Saturday 17 December 2016

Thoughts in Progress

I recently thought of an Alan Bennet’s quote, which I first came across in a column by Laura Barton, music writer at The Guardian: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” The reason for that pensive moment? Seamus Heaney.

The Irish poet, who died in 2013, left behind an extensive and rich body of work. Yet, I had never “got” Seamus. No matter how many articles and essays I read, including a nostalgia-tinted eulogy by his fellow poet and long-time admirer, Andrew Motion, I failed to connect with his poems.

Until “his hand came out and took mine” a few weeks ago. We had our annual Christmas Bazaar at my school which, as a fund-raising opportunity, always delivers the goods. This time I was put in charge of the teddies’ tombola. Next to me was the “second-hand bookshop” stall. During one of our breaks I nipped over for a quick browse and left with a copy of Contemporary British Poetry. And which author was the first one to be featured? Our Seamus.

"Where finally gold flecks began to dance"

I left work a bit later that evening on account of all the tidying-up. By the time I got home it was dark. With my bike still outside the open front door and my helmet on, I read the first poem in the collection.

Reader, I married Seamus Heaney that night. And no, I don’t care that I am misquoting our lovely and talented Charlotte. The first three lines of Churning Day have stuck with me since: A thick crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast/hardened gradually on top of the four crocks/that stood, large pottery bombs, in the small pantry.

I thought of the hand that was being offered to me. I took it. I dared not hesitate, nor reject it. The fullness of those three lines hit me like a heavyweight boxer’s uppercut in my sternum. They spoke not only of the alchemy-like process of making butter in a farm. They became melodic madeleines that took me back to the Havana of my childhood. No, we didn’t make butter at home. But we did our washing on a Saturday and called out to our neighbours who lived in the flat below ours to warn them that our clothes might drip a bit and “would it be all right if they could put out their washing after?”. Of course, we would let them know when we were done. The delight of feeling this connection with a culture - the Irish - that is as strange to mine as mine is to it is the familiarity Seamus' verses breed. Churning Day was not the only poem of his that made me feel this way but it is the one that has stayed with me the longest.

It is a theory of mine that this is one of the advantages of middle age. The lack of rush and abundance of patience. If you have been reading this blog for a long time, then, you know by now that I am not in the habit of chasing after the latest bestseller (although I am one third of the way into Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. Then, again, Zadie is an exception) or the newest music releases. It is almost a rule I live my life by that the more people hype up an author or musician, the less I want to know about their work.

The literature I read, the music I listen to, the art I enjoy, they all come from a similar place: closeness, intimacy. I want to believe that Churning Day was written for me. In fact, I believe it was. Poems like the ones Seamus wrote (yup, you guessed it, I have read a few more, I am catching up very quickly), nuzzle up to your ribs. They fill the space in which you are.

In times of ugliness, as the ones I think we are living through now, I take refuge in art, be it literature or cinema. Art connects me to other human beings, hopefully less interested in pussy-grabbing than in bridge-building. Art knows no boundaries, arrives unbidden and undemanding. But once you acquaint yourself with it, it asks to be fed. Your brain, it wants your brain, your full attention, your senses, your feelings and emotions. Seamus has showed me that recently. I did not “get” him at first because I was looking for him. Sometimes it is better to let that which we are trying to understand, find you instead. Even if it means that your house will “stink long after churning day/acrid as a sulphur mine. The empty crocks/were ranged along the wall again, the butter/in soft printed slabs was piled on pantry shelves/And in the house we moved with gravid ease/our brains turned crystals full of clean deal churns/the plash and gurgle of the sour-breathed milk/the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps.” As for my hand, it feels a bit greasy. It must be the butter.

This is my last column this year. See you all in the New Year. I hope you have a fantastic holiday period wherever you are and with whomever you spend it.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Diary of Inconsequential Being

Wednesday 9th November

Fucking 'ell!

Thursday 10th November


Friday 11th November


Saturday 12th November


Sunday 13th November


Monday 14th November


Tuesday 15th November


Wednesday 16th November

My birthday. Acceptance and hope.

© 2016

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 17th December at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 10 December 2016

Thoughts in Progress

When the great Latin American poet Mario Benedetti died in 2009, it was not just a massive blow for my culture, but also for me personally. It was the end of an era, even if his writing – mainly his poetry – has never stopped being popular in my neck of the woods.

Benedetti was and still is intrinsically linked to one of the more exciting periods in my life. He was the reason, after being exposed to his poems, why I took up public poetry-reading as part of an arts collective in the confusing and tumultuous days of mid-90s Havana. We were four friends brought together by a common interest in everything that was challenging and non-mainstream. Although our roles in our creative endeavour overlapped somewhat, we managed to carve out well-defined tasks which we fulfilled with gusto. It was around this time when I began to write in earnest (in Spanish, mind you) and read the fruit of my labour in our monthly rendezvous to fellow anxiety-challenging Cubans. It was then that I first played with the idea of reading Benedetti’s timeless and romance-filled poem “Corazón Coraza” (possible translation, Armoured Heart). But instead of the original in Spanish, I wanted to tackle the version in German that the author himself had performed in the Argentinian movie “El Lado Oscuro del Corazón” (The Dark Side of the Heart).  I admit that I had reservations about the reading, the film having been shown in Cuban cinemas scarcely a couple of years before and becoming very well-known and oft-quoted.

Then, El Maestro passed away seven years ago and I was left with a Benedetti-shaped hole in my life. I had not read poetry in public for almost twenty years. In fact, at the time I was reading very little poetry at all.

Therefore, the clip below is a risk-taking exercise. In it are contained both the thought-out and planned idea of a homage to Benedetti and the impromptu, off-the-cuff, organic nature of poetry-reading.

Of course, if you cannot speak German and you are not familiar with the original in Spanish, an internet-found translation appears right below the video. I will not comment on the quality of the translation because it is very hard to translate poetry, so I usually tend to praise whoever undertakes such task selflessly. The photos are not incidental, nor are they there for any artistic merit (I am not a photographer and I am fine with that). They have a certain personal significance, since the poem, although lover-centred, can also be interpreted in other ways. I straddle two cultures. That means that when I say “Because I have you and don’t”, I might not have a person in mind necessarily.

If you want to see the author performing his own poem in German in the aforementioned film, please, click here.

Because I have you and I don’t,
because I think about you,
because the night is young,
because the night passes and I say love,
because you have come to take your image,
and you are better than all your images,
because you are beautiful from your foot to your soul
because you are good from your soul to me
because you hide your sweet self in pride
small and sweet
armoured heart.

Because you are mine
because you are not mine
because I look at you and I die,
and worse than dying,
if I do not see you, love,
if I do not see you.

Because you are always everywhere,
but you are better where I love you,
because your mouth is blood
and you are cold
I have to love you, love
I have to love you,
even though this wound hurts twice as much
even though I search for you and do not find you
and even though the night passes
and I have you,
and I don’t.

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Urban Diary

My intention was only to pop into Evans Cycles in Holborn for a quarter of an hour and from there to carry on down to South Kensington on the Piccadilly Line. Yet, here I am on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, about to embark on another of my spur-of-the-moment “walking adventures”. This time the object of my exploration is Soho. Not in-Soho, but outer-Soho. Its periphery, its urban borders; the imperfect rectangle that means so much to misfits and outsiders.

Not that it was always that way. Henry VIII’s former Royal Park’s delusions of grandeur were dealt a reality check with each wave of migration; from Algerians to Greeks (in fact one of its roads is called Greek Street), they all opened their small businesses here. However, Soho has been chiefly known for a long time for its sex shops and strip shows.


Unfair, I would say, as I traipse up Charing Cross, Oxford Street-bound. The area is still host to many fanciful restaurants and cafes which render this part of London bohemian and left-of field. It is also a place where the old and new mix easily and organically. The gay community has used Old Compton Street as its hanging-out place for years with the Admiral Duncan pub as its headquarters. Carnaby Street brought us 60s “Swinging London”. Many film companies are based here.

I turn left at Tottenham Court Road tube station to find a semi-overcast sky with an oval-shaped late-afternoon sun fast disappearing behind the buildings on Oxford Street. Its trace leaves a scarlet-berry-coloured pavement trod on by thousands of commuters in search of what London’s nightlife has to offer. I am reminded of Keats' "barred clouds" blooming "the soft dying day". I hurry along Oxford Street with its big department stores palisading both Soho on one side of the road and Fitzrovia on the other. I will probably come back here for my Christmas shopping in a month or so but now it is the end of October and the yuletide season is not on my mind yet.

What is on my mind, though, is to get to the other point of this loop: Regent Street. It is always a pleasure of mine to go down on this road, Piccadilly Circus-bound, and see the contrast between the Mayfair upmarket shops on one side (Hackett, Crabtree and Evelyn and Karl Lagerfeld) and the neon signs on the other (that would be in-Soho). I descend the stairs of the tube station, the last rays of a faint terracotta-coloured sun vanishing as I pull my Oyster card out of my pocket.

© 2016

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 10th December at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 3 December 2016

Fidel, my Bladder and Me

In 1988, amongst the many events that left a mark on my life as a confused, almost rudderless, seventeen-year-old college student, one stood out the most. That was the year that I enrolled in the MTT (Territorial Troops Militias). I say enrol, but it is only fair to say that I was almost coerced to join in, as I was one of the few pupils who was not already part of the Youth Communist League in my class. However, it is also fair to say that being a hormone-driven male adolescent I was looking forward to the military challenge that this opportunity presented. Little did I know what was in store for me.

The MTT, as a body, was a branch of the Cuban Armed Forces, and it was supposed to be a voluntary, selective and territorial movement whose main function was to assist in the defence of the country. As a new member of this organisation I had to go out training some Sundays with a whole brigade made up of elderly people, other students, workers and women. Women represented half the force of the MTT. I must admit that I never felt daunted by any of the tasks demanded of me, which included, shooting, digging trenches, and crawling under barbed wire.

1989 found me fretting over my university admission exams. The rules had just been changed the  year before which meant that it was no longer on academic average that one was able to go on to further education. We had to sit three tests in order to progress and since one of them was Maths, I was not sure anymore whether I would get the course I wanted.

All that was put aside when I was told that I would be part of the human barrier guarding one of the roads during the May Day March. As a bonus I would get to see Fidel’s motorcade filing by. I could not wait to get into my green olive trousers and blue shirt, the MTT official uniform.

In 1989, despite some doubts already seeping in, I was still a true believer in the Revolution. Inside me I yearned to belong to the Youth Communist League and got very upset when I was rejected on the grounds that I was not ‘combative’ enough. Which meant, in short, that I did not grass people up. So, when the opportunity arose to serve my country and to see up close and personal the leader of the Revolution my little young heart skipped a beatt unintentionally.

The day arrived and we all gathered on Paseo Avenue and Zapata Street, two of Havana’s main arteries. We were split into little groups with a leader. Mine was headed by a man who had served in Angola and had plenty of military experience under his belt. His voice was firm but reassuring. At around 12noon we were assigned our posts.

Because the May Day March usually began very early, people would come from afar in the designated means of transportation. Sometimes they would choose their own. Buses would be diverted and traffic would become chaotic. All this far from creating a negative atmosphere made the people come together even more.

By the time our leader pointed at the spot I would be guarding, it was past midday and I had missed the chance to use the toilet. This was a problem. A couple of years before I had been diagnosed with kidney infection and the doctor recommended that I take as much liquid as I could. The year after, the infection attacked again and our GP was even sterner, warning me that failure to follow his orders would have dire consequences. As his words replayed in my mind now, my bladder decided to play up and all the liquid I had drunk before (roughly a bottle of water) demanded that it be let out.

Soon after, hysterical waves of ‘Fidel! Fidel!’ roared from the north of Revolution Square. My mind had been too occupied with the thought of liquid evacuation to realise that our president was about to pass in an open car. All of a sudden ear-piercing shouting burst out all around me ‘Long live Fidel! Long live Fidel!’ Passers-by in front of me stood up and jumped in delirious excitement, their raised hands waving little Cuban flags frenetically. I, too, joined in, but more from the desperation to keep my body in motion and thus not wet my trousers than just from mere elation at seeing the leader of my country.

What followed after could only be described as agony. Fidel was already famous for his long speeches, which could last several hours, and as my condition worsened, his enthusiasm to talk grew. Thus, more than three hours passed. I was almost bent over and my eyes were watered. Our leader came over to check our position a few times and to make sure that we were not letting any strangers through. When he saw me in my miserable state he asked me what the matter was. After giving him a short explanation, he shrugged his shoulders and told me that since the speech was about to wrap up any time soon, I had better wait it out. He mentioned the words patience, revolutionary duty and courage. Somehow the image of a urinal being smashed on someone’s head flashed up before my eyes.

Finally at around 4pm Fidel said five magic words that have forever stayed with me: This is my last reflection. That was it! I thought. My micturition dilemma would soon be over. I had already cast my eye on a little bush nearby. Forget toilets, let’s go tribal.

Don't you bloody dare use that bush! I'm about to finish... in two hours.

It turned out that Fidel’s last reflection was a red herring. True to his word, though, it was indeed his last reflection, but it lasted two more hours. And at around 6pm, as the din of the attending masses drowned the noise coming from the coaches and trucks in the vicinity revving up their engines in order to set off, I looked behind, looked again to the front, looked back once more and made off to the bush I had paid so much attention to before. I would like to think that the plants I watered so contentedly then went on to become beautiful flowers, or maybe even trees.

That was the only time I saw El Comandante  up close but it was rather my bladder’s stoic resilience that I have always remembered this occasion for.

© 2016

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 7th December at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 30 November 2016

Wednesday 9 November 2016


This blog will be closed until further notice.

In the meantime, if someone finds hope, decency, respect, empathy (and its close relative, sympathy), acceptance and humanity, tell them they are much missed.


Saturday 5 November 2016

Thoughts in Progress

Lately I have been wondering if the mark of true masculinity can be found in a role allocated to us, men, that we are supposed to fulfill, or if such concept is devoid of meaning at all. My deliberations have come as a result of recent discussions on the role men play in society nowadays.

A key component of male identity has long been a bread-winning mentality. Whether of the blue- or white-collar type, the masculine professional mind-set has usually seen itself as the one that brings home the bacon. Yet, in recent decades the male influence has somewhat dwindled. The collapse of industries up and down the UK, changes in the workplace (with a corresponding higher female intake), the emergence of a zero-hour-contract culture, the swift transition from a manufacturing economy to a consumer-led, service-based one; these are all factors that have dealt a heavy blow to the male ego.

Gendered identities have been a comfort zone for many (although, it appears women were not consulted too often on them) for centuries. Whilst it might have made sense in a world riven with unknown dangers in ancient times – and I, for one, am not condoning such attitudes – it makes less sense in the modern era. We live in a non-binary world now and this has proved to be challenging for the older male generation.

Nevertheless, we still live in a world governed by my gender. Wherever you turn, media, politics, business, you will see men calling the shots. However, once you start cutting through the different strata of society you notice that men no longer perform traditional roles. Moreover, they often can be found in positions that used to be thought of as “women’s jobs” (education and childcare being two). This has created a conflict between men and the rest of society (including women and institutions) and within men themselves, as they struggle to understand their place on planet Earth in the 21st century. The typical power-related behaviour displayed by the male of the species has had to adapt quickly to a market-driven economy that favours customers over gender.

I've got a softer side, you know?

Is there, then, a crisis of masculinity? Yes is the answer, if we ascribe ourselves only to a man-centric viewpoint. No, if we believe (as I do) that masculinity is not defined by athletic prowess or pub-closing-time brawls. Male identity does not exist in a vacuum, even if that has been the long-held opinion. What has happened in the last two decades, from the rise of LGBT activism, to the ever-increasing female influence on society, is that the penis-shaped, Berlin-Wall of masculinity has come tumbling down. Notions of gender and sexuality are not as strict as they used to be. More women are employed now than ever (even if they still make less money than their male counterparts performing the same jobs). Straight men have shaken off the shackles of orthodox masculinity.

It follows then, that indeed there could be a men’s crisis, but only insofar as this crisis stems from a pre-conceived idea of what a man is meant to be and do. Once you eliminate the rigid notion of masculinity you are left with a very loose and hard to categorise definition. Not that there has not been a backlash against these changes. You only need take a look at Donald Trump across the pond and Nigel Farage in Britain to see male power in retreat and fighting back. Its targets are the usual suspects: the politically correct brigade, “feminazis”, “bloody wimin”, gays (with a new addition, “trans activists”) and “unmanly men”. It will be interesting to see how this head-to-head battle pans out in years to come.

In the meantime, those of us who have decided that masculinity means more than talking about women in a degrading way, have embraced openness and acceptance as a means to assert our humanity. This is a much bigger concept than maleness and far more inclusive.

© 2016

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 9th November at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Diary of Inconsequential Being

It might not come as a surprise to many that one of the marks of modern life is how different the world of celebrity has become. Whereas in years gone by there was a certain mystery and suspense around famous people, we now face an information overload. This is not, in case you are wondering, one of those “back in my days things were better” type of column. Especially because, a) I’m only forty-four-years-old (soon to be forty-five) and, b) because my life so far has straddled two countries and equal amount of continents.

Yet, I, too, have noticed how inane and repetitive celebrities’ output has become. So, I am joining the fray tonight. This is a new space in which I will discuss my quotidian (un)exciting, inconsequential life experiences. Any attempt to bore you is intentional. Content will be repetitive occasionally and very often devoid of meaning and depth. Feel free to yawn. In fact, I encourage you to.

Monday 5th September

I have now been back at work for two days but it is only today that the children are returning to school. On my way to work a car comes within a whisker of kissing the frame of my bike but it ends with no amorous encounter between the two modes of transport. The automobile in question is not some rare species, just an old, battered Ford. Its size is never less than spectacular and its colour is the typical red commonly found on British roads.

A sky-blue, seasonally-warm, early morning makes my day already. My journey to work lasts the customary twenty-odd minutes and nothing important happens. The traffic lights are still in the same place, jumped through by the same threatening-looking lorry drivers and bespectacled bus drivers.

On the news today: Keith Vaz is to step down as Commons committee chair after sex claims and Theresa May refuses to commit to Brexit pledges on immigration and NHS. Sex and immigration. I bet a large part of the population of these isles is getting their jollies right now.

I begin to read "Oscar Wilde" by H. Montgomery Hyde.

Tuesday 6th September

The young. I could watch them forever, crossing roads without a care in the world, heads bowed down, eyes never leaving their gadgets, and yet, stepping out of the way of a rush-hour, speeding car at the last minute.

Until one day they will be lucky no more.

I stop at the same busy crossroads on my way to work and notice for the umpteenth time that we need a green man on this corner. Reason number 1, there are about four secondary schools within a radius mile of each other, plus half a dozen primaries. Reason number 2, visibility is very poor because of the road layout. There aren’t four corners per se, but five or six places to cross from, all of them equally dangerous. Reason number three… forget reason number three, the light has changed.

The papers are full of the just-cancelled junior doctors’ strike. The front pages betray their usual political alliances. Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, is more fortunate this time when he comes on Radio 4. No one gets his surname wrong. Ah, my kingdom for a spoonerism!

Wednesday 7th September

I am thinking of investing in a pannier. My rucksack feels heavy and my neck is beginning to ache. I ring up Cancer Research UK and find out that I can still sign up for the Brighton marathon next year. Later on tonight I will submit my registration fee and the tortuous but rather exhilarating prospect of running twenty-six miles again is enough to carry me through the day.

My daughter is cooking tonight. She usually does Tuesdays and Wednesdays whilst I still cook on Thursdays. Fridays are “unhealthy food night” and Sundays and Mondays it is my wife’s turn to take over the kitchen. Saturdays are LTOOD day (Left To Our Own Devices, in case you are wondering).

I love my daughter’s recipes. She is always inventive. I wish I had been that daring at her age but between being born in a country where men in the kitchen are a no-no and living with four women under the same roof, I never had the same opportunities.

And to be honest, I did not look for them either.

Totally random image. Photo taken by the blog author
Sports Direct is in hot water. The company has been caught red-handed after a Guardian-led investigation uncovered practices that could easily be compared to those of a Victorian workhouse.

There is still good, investigative journalism around. The kind that does not depend on stories on sex and immigration to ramp up its sales.

© 2016

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 5th November at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 29 October 2016

Thoughts in Progress

Think what you want about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for literature (and believe me, the blogosphere is awash with polarising opinions) but the famously recluse troubadour has unwittingly opened up an interesting and necessary debate: can song-writing be considered literature in its own right?

My gut feeling would probably shout out to let songs be songs and let literature be literature. Yet, somehow with Bob the lines get pretty hazy. He is one of the few performers who can lay claim to having a foot on both genres.

I first came to Dylan in uni. When I say “I came”, I mean that I began to listen actively to Bob in my first year of university. Before that, the only tune by Mr Zimmerman I knew was “Blowin’ in the Wind”. I think it was also the only one most Cuban radio DJs were acquainted with. Certainly it was the only one they played. Through a series of recommendations from friends in my freshman’s year, my journey through Dylan’s back catalogue started and I can safely say, I’m still on the same trip.

I cannot write about Dylan’s work chronologically, for I got stuck in his 60s phase and I still have not managed to get out. I did listen to his 80s collaboration with George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, namely, The Travelling Wilburys, but that was not as satisfying as listening to his early albums. My first Dylan tape, recorded at one of my classmate’s, with randomly added Janis Joplin’s songs at the end (remember how we used to record from long play to cassette, or cassette to cassette, filling up the remaining empty space with whatever was at hand? In those days most albums lasted between 45 and 60 minutes and tapes were sometimes 90 minutes long. I still have silence-cancelling mini-compilations I used to make, some of which were better than the record that preceded them. Go figure) was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The album opened with, yes, you guessed it, Blowin’ in the Wind, but by track 3, Masters of War, I knew that there was more to Bob than just a man asking too many questions.

This first Dylan shared space with my very tiny, minuscule, almost invisible cassette collection. It was 1990s Havana and a tape could set you back between 15 and 20 Cuban pesos. Add to that the fact that I still lived with my mum, cousin, her mother and my grandmother in a cardboard-sized, one-bed flat in downtown Havana and any collection-building ambitions were dealt an immediate harsh reality check. Yet, my lifelong affair with Bob’s music was born in this confined space.

I used the word troubadour in my opening paragraph on purpose. It is not a term often used in English. Most critics and music enthusiasts prefer to talk about “singer songwriters”. In Spanish, though, the word “trovador” still denotes a musician who writes complex, poetic compositions in which both the music and poetry worlds are indivisible. To me, that is Dylan. Let us take for instance one of his signature melodies, Masters of War.

He sets the pattern very early in the song. He is talking directly to the weapons manufacturers, the arms traders; the big businesses that cash in on creating and fomenting wars in order to make money (Come you masters of war/You that build the big guns/You that build the death planes/You that build all the bombs You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks/I just want you to know I can see through your masks). His tone is defiant throughout the song; his narrative is stern and edgy. I love the totally uncompromising (from a humanist point of view) last stanza (And I hope that you die/And your death'll come soon I will follow your casket/By the pale afternoon/And I'll watch while you're lowered/Down to your deathbed/And I'll stand o'er your grave/'Til I'm sure that you're dead). Show that to an impressionable eighteen- or nineteen-year-old and you have an immediate follower.

But Dylan is capable of writing more than passion-stirring lyrics. On Bringing it All Back Home we have a perfect example of composition as an existentialist statement. The track It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) contains some of the more pessimistic - and yet, beautifully poetic - words Bob has ever written such as: Temptation's page flies out the door/You follow, find yourself at war/Watch waterfalls of pity roar/You feel to moan but unlike before/You discover/That you'd just be/One more person crying. It is also one of those pieces that works very well as a standalone poem, especially when the only musical backing is an up-and-down two-chord folk-blues riff. Personally speaking, it is one of my favourite Bob’s creations. I used to have the line “And if my thought-dreams could been seen/They'd probably put my head in a guillotine/But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only” on my blog banner. It meant a lot, especially for a young Cuban growing up in the shadow of Fidel’s totalitarian state at the tail end of the 80s and beginning of the terrible 90s.

The true measure of an artist should not be gauged only by their immediate impact – hits and accolades – on the music world and the fanbase they create, but also by their epoch-defying legacy within and without their own geographical borders. In this sense Dylan has transcended his own time and place as both a singer-songwriter… and writer.


Next Post: “Diary of Inconsequential Being”, to be published on Wednesday 2nd November at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 26 October 2016

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

Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

Autumn is here. And you all know what that means. As it is customary most posts until early December will be autumn-scented. This one tonight is autumn-cooked. And who else but Nigel Slater to open the autumn celebrations? As you all know, I am a big fan of Slater's recipes and I cannot wait to cook this one.

The recipe

Soak 125g of moong dal – skinned and split mung beans – for 30 minutes in warm water.
Peel and roughly chop 1 medium onion, then cook it in 30g of melted butter over a moderate heat until translucent. Add 1 tbsp of mustard seeds and cook until they start to pop, then stir in 1 crushed clove of garlic. Peel and grate a 50g lump of ginger, stir into the onions then add a finely chopped red chilli. Continue cooking for 5 minutes, stirring regularly.
Stir in the contents of a 400g can of chopped tomatoes and a can of water and bring to the boil. Season with salt and black pepper then stir in the soaked and drained mung beans and leave to cook at a calm simmer for 30 minutes. Check the liquid level regularly. Lastly, stir in 1 tbsp of garam masala.
Place 2 large, flat mushrooms in a foil-lined oven dish. Baste them all over with 50g of melted butter, the juice of 1 lemon and 5 tbsp of water. Season, then scrunch the edges of the foil together to loosely seal. Bake in a preheated oven at 200C/gas mark 6 for about 20-25 minutes, basting as necessary.
Check the dal for seasoning, then divide between 2 large bowls, place a baked mushroom on top and spoon over any baking juices. Enough for 2.

The trick

Soaking the moong dal reduces the cooking time considerably, but it is not entirely necessary. It is worth keeping an eye on the liquid levels while they are cooking should you choose not to pre-soak the beans, topping up with a little vegetable stock or water as necessary.

The twist

Use small brown lentils instead of mung beans. Instead of serving with baked mushrooms use the dal as a stuffing for baked aubergines, stirring the aubergine flesh into the dal as it cooks.

The music to go with this hearty recipe has to be equally warm. That is why I open with a favourite of mine. Never mind that he is eighty-something and getting on a bit. He has a new album out and to me Leonard Cohen is autumn. Especially when he is a "Marianne" mood.

It is a mystery to me as to why Cristina Branco is not better known as the outstanding fado singer she is. After all, she is just as good as Mariza, the "queen" of this popular Portuguese musical genre. Well, you can see for yourselves now.

A decade-old tango re-worked as a flamenco melody. What is not to like about it? Especially when performed by none other than Estrella Morente. Listening to this song reminds me of the sound of dry leaves as you step on them in autumn. What a gem.

I know what you're thinking. I do not play a lot of what could be considered "mainstream" music on my blog, but occasionally I make exceptions. I have never owned a The Corrs record but I certainly like a few of their songs, especially the singles. This one is one of them. Love the autumnal feeling it leaves me with.

Next Post: "Thoughts in Progress", to be published on Saturday 29th October at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 22 October 2016

Thoughts in Progress

I still remember when I was growing up in Cuba, a prevalent mindset amongst us, habaneros. A certain city vs country dichotomy. As an “habanero”, I, together with most of my family and friends, looked down on rural folk, seeing them as unsophisticated and simple-minded. Jokes were made at farmers’ expense and there was an air of superiority amongst us that betrayed the notion of a socialism-driven, collective society.

I changed my ways long time ago, especially when the economic crisis hit Cuba in the early 90s. All of a sudden we re-discovered a “new” passion for all things rural. Habaneros were no longer ashamed to be seen growing vegetables in any available space in modern flats, or rearing animals that usually ended up on their plate.

I was reminded of this recently after watching on telly one of the many analyses on the Trump/Farage/Sanders/Corbyn phenomenon.

Of course, although lumped together, these politicians are all different. They all, however, share one trait: they have shown up the “establishment” for the sham it is. In the process of doing so, they have also, like my fellow Cuban rural folk, taught some people some lessons. The question is: will we learn them (the lessons) and are we ready to listen?

Let me state something very clear from the outset so as to avoid any confusion: I hate everything that both Donald Trump and Nigel Farage stand for. I hate their open xenophobia, racism, misogyny and homophobia. I hate the way they have got away with whipping up hatred and twisting the political discourse for so long.

But guess what, both Donald Trump and Nigel Farage are necessary if one is to have a healthy democracy. That sounds like a contradiction but it isn’t, for what I am interested in is not what comes out of the mouths of messieurs Trump and Farage but their supporters’.

Both Britain and the US political systems are characterised by a two-party structure that allows very little room for other candidates to manoeuvre. Even in the UK, the recent electoral success of the Liberal Democrats (if we can call it that. After all they went into coalition with the Tories in 2010) met an early death after its then leader, Nick Clegg, reneged on most of his pre-election promises. What this means in practical terms is that we enter a non-stopping hamster-wheel of electability-friendly leaders. Said leaders move swiftly to the centre and thus become the purveyors of meaningless, vote-wining pledges that are rolled back the minute they move into Number 10 or the White House. Just remember “Make Poverty History” and Guantanamo.

The left-behinds

This situation has created a backlash in the last fifteen to twenty years. Just like my compadres and I could not see the importance of the person tilling the land back when we were children, politicians in the west (especially countries such as the UK, USA, Spain and France) have ignored for far too long the shopkeeper, the soldier, the nurse, the small business owner and the lorry driver. These people, however, have not forgotten what they have and they can use: the vote.

Enter Trump, Farage, Corbyn and Sanders. They have all understood that a) the political system needs to be shaken out of its complacency and b) there are rich pickings here for the right leader with the timely message. Forget for a second that Corbyn and Sanders trade in hope and openness, whereas both Trump and Farage deal in fear and hatred. The real scandal is that the “establishment” did not have an answer ready for the hundreds of thousands of people who have allied themselves to either the new left or right.  Remember David Cameron? The blandest – and apparently worst – Prime Minister in living memory was shown up for what he was: a leader with no direction, no agenda, no Plan B (not even Plan A) and, ultimately, no support from his own party.

As the US election fast approaches, there is a lesson here for the winner (it goes without saying that I support Clinton and yet, I have to admit that she and her husband are part of the problem). Currently on both sides of the Atlantic there is an atmosphere of mistrust which has led to insecurity, which at the same time has begotten fear. Over here in Blighty, if we were to chart Labour’s rich political history, we would see that what started as a party for working class people mutated into a middle-class-aspiring outfit. Blair’s administration failed to see, or did not want to see, the changes and challenges ahead. In catering to the urban, metropolitan “elite”, they, unwittingly, created a narrative that has been hurled back at them over and over, like mudballs.

Listening to people with whom one does not share the same opinion does not mean that we agree with them. Listening to other people means that we engage with them at a human level. After all, we share the same space. Politically speaking, to ignore this huge chunk of the population is political suicide (David Cameron, I’m looking at you). The biggest danger we face in neglecting this group is that they will default to a charismatic demagogue who will sweet-talk them into doing things and behaving in ways that maybe would have been thought impossible weeks before. The irony here is that someone like Trump, for instance, is a billionaire who had a leg-up from daddy in order to make it in the world of business. On the other side of the Atlantic, we have a Jeremy Corbyn who, although honest, cannot see that the times of partisan, binary voting are long gone. Nowadays a Labour voter will look at immigration, globalisation and employment and their effect on their lives before they even look at internationalism. In fact, many do not even mention the s-word (socialism). It makes no sense when unemployment is le mot du jour in many parts of Britain.

It is easy to point fingers at people and call them names when they do not share our political views. It is harder to try to understand their frustrations and listen to their opinions. But listen we must. It is the only way in which we can get out of this mess. After all, we all depend on the farmer and the land they till.

© 2016

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on 26th October at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Killer Opening Songs (Giant Steps by John Coltrane)

Intensity, high-tempo and rhythmic mastery. Just three of the many words that could apply to John Coltrane’s Killer Opening Song “Giant Steps”, from the same-titled album. If smoothness and subtlety were the mots d’ordre on Blue Note’s release Blue Train, then Atlantic Record’s offering Giant Stepswere chaos and improvisation. Beautiful chaos and improvisation, K.O.S. hastens to add.

In terms of tenor solo statements, Giant Steps was outstanding. From the outset there was a clear intention from John Coltrane to break away from the foot-tapping sound he had helped create on Miles Davis’ timeless classic Kind of Blue. Saxophone, double-bass, piano and drums kick off together. Rather than a mere time-keeping ensemble piece, Paul Chambers’ bass acts as another level of tonal exploration. This serves both pianist and saxophonist well as their sound swells to unreal levels.

The Killer Opening Song is the gateway to other six musical gems such as Countdown’s blistering, sonic explosion, swinging Syeeda’s Song Flute and self-searching, simple and yet emblematic Naima.

Whereas Blue Train was a sort of bridge between the recent Charlie Parker-driven bebop sound and the smoother Miles Davis’ approach, Giant Steps was the sign of things to come in jazz. More experimental and more outré, this was Coltrane at his peak as a bandleader and composer. Once again, all this thanks to the Killer Opening Song.

© 2016

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 22nd October at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 15 October 2016

Thoughts in Progress

Art is political”. “Not always; sometimes I just want to see something beautiful”. The previous verbal exchange was part of the final episode of Master of Photography, a recent series that was broadcast on Sky Arts. On the “arts as politics” side was Oliviero Toscani, an Italian photographer who has found fame for designing controversial advertising campaigns. On the “arts as aesthetics” corner was Simon Frederick, a British artist who has blurred the boundaries between photography and contemporary art.

To me they were both right, although they were both coming at the truth (their truth, more likely) from distorted angles. All art has an implicit political trait. Notice the small “p” in that sentence. This is not party-dependent art, but the type that is open to and encourages (mis) interpretation. So, on this I agree with Oliviero.

When in 2014, the artist Gillian Wearing unveiled her statue of two single mothers and their children in Birmingham she caused a bit of an uproar. Well, I say, a bit; in reality it was mainly The Daily Mail that complained about the absence of fathers in the piece. The rightwing tabloid could not conceive of contemporary art as a medium through which we could attempt to explain modern Britain. That the artwork was a fine sample of well-crafted aesthetics was also lost on the newspaper.

That is why I think that Simon is also right. In terms of conception and production, the artist is only accountable to her/himself. Whether the work is beautiful or not, is a point to be made by the public. Appreciation is the third stage of the creative process and one that does not rely on the author’s initial intention. The contestants on Master of Photography came from all corners of Europe (it was a Europe-wide competition) and they were set challenging tasks every week. Watching the programme made me fine-tune my “politics vs art” sixth sense even more. There were photographers with a very clear and obvious political agenda and this sadly came across as manipulative in their submissions. By contrast, one of my favourite photographs was one in which one of the artists placed herself in the frame, in the middle of a vast, desolate and human-free landscape. The way I interpreted it was as a statement on loneliness. A second reading made me think of man’s eternal smallness in the presence of nature’s magnitude.

Artistically compelling, but political, too?

When we talk about political art, we tend to think of the in-your-face type. The kind that leaves no one in any doubt as to what its intentions are. Yet, even overt political activism must have, in my opinion, an aesthetic side. I look at Picasso’s Dove of Peace and I like it for the beautiful work of art it is. Its significance is a bonus. Equally, I seek out and watch Ken Loach’s films as unsurpassable, artistically-articulated politically-charged discourses on the human condition. Failure to achieve this balance renders the artwork kitsch, in my opinion. There is plenty of art of this kind in former and current socialist regimes, including Cuba.

Likewise, the “art for art’s sake” mantra is a portmanteau vehicle for all kinds of excess and indulgences. The irony is that movements that have tried to walk away from politics (party-politics in this instance) as far as possible have ended up making political statements, whether intentional or not. The Dadaists, the impressionists, the post-modernists; they all have tried to break from the mould by making the artist and their work the central piece of their manifesto. But that small “p” politics keeps sneaking back in.

What I think Oliviero should have said is: All art is political, but not always explicit. To which Simon should have answered: Indeed, I sometimes just want to see something beautiful, even if it’s political.

© 2016

Image taken from Oliviero Toscani’s website.

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 19th October at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Judging by the title, Arundhati Roy’s second novel must be a joyfest. Named The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, this will be the author’s sophomore effort after a 20-year wait. Compared to famous procrastinators such as Harper Lee and Leon Tolstoy, two decades might not seem much, but what hides behind the wait?

I, for one, am really looking forward to reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. If it is anything like The God of Small Things, Arundhati’s only novel so far, I expect free-jazz-like sentences jumping off the page. A language as rich as the twins Rahel and Estha’s imagination. And a million-story plot. I want to be surprised and shaken, but also entertained.

Therein, then, lies the dilemma of the “tardy” author.

I have often wondered what led the likes of Joyce and Kundera to wait several years before continuing to do what was apparently natural to them: writing a novel. The former let seventeen years slip by between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The latter took thirteen to complete The Festival of Insignificance after the publication of Ignorance. Was it fear of not rising up to the challenge posed by the devoted reader? Or perhaps dea(r)th of creativity?

I have a theory. Authors whose oeuvre transcends the confines of literature and become bywords for cultural phenomena (think Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and its social and political connotations) have much more to lose if their next book does not stand up to scrutiny as their previous one. That is quite a lot of pressure already. On top of that, there is the commercial one. They have to make money. After all, this is their craft. So, making money whilst remaining authentic. Fancy giving it a try, reader?

A second reason for any dilly-dallying about bringing another book out could be linked to fear of disappointing followers. For me, Kundera’s philosophical musings are central to his narratives. Without them, I would not have enjoyed The Joke or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Hence my feelings of frustration when I read his three “French” novellas(they were written in French rather than Czech, the language he had used until then). They lacked his usual insightful, eagle-eye examinations, even if any trace of philosophy in them felt as if it had been thrown in at the last minute. Understandably, Milan went away and came back with what many thought was a return to the golden years of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his 2015 effort The Festival of Insignificance.

Self-consciousness could be another factor. Harper Lee famously miscalculated the impact of To Kill a Mockingbird on both the public and the critics. The fact that the novel was so well received and that there was such open encouragement for her to keep on writing might have been one of the reasons why she became a recluse.

Some of you are probably thinking “Yes, but writing and publishing are two different things. The former can take two days or two years or two decades. The latter is decided by a group of people, including the writer’s agent, a publisher and editor and it is done within a reasonable time frame.

You are right. Not only that, but also, not writing a second or third or fourth novel for fifteen, twenty or thirty years does not mean that the writer does not write at all. Arundhati Roy has been very, very busy writing non-fiction for the last two decades. Some of it I have read and it is just as good as the make-believe world she created in The God of Small Things.

What, then, makes a writer procrastinate? I have no idea. What I do know is that sometimes, just like now, it is worth the wait. I have not read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness yet, but I am sure that by the end of the book I will have surely partaken in Roy’s literary joyfest.

© 2016

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 15th October at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 8 October 2016

Thoughts in Progress

In Zadie Smith’s novel “White Teeth”, there is a scene involving a Cuban prostitute in Amsterdam. It is no more than a few lines long, if memory serves me right, and it is completely inconsequential to the rich, multi-layered plot. Yet, when I first read the scene, it made me feel uncomfortable.

Analysing my reaction years later, I realised that my mistake had been to place more emphasis on the perception people had of Cubans, and our women specifically, than on the role the character had to play (not even a supporting one).

Luckily, this incident – for want of a better word – did not deter me from seeking out more books by the same author and I can proudly say that I have got all four of Zadie Smith’s novels on my bookshelf. I can’t wait to get my hands on her upcoming fifth one.

However, the same feeling of unease has resurfaced every now and then, in different contexts and with different writers. It was on my mind recently when I read Lionel Shriver’s address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. It was there again when I read the backlash against her words. Shriver’s keynote speech was on Fiction and Identity Politics.

Just don't let any "red" people see her, please

This is not a trouble-free topic. Fiction in literature operates on the principle of “otherness”. How this otherness is expressed is very much dependent on the author’s ability to construct a credible narrative within the boundaries of a make-believe world. Oscar Wilde famously said that “The mark of all good art is not that the thing done is done exactly or finely, for machinery may do as much, but that it is worked out with the head and the workman’s heart”.  Clearly, if the otherness created by the writer carries too many attributes of its maker, Wilde’s “good art” will be nothing more than autobiography. I am aware that in creative writing courses many tutors tell students to “write about what you know”. Forgive my impudence, but I’d rather write about what I don’t know.

Which brings me back to Lionel Shriver’s speech. In it she rails against what she perceives as a counterproductive attempt to silence writers who dare to trespass into other people’s experiences, especially, those from ethnic minority groups. One of the examples she uses as frontier-jumping is the novel English Passengers, by Matthews Kneale. This is probably one of the better books I have read in the last twelve years, and one I have gone back to re-reading on a couple of occasions. The writing is so good, the language so exquisite (including the Aboriginal passages) and the convoluted plot so carefully laid out that I never bothered to try to find out in what little "ethnic box” the author was filed. That is what outstanding writing should do for us, book lovers, make us forget the world around us, or even better, transform that world into the lines we are reading.

So far so good. If fiction works on that otherness, then, why is it that so many writers from ethnic minority groups are up in arms at the way their cultures are portrayed in literature? Because sometimes the alleged perpetrators ride roughshod over sensibilities they do not understand. Furthermore, much-needed research is not carried out properly resulting in caricatures rather than fully-fledged characters. Had White Teeth been about the Cuban experience with the Cuban prostitute as the sole personage, you can bet your bottom dollar that I would have closed the book on whatever page I was at the time and not picked up another novel by Zadie Smith. All these factors, coupled with a lack of representation at mainstream publishing and editorial levels, mean that BAME (and there's an acronym I strongly dislike. It stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers have to content themselves with the few crumbs hurled in their direction. No wonder people are angry.

There are many reasons why ethnic minorities – readers and writers alike – can oppose a particular work of fiction. The two top ones I can think of straight away are historical and cultural. They are intrinsically linked. In the past, recent past even, people from one continent conquered people and enslaved people from another/other continent(s). This was not just part of an economic model but also, with the passing of time, part of an ever-growing mindset. A mindset that created a “them” and “us”. The “them” being the backward element of the equation versus the superior “us”. The phenomenon of “cultural appropriation” originates from this imbalance. It comes from the perpetual clichéd-ridden portrayals of “natives” we have had to withstand for centuries. Whilst I would never justify censorship in any way, I can understand the backlash, even if I do not condone it.

Why not? Because writing is a subjective process and so is reading. This is the third layer of this cultural appropriation issue. The first one is the right to write about what “you don’t know”. The second one is to observe a set of protocols (not protocols that will limit your capacity as a writer, but which will enhance your relationship to the reader, i.e., a more credible fiction) on the subject to be written about. The third one is to accept criticism of the work produced. Said criticism should be based on the work the writer creates. Unfortunately, some of it will be unrelated to it. It is tough but completely understandable.

The only time I have had a short story published in a major publication happened four years ago. I was over the moon as many of you, I am sure, writers in your own right, have been in the past or continue to be when you see your work in print. What I also remember distinctly is getting an e-mail from a former dance student of mine to tell me that she loved the way I had developed the female character in my story. A similar comment was left below the line by a fellow blogger. That feedback meant more to me than the actual publishing. Why? Because I had gone out of my way to create a well-rounded, fallible human being, as far away from my own experience as possible. It is the same expectation I have of any fiction book I read.

The contemporary writer does face a dilemma, namely, the one brought about by social achievements. How many LGBT characters do you have in your novel? Have you got black/Asian/disabled people in your book? If not, why not? Who have you offended/ignored this time? It is a tremendous responsibility for a profession that does not offer (believe or not) healthy returns. In the UK, a writer will be lucky to earn around £11,000 a year from their work. That is less than half the average salary in London (£26,000 p.a., roughly). How do they make ends meet? By not giving up their 9-5 job. Many authors are teachers, juggling marking and assessment-setting with a passion for plot-building. I do not think that their number one priority is to present a content-poor, equal -opportunities novel to their public.

In my opinion the way to go about the phenomenon of cultural appropriation is through education, mainly history. The more future generations learn about their countries’ past (I’m mainly talking about the UK and other First World nations) and their real role in colonising and exploiting other lands, the better equipped they will be to tell whether an author’s work is nothing but a collection of stereotypes or a well-crafted story. Another way is for publishers to invest in writers who do not always conform to a certain white, middle-class, middle-age stereotype (the chief buying market). It is a tough decision to make because of the long, arduous process that characterises book-publishing, but one that is necessary if we are to push the boundaries of fiction. Who knows, maybe next time they will not need to use a Cuban prostitute.

© 2016

Photo taken from The Guardian

Next post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 12th October at 6pm (GMT)


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