Wednesday 30 September 2015

London, my London (Ally Pally)

It is time to bring back one of my favourite sections on this blog. I started this regular love-letter to London as soon as this space kicked off more than eight years ago but inconsistency got the better of me over time and it has been a while since I shared one of my “discoveries” with you.

That is bound to change for the next few months. One positive outcome of having had builders and decorators in my kitchen during the summer as detailed in a previous post was that it gave me the perfect excuse to leave the house as often as possible. Not only did I leave the house but I went out on my bike and rode around Londontown (and walked, too, when the rain became too much to bear), the way I had always dreamt about. The result of these – chiefly cycle-driven – jaunts will hopefully provide an interesting insight, at least from an immigrant’s perspective, into what London is like today, in the 21st century.

After all, this is a big, expansive city of roughly eight million (and counting) inhabitants. The sheer size of it is enough to give you a headache. Driving or cycling around it will surely leave you with one. London is also a magical place. The magic is provided by a rich combination of people, history and modernity. Its parks, museums and old houses continue to be an attraction. At the same time with approximately 300 languages spoken in the British capital, its multicultural nature is coming to the fore more and more. It has been recognised as one of the main features of The Smoke that throughout its century-old history it has sucked immigrants from almost every corner of the planet. Far from remaining idle the new arrivals have usually brought with them new ideas and their own personal stories.

The series of posts to come have been written based on routes that I have either researched and followed because someone else came up with them before, or created myself. These routes are random, thought up by interest more than convenience. Instead of trying to get from A to B quicker, I chose to get to know better the city in which I have lived for close to twenty years.

One peculiarity I came across when cycling around London was how flat a lot of the city is. From east to west, north to south there is not a lot of elevation. There are hills, of course, some of them quite steep, but on the whole, it felt as if I were cycling through a plateau most of the time.  However, when an incline appeared, it made my journey difficult. Which is what happened at beginning of one of my rides in Alexandra Palace (or Ally Pally, as most people call it) in Haringey.

Photo taken from

This Victorian-era building towers over north London like a sentinel watching over its troops. A short puff up its mighty hilly road will leave you breathless and in the case of yours truly, wheeling my bike for only the second time in my life (the first one was in Havana when I was in my early 20s. My only excuse then, looking back, is that the bike in question was a Russian fixie with a back-pedal brake, low gear and high sprocket; worst combination ever to brave a hill). Yet, the prize of reaching the top is well worth it. What a view! From where I stood I had north London in front of me, part of northwest London to my left and northeast and east London to my right. The high-rises of Edmonton and its controversial incinerator almost straight ahead seemed to tickle the belly of the grey, imposing sky. To my left lay the - mostly - flatlands of Barnet and Finchley where I would be headed later on. To my right modern architecture was represented by the Shard and the Walkie-Talkie in the distance.

Two fires have not been able to destroy Ally Pally and what it means to Londoners and non-Londoners alike. On the day I went visitors milled about and all the various amenities on offer were choc-a-bloc with punters. There was the Boating Lake for starters, a snip at £4.95 per adult for a chance to go rowing. Perhaps the most famous activity Alexandra Palace is known for is the all-year-round ice rink where you can even be coached by professional ice-skaters for as little as a tenner for fifteen minutes. For the more adventurous there is always the skate park where you can bring your own skateboard and indulge in all sorts of stunts on the ramps and half-pipes. Another event that takes place at Ally Pally is the fireworks display on Guy Fawkes’ night every 5th of November. Fancy of a bit of history? Here's a curious fact for you: the world's first regular television service was launched from this jewel of north London by the BBC eighty years ago.

If you are in town, Alexandra Palace is a must-visit tourist attraction, perhaps a bit off the beaten path but worth the effort, even if like me you have to cycle to it. After getting some relief coming down the same mighty hill I had puffed my way up moments before, I turned left onto Alexandra Park Road and carried on northwest-bound. The next stage of my bike ride would take me to a very iconic crossing…

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 3rd October at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 26 September 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

A few days ago I heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, say on the radio that he wanted Britain to be a leader in areas such as business and technology. This was part of the reason for Mr Osborne's cap-in-hand trip to China.

That left me thinking about Icarus. If you remember the tale well, he tried to escape from Crete with wings of wax but flew so high that his wings melted from the heat of the sun and he fell into the sea and died.

Is Mr Osborne thinking of equipping British businesses with wax wings?

When did “good enough” become “bad”?

As a long-time UK-resident I want my economy to work. Whether it stands out in Europe or it does not, I could not give two monkeys. I want it to work for those who live in Britain, whether born here or not. I want the economy to yield profit-making businesses – especially socially-minded – that contribute to the public kitty. I want it to grow, but not out of control, not in a borrow-and-I-will-pay-later-if-I-can way but in pragmatic, objective manner. I want there to be independent bodies for spotting and correcting errors. There will be wobbles in this economy I want (which economy has not got wobbles?) but they will be transitory and not too difficult to overcome. There will also be highlights, but not of the type that will make fellow denizens wish to live in a highlight-chasing society but the ones you enjoy with a cuppa and a biscuit. Then, we all move on and plod along.

Instead, what I keep hearing from headline-grabbing George Osborne is that we, the UK, should lead the world in whatever the government decides next: nuclear energy, arms trade, refugees’ resettlement? Oh, no, sorry, not that last one. Beg your pardon. We definitely do not want to lead in that area.

I want a functional economy in a functional country. I value that more than the “outstanding”, the “extraordinary” and the “excellent”. I am not averse to these traits; I am, however, wary of the effects in chasing them. Market domination might be good for shareholders but it makes no difference to Joe or Joanna Public. They still have to choose between supermarket own brand or top range when doing their shopping. Of decisions like this one is life for the majority of us made.

When people ask me about what sort of society I would like Cuba to become when Fidel finally kicks the bucket and there is no more Raúl and his crooks, my answer is always the same: a working system. A working system does exactly what says on the tin. It works for everybody or for most people. It is difficult to achieve this when those in power are more concerned about capturing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Would it not be better to have just eggs, pure and simple?

When my son was little, my wife and I used to take him to a session with other children and their parents. I remember talking to another parent once and telling this person that my aspiration – at the time – was to be a “good enough” parent. This person got worked up somewhat and told me that their aspiration was to be “the best” parent ever. That comment and the strength with which it was said struck me as funny. My first thought was that this person was setting her/himself up for failure. No one can be the best all the time. Especially parents. My second thought was: what happened to “good enough”?

It is a question that has come back to haunt me recently for reasons I will not discuss in this post. But the premise of my column tonight remains the same: “average” is no longer enough. Some people really want to know why you are not excellent, extraordinary or outstanding. The issue is that this sadly sends out the wrong message as people misunderstand what “average” means and what it represents. I live an average life in the UK. I make no excuses for it. Even when I go back to Cuba I tell people what I do for a living, what we get up to at weekends and what we spend our money on. The irony is that my lifestyle seems extraordinary, even rich, to some of my fellow country-women and men.

Sky's new slogan is "believe in better". I sometimes do believe in better. Chiefly when it comes to sports; I would like my beloved Yankees to make it to the play-offs, Chelsea to win the English Premier League again this season and my hometown baseball team, Industriales, to add another pennant to their trophy cabinet. But in most areas of my life I believe that "good enough" is, pardon the repetition, good. Why soar when you can fly in a straight line and get to your destination quicker and safer? I am not advocating a risk-free life, but a good-enough attitude. If you need some advice, ask Icarus.

© 2015

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 30th September at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Urban Diary

The sound of lawn-mowers eating up and belching out grass resonates in the air like a badly-conducted chorus. The dissonance is welcome, however. The sudden, almost simultaneous act of weeding our gardens amongst my neighbours responds more to urgency than willing agency. The ubiquitous presence of late-summer rain in the last few weeks has halted our ritual of fortnight grass-cutting. Like a long mane that has not been treated to its regular short-back-and-sides, trimming becomes more an act of desperation than an ornamental observance.

I finish my garden chores before the others. I want to go for a run. The temperature is still pleasant, neither too hot as it was at the tail end of August, nor autumnal chilly yet. I do spot, though, low-flying, Dalmatian-like clouds with a grey so dark that you could dip a fountain pen in them and write your name on a blue sky that is fast becoming overcast.

As soon as I finish my warm-up I set off. The cacophonous sound of the lawn-mowers fades away. In its place a beautiful spectacle opens up before me: I call it a pre-autumn urban display. One minute patches of the pavement are bathed in sunshine the next covered up in shadow. Further along, the industrial estate that borders my neighbourhood becomes an unintentional background for the first auburn/burgundy/hazel/russet hues. Autumn is not here yet, but it is already trying to break through the cracks on the walls.

The scant light changes as a result of my motion and this causes the colours to which I am exposed become more or less intense. Pace, not speed, I keep reminding myself, as I suddenly feel the exertion of a long steep hill. I think of a camera but my eyes disabuse me of the idea pretty quickly. There is no better camera than the human memory when confronted by a sea of flowers that flanks me on either side and has benefitted from the recent rains. My path turns into road and switches back to pavement as I return home and the first drop falls on my nose.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 26th September at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 19 September 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

We recently had our kitchen done up. It was a freebie from our housing association which we just could turn down. Or as someone else might have put it, "an offer we couldn't refuse." The freebie, however, meant that I could not join my wife and daughter on our much-longed-for holiday in the Caribbean. My son and I stayed behind to ensure the work got done properly.

On the first evening, after the contractors had finished ripping out all the kitchen units and cupboards, taken out the floor and gone home for the day I stood in this temporarily-empty, dusty space. This is the same space in which I had stood and sat down for more than ten years with pots, pans, plates and cutlery around me. Yet, I suddenly felt swept away by the power of the echo of my voice bouncing off the kitchen walls. I also felt exposed. The bareness of our soon-to-be new kitchen had both an eerie and hypnotic effect on me. My voice sounded louder than usual and this made me self-conscious, a trait I am not aware of possessing in great doses.

I realised that this absence of furniture was more than the mere replacement of a set of units for another. To me this moment meant the instant realisation that to be human is also to hear your real voice bouncing off the walls and coming back to you. It is being you, the real you. The bare kitchen with its un-plastered walls, wires hanging out and bomb-hit look, made me think of how we “dress up” our voices as we grow up, sometimes inadvertently, hiding our real ones.

Not my kitchen, but it still feels eerie

There is nothing like a window with no blinds on (we asked the contractors to chuck them away as we were buying new ones) to make you confront the outside world. Especially when the new lamp is one of the brightest ones you have ever seen in your life and you can’t see out. You are being seen but cannot return the favour fully. All this made me think of the various layers we use to cover (disguise?) our voices, in the same way that we buy a kettle, a toaster, a smoothie-maker and a microwave to match the colour on the walls of our kitchens. I know my voice is the tool through which I let the outside world know the assumptions, the platitudes and misconceptions my brain churns out. I also know that that might not be the real me all of the time. Through the blinds-free window I was being exposed in a manner I had not considered before. Plus, I also felt as if I was not in control of this transaction: audience outside my house vs actor under bright, fluorescent lamp. It was the monologue I had never prepared for and which I had no intention of delivering.

For the duration of the work in the kitchen I avoided the room at night. Tough action to take as my CDs and other belongings were in our “office”. Still, I moved as much stuff from our office to my bedroom as I could. Nevertheless, there was still a strong attraction in me towards the kitchen in the same way that the main character of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart must have had towards the man he kills. I have never been convinced that Poe’s creation hated the old man completely. I always thought the short story was a metaphor for that which lives within us and yet we cannot name. Sometimes it takes an eye – and the imaginary threat it poses to us – to awaken our most primitive reactions, some others is the dismantling of a whole kitchen. You might see this whole scenario as nothing but flumadiddle but it did make sense to me then.

I was glad when the contractors began to furnish the room. The boiler came in first, then the electrics, then the floor, the cupboards, the surfaces and the sink. By the time my wife returned from Barbados, there was just the handyman to pop in and apply the final touches. The day the project manager and supervisor came to carry out the inspection, I was pleased to see that my voice had got back to the level it was before. A voice that was all “dressed up” and ready to go.

© 2015

Next Post: “Urban Diary””, to be published on Wednesday 23rd September at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Dramatis personae of a previous life in Havana

The blue of the sea in the distance, seen from the vantage point my classroom afforded me on the second floor of our old, derelict building, contrasted sharply with the inimitable act of him rolling his sleeves. The former pointed at freedom and possibilities. The latter, as I found out later, was the preamble to a performance of ill-disguised cruelty, a pantomime of power, a display of male bravado.

We noticed that the rolled-up sleeves and his beard were a way to divert attention from his ever-expanding pot-belly. This might have been Havana in 1990 and the economic crisis with the resulting food shortages might have been hovering over the Cuban capital like barbarians at the gates but his waistline took no notice of the fast-becoming desperate situation.

Perhaps his performance was a sort of masquerade with which to hide his tired-looking face and the sweat patches on his striped shirt. Perhaps all this was coupled with the fact that the subject he taught was a tough one to deliver. How could it be otherwise, though? Political economics of capitalism and socialism. A term for each system. Roughly five months each, plus an exam at the end of each semester to make you decide whether you wanted to join “the rafters” or stick it out on the island with the dying economy, the ubiquitous corruption and the loss of hope. He couldn’t, however, bring himself to doubt. Doubt in his case was the single bullet in the gun in a game of Russian roulette. You never knew if the next attempt would be the last one. A doubt begat questions and questions meant uncertainties. In front of him a classroom of late-teenagers in their second year in uni. To cap it all, they were linguistics students, doing the course that could open up the doors to information, access to alternative sources of knowledge: English. Still the language of the enemy. No, uncertainties would have meant conflict. He hated conflict. Or rather, he hated conflict when he could not win it. No, there would be no uncertainties. Even if that meant war.

The war was declared during that first lecture in September; the moment he rolled his sleeves up.

The beard, the demeanour, the glasses, the sun-kissed neck, the air of someone who understood you, you, late-blooming adolescent who was finally getting to grips with the world even if someone was pulling the carpet from under your feet because they would be flogging it off to the highest bidder next. I remember it all. Even if after the carpet-pulling, you fell over, you got back up, dusted yourself off and indulged in yet another bout of world-understanding. You knew that after he nodded and nodded and continued to nod as you asked your questions and displayed your uncertainties, as you gathered your books and walked towards the door, you knew that he would go straight to the dean’s office, knocked on his door and reported you. For what? For thinking. You knew that capitalism came in the first term and socialism in the second, but the order did not matter. You were supposed to hardly notice the former whilst praising the latter. Even after the first images from the fall of the Berlin wall found their way clandestinely to Cuba. Oh, yes, they did show the other – sanitised – images after. The ones accompanied by commentary that was so partial you had not realised they hated (East) Germans so much. And then, it was the turn of the Soviets. Meanwhile all the hitherto unexpected changes were explained in our lectures in an articulate and cogent way.

But it was for the final exams at the end of each that SL (I’ve chosen to use his real initials) reserved his better thespian skills. The two-teacher examination board, the two classrooms, one for waiting and the other one for the actual test, the silence, softly interrupted by nervous whispers and the heavy steps (because he always made sure they were heavy) approaching, the slow entrance and the shirt sleeves being rolled up, like a butcher, first one and then the other, the whole time his eyes fixed on his hairy, beefy forearms, until he raised them and with one look he seemed to catch us all at once, his voice booming, just the one word, but delivered in the same way as the sword brought down by the executioner on the head of his terrified victim in years gone by: Next!

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 19th September at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 12 September 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Some of us want to change the way capitalism works. Some others want to get rid of it altogether. Some would rather it kept chugging along the same way it has so far (these are the ones who usually command six-figure salaries and above). The bottom line is that nobody knows what to do with this centuries-old socioeconomic political system that is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Enter Paul Mason, economics editor of Channel 4 News and his new book Postcapitalism.

I have nothing against Paul. I think he is one of the finest journalists and columnists today. Besides, he has a sharp eye to predict epoch-changing events. His Monday dispatches in The Guardian have become regular reading for me. For instance, his incisive and - mostly – impartial and non-partisan analysis of the Greek economic crisis has been a soothing balm amongst the finger-pointing and mud-slinging that passes off for serious reporting sometimes.

However I do disagree with Mr Mason’s conclusions in his latest book. According to Paul we are entering a stage in which information technology and a new sharing economy will eventually take over, thus creating what he calls a “postcapitalist” society.

The new Che Guevara?

One of the extracts from his book contains all-sweeping statements like this one: “Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours. I call this postcapitalism.” The use of the word “something” scares me to death. Using a pronoun whose connotation is an unspecified or unknown thing instead of giving me reassurance leaves me feeling worried. What is this “something” that is going to topple one of the strongest socioeconomic and political systems we have had for the last six-hundred years? As it happens this “something” is not a single entity but a combination of factors, namely, the nature of work, including the need for it and its relationship with free time. The second element is based on the way information is collected and shared. Current socioeconomic models are finding it hard to cope with a fast-moving world in which information travels much quicker. Finally the third component is – voluntary – collaboration. As an example Mr Mason cites Wikipedia, an ad-free, online encyclopaedia which is edited by volunteers.

Whilst it is a laudable effort for an economics expert to make the case for small and medium enterprises (to use the right terminology) it is less re-assuring to see that Paul’s theory is manufacturing-free.

In vain I searched Paul Mason’s extract for clues as to how food would be produced, clothes made or even computers (the devices on which, I am assuming, this information would be shared) built in this future, post-capitalist society. There was nothing there to indicate that the real problem we have faced for many years, not just since 2008 but before that, is that production has been broken down and outsourced. Therein lies the problem, or one of them. Capitalism began with someone owning a factory, for example, making something and working out the cost of production and the profit after. The system called to a very human need: our sense of enterprise and creativity. For centuries thereafter capitalism remained mainly local (yes, there was outsourcing in the 1800s but not of the same type we have now) with different countries specialising in a specific or specific sectors. The end of the 20th century put paid to this economic approach. We have now computer parts being made in various parts of the world and assembled in others. What that means is that the owner, or owners as it is more common these days, can very easily ignore or violate employment laws and extract the maximum out of their workers whilst paying extremely low wages. I’m sorry, Paul, but network technology will not solve that.

This is the first time I have seen Mr Mason on shaky ground. Normally he is quite sound and convincing. My impression of the extract I read (which you can read here) was that he was going down the same route as Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Pinker, two writers whose oeuvre, I hasten to add, I have not read yet, but with whose essays I am quite familiar. Gladwell and Pinker are the equivalent of a catchy pop tune, the kind you cannot get out of your head. Their write-ups, whether they appear in The New Yorker or The Observer, are usually peppered with zeitgeist-y theories and soundbites that would be considered vanilla if they came from someone else. In fact, that is the flavour I think of the most whenever their names pop into my head: vanilla. I know that I am not being fair and maybe if I read The Tipping Point (Gladwell) or The Stuff of Thought (Pinker) I would probably change my mind. At the same time there is too much faux-philosophy-posturing going around and operating in a sort of self-referential, members-only club that looks down on those who do not get “it”. To use a baking metaphor, there is a lot of icing on the cake, but when you plunge your knife to cut it, there is nothing or very little inside. All you have is a lot of meringue. I hate meringue.

When it comes to economics, I think that most of us get “it”, even if we are not equipped with the knowledge to offer an elaborate riposte to our current woes. Regardless of the nature of work in the 21st century and its relationship with free time, we all expect to be paid for our labour. Technological innovation of the type described by Paul in his article is still driven by profit. To me the challenge is to turn this technological development into an ally in order to rein in corporate excess, not to use it as a surrogate for means of production. By the way, for each modern robot-like machine brought into the 2015 workplace five or six people will lose their jobs. The start-ups that have put East London Shoreditch almost at the same level as Silicon Valley do not do it because they are interested in ushering in the next stage of capitalism. They do it because their businesses are profitable and because they do not fancy working at their local Tesco stacking shelves. This is still our world today.

I say, nice try, Paul, but next time see if you can give a little bit of substance. Please, leave the meringue for another occasion.

© 2015

Next Post: “Dramatis Personae of a previous life in Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 16th September at 6pm (GMT)


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