Sunday, 31 October 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

"It feels as if she's always been there, on the other side of my mind, knowing what the other half is thinking all the time." It was a typically cool evening in early December, mid 90s Havana. The annual Latin American Film Festival was in full swing and in between shows my friend A and I were discussing her love life. "If you'd asked me months ago if I would ever feel like this for another... you know... I don't know... I would have laughed in your face, but now... I just can't stop thinking about her. It's so... confusing". It was. And for me, too. My friend A was in a new relationship. But unlike her previous partner, her current squeeze was a woman.

Less than a year before my friend A, her then boyfriend, my girlfriend at the time and I attended a concert by the Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes. I remember thinking at the time that A was the happiest I'd ever seen her since meeting a year before in uni. She confessed to me that she'd just come out of a long streak of short, failed relationships. But the guy she was seeing now was the one. She had no doubts. And neither did I.

What happened then in those intervening ten or eleven months? D happened.

Human sexuality is one of those fascinating areas that provoke both awe and inhibition in equal measure. Introduce the subject at a dinner party and the floor usually clears in the same way it does when a lame DJ makes a bad musical decision in a club. If there is a no-no when we are in polite company it is the discussion of politics and/or sex (and quite often the two of them go hand in hand). Unless, that is, we're in a small, intimate environment, with friends who will not judge us harshly or unfairly for the comments we might make. On the other hand, if your companions are strangers or acquaintances, the conversation might feel a tad bit uncomfortable.

Why? I guess that it comes from two sources: one is the image we present to the world, the other one is fierce ownership of the still waters that run deep inside us. My friend A was a second year university student at the time she started her relationship with D. She came from a stable home, with parents happily married, sister studying engineering (and coming out of the closet, too, shortly after A), good academic results and a strong network of friends, of which I had just recently became a member. To the outside world, she was the standard heterosexual woman, the opposite of the butch caricature with which lesbians are still unfortunately identified. That was the image she presented to the world. But inside her an emotional turmoil threatened to derail her. After all, can we prescribe sexual orientation?

That's where the second element comes in. Regardless of what society demands of us, we always have our inner world in which to seek refuge. What happens when we retrieve to our lair and we watch our feelings and thoughts in a gigantic plasma screen? What happens when those notions and sentiments do not conform to the stereotype expected of us? I, along other friends of A's, were there when she confronted her sexuality. At the time that long period in which she learnt about herself, about love and above all, about loving another woman, was also educational for me. As a former homophobe (yes, I hang my head in shame, but at the same time, I must declare that homophobia was, and probably still is, endemic in most Cuban schools at the time. Sadly, it's the same situation in many countries around the world, including the UK), I had a close insight into A's life which convinced me that when it came to affairs of the heart, gays and straights were joined by the same umbilical cord. It wasn't just my friend A who unwittingly helped me in this process. Another close friend of A and mine, (D, not her girlfriend, but a young man) was also homosexual and he became my best pal until I left Cuba in '97.

The key in A's development as a person who found the strength to come out of the closet years after - alas, not with her first girlfriend - was how she turned her back on that first element I mentioned earlier, the image we present to the world, whilst slowly embracing the second: her inner self. It was a process that I can only compare with how the sun breaks through the tree branches on a cold autumn morning after an overcast sky, even if the analogy sounds corny.

One of the misleading notions about people who 'cross over to the other side' is that it's all about sex. And yet, I don't remember either A or D (male) making much fuss about it. In fact, I recall asking A that question in relation to her former beau and her response was that though she'd had enjoyed intercourse with him, with her new partner it was different. For starters, there was much more talk and mutual hobbies, not just physicality, but even when they got physical, it was often cushioned by reciprocality. Secondly, there was a connection, a strong tie that bound them together.

Same-sex relationships, sadly, are the easy target of many modern societies, developed or not. Just recently in the US, president Obama has released a video to draw attention to the problems and dilemmas faced by gay teenagers in that country after a spate of suicides amongst homosexual adolescents called for more direct intervention. Compare Obama's attitude with the malevolent, American-imported, world of gay-to-straight conversion already taking place here in the UK, according to research carried out by journalist Patrick Strudwick, and you might understand why so many homosexuals still seek the (false) comfort of the closet, rather than accepting who they are. Add religion to the mix and being an out and proud gay person is as explosive as dynamite.

Human sexuality cannot be prescribed anymore than you can make a final decision, aged seven, about the colour of shoes you will be wearing for the rest of your life. One of my wife's better friends (female) lives in cohabitation with a guy who was gay for most of his life, including having long-term, meaningful relationships. Yet he fell for my wife's friend so strongly that they even started a family together.

Still, mention of this in the pub on Friday night could lead to your spending the rest of your professional career with the 'office weirdo' label stamped on your forehead. And yet, I know, from experience and from watching people around me, that sexuality is never black and white.

My friend A lives now in Spain, in what I'd like to imagine is a fulfilling and beautiful relationship. And although we have not seen each other for many years, this post is my way of thanking her for existing, for being my friend and for helping me look at the world with less mist on my lenses. Because the mist is always there, sometimes it's denser, sometimes less so, but it's how we learn to cope with it that counts.

© 2010

Next Post: "La Lectrice/The Reader (Review)", to be published on Tuesday 2nd November at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 28 October 2010

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

By the time you read this post I will have probably licked my plate clean. Oh, yes, I belong to the don't-leave-anything-on-your-plate-don't-waste-any-food brigade. Especially when presented with yet another succulent Nigel Slater's recipe. I also admit that I had never made gravy before so I was looking forward to adding another plus to my burgeoning cook's CV. When it comes to sauces, though, I fall on the thick side of the argument. Give me a gravy with curves, full of bulkiness and compactness any time.

Liver and Bacon (the words for the recipe are Nigel's)

For the gravy: slowly cook 2 large onions, peeled and thickly sliced, in 50g butter until pale gold, soft and sweet. Add a level tbsp of flour. Brown lightly then stir in 300ml of stock. Simmer for 20 minutes then serve with the liver. Fry or grill the liver and bacon, allowing 150g liver per person and 2 rashers of bacon. Some mashed potato would be good here.

Cook the onions very slowly and the liver very fast. The usual cooking time suggested for fried onions is often underestimated. They take a good 15-20 minutes to cook evenly. Hurrying the procedure will forfeit sweetness. Grill the liver for a minute or two. The pan must be searingly hot so the inside stays pink while the outer crust forms.

This is food for the soul and I'm a soul man. It should follow then that my first musical offering tonight is Sam and Dave's timeless anthem, "Soul Man". Tuck in!

From 60s US soul to proper, heartfelt, Spanish flamenco-pop. Malagueño Toni Zenet is a recent discovery, courtesy of a fellow Spanish blogger, but I already have a couple of his albums on my amazon to-buy list. This tune translates as "Dreaming of You" and it's as autumnal as liver and bacon. Enjoy.

And last, but not least, here's one of those songs that makes you want to stay in as soon as the streetlights are switched on and the nights draw in. Céu has one of those voices that you are unlikely to find in a post-Crimbo, January sale. This woman's vocals can only be purchased at a unique shop called 'Soul'. Heart-warming as thick onion gravy.

© 2010

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

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Sometimes certain passages in a book remind me of a good old, fat, hand-rolled Cuban cigar. Before I carry on, though, a small disclaimer. This post is not product-placement for any company nor an endorsement of smoking. Smoking kills and I have no intention whatsoever of picking up that habit in the next two-hundred years. What this post is about is the process. That process that turns a green tobacco leaf into a world-class cigar and how, in my opinion, it can be compared with the similar method whereby a bunch of words can be transformed into a well-written scene.

But what have cigars got to do with writing, I hear you ask? In order to answer that question I need to give you some background information on work experience in Cuba and how it functioned when I was a teenager. From the age of twelve at secondary school we were supposed to go to work on the countryside for approximately forty-five days between January and February every year. This was usually called escuela al campo (countryside school). The aim was a noble one: to instill the spirit of collectivism in us and to bring us closer to the soil, source of our nourishment. The reality, however, was completely different and rather prosaic. The only activities we were interested in were the three 'Ls' (especially if you were in your mid-to-late teens): getting lagered, laid and lazy. I missed the first four years of my escuela al campo through illness but eventually I joined the ranks of hormonal adolescents looking to escape parental control through the usual mix of booze and sex.

I was sixteen and in college (high school in the US and other countries) when one cold morning my peers and I alighted in Pinar del Río, Cuba's westernmost province. The job we were given, as befit this region, was in the tobacco fields. The tasks were various: collecting the leaves, sewing them and curing them. The head of my brigade happened to be a close friend of mine, and that was reason enough for me to skive my way through the whole stay. Days were spent swimming in a nearby river or going for long walks with a bunch of fellow slackers. It was with them that I learnt about the process of rolling a cigar.

Just in case you think that you can grab a few tobacco leaves and mould them into one of those famous Montecristos or Partagás made famous by Hollywood movies, please, take some time to reconsider your decision. You might be in for a nasty surprise. First of all, tobacco leaves are cured indoors, in special huts or cottages, hence the sewing. They are, first of all, threaded together in a line and put on long poles. The sticks are then placed inside the hut with the greener leaves at the bottom and the more 'mature' ones at the top. Try smoking the uncured leaves and you risk poisoning yourself (pesticides were still in use around those years, I don't know now). But if you attempt to take the leaves at the top you're also taking a gamble; tobacco huts are very tall (think of a three or four-storey building) and if you slip off a pole you might fall to your death, as it, sadly, happened to a couple of youngsters from another college at the time I was doing my work experience.

My friends took a chance on the green leaves and used to sit outside the cabins or in the middle of the fields (anywhere was fine as long as you were out of the teachers' sight) rolling their future cigars whilst chewing the fat. I observed them many a time and always marvelled at their ability to wrap the thin tobacco leaves without losing the thread of our conversation. The ultimate goal, however, was to lie back and enjoy the fruit of their - unofficial - labour. Puff after puff delivered a certain drunkenness and stupor that enveloped them like a thick cloud. Some of the more inane and yet deep colloquies I've had in my life took place during these dopey sessions. But, as I mentioned before, it was the process of 'rolling up' that I really paid attention to.

It's the same with some scenes in certain novels. Especially those passages of a descriptive nature. I find the same care and concentration on minutest details. It feels as if the author is carving out a wooden sculpture with his or her bare hands, moulding the words to suit their taste. 'Rolling up', you could call it. By way of explanation, I will give you an example that appears in the book that's kept my mind busy for the last few weeks, "Uncle Tom's Cabin". This scene appears in Chapter XI, Volume I, 'In which property gets into an improper state of mind'. It is the prelude to George's debate with Mr Wilson, his former employer. The passage takes place in a B&B or hostal where slave-traders mix with merchants and farmers. I love the way Harriet Beecher Stowe sets the tone for the events that are about to unfold:

"In fact, everybody in the room bore on his head this characteristic emblem of man's sovereignty; whether it were felt hat, palm-leaf, greasy beaver, or fine new chapeau, there it reposed with true republican independence. In truth, it appeared to be the characteristic mark of every indivdual. Some wore them tipped rakishly to one side - these were your men of humor, jolly, free-and-easy dogs; some had them jammed independently down over their noses - these were your hard characters, thorough men, who, when they wore their hats, wanted to wear them, and to wear them just as they had a mind to; there were those who had them set far over back - wide, awake men, who wanted to a clear prospect; while careless men, who did not know, or care, how their hats sat, had them shaking about in all directions. The various hats, in fact, were quite a Shakespearean tragedy."

A passage that could otherwise be thought inconsenquential ends up being essential, in my opinion. First of all, there're the humorous observations about how folks in this neck of the woods wear their hats. The language is simple but full of details. The description smells as fresh as the morning dew-perfumed bottom three leaves of the tobacco plant, the ones you pick up first. Secondly, there're the psychological remarks: "there were those who had them set far over back - wide, awake men, who wanted to a clear prospect; while careless men, who did not know, or care, how their hats sat, had them shaking about in all directions." That reminded me of my friends' assessment of their 'roll-ups' after lighting them. Not that they cared that much, the intention always being getting high. Last, but not least, there's that reference to Shakespeare, a little nod that caught me unawares the first time I read the novel and which I enjoyed even more the second time around. You would never try to link the hats donned by a room full of men, mostly slave-traders, to "the Bard of Avon", but somehow the passage pulls it off beautifully. In pretty much the same way, my friends were able to converse about disparate subjects without a care in the world. What to an outsider was mostly gobbledegook, to us it made perfect sense. I forgot to mention that as the only person who didn't smoke in the group, I had the most fun.

I believe that there are many more examples of scenes in both fiction and non-fiction that could be compared with the simple and creative art of hand-rolling a Cuban cigar. And if that sounds like free advertising for you to go away now and light up, I don't care, suit yourself. Though not a smoker myself, I know what kind of 'roll-up' I will be sitting down to enjoy tonight. Here's a clue: it has words and pages.

© 2010

Next Post: "Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum", to be published on Thursday 28th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and a Video Installation

Last summer on our way to Wales, my family and I spent one night in Bristol. Having never been to this port city, I found its history and heritage interesting but the highlight of my visit was an exhibition by the artist Kerry Tribe at the Arnolfini gallery. The name was "Dead Star Light" and it comprised film, video and installation works exploring our relationship with memory, subjectivity and doubt. My favourite piece was "Here & Elsewhere" (clip below), which featured an interview between the British film critic Peter Wollen and his ten-year-old daughter, Audrey. Their conversation was accompanied by an on-screen vertical seam created by two synchronised images shown side by side. Eventually both the visuals and the girl's answers merge in an organic way that suggests fluidity and continuum.

Kerry's project was based on a similar work by Jean-Luc Goddard and Anne-Marie Miéville entitled "FRANCE / TOUR / DETOUR / DEUX / ENFANTS" which dates from as far back as 1978.

The first element that caught my attention when I saw "Here & Elsewhere" was the certainty and assurance with which Audrey answers Peter's questions, even if a couple of seconds later she casts doubts over her own responses. Her views on existence in relation to her physical body are very interesting in that she acknowledges that there's an on-going transformation in a person's anatomy, i.e., hers; yet, there's a core that remains unalterable. I thought that maybe in the intervening ten years (and that's probably the case now, as the video was shot in 2002, so Audrey must be eighteeen years old now) she changed her mind and began to see the core as malleable as the surface.

One of the more intriguing sections in the video was the one on remembering. Do the events, objects or persons we remember come forward to our memory? Or does our memory go out to hunt for them? And do we remember things from a past we haven't lived only through references (for instance, for Audrey is the 1970s, for me could be the 19th century) or does that past come to us through past experience of which we have no recollection?

Many of Audrey's responses brought back memories of a sci-fi novel I read many years ago, when I still used to enjoy that genre. The book was called "Fábulas de Una Abuela Extraterrestre" ("Fables of an Extraterrestrial Grandmother") and it was written by the Cuban author Daína Chaviano, who was also an English translator, interpreter and linguist. Although the novel was for children, some of the ideas crossed over into the adult world and one of them had me scratching my head for many years after I read it. It involved the Euclidean theory and how children over the age of five or six could not think of shapes other than as squares, triangles, circles and so on. The reason? School. But what happens before? In what shape does a child of two or three years old see the world in his/her dreams? I won't even mention language because there's a close relationship between language and Euclidean geometry. You name each axiom according to the assumptions you intuit from them. Let me pose a challenge to you, reader. Look around your room. Can you think of the shapes around you in any way other than square, rectangular or triangular? Try. See if you can come up with a new word for round. For instance, brgewd. Now, go out and tell the first person you come across that the full moon you saw last night was brgewd. Please, don't forget to send me postcards from the asylum. Especially if they give you a room with a good view.

Kerry's notions of movement in relation to space and time (5:37 in the clip) were challenging and difficult to explain. Are we moving when we're sitting still? I think we are. In that case, why ask a child and expect him/her to sit quietly when his body hasn't stopped moving? And I'm not referring to the gentle rocking that, especially, younger children are prone to doing when required to remain still. Are we perhaps confusing inactivity with silence? In those seven seconds it takes her to reply to her father's question, Audrey has moved in time and space quietly and smoothly.

My conclusion when I finished watching the video (and please, if you have children yourself, watch the clip below with them without any prompting and ask them what they think and above all, feel about it) was that Kerry's experiment on image, memory and the duet time/space was an invaluable tool to dig into that very often confusing but fantastic territory which sometimes can be off-limits (consciously or unconsciously) to some of us, adults: children's thoughts and imagination. What I would love to know is what your answers to Peter Wollen's questions would be. After all, occasionally our lives might resemble an on-screen vertical seam with two synchronised images shown side by side. You and the other you.

Photo taken by the blog author

© 2010

Next Post: "Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts", to be published on Tuesday 26th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Uncle Tom)

I guess it's now time for the defense to have its turn in the case of Uncle Tom vs Famous Epithets That Might Be a Tad Bit Unfair. I am, of course, referring to the eponymous character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and how over the years he has become a byword for obsequiousness and servility. In short, a sell-out.

I first came upon this term when I was still in university. It was a period during which I began to read so-called "black literature", mainly African-American authors (Walker, Morrison, Hughes). In addition to enriching my vocabulary in English, this type of reading gave me a cultural context that enabled me to understand many of the references to which I had been exposed until then, like for example in music.

I had to wait several years before I laid my hands on the book. However the first time I read it I remember having an uneasy and funny feeling, as if something wasn't quite right. It's taken me a second reading to realise that it's the use of "Uncle Tom" as a pejorative word that makes me squirm.

This is a complex situation. On the one hand I feel deep respect for the English language, for the people who speak it and for the authors who write in it, regardless of their country of origin. On the other hand, I just don't feel the use of "Uncle Tom" as a term of abuse. I felt awkward the first time I heard it and this second reading of the novel has convinced me that in fact Tom is a hero, if maybe not as prominent as George, the runaway slave, who flees to Canada with his wife Eliza and their child.

To explain further my sentiments, I'll share an anecdote with you. One day, many years ago, a black former colleague of mine, from Nigeria, said jocosely: Yo, (insert my name), man, my Cuban n****r! I immediately replied: Don't ever use that word when addressing me again, thanks. I kept calm, I didn't even raise my voice, but he knew he had vexed me. Dealing with the "n" word was easy (regardless of all the arguments and counterarguments made by the Reclaim Brigade over the years). However, dealing with the "Uncle Tom" concept is a totally different situation.

It is true that Tom is servile and obedient. It's also veritable that when faced with the opportunity to escape, he doesn't seize it. He is passive, way too passive and I can imagine how his docility might have played out against the backdrop of the civil rights movements in the 50s and 60s. But, let's dig deeper, shall we?

If you've read the book, you will probably remember the chapter where Tom is on a ship with Haley, a trader and Lucy, a female slave Haley buys en route to the south. Lucy's child is stolen, sold and taken away from her whilst the boat is docking in Louisville and she is leaning over the rail to see if her husband is amongst the crowd gathered at the wharf. Haley breaks the news to her calmly and coldly. Lucy doesn't cry, she doesn't make a scene. At night and whilst Tom is half-asleep, Lucy jumps off the ship to a certain death. Or maybe freedom, we don't know. But what we do know is that Tom doesn't wake Haley up and, when questioned the next morning on Lucy's disappearance, he just replies: "Well, Mas'r, towards morning something brushed by me, and I kinder half woke; and then I hearn a great splash, and then I clare woke up, and the gal was gone. That's all I know on 't." Tom could have thwarted Lucys plans by alerting Haley, but he doesn't do it. He just prays for Lucy's soul.

It's the same with Eliza's escape. When Mr Shelby, Tom's owner, sells some of his slaves to pay off his debts, Eliza takes his young child (who is to be sold to Haley) and escapes. Tom, on the other hand, doesn't. Cowardice? Hmm... no. I believe that what motivates Tom to stay behind is loyalty to all the other slaves because if he also elopes, Shelby will have "to break up the place and sell all."

There's another reason why I find the phrase "Uncle Tom" unfair. Tom is a product of a society whose foundation lay on Christian values. Both South and North used the Bible to pursue and justify their goals, even if sometimes they were marginally different (the conversation between St Clare and his cousin Ophelia in Volume II, Chapter XIX, throws up some very interesting issues). Tom, to put it bluntly, is drenched in religious doctrine. He is so brainwashed that he can no longer think for himself. When asked to explain his predicament, he can only talk in scriptural language. To use someone as naïve as he is as a whipping figure for all the wrongs visited on black people in the States and beyond is, in my humble, non-native opinion, misleading. A better example of selling-out would be St Clare's servants: Mr Adolph, Rosa and Jane. They look down on the rest of the slaves in the house, oocasionally using and abusing the "n" word when addressing them. They adopt the same language, airs and graces of their white masters. Unfortunately calling someone a "Mr Adolph" or a "Maid Rosa" doesn't sound as forceful as Uncle Tom.

As I mentioned before, self-censorship is not this column's central message. People have the right to say whatever they want in whichever way they see fit, as long as they don't use demeaning language. However, in Uncle Tom's case, and especially if you've read the novel, the defense has not closed its argument down yet.

© 2010

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on sunday 24th October at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Venti by JoAnne McKay (Review)

Autumn is my favourite season of the year. Regular readers of this blog will probably know that. After all I am an autumn sign (November) so there's always been a special attraction to that period between late September and early December when brown, yellow and auburn leaves give Max Brick and Tom Daley a good run for their money at synchronised dive. It is, at least for me, a time for presents. Of the birthday type, but also of the visual kind.

Yet, the best gift - or prize, rather - I have received so far this autumn came completely out of the blue. And although I'm not planning to tell the whole story, the award involved goats, Scottish sheep and even a bookmark made of sheeppoopaper (as the caption reads).

A few weeks ago, the poet JoAnne McKay, who writes the blog "Titus the Dog", ran a competition in her cyberspace. Readers had to pick the winner of the Thornhill Arts Painting Contest 2010. I rarely say no to a challenge, so I joined in the fun and left my comment. To my surprise I won and that's how a beautifully hand-made book (copy number 54) containing McKay's second collection of poems turned up on my doorstep one morning, said hello and without waiting for a reply, jumped up into my arms, asking to be cuddled and cared.

"Venti" is a book to be read in autumn. Its sixteen poems carry the chill of early mornings and the long shadows of premature evenings. Its verses arrive with a sign that read "Enjoy with a mug of hot chocolate whilst wearing a woolly jumper and socks."

I was pleasantly surprised to see the multitude of subjects JoAnne covers, from seahorses ("Hippocampus hippocampus") to parenthood ("Shadowchild"). Being familiar with her blog, which I visit regularly, I have been exposed to her poetry very often and I find it to be an interesting mix of tenderness, observation and humour. The evidence is everywhere in the book. "The Magdalene Fleur-de-Lis" is a sweet little opener ("Call me Iris. Call me Lily. Your flower/I'll keep the boys' chins up in wartime/French letters and kisses a lover's mime/that only costs them three francs for an hour/It's memory of me that lends them power/yellow flag on an azure bed through time"). Facetiousness is a common thread that unites many poems even if they don't look like comic pieces at first sight. I especially liked the ending in "Octopodes": "Your death always follows your creation/If threatened you squirt ink/Pedantic, romantic, octopodes/I think I know you".

I can't write about "Venti" without mentioning the four accompanying images by artist Matt Kish's. They fitted so well around McKay's poetry that it's almost impossible for me now to read "For Ishmael and Elijah and Those Who See" without visualising the black and white whale next to it.

I will sign off this review tonight with a poem whose title I mentioned before and which shakes me to the core everytime I read it. A few weeks ago I blogged about simplicity and how some writers manage to convey the deepest of messages with the least amount of words. This is one of those examples. Thanks JoAnne for my prize.


Shadowchild swings across the moon,
bumps my heart and is past.
Fierce cord once, the thread thins
and I must sing the pain of children:
you cut to see them grow.

by JoAnne McKay © 2010

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

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Niño, deja ya de joder con la pelota/Niño, que eso no se dice, que eso no se hace, que eso no se toca. (Boy, stop annoying me with that ball/boy, you can't say that, you can't do that, you can't touch that)

"Esos Locos Bajitos" - "Those Crazy Little Ones" (Joan Manuel Serrat)

When did some of us, parents, stop having fun and start freaking out? Was there a time, place, date, when we said: "Enough's enough, baby is not baby anymore, he/she is growing up, I'd better apply to Parental Anxiety School before admission is closed"?

I was recently at the pictures with my wife, our daughter and our son. He actually went on his own, having stayed the previous night at his mate's. There he was, a pre-teen, slowly waltzing his way into thirteen, surrounded by four or five kids his own age without a care in the world. And yet I felt anxious. He's not wearing his jumper, I thought. My wife told me to chill out, don't spoil it, please. I muttered something to myself, something to do with colds, with his asthma, with looking after himself, but deep down I knew I wasn't right.

There's a big difference in how my wife and I approach our children's upbringing. I am, or rather, have become more overbearing. She is more laissez-faire. I tend to shout too much, get all worked up and think of harsh punishments when things don't go according to plan. She, on the other hand, tries to reason out with our kids, getting them to analyse what they've done wrong and how they can make amends (although occasionally she also loses her rag). Eventually I have come to adopting her method, but it's still a steep climb for me. I have an inkling as to why it's such a struggle, but based on my own background it shouldn't be so. I was given free rein when I was a child, with a lot of strings attached, mind, but I had more freedom than my sister-cousin who was six years my senior and living in the same flat. When I look at a photo like the one that adorns my post today (taken from Concurso 2009 Magazine Digital) I'm usually transported to a very contented existence when play was my eternal companion. Following this logic I should be as relaxed a parent as my spouse is. But no, I'm not.

There are a couple of factors as to why: one is migration and the other one is environment. The former can better be explained through the process an immigrant undergoes when he or she settles in a different culture and his/her existence is only made up of the present and future they chisel out in that nation. No past (except the one lived through conversations with other people, or exposure to art and/or the media) sometimes means that an uneasy feeling of not knowing creeps in. This is quickly followed by a certain paranoia when children arrive. It's that famous parental sixth sense. We smell danger everywhere, even when there's none. The second element is intricately linked to the first one since my surroundings are far from the tourist-friendly perspective people have of London. I live in a rough area with a high percentage of crime and unemployment. And although I love my barrio, I'm pragmatic enough to realise that when my children start going out on their own, I will be watching the clock anxiously and counting the minutes and seconds as I wait for them to come back home after a night on the town.

I would then like to believe that I would have been more lenient and relaxed about my children playing outside, for instance, had they been born in Cuba. I would like to think that just like I did when I was a kid, they would have been hanging out with their friends from dawn till dusk (after doing their homework, of course). The truth, however, is that I don't know whether I actually believe that scenario myself. Because being a parent is tough. There are never any easy answers to the dilemmas you encounter when raising a child.

Take a recent predicament. My brother-in-law was in town with his daughter. Both my children wanted to see their cousin and uncle, of course. But neither my wife nor I could drive them to their Nana's (where my wife's brother was staying). My other half suggested that we let our nine-year-old daughter go with her brother on the bus. On their own. That paranoia I mentioned earlier made an unwelcome appearance all of a sudden and I remember standing in our bedroom in a cold sweat. Our darling daughter? On a bus? Alone? No, not alone, my wife corrected me, with her brother, who, by the way, had just travelled on the Underground by himself a few days before. I forget now how many times I said no, only to give up at the last minute and admit (reluctantly) that at some point, one day, she would have to take a bus on her own. And if not now, when there would be an adult waiting for her at the other end, then when?

I'm aware that my worries are shared by almost every other parent out there. A cursory glance through Mumsnet, the UK's online meeting point not just for mums but also for anyone interested in parenting, is awash with examples of mothers and fathers' concerns. What I've also found out is that my anxiety might be rooted in a different phenomenon: the disappearance of the last vestige of childhood in me. This is a situation, which, if real, is very mortifying. After all, I've always believed that I still have a bit of that inner child, so necessary in austere times. For instance, sometimes I think I haven't yet lost the ability to observe the world as if I had a pair of new eyes. Curiosity still gets the better of me, without the fear of losing six extra lives (which I haven't got, anyway) or being confused with a small domesticated carnivore purring its way around Londontown. But I've come to realise that by restricting my children's freedom I'm neither putting myself in their position, nor in the position of a younger self many years ago.

Lou Reed sings humourously in "Beginning of a Great Adventure" the following lines: "I'd keep the tyke away from school and tutor him myself/keep him from the poison of the crowd/But then again pristine isolation might not be the best idea/it's not good trying to immortalize yourself". You're right, Lou, it ain't right, mate, to create a second you. That's why I prefer Joan Manuel Serrat's approach: "Nada ni nadie puede impedir que sufran/que las agujas avancen en el reloj/que decidan por ellos, que se equivoquen/que crezcan y que un día/nos digan adiós" ("No one or nothing can stop children from suffering/or the clock's hands from moving on/or kids from making their own decisions and mistakes/or from growing up and one day/ bidding us goodbye"). Still, though, I have kept my application form to the Parental Anxiety School fairly close, just in case. Or even better, under Michael Gove's new guidelines for "free schools" I might even create one such establishment myself. Care to join me, fellow parent?

© 2010

Next Post: "Venti" (Review), to be published on Tuesday 19th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Let's Talk About...

... balls. Yes, balls. But not of the spherical kind but rather the male type. Yup, let's talk about testicles. More specifically, let's talk about your nuts, male passenger on the Victorian Line on Wednesday 8th September during rush-hour. Let's make ourselves comfortable in order to analyse your sitting position, sprawled all over two seats, the better to accommodate your ever-expanding reproductive glandular empire.

Allow me, my good fellow to give my readers a more accurate picture. It's around 6pm, people want to get home, by any means necessary. There's a lot of pushing and shoving as befits the London Underground eco-system. No sooner a seat vacates than you see someone charging for it with the same zeal Charlemagne employed against the Lombards, Saxons and Avars. Babies on prams yell, elderly people look disconsolately at avid readers, more engrossed in their books than in their surroundings. And yet, in the midst of this chaos, you, sir, find time and space, above all, space, to make room for your bollocks. Oh, yes, pardon my French, but there's no other way of going about it. I enter the carriage only to find your (unexpected) audience suspending their disbelief that someone could be so egotistical to not share the seat - a separate entity, mind, with its own feelings and prone to launching lawsuits against selfish prats like you, so, beware, there might an envelope in the post for you and... your balls.

I know that certain men carry their nuts around as if the latter had a life of their own, including head and limbs. I've done it before and I'm aware of how powerful and virile it makes you feel. Until you're brought back down to earth with a mighty BANG! You finally meet someone who doesn't like the constant "scratching" and "accommodating" and forbids you from doing so in her presence. You, sir, probably still take your testicles on holiday, imagining that they are walking by your side, twins holding hands, the whole lot of you off to somewhere nice and hot. You even get upset when you are stopped at immigration control on account of your 'furry bags' carrying unidentified liquid within them. Relief is mixed with anger when they're waved through because the amount is so low that it's not even considered to be relevant. That's why you had to take up two seats on that train. To show us who had the biggest cojones. Forgive me, again, I complained recently about the misuse of that Spanish swear word and how it's bandied about indiscriminately by journalists and reporters alike and here I am using it, too. But there's no other way, señor cojonudo, in which I can write about you and your nether parts.

As I scanned the faces of the - mainly female - passengers on that carriage that evening, I had a vision in my mind that some of them were thinking of turning you into a stand-in for Stefano Dionisi for the second part of "Farinelli (Il Castrato)". An understudy, if you wish. All they needed was a pair of gardener's shears. Preferably blunt. As for me, the moment I saw you I thought that you had probably modelled your sitting position on the former route of the Orient Express, Paris to Istanbul. With your bollocks somewhere in Vienna or Budapest.

This is not a rant, Mr Balls. It's not even a vendetta. I don't think you will ever read this post. And even if you do, it won't change anything. After all, you ignored the piercing stares of your unwilling congregation. No, the reason why I'm writing this column is to let you know the effect of your actions. I occupied one of the two seats you vacated when you got off at King's Cross. Next to me one of your former victims accommodated her heavy frame. No sooner had she sat down than she shot me a look that seemed to say: "Are you planning to do the same, my dear fellow? Because I won't put up with that kind of behaviour again!". To which my body response was a meek glance in her direction that shouted out: "No, luv, mine are a lot smaller!"

© 2010

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

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Killer Opening Songs - (So What by Miles Davis)

There are some records that cross the borders of musical polarisation. Sometimes they do so by fusing different rhythms, thus appealing to various tastes. Examples exist aplenty: Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66's debut album "Herb Alpert Presents" gave us the ultimate jazz-infused bossa nova Killer Opening Song, "Mas Que Nada"; The Beatles re-invented pop music by dint of being adventurous and experimental, especially in the latter part of their career; and more recently Nitin Sawhney has shown us the way in which globalisation, at least in music, can be beneficial.

However, there are also other albums that gain plaudits without abandoning the genre to which they belong. And this is the case with "Kind of Blue", Miles Davis' 1959 masterpiece. Long hailed as the jazz record that even non-jazz fans enjoy (a notion of which Mr Davis might have slightly disaproved), this LP transformed music itself. It is indicative of "Kind of Blue"'s creative range and reach that amongst its contributors was the young saxophonist John Coltrane, who had already found fame himself with the release of "Blue Train" a couple of years before. The other saxophonist in the record was Cannonball Adderley.

Above all, "Kind of Blue" became Davis's a turning point in his musical career in that he went from a bebop sound, predominant at the time, to a more experimental and improvisational one. The Killer Opening Song, "So What" bears witness to that change.

Smoky, laid-back and blues-influenced, "So What" begins with bass and piano duetting in free rhythmic style. This is quickly followed by Davis on trumpet and John Coltrane on sax. What K.O.S. loves about this track is how the piano whispers its way into the song (sadly not shown in the clip below); it's almost like a murmur so as to announce that hey, this is the real McCoy, fellas.

"So What" is followed by a collection of songs so impressively sophisticated that it shouldn't come as a surprise that fifty-one years later after "Kind of Blue" first came out, they still sound fresh: "Freddie Freeloader", rhythmic simplicity at its best; "Blue In Green", an acoustic feast with the trumpet and piano solos as the main course; "All Blues", one of the better-known compositions from the album for its melodic and groovy range and "Flamenco Sketches", the song that apparently Quincy Jones claims to play everyday .

According to pianist Billy Evans, who played on all tracks but one ("Freddie Freeloader") in the record, Miles only conceived the settings for the different pieces hours before going into the recording studio, which is why spontaneity pours forth on every track.

Whilst trailblazers like Charlie Parker broke away from the rigid structure that used to permeate jazz, pioneering bebop in the process, and innovators like Ornette Coleman brought a nihilistic element into the genre, musicians like Miles Davis provided a new colour to what was already a rich palette in the jazz world. Here's to Miles and to another Killer Opening Song.

N.B.: This post is dedicated to Daniel, the Cuban in Brazil, who recently e-mailed me to tell me that I haven't featured much jazz in my K.O.S. section. You're right, Daniel, and this is the first of many posts I will be writing about a music genre I adore.

© 2010

Next Post: "Let's Talk About...", to be published on Thursday 14th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

"I still think that if we give more money to poor countries, they will solve their problems". Call him stubborn and he can be sometimes, but my son was arguing his point fair and square. We had just finished our lunch and were going through the pieces of homework he had completed and the ones he had yet to. The above point was made whilst discussing his Geography assignment for which his teacher had asked him to research the charity, aid and trade side of the relationship between developed and developing nations.

Upon hearing my son's comment, my wife felt disheartened, my daughter remained undisturbed whilst my emotions ranged from optimism to despondency.

The reason why my consort felt dismayed was because she was under the impression that my son was clever enough to realise that aid without a mid- and long-term plan would be fruitless and possibly detrimental for a developing country. We've had several discussions at home in the past about the role charity plays in the economic relationship between rich and poor countries. But I think that it's tough for a twelve-year-old to know when to identify colonial legacy as an influential factor and when to focus on bad governance - domestically speaking - as another element to include in the equation.

Prior to the general election in May this year, the three main parties pledged to support the UN's target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid by 2013. However the real story was that trade did not feature as highly in each party's manifesto as it should have done. The Tories were the ones that came closest to a tangible idea with some ambiguous, nice-sounding message about "trade and economic growth are the only sustainable way for developing countries to escape poverty". Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats just beat around the bush.

The whole "trade not aid" or "trade vs aid" issue is a murky one. For starters, I think that there's a charitable side to all human beings regardless of our provenance, or what we do. That we're able to empathise with those who are worse off than us is one of the human traits that still fuels my optimism. But sometimes we need to put our pragmatic glasses on and look beyond the rim. Where does aid really go? Who benefits from it? What are the long-term effects?

Apologies if I have already used this example before, but it's a standard one. If you carry a child on your shoulders everywhere you go from babyhood to adulthood, that child will never learn how to walk. Furthermore, at some point the child will be conscious enough to want to walk him/herself only to find themselves falling down at each step they take.

It's a similar case with aid. Countries that have long been dominated by powerful nations, or which have seen their economies suffer through sanctions or corruption are in a weak position when democracy is ushered in. Whilst some kind of stimulus package - to use a phrase de nos jours - is probably very welcome, at some point that country needs to, no, sorry, correction, must begin to fend for itself. Where we could do something to help is in clearing the path towards that nation's self-recovery and ultimately self-sufficiency. For instance, we should raise our voices in unison at the unfair way in which European farmers are subsidised by the state and the European Union, thus allowing them to sell their goods in Africa, Asia and America at lower prices. The outcome of this injust trade-off is that local industries can't compete and eventually they have to close or specialise in enterprises that will mainly suit the big corporations. No amount of aid will solve that, but pressure on parliament and government is one of the ways forward.

There's also another side of the coin with which to contend. It revolves chiefly around the fact that aid has been used on many occasions to bring a rogue political figure to power. Or it has been used to prolong and fund civil wars unnecessarily. There are examples aplenty: the Congo, Sudan, Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Another consequence is that in the same way we empathise with the plight of poorer countries, we put our blinkers on when it gets too much. I've heard many well-meaning people who give to charity and do voluntary work ask me: "Well, they've had time to sort themselves out, haven't they, so, why can't they get it right once and for all?". My answer varies depending on the person. Sometimes I go back to the reason at the beginning of this paragraph. Aid gets sidetracked by whatever dictator is in power and the beneficiaries are an elite who doesn't care about those on the lower rungs of the ladder. Or, I try to explain that it's quite hard for countries that have been dependent for so long, to find their feet in a few decades. But they, and I, too, can sense that the mood is changing. There's an economic recession going on and as of the 20th October in the UK, at least, we'll have a full breakdown of where the budgets cuts will fall. No one is safe, and when a person's job security is threatened, paranoia sets in. It follows that questions about the commitment to aid I discussed at the beginning of this post will be asked.

During that lunch both my wife and I asked my son, who had just had his grandmother (my mum) visit him from Cuba, if it was fair that her grandma couldn't come and go as and when it pleased her. We asked him which option was better: her grandmother earning enough money to pay for her own trip and expenses, or her continuing to be invited over by her son and his family without having the financial ability to even treat her relatives to a meal in a restaurant? To our relief he chose the former, but he was still adamant that aid was fundamental.

Maybe in time he will change his mind. I hope so. I am of the opinion that as well-intentioned as many people are, money or donations by themselves will not lift countries out of poverty. Good governance does, though. Fair trade where the beneficiary is the local community does, too. Above all, I would like my son to see people from developing nations as human beings who want to work and who would like to see the product from that endeavour turned into better living conditions. A bugbear of mine for many years has been the photo of the pot-bellied African/Asian/Amerindian child that comes with my weekend papers. It was effective for some time, but once you meet people from those continents - and I hail from that neck of the woods myself - what strikes you at first is that there's rarely a sign of self-pity. And there's plenty of evidence around of what happens when they use the power that is denied to them by both the big corporations and the Bono brigade (there's a famous story about the U2 lead singer, maybe apocryphal, that at a live concert he silenced the audience and said: "Everytime I clap my hands a child in Africa dies", to which an audience member snappily retorted: "Stop f*****g clapping then!").

But there's a factor that shouldn't be underestimated. A twelve-year old who takes time from thinking about getting a snake or wishing for a Wii (yeah, right, dream on, son!) to stop to muse on those less fortunate than him deserves to be commended. At an age when some of his peers are already using immigrants and aslyum seekers (sometimes in the same sentence without trying to understand the differences between the two groups) as scapegoats for all society's ills, the fact that he thinks that charity is the start- and end-point of economic development for poorer nations should be the least of my wife's and mine worries.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Tuesday 12th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 7 October 2010

National Poetry Day (UK)

I know it's one minute to midnight and very, very soon it will be Friday 8th October. But I didn't want to miss the opportunity to celebrate National Poetry Day in the UK, which is (was) on Thursday 7th October.

Here's my offering, by one of the UK's foremost, meekest and funniest poets, Benjamin Zephaniah:

"Everybody Is Doing It"

In Hawaii they Hula
They Tango in Argentina
They Reggae in Jamaica
And they Rumba down in Cuba,
In Trinidad and Tobago
They do the Calypso
And in Spain the Spanish
They really do Flamenco.

In the Punjab they Bhangra
How they dance Kathak in India
Over in Guatemala
They dance the sweet Marimba,
Even foxes dance a lot
They invented the Fox Trot,
In Australia it's true
They dance to the Didgeridoo.

In Kenya they Benga
They Highlife in Ghana
They dance Ballet all over
And Rai dance in Algeria,
They Jali in Mali
In Brazil they Samba
And the girls do Belly Dancing
In the northern parts of Africa.

Everybody does the Disco
From Baghdad to San Francisco
Many folk with razzamataz
Cannot help dancing to Jazz,
They do the Jig in Ireland
And it is really true
They still Morris dance in England
When they can find time to."

(taken from A Poet Called Benjamin Zephaniah)

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

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Back in the summer I attended a classical music concert at a local church. I don't know about you, dear readers, but I love music concerts in churches. Despite my secular nature, I enjoy the air of tranquillity and harmony these gatherings convey, plus the acoustics are much better.

On this occasion we were treated to a short, but intense, programme in which Beethoven's "Clarinet Trio Op 11" was included. I had never heard this piece before so it was a pleasant discovery for me.

I've listened to a fair amount of trio compositions over the years, especially by Mozart but until the pianist at the concert explained what made this specific piece - and genre - so peculiar, all I was looking forward to was to being exposed to yet another facet of the great Beethoven.

I don't normally like artists unveiling the secrets that lie well hidden inside their oeuvres, or those they execute. Craft is craft. I like the mystery, the magic, the je ne sais quoi, mais je ne veux pas savoir, merci. But I didn't mind the exegesis this time. The way the pianist spoke about the combination of different tones in the composition, high, mid-range and low, made a lot of sense and helped me enjoy more the artistry displayed by the performers. It also, unintentionally, sent me on a reverie whose outcome was very surprising.

The presence of the clarinet and cello in the trio is to prevent them from cancelling out the piano, as our impromptu compère informed us. But there's another effect, too. Whereas the first and part of the third movements are joyful, the second (Adagio) is sombre and solemn, if also beautiful. It was this section I enjoyed the most and it made me think of those books I've read in which the author suddenly changes pace, thus throwing the reader off balance.

Depending on the writer's skill, this effect can be highly beneficial or detrimental to the narrative (I'm referring only to works of fiction). If it's the latter, you usually lose an admirer or future follower. If it's the former, as the fragment below shows, then your reader will appreciate your efforts.

A good example of how successful a change in tone can be in a novel is Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale". If you're not familiar with the Canadian's author's masterpiece, this is a book about an imaginary country, the Republic of Gilead, where women's sole function is that of breeding. If they don't, they get hanged or are sent out to die of radiation sickness. The main character, Offred, is still hopeful of fulfilling her reproductive role, but there's one problem she's not able to overcome. She can still remember a time when women were free. Offred has not been totally brainwashed.

Whereas in the first five chapters the novel fluctuates between a descriptive and a mocking tone (and since it's narrated in the first person singular, we're able to sympathise more with the protagonist's woes), it's only in the sixth episode where Atwood gives the reader the harsh reality of what the 'breeding' process entails. A small disclaimer, though. Please, be aware that there's strong language ahead. I saw no point in using asterisks because that would have lessened the effect of the author's words. Thanks for your attention, you have been warned:

"My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he is doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does raper cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose."

I've read "The Handmaid's Tale" a few times now and this passage has always left me speechless. The reasons are manifold: up to this scene, and as far as I can recall, the 'f' word had not been used, the first time it is, it's without an object, as in "Below it the Commander is fucking", yet the verb is a transitive one. That's why the next sentence starts with a "what", that is, the object. The dexterity that goes into that passage shouldn't be underestimated. The fact that the main character cannot find any words to describe what's being done to her is a challenge for the reader: if she can't, can you?

There's another passage in the same chapter, "Household", and on the same page that also manages to combine the horrific with the ludicrous:

"Serena Joy grips my hands as if it is she, not I, who's being fucked, as if she finds it either pleasurable or painful, and the Commander fucks, with a regular two-four marching stroke, on and on like a tap dripping. He is preoccupied, like a man humming to himself in the shower without knowing he's humming; like a man who has other things on his mind."

If in the first episodes the sentences are short and cogent, for this section Atwood makes an exception. Forty-one words in that first phrase. Forty-one words that render the handmaid's ordeal tragicomic in that the name of the woman holding her down is Serena Joy ("serene joy", maybe? is that what the women are supposed to feel?). In addition, the commander's rhythmic thrusts are caricaturesque and followers of Margaret's work will identify her very peculiar sense of humour.

In the same way that the second movement of Beethoven's Clarinet Trio changes the composition's pace from a brisk to a serious tempo, Margaret Atwood uses a similar trick to show us the horror visited on Offred and the rest of the handmaids. In both cases the result is pure virtuosity.

© 2010

Next Post: "National Poetry Day in the UK", to be published on Thursday 7th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Sometimes I struggle with words when it comes to writing a post. Not because they abandon me, although that has happened on a fair amount of occasions. No, the reason is, rather, that I tend to complicate things, to overdo them. To use a football analogy, it's the same situation as when a player is one on one with the goalkeeper and kicks the ball as hard as he can, only to rattle the post when a soft ripple into the back of the net would have sufficed. In my case, my Hispanic background is partly responsible for this excess of words. We use lots of subordinate clauses in Spanish, insert explanatory phrases in the middle of a sentence and indulge in annexing adjective after adjective after adjective to a single noun in a case of severe linguistic polygamy/polyandry. In short, I waffle.

Simplicity. That's what I call for sometimes. When I began blogging I wrote as and when it took my fancy, but then I got into a routine. No more than three posts per week, research them well, write a small intro so that I stay on topic and save them as drafts. But sometimes I stare at the screen, words bursting out of its frame and I suddenly think: "It's too much". What is too much, though?

The answer arrived recently. Or rather, it wasn't an answer as such but a thought that occurred to me a few days ago because, really, there's no response to that question. What is too much for you might be too little for another person. If not, ask anyone who's had to hand in a ten-thousand-word essay at university.

On that particular occasion I was driving around London and it was raining very hard. It was nighttime and the wipers were swish-swashing on the windshield. On the car stereo Janis Joplin was singing 'Me & Bobby Mcgee'. And there, right at the beginning, in the first verse, came two lines that made me ponder the simplicity vs complexity dilemma: "Windshield wipers slapping time, I was holding Bobby's hand in mine/We sang every song that driver knew." How uncomplicated, isn't it? And yet I had always overlooked those words. Up to then, if you had asked me, I would have said that the phrase that had always stuck in my mind from that track was "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose" but on that night I looked beyond the "windshield wipers" of the song and began to see the other drivers'. What came back was a harmony of blades, each dancing its own solo piece, and yet at the same time part of the same rubber choreography. If you've ever driven in the rain at night, especially when it pours down, you will be acquainted with this phenomenon. Stop at a set of traffic lights and you will notice each car's wipers going their own way, moving at their own speed, different from your own pair. After a while, though, you begin to notice certain coordinated movements that make them resemble a chorus line ready to execute a jeté together. Throw in indicators and you'll be watching a West End musical in the comfort of your own car. Swish, swish, blink, blink! One, two, three, four, and... one, two, three, four!

Let me go back to that line: "Windshield wipers slapping time, I was holding Bobby's hand in mine/We sang every song that driver knew." Its beauty lies in its simplicity. How many times have we caught ourselves remembering songs we've sung until we're hoarse in the back of a car? How many times have we held hands with friends, windows rolled down, motorway ahead of us? Sometimes the tracks being played don't even appeal to us that much, but it doesn't matter; we share the same enthusiasm the person behind the wheel has for them because we want to sing every song the driver knows. In just a couple of lines Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster give us the splashing of memories, the rustling of bygone years.

The second example I can think of simplicity trumping complexity is a song by the Argentinian musician Charly García. Called “Los Dinasaurios”, the track deals with the junta years in the late 70s and early 80s in that South American nation. I have seen my fair share of movies, listened to a great deal of songs and attended a few painting/photo exhibitions that focus on this subject. But Charly's melody beats them all because of its straighforwardness. As it happened with 'Me & Bobby Mcgee', there were a handful of verses that caught my attention the first time I heard this melody back in my teenage years. In this case they were: "Los amigos del barrio pueden desaparecer/los cantores de radio pueden desaparecer/los que están en los diarios pueden desaparecer/la persona que amas puede desaparecer/Los que están en el aire pueden desaparecer en el aire/los que están en la calle pueden desaparecer en la calle/los amigos del barrio pueden desaparecer/pero los dinosaurios van a desaparecer." ("my friends from the neighbourhood can disappear/ the singers on the radio can disappear/those in the newspapers can disappear/the person you love can disappear/those in the air can disappear in the air/those on the street can disappear on the street/my friends from the neighbourhood can disappear/but the dinosaurs will disappear"). In the song, the 'dinosaurs' were the military and I don't think I need to explain the 'disappear' bit. We're all acquainted with the 'missing' in Argentina.

But it is the next set of lines that brought home the whole horror of this situation. In 'Los Dinosaurios' Charly also dealt with the systematic rape to which the girlfriends, wives and partners of the 'disappeared' were subjected. Although it was not covered as much as the torture meted out to the anti-junta activists at the time, cases of sexual assault came to the fore after democracy returned to Argentina. To read those lines is to expose yourself to the slow rotting process of the human soul:

"Cuando el mundo tira para abajo yo no quiero estar atado a nada/imaginen a los dinosaurios en la cama/Cuando el mundo tira para abajo yo no quiero estar atado a nada/imaginen a los dinosaurios en la cama." ("When the worlds pulls you down I'd rather have no attachments/imagine the dinosaurs in bed/When the worlds pulls you down I'd rather have no attachments/imagine the dinosaurs in bed"). The intensity of the verse is stressed by the tone of the piano the second time around; it's stronger. So simple a line, yet so visual in context and so far-reaching in range.

I admit that I like waffling occasionally. It's almost a trademark. But sometimes I feel jealous of how certain writers, musicians, photographers and artists can convey the deepest of messages in the briefest way possible. After all, even if you haven't got a car, your windshiel wipers will continue to slap time.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts', to be published on Tuesday 5th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


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