Saturday 21 March 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

So, madam, sir, how happy were you yesterday? You read that right, Friday 20th March, how happy were you yesterday? I am not being nosy but apparently the United Nations branded the penultimate Friday of March the International Day of Happiness.

Woman in wheelchair on beach
Happy now?

I have no idea how this celebration came about but I have the sneaky suspicion that there is someone at this august organisation with too much time on their hands. I mean, what are you supposed to do on the International Day of Happiness? Laugh on your own at the bus stop? Make faces out of your kitchen window at passers-by? Knock on doors and leg it after? (actually I quite fancy doing that again. It brings back childhood memories).

Since this is my last column before my customary Easter break I’ll leave the space below for you to answer this question: what makes you happy and do we need a day to celebrate happiness? My own reply? Give me a chocolate Jesus anytime and you will immediately see a smile on my face.

See you in a month’s time.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

If, like me, you buy or you are subscribed to The New Humanist, you, too, probably read a recent essay by Philip Pullman that appeared on the pages of the magazine. Under the title “Writing is despotism, but reading is democracy”, the best-selling author mixed cuckoos, philosophy, censorship and writers’ responsibility towards their readers. I might not be familiar with Pullman the fiction writer (my son is), but I have always been really keen on Pullman the essayist.

The title of Pullman’s piece is, of course, confrontational. Because that is what the better intellectual minds do; they provoke, and in the process they make us think. Pullman’s statement might come across as absolutist and dogmatic, but scrape the surface and you will find plenty to agree with. Equally, some of his ideas will leave you shaking your head.

I think Pullman is right when he avers that arts have other values (...) that can’t be measured in financial terms. In this case his use of Wilde’s theory of books not being either moral or immoral, only good or bad, is apposite. Similarly, the kernel of his argument, the writer’s despotism vs reader’s democracy is hard to disagree with prima facie. On writing a book (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, I am not being discriminatory here), the writer creates a private space between the reader and themselves. It is this intimate relationship that I seek when I take a book off my shelf and rest it on my lap, when I decide to delve in its pages, when I close myself off to the outside world. But whilst I buy the despotic nature of the author, I do not totally agree with the reader’s democratic character.

Who is the real victim, the writer or the reader? Or both?

We, readers, can be as brutal as any writer. We demand, that is our essence. This is even more so, when we follow a certain author. Like junkies, albeit of the literary type, we strap up our arm whilst cooking up the next volume of letters slowly on a leather-bound spoon. We fill up the syringe with each word, sentence and trope, until we finally sink it into our flesh. Yes, you might say that I have gone a bit too far with my metaphor or you could say that I have been watching too much Breaking Bad lately. About the latter, yes, I have, but I am merely catching up. Still the metaphor applies. Because if we are not happy with the product, if we feel let down, even cheated, we will not return to the same dealer. i.e. writer. So, no democracy, as in demos (common) and kratos (rule). “Reading is tyranny” could well have been the second part of Phillip’s essay title.

Of course, not all readers are the same, and in this respect you could well agree with Pullman’s use of the word “democracy”. Just as there are intolerant readers for whom a change of genre signifies a breakdown in their imaginary relationship with their favourite author, there are also readers who behave otherwise. The latter are the ones who understand development and evolution. Sometimes at the expense of structure, mind you. But the gains are far better than the losses.

What about the financial side of writing? Pullman touches on it briefly and, in my opinion, he is quite dismissive of it. I would not dare adopt the same approach. When I worked in the cultural and creative industries (CCIs was the handy acronym we used in those days), we always had to emphasise the revenue the arts generated in the wider economy. Without making that point it was nigh impossible to convince the movers and shakers of local authorities, funding bodies and community organisations that the print and design industry, for instance, had a value to the office of the Exchequer. Writing, sadly, falls into the category of jobs in which most people struggle to make ends meet. So, when someone says, to quote Pullman – who is already using a quote in his article – that “the arts are important because they bring in so many billion pounds to the economy”, s/he is not being money-minded, but trying to place the creative industries in the same context as the banking or manufacturing ones. Let us not forget that Britain is chiefly nowadays a “service” nation. What this means in reality is that the service sector is one of the industries leading the economic recovery.

Where I do fully agree with Philip is on what motivates a writer to pick up a pen or switch a computer/laptop on. It is that interaction with the medium in which the writer frees up her/his imagination that gives us the Dickens and the Munro. Forget about the relationship between author and reader, it is the engagement with language that constitutes the ultimate display of despotism, democracy and anarchy, all rolled into one. Despotism because our friend, l‘écrivain, exercises absolute authority. Democracy because very often this authority is undermined by a conglomerate made up of agents, editor, publishers and last, but not least, the public. And anarchy because writing, as an art form, is sometimes chaotic and unstructured and therefore it should ideally respond first and foremost to the writer and then to everyone else.

Read Philip Pullman’s essay and let me know what you think. Is writing despotic and reading democratic or is there space for overlapping?

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 21st March at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 14 March 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Well, I did it for my son a couple of months ago, so why should I not do it for my daughter, too? I wrote this post first in 2009 when my daughter turned eight. She is now a fourteen-year-old beautiful, sweet, intelligent and polite teenager and the feelings that triggered off the post below have multiplied. I should also add that she is now more into hamsters than horses.

my beautiful and darling cherub

as your enter the eighth year of your life tomorrow i feel like digging out and caressing one of my favourite mementoes from your earlier days the time when you grabbed my thumb for the first time there was so much energy and vim in that squeeze your mum and i laughed our heads off after because from then on you showed your passion for people by hugging them very tightly whilst sucking in your cheeks it is one of your trademarks gestures now i also remember when i used to sing to you that famous song performed by none other than bola de nieve drume negrita whilst tucking you in bed and you would make the motion of the pau pau with your hands in the air you were only two but you could already recognise a good tune

meine liebe tochter mi chiquipeque ma chère fille i also remember the first word you uttered like your brother you went for the practical agua thus making sure that you would never die of thirst in a spanish speaking country and it made me so proud because you like your brother are the product of this globalised world of ours my dear daughter with your hebrew first name your french middle one and your spanish surnames yes you have big blond curls reaching down your shoulders now yet you are also cuban african chinese spanish english irish gibraltarian yes you are that and a lot more you are my daughter my balletic ballet ballerina expressive and graceful daughter the one who sasses back at me when we are both angry and the one who rushes to someone when they are in need of a cuddle

and the horses did i mention the horses the ones as little as your thumb thumb horses they are trotting about in your bedroom solid equus caballus tamed by your dainty hands brown horses and black and white long haired ones which you love like your mami you love unlike your papi who has never been on one you have touched their mane and fed them and that is why you look after that toy stable we gave you for christmas because you love horses galloping on their four hooves and you dream about them and you tell us about your dream the next day whilst you laugh and your laughter is clear and loud because you laugh with your entire tiny body from the tip of the longest hair follicle in your head to the tip of your big toe mi hijita querida on this day your birthday here is my little pressie for you this beautiful lullaby which brings to mind those occasions on which you ask me to sing the song about the boy who leaves havana and comes across a chinese dog that decides to follow him and how the boy falls for the dog and how he trades the dog he loves so much for a pair of shiny boots and some money and how he is sad after his money runs out and his boots break and how you ask me to explain the song to you and i tell you that it is a song about holding onto what you love and that no amount of money in the world can buy that precious thing and that is why i thought of this traditional lullaby because tonight my darling daughter my little cherub i would like you to dream about horses

besos de tu papi

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Ay, mi’jito, por favor, dame la mano, por Dios. What was a request before has now become a command. I stretch my hand out timidly. She takes it and leaves the palm facing up. Her right hand travels down my right hand, following the lines. Her voice turns into a whisper. This one is love. Will she leave life for the end? The rocking chair on which she sits does not move. Perched on the end of it, she looks at me, looks into my eyes and returns her gaze to my hand. This plump, half-Chinese, mulata chiromancer who has eyes that can read into my adolescent confusion.

This one is love. The words conjure up the magic I felt three years ago not too far from here, this refuge on Refugio Street, off Colón Street. A fourteen-year-old virgin, barely scraping through mid-term assessments but with a second girlfriend already: Marta. Marta, who went where my first girlfriend (also called Marta) never went. Marta, who still lives on Trocadero Street, two blocks away from here. Marta, whose father is a merchant seaman and whose mother is a teacher. Marta, who spends long hours home alone. Marta, with whom I used to cut classes in order to be her companion during those hours of solitude. Marta, whose school skirt, yellow like my school trousers, and blouse, white like my shirt, loved getting into an amorous tangle on the floor tiles.  En bref, Marta.

¿Oye, mi’jo, tú me ‘tá’ 'cuchando? No, I answer internally. I’m not listening. Sorry, I should, I know I should. After all, it was my mate, my best mate, who talked me into coming here to see you. It is all to do with the university admission exams, the pressure, the future, the draft, the war in Angola, the confusion – not just of the adolescent type – the “greens”, the exchange rate (five for one), the “ladies of the night”. It is all this and above all, it is the uncertainty. Hence the palm-reading session. But we would need to read the palms of ten million souls on this island.

A shot of rum is offered. The look of puzzlement on my face makes her laugh. No me digas que tú no tomas. I neither nod nor shake my head. I have drunk, a little, in the past. At seventeen I have yet to get really drunk. But this offer comes out of the blue, on a warm winter afternoon in Centro Habana. OK, she says, if you won’t have some, I’ll have yours. She lets go of my hand, retrieves a bottle of rum from the small bookshelf that doubles up as a shrine to Elegguá, a coconut surrounded by sweets. Her eyes eye me eyeing the Orisha. I do not just read hands, you know. Although her voice sounds firm, her words betray uncertainty. Perhaps she thinks I am judging her. Perhaps she thinks I am one of those modern kids, all tight jeans and big, wide shirts who turn their backs on Cuban culture, including the African influence, to embrace the alluring world of rock’n’roll. How to explain to her that every two or three weeks a babalawo visits my house to see my grandmother, my auntie and my mum? How to put into words how confused my cousin and I feel when we see our respective mothers, hardcore believers in the government and Fidel, desperate to find out what the future has in store for us through the divination methods of a system born in Nigeria?

I leave the palm-reader’s house at sunset. The route to the bus stop is enveloped in dust mixed with the smell of petrol. I walk down Colón Street until I get to Paseo.  People are coming home from work, others are starting a game of dominoes. In the semi-darkness a game of cuatro esquinas is still going. The ball can hardly be seen but that does not stop these wannabe baseball players from taking over the four corners of Consulado and Colón.

A long life, difficult times I will overcome and my sweetheart around the corner. Predictions for which no hand is necessary. I see my bus turn right onto Paseo. I get my ten cents out of my pocket and I think of Marta. The second Marta, the one who went where the first one never did.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 14th March at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 7 March 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

The mumbling is gone. The dark lighting has faded. The slow-paced action is no more. The queen’s head has kissed the neck goodbye and rolled down. To the relief of some, Wolf Hall has ended.

Count me out of that group, please. I loved the series.

Mumbling? Moi?

For those who do not reside on the British Isles and who are therefore not familiar with the recent six-week-long BBC programme, let me explain. Wolf Hall is based on the first part of a trilogy of historical novels by the British writer Hilary Mantel. The author, currently working on the third and final instalment, stands to score a hat-trick of Booker Prizes after Wolf Hall and its follow-up Bring Up the Bodies won her the award.

I had my doubts about the series, if I am being honest. There has already been one adaptation for theatre, so when the BBC version was announced, I somehow conjured up the words “cow” and “milk(ing)” unconsciously. How wrong I was.

I no longer judge literary adaptations for television, film or theatre in the same way I did twenty years ago. Each medium has its own language and deserves to be seen and analysed in its own right. That is how I approached Wolf Hall and I was handsomely rewarded.

The reworking of novel to series did not follow the original text to the letter and I know I was not the only one who appreciated this. There is a way in which the main character, Thomas Cromwell, is introduced by Mantel that is unique and unrepeatable. She feeds us titbits. Instead screenwriter Peter Kosminsky brings in a foreword in each episode in order to provide a historical context. Rather than dwelling on Cromwell’s past, he goes straight in to present-day Henry VIII’s court and gives us flashbacks to Cromwell’s previous life as a way of explaining how he arrived at the position he occupies now.

Along the way we have excellent performances. Mark Rylance, of whom I had already heard a lot due to his role in Jerusalem, is outstanding. His is a masterclass on the art of “less is more”. The way he acts out his part is like a tiger, crawling, stalking, hiding, until the moment comes to jump upon its prey. His manner is understated in Henry’s presence. Away from him, he is all alpha male. Daniel Lewis, playing Henry VIII gives us a nuanced performance. I cannot remember the last time I saw a Henry VIII that was not a caricature of the famous king. Lewis’s Henry, on the other hand, is vulnerable but irascible. Claire Foy as, the first plotting and later on hapless, Anne Boleyn, also rises to the challenge. Her encounters with Cromwell are full of the intrigue and back-stabbing so common in European courts at the time. Her transition from English to French and back to English is flawless and effortless. The fact that we all know the queen’s fate does not detract from a suspense-ridden finale. I confess I had to divert my eyes away from the screen as the executioner hoisted the sword above his head.

It is not just the performances that make Wolf Hall a must-see. The lighting is top-notch, too. An example of this is Cardinal Wolsey’s glowing red silk robe against the dark corridors of his residence.

Some viewers complained of too much mumbling and poor articulation. My thoughts on that are that when you are plotting against Rome or the king of England, the less audible you are the longer you live. The dim lighting took a battering as well. Yet, how to recreate 16th century England, or for that matter France, without resulting to natural light, or the lack of it thereof?

It is a paradox that a lot of people lay into the Beeb and question the TV licence most of us pay annually to keep Auntie going. Yet, when the BBC produces an outstanding series like Wolf Hall, many slag it off.

Final word from me. As long as you churn out programmes like Wolf Hall, keep up the mumbling, Auntie!

I recently went to see Selma with my wife on what turned out to be a double date on Valentine’s Day. One of my wife’s brothers came along with his partner and their daughter stayed home with our daughter; the two cousins catching up together.

Selma was a lot better than I expected. The performances from both leading and supporting actors were excellent. They carried the emotions that their roles demanded. What stood out for me the most was to see three British actors portraying one of the more significant moments in the history of the US and pulling it off. David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth (in a smaller role) as Governor George Wallace made me forget completely that the three men on screen had been born in Oxford, Leeds and London respectively, so convincing were their accents.

And would you believe it? Hardly any mumbling at all.

© 2015

Next Post: “Piece of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 11th March at 11:59m (GMT)

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About "Correct" English)

It don’t ma’er coz it ain’t about being rich or poor, innit?

I had to resist the temptation to correct the speaker on the spot. Also, if I did, which I did in the end, by the way, where would I start? Would it be the “it don’t” howler? Or the typical London-accented “ma’er”? “Coz”, perhaps? Or, “innit”, again, a Cockney-influenced linguistic prop commonly used by the villagers of Londontown? In the end I just corrected the “it don’t” and the “innit”. Couldn’t be arsed to deal with the rest.

And that’s English for you, my dears.

Where do the boundaries of what is considered “good” English start? Where do they end? This was the subject of a recent, fascinating debate in the pages of Prospect magazine between Simon Heffer, author of Strictly English: The Correct Way toWrite and Oliver Kamm, who recently penned Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage.

Our panellists appear alternately furious and relaxed about a poorly punctuated sign. © Jenny Goodall/ Associated Newspapers/ Rex, Mags_cat
Enough to give a pedant a heart attack

I could write another hundred posts like this, a thousand articles, a million words and the message will always be the same: as a non-native speaker, I am truly mesmerised by the seriousness with which the English language is taken. I was never surprised about finding linguistic pedants in my own native Spanish. Nor was I to find them in French, too, when I began to study the language. Both Spanish and French have academies that act as the guardians of the language. Compared to both, English was a breath of fresh air.

How wrong I was. From slamming miscreants who violate the rule that dictates that pronouns change their case when they follow prepositions to indulging in the peccadillo of fused participles, the English language (or at least its defenders) can sometimes come across as modern inquisitors.

Heffer makes a good point about correct English being the standard from which most dialects are derived. It is true that if you do not have a word like “father”, it is unlikely you will come up with its patois equivalent “fadda”. On the other hand, Oliver’s riposte that the problem is not English grammar but the constant, obsessive linguistic nit-picking, is the type of argument with which I totally agree.

Where I think both columnists fail miserably is in not moving their debate beyond the narrow confines of language. Not everyone who uses slang, or falls into the trap of the grocer’s apostrophe is an illiterate person. Social, historical, economic and even political elements come into play in daily parlance. If you were born in one of Britain’s former colonies, your patois might be a way to defy the old, imperial status quo. If you feel that society is out to get you, language becomes a barrier with which to defend yourself. The wall you build around you or the trench you dig to duck in is made of words that only you and a select group of people will be able to understand. In that case pedants will become ammunition for your cause.

To be sure, there are various shades of grey in this discussion and I find myself siding slightly with Mr Kamm rather than with The Heffza. Parents, teachers and society in general must act together to teach our younger generation the context in which they can use a particular phrase and when it is better to default to Standard English. Replacing “they’re” with “their”, “would have” with “would of” and “you’re” with “your” is grammatically incorrect. Same with “don’t” in the third person singular. We live in a world where the job market has shrunk considerably in the last seven years. It would be irresponsible and plainly idiotic for a young person to deny themselves the opportunity to break into that market just because they can’t be bothered to switch to Standard English. At the same time there is a time and place for “ma’er” (“matter”, but with a London accent) and “innit”. In my opinion, these are not mistakes but identity markers.

Knowing when to use one and not the other is one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt in my life. Not just in English but also in Spanish. We, Cubans, have a reputation in the Hispanic world for being hard to understand, given our proclivity for chopping off the end of words (especially those ending in “s” and “r”) and leaving sentences unfinished. Taking into consideration that this contravenes the rules laid down by the “holier-than-thou” Royal Spanish Academy, I should be on Oliver’s side, wearing my linguistic rebelliousness on my sleeve. Yet, I am also very practical. Nail that job first, son, and then go back to your natural, linguistic, niche, aw'ight mate?

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On", to be published on Saturday 7th March at 6pm (GMT)


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