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)

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Urban Diary

As I slot the first flyer through the letterbox I cause the flap to fall back heavily making a terrible loud noise. This is completely unintentional and motivated perhaps by the sound of barely audible steps rushing to the door. I mistakenly take these to belong to a dog even though there is no “beware of” sign to be seen.
Thus begins my annual leaflet drop.

I love this part of my job. For one, it puts me in direct contact with the local community. In addition, it serves as further study of London’s urban life.

My regular beat starts in the block of flats located about a quarter of a mile away from the school where I am based. I usually end here, too, working my way around the neighbourhood in a circle. The low-rises sit in a triangular layout overlooking a patch of grass that has seen better days. As I walk past the front gardens of the ground-level houses and I am exposed to shoes of all types and sizes, I begin my usual fun-filled, mental guessing game. Flat-soled, open-toed sandals with wedge at the back? They probably belong to my Romanian crowd, usually Gypsy ones. Flat, dark brown, leather toe-looped sandals-cum-slippers? Usually, my Asian gang. “Chunky-looking”, cross-strapped, black sandals? Probably my African brethren.

Two north London football clubs vie for space on clotheslines, windows and doors. N17 White Hart Lane vs N7 Emirates take their battle off the pitch and on to this patch of early-morning, sun-drenched suburbia. In the air lingers the aroma of turmeric and ginger. Nice contrast to the smell of cannabis that wafts out of one of the windows on my right.

I go up the urine-stained stairs of one of the buildings and after dropping a few more flyers I gaze down at the green, rectangular patch below. Bereft of slides and see-saws, this is more dog territory than play area. As if to confirm my theory a bloke comes out with his canine in tow. Clad in a black, loose T-shirt and jeans, he reminds me of one of the lines in Blur’s Parklife: “I feed the pigeons, I sometimes feed the sparrows too/It gives me a sense of enormous well-being”. Well, he is only feeding his dog, which responds in kind by fouling on the grass a few times in the scarce minutes I am up on the first floor. Perhaps the dog has a funny tummy. But its owner has funny hands. They are completely unable to produce a little bag with which to dispose of the dog excrement.

I give a curt “you awright, mate?” to the stranger and cross over to the other side of the train station. Immediately the scenery changes. Fewer flats and more houses. A mix of social and private tenants probably renders this area the blue hue in mayor of London, Sadiq Khan’s recent graph of the capital’s property map. The further you go into London, the more amber and orange the colours are, denoting foreign ownership. But out here in the “burbs, it is still mainly UK buyers who go for local property. By UK, please, understand UK-based, not necessarily UK-born. Since I was last here a year ago, the amount of building work has increased. I exchange greetings with an Irish builder, his cockney geezer sidekick and a Polish driver (I know he is Polish. I can tell by the accent these days).

I almost bump into a lanky, forty-something chap as I leave the front garden of one of the houses. He is also on a flyer mission. His, however, is linked to the pizza takeaway on the high road. A mechanical, almost muted, accented “hello” escapes his lips as he mechanically moves from accommodation to accommodation, with a mechanical gait, probably mechanically counting how many leaflets he has got left to deliver. I skip the next house on account of the “No Junk Mail” sign on the door. Flyer-man does go in, leaving his promotional material tucked halfway in the letterbox. Mechanically, of course.

As I make my way back to the low-rises, I catch sight of the local postie. “Giving me competition, mate?”. Nah, I answer, I wouldn’t be able to do your miles with your heavy bag.  I walk away, fewer flyers in my hands now. Postman soon becomes a red dot on the urban horizon, his shorts and bare legs a barometer to indicate that autumn has not arrived yet.

© 2016

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 8th October at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 1 October 2016

Thoughts in Progress

I was recently at Sadler’s Wells to watch the American contemporary dance company Alvin Ailey. As the performance was about to begin, there were a few seconds between the now-customary request for the audience to switch off their mobile phones and the lights dimming down.

I could not stop thinking of that five-to-six-second gap afterwards. As the auditorium was bathed in darkness, the first choreography of the three-piece bill, Exodus, kicked off. But what about the before the after? What about those precious moments – seconds – before the curtain goes up, after which a performer enters their own “edited” reality? A reality that has been created for the public in attendance.

I began a two-character inner monologue as I drove home that night. Performer: here I am with only the curtain between us. Behind I have left the stripped-away, geometric shapes we did in rehearsals. The earth-bound, grounded movements from school. The raised leg and torso contractions. This is now the space and time we have created, choreographer and me, and us. Together we are a unit, aimed at stopping the never-ending flow of undifferentiated information you have accumulated so far, audience. But only for just over a quarter of an hour. You are our target; we will give you in the next fifteen-to-twenty minutes, spirit, suffering, redemption and hope. We will weave a story through these themes using only our bodies. Forget the music you will hear for the real music will emanate from us, will beam from us, will shine from us. We will be the temporary model of (fictitious) reality you will pass onto your brain to decode. Sometimes our choreographed patterns will make sense as a story, and sometimes they will confuse you. Good, we will not make it easy for you. In the same way we contort our bodies to tell a tale, we want you to contort your brain to try to make sense of this new, synthesised reality.

Spectator: what to expect? What to hope for? The smooth drive here, the traffic lights with hardly reds, mostly greens, the zebra crossings with almost no pedestrians to stop for, the late-summer drizzle, the windshield wipers dancing mechanically from side to side, the smiling faces of the early-evening Saturday revellers. All that I must leave behind. For now in between that curtain and me lies only a new reality, one that has been created for me and me only. It is not only my mobile phone I must turn off, but also the unedited background noise. Will the piece be raw or sophisticated, ballet-leaning or post-modern, safe or ground-breaking? Whatever it is, there will be a code, a certain formula I must decipher.

Sometimes we decipher formulas mathematically. Sometimes we do it with our senses. I have been at the receiving end of the two examples above. More as a member of the audience nowadays. But I also remember the excitement of performing in a production of The Little Prince. I had butterflies in my stomach during that "before the after" ten-second gap. And I loved having that feeling. I still remember seeing the black curtain in front of me and the emotions and thoughts it triggered.

As a spectator I would like to believe that I am open-minded. I do not just perceive with my mind but also with my entire body. I know that I consciously switch off the background noise. The drive to the theatre, traffic-heavy or smooth, the ever-changing weather, London’s mind-boggling road map. These elements are all part of my unedited reality. In order for both performer and audience to succeed together, this unedited reality must be switched off so that a new one can emerge. Fictitious, yes, but still, a reality.

© 2016

Photo taken from Time Out magazine

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 5th October at 6pm (GMT)


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