes, but, please, don’t call
Phone down, give me no answer
I am still learning from the dancer.

Two things first. It is my birthday today and for only the third or fourth time in my life I have dared to write a poem in English.

To the first one of these two things. Although it is an occasion for me to celebrate – and indeed I am celebrating – this birthday poem was inspired by a recent sad experience. Earlier this year we lost an unbelievable colleague at the school where I work. She was a nursery teacher who had been a member of the staff for many, many years, to the point where some of the current teachers and teaching assistants were taught by this amazing teacher when they themselves were little. I got to know this incredible human being very well, despite the fact that when she died I had been at my primary school for less than a year. Some people make you feel welcome just by looking at you. My colleague was one of those people. She also had a great sense of humour. About a year ago to the day she and I attended a training session near King's Cross station. There was a tube strike that day which affected our journey. I got to the venue about ten minutes before she did. But when she came into the room it felt as if she had just lit it up. Some people have that effect. As our headteacher read the tributes written by the staff, the first line of today’s poem started sounding in my head: what are we all? In the end, what are we? That line took my head as its abode and didn’t leave me alone from that day until recently. I knew I had to do something but I didn’t know what or how.

The second thing today. I knew I had a poem in me. Not a short story. I knew it had to be a poem because that line ended in “all”. And I could come up with all kinds of rhymes and combinations to develop the theme. The theme of what? I mentioned fear factor in the poem, but it’s more than that. It’s the theme of mortality and the way we see ourselves and our selves. Whether we believe that we have accomplished everything by the time the Grim Reaper pokes its ugly head in, taps us on our shoulder and tells us it's time to go or we think that there’s a lot of work to be done still. And are we humans really that far apart from the “others” (plants, animals, dust, etc.) that we can afford to behave in such a solipsistic way?


We’re connected in a way of which we might not be aware sometimes. This idea of a gigantic network of people, things and animals might have been hijacked by the New Age brigade and its spin-offs but strip the layers that make us who we are and at the core you will find the dust, the - beautiful – contradictions and the tiny mouse.

I couldn’t give two monkeys about the quality of the poem or lack of it thereof. I really don’t. It's not praise I'm after but steam I'm letting off. I don’t care which style (if any) the poem falls under. That’s why I don’t think I could ever belong to a writers’ collective or rise up to the challenge of writing a sonnet, or haiku, or suchlike on commission. I just couldn’t do it. I feel jealous of people who can, though. I like making up and breaking my own rules. And because I “discovered” the English language on my own at a young age, I have always believed that English and I have a special relationship. Like two brothers or a brother and a sister, or two good mates who fall out every now and then (all those “likes” and “sos”, "sortas" and "kindas" and rising intonation at the end of statements?) but who always find their way back into the friendship.

That still does not deviate from the fact that writing in a foreign language is very hard. Terribly hard. Believe me; I do it day in, day out, week in, week out. I do it as a hobby and professionally. At the same time there’s a pleasure to be had, mixing, stirring, decanting and tasting sentences, words and connectors. I wouldn’t be able to write this blog if I didn’t derive pleasure from doing it.

So, there you have it. A poem inspired by the life and work of an extraordinary person who is sadly no longer amongst us, posted on the day I celebrate adding another candle to this cake I call life and which you might call something else. I would like to raise a glass of apple juice (I’m teetotal, remember) to you all and ask you to keep posing the same question to others and to yourselves: and in the end, what are we all?

© 2014

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

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Urban Diary

Across the road they huddle together. A sea of hoodies paints my urban landscape in dark greys, navy blues and blacks. Splashed all over the front of their tops are famous brands that pay the hoodies nothing for promoting their products. The luminous sign advertising yet another link in the ubiquitous KFC chain is their meeting place, market, Freud's reclining couch and work experience office. I lean against a lamppost whilst waiting for the bus. A couple of bikes with no brakes are ridden, their front wheels are raised and daredevil acts are performed on them. In the middle of the road. A gaggle of laughs elicits from the group and travels steadily and slowly through the evening air, stopping oncoming pedestrians on the spot, making them do a double-take and finally persuading them to cross the street subtly. Ever so subtly. Nobody wants to venture through the sea of hoodies, but nobody wants to be seen avoiding them either.

Perhaps, this is SE15, E8 or N17. It would be different if it were N10. Then the hoodies would not be up, covering the mainly black heads fully, like urban hijabs of the night, but down, with their owners feeling part of the hoodie fraternity without sharing its stigma.

The east-northerly, cool breeze mentioned earlier today on the BBC’s morning weather forecast makes its presence known. The last of the languid rays of the autumn sun dies behind one of the high-rises. The wind suddenly picks up. I spot my bus. As I put my own Chelsea hoodie up and adjust it in a way that it only covers my head up to my hairline, I see out of the corner of my eye a woman take two steps to her left away from me. Just before the bus pulls over and blocks my view I look at the clowder of feline-like figures across the road. And not for the first time I feel some sympathy for them, even if sometimes I am one of those avoiding them, subtly.

© 2014

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

Sunday 9 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Aged fourteen I developed an unhealthy obsession with my physics teacher. I hated him. I wasn’t alone in my aversion to him Most of my (male) classmates shared my visceral loathing. In our eyes he justified our dislike. With his thick moustache and short height he looked caricatural to our adolescent eyes. To make matters worse (for him), he used to ogle our female classmates at every opportunity, even sitting behind his desk in a way in which he could see their knickers when the girls accidentally opened their legs too wide. As a consequence of this animosity (mutual as it turned out; he also hated us), this physics teacher flunked us all boys, five or six of us, in our final year in secondary school. As I waited to re-sit my exam in the early part of the summer holiday I fantasised about hurting him. Hurting him, not killing him.

This is the reason why I find the case of Will Cornick, the adolescent who killed his Spanish teacher, Ann Maguire, so hard to reason out.

My initial reaction was one of disgust and sadness. The latter for the teacher and her family. Apparently she had been a model of an educator, a dedicated, committed professional, always thinking about the children. My disgust was caused mainly when details of the case surfaced. Apparently Will Cornick had already expressed his intentions to hurt Ann Maguire. As sentence was passed this week these alleged facts became reality. Ann Maguire’s murder had not been a spur-of-the-moment act. Will had deliberately targeted his Spanish teacher.

Yet, another side of me emerged and I can’t say that I was surprised to see it, even though this happened at an unconscious level. Being exposed to Will Cornick’s babyish face, splashed across all newspapers and television news bulletins, made me think of my own children, especially my sixteen-year-old son. Will was fifteen when he killed Ann.  He was given life with a minimum tariff of twenty years, although the judge said that he might never be released.

How fair are you?

Whilst I sympathise with Ann Maguire’s family and condemn Will’s actions, I also feel that the sentence reflects more the public mood than actual justice. So many elements conspire against the punishment meted out to Cornick. First of all, he used social media to make his hatred against Ann Maguire as clear and vocal as possible. No one picked up on that despite the fact that we all know that we are being spied upon by government agencies and corporations. Where’s GCHQ when you need it? Secondly, in the wake of the trial there were some reports saying that Cornick himself confessed to wanting to be caught and put in prison. Surely this points at an unstable state of mind. That leads me to the third conclusion which involves the trial itself. Apparently Will Cornick showed no emotion for his actions. But, as the parent of any adolescent can tell you, this is part of teenagers’ personality. They don’t need to kill someone to show you that they don’t care whether it is their responsibility to take the rubbish out every night or not. I might sound glib but what I’m trying to say is that an adolescent is not a fully formed person; they are half way out of childhood and half way on the road to adulthood.

There’s still another side of me that struggles with these feelings of compassion towards Will Cornick. It is the side that is married to a teacher, albeit my wife works at a primary school. According to reports from former colleagues, parents and her own family, Ann Maguire summed up what education is for. She was a kind person who believed in the “innate goodness of children and young people”. So, looking at it from this point of view, Will deserves a harsh punishment. But this harsh punishment must be accompanied by a thorough and far-reaching programme of rehabilitation. He has to understand what he has done. Leaving him in jail forever and ever says more about us as a society than it says about him as a young offender. If a person as young as fifteen murders an outstanding teacher and at sixteen shows no remorse for what they have done, surely alarm bells should ring and professional support must be given.

I confess that I am torn on this issue. Part of me thinks as the father and the other part as the husband. Part of me wants Will Cornick to be punished, but the other part would rather the punishment had an effect on Will’s understanding of what he did and why it was wrong. Teenagers are famous for not knowing right from wrong sometimes. Or choosing not to know, as the cynic inside me would probably say.

I feel that Will Cornick is being made a scapegoat and his sentence used for political purposes. Especially now as we gear up for a general election in six months’ time. Locking Cornick up and throwing away the key masquerades the fact that many young people with chronic mental, social and emotional problems can’t access the services they need because these services have lost their funding and consequently closed.

By murdering Ann Maguire, Will Cornick committed a terrible and despicable crime. But are we punishing him for his actions or are we using him to divert attention from more important issues? Sadly as it usually happens in cases like this, the truth is the real casualty and I'm afraid no one will get a life sentence for killing it.

© 2014

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


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