Wednesday 28 May 2014

Let's Talk About...

... erections. Sorry, I meant elections. Elections. Is that clear? Let’s talk about elections. With a big, massive, capital “L”. E-lec-tions.

Although, come to think of it, given the amount of testosterone displayed in the last couple of weeks in the local and European elections here in the UK, we might as well leave that “r” hanging in there, a tumescent poisoning of the political landscape.

Our politicians might still carry the look of late 90s, early noughties  metrosexual man (I challenge you, reader, to tell Nick Clegg and David Cameron apart, the two of them standing together on a dark corner around midnight. C’mon, c’mon, you know you’ll fail). They might still try to present a clean-shaven, soft, almost effete face to us proles, but scratch the surface and it’s still the same rampant machismo underneath.

Let’s talk about the recent local and Euro(pria)pean elections. Especially, let’s talk about women’s absence from the political scene. The sole female voice heard above the din of brawny, male vocal power was that of Natalie Bennett’s, leader of the Green Party. She was given a ten-minute slot on Radio Four, of which half that time was taken up by the interviewer rudely interrupting Natalie to ask her a question she was already in the process of answering before being so rudely interrupted. Then, Farage was given twice as long. I bet he was probably holding a pint in his right hand and a ciggie in his left as he made sure that each soundbite came out the way his supporters wanted it. The dirty old sod! But that’s why his army of Ukipers love him (doesn’t the word “Ukiper” feel like “Belieber”, the term used to describe Justin Bieber’s contingent of screaming, deranged, cult-following devotees?). He is Nigel the Lad, one of the boys. Proper English bitter in hand.

Priapus: the face of British politics
Let’s talk about the vacuum in British politics of female power. Not girl power, no. I was never a fan of the Spice Girls and it always seemed to me a tad bit suspicious that girl power had to come wrapped up in a mini-skirt with the Union flag stamped all the way around it.  No, I’d rather talk about the absence of women from politics and the need to have them as part of our discussion on policies and laws. Especially with so many women bearing the brunt of the coalition’s cut-throat measures. With a general election a year away I am fed up of the shouting, screaming and hysterics our political debates are peppered with. And that’s just the (male) presenters on the Today programme. What we need is the calmer, reassuring tone that women bring to politics. You don’t even have to agree with their politics. I am not a supporter of the Green Party myself, although many of their policies are appealing enough for me to consider them as my second option. But what will certainly drive me round the bend from now until May 2015 will be to see yet again three (or four now, with the rise of Ukip) men trying to out-muscle each other verbally whilst the essence of their message, i.e., their policies, gets lost amidst a sea of semantic fisticuffs.

Mind you, this is mainly applicable to English and Welsh politics. In Scotland the Member of the Scottish Parliament and Deputy Leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon is packing up a mighty punch with the upcoming vote on Scottish independence. Her radio interviews and television appearances have so far shown a calm, articulate and determined politician. Again, I am not a fan of her or the SNP (in fact, I don’t even know whether I would vote for them if I lived in Scotland), but she brings balance to a rather phallus-centric world.

Let’s talk about politics and let’s talk about the lack of balance between male and female power in this area. It is the only way we can ensure that we don’t mistake “elections” for “erections” ever again.

© 2014

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

Sunday 25 May 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

At the time of writing it is not clear whether the six young Iranians detained this week over their performance of the Pharrell Williams’ song Happy were paraded on state television in the buff or not. What is known is that they were arrested, forced to do squats with no clothes on and humiliated. The nude appearance on telly might be apocryphal. Given the social mores that govern the Islamic republic the clerics would have had to reach for the smelling salts.

But can you be happy in Iran dancing to "Happy"?
It never ceases to amaze me the various reactions to the same phenomenon. Pharrell’s chart hit is as innocuous as it gets. A beautiful, catchy late spring/summer tune that makes you want to hop on one leg and sing out of tune.

Or that makes you happy.

On happiness, a few months ago I was reading about a study on this subject carried out by Warwick University. It found that on average people in the UK seem to be quite content with their lives. The jury is still out as to whether this is a result of economic stagnation (and knowing that you ain’t getting no more dosh for the foreseeable future) or because you know where you stand financially and adapt to this situation. You know you have less money but you are not totally poor. If I were to be completely frank and sincere and as you know I use this space on Sundays to expand on my (honest) theories, this outcome is a tad bit surprising. I mean no offence, my dear British brothers and sisters, but you do very often come across as a miserable lot. Take the simple question of asking someone about the time. In Cuba, you would probably say: what time is it? whilst pointing at the person’s wrist. Or you would use: do you have the time? with a similar accompanying action. In the UK the average person will ask: you don’t happen to have the time, do you? already setting themselves up for a response in the negative even if the person being questioned is sporting a massive golden Rolex on her/his wrist.

Yet, this approach to life is what makes the British British. It is what makes people (including yours truly) leap out of joy when Andy Murray – finally! – wins at Wimbledon and Mo Farah does the Mobot on the podium as a gold medal is placed aroud his neck. This is the attitude that makes Jack Dee and Charlie Brooker the great stand-ups they are. British miserableness is fertile ground for satire and mick-taking. Take away the misery and the comedy changes.

Happiness is a rather subjective and circumstantial issue. Back in 2011 we had a survey from the Office for National Statistics on happiness and well-being. Amongst the questions asked was: “How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” Two weeks ago my response would have been: “Not a lot. Thank you very much”, as Chelsea, despite finishing third in the Premier League won not one single piece of silverware, the Yankees, as usual in the last few years, were making me “a nervous wreck” (to quote Gil-Scott Heron), Cameron was still in No 10 (and will be until next year, alas) and I kept seeing Nigel Farage’s grinning mug with pint in hand all over the gaffe. Not a lot? Sorry, correction. Not satisfied at all. Ask me the same question now and I will answer in a rather more positive tone. My job is going well (I have been at this school for just over a year now. Love the head, my colleagues, the pupils and the parents), my family is fine and the weather has been glorious of late. That is the circumstantial bit. Someone else, however, might be going through hell. That’s the subjective part. What if you don’t like the sun or warm temperatures? Then, this weather for you is the devil incarnate.

With these thoughts swarming in my head I came to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, you, my British brothers and sisters are not that miserable after all. It’s all a façade. A façade to avoid disappointment. Whilst in Brazil football fans have already arranged the float on which they will parade the World Cup trophy over here the England manager, Roy Hodgson is psyching himself up for a quarter-final penalty shoot-out against Germany. And how not to lose it. Should Brazil crash out in the group stages of the tournament there will probably be suicides en masse in the carioca nation. Should England go and do the impossible, win the World Cup, journalists will stop mocking Roy Hodgson’s accent. It’s all to do with perspectives, subjectivity and circumstance.

In the same way that salsa-dancing (and being good at it) has platitudinously attached itself to the vision people have of Cubans, being a curmudgeon has become a byword for the British character. Scratch the surface, however, and you will find the reason why that Warwick university study found that many Britons are happy with their lot in life. They are indeed; they just don’t want you to know it. That is why the Happy video has been received so warmly on these shores. To the point where many schools, including the one where I’m based have done their own version with staff and students. Miserable, the British? Not a bit.

Occasionally I come across artists who leave me speechless, gob agape. Ahmed Dickinson Cárdenas is one of those artists. This Cuban guitarist has transformed one of my country’s oldest traditions: the filin. Originally from the English word “feeling”, this genre developed between the late 40s and early 50s, reaching its apogee at the same time as Fidel’s troops were entering Havana. Ahmed’s compositions draw from a rich, musical pool. He was also fortunate enough to work very closely with the late Cuban master José Antonio (Ñico) Rojas, a virtuoso of filin. I hope you enjoy this Sunday offering.

© 2014

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About...”, to be published on Wednesday 28th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Urban Dictionary

Karl Marx: providing comfort for wanna-be socialists since 1818
Armchair socialist (n)

An urban species ((mainly male, white, middle-class and middle-aged) in danger of extinction but still common enough to be an object of derision and embarrassment for progressives, sorry, of interest for scientists in the field of social psychology.

The armchair socialist is easy to recognise. He – for it is mainly a “he” with whom we are dealing here – usually sports a beard, sandals (Birkenstock used to be his trademark, but nowadays he has branched out into other brands) with white socks and vest/T-shirt/or similar attire. In winter he usually wears dark clothes with no visible labels. Headwear includes berets (à la Che Guevara), wide-brimmed hats or beanies. Although there have been sightings in rural areas, the armchair socialist remains primarily an urban specimen. His habitat, when not sitting in... you guessed it... his armchair, is mainly in demos, sit-ins and protests. He still uses the archaic word “comrade”, which might give an indication as to the time-warp in which this individual operates.

At first sight the armchair socialist could be mistaken for some of the other eccentric creatures that populate these isles. But there is a big difference: celebrating Christmas every day of the year, including the 25th December, is eccentric. Supporting a socioeconomic system with a political apparatus, which is often totalitarian and despotic, without throwing your lot in with the people who have to withstand said regime, is not. However, no matter how many times one tries to explain this to an armchair socialist, he will bat those questions away with some quote from Marx or similar figure.

Compared to other urban species such as the chronic racist, the faux provocateur and the clownish populist, the armchair socialist poses the least danger to society. After all his ideas about a fair, egalitarian polity where workers own the means of production are ones with which the owner of this blog toyed many years ago in his childhood and early youth. And yet... the armchair socialist’s political position, though not harmful at first, can be as lethal in the long-term as any of the theories promoted by the species mentioned above. Because of his ethnic, social and economic make-up the armchair socialist has, unconsciously or not (and who’s to say he is not aware of his power?) much more leverage than a citizen born and raised in the country on whose behalf the armchair socialist lobbies. To wit, the armchair socialist always has the answers to problems that arise in countries with which he sympathises. Countries that are, it goes without saying, abroad. Some of which the armchair has never even visited, let alone lived in them.

This idealistic trait is not the only dangerous element in the armchair socialist’s persona. A commitment to the “cause” makes him behave in ways that he normally finds repulsive in his enemies, i.e., those who sing the praises of capitalism. For instance, in order to pursue his political agenda the armchair socialist will think nothing of forcing a fellow female comrade to have ALLEGEDLY sexual intercourse with him. As recent cases have demonstrated when it comes to rape, sexual assault and bullying, everything goes. As long as it’s for the “cause”. Even if we still have to use the word ALLEGEDLY when discussing said cases.

Mutations of this species have occurred in the last fifteen, almost twenty years. The anti-capitalist demonstrations in Seattle at the end of the 90s gave us a cadre of disenfranchised and less socialist-minded young people. The Occupy movement a few years ago solidified this trend, based more on the Naomi Kleins of this world than good ol’ Marx. It is true that there was an “I told you so” moment in 2008 after the banking crisis, when the armchair socialist, like a Jehovah witness who has long awaited the end of the world in order to be proved right, thought his time had come. But political apathy and socialism’s own dirty past put paid to that notion.

To the question of whether the armchair socialist will survive as a species the only answer Urban Dictionary can come up with is that it doesn’t know. That is the honest truth. Humans need utopias occasionally, especially when times are hard and socialism is still an attractive option when the chips are down. However, Urban Dictionary has a dream, along the same lines as Martin Luther King’s one. Urban Dictionary has a dream that one day all armchair socialists in the world, especially those who live in Europe and North America, will march in unison to their local travel agency or tour-operator and purchase a one-way ticket to a country like Cuba, North Korea, China, Viet Nam or Venezuela, (any other? Blimey, I didn’t realise our number had shrunk so much). Urban Dictionary has a dream that one day these armchair socialists will arrive at the airports of those countries and upon being asked what the motive for their visit is and why they are travelling with a one-way ticket, they will answer: because I came to stay. I came to throw my lot in with you. I left the comfort of my armchair and came to contribute to the creation of a socialist paradise. Your socialist paradise. It is only fair that a scenario like this unfolds. After all, a typical tropical species (urban and rural) that sprang up in Cuba many decades ago was the dreamy capitalist. In order for the dreamy capitalist to realise their dreams (living in a capitalist society, even if the dream for some turned out to be a nightmare after) he/she had to resort to rather heterodox methods, one of which was to leave the Caribbean island on a makeshift raft. Urban Dictionary will not go that far in regards to armchair socialists and their one-way trip. Some of these guys can’t swim.

Should this dream become reality (and who says it can’t?) Urban Dictionary will mourn the disappearance of this emblematic species from our cities, but at least it will know that it has gone to live a better life on the other side of the world. Maybe, just maybe, then, Urban Dictionary will begin to believe in the armchair socialist’s brand of socialism.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 25th May at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 18 May 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

There was a sign I walked past recently in my local Tesco that made me chuckle. It read: “Our call centres are in the UK because our customers are in the UK”. You might be wondering what’s so funny about that caption to which my answer would be that on stating the bleeding obvious Tesco’s message is a sign of our times.

We live in an interesting era. Next week there are both European and local elections in the UK. It is the European bit that has exercised the public’s mind more. The European Parliament is the only institution in the European Union for which we can vote directly. On discussing the pros and cons of staying in the Union, both main and fringe parties have unwittingly unveiled contradictions of which they might not be aware.
European Union: to stay or to leave? But that's not the main issue next week

The main issue when it comes to the European elections is immigration and legislation. Immigration in terms of who comes to settle in the UK and legislation as in who calls the shots, the UK or Brussels. Whereas in the past the parties slugging it out on these subjects were Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems, now we also have the far right UK Independence Party and its charismatic leader, Nigel Farage, to contend with. Ukip, as they’re known, wants out of the Union and it is using the immigration card to their advantage.

Yet, to me the main issue is not whether we take orders from Brussels or not, but whether our call centres remain in the UK to serve our customers in the UK, to quote that Tesco sign. That’s a metaphor, by the way, because what I really mean is that to me the pressing matter in Britain nowadays is the hike in outsourcing of staff and operations to other countries. Call centres? In India and beyond. Labour? It’s cheaper in the sweatshops that populate China and Bangladesh, to mention but two nations. Whilst Nigel Farage conveniently rages about Romanians invading our shores, I worry about the US behemoth Pfizer bidding for AstraZeneca, Britain’s second-largest pharmaceutical firm. The outcome of this transaction could see hundreds, if not thousands of jobs gone and operations moved outside the country. It’s a pattern that has established itself in the last ten years or so. Foreign firms buy British ones, cut back on personnel and move headquarters abroad to exploit tax loopholes. In the case of AstraZeneca, what is really worrying is that this is a company for which research and development is a key component. Globally, the UK accounts for 10% of research and development. Forget the empire; this is yet another crown jewel going walkies.

Politicians, especially those of a right-wing disposition are always going on about illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, foreigners stealing jobs from Brits (never mind the fact that there are quite a few jobs Brits won’t be caught dead doing), etc. How about the Krafts of this world? The food giant took over the British chocolate-maker Cadbury four years ago and immediately downsized its workforce. Where was Nigel Farage then? Probably giving instructions to his German wife who also happens to be his secretary. Or to use Ukip’s language, probably giving instructions to his German wife who was doing a job that should have gone to a Briton.

Modern capitalism has taken full advantage of globalisation in that, on the one hand, it has identified countries where labour is cheap, salaries low, unions weak and jobs much in demand and on the other hand rich nations where takeovers are favoured by business-friendly governments. Often to the detriment of local industries.

This is what is at stake next week, in my opinion. The choice is not between a party that turns a blind eye on unregulated immigration or not, or wants out of the European Union or not. The vote is on the party whose goal is to keep call centres in the UK because our customers are still in the UK.

© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Wednesday 21st May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Urban Diary

One, two, three, four, yet another two bookies luring poor people in through their open doors. Five, six, seven, eight, Poundland and Coscutter are for the poor their only date.

Thirteen years of Labour gave us roulette wheels, betting shops and super casinos. Four years of Tory-led coalition have filled these places up with the desperate and the looked-down-upons. I walk down the newly refurbished area in my barrio (newly as in recent, as in ten years old roughly) and witness the opportunities: the new Jamaican takeaway, the chic-looking café and the well-stocked patisserie. But they are outnumbered by the fast joints and the betting shops: KFC, Dixie’s and Texas Fried Chicken on the one hand; Coral, Paddypower and Betfred on the other one. At both ends, north and south, Costcutter and Poundland ensure that the merchandise produced cheaply abroad is always in demand here.

The only option?
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I spot a couple of school kids. I don’t need to look at the logo on their blue uniforms to know which primary they go to. They can’t be older than 10, so probably Year 5. They are not holding their mum’s hand, so sure they are of themselves. In the morning crowd they blend easily with the early throng of commuters. Yet, something calls my attention.

It’s their posture. They don’t drag their feet and they don’t stoop; they walk erect, tall, proud. They laugh a lot but keep the same straight posture. Like two black stems rising from the bare earth amongst rocks and brambles. Their demeanour means something, but I don’t know what. Against the backdrop of the popular greasy spoon opposite Tesco and next-door to the recently-opened Pawnbroker’s, I want to find a meaning to their presence here, other than the only logical explanation: they are going to school. The sole thought in my head is that they are the future, a future marked by their steps: one, two, three, four, no more bookies on our door. Five, six, seven, eight,  a different future we want to create.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 18th May at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 11 May 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Overheard in the playground at the school where I work: “why do they call it Good Friday?” “Because on that Friday people give you chocolate Easter eggs, which is a good thing”.

Children’s imagination, uh? It makes it hard to believe that we live in a Christian country after all.

Until now I have actively avoided the subject of Christianity as raised by the British Prime Minister David Cameron recently, because religion is one of those topics about which some people can get quite worked up. But as a committed atheist who has begun to call himself “humanist” more than “atheist” in the last few years, I found it hard to resist the temptation.

I agree in principle with Mr Cameron that Britain is a Christian country, but mainly from a historical and cultural perspective. Christianity shaped most of this nation’s institutions, from the monarchy to the laws that still govern society today. Like in other European countries where Christianity was the dominant religion (I’m thinking of Germany, for instance), it also had an impact on the arts, both visual and performing. However, away from this scenario, I am more in agreement with the former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, who said the UK had “entered a post-Christian era”. All you have to do is look at how active participation in the church has declined. Belief, as a concept, has widened up its meaning and it is no longer the province of the deeply pious but also of those who wear our humanism on our sleeves.

Has Christianity in the UK been read its last rites?
More clarification is needed on the term “humanism”. It might be self-explanatory – after all we are all humans – but in today’s world this philosophy has acquired a new dimension. Humanism’s main aim is to promote the well-being of all human beings. We believe (and in this we have claimed back the word “believe” from the realm of religion) that the pursuit of individual rights and freedoms for the benefit of the collective is one of the most important moral goals in society. Our main identity marker is human above all. This allows us to treat everyone else equally regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, (dis)ability or... religious affiliation.

In my case, humanism also allows me to doubt. Atheism is too rigid. When I have called myself atheist in the past I realise that I have done it in relation to a God I don’t believe in and to whom I don’t have to refer. When it comes to humanism I can leave the God question aside and approach the subject more openly. Part of this is based on my upbringing in Cuba.

It has often been said that socialist states (usually called “communist” in the west, but let us not go there today) were secular in nature and against religion at its core. That statement is half-right. Cuba, the former Soviet Union and the rest of the socialist bloc did their utmost to stop the Church’s influence on the population, whether it was the Russian Orthodox Church in the old USSR or the Catholic Church in Cuba. But in doing so, socialist states created their own religion with its own doctrines and liturgy. That is why many people born and raised in socialist and ex-socialist nations cannot claim total and absolute atheism. There was always belief, but instead of God and his Son, we worshipped our maximum leaders. Ensconced away in the background there was also the lurking presence of religion, as in old-fashioned religion. Only late in life did I come to understand how much my late grandma’s strong Catholic faith and Afro-Cuban beliefs had affected me. Do I believe in a supreme being? No, but I also remember Santa Bárbara when it rains, guv (don’t worry, that’s a Cuban reference).

This brings me back to the UK. Some of the people to whom I have spoken about religion call themselves atheists or agnostic. But this is, to me, more like a western variation of atheism, one in which they (atheists and agnostics) position themselves against the notion of religion without leaving any space for doubt and questioning. The irony is that that is how science works, with doubt questioning at the forefront. To me this doubt and questioning means that I can look at the human brain in a different way, as an organ capable of triggering off mental processes which might at times defy logic.

There are some side effects – unintended or not – of bringing attention to the UK as a Christian country. One of them is to establish an “other”. The more you say that Great Britain is a Christian nation and use this as an identity marker the more you start to look at other religions and their practitioners as aliens, or “others”. And we know what happens to aliens. They get blasted by Ripley.

One last reflection. It is ironic that it was the Prime Minister who said that the UK should be “more confident about our status as a Christian country” when it has been his government the one that has behaved the most un-Christian-like. Through a series of punitive measures the coalition has created a time-bomb that could detonate any minute. We saw a snippet in the riots that swept through England in the summer of 2011 and then again in October 2012 when thousands of people marched in protest of the savage budget cuts which Cameron and co. had introduced. Early Christians sold their possessions and distributed them to all men and women according to their need. Cameron's government has made poor people poorer whilst bowing to the super-rich. Not very Christian-like, methinks.

To sum up, between the Prime Minister’s faux Christianity and the child in the playground commenting on the meaning behind Good Friday, I know which version I would adopt as my definition of Great Britain as a Christian country, even if the child were to be accused of blasphemy. After all, we all love chocolate, don’t we?

© 2014

Photo by the blog author

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 14th May at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 7 May 2014

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

I haven't posted about avocado for a while. Four years to be more exact. So, I thought that with the mild temperatures we have been having in London and that early feeling of summer, what better food to have than a light lunch with avocado in the lead role? The recipe and photo were taken from The Guardian Cook supplement and they took it from the blog What Should I Have for Breakfast Today.

Avocado baked with an egg and chorizo

1 avocado
2 eggs
1 chorizo sausage, roughly chopped
Olive oil
Salt and black pepper
2 slices of bread, preferably multiseed
2 tsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Cut the avocado in half, remove the stone and scoop a little extra of the flesh out, so you can fit more egg into it. Break the first egg into a bowl. Using a spoon, place yolk in one half of the avocado, then carefully start to add white (you may not manage to add all the white). Season with salt and pepper, then repeat with the other egg and half of avocado. Place the avocado halves in a small baking dish that fits them snugly, so they won't tilt and the egg will not spill out – scrunched-up foil in the base of the dish helps to hold them level. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the white is opaque and the yolk is done to your liking. Meanwhile, heat a little oil in a frying pan and cook the chorizo sausage pieces until crisp, then drain on kitchen paper. Fry the slices of bread in the same pan, adding a little more oil if you need it. Serve the avocado on a plate with the sausage, seasoned with salt and pepper and a scattering of herbs, with toast on the side

The music to accompany this tasty recipe has to be equally savoury. My first offer is The Unthanks with a beautiful and enchanting melody, King of Rome. The arrangements are superb just like the combination of avocado and chorizo.

Magic is at the centre of cooking and magic is what makes music good music. Tiganá Santana came recently to my attention via Songlines magazine. Elizabeth Noon is one of those tracks that leave you licking your lips just like our recipe tonight.

There was a time when, if someone asked me who my favourite classic composers were,  I would say straight away: Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Chopin, Handel, Brahms and the others would follow closely after but it was mainly the first three that did it for me. Not anymore. Whilst I continue to love Beethoven and Mozart's oeuvre, it is into Bach's music that I have delved more over the years (especially after reading two biographies on his life and work) and which I find spellbinding and filling. Like avocado, which to me it's filling. The Prelude in C Minor is my way of explaining why Bach's music makes feel this way.

I live in Londontown and Bellowhead sing about London Town. So, it follows that if I want to sign off tonight with an uptempo number I should go for this band made of members of whom only one is from... Londontown. Enjoy.

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

Sunday 4 May 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

You are walking down the street. There is another person coming towards you in the opposite direction and at some point both of you cross paths. She/he moves to their right and you move to your left. You correct the motion by moving in the opposite direction. Wrong again. Third time lucky? No, still, right for her/him, left for you. Quick smile, she/he stays on their right, you move to your right, too and you both resume your journey.

Train station, early morning. You are standing on the platform and you see a neighbour of yours walking along it only to stop right beside you. You know her/him. She/he is the one who lives two doors down from you. You sometimes wave hello from a distance on your way to the newsagents at the weekend, but other than that you too have never exchanged words. Now she/he takes their headphones off and realises that the person standing next to them is you. Her/his neighbour. Your train arrives. It’s your neighbour’s train, too. You sit next to each other and... what to do? Engage her/him in conversation? If so, what to talk about? For how long? How much should you reveal about you and your work and how far can you go when you ask the same questions back?

It is your first day at work in the school to which you have been transferred. You already know some of your colleagues and meet the ones you didn’t. One of them, a female teacher, is having problems trying to carry a large number of boxes up to her classroom. You ask her where she is taking the boxes and she points to the very top of the building. You notice she is wearing a large blouse, bulging around her waist. You volunteer to help her out. She gives you a look of puzzlement but accepts your offer. On the way up you ask her how far along she is. She bursts out laughing and tells you she is not pregnant. From that moment on, every time you see here around in the school you avoid her eyes. By the way, it is not the first time you have made this mistake. Remember the time on the bus when you got up and offered your seat to a lady you thought was pregnant? Or how about the other time as you commuted to work on the Underground when you pointed at a woman across the carriage and beckoned her to your seat? You even made the shape of a tummy with your hands. She threw daggers at you with her eyes.

We teach children about manners. We give them valuable tips to get by in life: not to talk to strangers, to wear a helmet when they are on their bikes, to put a coat on when it is cold. But how do you deal with awkwardness? How do you deal with that “unplanned instant” for which we have no natural reaction? The silence that descends uninvited and unexpected in what was until now a lively conversation? The split second in between us attempting to kiss someone on the cheek and that person turning the other one, resulting in almost an accidental smacker on their lips?

Life is full of moments like these. Some people call these moments embarrassing. To me embarrassment occasionally precedes awkwardness and sometimes includes it. Being introduced to a colleague’s partner whom we have never met before and calling him by the name of her ex-partner is embarrassing. But how are you supposed to know? Until recently she was always going on about Mr X. Nobody told you that she had dumped Mr X and hooked up with Mr Y.

Embarrassment is longer-lasting. Awkwardness is fleeting. I have always seen the latter as a lapse in our methodical lives, especially if, like me, you are a city-dweller. This is the reason why I value awkward moments, even when the outcome is detrimental. Awkwardness is a sign that not everything has been learnt, that there is still space for the clumsy, the unprepared, the unplanned. We live in a world where one of the top-selling online retailers, Amazon, trades in data. It collects data, our data, so that it can target us, as consumers, more effectively. Supermarket giant Tesco knows all about our shopping habits and it bombards us with offers left, right and centre. Against this invitation to order, the existence of awkwardness is a balm for the soul. Proof that the robots will never take over, no matter how many people aver to the contrary, because they would not know what to do about uncomfortable silences in a conversation. To deal with a situation like that, someone would have to programme “uncomfortable silence” in their hard drives. And even after that our metallic friends would still be at a loss when presented with the sight of a colleague wearing a blouse bulging at the waist.

© 2014

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 7th May at 11:59pm (GMT)


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