Saturday 28 May 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

I recently read two articles which, at first sight, were unrelated. However, when looking closer, they were both intrinsically linked even if their subjects were different.

One piece dealt with our working lives and how long we will be toiling for. In the developed world longevity is the new buzzword. We are living longer. We might not be procreating at the same rate but third age denizens are all the rage at the moment. Unintentionally, mind. We are living longer because our standards of living have also improved. We have fewer life-ending wars. A population-decimating event like the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, which killed between 20 and 40 million people, is unlikely to happen again. Whether you are in favour or against them, many modern diets provide healthy options that were unthinkable only two generations ago. That is why the recent deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman caught us all by surprise. They were both expected to live longer.

The second article focused on the long-heralded arrival (and conquest) of robots. Well, robots have been with us for many, many years but apparently their role in society is about to change drastically. The appropriation of the world by robots will be apparently in the form of emulations. They will be modelled on the best and brightest 200 human beings on the planet. Add quick decision-making and overall expediency and... voilà, the robot revolution is here!

Why do I think that the two pieces are related? Because if, on the one hand, we are living longer and therefore retiring at an older age, where does that leave us in relation to robots? If they are coming to take our jobs (pardon me for sounding like a Daily Mail or The Sun reader), what is left for us, the humans who breathed (metaphorically speaking) life into their metallic bodies? There seems to be a hitherto-unnoticed contradiction. Or perhaps there is no contradiction but intent.

It was John Maynard Keynes who promoted the idea that in the future we would have more time for leisure activities. Technology would take care of the daily grind. Workaholics would be looked down upon and pitied. But even one of the more important economists of the 20th century could not predict the arrival of zero-hour contracts, outsourcing and consumerism. Together these elements (and others) sustain our on-one-leg-balancing economy. Workaholics, far from being treated with quasi-condescension, are worshipped and imitated.

Sorry, mate, but I've come to take your job

In a generation’s time, if we are still living as long as we are living today and retiring at, say, 80, what will we be exactly doing? If robots are fast taking over and within a few years they will be performing most manual and technical roles, what do we, then, do with the rest of the population? Remember that we are talking here about self-managed machines. No need for Joanna or John to go to uni for three years in order to get a degree in engineering. The robot already has an in-built function that makes it (it? How about “her” or “him”? Why not?) plan its professional life as if it were a human being. You see, the robot is emulating one of those 200 eminences grises.

As I mentioned before, the automated future has been with us for many years now. But it has never felt as threatening as it does now. I guess one of the reasons is that the world of robotics felt distant; not so much an Us vs Them scenario but more like an Us and Them. Yet, that “and” still meant distance. It is not the same now. Now there is a real possibility of Sam at the till in our local supermarket being a robot. If that means giving hot-blooded, human being, 60-year-old Susan the heave-ho, then, so be it. What happens to Susan, then? She still has another 20 years before retirement, has worked at the local supermarket for more than 30 years and is not qualified to do anything else. Where’s the Plan B here?

You can see now why these two pieces of news, which at first sight seem unrelated, scared the living hell out of me. At almost forty-five, I am no spring chicken but I think I still have another twenty-five years inside me of active toil. I love what I do and for the life of me I cannot see a robot doing my job. Then again, technology is moving at such a fast pace that I would not be surprised if one day there is a knock on the door and I open it to greet an R2-D2-looaklike with a simple message: I have come to replace you.

© 2016

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 1st June at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

One of the reasons why I became a pacifist years ago was the sudden realisation that most wars (I would probably say “all”, but I do not want to be absolute) are senseless. The brutality involved contrasts sharply with the glory they supposedly bring. Of course, there are conflicts that are necessary, either because of nations being invaded and having to defend themselves or border skirmishes that turn into full-on confrontations. One of them was the First World War, which became the backdrop for Ernest Hemingway’s wartime novel A Farewell to Arms.

I first read this book back in uni. I say “read” but what I actually mean is that the book content somehow went through me, including my brain and left no traces. Nothing to do with the writing, which I think it’s pretty good in my humble opinion. At the time I am describing there were still coffins arriving from Angola, the result of a decade-long “international adventure” that cost Cuba twenty thousand troops. I do not think that I was then in the frame of mind to understand Papa Hemingway’s universal message: war is chaotic and produces neither saints nor sinners.

Re-reading the book now I realise that in the intervening 20-odd years I have become more staunchly anti-war. Coming across again the lives of Frederic Henry, the American “tenente” and main character, and his Italian confreres, I cannot ignore the sense of detachment one must adopt in the theatre of war. What this approach does to one’s humanity is, paradoxically, to take it away. The only way the Italians can kill the Austrians is by seeing them not only as the enemy and invader but as non-humans first and foremost. Same with the Italian battle police when they arrest their own officers during the army’s retreat: they kill them.

A Farewell to Arms can be said to be not just a novel about the crumbling of columns of soldiers but also about the crumbling of an ideology: wars are necessary and are winnable. The human wreckage left behind betrays this idea and turns it on its head. The fragile minds, the inability to display any kind of rational thinking and the moral collapse amongst troops are testament to war’s barbaric nature.

Hemingway’s language when describing his characters’ actions is casual, almost ordinary. There is a sort of quotidianness that lulls the reader, almost making us comfortable and misleading us to think that perhaps war is not that bad. Yes, there is a little bit of suffering and killing but it is all for a good cause. Until reality kicks in to great effect. Frederic Henry kills an engineer who tries to desert him and his men as they leave their jeep behind, stuck in the mud. The murder is in cold blood, but even calling it murder feels wrong and Papa wants us to know that, for this is war, what did you expect? It is not called murder but execution. His description of the death of Aymo, one of the Italian drivers, takes him fewer than ten lines.

And yet, there are beautiful moments in the novel that remind the reader that maybe, just maybe, there is hope somewhere at the end of the tunnel. Henry falls in love with a British nurse. Although love is the wrong word here. Both Frederic and Catherine, the nurse, are fleeing personal demons: she, a dead fiancé, he the spectre of a war he feels ambivalent about. Together, they build a relationship based on pain and escapism rather than love. I must admit that I found the dialogue between them repetitive and monotonous; however, it is one of the ingenious ways in which Hemingway shows us the futility of war. At any given moment one of these two characters can be wiped off the face of the earth forever and then what? Nothing, because that is war really, the battle for nothingness.

The novel might have reinforced my pacifism but I doubt it made Hemingway feel the same as he was writing it. Machismo is everywhere: there is plenty of braggadocio, especially of the womanising variety, Italian men are shown as virile and hot-blooded and the American lieutenant as calculating and decisive. A Farewell to Arms might be more nuanced than other Hemingway novels but in its no-holds-barred depiction of war it somehow celebrates old-fashioned masculinity.

Whereas Books 1; 2 and 3 create the background for Hemingway’s plot-setting and character-exploration, the last two parts bring powerful reflections on war and its controversial role in peace-brokering. Who knows? Perhaps Papa Hemingway was also a pacifist after all.

© 2016

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 28th May at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 21 May 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Please, lock up your doors and windows. Make sure your little ones are safe. Do not venture out on your own. Or accompanied. Just do not go out. Do not turn your television set on; they might still get you that way. Do not use your mobile. If you have a smartphone or iPhone, switch off your apps. Especially the news-related ones. In fact, chuck your mobile away; you will not need it anymore.

Armageddon will arrive here in the UK next month. After 23rd June, a Leviathan-like monster will swallow up the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in one go. Behind the creature, a resurrected Hitler will be seen sneering; his toothbrush moustache a diabolical curl above his pursed lips.

Welcome to the debate on the European referendum. Or what passes for debate, rather. There have been so many toy-throwing-out-of-the-pram antics that I am beginning to think that the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) should pay a visit to Westminster instead of continuing to inspect schools.

Let us be clear about what 23rd June represents: this is by far one of the most important votes Brits will cast for a long time. It is akin to a general election, but in this case what is at stake is a whole project, one that has not been without its flaws but that it has also had many, many virtues. The European Union has suddenly become a make-or-break tipping point for the Tories and a leap of faith for Labour.

What has not helped in understanding the pros and cons of staying in or leaving the union is that where there was supposed to be dialogue, there has been, instead, mud-slinging. In place of grown-up talk, the referendum has turned into a leadership contest between George Osborne on the one hand (as heir to Cameron’s crown and chief Remain camp ally) and ex-mayor of London and professional buffoon, Boris Johnson (who spearheads the Brexit side). Caught in the middle is a muddled-up British public who would rather have more honesty from our politicians and fewer Hitler analogies.

Let me make my position clear. I will vote to stay in the union on 23rd June. But for me this is not a black-and-white issue. The reasons why I choose the Remain side are historical, political and economic. If there is a continent in need of partnership, it is Europe. Rooted in endless and costly wars, overseen by whimsical monarchs and ruled at various times by maniacal despots, it is only through pragmatic collaboration that the European project can succeed. That is where the political factor comes in. At the moment there has sadly been a lurch to the right across the Old Continent. From Poland to Croatia, to Hungary, it is far-right parties calling the shots. A stronger European Union can offer a more solid network to leftwing parties such as Podemos in Spain. The economic case is harder to prove. The EU is in a sense a neoliberal, free-market-loving scheme. It seeks to promote more de-regulation whilst offering cash-rich subsidies to well-off farmers in the form of the common agricultural policy. This not-very-well-known initiative incentivises farmers to the tune of £250,000 per year. Rather than benefitting the many, it supports the few, the 0.1% land-owning oligarchy that controls vast estates in the UK. No wonder the majority want to stay in the EU. Elsewhere in the continent, the CAP helps farmers dump their products in developing countries, flooding local markets and crippling in the process these nations’ industries. However, from a commerce perspective, for Britain to lose its number one trading partner would be bonkers.

The European Union is not without its problems. I have first-hand experience of its labyrinthine bureaucracy, having worked for a European-funded social enterprise for half a decade. We had two funding streams that paid for our company’s existence: the European Regional Development Fund (linked to job creation) and the European Social Fund (training-related). Both were nightmares when it came to auditing and paper trail. However, I can vouch for the successful financial support of both programmes, without which our efforts to tackle unemployment and skill up local residents would have been in vain.

In or out? In! Out!

This localism is what is at stake on 23rd June. The UK is no longer a behemoth on the world’s economic stage. The times when one could say Great Britain and “powerhouse” in the same sentence are long gone. GB does not do manufacturing anymore. Instead it wants to compete with Silicon Valley for a place in the ever-changing technology sphere.

The Brexit argument about gaining independence from Brussels (where the EU headquarters are) misses the point. In our interconnected world no one is independent from anyone anymore. The problem is that leaving the European Union will make those links harder to keep. On immigration the Leave camp’s one-track-mind, repetitive message focuses solely on the number of arrivals in the UK and the impossibility of keeping them all in. My response to that argument is concise and to the point: free market and globalisation. You cannot have your cake and eat it. You cannot call for more market de-regulation, less state intervention and more flexible labour movement and expect your borders to remain intact. The fruit pickers in the fields of Norwich, many of whom, by the way, are victims of ruthless gang-masters themselves, respond to a need. Work on the causes but do not blame immigrants or the European Union for what it is the responsibility of modern capitalism. Want a quick, overnight replacement for the fruit you bought yesterday in your local supermarket? Guess what, someone will have to pick it. Given the pittance that is on offer, these labourers are not likely to be local British lads.

So, there you have it. On 23rd June this country will make one of those once-in-a-lifetime decisions. It does not help when our Prime Minister invokes the yet-to-happen (will-not-happen?) very unlikely scenario of a World War III that is in no one’s interest. It does not help either that Boris Johnson wheels out the usual pantomime figure for all “straw man” arguments. Hitler was a pest and Europe dealt with him the best and only way it could. It defeated him and his sick Nazi ideology. The toothbrush-moustachioed monster needn’t be resurrected as a ready-to-deploy threat every time someone’s theory is found wanting. Let sleeping dogs lie. Let Leviathan lie. Let failed artists be remembered as that: failures. Britain deserves better and that to me is to stay in the European Union.

© 2016

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 25th May at 6pm (GMT

Wednesday 18 May 2016

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

"I'm thinking of going vegetarian, even vegan". Both my wife and I looked at each other incredulously. My daughter was also surprised. What my son had just said was as shocking as Donald Trump saying that he's been a closeted fan of Andrea Dworkin all his life. My son, vegetarian? Vegan???!!! This is the skinny lad who was wolfing down steaks with his mate less than two weeks ago. "Well, if it were down to me, I would have turned the whole family vegan long time ago." It was my wife's response now that made me laugh.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love vegetarian and vegan food. That is why I'm an omnivore. I get to experience the best of both worlds. But I like my meat. I can't hide it. Tonight, however, I am making an exception in order to post a recipe I came across whilst reading The Voice the other night. It sounds so yummy that I had to share it with you. This is the sort of fare I like tucking in and which I will be making at some point in the near future.

Baked Chickpea Burgers

Preparation time: 15-20 minutes

Cooking Time: 15-20 minutes

Serves: 8 burgers


2 tbsp olive oil (or canola oil)
8oz or 225g onions (finely chopped)
3 garlic cloves (minced)
1 tsp ground cumin
2oz or 50g carrot (finely chopped or shredded)
7oz or200 g canned or cooked chickpeas (drained)
1 tbsp tahini (or peanut butter)
2 tbsp parsley (finely chopped)
1oz or 25g chickpea flour (white)
1tsp baking powder
1tsp salt
2tsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Spray oil


1. Sauté the onions over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they soften.
2. Add the garlic, cumin and carrot and continue cooking for two more minutes.
3. Transfer to large bowl or food processor and add the chickpeas.
4. Mash or process until ingredients are combined.
5. Stir in tahini and parsley and lemon juice.
6. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in the small bowl, and stir into chickpeas.
7. Add flour to the bean mixture.
8. Flour your hands, shape mixture into four patties and dust them with flour. Fry in 1 tbsp
oil over medium-low heat for 1 minute, until just beginning to brown or spray with cooking
spray and cook that way for fewer calories.
9. Bake in a medium oven for 20-2 5 minutes or until golden brown.

The music to go with this groovy recipe must be equally groove-inspiring. That is why my first offer comes from Gorillaz, the animated invention of ex-Blur frontman Damon Albarn. Still love this song after all these years.

Next up an oldie for those who are into reggae. I've always had a soft spot for Tosh's music. I still find it more radical than the more radio-friendly Bob Marley (no disrespect to Bob, by the way, but once you become a legend, your hard edges are softened to accommodate new tastes and audiences). This is foot-tapping music with a message.

The Unthanks get heavy play chez moi. As the clip below shows, there are many reasons: the harmonies, the arrangements, the risk-taking approach, It all adds layers of delicious musicianship to be enjoyed, preferably, with baked chickpeas burgers.

Last clip comes from my neck of the woods. I have followed William Vivanco's musical career closely for some years now. I'm glad he has carried on pushing boundaries and making it hard for others to pigeonhole him. I am sure that tonight's recipe has done a similar thing: vegan food has its own groove. That's why I'm an omnivore, remember?

Next Post: "Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On", to be published on Saturday 21st May at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 14 May 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

What a week it has been for Palace and Number 10. Tell you what, though. I would be surprised if camera crews were invited back to Buckingham. First, David Cameron was overheard on an open mic telling the Queen that at the anti-corruption summit he would be chairing later on this week there would be “leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries”. A day after, it was her Majesty’s turn to join gaffe-prone Cameron when she was caught on camera saying that during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Britain last year some of his officials were “very rude” to the British ambassador. How do you say handbags at dawn in Mandarin again?

Hearing the Queen speak is akin to finding out supermodel Kate Moss has a voice. Neither of them speaks frequently in public. Her Majesty’s main television gig is on Christmas. As for Kate, having once overheard her talking to one of her mates on Regent Street many years ago (before realising it was that Kate Moss!), the less she opens her gob, the better. All I can say is that on that day and for less than a minute I learnt a whole new vocabulary of English swearwords.

One is not amused, I tell you.

My only observation regarding the Queen’s remarks is that she ought to look closer to home before calling other people “very rude”. Liz happens to be married to a man who once asked Australian aborigines: “Do you still throw spears at each other?” There are entire websites dedicated to Prince Philip’s bloopers, from his “British women can’t cook” to “If you stay here much longer you'll all be slitty–eyed" (said to a group of British exchange students who were living in China. Perhaps the Chinese officials were only avenging their compatriots’ wounded honour).

As for Cameron and his now thoroughly-scrutinised “leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries” comment (after which he singled out both Afghanistan and Nigeria as the chief culprits) it would be better if he spent more time analysing the causes of that corruption instead of indulging in a pointless finger-pointing exercise. Corruption does not happen in a vacuum.

Corruption is not the same as theft. The former is a slow-burning, deep, bottomless, ground-digging process in which participants do not just happen to belong to developing nations. Whereas we can trace corruption in poor countries to bad governance, puppet – usually military – dignitaries and cronyism, the dirty money that comes from this vice must be “cleaned”, or laundered (to give it its proper name) somewhere. Somewhere where property is easy to buy and tax laws are lax. Somewhere like a “tax haven”. Unfortunately, there are not that many tax havens in Afghanistan and Nigeria. But in Britain? Well, read again the recent headlines on the Panama Papers.

We are talking about a triangulation between the City of London, the Crown’s dependencies and overseas territories and assets such as property. Especially property in London and other major metropolitan centres around the country. Let’s talk about this and maybe Cameron’s comment could be placed in its rightful context. He is the leader of a fantastically corrupt nation. And in the same way it happens in poorer countries, it is not the average Joe or Joanna who is corrupt but the combo of politicians and newly-arrived oligarchs.

Out of the two gaffes, the Queen was always going to able to get away with hers because the monarchy has come back into fashion with a vengeance. Part of that it’s the “Will’n’Kate” effect. Part of that as well is that Liz very rarely opens her mouth and therefore we, the Palace-upkeep-funding, tax-paying public, have no idea what to make of her. Cameron would do well to learn that lesson. Always look out for microphones on the loose.

© 2016

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 18th May at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 11 May 2016

London, my London

Start of my cycle journey
The biggest challenge whenever I decide to undertake a bicycle trip is not the actual journey itself but the getting to the starting point. I have, thus far, avoided using the train, preferring instead to pedal my way to whatever place I kick off my jaunt from. There are two reasons for this: one is that inspectors have yet to make up their minds about bicycles on trains. One minute it is folding bikes and other types that are allowed on, the next minutes it is only the former. The second reason is that, although some of you who know me in real life are acquainted with my London postcode, including visiting my house, my location is not a topic I discuss gladly online. One day, I promise, one day you will all be invited chez moi for tea/coffee and cheesecake (I make a really nice cheesecake).

This peculiarity of adding miles to my journey before setting off on my actual journey was the reason why I found myself on the Ridgeway recently. As in, Enfield Ridgeway. Enfield, the northernmost borough in London, the one with the most parks and green spaces. Ever since I went to the Museum of London last summer (another bicycle trip) I have had the idea of exploring London’s waterways, both small and big, short and long. On this occasion I was planning to cycle along the Turkey Brook trail from north of the M25, near Potters Bar in Hertfordshire to the River Lee Navigation.

However, had I completed the route I had in mind, the title of my post would not have applied. I mentioned I was in the northernmost borough in London. From where I was sitting, on my bike, I could hear the traffic of the nearby M25, London’s orbital motorway. North of it, there was no more London. That is why I decided to chop a couple of miles off my journey and begin on the Ridgeway, a thin strip of a road that starts a quarter of a mile away from Enfield Town and runs northwards until it dies at the Potters Bar roundabout.

It was an unseasonably warm February afternoon with the temperature reaching the high teens for the first time this year. As readers and fellow bloggers know, I do not care for winter (or summer, for that matter). The former barely brings any snow, still the usual sign that the coldest season of the year is upon us and the latter is synonymous with hay fever for me. I love autumn and spring, death and rebirth, better.

However, as I pedalled down the Ridgeway cycle route, I also realised that if there had been any snow I would have been unable to complete this challenge. So, hooray for warm winters, even if nowadays they stand more for climate change than odd weather.
I had a fair idea of how to get to the River Lee Navigation and I also knew that the London Borough of Enfield had recently been granted £30m by Transport for London to roll out a “mini Holland” cycle scheme. What this meant in reality was that clear and easy-to-read signage was in place to guide me along the way.

I slid down a road on my left and saw the brook trail up ahead. Straight away the first difficulty appeared: it was almost impossible to cycle along the stream with my commuter bike. Perhaps a tough, mountain one would have done the trick but I doubted that I would have been able to overcome the uneven terrain and thorny-looking bush. Sometimes it is not the bike, but the person riding it that makes the difference. I carried on cycling on the small country lane I was and eventually I came across North Enfield Cricket Club on my right hand-side. I knew that Hilly Fields Park was not far away and, as I had seen on Google map the night before, the Turkey Brook trail went right through the heart of it.

It was odd that here I was in 2016 cycling through a park that had been earmarked for development – chiefly housing – just over a hundred years before. Luckily, Enfield Council at the time bought the farm the park was on and turned it into a public space. One of the more popular attractions was its bandstand. This was the time of brass bands and with the opening of nearby train stations Gordon Hill and Crews Hill, this part of London began to draw large audiences.

Rembrandt would have been proud
Winter afternoons have a habit of switching the sun lights off too soon. It had just gone two o’ clock and yet it felt like dusk was upon me. Still, as I ventured through Hilly Fields there was enough light streaming through the leaf-free, candelabra-shaped trees. I stopped for a few seconds to take some pictures and soak up my surroundings.

Bar a few dog-walkers and families, the park was almost deserted. Turkey Brook lay on my left; the combination of the shallowest of waters and the bare branches looming over them rendered the scenery Rembrandt-nesque. It was the Dutch master’s etchings that came to mind when I looked around me. The same effect of the chiaroscuro he deployed so effectively in his prints was evident here. The scant but still visible sunrays enhanced the composition of plant, brook and ground, creating in the process delicate but dramatic gradations of light and shade.

I cycled on, past the aforementioned bandstand. After crossing Clay Hill, I found myself on Whitewebbs Park, the grounds on which an old 16th-century mansion stood once. Rumour has it that the Gunpowder Plot was planned here. Nowadays, Whitewebb s Park has an ancient woodland with small streams, some of which join the Turkey Brook trail, along which I proceeded. A pub called the King and Tinker, dating back to the times of James I, is located north of the park. I went further east, leaving the copse momentarily before entering Forty Hall Country Park. All the time I kept an eye out for kingfishers, grey wagtails or mandarin ducks. I have always seen the male latter as Barry Manilow's avian version of his Copacabana's Lola, but instead of yellow feathers, orange ones on the side of its face.

The mood that greeted me in Forty Hall was phantom-like. A threadlike strip of brook ran on my left as a wide pond opened up on my right. A couple of joggers appeared on my trail, all of a sudden, their huffing-and-puffing heavy breathing the only sound that was heard. We exchanged glances and hellos. Other than them – and me – there was no other soul in this desolate, coppiced landscape. The treetops resembled shutters through which scant rays of the weak winter sun filtered through to render the scenery spectral. I was reminded of Oyá, the orisha of the graveyard. A thin veil of mist hung above the pond. I also remembered part of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 86: “He, nor that affable familiar ghost/Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,/As victors of my silence cannot boast;/I was not sick of any fear from thence:/ But when your countenance filled up his line,/Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine."

Tranquil and phantom-like: Forty Hall
It is at a rival poet that Shakespeare is directing these lines. A poet who has apparently stolen Shakespeare’s beloved’s attention from him. I was not surprised to find myself thinking of the Bard's ghost-like soul. After all, the coat of arms of the London Borough of Enfield itself includes a mythological beast that has the head of a fox, the chest of a hound, the talons of an eagle, the body of a lion and the hindquarters and tail of a wolf. So far no one has claimed paternity, I hear.

There was another reason for the spooky surroundings. As I cycled towards the Bull’s Cross exit, in order to re-join the cycle route on the other side, I recalled that somewhere here on my right hand-side stood once Elsings, or Elsynge, a magnificent palace that dominated the area for more than 200 years. From Henry VII to Elizabeth I, this part of north London was touched by royalty. Henry VIII (yes, that Henry VIII!) used to hunt on these grounds. The palace has not been there for centuries, having fallen slowly into ruin.

Leaving the green spaces of Forty Hall, Whitewebbs and Hilly Fields brought with it a new level of difficulty: I would have to follow the Turkey Brook trail now through residential roads. The trick was to use almost-traffic-free back streets whilst keeping an eye on the stream. In the event it turned out to be easy. The cycle signs were helpful and accurate. I followed the brook through Albany Park, Prince of Wales Open Space until I arrived at the River Lee Navigation. That was where I took the photo for my new header. I called it, “Bike at Rest after Trip along the Turkey Brook Trail”. In the meantime the afternoon had already tiptoed into a honey-coloured dusk. I turned got back on my bicycle and headed down southwards. I was going back home, somewhere in London.

© 2016

All photos taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 14th May at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 7 May 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

At the end of this post I might lose or win a few readers and fellow bloggers. But honesty has always been my policy when writing online. And if that ruffles a few feathers, so be it. As long as I write with a modicum of decency and respect, I would like to believe that people will react in a similar fashion. After all, I try not to be black and white (pun not intended, and you will see why I mention this later on) about the political or social issues I write about on my blog.

There has been a controversial subject that has been burning inside me for many years. It reached a climax about a decade ago when a former colleague of mine greeted me one day in the office with the words: “Yo, whassup, my Cuban n…a!” I refuse to spell out the entire word out of consideration for those readers who will take umbrage at what I believe to be an offensive term. But you will probably guess what the word is.

My colleague was surprised at my swift and admonishing reaction. I was concise, precise and to the point. Under no circumstances was he to use the “N” when talking to me again.

That was about ten years ago. I had similar feelings recently when I saw and heard Larry Wilmore refer to outgoing president Barack Obama as “my n…a” (notice the ending. The “a” is meant to soften the effect as opposed to the traditional “er”).
I mentioned honesty in my opening paragraph and if I am being honest I have to admit that I had no idea who Larry Wilmore was until I watched the clip of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Then, again, US viewers might not know who Graham Norton is. Still, ignorance of Larry Wilmore's media relevance  does not lessen the impact of his words.

There was an immediate backlash against the comedian. Some of it was justified, some was not. Responses varied from well –informed ones to ill-thought and poorly-articulated ones. Sadly, lost in the midst of this debate was the primary reason why Mr Wilmore’s colloquial phrase caused such a stink: the history, the (mis)use and the (re)appropriation of the “N” word. 

What did you call the president again?

Based on my completely unreliable and unscientific research of no more than a dozen acquaintances, friends and work colleagues, I can say that many black Britons feel uncomfortable with the use of “N” word. Not all, though, young people do not think much of it and do pepper their conversations liberally with the term. You could say that there is a generational divide but Larry Wilmore is no spring chicken. What made him use a word that his ancestors heard, possibly preceded by the “f” word, before they were lynched?

That has always been factor number one in my decision to accept this term: history. You don’t need to be born in the States to know that there is a long history of murders, beatings and punishment inflicted on black people. That the “N” word came to signify inferiority simply rubbed salt in the open wound. That a whole political, economic and social system was erected on the back of this racist notion of black people’s inferiority reaffirms my conviction that use of the “N” word is never justified. Even if it is uttered by a black comedian to a black president.

And yet…

English is not my mother tongue. I may have studied it, mastered it and taught it at some point, but it is not the lexicon I grew up with. Occasionally this makes me feel like an usurper. So, when English-speaking black people talk about (re)appropriating an erstwhile offensive term, I know I must sit up and listen to them. Even if I disagree with them, it is still their language. All I can ask for is not to be the recipient of such hurtful term.

And hurtful it is. The “N” word is not just a product of language but also a phenomenon. A misleading phenomenon, in my opinion. Why? Because it presents black people, especially men, as rap-loving, basketball-playing, slow-hung-jeans-underwear-showing, swagger-boasting “bros”. In the process this word strips the black person of their identity. In fact, it does not even let them carve out their own identity, whatever this might be. It divides black men into the same two camps white colonisers divided our ancestors all those centuries ago: house Negroes and field slaves. The former were the docile, butt-kissing servants, the latter were the fiery, law-breaking firebrands. This division was wrong then and it is still wrong now. Having street cred is not and should never be seen as a substitute for good education and high aspirations. It is not an either/or world, but a both/and one. You can be streetwise and a university graduate.

Larry Wilmore referring to Obama as my “n…a” was incorrect. The setting, the occasion, the audience, everything conspired against him. This makes me think that really and truly there is never a good moment to utter this highly emotionally-charged, controversial word, whether it be in hip-hop or slam poetry, whether it be a white rapper saying it or Common. I do apologise to my Anglophone readers and fellow bloggers for treading on your toes. After all, it is your language. However, I love English as much as I love my mother tongue, Spanish. I am aware that there is a process of reclaiming terms that have hitherto been considered demeaning. I hope the “N” word is never claimed back. There is no “back” to claim. The murders, beatings and punishment will always be there as reminders of the true meaning of the word. You do not need a Cuban to tell you that.

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 11th May at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Urban Diary

No, there’s no blue plaque here.

Unbelievable. He lived here, as I understand.

Well, nope. No blue plaque. Maybe one day…

Maybe one day, I repeat to myself. Maybe one day… Have I got the energy to start a blue-plaque campaign to honour and celebrate the life and work of one of Cuba’s foremost writers? One who made London his residence for decades?

I have come out of Gloucester Road tube station, looking for number 53 on the street of the same name. A slant of late afternoon sunshine slides down the white-washed columns in this well-off part of southwest London. I am on my way to the Goethe Institut to watch the premiere of “Victoria”, but first, I need to catch at least a glimpse of what I believe to have been the house of the late Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

I find it easily, sandwiched inconspicuously by terraced houses on either side. I want to take a photo of it but realise that the owner has arrived at the same time. Only one of us is the intruder and after a short Q&A regarding the non-existent blue plaque, I turn around to resume my walk. Not, though, without first stealing a photographic moment. After all, I convince myself, it is what Cabrera Infante would have wanted.

The Gibara-born man who fell for Havana and its charms as a twelve-year-old would have approved of my small transgression. He built an outstanding literary career on writing about the myriad characters who challenged the status quo, whether before or after Fidel. His best-known work, Tres Tristes Tigres (literally, Three Sad Tigers, after a famous Spanish tongue-twister) was a homage to Havana’s night life. Drunkards, drug-addicts, prostitutes, pimps, artist and politicians filled up its pages.  It is only fitting that I have stopped outside his former abode as dusk envelops me and a magenta-tinted sunset magically furnishes London. The shadows grow longer. I want to explain to the owner of the house that the man who lived here, at 53 Gloucester Road, was often compared to James Joyce (TTT was at some point called Cuba’s answer to Ulysses) and yet I have always found that comparison misleading. Joyce focused on diurnal Dublin, whereas Cabrera Infante centred on Havana at night.

I tramp down Exhibition Road recalling what appealed to me best about Tres Tristes Tigres. It was not just the plot, or lack of it thereof, or the seductive atmosphere of the bars and cabarets Cabrera Infante’s characters frequent. It was, above all, the author’s tribute to language, to the beautiful and often misunderstood - occasionally ridiculed – Cuban vernacular.

With the fast-disappearing sun behind me I ask myself again the question: have I got the energy for a blue-plaque campaign? Maybe one day, maybe, one day…

© 2016

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday7th May at 6pm (GMT)


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