Saturday 18 July 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

This is a strange post today. Not because it is my customary valedictory address prior to taking my annual summer sabbatical but because it contains a request. A request I would like you all to respect and to follow to the letter.

At the end of this post there will be an image. This image is actually a sketch I drew a few days ago of me. That is my face you will see. Or maybe not. Perhaps for the people who know me in the flesh the sketch will have no similarity to my real self. That is all right. That is what this column is about today.

Please, do not comment on the drawing. That is the request. A simple one. Do not tell me whether the eyes staring at you are well painted. I have no interest whatsoever in what you think about the sketch. That is why I am asking you not to comment on it. About the post? Please, do, I am all ears.

Why the strange request? Because that image that ends my article (in reality it is the clip that follows after the one that brings matters to a close but let’s not push it, shall we? I am already asking you a favour) is not a drawing. It might look like one and you could even aver that it was done using a set of pencils and a sketch book, but, believe you me, the image you are all scrolling down to see is a couple of bunched up towels, a cracked wall, a branch on a tree. What it is not is a drawing.

It is not a drawing, not because I have decided that it is not, but because it has taken on a life of its own and gone on to become a toy. It is a toy. This drawing which is not a drawing is a toy. It is the toy I was told not to play with when I was six years old, in Year 1, in Havana, Cuba. Like all children at that age I liked drawing. Stick figures with round bellies made up chiefly my “artist’s portfolio”. One day my teacher approached me from behind and told me: I’m sorry to tell that you will never be good at maths and art. Singing? Yes, stick to that one. Ah, and also reciting poems, you’re good at that too. But do not waste your time with drawing.

Whilst not quoting her words verbatim I have transposed faithfully the sense of her sentences. The impact was not felt immediately, I can tell you, but I just gave up. There and then I told myself that the only function of a pencil in my hand was to write with it.

In the intervening years I fell in love with the visual arts. I still remember the excitement I felt when confronted with my first impressionistic painting. In college I started hanging out with a guy who was a superb artist. It was around that time that my former teacher’s words began to haunt me.

You see, what that teacher had done was not so much to kill any future artistic ambition, which always has an “if” attached to it. What she had really done was to eliminate the possibility of playing with colour pencils and brushes. By the way, I did take part in art classes in the years following that encounter, yet I always felt apprehensive and exposed to the rest of my peers. I discovered later on that when it came to art I had an inferiority complex.

Going back to the “play” component, though, this is what I noticed had been missing from my early years in the area of visual arts. I had a wild imagination as a child, but where I was capable of using towels as mountains, jungles and ridges and deploy my toy soldiers on them, I could not bring myself to do the same with water colours.

That is one of the reasons why I am writing this post today. Because eventually, after many years reasoning out my teacher’s words and my later mental, physical, emotional and spiritual development, I came to the conclusion that the big gap in my life had been an absence of opportunities to play with a sketchbook and pencils.

This is also the reason why I asked you at the beginning not to comment on the image at the end of this post. Because if you were to do it you would be according my “toy” a space in which to see it under the heading “artistic quality”. You would have to switch off all unnecessary “noise” and focus on the “work of art” (they would be your words, not mine) on the screen. What I want is the opposite: chaos. Art, when intended, is normally detached from our all-invading reality. Play, on the other hand, incorporates disruption, spontaneity and disorder. The reason why I call the “sketch” below a “toy” is because it is the equivalent of the train set that starts on the small table in the lounge and soon takes over the whole living-room. Have you not seen a six-year-old doing that?

The second reason why I wrote this post was that as adults play is normally determined by and arbitrated by society. I know that there are grown-ups who do not give two monkeys about what people think of them. Good for them, I say! But the majority of us become self-conscious whenever we are caught doing something that is not appropriate for our age and which does not fall under any of the categories we have been given, for instance, jobs and hobbies, to mention two.

A couple of years ago we went to Shropshire. It was there that I bought a sketchbook and decided to return to that six-year-old boy who had had his playing wings clipped by this narrow-minded teacher. As I dipped my toes in the ever-confusing world of HB pencils I confess to having felt afraid at first but technology has changed so much in the last decade that I gained a sense of confidence in no time. Youtube is full of do-it-yourself tutorials and the more clips I clicked on, the happier I felt. It was not the same feeling of exhilaration I have when I go out running or play football. Those are hobbies. This other sentiment was one of unbridled fun, namely, the sensation of being a small child again.

Our society and more specifically our education system tends to sideline subjects it sees as “non-vital” or “unimportant”. The stress is on English, Maths and Science. Drama, art, history, foreign languages, philosophy and others do not have the same weight as the triumvirate I mentioned before. This has the undesired effect of churning out students with poor transferable skills. The irony is that if you look around you will see that some of the more important politicians in recent years have dabbled in an art form at some point in their lives: Barack Obama sang with the recently-deceased BB King, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair plays guitar and was even part of a band in the past and Bill Clinton loves nothing more than blowing on his sax every now and then. I have no idea how they discovered their instruments, but I am sure that “play” had something to do with it when they were little.

So, there you have it. What is this post about? About play as the possibility of discovering a long-held, self-denied activity that has lain dormant inside us. Who knows? You might even write about it on your blog, upload an image and call it “toy” like I did. Ah, and you might also ask readers not to comment on it. Thanks, see you in September.

Remember, I am a "toy" not to be commented upon. Thanks.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 12th September at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Let's Talk About...

urban self-cannibalism. A condition from which I believe my beloved adopted city of London is suffering now.

In The Flesh (La Carne), the late Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera’s satirical short story, a whole town runs out of meat. After the vegetables, to which they resort in order to survive, threaten to go the same way as the meat, one of the village’s inhabitants happens upon a solution. Looking at his boneless buttocks, he cuts a slice off the left one and fries it like a steak on the pan. Little by little the rest of the town follows his example, including the mayor.

This tale came to my mind the other day when I read Rowan Moore’s excellent analysis on London’s urban self-cannibalism. Like Piñera’s characters, entering an inescapable circle of self-annihilation, some parts of London have got stuck in a commodification-focused hamster wheel. Believe me, even hamsters get tired and come off the wheel. Yet, Londoners are stuck in there.

Housing, the high street, pub culture, these are all victims of London’s new-found gluttony. A gluttony that is driven mainly, although not exclusively, by overseas investors. Whilst the city eats itself, the billionaire in Malaysia or Singapore invests on the “body part” that has just been devoured.

Let’s talk about London’s urban cannibalism. Let’s talk about the city that prices out its poorest to make way for multimillion-pound residential developments that cater chiefly to the hedge fund manager, the City banker or the football club owner. Let’s talk about the third-generation-run shop that is forced to close, not because a Mc Donald’s is replacing it (that is so 20th century) but because the area has been earmarked for “regeneration”; the dreaded word that heralds upmarket, boutique-like, hipster-influenced culture. No more flat caps, but ironic beards, no industries, but internet start-ups.

A reptilian London

London eats itself but does not digest its prey totally. It regurgitates it in tourist-friendly walking postcards. They are the artists that give the city its vibrancy and yet have to move constantly because their studios happen to be in much-sought-after prime “niche” locations. The sort of places that render a city – for instance, London – “authentic”. This authenticity then becomes food for the future investor who lives… in Thailand.

Piñera’s tale ends with the disappearance of a town and its inhabitants as they all eat themselves out of existence. I doubt London will vanish into the ether, although many of the people who make it the vibrant place it is will eventually fade into the abyss of forgetfulness, swallowed whole by the city that begat them.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be posted on Saturday 18th July at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 11 July 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Props. We all carried props of some sort. It was as if the majority of us were performing in our own self-written play/soap/movie/installation.

I was in the car recently, waiting for my daughter. She has just started volunteering with a local charity (would you believe it? She was counting down the days until she turned fourteen so that she could apply to become a volunteer for this particular group. That’s what I call determination!) and I offered to help her out by driving her to the shop and picking her up at the end of her shift. On this particular afternoon with the stifling heat in full swing I had a few minutes to spare so taking advantage of the semi-anonymity that my car provided I began to observe my fellow humans going about their business.

Props. That was what I mostly witnessed. We all carried props of some sort. It was as if the majority of us were performing in our own self-written play/soap/movie/installation. The most visible one was the mobile phone, of course. But we were all holding an object: cigarette, car keys, man-bag or purse. Prop-less passers-by tended to move their arms frantically as if in charge of an orchestra, as if they were missing a limb or… a prop. Holding, hugging, posing, displaying, caressing, squeezing, tapping, swiping, you name it, my fellow earthlings were all doing something with and to their props.

From my observations I came to the conclusion that our evolution as human beings has divided us into two categories: those who need “props” to support them in their daily lives and those who are capable of going around their quotidian business unassisted. I have, sadly, belonged to the former for far longer than I would have wanted.

No, not these ones. Where's the mobile phone?

In the same way that the people milling about in the shopping centre where the charity store in which my daughter volunteers used their “props” for various purposes, I turned a remote control/pointer into a loyal friend a few weeks ago. I was invited to lead a workshop at a conference last month. Somewhat nervous as befit the occasion, I calmed down as soon as my fingers touched the remote control. My presentation went smoothly and the Q&A was lively. All thanks to a three-inch, plastic object in my hand. Like the shoppers I observed from the semi-anonymity of my car, I, too, had created my own play/soap/movie/installation.

There was an interesting article in the latest issue of Songlines magazine about how the average age at which we stop listening to new music is 33. That’s also the age at which, apparently Jesus, died, and also it is the format for long play or vinyl records (in fact, it is 33⅓, but let’s not get too pedantic about it, shall we?). I have no idea why I included those two pieces of information in this post but maybe there was some divine intervention in the creation of the LP. I do not know.

Divine intervention or not, there are some new salsa gods and goddesses on the block now. Or Sugar Kings, to give them their proper name. The song on the clip below is called Rum and Coca Cola and the line-up performing it is a “who’s who” in the contemporary, underground, London-based Afro-Cuban world. On piano, David Oliver, on bass, Adolfredo Pulido, on trumpets, Víctor Hechavarría Sarret, on timbales, David Pattman, on vocals, Caroline Loftus and on percussion and leading the ensemble, Flavio Correa. This is what summer sounds like. Great harmonies and dance-inspiring, tight arrangements. Enjoy.

© 2015

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 15th July at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 1 July 2015

On the ties that bind us

Tonight I was meant to post my regular "Let's Talk About..." column. This is a light-hearted section in which I poke fun at current political, social, cultural and economic affairs. But I'm not doing that tonight.

Who am I kidding? When a gunman goes on the rampage and kills innocent tourists. When innocent people worshipping in a church are killed in cold blood by an assassin who made their acquaintance moments before. When innocent commuters are blown up on the tube... am I going to be all laughter and fun?

The people killed in Charleston, in Tunisia, the man beheaded in France, those murdered in London on 7/7, these people are/were my brothers and sisters. The ties that bind us are far stronger than our differences, whatever these differences may be: nationality, skin colour, creed or lack of it thereof, gender, (dis)ability, sexual orientation. They matter not. The ties that bind us are human ties, the type that you cannot break by pulling the trigger of an AK-47, or by detonating a bomb in a crowded train carriage.

For the next ten days my blog will be closed as a mark for respect for those murdered in Charleston, Tunisia, France, Nigeria and on 7th July, London, the 10th anniversary of which will be next week.

I will return, however. I will return on Saturday 11th July and I will bring my usual mirth and - warped - sense of humour with me. Because terrorism, whether state-sponsored or religiously motivated, is afraid of laughter. For a better example, look at Charlie Hebdo. Who knows? I might be the next victim on the London Underground or at a beach resort in Europe or north Africa. But if I shall be the next one, let it not be said that I went down crying, beaten, defeated. I am crying now, for my murdered brothers and sisters. But on the 11th July I will come back laughing like Maya Angelou: "'Cause I laugh like I've gold mines/Diggin' in my own backyard".


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