Saturday 15 July 2017

London my London

This is my last post before my annual summer vacation. The clip below was made using photos taken during my regular cycle jaunts around the British capital. My London is one of unknown faces and trace-leaving feet. It is also a place of handshakes and hugs, of intimate conversations overheard on the Tube and late-night revellers. This is my London and I love it to bits.

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Sometimes I remember an article not so much for the content of it but for a particular sentence that captures my attention. That has nothing to do with the quality of the piece but with the quality of the writer; someone who is so skilful that certain phrases cause me to do a double-take and go back to them. That’s exactly what happened recently when I came upon a feature by one of The New Yorker’s staff writers, Adam Gopnik. I love Gopnik’s writing and on this occasion I was really looking forward to what he had to say about a new Hemingway biography. Yet, I was more drawn to a couple of sentences almost at the beginning of his review than what came after.

On talking about Hemingway’s fall from grace after a long period of almost-sycophantic celebration, Gopnik states that “few would now give the old man the heavyweight championship of literature for which he fought so hard, not least because thinking of literature as an elimination bout is no longer our style.We think of it more as a quilting bee, with everyone having a chance to add a patch, and the finest patches often arising from the least privileged quilters.In recent decades, Hemingway has represented the authority of writing only for people who never read.

I swear that I had never contemplated literature as an elimination bout. Elimination from what, exactly? It is my assumption that Adam is perhaps referring to an era when writing, especially in the States, was all about working on the Great Novel (or the Great American Novel, if we are going to be really specific). The next sentence and his mention of a quilting bee sounds slightly snobbish and sniffy. To me it looks as if Mr Gopnik disapproves of the way editors and publishers have cast their nets wider in recent decades to include an ever-growing, varied readership.

Literature is not just about the person who writes the book, but equally important, the person who reads it. The world we enter may be the writer’s, but the one opening the door is the reader. The reader then decides to stay in this world or not. Sometimes the reader stays when this world resembles their own somewhat. Sometimes, they stay for the opposite reason. The landscape in front of their eyes looks nothing like what they experience in their daily lives. Whether realism or escapism is the outcome, literature has achieved one of its main aims: to create a relationship between writer and reader.

Reading is a skill not to be learned passively. It doesn’t matter if you choose a couch or a chair to sit on whilst devouring a book; you are still allowing a piece of someone’s brain (to put it crudely) into yours. You, reader, deserve utmost respect.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

What happens when literature becomes a single-identity creative platform, catering chiefly to a particular demographic? Is this the elimination bout Adam Gopnik was referring to? A group of writers from said demographic sparring with each other to see who comes out on top? In my view, this goes against the democratic nature of reading. Let’s consider this: writing, by its very nature, is anarchic, or at least it should be. It should only obey the laws imposed by its master/mistress. Reading, on the other hand, is democratic (and individual[istic]). We share our passion for a specific book or author with like-minded readers. Harry Potter, pre-marketing frenzy, is a good example. For some reason, the idea of JK Rowling being given a free ride as a quilter (After what? Dozens of rejections from publishers!) makes no sense to me. If I were to twist Adam’s theory around, I would say that the quilting bee he so easily dismisses also includes patches by renowned writers like Papa Hemingway. But the more diverse patches we add, the better literature we will have.

© 2017

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Saturday 15th July at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 8 July 2017

Thoughts in Progress

Many of you, fellow bloggers and readers, know how interested I am in the human mind, consciousness and rational thought. The way our brains process information and our subconscious mind works has always enticed me. Recently I read an interview with the philosopher and scientist Daniel Dennett in the New Humanist which reawakened this passion. In it Daniel attempted to throw some light on that strange, elusive and confusing phenomenon known as consciousness.

To Mr Dennett consciousness is not one thing but a combination of different elements. They are our thoughts and experiences. This group also includes our subconscious, that always hard-to-define region of our brain where we hold information we are not even aware of having.

I first came across Daniel’s theories a few years ago via Steven Rose, one of The Guardian’s book reviewers. He also happens to be one of Mr Dennett’s staunchest critics. One of the reasons for this antagonism is that Daniel uses computer-based language to describe the way the human brain operates. Personally, I, too, find this hard to accept. To me the human brain has an infinite capacity to generate ideas and thoughts. To compare it with a PC’s storage capability is to fall into the same old trap of seeing the human mind as mere RAM. However, where I do agree with Mr Dennett is in his view of the mind and body as a single entity. There is no miracle, in my view, in the way the mind is linked to the body. The evidence is in the fact that when one of those two elements is not functioning well, the other one suffers.

The extraordinary nature of the human mind can be explained through the way we transform social learning into norms and habits. Elements of culture, no matter how disparate, are drained through a collective-focused colander, leaving the more human-friendly (hopefully) parts and chucking out the flotsam and jetsam. And yet, this process is not without faults. For, no matter how carefully we sift these cultural, moral and social norms through, we will always be at the mercy of human unpredictability, otherwise known as… the human mind.

If we accept, as I believe, the notion that because of evolution human beings developed a collective/individual duality, we also have to accept that throughout our existence this duality has led to the need to communicate, cooperate and compete. The latter is not a word many would find attractive nowadays. Competition has been given a bad rap, especially in our current neoliberal, market-obsessed society. Yet, it is a reality that we compete with one another. What we cannot deny is that in order to communicate, cooperate and compete we have to engage our minds. We have to be able to think, organise, evaluate and learn.

Consciousness is, as I mentioned before, that elusive and confusing process whereby we cook up all these ideas and thoughts, intentionally or unintentionally. And although it might come across as an otherworldly, mysterious entity, it is as human as our hands, legs and feet.

© 2017

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

Thursday 6 July 2017

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

 Photography: Louise Hagger for the Guardian
I confess that when I first heard the recent horror stories about people getting wounded whilst trying to cut avocados I laughed. I was not being mean, I swear. I felt sympathetic to those involved in avocado-caused accidents. It 's just that the way these injuries were described was... hard to believe. Most people apparently got cut trying to flesh out the large seed. Any Cuban (or Mexican, or Brazilian) will tell you that if you quarter (there, that's a massive clue) the avocado, the seed will fall out without any further intervention.

I love avocado, which is the reason why I am posting this recipe. I am always looking for new ways of getting the best of this highly nutritional fruit. Yotam's recipe offers a new twist.

Avocado with curried prawns and lime

100ml groundnut oil
1 banana shallot, peeled and halved lengthways, then each half cut lengthways into quarters
1 red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
20 fresh curry leaves
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 limes, 1 finely shaved and juiced, the other cut into four wedges, to serve
300g sustainably sourced raw king prawns, peeled and deveined (cooked peeled prawns are a perfectly acceptable shortcut)
20g mayonnaise
80g Greek-style yoghurt
1½ tsp mild curry powder
1 tsp honey
2 ripe avocados, cut in half lengthways and stoned
Heat 85ml of oil in a small saute pan on a medium-high heat, then fry the shallot and chilli for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is golden and fragrant. Add the curry leaves, fry for 20 seconds, until crisp, then take off the heat and stir in the coriander and black mustard seeds, lime skin and a pinch of salt. Set aside for 20 minutes, to cool and infuse, then discard the lime skin.
Put the remaining tablespoon of oil in a medium sauté pan on a high heat, then fry the prawns and an eighth of a teaspoon of salt for a minute or two, stirring, until the prawns are cooked through and fragrant. Transfer to a plate to cool.
Mix the mayonnaise, yoghurt, curry powder, honey, two teaspoons of lime juice and an eighth of a teaspoon of salt in a small bowl. Finely chop half the prawns and stir into the sauce; toss the remaining prawns in the infused oil.
To serve, put an avocado half on each of four small plates and sprinkle with a small pinch of salt. Spoon in the creamy sauce, then top with the whole prawns, allowing some to fall off around the avocado. Drizzle each portion with a tablespoon of infused oil and sprinkle with the crisp aromatics. Serve with a lime wedge.

The music to go with this dish has to be equally punchy. That is why I am opening with Laura Marling. I saw her set at the recent Glastonbury and she was excellent once more. Here's Salinas.

Second track tonight comes a band I discovered only a year or so ago. The Airborne Toxic Event makes music as unusual as their name. This melody is as haunting as the emotions that probably motivated.

The last song is a classic, reworked by the flamenco singer El Cigala. Cheo Feliciano made this salsa number a worldwide hit and now it has been given a new lease of life by El Cigala. El Ratón (The Mouse). Enjoy.

Tuesday 4 July 2017

Let's Talk About...

distance. As in the distance required to be considered safe. Take public transport, for instance. It’s off-peak time, so the expectation is that there will be plenty of empty seats on the tube. The issue is that they are all randomly placed. That means that you have a split-second decision to make as soon as you board the train. Where to sit? Or more specifically, where is it appropriate to sit?

In the grand scheme of things this dilemma can be filed away under the category “First World problems”. Yet, if you get caught in the middle of it, you are painfully aware of what I have just described. You rush into the carriage and without a second thought sit next to a woman immersed in her book, or as it is more common these days, glued to her mobile phone. It is only when you look at your surroundings that you realise what you have done. There are twenty-odd empty seats in the rest of the carriage. You suddenly feel self-conscious. What is worse, you now feel her eyes on you. Is she thinking the same thing? You do the only honourable thing. You get off the train at the next stop and wait for another.

Another example is open spaces, like parks. With the recent high temperatures we have had in London, it goes without saying that we have been enjoying the outdoors a lot more. Plonking your personal self in a park should be hassle-free. After all, London is probably the city in Europe with most parks and green areas. The only problem is when the thermometer hits 34 degrees and you find half the neighbourhood down your local park. Space becomes an issue and distance between sun-seekers awkward. This situation is more difficult for adults on their own. I count myself amongst those. Many a time I have been cycling, when all of a sudden I have decided to rest my weary bones on the soft grass of one of the many parks that dot my adopted city. The look I get is a mixture of distrust and hostility. Especially if you should happen to choose a space in between two Prosecco-guzzling groups. Eventually eyes are turned towards me, voices are lowered and belongings moved closer to owners (this tends to happens in the leafier parts of London. I live in a deprived area. No one bats an eyelid if I decide to sit on my own next to them). Luckily, I usually carry the weekend Guardian or a copy of The Observer with me. As if by magic bags go back to where they were before.

Distance is just another bone in the skeleton of social awkwardness, a structure that underpins the way many denizens on these isles interact with others. There are more components such as conversations about money (as in salary) and class. Distance just happens to be more visual.

Going back to my first example: where is it appropriate to sit? Well, whoever talked about sitting? I usually remain standing.

© 2017

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

Saturday 1 July 2017

London Cycle Diaries: Institute of Contemporary Arts

London Cycle Diaries is both a cycle-based and cycle-orientated series aimed at "discovering" hidden spots in London from the saddle of my Raleigh.

© 2017

Next Post: “Let's Talk About...”, to be published on Tuesday 4th July at 6pm (GMT)


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