Sunday, 28 July 2013

Humour and Music on a Summer Sunday Morning

We all need a little bit of humour in the summer, especially in this stiflingly humid weather (at the time of writing) we are having in London now. First published in The New Yorker and reproduced here without any permission, Simon Rich's Unprotected is one of those stories that combines factiousness and earnestness beautifully. And the clip today is a trip down memory lane for some of us. Are you a 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s kid? Answers below, please.


I born in factory. They put me in wrapper. They seal me in box. Three of us in box.

In early days, they move us around. From factory to warehouse. From warehouse to truck. From truck to store.

One day in store, boy human sees us on shelf. He grabs us, hides us under shirt. He rushes outside.

He goes to house, runs into bedroom, locks door. He tears open box and takes me out. He puts me in wallet.

I stay in wallet long, long time.

This is story of my life inside wallet.

The first friend I meet in wallet is Student I.D. Jordi Hirschfeld. He is card. He has been around longest, he says. He introduces me to other cards. I meet Learner Permit Jordi Hirschfeld, Blockbuster Video Jordi Hirschfeld, Jamba Juice Value Card, GameStop PowerUp Card Jordi Hirschfeld, Business Card Albert Hirschfeld, D.D.S., Scarsdale Comic Book Explosion Discount Card.
In middle of wallet, there live dollars. I am less close to them, because they are always coming and going. But they are mostly nice. I meet many Ones and Fives, some Tens, a few Twenties. One time, I meet Hundred. He stay for long time. Came from birthday card, he said. Birthday card from an old person.

I also meet photograph of girl human. Very beautiful. Eyes like Blockbuster Video. Blue, blue, blue.

When I first get to wallet, I am “new guy.” But time passes. I stay for so long, I become veteran. When I first arrive, Jamba Juice has just two stamps. Next thing I know, he has five stamps—then six, then seven. When he gets ten stamps, he is gone. One day, Learner Permit disappears. In his place, there is new guy, Driver License. I become worried. Things are changing very fast.

Soon after, I am taken out of wallet. It is night. I am scared. I do not know what is happening. Then I see girl human. She is one from photograph. She looks same in real life, except now she wears no shirt. She is smiling, but when she sees me she becomes angry. There is arguing. I go back inside wallet.

A few days later, picture of girl human is gone.

That summer, I meet two new friends. The first is Student I.D. New York University Jordi Hirschfeld. The second is MetroCard.
MetroCard is from New York City and he never lets you forget it. He has real “attitude.” He is yellow and black, with Cirque du Soleil advertisement on back.

When MetroCard meets GameStop PowerUp Card Jordi Hirschfeld, he looks at me and says, No wonder Jordi Hirschfeld not yet use you. I become confused. Use me for what?

That night, MetroCard tells me many strange things about myself. At first, I do not believe what he says. But he insists all is true. When I start to panic, he laughs. He says, What did you think you were for? I am too embarrassed to admit truth, which is that I thought I was balloon.
Who would be "him"?

It is around this time that we move. For more than two years, we had lived inside Velcro Batman. It is nice, comfy. One day, though, without warning, we are inside stiff brown leather. I am very upset—especially when I see that so many friends are gone.
No more GameStop PowerUp Card Jordi Hirschfeld. No more Blockbuster Video Jordi Hirschfeld.

No more Scarsdale Comic Book Explosion Discount Card.

Only survivors are MetroCard, Driver License, Student I.D., myself, and a creepy new lady named Visa.

I am angry. What was wrong with Velcro Batman? It had many pockets and was warm. I miss my friends and I am lonely.

A few days later, I meet Film Forum Membership Jordan Hirschfeld.

At this point, I am in “panic mode.” What is “Film Forum”? Who is “Jordan Hirschfeld”?

Jordan Hirschfeld is same guy as Jordi Hirschfeld, MetroCard explains. He is just trying to “change his image.” I am confused. What is wrong with old image? That night, I poke my head out of wallet and look around pocket. It is dark, but I can see we have new neighbor. He says his name is Cigarettes Gauloises. He is very polite, but I get “weird vibe” from him.

It is about this time that I meet strip of notebook paper. On him is written, “”

Now we’re getting somewhere, MetroCard says. I have never been more frightened in my life.

That Saturday, five crisp Twenties show up. I assume they will stay long time, like most Twenties.

But two hours later they are gone, replaced by receipt La Cucina.
MetroCard looks at receipt La Cucina and laughs. She better put out after that, he says. I am confused and worried.

Later on, I am minding my own business, when Jordi (sorry—“Jordan”) shoves his finger into me. I am terrified. What was that? I ask. MetroCard grins. He is checking to make sure you’re there, he says. For later.

My friends try to calm me down. One of the dollars, a One, tells me about the time he met Vending Machine Pepsi. He was stuffed in and out, in and out, so many times he almost died. I know he is trying to make me feel better, but I am, like, please stop talking about that.

Eventually, the moment comes. It is like other time. I am taken out of wallet and tossed on bed. It is very dark. I can make out shape of girl.

She picks me up and squints at me for a while. Then she turns on lamp.

I am confused. So is Jordan Hirschfeld.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

His face is like Jamba Juice Value Card. Red, red, red.

“I think,” she says, “that this might actually be expired.”

Next Post: "Food for Thought on a Summer Sunday Morning (and Music, too!)", to be published on Sunday 4th August at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Song for a Summer Sunday Morning

Readers and followers of this blog know that I am not a big fan of cover versions. But occasionally one pops up and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I like Kimbra, I think she is a very good musician and even though I still prefer Nina's very own take on this classic, Kimbra rises to the challenge and pulls it off beautifully. I hope you're having a good time off. I am enjoying mine. Thanks.

Next Post: "Humour and Music on a Summer Sunday Morning", to be published on Sunday 28th July at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Raise your hand if you were at all surprised at the recent news that a member of staff at a Sainsbury’s supermarket refused to serve a customer who was speaking on her mobile at the checkout. Right, OK, I can see the confusion amongst those with half-raised hands and puzzled looks on their faces. I shall rephrase the question: who was surprised that a customer talking on her mobile at a supermarket made another person, in this case a worker at the aforementioned supermarket, upset? That’s better, no hand has shot up.

Do you think she's noticed?
Maybe it is the hot weather we are having now but I have noticed that when temperatures rise a little above average there is a change also amongst the inhabitants of these isles. Whether you were born here or not. For some reason which I can’t quite work out, we are suddenly faced with the following equation: +30°C outside=complete relaxation (and breakdown) of normal cohabitation rules (in this case cohabitation refers to the space we all share as humans). Suddenly we are louder, more explicit (in both language and clothes), more expressive and we show off more. Conversations on our mobiles, which already break decibel standards, go a few notches up and become unbearable.

I have asked people at work (mainly British-born) if this situation was ever thus or if it is a new phenomenon. They all seem to concur that public etiquette has changed considerably in the last twenty to twenty-five years. The impression they have is that people have become more individualistic since the 80s and that nowadays the minute they place something in their ears, be it a mobile phone or headphones to listen to their music gadget, they claim the space they occupy around them automatically. They also use their prop (mp3 player/mobile/iPod) as a weapon to isolate themselves, take possession of said space and confront and scare off potential opponents.

Since I was not here twenty years ago, I have to accept this theory. But I was in Cuba two decades ago and I was witness then to a similar breakdown of social rules. This week the Cuban president Raúl Castro railed against his fellow countrymen and women who, according to him, were letting the Caribbean nation down with their shoddy morals and their loss of values. Amongst the examples listed by the 82-year-old dignitary were unpunctuality at work, raising animals (especially pigs in cities) and lack of consideration towards the elderly and pregnant women. Message to Raúl: did you not get the memo? The problems you mentioned, Mr President, are not new. They have been there for the last twenty-odd years. I can’t believe that you noticed them now. Mind you, since it was your brother who was in charge for forty-nine years whilst you took care of the army, the whole pig-raising malarkey might have passed you by. The only reason why people resorted to raising animals in flats was because your government did not give us enough food. When I still lived in Havana I was surrounded by chickens on one side, pigs and chickens on the other side, pigs in the flat below mine and pigs, chickens, rabbits and a goat (yes, a bleating goat!) in the apartment above. Even we had chickens every now and then in my house. From a polite and well-mannered society we became a vulgar and sloppy nation. No, I am not blaming the animals, I am blaming the situation that gave rise to people’s need to buy and keep these animals in urban settings.

There are parallels with the UK. If successive governments, as it appears to have happened here, erode the bonds that tie us together as members of the same human family, the result is a customer at a supermarket checkout expecting special treatment from someone they think below their social rank. The same goes with Cuba and the decline of social etiquette, the same social etiquette with which I was brought up and which dictated that every time a pregnant woman boarded a bus it was my duty as a citizen and a gentleman to give up my seat for her. If you do not meet people’s basic needs, they regress (wrongly, and I am not excusing vulgarity at all for this) to a primitive state and once they are there it is very hard to get them out.

Some people will blame technology and its effects for what happened at Sainsbury’s. I am sorry but I disagree. With or without a mobile glued to her ear, that customer would have still been rude. Simple as that. My hope is that next time I ask you the same question I posed at the beginning, you all raise your hands. That would mean progress.

This is my temporary goodbye. I am not going away but I will be on blog-vacation. I will come back mid-September with more reflections, more music and of course, with a steaming pot of coffee to share with you as we try to understand this difficult but beautiful world in which we live. My blog will not be inactive. There will be a summer clip every Sunday. I hope you all have a great time off, too.

© 2013

Next post: “Music for a Summer Sunday Morning”, to be published on Sunday 21st July at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Urban Diary

He is a rarity. He is out of place, out of context and out of class in this oasis of trimmed grass and trees. I do not think he notices, though. His – almost naked – body is a sore eyesight for some in this urban corner of north London. It is past midday and the park is filling up with more and more families, hoping to soak up the rationed annual quota of sun and warm temperatures we are entitled to on these isles. His presence, however, is the odd element out in this idyllic picture of what we could call The Great British Summer exhibition. His whole demeanour suggests a UULDO (Unknown and Unacknowledged Lying Down Object).

His midriff reveals a large, pink belly. What we could term a beer-guzzler. By his side on the dry grass, lies a black and white football shirt with the Northern Rock logo emblazoned across it. Surely a Newcastle fan, I say to myself. My suspicion is confirmed when I spot a tattoo of the two sea-horses and the castle on his leg. Two more ink-works cover his arms and back (although I will only be able to see the latter when he turns around to “roast” himself on the other side); one is a female name (his daughter, perhaps?) and the other is the Magpies’ Latin motto: fortiter defendit triumphans (triumphing by brave defence). His tats differ greatly from other bodyworks I see in the park: Chinese quotes, Zodiac symbols and New Age aphorisms (“Free Yourself”, accompanied by a drawing of a fountain pen).

Coming soon to a park near you
Unacknowledged as this large Lying Down Object might be, parents are still shooting nervous glances in his direction. I can see them through my shades looking at the can he is holding and wondering what is in it (as it happens, my position is better, so I would like to reassure them that it is Red Bull... gives you wings!!!) and watching every word coming out of his mouth as he talks on his mobile. As far as I am aware there is no foul language and yet, why do I have the uneasy feeling that someone in this tense crowd is willing him to swear? At least a little? To conform to the stereotype? All they get, though is proper cockney geezer's accent and slang. He is still talking on his mobile, changing to swiping now, followed by reading later. Talking, swiping, reading, texting, this is modern life being played out in this urban jungle.

Parents hold onto their cygnets and do not let them wander off. Their tall lattes rest on the grass by the side of large summer skirts, children and adults’ bicycles and Birkenstock sandals.

Suddenly a little one breaks from the group. Understand, this is not an organised group, not a group that agreed beforehand to meet in this park. Not, this is an on-the-spot-spur-of-the-moment group, a group whose tattoos do not betray allegiance to a football team but to the world of hipsters, creativity and alternative culture.

The little one (a toddler who can’t be older than two) runs towards him. It takes his mum a few seconds to realise her son has escaped her watch, and a few more to notice that he is approaching the danger zone. Pink-belly, tattooed man is still talking on his phone, however, he turns around and sees the cygnet dashing towards him. I see the toddler's mum and in slow motion I replay the steps scene in Battleship Potemkin. Mum's face might not be displaying the same rictus as the mother in the famous Soviet film but she is not far off. The UULDO scoops up the runner and displaying excellent balance and dexterity hands him over to mum with the words: “Hey li'l rascal, trying to leg it, aincha?” Mum mutters a “thank you”, admonishes her son softly and walks back, turning once to wave and acknowledge the presence of the pink-bellied man who has the can of Red Bull again in his hand and is still talking on his mobile. The mute, observant crowd relaxes a little.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 14th July at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The question is: what to do when you like an artist but strongly dislike her/his political naiveté? Or when you agree with their political stand but don’t rate them highly as a creative power?

I was musing over this dilemma recently after I chanced upon a column by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. His subject was the recent NSA scandal and how, in his opinion, the US was beginning to behave like China. I wrote about that subject myself a few weeks ago and in my opinion Ai Weiwei should change that “beginning to” with immediate effect. The West has behaved like the totalitarian regimes it criticises whenever it has been convenient for its interests.

But that’s not the point I am trying to make. The point is that Ai Weiwei’s article was well-written and balanced. I was not surprised about it. I have read similar features by him about his homeland in the past and he always comes across as a very rational and intelligent person.

Would you like some art with your seeds, please?
I can’t, however, say the same about his art. I know that this is my personal opinion and that art is subjective most of the time. Nevertheless, whenever I am confronted by one of Ai Weiwei’s pieces or installations my initial reaction is one of froideur. The one exception was a couple of years ago when I went to see his “Sunflower Seeds” exhibition at Tate Modern. Though befuddled at first I got the concept fairly quick. The “seeds” were nothing but unique, small porcelain works, that sought to explain, through their similarity, the notion of the “Made in China” phenomenon. Here was a strong, social message. Just like his articles. I, too, liked his Remembering installation. This work was made up of 9000 children’s rucksacks with the caption on each of them “She lived happily for seven years”, a quote from the mother of one of the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.  Fair to him, most of Ai Weiwei’s artistic output is focused on China and its domestic problems. But would we pay attention to his writing if his fame as an artist (he has had exhibitions in Australia, Europe, North and South America) didn’t precede him? That’s the key issue for me. It’s not whether an artist has or hasn’t got the right to debate difficult topics, especially when they have first-hand knowledge of them, but whether the public would value their opinion if it were not supported by a fine reputation as creators.

At least Ai Weiwei concerns himself with China mainly. Bono (no need to explain who he is and what he does) wants to change the west’s attitude about a whole continent: Africa. But the way he is going about it makes it hard for pragmatists like me to believe him. Here’s a man whose music with his band U2 I worship, especially the earlier albums. However, ever since he became missionary-Bono, saviour-of-Africa Bono and new-Jesus-in-town Bono, his stand as a musician has taken a knock, in my view. He still fills up stadiums, of course, but those who come to U2 for the I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and Sunday Bloody Sunday melodies feel let down by this change of trajectory. The problem with Bono is that he has lent credibility to statesmen who had lost theirs. For instance the architects of the invasion to Iraq, George Bush and Tony Blair. Bono has made corporate power cooler and funkier (it even wears shades). Unlike Ai Weiwei, who finds very little resistance to his stand against the Chinese government (except for the actual Chinese government, obviously) from those who also admire his art, Bono has polarised his followers. There are those who think that his patronising tone towards Africans has done more harm than good, yet still rate him as a very talented singer. Others believe that his role in raising awareness of Africa and its problems has been vital. I belong to the former camp.

Perhaps I am being a tad bit unfair on the U2 frontman. After all, we know from what we see on telly during the BBC Children In Need’s donathon that if celebrities don’t endorse a particular cause, it’s unlikely the public will cough up for it. In that sense Bono is useful. Furthermore, the flipside of a famous artist campaigning on behalf of a nation – or continent – is an egocentric, dumb celebrity for whom the world of news is only the one that revolves around them.

So, what to do when you like an artist but strongly dislike her/his political naiveté? I focus on what made that person notorious in the first place. In the case of Bono, it was U2, its music and its power to convey a message that was primarily musical and on occasions, social. It makes it less difficult to ignore his sanctimonious attitude (and don't even get me started on his tax affairs). How about when you agree with an artist’s political stand but don’t rate them highly as a creative power? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. Most of Ai Weiwei’s art still leaves me cold, which means that paradoxically, I look at him as a social activist first and as an artist second. I have never spoken to Ai Weiwei but I reckon he would like me and others to flip that view around. His writing, however, remains incendiary. And may it continue to be so.

© 2013

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 10th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Early morning, beginning of January, 1988, Mariana Grajales, Park. Across from it the Saúl Delgado College stretches along the pavement. This low-rise, long, rectangular, sprawling building has been my stomping grounds for more than a year now. There’s excitement in the crispy morning air amongst the hundreds of youngsters gathered here. The temperature is fresh, but not chilly. Never chilly. This is Havana after all. Soon my coach will depart to Pinar del Río, Cuba’s westernmost province, where we hear the temperature has dipped to 15 degrees. Now, that’s chilly.
Gaggles of fifteen-, sixteen- and seventeen-year olds hang around on different corners of the park according to our year groups. Our clothes betray our mission: we are just about to embark on our work experience. For some of us it will be the first time we will be away from home for so long. Forty-five days officially. Although the veterans (those who went last year) claim it is never that long. You usually come back after thirty-five or thirty-six days, they say. Boys and girls are dressed alike: ugly brown shirts and khaki trousers. On my feet a pair of Russian boots makes their debut. Commonly known as “canberras” in the Cuban argot, this is the type of shoewear that any self-respecting rocker must be seen in nowadays. My shirt is two sizes bigger; my trousers have been adapted to resemble the skinny jeans seen on the likes of Bonjovi, Poison and Mötley Crüe, my musical diet these days. I usually watch clips of these bands at Cynthia’s, a girl from my Year 11 class who claims to be a close cousin of Tico Torres’, Bonjovi’s drummer.
Lined up on the road are about half a dozen coaches, their drivers puffing lazily on their Populares ciggies. Coaches? I am being benevolent. Our mode of transport is widely known as aspirinas (aspirins) because they are apparently good at ridding people of headaches despite the fact that they also cause them. I never did find out about the former, just the latter. The aspirinas are small minibuses in which you pile an endless amount of children, youngsters and adults with more extra space seeming to magic itself out of thin air.
Trepidation takes over me. This is my first time at the “escuela al campo”. The idea behind the project is noble but the delivery is flawed. You take a group of students to the countryside once a year in the coldest month in the Cuban winter calendar. You start them off at 12 years old, when they have just begun their Year 7 in secondary school. They first go for thirty days. Visits from parents are allowed but only weekly. They have to learn how to live independently. They will hopefully find out where food comes from, what nature provides us with, especially “city boys” like me. You sit back and hope your plan works. It does, but not in the way you think.
In reality twelve-year-olds are mixed with fourteen-year-olds. Bullying ensues almost as soon as the students climb on board the aspirinas. There is a lot of drinking and smoking. Sex is everywhere, consensual or not. Some male teachers zero in on vulnerable girls and...
I have heard enough about la escuela al campo from other people, but I want to build my own edifice of memories. Inside my mind there is a gallimaufry of feelings, yet one towers above all the others: joy. I feel unbridled joy. In about an hour I will be leaving Havana in the company of classmates who have become friends over the last twelve months. Together we will bunk off work, swim in rivers, get drunk and lose our voices whilst a guitar that’s seen better days is played (“assaulted” would be a better word)  incessantly by a wannabe Silvio Rodriguez or Bob Dylan. My joy is not of the rational type, the kind we manufacture out of special moments. It is the other type of joy. It is the unintentional one which you don’t expect. It will arrive in the arms of a girlfriend, a deep, philosophical conversation with one of my mates, or the sight of a breath-taking sunset as I stand outside the public showers and wonder whether to put myself at the mercy of the cold water in the chilly, pinareño winter or wait until tomorrow. Again.
The joy I feel on this day comes from changing my urban landscape for a rural one I have yet to discover but which, on this early morning, I am looking forward to experiencing.
© 2013
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 7th July at 10am (GMT)


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