Sunday 28 September 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I recently had to take my daughter to our GP. Nothing major, an infection had taken residence on my wee bairn’s face, and we wanted to find out what it was and how she could get rid of it. As we sat in the semi-empty room, surrounded by a sea of chairs arranged uniformly, thoughts of mortality assailed me. These were not the result of mental self-laceration, brought about by reflections on the hereafter. My musings were caused by the large screen situated up on the wall at the front of the room in a way that it could be seen by everyone from every angle. The screen loomed ominously on the few patients (and visitors) in the room like a version of Orwell’s Big Brother. The sound was off and subtitles ran across the bottom of it. But it was not the object that made me think of life and death, especially the latter, but the environment in which it operated, including the message conveyed by the images on the screen.

Forget about the absence of an apostrophe. Just be scared, be very scared!

I know that as we enter the cold season of the year (autumn is almost here, even if it has been
unusually warm for September. This will be followed, I’m sure, by a winter that might want to take revenge on us for last year’s mildness) we ought to think more of those who are at risk of falling prey to flu and other maladies. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for depressing waiting rooms in GP surgeries. On this occasion as I sat in the semi-empty waiting room with my daughter, I noticed that the walls, fronts desk, lift door, stairs and entrance were festooned with explicit posters and bunting about the anti-flu jab. They also carried a very detailed description of what symptoms to look out if one thought a cold was coming on. No wonder I began to sneeze.

Despite my overall good health (touch wood), I felt somewhat hypochondriac and paranoid in that room. Between the messages being beamed at me by the large screen and the flyers around me, I began to doubt my own well-being. Falls, respiratory complications, obesity, allergies, dementia, you name it; they covered all that in just under a quarter of an hour.

As I mentioned before, it goes without saying that a GP surgery is better placed than other outlets to raise awareness of a balanced and stress-free lifestyle and regular medical check-ups. But there are ways of doing it without overwhelming people who come in to see their doctor in circumstances which could be, to put it mildly, very delicate sometimes. As I walked back down the stairs with my daughter to return to the car park, I kept watching my step. Having been exposed half an hour before to images of what a nasty fall could cause, I didn’t fancy a trip to casualty with a broken ankle. It took me another day to recover from the GP experience. I wonder how much longer it would take someone with a more susceptible personality.

This is a follow-up to my previous post. A lot of good literature is being written in Cuba. Not just novels, but also poetry and short stories. I think it is my duty as someone born and raised in the Caribbean island and armed with a weapon to which many of these up-and-coming authors have no access – a blog - , to promote their work. No, this is not a sponsored feature and I’m not being commissioned by anyone. My only interest in finding a larger audience to the two books below is that they were both translated by an ex-postgraduate teacher I had back in uni when I was still an undergraduate student. Dick Cluster very kindly made an exception for me to join his lectures on crime fiction and for that I will always be grateful. He is also a writer in his own right of both fiction and non-fiction. Click on all the links provided to find out more.

A Corner of the World

Vital Signs

© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Wednesday 1st October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

It is hard to be original in literature. Good, up-and-coming authors have to put up with being compared to literary giants from the past, both distant and recent. Writing styles have become defined along such demanding lines that only by putting them all in a big cauldron, mixing them and stirring them up can one attempt to come up with a new breed. Sometimes I think that writers are defter at chemistry than at their craft. Wizards of letters could be a new job description to appear in the ad pages of the London Review of Books.

This is the reason why I can’t think highly enough of Dirty Havana Trilogy, a novel written by the Cuban author Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. I read it last summer and it left me with a nasty, and yet at the same time pleasant taste in my mouth. Whilst conforming to some of the stereotypes people have of Cubans (even those who have never paid a visit to the island), the book escapes classification. The nasty/pleasant taste in my mouth had nothing to do with the sex scenes, mind you, unbridled and “in your face” as they were. It was not the heavy dose of realism that permeated each and every single sentence of the book. It was something else and I would like to use this column and the next three-hundred or four-hundred words to explore it.

Because it is so hard to be an original author nowadays, many of those who choose writing as their profession resort to clichés, either in form or content. Pedro manages to manoeuvre himself out of these literary booby-traps.

Dirty Havana Trilogy is a novel in three parts about a man’s (called Pedro Juan as well) observations and experiences of the Havana of the 90s. Having lived through those years myself (’90 – ’97, when I relocated to London) I looked forward to reading what this fellow habanero had to write about one of the more significant periods in the history of our nation. I was left with mixed feelings but with a sense that for Pedro it was mission accomplished.

Havana is presented as a city of sex, drugs and... more sex and drugs. No surprise about that. I recognised some of the characters because I used to hang out with many of them. The sex scenes (plentiful, sorry about the spoiler) were also familiar to me. The language was shocking. It was not just the foul language in the mouths of the characters but in the narrator’s mind.

A cliché is not just a stereotyped expression but also the loss of original thinking. In Dirty Havana Trilogy Gutiérrez avoids this by enhancing the sense of smell. It seems as if he were saying “This is the reek of my city. It won’t feature in the brochures you pick up on the high street of your western country, but it’s the stench I wake up to and have to put up with every day”. No wonder the book was banned in Cuba after publication. It's not the economy, stupid; it’s the stink!  The novel very adroitly describes the hopelessness that swept through Cuba in the terrible 90s in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start of the “special period” (not very special for those at the top). Occupying a lead role in the volume is the rafters’ crisis in ’94, probably the closest the Cuban system came to collapsing.

Some books find themselves in the unenviable position of being one or two words away from the edge of the abyss of platitudes. Use the wrong phrase and down you go; you lose your reader. This is particularly characteristic of what I call books with “risky” subject matter.The trick, As I see it, is in feeling the writing as it comes along, as it leaves your head and it’s passed onto the blank paper. Let the reader make up his or her mind.

Dirty? Yes. Smelly? Yes. But cliché-free
Pedro skips around the pitfalls that come with writing a “socio-political” novel. His book is at times cynical like when he praises a mulatto woman who has the typical swagger many of my fellow countrywomen display. Twenty years from now, his description goes, she will still be desired and that is one of the reasons why he would stay on the island until the end of his days. His internal speech is impassioned and full of candour for his subject but it is given a reality-check at the end. This woman, like many others, is looking for a “yuma” (“foreigner” in Cuban slang) who will take her out of the country. The novel has moments of real humanity and I remember those vividly. Not everyone is out to get you. Not everyone is out to rob you. Not everyone is out to con you. Yes, the 90s were terrible, to the point where for the sake of a dollar someone could put a knife on your throat. However, underneath this social decay there were still some decent human beings, fewer but present.

In the same way that Ginsberg’s best minds of his generation were “destroyed by madness”, Pedro’s characters are crushed by the dyad of, on the one hand the self-inflicted Cuban embargo and on the other hand, the five-decades-old US one. That he carves such a fine, cliché-free piece of work out of this situation is a testament to good, original literature and we should enjoy it while we can.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Morning: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 28th September at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 21 September 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Here’s an experiment for you, lovely, deep-thinking people:

Imagine a couple of people, all right, two blokes (just for the sake of simplicity), racing each other. Both of them are average-looking, not athletic but not on the pudgy side either, healthy and able-bodied. They are roughly the same age. Their race is a straightforward one: they must run as fast as they can for about fifty or sixty metres. Off they go. They both cross the finish line almost at the same time, give or take a second or two.

Now for the second part of the experiment, one of the men has his right hand tied behind his back. His left one is still free but his right hand is suddenly immobile. The other fella keeps both his hands free. They are asked to race each other again. You know what happens. The man with free hands beats the bloke whose right hand is tied behind his back. Not by a large margin, mind you, but still, he wins.

Now for the third part of the experiment. This time, the same man whose right hand we tied before will have his left one bound, too. Meanwhile his opponent still gets to keep both his hands free. They race each other. You know the outcome. This time the gap between both men as they cross the finish line is bigger.

Repeat the experiment adding layers of movement limitation to the first man, whilst still keeping the second one impediment-free. At some point, bind both hands and feet and tell the first bloke to believe that he can still run. He will probably look at himself and think that he can’t, but you must insist that he come up with a strategy to run, because, guess what, he can! Get him to visualise the finish line, all the time believing that he has the same opportunity as his fellow racer. Introduce another change while you’re at it. As soon as the contest starts, and taking advantage of the slow pace that the bound man will have to adopt due to his physical restrictions, walk as close as possible to him and whisper in his ear. Not words of encouragement, on the contrary, tell him how lazy he is, what a good-for-nothing he is, compare him to the other runner who is faster, more agile and more efficient.

To wit, convince him that he only has himself to blame for failing to win this competition.

With slight variations (but just ever so slight!) this is the scenario that has been playing out in front of our eyes for many years now. If the way to judge a society is the way it treats its more vulnerable citizens, what are we to make of modern polities in which ruthless competition wins over looking after the elderly and the disabled? Over those who, for whatever reason, cannot compete at the same level as the rest of us?

Is competition ever beneficial? Like most abstract questions, the answer is also of an abstract nature. It is beneficial, in my opinion, if the goal is for the common good. It is also productive is the process does not lead to an erosion of our human values. Rivalry between two science faculties can be a catalyst for the discovery of a new drug that could save lives. Competition between two drugs companies to see which one gets a larger chunk of the market puts those same lives at risk and renders human life cheap and expendable.

In education, the field in which I work, competition has often been discussed as a tool to spur students on to excel. Whilst the motive is a noble one, the reality is different. If like the second man in my example, your hands are free and there is no limitation to your movements, it is likely that you will succeed in life. If, on the other hand, your hands and feet are tied, you will fall at the first obstacle. To me the question here is: what do I, as a society, do to pick you up and make sure that, not only you have an input in how we run our affairs, but also that your contribution is equally acknowledged?

There are several ways to answer that question, but not one of them is simple. They all have their own complexities, supporters and detractors. Solution number one is to tie at least one of the hands of the second man. However why should you do that, he could fairly protest, when he had nothing to do with the predicament of his adversary in the first place? You could cut the ropes of the first fella and have him back as he was at the beginning of the race at the same level playing field. Again, there’s the question that maybe the physical restrictions that slowed down his movements were not caused, as in manually caused, by anyone, they just appeared.

As someone who believes in evolution I’m aware of the Darwinian theory and how competition plays a vital part in it. Competition is in our DNA, it is the driving force behind the nice car, nice house and nice family many people strive to have. The desiderata of our modern times. But what makes us humans, too, is the realisation that we are not alone in this world and that racing ahead whilst leaving someone behind crawling on the ground towards the finish line might have the kind of long-term side effects that could jeopardise our well-being in the future.
But, what if you tied his hands to his back?

Competition without a back-up plan is a race towards disaster. The examples speak for themselves: the sweatshop that collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, the many cases of doping in sport in recent years and the banking crisis in 2008. The leitmotif running through them is the same, cut corners and you will pull ahead, pull ahead and you will succeed, succeed and you will be respected. And so on, forever and ever.

As I wrote before, there are no easy answers to the questions I posed before and the examples I used. In an ideal world (and you probably know by now how much I dislike utopias), the second runner would stop and, on seeing his opponent with both hands and feet tied, would help him get to the finish line. Not caring one jot who was first or second. Sadly, that world looks further and further away.

© 2014

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 24th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Urban Diary

The double decker slows down to a smooth halt as it arrives at the bus stop. After the doors burst open, there’s a hissing sound indicating that the ramp is being lowered to assist a passenger who might find it difficult climbing up the steps. In this case it is a Jamaican lady, or maybe Trinidadian or Barbadian or Dominican. The truth is that I don’t know, but that she is from the Caribbean I have no doubt. Her sartorial choices betray that fact. There is her peach-coloured church hat with the white borders to begin with, her long, loose-fitting buttoned-up, beige or cream dress, her black and flat shoes. Above all, it is her humble but proud demeanour that announces she belongs to an organisation like the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Her eyes look tired, perhaps from too much Bible-reading. There is a half-smile on her face that seems to say “I’ve seen it all, son, and then some more”. Her white hair with still a few streaks of dark in it is not combed and yet it suits her perfectly.

Sunlight bathes the lower deck. A young man gives up his seat for the elderly woman. Perhaps she reminds him of his own grandmother. For a fleeting moment, as the black of their skins rub together accidentally, I can hear the susurrus of history pages being turned and the whisper of an old forgotten hymn being recalled.

The bus goes past the community centre, the new, Turkish-run banqueting hall and the recently refurbished police station. I press the red button and stand up. As I walk past the Jamaican/Trinidadian/Barbadian/Dominican lady, I look into her eyes. They might be tired from too much Bible-reading, but they are still full of life.

© 2014

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 21st September at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 14 September 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Bon soir, monsieur. The smiling face behind the glass window at Passport Control was as welcoming (and welcomed) as the words its owner uttered. We were in France, finally! I was in France, finally!

It had always been a dream of mine to travel to the Gallic nation. Ever since I became acquainted with their proud culture, their peculiar pronunciation (words stressed usually on the last syllable) and their quirky accents (aigu, grave, circonflexe and tréma) I had imagined myself conversing with like-minded people in a café in Paris, or a family-friendly pub in the campagne.

That is why I still can’t bring myself to think that our trip to France almost didn’t happen.

I mentioned the welcoming smile from the immigration officer who checked our passports. That was after a dreadful ten-hour wait at Stansted airport on account of us missing our scheduled flight and having to book the next available one, but to a different airport. Whereas before we were supposed to fly to Bordeaux, the plane we ended up boarding was bound for Bergerac (as in Cyrano, minus the prominent nose and the poetic prowess). Luckily, the distance between the two airports was only an hour or so away, so we didn’t have to cough up any more dosh on trains or taxis. In addition, we had booked a car-hire at Bordeaux and after a few phone calls and a small transfer fee that, too, was sorted out.

After spending the first night at my brother-in-law’s who was, fortunately, staying near Bergerac with his family and who was very hospitable and accommodating, we set off for our destination, Lesparre-medoc. The drive there was smooth but tiring. Readers of this blog must by now be surely aware of how much I love driving but two and a half hours behind the wheel, on a side of the road on which I don’t usually find myself and in a new country is a bit excessive. And that’s without including the tolls! What larks! For me, mind you, not for the poor souls queueing up behind me. Thank God for whatever little fluency I still have in French (it tended to fluctuate; in desperate situations my plus-que-parfait made a very a sudden and gratifying cameo appearance), otherwise instead of A Cuban In London writing about his visit to France, people could have been discussing The Demise of the man formerly known as A Cuban In London at a toll booth in France.

There were, however, parts of that journey I enjoyed. What I loved the most was the change of terrain: we went from a hilly area south east of Bordeaux (where my brother-in-law was staying) full of dangerous, sudden bends to a flat, long surface north of the city (as soon as we left Bordeaux’s orbital) which seemed endless. Because it was a Sunday when we left for Lesparre most roads were deserted, including the otherwise very public and crowded (as I later found out in the week) D1215.  Whenever I’m driving in a different country and there aren’t that many cars around, I get a strange sense of being the first person ever to have arrived in that place. It was the same feeling when we went to Cantabria, in Spain, four years ago, but not in Italy two years after on account of the congested traffic I had to fight my way through in order to make it to our temporary abode.

As I pressed down on the accelerator on that first day, my eyes were drawn to the trees lining up the D1215. Some of them grew wildly on either side of the A-road, forming a long compact, thick bush that stretched for miles. Others had quizzical, capricious and very uniform shapes, as if an ex-army officer had been tasked with trimming them and s/he, following a Proustian-like impulse, had tried to turn them into soldiers.

Lesparre-medoc turned out to be the town one normally drives through in order to arrive at one’s destination. So was Blaignon after it, the place we nicknamed “ghost town” because we rarely spotted another human being there. Our house was a sweet, little, rustic cottage that resembled more a cabana from Hansel and Gretel than an actual one.

During the following days we plunged down a rabbit-hole similar to Alice’s, and like her we came out at the other end to a wonderland made up of different burrows:: La Réole, Monségur, Royan, Soulac sur mer, Le Verdon sur Mer, Hourtin. All towns and villages with their own charm and history. We swam in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean and in the tepid ones of a large lake near Carcans. In Soulac we strolled down the Rue de la Plage and ventured in and out of shops. We ended the day in a petit bistro on Rue Trouche where we had a delicious dinner.

The only sour note of our sojourn was at the beginning of our journey. It was not just the missed flight, but the lack of customer service skills displayed by the Ryanair employee who was supposed to help us out. I can forgive anything (well, almost anything, I’m Scorpio after all!) but ignorance, rudeness and stupidity are not the sort of traits and attitude I’m willing to put up with. Mademoiselle Ryanair was neither stupid nor rude, but was ignorant. How can you try to get someone to fly to another airport and not know where that airport is? Don’t they test knowledge of geography amongst airline staff? Once back in the UK, I spoke to my wife and told her that unless it was absolutely necessary and there was no other alternative, I would be boycotting Ryanair from then on. Even the low prices famously boasted about by Michael O’ Leary, Ryanair’s head honcho turn out to be a myth when you factor in the add-ons.

Which is why I felt so welcomed and relieved when I saw the smile on that immigration officer’s face upon arrival at Bergerac airport. France, I’m not done with you, I wish I had stayed longer. I’m sure there will be a second part to our relationship, and this time there won’t be a missed flight or ignorant member of staff of customer service. Just you, me and my family. This is not au revoir, ma vieille, but à bientôt!

© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 17th September at 11:59pm (GMT)


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