Saturday 27 June 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Perception has been a powerful tool in our evolution as human beings. As a way to use our senses to understand the world it is one of those innate traits we can’t really do without. Sometimes, though, perception can be counter-productive and lead us down paths that sit at odds with our beliefs.

The other day I attended a one-day conference at which I joined a couple of headteachers in a discussion about what strategies we use to overcome barriers to the integration of students from non-British backgrounds when they re-locate to the UK. The debate was chaired by an outstanding expert in parental engagement and her knowledge and experience made the session lively and interactive. It was during one of the breaks, however, when with a cup of tea/coffee in hand, some of the delegates approached me to voice their opinions. Their real opinions, I mean. This was the moment when I thought of perception. Most of my fellow practitioners had similar doubts: how to counteract the negative impression that we have more children from overseas than there really are in the UK nowadays?

By chance, I had recently come across an article by Peter Kellner in Prospect magazine entitled: “The truth about welfare”. In it the thought-provoking columnist debunks some of the myths surrounding the way we perceive our benefits culture.

Peter is the President of YouGov, an internet-based market research firm. YouGov was founded by Stephan Shakespeare and Nadhim Zahawi, two men who have played a major role in politics, especially right-wing politics in recent years. It goes without saying that YouGov is as far from the stereotypical muesli-eating, sandal-wearing, beard-sporting Guardian-reading leftie as it is possible. Yet, Peter’s article was as surprising as it was honest.

First off, he acknowledged that there has been a disparity between data on welfare claimants and the public perception of it. In his own words: “the public’s misconceptions about welfare colour their views of the overall impact of the system”. Which can be translated as “easier to slag off those we deem skivers than to see each case on an individual basis”.

The real faces of the benefits culture (photo taken from

The numbers tell their own story. Britain’s total welfare bill was £205bn between 2013 and 2014, almost a third of government spending. Yet, whilst the average voter in the recent general election thought that benefits for unemployed people were the biggest component of the bill, it was actually the smallest, at 2% of the whole whack. Most people put it at 34%. Same with so-called “welfare tourism”, claims by people who come from overseas. The figure is thought to be between 2 and 3%. Also, as noted in a recent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, immigrants are less likely to claim benefits. Still, the public perception is that the amount of foreigners “fleecing” the Exchequer is 23%. Disparity indeed.

What is going on, then? How come the former owner of the Conservative Home website, Stephan Shakespeare, and Stratford-on-Avon current Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi are debunking myths instead of slagging off “scroungers”?

My gut feeling is that this whole “strivers vs skivers” has gone too far. It was fine in the months leading up to the general election. It was useful for politicians of all parties (except, maybe for the Greens) to present scapegoats to the electorate so that they could direct their anger at these sacrificial lambs. But now with a Conservative government in number 10, the fact that the British people still thinks that there is a 22% of fraudsters who are fiddling the system (whether they are all concentrated at Westminster is not known, sadly) does not sit well with the tough image Prime Minister David Cameron wants to project to the UK and beyond. For another example, look at the way he wants to redefine child poverty.

My main concern in all this is that we are raising a new generation to hate one another. When I speak to people born and raised in the UK and the way this country was thirty years ago, they tell me about the breakdown in community spirit, about individualism taking over collective enterprise and about the creation of a “me, me, me” culture. The changes I am seeing now have as much of a detrimental effect as those of three decades ago. Even Tory pollsters seem to agree on that.

© 2015

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 1st July at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Killer Opening Songs (On the Sunny Side of the Street)

Unlike the owner of this blog, Killer Opening Songs digs summer. It is one of its favourite seasons. Summer means optimism, creativity and bonheur. And since the summer solstice has just happened K.O.S. wanted to honour it by bringing you one of those tunes that will leave you licking your lips and tapping your feet. It might even throw a “99” in it. Flake optional.

Dizzy Gillespie’s stature as a trumpeter grew a few more inches with the release of the must-have album Sonny Side Up in 1957. The record not only showed his credentials as one of the most innovative and organically creative trumpet-players in jazz history, but it also demonstrated he had the chops to be an excellent bandleader. At the heart of the success of Sonny Side Up is the Killer Opening Song, On the Sunny Side of the Street. If you are looking for a summer melody, look no further than this starter. It has everything in it. Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt (yes, those two Sonnies) at the top of their game. In fact, the pair slugs it out nicely on the album. In regards to Rollins, this is the period that saw him jump from Blue Note to Metro-Jazz to Contemporary to other labels. As for his opposite number, Sonny Stitt, the slightly older and more seasoned gun-slinger, he had already built a reputation for demolishing up-and-coming cats. The icing on the cake is the spirit-lifting lyrics which Mr Gillespie delivers with gusto and panache: "Grab your coat and get your hat/Leave your worries on the doorstep/Life can be so sweet/On the sunny side of the street". Now, where's my 99?

After a funky, groovy start, second track The Eternal Triangle, brings in a saxophone-driven bebop-themed zesty number. This is followed by Killer Opening Songs’ favourite track, After Hours; a sultry blues that will make you snap your fingers and tap your feet throughout the whole track and beyond. The opening chords are by none other than Ray Bryant (yes, that Ray Bryant! Miles Davis’ Ray Bryant, Art Blakey’s Ray Bryant, Coleman Hawkins’ Ray Bryant) whose beautiful and deft piano-playing serves as a safety net above which all sorts of rhythmic pirouettes are performed.

Last song, I Know That You Know, provides a workout for bassist Tommy Bryant (Ray Bryant’s brother) and drummer Charlie Persip who have to keep up with the pace set by Gillespie, Stitt and Rollins. Great album Killer Ending Song and super Killer Opening Song make Sonny Side Up a smoker of a record to have. And if this is not the sound of summer, K.O.S. does not know what it is. Even if still the owner of this blog refuses to acknowledge the season.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 27th June at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 20 June 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

The list of jobs read:
1-    Dismantle football table and take it to the dump
2-    Tidy up shed
3-    Bring stuff down from/put stuff up in the loft
4-    Organise bookshelf in the lounge.

The shed is yet to be tidied up at the time of writing (I can’t even go in there myself; it’s a jungle of furniture and garden tools), but two of the other jobs my wife asked me to do recently were carried out almost to perfection. My son pulled the football table apart and I took it to the local dump. I also brought stuff down from the shed and put some other stuff back up there.

As for the bookshelf in the lounge…

That job got half-done, if I am being honest. My heart was not in it. I am a hoarder and when it comes to books, it is hard for me to let go.

Oh, c'mon, it wasn't that bad!

Recently I read an article by one of my favourite columnists, Eva Wiseman, on a new book that has just come out and which deals with the ubiquitous – and to some – annoying world of clutter. In The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Marie Kondo advocates a clutter-free world. That the author thinks this can be achieved in a quick and easy way shows how deluded some self-help writers are these days. Let’s be honest, who has not ever indulged in a bit of junk-collecting? Mind you, it’s not all intentional. But we accumulate stuff throughout life. In fact, one of my favourite words in English is “stuff”. It’s a typical term for this Germanic lexicon’s tendency to economise language. Such a short word and yet so much meaning in it. Stuff covers our toy-strewn childhood, our adolescence with its crushes, bust-ups and disappointments. It moves through our young adulthood like blood pumping through our veins in all directions of our body; constantly, unconsciously and relentlessly. It does not stop in our mature years. In fact “stuff” helps us reconnect with our younger selves.

However, at some point “stuff” must stop. This is the hard part. This is what Eva was writing about. She has accumulated so much personal memorabilia through her young life that she could set up her own museum. But as a new family, she, her boyfriend and their baby demand a certain order. Only in these circumstances can I understand de-cluttering.

As I sat in front of our bookshelf (I say “our”. My wife’s books occupy the top part. The bottom two shelves are taken over by mine. I also had volumes spilling out of the shelves, sitting in piles scattered across the floor, hence the need for the “clearing out”) I did not see literature but history. Personal history. I started to remember when, where and how I had bought a certain book. The online reviews that led me to part with my money and the below-the-line comments that followed were still ringing in my ears.

This is the difficulty of tidying up. You clean up your house but with the rubbish you also discard a bit of yourself. Because, believe you me my dear fellow blogger, with each poetry tome, magazine and novella I chucked out, a part of me abandoned my body. In the end I decided to donate all the books to one of my local charity shops.

Message to Marie Kondo: de-cluttering is never easy. In fact, it can be rather cruel and heart-breaking.

Talking of organising, one of the upsides of my recent bookshelf-tidying-up was a very welcome encounter with the poetry of Ali Jimale Ahmed. Ali is a Somali poet whose book Fear is a Cow I bought in 2008 at a bookshop in Brick Lane (what did I say before about books, de-cluttering and memories? I can even remember the clothes I was wearing that day). The poetry collection was sandwiched in between two heavyweights ( I think it was The Second Sex and Ulysses) so that was one reason why I had not paged through the book for a good three or four years.

What I like doing with poetry is open the book on any page at random and say out loud to myself: read the first poem on the right/left, top or bottom of the page. Sometimes there is only one poem which makes the job easy for me. From now on, once in a while I will share one of these "random" poems with you. I hope you enjoy the first entry of this new section. Shall we call it “random poetry”? Or even better, “random poetry after the tidying-up”?

Brass Tacks

The damask rays of a morning sun
Gatecrash through the chinks of our shack
Beckoning us to a hilltop
And to a time neither fettered by guilt
Nor swamped by dreams
Housed in bubbles of ineptitude

Through the chinks of our shack
seep unbidden
the damask beams
of a mourning sun beckoning
us to a hilltop and to a time
Neither sequestered by fear
nor swamped by dreams
housed in bubbles of servitude 

© 2015

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be posted on Wednesday 24th June at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 17 June 2015

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

Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

As I mentioned recently temperatures in the UK have apparently been playing on a see-saw. That matters not one iota to yours truly as part of my summer ritual every year is too look for recipes that complement the warm weather.

Veggies, please, look away now for this is yet another meat-rich dish. Pork belly, in this case.

As you know, if you have been reading this blog long, I am a fan of Nigel Slater’s cooking. Not just the cooking but also the way he writes and talks about food. He is an artist, as far as I am concerned. So, I shall let him pick the thread of tonight’s post from here.

The roast is resting – those precious 20 minutes after the Sunday joint and its crackling are taken from the oven and left to sit quietly before we carve. The roasting tin may no longer hold the meat, but there is much treasure there to plunder. We could make a simple gravy, and I usually do, dissolving the good things left by the roast into wine, stock or Marsala. But today I use it for something more substantial altogether.
What lies beneath the meat? Caramelised sugars mostly, sweet, gooey and firmly attached to the roasting tin. It is the concentrated essence of the meat, some charred herbs, sizzling fat, a sticky smudge of roasted garlic. A little magic perhaps. To waste it would be a crime.

I pour batter into the roasting tin. It will take 25 minutes in a hot oven, time enough to rest the meat and carve. But there is more to it than that. I have tossed some diced apple, softened first with a few thyme leaves, into the pan. The little cubes of apple sit in the batter, holding it down a bit, soaking up the juices and savour left behind by the pork. It arrives at the table a little late, slightly eccentric looking, but dark and golden, its surface all pits and furrows of batter and fruit, smelling of roast pork and herbs. I could have cooked the batter pudding separately, all spick and span like a clafoutis without the sugar, but that would be to miss out on the opportunity of using the good things left in the roasting tin; of exploring what lies beneath.

Pork belly with apple and roast potatoes

I ask my local butcher to leave the skin on the belly, but to score it in lines about 2cm apart or in a lattice pattern, whichever he thinks will produce the crispest crackling.

Serves 6

belly pork 1.5 kg, boned weight, skin scored
new potatoes 500g
olive oil 3 tbsp
rosemary 3 large sprigs
garlic 4 cloves

Set the oven at 220C/gas mark 8. Place the pork belly flat on the work surface, skin side down, then slice it horizontally, cutting almost all the way through, to give a large hinged flap. Season generously inside and out.

Put a pan of water on to boil and salt it. Wash the potatoes, but don’t feel the need to peel them. Cut each potato into three or four “coins” then lower them into the boiling water. When the potatoes are tender to the point of a knife, drain them carefully and tip them into a bowl.

Pour the olive oil over the potatoes, pull a few of the needles from the rosemary and add to the potatoes with a grinding of salt and black pepper. Place the pork in a roasting tin. Lay the potatoes, as near as possible in a single layer, in between the two layers of pork. Tuck the remaining sprigs of rosemary and the cloves of garlic amongst the potatoes. Pull the top flap of meat over the potatoes, then place in the oven and leave to sizzle for about 25 minutes.

Lower the heat to 180C/gas mark 4, then leave the pork to cook for about an hour and a half, basting occasionally. During this time the potatoes will soften and soak up some of the juices and fat from the meat.

Remove the pork from the oven, check the potatoes are fully tender, then remove from the tin and cover lightly with foil and leave to rest in a warm place. Serve the pork as it is, carving in thick strips, or utilise the roasting tin and its fat with the recipe below.

To get you in a summer mood, I will start with Thievery Corporation. In the same way the caramelised sugars drip onto the roasting tin, Radio Retaliation will drip into your eardrums. Such a beautiful catchy tune.

Talking of catchy, this next melody is by a band that started very raw-blues, but have mellowed down with the passing of time just like those charred herbs, sizzling fat and roasted garlic. The Black Key’s Fever is pure music heaven and groovy, too.

Let us go back now a few decades and sing along this classic. Beautiful vocals and harmonious accompaniment. Just like the diced apple soaking up the juices and savour left behind by the pork. Canned Heat’s On the Road Again is gorgeous.

We finish tonight with a Chilean rapper. Ana Tijoux first came to my attention when I started watching Breaking Bad. Her song 1977 was part of the series soundtrack. Got the album immediately and have been playing it nonstop ever since. Great artist, just like our dish tonight.

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 20th June at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 13 June 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

I think that after this post my blog moniker will acquire an extra word: Luddite. And the noun “Cuban” will become an adjective. It is not my fault, however, that I am laying once again into technology. The stories that I have been reading lately just sound too preposterous to let go of so easily.

Now is the turn of the Poetry for Robots project, a bonkers experiment if ever I’ve heard of one. The scheme provides a bank of 120 pictures for people to write poetry based on what they see. That is all right, I hear you say. After all, there is nothing wrong with being exposed to the image of a beautiful sunset or a leave falling off a tree in autumn. But, it does not end there. The project’s goal is to feed the resulting poems to robots to “see what happens”. Did you hear that door being slammed shut? That is my hope leaving the room. I bet Mr Robot will interpret that sentence literally.

What is it I shall compare thee to again?

Some experiments are best left in the planning stages. Without wanting to sound too controversial, this whole enterprise is a waste of time in my humble opinion. We do not need robots to understand or interpret poetry because we are still not done ensuring some of our fellow humans do the same thing. I’d much rather spend the money (if money is involved) in creating a programme to make poetry, both home-grown and foreign, available to every single child in the world.

Poetry is one of those artistic phenomena (literature is an art as far as I know and I treat it as such) that sits around us, quietly, reminding us of the beauty of the world. We might bring it in from the background or we might not. We might fall in love with it or we might just dip our big toe in it every now and then. But that it affects us all, there is no doubt. A robot lacks one of the most essential human characteristics in order to appreciate poetry: the ability to be amazed. Whether you feed your machine 120- or 240-picture-based poems, there is no way that it will wake up one morning (do robots sleep? That is a good question. Sometimes you need to have been asleep to appreciate poetry better), look out of its bedroom window and liken the sky outside to the tiles of the kitchen downstairs.

Without wanting to put poetry on a pedestal, this is a literary genre that provides an extra dimension to the human experience. A dimension that is unique in its creation and its interpretation. Factor technology in the equation and you get predictability. Predictable poetry is bad art in my view. Necessary, still, do not get me wrong; we still need  written-by-numbers works in the world, but bad art it is. A bank of 120 images spells limitation to me. Poetry, if anything, should be the opposite of limitation, even when the poet uses one of the well-known traditional forms (sonnet, haikus, etc.).

A better idea in my view would be to create a bank containing every single poem ever written in the history of humankind and store it somewhere for posterity. Imagine that! Regardless of language or antiquity these works would show our common human bond. They would also be an invaluable educational tool to demonstrate to future generations how every single human being on the planet has consciously or unconsciously accessed the world of poetry.

I honestly think that the people behind the Poetry for Robots project are passionate about the power and reach of poetry to help us understand machines better. I just do not think that they have really thought their scheme through. In the process of understanding, decoding and falling in love with poetry there are many elements involved which robots sadly lack and will always lack, such as: nuance, emotions, aesthetics, spirituality, history, culture, upbringing… the list goes on. On the other hand, a project like the one I mentioned before could marry different generations across the ages. The irony is that we would have to get technology involved in it at some point in order to store the data and make it easily accessible to everyone. Without a doubt, that would be the kind of project where I would like to “see what happens”.

© 2015

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 17th June at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Urban Dictionary

Urban Heat (n):    the state of an individual’s body perceived as having or generating a relatively high degree of warmth.

Or the state of the city of London as soon as temperatures reach the early twenties in Celsius.

Don't freak out, please, this is August, not May or June

Let us be clear about a simple fact: heat is not just an urban phenomenon. Countryside-dwelling folk experience it too. Seaside residents also get to have their share of pleasant, warm weather. But those living in metropolises get to see a completely different mise en scène as soon as the first signs of summer arrive.

As Exhibit A, Urban Dictionary brings you the temperatures that swept through the Big Smoke in recent days. Although “swept through” is the wrong phrase here. It was more like they landed gently on the delicate skin of the denizens of London. However, the reaction was, as it usually is, the same as in previous years. A Miami-like state of mind takes over and for the next few days for as long as the temperatures remain hovering above the early 20s, people go about their business as if they lived in Florida and not in Barnet.

The most conspicuous sign of urban heat is the sudden appearance of convertibles all over the city. The welcome presence of sunshine provides the perfect background for rolling that roof down, turning up the volume of the music and driving around in one’s undies. Or similar. This is the Florida effect Urban Dictionary most dislikes. Once it is July and August there are more reasons to let it all hang out, but in bloody, still-freezing May? Or early June with its torrential downpours whose aftermath usually leaves a fresh breeze behind chilling your you-know-whats? No, sorry, count Urban Dictionary out of that.

At the same time Urban Dictionary feels sympathy somewhat for those early-summer urban-heaters. It sees them trying to speed up around streets that are not suitable for speed. It joins them in their despair and disappointment. Therein lies the irony. This is London, what did you expect? Of course you’re bound to feel frustrated, urban-heater. You get the engine of your convertible nicely going, letting everyone in the vicinity know what type of car you are driving. You accelerate to the T-junction, turn right and off you go… until you get to the first set of traffic lights two-hundred yards hence. Then, you have to turn left, go around a bend, come to another T-junction, turn right on to a one-way road and just when you are about to accelerate you are hit by a sign saying that the maximum speed limit is 20mph. I do not expect you to respect it, after all, you never do, but I can see your frustration and your line of thought: if only I were in Miami or California or somewhere similar, a long, open motorway ahead of me, sun-kissed by round-the-year warm weather, then, I would be justified in wearing my denim cut-offs and vest, left hand resting nicely on the car window and right hand on the steering wheel. Ahh, bliss! But then, reality strikes: another set of traffic lights, followed by another one-way system.

The phenomenon of urban heat is contrary to the way London works. Even in suburbia you still get a very convoluted street layout. A-roads are the urban-heater’s best bet but the speed is usually limited to 50mph.

Still, 50mph is enough for you to rest your right arm on the car window and leave your left one on the steering wheel. Lean back and allow yourself to think you are in Miami or somewhere in California. Until you reach the next set of traffic lights or the sun goes in hiding. Then, you will probably wonder why on earth you left your hooded jumper/stretcher at home. After all, it is only May or June.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 13th June at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 6 June 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

My two children were born in the water. In my son’s case, he was born in hospital but in a purposefully-designed pool. Three years after, my daughter was also born in a pool in the comfort of our council flat up on the fifteenth floor of a high rise.

Why am I telling you all this? Because until my son was born and to a certain extent until my daughter came into this world, I had no idea how incendiary an issue parenting could be.

When my wife was pregnant with our son and she suggested that we check with our local antenatal clinic and our midwife about water births, I had only been in London a few weeks. However, I trusted my other half completely and the idea of a baby floating in the water minutes after it had come out of mummy’s belly was a soothing one. Maybe because of the hospital environment in which we were going to be the issue of the water birth did not raise many questions.

However, when we decided that our daughter’s birth would take place in our flat, there were a few question marks about it. Not from family or friends, they trusted us, but from other parents. It was then I realised that there were certain subjects in life that triggered off unexpected reactions in other people. Even people without children. Education is one, for those of us who work in the field, either as teaching or support staff (I’m the latter). Parenting is the other one. In this case parenting includes pre-natal, post-natal, early years and everything else that comes after.

I wrote “parenting”, but I should have really written “mothering”, for it is women, sadly, who bear the brunt of people’s demented reactions. I confess that just as my wife entered the final third of her pregnancy, I had long talks with her about a Plan B, should the water birth go wrong. Of course, we had a Plan B. We had two very experienced midwives (one of whom I still remember fondly, a no-nonsense Irish woman) and a supportive circle of family and friends. But I remember having troubling thoughts up until the day.

I guess I, too, was influenced by the scaremongering that goes on about pregnancy and childbirth. It is almost sometimes as if people are afraid of women making “the wrong choice”, let alone making a choice to begin with.

Conception happens between two people (we’re still light-years away from human parthenogenesis) but for some reason it is the woman who ends up shouldering most of the responsibility. I do understand why some people might see it as a woman’s issue. Pregnancy takes place in a woman’s body and it is this body that feeds the foetus and keeps it healthy. Nevertheless, the language used in debates about childbirth is often too emotionally charged. The result is less a conversation and more a finger-pointing exercise.

Childbirth: how to go about it is still a woman's choice

One of the reasons for this is that human birth, to me at least, still holds us in thrall. Just a few days ago I was discussing this very subject with some parents in my school. We have had a few births recently and yours truly never ceases to be amazed at the wonder of nature in producing new human beings. However, I would be loath to elevate motherhood to some kind of Mother Teresa category with a halo around it. It is what happens on a daily basis around the world. You get pregnant, the baby grows inside, you pop it out and you raise it together with whomever you want. Or on your own; it is your choice after all. The irony here is that parenthood has become more accessible nowadays with methods like IVF featuring more prominently. But own up to having had a c-section performed to save the baby and you will still be dragged to the altar of Mother Teresa and questions will be asked. No wonder that many parents, mothers above all, become depressed following the birth of their children.

Looking back at that conversation I mentioned before with those parents (mums all of them, by the way. Funny that, I very rarely discuss pregnancy with men at work) I realised that not one of them was being judgemental when they gave their opinions. Which in a way made me think that hopefully we are moving towards a world that will be more accepting of pregnant women’s choices. A world in which the use of pain relief during labour or filling up a pool on the fifteenth floor of a high rise for a water birth will raise no eyebrows. At the end of the day what really matters is the human being we are bringing into this world and the people behind such wonderful miracle.

© 2015

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Wednesday 10th June at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

So, how are you getting on with reading only in German these days, I hear you ask? After all, it was only a few months ago that I decided to buy four books in the original German by the same author (three novels and two novellas) and immerse myself once again in the beauty of the Teutonic language. I have not been disappointed at all. The writer, Marlen Haushofer, has turned out to be better than I expected. I must admit that I still struggle a bit with certain words and phrases but on the whole the experience has been very enjoyable.

One of the reasons for the switch from my perennial English- and sporadic Spanish-language reading to German is the way syntax is built in the latter. I mean that almost literally. Sentences in German, at least in the literature I have read so far, seem to have been put through a very effective cement mixer in order to have a good, long-lasting product to lay across the bricks that make up the edifice. What you end up with is page after page of pure poetry in prose.

The two novellas are included in the same volume. Wir töten Stella (We kill Stella) is narrated from the point of view of a housewife. She uses a weekend when her husband is away to put down on paper all the events of the past few months. This involves the eponymous Stella, a teenager who comes to stay with her family and who is shamelessly seduced by the narrator’s husband. Stella gets pregnant and is forced to have an abortion. After attempting and failing to kill herself, Stella accidentally steps in front of a passing lorry and gets run over.

The shortness of the work belies the intensity of it. Wir töten Stella stays long with the reader, her (almost silent) voice echoing down the corridors of one’s mind.

I found similarities between this novella and the novel I am reading now, Die Wand (The Wall), which incidentally was turned into a motion picture. Both tales are written in the first person singular and both feature female narrators. Also, although not stated explicitly in Wir töten Stella, both women write about their experiences in order to stay sane. In the case of the protagonist of Die Wand, she is invited to go on a hunting trip by a couple with whom she is good friends. Once at their hut, the couple decide to take a walk around the forest before setting off on their expedition the next morning. However they fail to come back at dusk. The woman decides to look for them the next day. After walking for a long time without much success she finds the couple’s dog sitting in the middle of a path looking afraid. The woman ventures forth but the dog refuses to follow her. She carries on down the path herself and all of a sudden bumps into an invisible wall. From then on an internal monologue takes place. A monologue that leads us into a world (the woman’s internal world) full of questions but with very few answers, other than those about survival.

Heute, am fünfsten November, beginne ich mit meinem Bericht...

I mentioned that one of the reasons why I had gone back to German was to remind myself of the beautiful syntax this language possesses. The other reason was the actual author I am reading. Marlen Haushofr was a post-war writer who had to fight, first her own lack of confidence and, secondly the hostile world in which she lived. As someone not familiar with many Austrian, German or Swiss (those from the German-speaking part) post-war works of literature I was curious to see what they were like. One of the comments I often heard when I began to learn German all those years ago was that in the wake of Hitler’s defeat and the demise of Nazism many German-speaking writers decided to carry out an act of self-censorship in relation to the war. They stopped mentioning it. Marlen’s works might validate that theory. Certainly Wir töten Stella, Das fünste Jahr (the two novellas) and so far Die Wand stray from any mention of World War II. This begs the question: should writers who happened to be born in countries where atrocities were committed by brutal regimes have to confront these demons of the past? Should a Russian (Stalin), a Cambodian (Pol Pot) or an Italian (Mussolini) writer always or at least most of the time have to reference their country’s past as a way of acknowledging former misdeeds?

I do not think so. If I move swiftly from literature to cinema I remember watching Argentinian films many years ago and pondering whether they all had to mention the terrible dictatorship that South American nation suffered in the late 70s and early 80s. Do not get me wrong. Many movies of that era, especially the ones that came out in the immediate aftermath, were top-notch. But I also recall some whose plot had nothing to do with the dictatorship and yet it felt as if by not mentioning the “disappeared” and the “junta”, these film-makers were betraying some kind of secret agreement.

Back in the world of literature, I am of the opinion that any pressure on a writer to approach or acknowledge a certain subject, chiefly in relation to their country’s past, and even more specifically one on which their homeland might not come out a in good light, risks placing shackles on both reader and writer. It hinders development, not only at an individual level, but also nationwide. What I have enjoyed about Marlen Haushofer’s writing so far is that she was more concerned with equipping her main character in Die Wand with a credible internal voice than with Hitler’s ascension to power. The main beneficiary? Culture. And of course, yours truly, for I have reconciled my long-term affair with the German language.

© 2015

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


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