Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Killer Opening Songs (Há Uma Música Do Povo)

Music that serves as an accompaniment (others would say antidote, but that’s their opinion and they’re perfectly entitled to it. Thank you very much) to autumn’s rich orange and red hues must have a nostalgic feel to it. That’s why this week Killer Opening Songs settled for the first track of the third album by the queen of fado, Mariza.

K.O.S. is not in the habit of bequeathing royal titles on artists just for the sake of it, but in this case, the accolade is thoroughly deserved. Fado is that kind of musical genre of which many people are still unaware, but which, once acknowledged and listened to, leaves an indelible mark on sensitive souls. And Mariza is the perfect vehicle for that conversion. Armed with an extraordinary voice, the looks and stage presence of a modern Marlene Dietrich and a strong production team behind her, the Portuguese singer has been pivotal in the revival of this old tradition. Transparente (released in 2005) is the third CD of what has been so far a stellar decade-old career. The record builds up on the success of its predecessors, her trail-blazing debut Fado em Mim and the exquisite Fado Curvo.

Fundamental in Transparente’s success is the Introductory Melody with Murderous Tendencies, Há Uma Música Do Povo (There’s a Song of the People), a poem originally written by the Portuguese poet, philosopher, translator and literary critic, Fernando Pessoa. This brooding, dark-edge ballad is perfect for the early evenings that become the norm once October kicks in. Its lyrics are testament to the stronghold music has over us: Há uma música do povo/Nem sei dizer se é um fado/Que ouvindo-a há um ritmo novo/No ser que tenho guardado (There is a song of the people/I don't even know if it is a fado/When I hear it, there's a new rhythm/In the being I have in me).

Há Uma Música Do Povo is also the key that unlocks a trunkful of breathtaking and innovative songs. They are supported by a bold approach to arrangements to traditional fado melodies. For fado purists, this means having to put up with non-traditional instruments such as flute and accordion. For fusion lovers, like Killer Opening Songs, what Mariza has done is simply reach out to the Lusophone Diaspora and include rhythms such as morna (Cape Verde) and bossa nova (Brazil). After all, the album was recorded in Rio do Janeiro and produced by the Brazilian Jaques Morelenbaumtakes.

Since Transparente Mariza has released two more CDs, Terra and Fado Tradicional. But for evidence of what a true artist can do with tradition (revive it and rework it) look no further than Fado de Mim, Fado Curvo and Transparente. And, of course, it’s because of the Killer Opening Song, Há Uma Música Do Povo, that you, too, will fall for this fadista’s charms, her haunting voice and her delicate arrangements.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be posted on 4th November at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Let's Talk About...

... that dying breed: the handyman (and woman, too, as we're all about equal opportunities on this blog).
Recently I was gearing myself up to undertake one of my favourite weekend chores: ironing. Yes, I do love ironing, especially because I get to catch up with the all the television programmes I've missed during the week. On this occasion, though, my initial enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by the fact that the iron was not working at all. There I was, standing in the middle of the lounge, a pair of my son’s uniform trousers on the ironing board but no steam was coming from the device. Cue disappointment and frustration. Because, as I mentioned before, I love ironing. Especially, in front of the telly, watching Later with Jools Holland or 20 Years of the English Premier League.

If truth be told I’d already had plenty of warning. A few months ago the iron started malfunctioning: sometimes it would go cold all of a sudden and I had to unplug it from the socket, wait for a while and switch it on again; on other occasions, it failed to heat up despite the fact that it was connected.

Had I been a handyman, I would have sorted the situation out immediately. But DIY doesn’t run in my DNA. When it comes to fixing things around the house, I’m more of a SOMF (Son Of My Father) type of person. Unlike my mum, my dad couldn’t even change a light bulb. I’m happy to report that I’m not that useless. But still, I’m no handyman.

The problem with the iron made me realise that nowadays that breed is in danger of extinction. The times when you had relatives or neighbours who did odd jobs around the house are sadly gone.

That’s why I want to talk about those unsung heroes who pop in on a cold Saturday morning and look at the back of your faulty washing machine, play around a little bit with the wires here and there and voilà… half an hour later, your dirty clothes are happily getting the usual weekend treatment. Whilst sat around the kitchen table are Peter (whom everyone calls “Pete”) and you having a cuppa and catching up on the latest local gossip.

Chances are that the scenario described above is going the same way as the Sumatran tiger: into extinction. Instead of getting on the blower and calling Mr Handyman (or Handywoman, since there are lots of women nowadays involved in the trade) we head for the nearest shop or supermarket and do what I did after finding out that my iron had died on me: get a replacement. Easy, isn’t it?

And yet, it wasn’t always thus. I belong to that group people you might think eccentric, who squeeze the tube of toothpaste evenly so as to make it last longer. Every time I cook spaghetti Bolognese I add a little bit of water to whatever leftover sauce there is still inside the jar and pour it all in the pan where I’m cooking the spaghetti. I’ve had a pair of tough, resistant and beautiful Mexican boots for more than fifteen years. Recently when the sole came off on one of them, I took it to a locksmith (who also repairs shoes on the side; he’s not so much a rare breed as a dinosaur in human disguise) who glued it back on straight away. It cost me about a fiver or less. Had I bought a new pair of the same quality, it’d have set me back ten times as much, if not more.

But these actions are the exception, rather than the norm. After I relocated to the UK I became more reluctant to fix things, I opted to replace them instead. When I still lived in Cuba my attitude was the opposite. I had an old stereo that used to go wrong every now and then. Every time this happened, without any second thoughts, I took it straight away to a good friend of mine who worked in a repair shop. He didn’t always have the tools or spare parts to fix it, but, boy, did he try! I once asked him why he was so good at his craft (he was, believe me) and he answered that every piece of equipment brought to him posed a puzzle he had to work out. It didn’t matter what it was: old transistors, hand-me-down VCRs or state-of-the-art stereos. He cracked them all.

Let’s talk, then, about the handymen and women. The species that’s been decimated by the advent of the big supermarkets, low prices and consumerism. Although, it’s true that some of the damage has been self-inflicted. If I were to take my CD player to a local repair shop to have it fixed, it would cost me more than to buy a new one. However, there’s no need to trade your dish-washer for a new one, when all it needs is a fuse to be changed. This is what I’m talking about. And if I were to extend my paean to this dying breed of jack of all trades (and masters/mistresses of all) I would say that we need our children to learn a few of these basic trades: plumbing, electrics and carpentry. That way, they won’t be puzzled when faced with a malfunctioning iron.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 28th October at 10am (GMT

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

It’s that time of the year again when the lines of Stevie Wonder’s dream-like and timeless melody, Visions, make me fall into a seasonal reverie: “I'm not one who makes believe/I know that leaves are green/they only change to brown when autumn comes around”.

Autumn is here. The colourful annual showcase to which nature treats us all and only it (she, maybe? I’ve always seen nature as female) can deliver. Nature, the wise artist who uses her hands deftly to leave behind minute, thin and barely perceptible brush strokes in the landscape. Mamá natura, whose clever fingers manipulate light (including the winding of the clocks back one hour) and give us glorious sunrises and unforgettable sunsets.

This time around the arrival of autumn was unintentionally enhanced by my reading a beautifully crafted essay in the latest issue of Intelligent Life, the bi-monthly lifestyle and culture magazine published by The Economist. Entitled “The Uses of Difficulty”, the article purported to explain the reason(s) why some people placed hurdles in their way to achieve their goals. To quote two examples from the article, Ian Leslie the author, states that “In 1966, soon after the Beatles had finished work on Rubber Soul, Paul McCartney looked into the possibility of going to America to record their next album. The equipment in American studios was more advanced than anything in Britain, which had led the Beatles’ great rivals, the Rolling Stones, to make their latest album, Aftermath, in Los Angeles. McCartney found that EMI’s contractual clauses made it prohibitively expensive to follow suit, and the Beatles had to make do with the primitive technology of Abbey Road.

Leslie’s conclusion in the essay was that this technological obstacle, far from hindering the band’s development, encouraged them to create their most groundbreaking work. He certainly has a point. The Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are probably the Fab Four’s finest hour, with the latter topping the list as the all-time best Beatles record.

The second example involves the poet Ted Hughes. Hughes sat on the judging panel of an annual poetry competition for British schoolchildren for more than two decades, beginning in the 60s. During the 80s he noticed how some poems became longer. They were still fluent and inventive, and yet, they were in, Ted’s opinion, “strangely boring”. He later found out that many of these pieces had been written on computers, some of which had just surfaced in people’s houses for the first time.

On analysing Hughes’ response to this phenomenon – for him putting pen to paper was meeting “the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it, when you couldn’t write at all” – Ian Leslie resorts to scientific research. Apparently there’s evidence that handwriting activates more of the brain than keyboard writing.

Leslie’s essay will come as a surprise to those who think that the quicker and easier an obstacle is overcome or removed, the better we’ll feel about ourselves. Actually, as human beings, we’re perfectly equipped to deal with difficult situations, especially those that require more time, concentration and effort. And even though sometimes we feel frustrated when we’re incapable of solving these situations, the thought processes we apply to the solution of these problems help us develop skills of which we might not have been aware before.

The article also made me ponder if this notion of “desirable difficulties” was only applicable to human beings. That’s when I thought of autumn and nature. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked by well-meaning folk if I don’t find the grim and grey weather in the UK a too stark and unbearable contrast to the sunny and warm temperatures in my native Cuba. “I hope you didn’t relocate to London for the weather”, they usually say. Well, surprise, surprise! The number one reason why I live here is that I fell in love with a British woman and we decided to settle in Great Britain. But if I hadn’t met my wife and still had had the opportunity to move here, I would have done it. For the weather. There’s nothing like waking up in the morning to the first rays of warm spring sunshine after a harsh winter.

The change of seasons in the UK is probably one of the most beautiful spectacles I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Living here for close to fifteen years now has convinced me that nature is the living proof of those “desirable difficulties” Leslie mentions in his essay. In order to have an explosion of life and colour in spring we need the barrenness of winter which usually starts with autumn’s impressionistic wild brush strokes. These are nature’s own barriers.

It’s almost as if every year nature challenges herself to end life in order to start it all over again. The obstacles nature places in her own way – fallen leaves, naked trees, monochromatic landscapes, cold temperatures – are a way of boosting her creativity, in my view. Without what John Keats called the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/close bosom-friend of the maturing sun” we wouldn’t be able to appreciate summer’s warm weather and clear, blue skies.

That might be the number one reason why I fell for autumn’s charm many years ago. Because just like The Beatles had to make do with rudimentary equipment or Jack White – formerly of The White Stripes – uses inexpensive guitars that won’t stay in tune, autumn is nature’s first step in remodelling and rebuilding our landscape. It is a barrier, not the kind that blocks progress, but the kind that encourages creativity. If you don’t believe me, look outside your window now and tell me. What’s your take on that beautiful and colourful kaleidoscope? Does it put a spell on you? Because it already has on me.

© 2012

Photos taken by the blog author.

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…” to be published on Wednesday 24th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Nobody knows when the graffiti first appeared or who'd written it. All we knew at the time (late 80s to early 90s) was that overnight the wall on the corner of G Avenue and 21st St had been daubed in blue letters with the intriguing caption "LINA CARLOS AUN TE BUSCA" (LINA CARLOS IS STILL LOOKING FOR YOU). Its capital letters could not hide the solecism, though; the absence of the mandatory comma between the two names, as if the executioner had been in a mad rush to get out of the crime scene before being caught. Immediately the speculation started. Who had dared to decorate the wall of this famous spot in Havana in such a defiant manner? Who had decided to bare his (we all assumed the author was a man) soul to thousands of passers-by?

Not even the proximity of the Faculty of Journalism (situated on G Avenue, or to give it its official name, Presidents’ Avenue) to the enigmatic scrawl brought succour to our confused minds. The message, blue and clear, announced its take-over of this hitherto well-preserved part of the Cuban capital.

G Avenue. Or, as mentioned before, Presidents’ Avenue, though nobody called it that. We all called it G, and not even avenue sometimes. Calle G had a nicer sound. It rolled off your tongues, like dogs rolling and gambolling on the green, manicured lawns that populated the road (and let’s not forget about the mini-trees with their perfectly coiffed mini-Afros in various mini-combinations), all the way from 29th Street down to Malecón Avenue. Tall dogs and shorts one, too, fat and skinny ones, German shepherds and Chihuahuas, dogs with owners attached to their leads and stray, skeletal canines, all playing and defecating happily on the green, manicured lawns. And in the midst of it all, Lina and Carlos turned up to play, too. But theirs was a game with which we never came to grips.

The graffiti remained unnoticed for some time, ignored even by the crowd waiting for Alamar-bound route 116 starting its journey a dozen feet away. But once the mysterious caption began to attract attention, theories about its provenance developed rapidly, like mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water. The first explanation was a simple one: Carlos was a broken-hearted man who, resigned to losing his inamorata, decided to go for broke and declare his love for her to all and sundry. It certainly seemed to chime with the times. Those of us who were in college in those days were still innocent enough to use Neruda’s opening verses of his unforgettable Poema 20 as a chat-up line: “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche/Escribir, por ejemplo: 'La noche está estrellada/y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos/El viento de la noche gira en el cielo y canta/Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche/Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso/En las noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos/La besé tantas veces bajo el cielo infinito/Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería/Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos.” And this was before Subiela’s El Lado Oscuro del Corazón with Grandinetti in the lead role. Please, don’t tell us that we weren’t ahead of our time.


Carlos had ulterior motives to find Lina.  As demonstrated by a woman interviewed on En Confianza, the famous cutting-edge television show that was broadcast between 4pm and 6pm every Saturday and was presented by a young and moustachioed Alexis Núñez Oliva. Faced with the question “Why do you think Carlos is looking for Lina?” the woman stared straight into the camera and drew her forefinger across her throat in a horizontal motion. Her words were hardly needed: “Well, you know… he’s looking for her to…” up to this day the elliptical ending to her answer has always brought me in a cold sweat. Was that the real reason why you were searching for Lina, Carlos?


Lina was an acronym, a mute scream from the generation who saw the Berlin wall collapse and a different one being erected in Cuba, separating locals from the soon-to-arrive foreign tourists whose currency the government would slavishly pursue. Lina, Las Ilusiones No Alcanzadas (Unachieved Illusions). And Carlos, the idealist, still thinking that somehow something could be saved.

Lina, Carlos Aun Te Busca. You were an unsophisticated and primitive five-letter stamp on a wall defying font size and type. An improvised, spur-of-the-moment quick scrawl that contrasted starkly with the refinement found at the Tea House across the road, on the corner of 23rd and G. and the elegance of L’Alliance Francaise, a stone’s throw away. I’m sure that at the latter someone, at some point attempted to figure out your enigma using the perennially difficult subjunctive in the Gallic language (je voudrais que quelqu’un m’explique qui est Lina et qui est Carlos…). But nobody could explain you. Nobody could work out who you were, Lina, and why you were looking for her, Carlos.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 21st October at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

There was a brilliant scene in the recent satirical show, The Revolution Will be Televised, (BBC3) in which the programme creators, Joylon Rubinstein and Heydon Prowse, walked separately around a park asking people what at first appeared to be very unusual and risqué questions. Do you want to be my friend? Can I poke you? Is it OK if I show you some photos of my latest holiday? You might know a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend’s; is that enough for us to become friends? Passers-by who were confronted with this line of innocent interrogation had various reactions. Some told the pair to get lost (remember that they were acting their roles separately, so that was a lot of getting told to get lost), some saw the funny side of Rubinstein and Prowse’s questions but were still reluctant to swallow the bait and welcome them in their group. Others (a very small amount) were more trusting and engaged in conversation with the comedians.

What was obvious to anyone watching the show was that the only thing the pair were doing was bringing to life the ways in which people interact on Facebook. By using phrases such “Can you like me?”, “Let me poke you/can you poke me back?” and “Can I be your friend/can you be mine?” they were demonstrating the absurd dichotomy that exists between our real life selves and the personas we create online.

As a Facebook, Twitter and, of course, blogger user myself, Rubinstein and Prowse’s stunt had me in stitches. I not only laughed at the mixed reactions they faced (some members of the public were very irate) but also at the way most of us are unintentionally partly responsible for this discrepancy between actual and virtual self.

We have disassociated ourselves so much from reality that we have ended up empowering corporations to build our personalities for us. It is an unbelievable state of affairs and one that gets brushed under the “innovations and technological advances we can’t do without” carpet.

To be clear, if we talk about inventions that changed the world and without which we wouldn’t be able to operate in the efficient way we do nowadays, the steam engine, the telephone and the aeroplane must be at the top of the list. LinkedIn would come a distant 528th (if). In fact, I would consider the internet itself as one of those indispensable inventions that’s proved its value many times over. However, what we’re seeing nowadays is the infantalisation of adults under the pretext of personalisation. Especially online. This personalisation is a marketing trick, a ruse to make grown-ups believe that what they’re buying into is the freedom to express themselves. The irony is that in the process many of us relinquish the very freedom we think we’re acquiring. Google nowadays looks more like a Stasi agent from the former German Democratic Republic than the cutting-edge company it once shaped up to be. Its Google maps function was never truly embraced by many of its devotees and the web search engine giant has been accused of snooping into people's private lives. In another episode of The Revolution Will Be Televised, Joylon Rubinstein and Heydon Prowse visit people in their homes and ask them to allow them in in order to film them. Like the Facebook stunt, their request is simple: Can I turn my camera on you whilst you have a snooze in the middle of the day and then show it to your prospective boss? Again, the responses were varied but it never crossed these people’s minds that many of them were already doing that online.

Some of us have fallen for this personalisation trick so often that we’ve accepted social networking websites, smartphones and state-of-the-art e-readers as “essential inventions”. We’ve forgotten that more than thirty years elapsed between the first telephone and the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight. Not even two years went by before we started texting LOLs and OMGs to each other on our mobile phones.

That it’s taken one of the better satirical shows to have aired on the BBC in recent years to highlight this phenomenon should not be surprising. Comedy is in the unique position of making some serious points without coming across as too po-faced or prescriptive. Saying that, though, the pranks carried out by Rubinstein and Prowse pack some fair punches and could, if we wish, become part of a manifesto for a more equal society: the GUBOFMYC campaign against the bankers (please, do look up the acronym online and ROTFFL. I can’t bring myself to spell it on my blog as I don’t normally include swearwords in my posts) is hilarious, if sadly true and the issue of tax avoidance makes one want to cry. Not out of laughter, though.

So, now you know. Next time you see a bloke with a giant cardboard hand cutout trying to poke you in public, don’t freak out. Just ask yourself: wasn’t that exactly what I was doing last night?

© 2012

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 17th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Literature is made up of some essential ingredients in my view. For a start the book in my hand has to entertain me. But not in a way that might be interpreted as condescending. I can't stand authors who show no respect for their audiences and appeal to their lowest common denominator. Hence my preference for literary pieces that have an in-built mystery, a je-ne-sais-qoui about them that lures me into their plot. After the entertainment part come story, characters, setting and the like. The meat, so to speak. Sometimes I like a lineal structure, some others I like a bit of experimentation with the narrative. Regardless of the genre I usually like a bit of adventurousness, a bit of spice. The author's literary pedigree also plays an important role in my decision to pick up a certain book. I am very loyal when it comes to reading.

The fourth elements are joined at the hip: the when and where. I have on occasions begun books for which I wasn't ready yet at the time of picking them up. The result has often been disappointment, especially when I was a teenager. However, years down the line I have opted for the same book and the outcome has been more satisfactory. The where refers mainly to the place(s) in which  I choose to read. My holiday list is usually full of re-reads as I have been in that awful situation before where a newly-purchased book you have high hopes for turns out to be a dud. What I read on a beach differs greatly from what I read at work during my lunch break. This where is also rooted in  my penchant for certain places. For instance, I have a couple of corners in my house where I can be found in the early hours of the morning devouring a good novel or poetry collection.

But life has a way of throwing unexpected surprises in one's path and this summer I found myself breaking my own rule. During my recent holiday in Ravello, Italy, I took three books with me which I'd never read before. One was a non-fiction tome (I must admit that my decision was based more on the fact that I hadn't yet finished reading the book in question by the time I'd boarded my flight to Italy than unbridled passion for its subject matter). This was followed by a collection of short stories that came free with The Guardian some months ago and lay unthumbed on my bookshelf. Then just as my holiday was almost over my eyes alighted on a collection of poems by the author and fellow blogger Judy Croome.

It's the latter that makes up the bulk of this post tonight. Because it deals with that when and where I mentioned before. Judy's book, a Lamp at Midday, is divided in two sections: Into the Full Moon and Vignettes of Life and Love. The first one deals with Judy's father's death, an event about which she even wrote on her own blog and which I imagine left an indelible mark on her. The second part focuses mainly on Judy's celebration of her own endless questioning of all things spiritual.

a Lamp at Midday (I've decided to keep the title in the same way it appears on the cover) is that rare creature that manages to confound expectations. After reading the introduction I wondered if it'd been a wise decision on my part to bring a series of poems about death on vacation with me when all around me was bursting with life. But I'm happy to say I was wrong. Very wrong. First of all, Judy's book is not about death per se but about emotions. Especially the opening section is about this person whom she calls her "'pardner', hero and father". As the author herself explains, the inspiration for many of the poems came from her father's obsession with the full moon. Apparently after his first major stroke he was convinced God lived in the moon and, according to Judy, he would spend hours watching and praying to the moon. As a full moon, similar, I'm sure, to the one of which  Judy's dad had gradually grown fond, lit up the beautiful expansive Ravello coast, I became convinced that I'd made the right decision about bringing this book with me on holiday. The when and where began to make sense.

The opening salvo in the collection is a beautiful reflection of a particular moment shared by father and daughter together. Called simply The Painters, the pair's internal dialogue alternates with the hustle and bustle of the streets outside.  There's mention of children's laughter and dogs barking. And also of Changing worlds from grey to green/Never touching our love.  The Long Corridor starts with two questions that later echo throughout the poem: Can love run dry/Can love run out... even die? I read Full Moon during one of the most beautiful thunderstorms I've ever seen in my life. Its lines were pregnant with a lyricism that matched perfectly the syncopated rhythm of the fat raindrops hammering on the roof of our house. The first stanza had a magical, mesmerising melody of its own: Walk with me/O my soul/Walk into the white light of the Moon/Where my loved ones cannot follow?Nor I return. It will probably spook readers a bit when I tell you that our very own Italian version of a full moon came out brighter than ever after the downpour.

I read the second part of the book, Vignettes of Life and Love, on the way back to London. I started it at the airport in Naples and finished it as our aeroplane circled around western London, Heathrow bound, ready to land. The title poem, A Lamp at Midday, was a mystical rumination on a man's search of his beloved. The metaphor of the burning wick flickering in the warm breeze, waiting to be quenched by the breath of my beloved was a fine homage to those of us who spend our lives looking for "the one who flies", to half-quote the Argentinian poet Oliverio Girondo.

With so much richness of verse and tropes, I could even forgive Judy her moment of self-doubt. This arrived in the last poem of her fantastic collection, Will Anyone Ever Read This? I could sympathise with her feelings and emotions and I wonder who, amongst us, writers and bloggers, hasn't felt exactly the same: I pour my soul onto the page/Word after word/I tear from the ether of my mind (...) But no one will ever read this/My voice drowns/In the resplendent chorus of a million voices/Each with a story of their own/Who, then, is left to read my ordinary dreams?

Us. That's my answer. Literature is made up, in my humble opinion, of some essential ingredients: plot, magic, characters. But there's also the when and where. The moment when you realise that you were meant to read that particular book at that particular moment in that particular place. It happened to me with a Lamp at Midday, and I hope it happens to you, too.

© 2012

Next post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be posted on Sunday 14th October at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

By now you will probably know that David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and leader of the Conservative Party, made a fool of himself on the David Letterman show a few days ago. When asked to answer who'd composed Rule Britannia and what the meaning of Magna Carta was he fluffed his lines whilst looking rather uncomfortable.

As soon as I found out the first thing I said to myself was: send that boy to Cuba! There's still time to save him. You see, in my native land he'd have been given a ticking off by his teacher, sent to the back of the class first and straight after that to the headteacher, because of "ideological problems".

On a more serious note, I can understand the brouhaha about posh Cameron not knowing bits of the history of his own country. Especially when those two questions are apparently included in the citizenship test all non-Brits have to sit in order to become a citizen of this nation. Shall we, then, deport our PM? Perhaps to France?

However, I suspect ulterior motives behind Dave's alleged "lapsus mentis". His slip happened days after the Andrew Mitchell incident. The Rt Hon MP for Sutton Coldfield, supposedly insulted a police officer at Downing Street, swearing at him and calling him a "pleb". All hell broke loose. Both broadsheets and tabloids laid into the Member of Parliament. Comment pieces remarked on the very conspicuous fact that the coalition is made up of "toffs", rich boys who have turned the government into the equivalent of a private club. After everyone calmed down, though, I began to think, oh, well, that's a coincidence. First Andrew allegedly insults a police office, then, Mr Cameron goes on the Letterman show and... hmmm... I smell a rat here. And I think that we, Joe and Joanna Public, have been taken for a ride.

Look beyond the smokescreen created by Mitchellgate and Cameron's Rule Britannia "moment" and you'll be able to see what the government doesn't want you to notice The coalition knows that they're in deep trouble. The cuts they've implemented for the last couple of years are not working. On top of that they had no mandate to do so. Andrew Lansley was fully aware that by messing with the NHS he was playing with fire. And yet he did press on. And even though he got his wish in the end, most of his reforms were passed through Parliament, even David Cameron realised that Lansley was damaged goods. He was moved to another department during the recent cabinet reshuffle. The word on the street is that Labour wants to call a general election as early as 2013. And the polls point at a heavy defeat for the Tories.

Hence David's "oops" moment. Even a posh boy like Mr Cameron should know very well that Americans are suckers for all things royal and historical. They don't mind the Queen as long as she doesn't attempt to rule them again. Look at the reception the Jubilee got across the water. I remember reading a piece in The New York Times online (luckily, it was one of the freebies that you didn't have to pay for). I was surprised at the sycophantic tone used with Ma'am and family.

My guess is that David knew the type of questions he would be asked. And his spin doctors gave him just the one option: pretend you don't know the answer, that way you don't come across as too public-school boy (thus, distancing himself from Andrew "pleb" Mitchell). Plus, you can put one over Boris Johnson, the London mayor, who had been on Letterman a few months before and proved to be a very likable and funny guest.

These are not easy times in the UK. Contrary to The Economist's recent editorial, growth is still too negligible for us to make a song and dance about it. And the scenes being streamed to our television sets from Spain and Greece are not pretty. Massive protests and rubber bullets being used on protesters. Graffitis showing that people have no fear because they have nothing to lose. I don't think the coalition would be too happy about a UK version of these events. And if in order to avoid this it takes the British Prime Minister going on a  popular talk show and making a total tit of himself, then it's a price worth paying for.

There's a similar situation across the pond, in the States with the race for the White House in full swing. When you get political spouses like Ann Romney making comments like: "I guess we better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out" you know that she's trying to divert your attention from the issues that really matter. Sorry, luv, thanks, but, no, thanks, put it away. Alternatively, can you two get a room, please? Because I don't think the US electorate is interested in seeing that Romney. What they would like to know is what sound policies he's got in store. If any.

That's why I couldn't give two hoots about what Andrew Mitchell thinks of hoi polloi. I know exactly what he thinks of people like me. Same with Cameron. Who cares if he can't remember who wrote Rule Britannia or Beowulf, for that matter? No more distractions, please. We're intelligent people. Tell us how you're planning to fix the country. Otherwise, I will have to send you, naughty boys, to the headteacher.

© 2012
Next Post: "Of Literatue and Other Abstract Thoughts", to be published on Wednesday 10th Otober at 11:59pm (GMT)

Photograph: Reuters

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Urban Diary

There you are. Still sitting or standing in almost the exact place where I left you all those many years ago when I used to commute daily to my previous job at the travel agency. There's a difference, though. These days a gigantic name hemming you in in a semicircle advertises a well-known brand. This is the trade-off. You give up your secretive, quasi-illegal status and in exchange you get to be part of "Carling Live Underground Music". You probably hate this deal. Even the less-than-subtle wordplay is platitudinous.

The first time I saw you I had to stop. Your voice sounded so clear. Was it a cover of Tracey Chapman's Talkin' Bout a Revolution or Radiohead's Karma Police you were singing? After that moment whenever I spotted you or one of your compadres or comadres (yes, I noticed there were women, too), I would take my earphones off and allow myself to be sucked into your vortex. Your music, early in the morning rush-hour, was like a short, wake-up whistle that shepherded me and my fellow commuters around you for a few seconds. Occasionally we dropped coins in your empty guitar case. Today as I head for a conference, I can see you've plumped for Coldplay's middle-of-the-road anthem God Put a Smile Upon Your Face. I'll tell you what, I couldn't give two hoots about the so-called Creator, but you are putting a smile upon my face now.

It's not always a guitar you carry these days, you and your fellow musicians have diversified. For example I just saw an accordeonist in King's Cross, a fiddler in Oxford Circus and a drummer in Piccadilly. The latter was particularly impressive. His long dreadlocks swung widely from side to side as he regaled passers-by a simple beat, probably not as complex as what he usually perfoms at Womad in the summer with his band.

I've often wondered, as I see you now starting Girl from Ipanema yet another time, what your dream is. I sometimes imagine you playing in a pub at the end of your hard working day, after having sung Tom Jones' s It's Not Unusual half a dozen times, belting out one of your own songs. Not a fast, loud, one-hundred-decibel tune, but maybe a smooth, acoustic melody that talks about anonymity and determination. A composition that might even mention rejection and struggle. And as you sit there, on a stool placed on an improvised platform, I think of you and your voice as a whistle, luring commuters to you, even if it is for just a couple of seconds. You, shepherd. You, busker.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 7th October at 10am (GMT)


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