Saturday 19 March 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

One thing about life (mine and everybody else’s) I know for sure is that I do not know and I will continue not to know. What I mean is that my knowledge will always be finite and limited. There will always be more things I will not know about than things I will.

This is what Bryan Magee, historian of philosophy and subject of a recent article in The New Statesman by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, calls “permanent exclusion from the understanding of total reality”. For Magee, accepting this status is the first step towards wisdom. I agree. To me, wisdom is not the mere pursuit, acquisition and retention of knowledge but also the landing that permits access from one set of stairs to the next.

I have been thinking about knowledge and its close cousin, belief, recently. The former has always felt like a process, an incomplete, messy, chaotic process. The more you know, the more you realise you do not know. Knowledge can be equally frustrating. You have understood the content, you have analysed the form and still… there is a missing piece in the puzzle.

Enter belief, not only of a religious nature, but of any type. Belief points at confidence in a certain type of truth that is not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.

Whereas knowledge, both the acquisition and application of it, is chiefly empirical, belief needn’t be. If someone in the Middle Ages had written about a flat surface on which people swiped their fingers and hands to turn virtual pages in order to access information, I doubt people at the time would have come up with words such as: e-reader, smartphone or tablet. Yet, centuries later it is for us to make that connection. If we do that, are we not, however, marrying a contemporary concept to a loose and up-for-interpretation ancient one? From this point of view, this “marriage” is speculative as we do not know what people in the Middle Ages would have called these devices if they had had the chance.

I see knowledge like a river: running, shrinking, expanding, going up or coming down, never ecstatic. Belief, on the other hand, carries with it a level of persuasion, especially on the part of the believer.  Knowledge is risk because it never leaves us on terra firma. On the contrary, the acceptance of a proposition (let’s call it concept or theory) propels us further forward in search of the next challenge. Of course, certain arguments have been closed through the acquisitions of knowledge: the Earth is round and not flat, the moon rotates around the Earth and our planet circles the sun. But there still is a great deal of theories that challenges us.

This is where belief comes in. It offers succour amidst so much head-scratching. If climbing up the stairs of knowledge is satisfying, resting on the landings between floors is heavenly. Careful, though, a short break is advisable, but prolonging one’s respite might make us too “comfortable”, dull our senses and kill our thirst for knowledge. Which, lest we forget, is finite and limited.

As usual, I will take a month off during Easter and shall be back mid-to-late April. Wish you all the best.

© 2016

Wednesday 16 March 2016

London, my London

34 Tite Street might not sound like the sort of address your brain registers immediately as worth remembering for any particular reason. But if I were to add the following quote: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”, then, you might be in a better position to have a go at guessing who I am writing about.

Or perhaps not. After all, Oscar Wilde, the author of the quote above, was such a prolific writer that it would be hard for anyone to keep up with all his witticisms and putdowns. On cynicism, though, he nailed it. This was not just a throwaway phrase (I do not think he ever said anything that was unintentional or accidental) but an acute observation of the society in which Wilde lived.

Wilde was on my mind as I cycled on Battersea Bridge Road towards Beaufort Street en route to Portobello Road from Brixton Market. It was only a fleeting thought, however, caused by the familiar sight of the sun-drenched Embankment on my right. I had been on this very road a few days before as part of my three-stadium bike-tour. Seeing the long straight thoroughfare again reminded me of Cavafy’s poem The Place. That’s when Wilde made his unplanned cameo. CP Cavafy, one of the most important Greek poets of the 20th century had been heavily influenced by William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.

It was not just the combination of cycling near SW3, where Wilde’s former residence, 34 Tite Street was, and the Irish poet’s influence on the Greek one that reminded me of The Place. It was also some of the lines from the poem which suited the flat-looking and almost noise-free streets I was biking along. Drayton Gardens, Gloucester Road and Princes Diana Memorial Playground lent themselves to the nostalgia-coloured verses: “You shall not find new places; other seas/you shall not find. The place shall follow you/And you shall walk the same familiar streets/and you shall age in the same neighbourhood/and whiten in these same houses.” I kept thinking of the lives lived behind the high-ceilinged, oak-floor terraced houses that flanked me along the way. It always happens when I am out and about in London, whether on foot or bicycle. I often wonder: who lives behind that closed door? What are their lives like? What are their dreams and hopes?

I had asked myself the same question when I was in the triangle formed by Brixton Road, Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Road and I asked myself the same question as my two-wheeler touched down on Portobello Road.

It was a Saturday which could only mean crowds. Having been so far on a Zen-like trip from Brixton to Holland Park, facing the full force of a market day in west London all of a sudden jolted me out of my reverie. Then again, this was Portobello Market, a place where since the 1940s “rag and bone” men and antiques dealers have become the raison d'être of this fashionable part of Notting Hill (yes, that Notting Hill, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill). Another reason why this part of London is so renowned is its vintage clothes shops on Pembridge Road.

The best way to enjoy the market for me was to get off my bike and saddle-push it all the way from the start of  Portobello Road down to the A40 (Westway). It was difficult to walk, especially once I went past Westbourne Grove. The further into the market I ventured, the denser the crowd, the more varied the stalls and the higher the volume of people’s voices. As I neared Westbourne Park Road music made an appearance in the form of reggae. It is worth noting that the worldwide famous Notting Hill Carnival takes place in this area every year at the end of August. The largest street festival in Europe, this is a celebration of Afro-Caribbean traditions and cultures that has been going on for more than fifty years. As I came out at the other end of Portobello Road, looking for Ladbroke Grove and a way to get on to the canal path, Camden-bound, I looked back and could not help thinking about what must have motivated Notting Hill’s screen-writer Richard Curtis to “whiten up” not only the cast, but also the neighbourhood in the movie. There they all were, the vendors, the costumers, the tourists, the locals, all mixed, todos mezclados, different but mixed. I got back on my bike and cycled off.

I wonder what lives are lived behind that door

© 2016

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

Sunday 13 March 2016

London, my London

I left Borough Market behind and got on the A3 (Borough High Street)-cum-Newington Causeway. The road on which I was now cycling on this rather earth-scorching August day, had taken its name after the village of the same name, Newington. Together with Walworth to the south, these two erstwhile prosperous hamlets sandwiched one London’s best-known commercial hubs: Elephant and Castle.

If all roads lead to Rome, then surely some of them converge at Elephant and Castle: St George’s Road, via Westminster Road from the northwest, London Road from the bifurcation of Waterloo Road and Blackfriars Road, the aforementioned Newington Causeway and New Kent Road (A201) to the southeast. This well-connected maze of streets has made the area popular with bargain-hunters and shop-goers. Amongst the indoor market's many kiosks and stalls one can find a wide range of products, from vintage clothing to household essentials.

Ironically I had been in the area a few days before my bike journey. On that occasion I had been on foot, though, going through the market on my way to Burgess Park. I did manage to stop and talk to some of the traders who told me that the vibrancy Elephant and Castle had been known for had given way to mainly betting shops and discount stores, like in other parts of London.

It was not the only change I was made aware of. A large-scale redevelopment had been underway for some time, as I learned, and the last touches were being put. That much was clear to me as there were still a few scaffoldings around. The shopping centre was not the same I remembered from previous visits. Still, the symbol that bequeathed the market its name, the bronze elephant with the castle on its back, was still there. As was, too, Hannibal House, a 1960s eleven-storey office block that could not fail to attract attention.

Down the A3 I carried on, cycling past Kennington Park on my left and reaching Brixton Road around noon time.

It is hard to believe that the street I was riding on, Brixton Road, could be traced back to Roman times, along with its close relative, the A3, the road I had just come off. This has always been one of the alluring elements about Brixton: its history and culture.

In my previous post I mentioned a fast-growing Brazilian presence in the area. I could have also added a still small but noticeable Spanish-speaking community (not just from Spain themselves, but also from Latin-American countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Colombia). But the one feature Brixton is famous for is its West Caribbean, mainly Jamaican population. Long-considered an influential and essential part of black culture in London, and probably Britain, Brixton has always been a hotbed of creativity and enterprise. Small wonder that this was the place Eddy Grant sang about in his worldwide hit, Electric Avenue, a reference to the street which was first lit in the area in 1880. Like other areas of London, the neighbourhood has seen socio-economic permutations through the years. From the middle-classes taking over the large houses built along the main thoroughfare at the start of the 20th century, to theatre people settling in the area years later and providing an arts-inspired boost.

Today, stepping into the triangle formed by Brixton Road, Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Road is to walk into a piece of Britain that is as relevant as Buckingham Palace or Bloomsbury. This is a living, dynamic, breathing history lecture. Talk to the traders in the covered arcades on Electric Avenue, have a plate of curry goat or jerk chicken with rice and peas at the five-star restaurant/takeaway Fish, Wings and Tings, enjoy an evening out at Brixton Academy (I still remember a memorable evening there many years ago with my wife when we both watched Erykah Badu and Omar). Although I still had to get to Portobello, as it always happens when I am in Brixistane (the stone of Brihtsige), I decided to stay a bit longer and talk to the locals.

Sadly a reputation has followed Brixton. A reputation that is unfounded, in my humble opinion. The district’s association with drugs and crime has unfortunately tarred everyone and everything with the same brush. Add to this the riots that happened here in the 80s and you might begin to understand why a few locals feel they have been dealt a bad and unfair hand. I have been in Brixton a few times, late at night, the result of enjoying one of the perks of multiculturalism: a chant-rich, percussion-intense, fun-packed Afro-Cuban session that would have not looked out of place in Havana, Cuba. Late at night Brixton is a spectacle to behold. Regardless of the weather, the area around the tube station teems with revellers. The market is one of the few places in London that has not been “Shoreditch-fied”, that is, the recent investment has not yet turned Brixton into a hipster-magnet paradise full of overpriced swanky bars and restaurants. The best mangoes I have ever eaten in Britain, I bought them here. As I purchased a couple on this day, l was glad to see that the same quality was still present.

The excitement for me, as I saddled up again, was the lack of agenda. I knew I wanted to get to Portobello Market, the last leg of my tour. I also knew that up to now I had been on familiar territory. I had driven on these roads. The next stage would be completely in the dark, metaphorically speaking. The sun was already burning my almost-bare back. Still, to be agenda-free was to be free. No map, except for the notes in one of my pockets. No Odysseus-like obligation to come up with a narration, a tale, a story to tell about adventures and dangers. Ahead of me there was only the A23. I pushed my bike off the kerb and began to ride.

Bicycle left "grazing" by owner.

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 16th March at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 9 March 2016

London, my London

To write about London is to write about trade. And to write about the British capital’s trade is to delve into the history of its markets and their well-earned reputation, their variety and uniqueness. That is why last summer as part of my bicycle tour I undertook a trip around three markets that have become landmarks in their own right in my adopted city: Borough, Brixton and Portobello. By the end of my journey, not only had I gained a better understanding of what has made London such a renowned commercial hub for centuries but also, I realised I had, inadvertently, drawn a sort of urban smile with my two-wheeler from SE1 to W11.

There were already food markets in London in the 11th century. The area around London Bridge attracted traders who specialised in livestock, fish and vegetables. By the 13th century many of them had gone further south of the Thames River and what is nowadays known as Borough Market was born. This is where I began my journey southwest-bound but not before I had taken a stroll around the numerous stalls. I have been to Borough Market a few times and I love the atmosphere. There is a mix of the authentic and new. Spanish and Portuguese are heard more often these days (Elephant and Castle is not far away and it is here where the largest concentration of Colombians outside Colombia live. Brixton, my next destination on this cycle tour, is fast becoming a Brazilian settlement). The names of the stalls themselves were evidence of the rich, intermingling nature of this market: Irish-born, Gerard Coleman's Artisan du Chocolat, Italian-run, charcuterie Gastronomica and Caribbean-inspired De La Grenade, with its otherworldly range of spices and condiments.

What has always made Borough Market distinctive is the close relationship between product and seller. Most vendors are producers themselves which means there are not that many who use a middleperson. Just like in the 18th century customers knew where their fruit’n’veg came from, same in 2015 (or 2016 for that matter). There is a strong and long-standing tradition of quality assurance.

Uniquely also for this part of tourist London (the Shard is a stone’s throw away, the Walkie-Talkie can be seen through the tree branches that grow on Southwark Cathedral’s grounds and if you cross the bridge northwards you will bump into the Great Fire of London memorial) is that the market still caters chiefly to its local population. In danger of extinction scarcely a couple of decades ago, Borough Market has had to adapt quickly to the same myriad changes that other parts of London failed to foresee and assimilate to. Amongst these changes the threat from major retailers and supermarkets has featured prominently. What saved Borough Market was timing and boldness. The former in the shape of a food revolution that took off in the 90s in the UK and has continued apace. The latter in its approach to food sourcing and pricing. Borough Market values the quality of its products over its cheapness. I can vouch for that as a few times whilst in the area I have bought dairy-, egg-free cakes for my daughter and, though a bit dear, they are of the highest quality one can find.

As I parked my bike against a pillar on this rather hot August morning, I also noticed that the physical space was pivotal in attracting customers. It was not a cycle-friendly place (I felt rather guilty saddle-pushing my bike through the crowd) but the market layout made it easy to “get lost” and chance upon products one would not normally go looking for.

Talking to some of the stallholders I heard similar tales: there is a food revolution in Britain, mainly in London and other well-populated and ethnically diverse urban centres in the rest of the country. Customers’ concerns about calories-intake, especially of the cheap and unhealthy type, are causing a minor tremor in the fast and knock-off-price food industry. Perhaps not serious enough to register in the Richter scale, but still, noticeable. Markets, like Borough, have, in a way, become barometers with which to gauge social changes, as well as economic ones. The relationship between the customer who purchases a kilo of “jamón ibérico” and the seller is not just food-based, but also environmentally- and politically-based. Suddenly issues such as obesity, climate change and water waste stop being niche topics and become focal points. They raise important questions on our lifestyle.

I left the market and turned right on Borough High Street. Low-flying and bold-looking black-headed seagulls (probably attracted by half-chewed, barely-eaten leftovers) joined me temporarily as I cycled straight down this busy road. I went on a rather pleasant and smooth bike ride. I was still officially on the A3 but the road had changed names already. It was now Newington Causeway and with each forward-pedal-motion I was coming closer to one of London’s most picturesque, diverse but lesser-known spots: Elephant and Castle.

My bicycle in Borough Market

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Sunday 13th March at 10am (GMT)

Saturday 5 March 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Sometimes people ask me what will become of Cuba when Fidel Castro finally dies. My interlocutors overlook two important elements in Cuba’s current social and political affairs but this does not seem to bother them at all: Fidel has not been in power for almost ten years now and his brother Raúl is the one calling the shots. The question should be: what will become of Cuba when Raúl dies?

Yet, it is Fidel’s legacy the one most Cubans and non-Cubans will remember. And this legacy is, whether we like it or not on the island, history-related.

We all carry a personal memory with us. This is a vast archive of both conscious and unconscious moments we have carved out in our lives. Personal memories do not exist in isolation even if the act of re-enacting them is as solitary as the very act of remembering. Personal memories are shaped by our social, cultural and historical environment. There are more elements to consider but these are the ones I will use in tonight’s column.

What will become of Cuba after Fidel dies is a mystery, even to Cubans. I am sure it will be a bathos-filled, catharsis-inducing, tear-jerker of an event but one spectacle we will not witness is the toppling of statues of the Maximum Leader. There are no statues of Fidel in Cuba. At least, none I have seen or heard of.

What this means is that the Fidel-inspired history that has given form and content to my country’s almost six-decade-long socialist fairy tale might be subject to revisionism. Without wanting to upset fellow Cubans who oppose the regime as much as I do, this would be a big mistake.

Meanwhile, in Britain...

Recently there has been a campaign in Oxford University to bring down a statue of Cecil John Rhodes. This man was the British administrator of southern Africa. Part of the British colonial and imperialist machine, Rhodes has become the latest focal point of a past many people on this island would rather leave behind or at least not talk about it.

We topple the statue and then, what?

I understand where the protesters are coming from and share some of their views and yet I have my doubts. I think their demands are too short-term-focused. The one action we can take in relation to the past is to put it in a present, effective, pragmatic context with a view to building a better and less divisive future. Knocking down a statue does not amend the Rhodes problem overnight. Especially if the underlying conditions that led us to make the decision to topple said statue have not been addressed. A better use of the energy needed to whack down this public symbol would be, in my opinion, to explore ways to change the perception created by the person to whose memory the statue was erected. The under-representation of state-funded schools pupils and ethnic minority students at Oxford is a much bigger issue and one that deserves more attention. An equally important target would be the romanticism and rose-tinted-glasses perspective through which British colonialism is still seen nowadays (mainly in comparison to other imperial powers such as France, Spain and Portugal). To challenge this is worth knocking down ten Rhodes statues.

To go back to my earlier analogy-based example, If Fidel’s demise does wind up as historical revisionism I will feel cheated and let down. That is not what the new Cuba deserves. We cannot erase the past, especially when our past was not always dictatorship-shaped. The achievements we had at the beginning of the Revolution should not be underestimated. That, in my opinion, Castro’s government became a paranoid, cutthroat, totalitarian nightmare is a whole different issue. It is the same with Britain. Should we bring down Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square because of his views on gassing civilians, Red Indians in the States and black people in Australia? Or, should we rather use the most valuable tool we have at our disposal, education, to teach our future generation about the nuances of human nature?

Churchill, as well as Rhodes and many others, promoted a theory of “superior race” vs a feeble and inferior one. This was not explicitly stated in many cases but rather implied and hinted at. It is this subjective feature we need to address and target. Intelligently. Knocking down public symbols might be good in the short-term as a wrong-righting exercise but without a coherent and forward-thinking agenda it will have the same effect of all those Lenin statues that were pulled down as soon as the Berlin Wall collapsed. What were the Russian people left with? Putin.

What will become of Cuba when Fidel is gone? I have no idea because the person in charge, to my chagrin, is his brother, Raúl Castro. The one outcome I would like us to avoid is historical revisionism. Bringing a statue down with no follow-up plan sometimes has that effect.

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 9th March at 6pm (GMT)

Tuesday 1 March 2016

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

According to one of my favourite cooks,Yotam Ottolenghi, "there’s something about eggs as the essence of life, the start of it all, that inextricably links them to that first spark of romance". That is why I immediately thought of using one of his recipes for my regular food and music section tonight. The melodies you will find below have that rootsy, earthy feeling. This is a let-go-back-to-the-start sort of post.

Braised eggs with leek and za’atar

This is delicious with crusty white bread for dipping. To braise the eggs (the method used in all today’s recipes), cover the pan after breaking them in; they will cook relatively quickly, in five minutes or so. The downside is that the yolks in the finished dish will be obscured by a thin layer of opaque, cooked white. If the sight of bright, yellow-orange yolks is important to you, cook the eggs uncovered, and for longer, on the lowest possible heat, while at the same time taking care that the sauce doesn’t catch. Serves six.

30g unsalted butter
2 tbsp olive oil
4 leeks, trimmed and sliced 0.5cm thick
Salt and black pepper
1 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and crushed
1 small preserved lemon, seeds discarded, skin and flesh finely chopped
300ml vegetable stock
200g baby spinach leaves
6 eggs
90g feta, broken into roughly 2cm pieces
1 tbsp za’atar

In a large saute pan for which you have a lid, melt the butter with a tablespoon of oil on a medium-high heat. Once the butter starts to foam, add the leeks, a half-teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of pepper. Fry for three minutes, stirring often, until the leeks are soft, then add the cumin, lemon and vegetable stock, and boil for four or five minutes, until most of the stock has evaporated. Fold in the spinach, cook for a minute until wilted, then turn the heat to medium.

Make six indentations in the mixture (a large spoon is the best tool for this), then break an egg into each space. Sprinkle the eggs with a generous pinch of salt, dot the feta around and about, then cover the pan and leave to simmer for four to five minutes, until the egg whites are set and the yolks still runny.

Mix the za’atar with the remaining oil, brush gently over the eggs so as not to break the yolks, then take to the table at once, to serve straight from the pan.

The first clip I bring you tonight is by one of Senegal's finest musicians: Baaba Maal and his unmistakable, sweet-toned voice. Splendid.

My second song tonight combines ancient Persian music and poetry and it is performed in the trance-like cadence of Mamak Khadem. Spellbinding.

My last track on this food- and music-themed post comes courtesy of Show of Hands, a duo-cum-trio (with the occasional collaboration of double-bassist Miranda Sykes). This is a lovely, folksy, foot-tapping number that will hopefully warm your heart in the same way our recipe has done tonight. Enjoy

Next Post: "Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On", to be published on Saturday 5th March at 6pm (GMT)


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