Saturday 17 December 2016

Thoughts in Progress

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

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

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

"Where finally gold flecks began to dance"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Diary of Inconsequential Being

Wednesday 9th November

Fucking 'ell!

Thursday 10th November


Friday 11th November


Saturday 12th November


Sunday 13th November


Monday 14th November


Tuesday 15th November


Wednesday 16th November

My birthday. Acceptance and hope.

© 2016

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

Saturday 10 December 2016

Thoughts in Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Urban Diary

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

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


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

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

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

© 2016

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

Saturday 3 December 2016

Fidel, my Bladder and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016

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


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