Sunday, 31 January 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

According to one of the meanings of the word 'perspective' is: 'the faculty of seeing all the relevant data in a meaningful relationship'. So, in a sense, the word carries with it an analytical and rational message that underpins its relation between perception (seeing) and interpretation (the data).

That one's perspective is shaped by circumstances is beyond doubt. Theories that we held dear in our younger years, sometimes fall by the wayside once our attitude to life changes. And oftentimes, too, we find that our experience of past events has suddenly taken on a hue that goes from light crimson to pale reddish purple. That was certainly the case recently when I learned, via The Economist (10th October 2009 issue) that Cuba's famous 'free lunch' (please, note the quotation marks) was coming to an end.

Under the headline, 'Giving more than taking away', the state-run daily newspaper, Granma, highlighted recently an initiative by the Cuban government to shut down workers' canteens and provide instead a compensation package of 15 pesos per day (approximately 37p in the current exchange rate). The knock-on effect is a payrise in return for a lunch that was frequently derided. So, everybody's happy and we can go back to planning the next stage of that beautiful utopia: tropical socialism.

Well, hang on a second. With Cuba's black market playing the leading role in the country's economy, this idea is not only bad, but also dumb. If even government regulation fails as catastrophically as it did at the end of 2008 in Europe and the US, what can we expect of an illegal system in which prices fluctuate as often as people change their underwear (usually found, incidentally, in the black market)? The other reason why this scheme is plain silly is that it tries (once again!) to mask the real state of the Cuban economy, US embargo notwithstanding. Investment by foreign business has plateaued, imports have also plummeted and budgets for state-run companies have been cut. The solution, which was hinted at in the mid 90s, but since abandoned by the octogenarian ex-leader Fidel Castro, should be to encourage the - still - small private sector and the formation of social enterprises. Note, social enterprises, not cooperatives, unless the latter turn out to be different from their predecessors.

But let's come back to that 'free lunch' and my quotation marks. The reason for my rose-tinted view - just in case the colour described above eluded you - is that I benefited from that scheme once in my life. For six months, a small coach (what a posh name for an 'Aspirina', I hear you say, my dear fellow Cuban readers and bloggers) would take us, the Tricontinental editorial team, down to a small canteen in the heart of Vedado. I remember enjoying the journey as much as I loved the food. And the lunch? It was never free. You paid for it the day before. How much was it? My memory befuddles me, but it was definitely in the region of between two and five pesos. Was it good and varied? Skip the variety and the quality bit. It was 'jama' (Cuban slang for 'food') and that was all that mattered. This was '97. Some people went without eating for a couple of days, having glasses of sugared water instead. Or if they had some money left from their paltry monthly wages, they would buy overpriced pizzas in La Rampa. Some of those pizzas were made with condoms instead of cheese. Sorry, I know, it's Sunday morning, I don't mean to put you off your breakfast.

So, that famous 'free lunch'... will be heavily missed. That brings me to the second part of this post.

Still with that definition of 'perspective' in mind I read with interest that a debate was raging some time ago in the UK about 'flexitarians'. No, this is not a new club of long-limbed members doing the washing-up whilst performing the split. It is, rather, a term for people who don't eat meat but tuck into fish, white meat or anything, as long as it's organic. The Vegetarian Society was adamant in its response to this trend: 'VEGETARIANS DON'T EAT FISH', proclaimed its magazine recently. And so it goes on, the tuxedo-clad real veggies vs the casual-wear flexitarians.

Ahhh... the freedom of choice. I know, I know, that lumping the Cuba government's decision to close down lunch canteens together with a fashionable new term for the sushi-eaters is neither here nor there. It is also counterproductive and just downright unfair. At the end of the day people make their own decisions, but I just can't tear my thoughts away from the thousands of people who will be affected by this new measure Raúl and his comrades will implement, whilst others are wrecking their brains trying to figure out what label to stick on a particular foodie group. It is simple too meaty an issue to ponder upon, or should I say, it is a fleshy perspective for which my ability to see all the relevant data has, for once, failed me.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'London, my London', to be published on Tuesday 2nd February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Killer Opening Songs (London Calling by The Clash)

Was 'London Calling' one of the first eco-conscious songs ever? With its talk of 'The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in/Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin', you could be forgiven for thinking that the mythical The Clash were trying to soundtrack Al Gore's controversial documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth', twenty-seven years before the erstwhile US vice-president set his eyes on the environment.

Or, alternatively you could think that the British band's prescient commentary on climate change was one of its many virtues. After all, The Clash were no ordinary punk outfit.

If truth be told, Killer Opening Songs is the first one to admit that punk did not register highly on his musical radar when he was an adolescent. And neither did it on most of his peers'. Hard, bluesy rock, heavy metal and prog-rock were the staple diet of a section of the Cuban youth of the 80s. Still, a handful of 'friquis' sported mohawks, which identified them as fans of punk. Let us say, also, for the sake of veracity, that, sadly, these Sex Pistols enthusiasts did not go down well at all with the police, resulting in them getting acquainted rather intimately with prison cells.

But back to The Clash and its formidable output. Unlike other punk bands whose approach to music was more DIY, The Clash was made up of very talented musicians: lead vocals and rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer ( John Graham Mellor), lead guitarist and vocals Mick Jones, bass guitarist and vocals Paul Simonon and drummer and percussionist Topper Headon. Also, in contrast with other punk bands, The Clash pursued a more experimental sound based on ska, funk and reggae. Their lyrics, too, were not as anarchic as those by other punk outfits and they carried a heavier dose of idealism mixed with a strong social message. A good example is the Killer Opening Song of their 1979 album 'London Calling', and title track. Using the BBC World Service's station identification as an iterative tool, Strummer delivers a portentous - and what has become in recent years -, timely tale of the effects of what could be 'a nuclear error'. Blended into the song are also references to violence, drugs and punk's fading star.

Though the music is compact and the band sounds pretty tight on this K.O.S., it is Topper Headon who stands out from the outset. The ominous feel is magnified through his military drumming, thus, creating an atmosphere of doom and catastrophe.

Who knows? Maybe Al Gore was tuning in at the time.

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 31st January at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Reading Lolita In Tehran (Review)

The most memorable and horrifying passage I recall from George Orwell's timeless dystopian novel '1984' comes in a response given to Winston Smith, the main character, by loyal Party member O'Brien.

'You are a flaw in the pattern, Winston. You are a stain that must be wiped out. Did I not tell you just now that we are different from the persecutors of the past? We are not content with negative obediency, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him (...) The command of the old despotisms was "Thou shalt not". The command of the totalitarian was "Thou shalt". Our command is "Thou art".'

Which begs the question: what could, then, have been the command of Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini's Islamic Republic? 'Thou art mine'?

Azar Nafisi's vivid memoir, 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' makes a bold attempt to answer that question. That it fails to provide a final response is not due to any shortcomings on the author's part, but on the chamaleonic nature of totalitarian and theocratic regimes.

'Reading Lolita in Tehran' covers Dr Nafisi's eighteen years living in Iran from the early days of the Revolution in 1979 until her final adieu in 1997. The book opens with a chapter called 'Lolita', after Nabokov's famous novel, in which Azar describes a literary club she held in her house for two years every Thursday. The three following sections are named 'Gatsby', 'James' and 'Austen'. The way she weaves together her own professional background - she used to be a lecturer in English and American Literature at the universities of Tehran and Allameh -, her students' personal stories and the turmoil shaking her country is as well-crafted as the novels they discuss.

Professor Nafisi is a consummate observer and the benefits her perception brings to the reader are multifold. For example, here she is on the connection between the title of her memoir and the novel to which it is related.

I want to emphasize once more that we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea. 'Lolita' was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives.

With this sleight of hand she also gets rid of the notion of victimhood. At the time of writing, the death toll keeps rising in Haiti in the aftermath of the worst earthquake to have hit the island in two-hundred years. However, rather than merely seeing the ex-French colony as a deprived nation, let's ask ourselves how and why its fate was decided before its inhabitants even had a chance to make that decision themselves. It is the same with Dr Nafisi's Iran. The Ayatollah didn't rule so ruthlessly because the people were weak, but because he created an infrastructure based on hate and intolerance that allowed him to govern without so much as a strong opposition. And those who were too vocal, were dealt with in a very straightforward and brutal way. However, the women who attend Azar's weekly book club, far from being victims, are rebels. Once inside the professor's house, they all shed their black robes and headscarves and dress in civilian clothes.

'Splashes of color separate one from the next. Each has become distinct through the color and style of her clothes, the color and the length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same.'

Dr Nafisi spent her younger years in both the UK and the US (she received her doctorate at the university of Oklahoma). This extended sojourn helped colour her analysis of her surroundings, which then filtered down to her pupils. For instance, consider this passage in which one of the book club's members, Mitra, questions the relevance of the novels they read:

'Why is it that stories like Lolita and Madame Bovary - stories so sad, so tragic - make us happy? Is it not sinful to feel pleasure when reading about something so terrible? Would we feel this way if we were to read about it in the newspapers or if it happened to us? If we were to write about our lives here in the Islamic Republic of Iran, should we make our readers happy?'

Nafisi uses Nabokov's definition of a great novel to answer her student's question. She agrees with the late Russian author that each story is a fairy tale and 'every fairy tale offers the potential to surpass limits, so in a sense, the fairy tale offers you freedoms that reality denies.' That's why 'the perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter.' In other words, a novel stands for escapism. And no matter how cruel its content can be, this is one of the few exit routes available to people caught in the stronghold of a totalitarian or theocratic regime; even if escapism can be dangerous sometimes.

I found it interesting that, just as it has happened in Cuba for decades, in Iran, Khomeini's government was the chief responsible for making western democracies, especially the US, attractive to its population. Again, Professor Nafisi's sharp pen is at the ready to describe the events around her with a mix of wit and prescience:

'That was when the myth of America started to take hold of Iran. Even those who wished its death were obsessed by it. America had become both the land of Satan and Paradise Lost. A sly curiosity about America had been kindled that in time would turn the hostage-takers into hostages.'

And that's not the only parallel between the two bearded leaders. Just as Fidel clamped down on Cuban intellectuals who did not toe his political line in the 60s, Khomeini carried out a similar cleansing campaign against those who dared to think outside his religious dogma. This all-out attack had an immediate effect on the youth, some of which - after being brainwashed by the overpowering state propaganda - ended up confronting Azar Nafisi at her lectures, whilst quoting the Koran. That's why, when I read the passage that follows (a student's intervention during a 'trial' of Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby'), I was reminded so strongly of Fidel's famous 'words to the intellectuals':

'"Imam Khomeini has relegated a great task to our poets and writers," he droned on triumphantly, laying down one page and picking up another. "He has given them a sacred mission, much more exalted than that of materialistic writers in the West. If our Imam is the shepherd who guides the flock to its pasture, then the writers are the faithful watchdogs who must lead according to the shepherd's dictates."

I will leave you now with my favourite passage from this wonderfully written memoir. About the clip at the end, there's a reason for it. This is the first time I post a book review with music attached to it. But in life there are some moments of pure synchronicity that you just can't ignore. One night, whilst reading Dr Nafisi's book, I happened to have a CD of Chopin's nocturnes playing in the background. Suddenly this particular melody came on and for the duration of it I saw a parallel between Azar's inner world and the restlessness that was engulfing her country. It is the ripple, mid-song, that does it for me.

'Imagine you are walking down a leafy path. It is early spring before sundown around six PM. The sun is in the process of receding, and you are walking alone, caressed by the breezy light of the late afternoon. Then suddenly, you feel a large drop on your right arm. Is it raining? You look up. The sky is still deceptively sunny:only a handful of clouds linger here and there. Seconds later, another drop. Then, with the sun still perched in the sky, you are drenched in a shower of rain. This is how memories invade me, abruptly and unexpectedly: drenched, I am suddenly left alone again on the sunny path, with a memory of the rain.'

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Thursday 28th January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The word 'magisterium' and its close Spanish equivalent 'magisterio' might come across as two different terms, if not visually, at least semantically speaking, but they do share one common element: teaching. The main difference is that in English, 'magisterium' refers to the authority and power of the church (especially the Roman Catholic Church) to teach religious truth, whereas in my mother tongue, 'magisterio' is used in broader terms, as in what a teacher does every day at school. 'Magisterio' was also the name of one of the courses available to a younger version of myself when I was seventeen and about to finish college and head for university.

It was not until my third year at the former ISPLE (Higher Institute of Foreign Languages) that I fell in love with teaching. And the catalys for that transformation was a lecturer who taught one of those subjects that when you first heard of it, made you want to dash off for the nearest exit: History of Pedagogics. I still remember that first time. He had been given the 'graveyard slot', that was, straight after lunch and the subject was in Spanish rather than English. His future with us, defiant, cocky students in their late teens and early twenties, did not bode well.

By the time he came in, we all had plotted different scenarios. Some suggested that we play hooky, others that we answer his questions in English - it was unlikely that he spoke the language, we thought -, there was another group, of which I was part, that proposed that we give him ten minutes after which, if we didn't feel challenged enough (smug prats as we were then) we could all come up with different excuses to leave the lecture room. In the event, his ten minutes extended to an hour and half and then some more.

Mr Pedagogics turned out to be the best teacher I have ever had in my life.

For starters, there was his approach to education. He didn't believe in mindless repetition, the usual attitude amongst other lecturers. He encouraged interpretation and independent thinking. We later found out that he had been the rector at our faculty some years before and had resigned when he couldn't take the state's dogmatic stand on the learning process anymore. And now we were the ones benefitting from his decision. In explaining the development of pedagogics, he took us from ancient Greece to modern Cuba. And if sometimes his lectures resembled Plato's famous dramatic dialogues, the reason was that he encouraged us to think and think freely.

It was from this moment on that I changed my teaching methods. I had been an assistant-student for a year then and suddenly I began to enjoy more my tutorial role. I became less judgemental and more supportive of my pupils' efforts. I stopped being apathetic towards teaching and started to see it as a viable career option, even if bureaucracy and socialist rhetoric were always going to be a major problem for me, as they turned out to be years later. I felt I had found my calling. Moreover, I realised that teaching was truly the most important job in the world, the type we did even when we didn't engage in it professionally. A parent who shows a child how to walk or use his/her spoon is actively involved in teaching. Recently I found the most appropriate definition of a teacher in 'Reading Lolita in Tehran', Iranian writer Azar Nafisi's memoir. Although she is referring to a close friend of hers, it should not come as a surprise that he had been a lecturer years before: 'Does every magician, every genuine one, like my oown, evoke the hidden conjurer in us all, bringing out the magical possibilities and potentials we did not know existed?'

The reason for this flurry of memories is a recent government's white paper proposal that would allow two-hundred outstanding recruits from its fast-track teaching scheme to become headteachers in as little as four years. All of a sudden, 'magisterio' has turned into an attractive career choice.

One of the consequences of the current economical situation is unexpected career changes. With unemployment at a record high, it is the teaching profession the one to which many ex-employees of the financial sector have decamped. 'City seminars', named so after the part of London where the stock market is located, attracted over a thousand visitors last year, according to the Times Education Supplement, and up to four-hundred companies have already signed up to the Training and Development Agency for Schools' Transition to Teaching programme.

There are more reasons, however, for this increasing interest in education and I'd better mention them before the cynic in me takes over this post. Many individuals feel a duty to give something back. Others find themselves in a rut and want a new challenge. A third group wants a job that will inspire young people. The fact that the subjects they will be/are teaching are relevant to their former careers makes it less daunting to take the leap of faith from one field to the other. At present, these courses are: science, technology, engineering and maths.

And yet, I, too, find myself agreeing with the dissenting voices. Once the economy recovers, and there're already signs of green shoots in the distance, will these people stay? Is the government not depreciating the teaching profession by fast-tracking newcomers into education within six months? Six months? I trained for five years! I had to study Psychology for Children and Adolescents. At university we started our practice in our first year and did not stop until our final one. However, these rookies have six months to master the intricacies of teaching, to inspire a new generation, to become au fait with the complex world of marking and dealing with unsatisfied parents. You can see why eyebrows have been raised at the government's initiative to allow these new teachers to become schoolheads within four years of starting their practice. Would a same scheme involving future doctors be permitted? Would novices to the health sector be given permission to operate on patients after training for six months? Methinks no.

The silver lightning in this story is that other programmes are run for a little longer, twelve months, with prospective teachers training and earning on the job. The economic crisis has also brought with it a wind of change in that more and more people are less focused on job titles or status and more on a profession that makes a difference. How long will it last? I don't know, maybe it will be just as long as a heartbeat, but there's no escaping the fact that you need a lot of heart and soul to teach and a syncopated beat to go with it.

Disclaimer: I finished writing the above post on Friday 9th January. Then last Tuesday 19th January I chanced upon this article included in the G2 section of The Guardian. My initial reaction was surprise and mild amusement, above all, at the parallels between Francis's piece and my column. Then, I realised that with an election year ahead of us in the UK - though at the time of writing the Prime Minister has yet to come up with a date for the general election -, these 'coincidences' will happen more often than not, especially because my Sunday posts are open fora for people to discuss their views on a particular subject, be it UK-focused or of a more worldwide nature. I hope you enjoyed my column today, I strongly recommend Francis Hilbert's feature (his classification of teachers is hilarious, but, oh, so true!) and the music. Fellow bloggers and followers of this blog should know by now that I don't need any excuse to upload music by Aziza. Many thanks, enjoy your Sunday and your week.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 26th January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Language and Dosh)

It's always a pleasure to read positive stories in the midst of this economic slump. Even if they sometimes carry so many minuses inside them that they resemble George W. Bush's eight years in the White House. But at least it's good to be reassured that not everything is grim and grisly out there.

That's why an excellent article published recently in the Times Education Supplement (11th December 2009) and written by the journalist Yojana Sharma has had me in high spirits since I read it a few weeks ago. It revealed that language graduates came only behind doctors, architects and lawyers in the salary scale and ahead of engineers and chemistry graduates. And not only that, but having a second or even a third language increases one's possibility of landing a very good, well-paid job. Who would have thought it?

Actually, I could have told them that. It was chiefly through my ability to speak a foreign language that I made ends meet in the Havana of the mid to late 90s. Mid-point in my English degree I was presented with the opportunity to learn German and wasted no chance. When I graduated from university, I immediately moved on to French and I was handsomely rewarded with a regular stream of freelance assignments.

The article makes a very important point as well: the only career paths for a language graduate needn't be linguistics, translation/interpreting or teaching. Since I left Tricontinental magazine in 1997, I have not performed any of those functions, except for the odd translation job here and there. What foreign languages do provide is a set of skills that enhance a person's self-esteem, sociability and understanding of other cultures. These are all qualities very much in demand by employers, regardless of whether they work in the private or the public sector.

However, a closer analysis of this issue will also expose some minuses. And my introductory paragraph where I used the forty-third president of the US as a simile was not an accident. After all, his gaffes were (are) legendary. The TES article remarks on how far behind UK pupils are lagging in relation to their European counterparts. Once again the decision by the government to end compulsory GCSE exams on foreign language in 2004 has proved to be detrimental. That this has been reversed by the UK signing up to the EU's target of two foreign languages in schools at primary level is small consolation. The ugly truth is that in today's labour market Britons are at a disadvantage. In a number of countries pupils learn two or more foreign tongues in addition to English. As the article clearly illustrates, even in the US there are millions of people who can speak both English and Spanish, for example. Another threat that foreign languages face in secondary education is the multiple options students have now with the arrival of the new diplomas; however, the linguistic element (except for English) is hardly ever present. What this also means is that, indirectly, those pupils benefiting and profiting (in a professional and financial sense) from this fiasco, are those who attend private or selective schools where the level of tuition of foreign languages is better addressed.

Nevertheless, as I mentioned before I feel slightly more optimistic than I did a year ago when I wrote a similar column as part of my regular 'Living in a Bilingual World' section. There are some very good initiatives, even if they still are scattered and uncentralised. Whereas in secondary schools there's been a slump of 30% of pupils taking foreign language GCSEs, there's been an increase of people learning a new tongue later in life. Another welcomed sign is that foreign languages are being used as a springboard to access other subjects such as music and science. This would bring a much needed improvement in cultural awareness. And going back to the subtitle of this post, a scheme involving businesses and schools (Business Language Champions) has proved to students the value of learning foreign languages in order to increase their job prospects.

So, yes, you might say that dosh is calling the shots and luring our youth, but when it comes to training in a foreign lingo, to me the means more often than not do justify the end. I just hope that from this point onwards, when it comes to learning a foreign language and reaping the benefits, the UK can only go para arriba y para arriba.

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

More About the Song (Review)

A curious thing happened recently. I opened an envelope containing 'More about the song', a poetry book by fellow blogger and poet Rachel Fox and it was the back cover that greeted me first, with the following caption:


Does a blurb ever lie?
Can it tell what’s inside?
Go on, open me up
I have nothing to hide

And with that playful invitation I wasted no time and began to read her book back to front. And if this sounds unusual it is because Rachel’s poetry is also unusual. The only way I can describe it is as a lively, jumpy, animate creature that entertains the reader whilst making him/her think at the same time. Take this poem from the section called ‘Keeping On – Pluses and Minuses’:

'The mystery retained'

Don’t explain to me how music works
Leave me the mystery, the miracle
The same for tides, keep it to yourself
All the sensible science, the hows and whys
Don’t dissect the perfect line of words
With an ‘obviously the writer knew what they were doing’
Says who? Why? How? Are you sure?
You are so neat, methodical
And you have a lot of boxes
I have a little order, much overspill
And no lids anywhere in the house
It’s messy here, a mass of mysteries
But the dreams that come this way
They are limitless
They last forever

What appeals to me the most in this poem is Rachel's Peter Panish tone. Like her, sometimes I can't stand 'The Making Of...' that so many movies and music videos seem to come attached with nowadays. I want to enjoy the mystery, the 'is it? is it not?' innocent quality of the naked (metaphorically speaking, I hasten to add) spectator. And it is the last three lines that do it for me: 'But the dreams that come this way/They are limitless/They last forever'. It's a quality that is in short supply, this dreaming, this 'sometimes not wanting to know how'.

The other aspect of Fox's poetry I found rewarding was her pragmatism. For instance in 'Situations Vacant' from the aforementioned section, she addresses those people who moan all the time about their job whilst at the same time counselling patience before choosing one's employment.

Situations vacant

Don’t work in schools
If you don’t like people
Don’t work in pubs
If you can’t take jokes
Don’t be a judge
If you’re easily tearful
Don’t bungee jump
If you don’t do ropes


All work has its price
Its needs and its downfalls
It drains us all dry
And it sees us get old
So choose your way wisely
Pick something you’re fit for
Space exploration?
Leave that to the bold

Certain poems struck a very personal chord with me. For instance, 'To Fade', from the section called 'Going round - Living for beginners', brought to mind how I told my daughter off some weeks ago for whistling whilst I was trying to listen to some music in the kitchen. I immediately and quietly berated myself for impinging on her territory, especially when one takes into account that not many people whistle anymore. Later on that night I read Rachel's poem again and thought to myself, 'I hope she never fades'. Luckily, she hasn't, her whistling has got stronger.

To fade

At 6 years old
You still sing all the time
When you’re doodling
When you’re scootering

And I wonder when does it stop
The joyous twittering?
When angry playground voices shout
‘Shut up stupid’?

Or do we censor ourselves slowly?
‘Time to turn it down now‘
‘Time to go inside’ and finally
‘Time to face the music’

To fade…

Above all, 'More about the song' is a musical book as befits its title. The language, cadence and rhythm, they all point at a melodic infrastructure that allows Rachel's poetry to bend the rules (if any) as her poem 'The song remains' avers:

'Lie back
Let the words flow
Just so
Keep your rules
And tightening tools
For prose
And let it go...'

It should not come as a surprise that Fox performs her poetry, too. And as the clip below shows, she is also pretty good at it.

I would like to thank Rachel for giving me the opportunity to review her book. I would also like to let her know that with the help of her poetry postcards, I have indulged in little 'acts of rebellion'. Nothing major. I left 'Save the trees (or else)' inside a magazine about cars at my local Tesco. 'And so it goes' ended up in a copy of The Economist. As for me, I still wave my hand at the face and not the car. Many thanks.

To buy Rachel Fox's book, click here.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 21st January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Nation, passion, protection, belief, love, bravery. These are all random words that get lumped together whenever one attempts to explain the sentiments towards either one's country of birth or adopted land. And if at any moment self-doubt seeps in, you could follow some people's advice, reach for the bottle labelled ‘Patriotism’ and read the instructions carefully before gulping down two tablets: ‘For the relief of symptoms of rational criticism (especially against some of the government’s debatable policies), hesitation to sacrifice oneself in the pursuit of unjust and unjustified invasions and alleged feelings of ingratitude. Do not exceed the stated dose, but if you do, don’t worry, you will not die, in fact, your side effects will probably be very welcomed. Important note: Keep within reach and sight of children'.

In 2005 when I obtained my British citizenship, I had a ‘before’ and ‘after’ moment. Until then I was safe in the knowledge that I had adapted fairly well to life in the UK. This was helped mainly by a compact family unit, good command of the English language and a solid upbringing in Cuba. But what did this official document actually mean? Did it grant me permission, too, to be critical of certain policies the Tony Blair’s government had introduced and with which I disagreed strongly? The answer, as I later found out, was not simple.

Since my arrival in Britain I had woken up to the fact that I could not expect the country to get used to my ways, instead I had to get used to the country's ways. And that meant getting involved in its social, economic and political life. Little by little, I began to shake off the mantle of the ‘Johnny-come-lately’ and immersed myself more in the hustle and bustle of London’s urban chaos.

But if truth be told, the concept of patriotism confounded me from the outset. And it still does. For starters, I had just come from a nation where nationalistic euphoria is worn on one’s sleeves as a badge of pride and is used by the state as a powerful weapon against anyone who dares to challenge it. Contrast that to the more subdued role patriotism has, or had, rather, in British society. In 1997, flying the Union Jack was a no-no. By the time the Football World Cup rolled in, in 2006, British and English flags were everywhere. And people of all colours were proud to wave them. I remember thinking at the time: 'Good for them!' Still, I couldn’t bring myself to support my host country, having always sided with the Argentinians and Brazilians until then. Was I being unpatriotic?

When the British parliament, misled by Tony Blair and his crooks, decided to invade Iraq, I was torn between joining – what turned out to be – the largest demonstration ever on the British Isles and staying home. On this occasion, my concern was about the people taking part in the march and whose anger I shared. But again, more than twenty years of participating in rallies in Cuba ‘voluntarily’ (yeah, right, pull the other one) had made me apathetic to demonstrations, even if the cause was a just one. And again the question popped up: was I being disloyal?

And the more I think about this issue of patriotism, the more I realise that it affects not just us, immigrants, but also citizens born in the UK. With more British soldiers coming from Afghanistan in coffins, a new voice of dissent is being heard: that of the relatives and families of the dead. And the words coming out of their mouths have a similar undertone in most cases. Their loved ones cared for their country, but the cause for which they died was not the right one. Could anyone accuse them of treason, of being unpatriotic?

My British passport and citizenship were the confirmation that I had fully integrated myself into this country’s narrative. On that note, I would call myself a patriotic person. But by the same token, no one should take that feeling of belongingness for granted. Being critical of the government is not being disloyal. As I understand it, the notion of patriotism is very complicated and rather messy and it can be used effectively by groups that think themselves disenfranchised; I’m talking to you, BNP. On the other hand, though, when there's a sense of togetherness, less judgement and more understanding, less prejudice and more acceptance both from and for newcomers, the results are usually more love, affection and respect for one's surroundings. And that, to me, is the real definition of patriotism, even if I continue to fail (on purpose, mind) Norman Tebbit's famous cricket test. You see, I don't even like that sport.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'More about the song' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 19th January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Road Songs (Special Edition)

If roads were stick insects, I would not be a driver. Give me a fleshy, curvaceous motorway and I am a happy man, turn it into a size zero paved surface and I will be hanging my car keys forever and ever.

A bend doth a road make. The way this man-made, asphaltic curve winds and wraps itself around the landscape is the reason why I love being behind the wheel so much. It is also the reason why I derive a greater pleasure from driving around the British countryside than in urban London. The streets in my adopted city are too narrow and even broad avenues that arch left or rightwards lack the necessary angular space to enjoy the manouevring around a particular bend.

And the most important element of this peculiar and, possibly, whimsical fancy of mine is the synergy between braking, the bend as such and my hands holding the wheel. The first was analysed in detail here, the second one is the subject of this post tonight and the third one will be discussed in another column very soon.

When you find yourself behind the wheel, steering your car on a long, flat piece of tarmac, at some point your brain begins to beg for a change. That's where bends, chiefly conspicuous ones, come into play. Brake slowly, shift into a lower gear as you go around and let your hands slide on either side of the wheel. Bliss.

In music, too, I love this symbiosis between tempo, musicianship and creativity. And I will use the examples below to illustrate the relationship between road bends and musical ones.

My first clip is by Maestro Astor Piazzolla performing a song that is as rhythmically exquisite as it is curvaceously adorable. Here the bandoneon is the simile to that stretch of road that meanders and zigzags whilst the violin and piano represent the foot on the gas pedal. Touching.

The second clip is by The Beatles and it is also a timeless tune, 'A Day In the Life'. It, too, is my favourite song from their renowned "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album and no, this is not the official video. In fact there's a disclaimer on the author's profile on youtube that reads thus: 'Beatle clips I put together to "A Day in the Life". I made the picture at the end too. I've been noticing that some sites have been using my video and I would like to say that although I like the idea of my video being liked it is not the original.' And you could certainly believe that this clip was the work of John, Paul, George and Ringo, couldn't you? Such a good quality.

'A Day In the Life' is actually two songs in one. Apparently Lennon finished writing the first part and spoke to Paul about finding a filler for the second section. The latter had scribbled another melody and agreed to add it to John's bit. The result is the union of scattered pieces of news and domestic life. John's view can be interpreted as the sum of disparate world and regional events. Paul's is mundaness at its best. And you notice that at 2:17 (clip below) when McCartney's part kicks in. To me it is the equivalent of driving through the Dartford crossing en route to Kent. There's the bend curving seductively upwards and then downwards, the barrier that separates the metropolis from the countryside, order vs freedom. As an addendum, let me tell you that the Dartford crossing is not always that romantic. In fact, it is a nightmare most of the time, but last summer it provided me with one of those priceless moments when, queue-free, I cruised downhill with Nina Simone on the car stereo belting out 'I Put a Spell on You' and if there's a more magical and serendipitous moment, I'd be glad to hear about it. On a postcard, please. And handwritten, nobody writes cards by hand anymore.

But I digress. Sorry. 'A Day in the Life' is a monster of a road song that symbolises bends at their most beautiful and chaotic, like that middle section. Genius.

Last but not least an artist who has been featured four times on this blog in less than three months. Some people might be wondering whether I have suddenly become a Billy Joel freak or if I'm being paid by his record company to upload his music. No, it has all been very fortuitous. There was that link to his song 'The Stranger' because the post in which the track appeared was related to whistling, then there was his song 'Vienna' used as one of my Sunday clips. A couple of weeks ago I confessed to being bowled over by the lyrics of his timeless 'New York State of Mind' and I now I bring you 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant'. All this has been rather accidental, not intentional. In the song below, the road bend is symbolised by the changes at 1:41 and at 2:44. The first one is a smooth shift from a higher gear to a lower one, as the car effortlessly moves uphill, zigzagging carefully, whereas the second one is akin to going down and around a pretty bend at full speed, window open, wind massaging your temples. And by the way she is having a ball, isn't she? And so is the saxophonist. What do you mean who is 'she'? She, at 2:42; 2:59; 3:57; 4:08 and 5:01. Have you been paying attention? Anyway, what I would like to know is, what were you doing in the summer of '75? Going steady like Brenda and Eddy or driving around and enjoying road bends? Thanks and enjoy.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 17th January at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The Scent of Green Papaya (Review)

There are certain films in which the cinematography is so good that no other tool is necessary to tell the story. These movies could pass off as silent flicks and no one would bat an eyelid, so beautifully shot they are. 'Cinema Paradiso', with its flashback narrative and stunning shots of the Sicilian landscape, is one of them. Another that comes to mind is 'Le Grand Bleu' (The Big Blue), the best homage to the Mediterranean Sea I have ever seen in my life. And to this list I would like to add 'The Scent of Green Papaya', a French-produced, Vietnamese film, which I first saw many years ago, in 1995.

The movie tells the story of Mui, a peasant girl, who becomes a servant for a middle-class family. The mother, Truong Thi Lôc, is still grieving for her dead daughter, who would have been Mui's age, and this leads her to treat the latter as her own child. This first part of the film is seen through Mui's innocent eyes and the result is a very palpable and physical product. The sounds we hear, the food Mui and the cook make and the words the different characters utter, feel ever so real. There are lots of close-ups, from a bug that meets an early death as a consequence of one of the children's experiments to the preparation of the title-inspiring papaya recipe, a delicacy in Vietnam.

The second part catches Mui as a young woman after she has left Truong Thi Lôc's household to become the servant for a pianist who happens to be also a friend of the family. Mui falls for him but he is already engaged to a very lively woman. Whereas his wife-to-be only wants to go to parties and soirées, the groom just wants to stay home and play the piano. Unlike the first thirty or forty minutes of the film, where the approach is more angelic and blithe, the second act has an almost balletic proposition. The three main characters pirouette - literally in one scene - around each other, and their elongated figures point more at the world of turned-in legs than the domain of cinemascope.

The dénouement finds the pianist choosing Mui over his fiancée after spending a night with the former. On watching the movie for the second time, I was not sure whether there was a subliminal message behind the pianist's decision. Could it be that the director was implying that passivity (Mui's) was an attribute to which women ought to strive rather than independence, as symbolised by the pianist's former inamorata? Food for thought there.

What cannot be denied is that 'The Scent of Green Papaya' is one of those films that sticks in one's mind forever. A little cinematic, and dare I say, balletic gem, indeed.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Road Songs', to be published on Thursday 14th January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

If you have ever listened to Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major you might have noticed that at some point the piece becomes a musical game of 'It'. The melody starts off as a uniform unit; however, there's always a sense of expectancy in the background as the violinist prepares to perform his/her solo. Just before the first movement finishes, the soloist breaks free and the listener is led to believe that this cadenza will dictate the rest of the piece. But no, after a couple of minutes the orchestra catches up with the runaway and the soloist is forced back into the herd. This action is repeated until the end.

This melodic cat-and-mouse scenario came to mind recently over the holiday period for two reasons: spiritual enrichment and the significance of it. The former can better be explained as the effect the Beethoven concerto has on me, the latter is a muddled concept with which I am still grappling and which is the subject of today's post.

Supposing we are all functional human beings, the odds are that we have a spiritual side of which we might or might not be aware. And if we are, then we try to nurture it the best way we can. This immaterial trait runs counter occasionally to our - more, in my case - pragmatic self.

The ancient Greeks sussed this dichotomy out. Logos was the way whereby they could interact rationally with their physical environment and make decisions about it. Mythos, in the meantime, dealt with the phenomena they could not figure out, the meaning of life, for instance.

The introduction of mythos, thus, created a pantheon of symbols whose main function was to explore the part of the human psyche that could not yet be reached by the logical rationality of logos. But in today’s world that harmony is seriously under threat and I can see two reasons why.

The first one is based on the emphasis on belief in the Abrahamic faiths, which started approximately in the 1600s, and brought with it a mindset that demanded that believers accept a set of doctrines before adopting a religious way of life. And spirituality was at the centre of it as the tool to achieve this aim. In the intervening four-hundred-odd years, little has changed and even in totalitarian regimes like the Cuban one people still use spirituality as an instrument to achieve ‘enlightening’ rather than accepting it as yet another dimension of our humanity.

For example, up until the early 90s the default political and social mode in Cuba was pragmatic socialism. Although religion had been banned, it had never really gone away and people worshipped their gods behind closed doors. But overall, it was the socialist way of thinking that prevailed and the consequence was that two generations of Cubans were brought up to believe in the material world (broadly speaking, note, material not materialistic) whilst disregarding the spiritual side of it. In fact, it was no secret that if you were a man and declared an interest for the ethereal, an abusive term like 'poof' would be hurled at you without any second thoughts. Yet, with the fall of the socialist bloc and the beginning of the 'special period' in the largest island in the Antilles, Cubans found emotional refuge in the same source that been denied to them: religion. However, two others faiths challenged the Catholic doctrine so favoured by my fellow islanders: Protestantism and Santería (the synchretisation of African deities, mainly 'orishas' with their Catholic counterparts). And it was the latter that proved to be more popular, purely because it had been practiced since colonial times and thus, had survived Spanish rule, the pseudo-republic and Fidel's revolution. The main ingredient, though, which Santería supposedly brought to the table of forlorn hopes that was Cuba in the 90s, was spiritual enrichment.

I admit that I was then, and still am, dubious about any religion being a byword for spirituality, a trait that exists within human beings, regardless of creed or nationality, gender or skin colour. My suspicion grew tenfold when I heard some of my closest friends describing the process whereby they had been 'transformed' by the discovery of  protestantism/santería ('converted' was the word I preferred to use): 'This is the truth! I couldn't believe I had been so blind all my life!' or 'I needed order in my life, I needed a set of guidelines and I found it in...!' Hmmm... Out of Fidel's ideological frying pan and into... Oh, well, you catch my drift. But what put me at odds with them, and occasionally caused a kerfuffle was the belief (yes, fervent belief!) that by having found religion, they had found spirituality and no, would you believe it? My spirituality was not spirituality as such because... at that point I stopped listening.

The second reason for the break-up of the duet logos/mythos was a phenomenon I came across here in the UK when I arrived. I call it the 'commodification of spirituality'. And it is better understood through the growth of the aromatherapy and massage oils industry, the proliferation of self-help/positive thinking 'guides' and the propagation of disciplines such as yoga towards physical improvement but without necessarily taking into account the alliance of mind and body, upon which, for instance, yoga is based. We work the longest hours in Europe and yet we expect to buy spirituality over the counter.

By the way, I don't mean to say that every time someone buys a bottle of Divine Calm Relaxing Massage Oil (retailing at £7.80 at Bodyshop at the time of writing) he/she is indulging in that commodification of spirituality. The message I am trying to convey is that spiritual attainment occurs most of the time when we least expect it. Which is why you cannot prescribe it through religion or the retail industry. When I sing out loud - and punch the air, and shake my short twists wildly as if they were long dreads - the line: 'Exodus: Movement of Jah people!' by the late Bob Marley, I'm not doing it because I'm a Rastafarian or because I buy into the Rastafarian faith but because both melody and lyrics collude to make me feel that another sensitive human being is present, if only on my stereo. Maybe mythos will frame the words as an explanation about Babylonian dogma, but I have the option to believe the tale or not. When Mahalia Jackson intones the verses: 'One these morning soon one morning/I'm gonna lay down my cross get me a crown/soon one evening late in the evening/Late in the evening I'm going home live on high/Soon as my feet strike Zion… ', the feeling I get is pure euphoria, mainly from an aesthetic perspective, but at no point I'm thinking of the Lord, or Jesus the Saviour. My brain remains in Logos country, whereas my soul is sailing on a ship named Mythos.

Spirituality is too big a concept (and as I mentioned at the beginning I'm still grappling with it) to be hemmed in under the same guidelines that govern religious belief or consumer-led business plans. Although, a more conspicuous, easily accessible, pill-format type of spirituality might go some way to stop fanatics from flying planes into buildings, soldiers from killing innocent people waving white flags and extremists from murdering doctors who provide abortions.

Above all, spirituality is personal, a definition that is anathema to religions or corporations that treat their followers and customers as a homogenous group. At an individual level, I am usually touched by the crunchy sound of dried leaves on the ground in autumn, the sight of the sea in Brighton or a violinist attempting to break free from an orchestra.

This last example leads me to spirituality’s discriminatory nature. It is Beethoven's Violin Concerto that moves me, not Mendelssohn’s famous Violin Concerto in E minor. Nothing against the latter, but whereas in Beethoven’s piece the soloist is prefaced by the orchestra (a technique called ritornello) and therefore is allowed to add new themes of his/her own eventually, with Mendelssohn the soloist appears from the start and therefore there's no surprise, there's no game of 'It'. Saying that, though, I adore the Concerto in E minor's third movement, which you can watch here.

Small difference, you might think and one that would put me on the pedant’s side. But that’s spirituality for you, or for me, at least. Pedantic, capricious, personal and above all, necessary.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'The Scent of the Green Papaya' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 12th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


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