Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Bate la lluvia la vidriera
Y las rejas de los balcones
Donde tupida enredadera
Cuelga sus floridos festones

The couple cross Reina Avenue in a rush. They are headed for the other side, where they find shelter from the inclement, cyclonic, autumnal rain. Above them in houses so dilapidated, that many of the tenants inside them go down on their knees to pray to La Caridad del Cobre to keep them safe every time the sky clouds over, clothes are hurriedly snatched away from lines. The couple stop to catch their breath. The woman looks at her belly and rubs it softly. Only two more months to go. The man looks at his girlfriend, soaked to the skin and struggling to find her balance. . Her flip-flops don’t help much, sadly. Silver raindrops shine like pearls in her Afro. She gets hold of his left arm and together they walk – shuffle - carefully. The floor is covered in puddles, cracks and dog excrement. He feels a slight chill brought about by this early morning rain and his wearing vest and shorts. To his right a row of street vendors begin to set up for the day ahead. They’ll probably do well today, he thinks, the rain forcing people to find temporary refuge anywhere, especially under the high ceilings and between the large pillars of Reina Avenue Add the smells emanating from the hot chocolates, coffees, pizzas, ham sandwiches and torticas/señoritas/marquesitas/piononos (the latter should normally be dessert but sometimes they are breakfast, lunch and dinner) and they’ll be quids in. The couple carry on walking down the long pavement, occasionally pushed by yet another invasion of people running for shelter from the rain which is coming down harder now. Not that it matters to the blond-haired tourists getting drenched out in the open on the corner of Industria and Parque de la Fraternidad, waiting for an old American car-cum-taxi that will take them somewhere exotic, in this exotic city, full of exotic natives. The man stops at one of the stalls and asks for two hot chocolates. The woman leans her head on his shoulder and rubs her belly softly.

“Al último fulgor del día
Que aun el espacio gris clarea,
Abre su botón la peonia
Cierra su cáliz la ninfea

She has just come back from the doctor’s. To think that the appointment was at two in the afternoon and it’s only now as the grey day turns to dusk that she’s finally been able to get home. Well, she’s not home yet, she still has about a hundred yards to cover. It’s difficult to see with this rain, though. Luckily it’s not as hard as it was in the morning. The way it pelted down on her windowsill she thought it was the end of the world. She always thinks it’s the end of the world around this time every year. October is still hurricane season and although this tropical storm didn’t become one this time, it still left a lot of wet weather behind. Well, better not use “behind”, it’s not over yet, there’s still this annoying, persistent drizzle. She struggles with her umbrella. She doesn’t want her glasses to get wet. That’s the reason why she went to the doctor’s this afternoon. She needs a new pair of glasses and they told her that her replacement would be ready. But no, they weren’t. The doctor said something about tests, delay, and the embargo. He always blames the embargo. Everybody blames the embargo in this city. The honest truth is that she wasn’t really paying much attention to what the doctor was saying. She was thinking of her son. She hasn’t received any letters from him for a while. He’s told her to get an e-mail account but she hasn’t even got a computer. It’s her daughter who has one at work. She does have an e-mail account and that’s how they all communicate. But she still prefers to read his letters and he knows this. His hand-written letters. It’s the only time when her seventy-five year-old eyes don’t need glasses. She taught her son to read and write when he was little before he began school. His writing benefited from this early start. It’s always been neat and legible. Which is the reason she always looks forward to reading his letters. They are so articulate. She arrives at her house. Her front garden looks a bit rough. Some plants need trimming. She doesn’t want to ask her next-door neighbour, Alberto, again but she is going to have to. He doesn’t mind helping her with the gardening, she knows that. Plus, he always walks away with the same present: the bottle of rum she gets on her ration card. She doesn’t drink so it’s a win-win situation for both. But Alberto is also getting on a bit. How old is he now? Sixty? Sixty-one? She must ask him next time she sees him.  The quietness of her road in this area of Santos Suárez is a welcome contrast to the noise she’s just left behind at La Ceguera Hospital. She closes her umbrella and inserts her key in the door. These days she has to be very careful when opening her door. A couple of times she’s jammed the lock and locksmiths are quite expensive nowadays. She walks in and removes her cardigan. That’s when she notices the raindrop slowly sliding down her glasses.

Todo parece que agoniza;
Y que se envuelve lo creado
En un sudario de ceniza
Por la llovizna adiamantado.

The weather forecast announces more rain for tomorrow. He gets ready to go out to work. He doesn’t like the night shift. Mornings are better. But the other security guard is ill and they asked him to cover. He knows he is not getting any overtime, just time off in lieu. In the old days, there was the extra money. That was under the previous management. But the company that runs the hotel now got rid of that. They also got rid of a lot of people. He tries to tuck his shirt inside his trousers but doesn’t succeed. The portly frame that looks back at him on the mirror reminds him that he must start to exercise soon. If only he had the time! He did have the time when he was a lecturer at the Faculty of Economics many years ago. The Abrahantes Stadium was just up the road. Walk all the way up L Street, follow the bend to the right, past the Napoleonic Museum and voilà! He used to run three or four laps round the weather-beaten track every week. Occasionally he ventured down to the gym but it was always crammed full. On top of that there were too many posers for his liking. He was fit in those years. He still is. But this job is killing him. It’s not so much the actual job, but the distance to the hotel and back and the lack of transport. He is not a spring chicken anymore, he thinks. True, at fifty-two, he is still in better shape than many of his contemporaries, especially fellow lecturers who struck lucky and found similar jobs to his, as porters and desk clerks in hotels around Havana. If only he could get rid of this massive belly! He looks at himself in profile. His wife doesn’t mind this unasked-for middle-age present. She has always been behind him, supported him through the ups and downs. That’s what drives him. That and their four children. He sees his family as a unit. A solid, hard-rock unit. Even after the farewells, of which there have been two. He manages to button up his shirt, zips up his trousers, fastens his belt, puts on his shoes and walks out of the house. The rain that fell earlier has freshened up the air. This is one of those occasions when he feels grateful for the long-sleeved shirt he has to wear as part of his uniform. The street is quiet. Nothing like heavy showers to silence the impromptu DJs who have turned reggaeaton and timba into their sole musical output. The puddles on the road reflect the light of the scattered lamps throwing up intermittent, ashen, mini full moons. Despite the many years living in the same barrio he stills feels uneasy about being out here at this time of night on his own. If he is lucky he will catch the coach that takes staff from the airport back to downtown Havana. It wasn’t long ago that his route to work took him in a different direction. He used to drive for a foreign family doing business in Havana and whose residence – mansion, really – was in the leafy suburbs of Miramar. That was the first job he got after leaving his post as lecturer at Havana University. He was one of the lucky ones. He could drive and had a valid license. He spent a couple of years with the family. Until one night when there was an adults-only party in the house. The children were dispatched to a friend’s. He knows because he drove them there. When he returned he thought he would be copping off earlier than usual only to be asked to come inside and... He left his job the next day. What embarrassed him most was telling his wife about “the thing”. She understood and stood by him completely. He still remembers her words: “The problem is that you still have morals, mi viejo”. Morals, yes, he still has them, he thinks now. That’s the reason why he doesn’t like doing the night shift. He doesn’t like coping with the drooling, pot-bellied, pink-cheeked male tourists trying to get a couple of under-age prostitutes into their rooms. It is hard for him to resist to their requests, not because he lacks the courage to say no, but because everyone else is in on the game. He doesn’t like coping with the drunken old women, saying in their mangled Spanish: “You look like a bull, be my bull tonight!”. He wipes his wide, black forehead and keeps walking to the bus stop. In the distance he can see the headlights of a coach or bus breaking through the semi-darkness. He comes close to the curb and sticks his arm out. His night shift is about to begin.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 3rd November at 10am (GMT)

The three stanzas included in this post were taken from the poem “Tardes de Lluvia” by the Cuban poet Julián del Casal

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Old age is a faraway land full of wrinkled, drooling, absent-minded, incontinent and senile inhabitants. It’s the penultimate stop before the terminus. Actually, it is the last stop for some.

Those words are not mine. In fact, they don’t belong to anyone in particular in that they are not a quote we can easily append to someone. Those words, however, partly represent our current attitude to the elderly as a society. As a youth-, beauty-obsessed society.

I am writing this post later than usual. It is normal for me to draft up my “reflections” a week or two before the Sunday on which they are due to be posted. But this time it has taken me longer to put pen to paper. Or hands to keyboard as modernity dictates. The reason for my unusual procrastination is Alice Munro’s beautiful and touching prose. Her writing had the unfortunate effect of immobilising me mentally. I knew what I wanted to write about. The question was: how? I have been familiar with the Canadian author’s short stories for some time now. And yet, The Bear Came over the Mountain, re-published recently by The New Yorker on the occasion of Munro winning the Nobel Prize for Literature had me welling up. That was before I remembered I had already seen the film based on her short story.

I then began to think that there aren’t many movies, literary works or dance pieces (to name but three art forms) around these days that address old age from a mature, realistic point of view. Either we get the forgetful old dear, the sassy grey-haired (heavily patronised, sadly), or the ageing, but still all-conquering Lothario (usually a man, obviously). Both The Bear Came over the Mountain and Away from Her, the film based on the tale, focus more on the characters and their circumstances.

In The Bear..., Grant and Fiona are a married couple about to embark on a difficult journey. Fiona is checking into a home for people in the early stages of dementia. At seventy years old, Fiona is “still upright and trim, with long legs and long feet, delicate wrists and ankles, and tiny, almost comical-looking ears”. On the way to Meadowlake, Fiona’s new abode, there are doubts and jokes. Driving past a swampy hollow, now covered in ice, Fiona remembers that she and Grant went skiing there many years before. This recollection makes Grant almost want to turn around. What follows thereafter is a heart-rending (but, luckily, unsentimental and non-cliché) exploration of the consequences of dementia, but also of what old age is.

Old age: what kind of land is it?
And what it isn’t. Old age is not a faraway land full of wrinkled, drooling, absent-minded, incontinent and senile inhabitants. It is a stage, the last one in our human life, for sure, but not less important than the ones which preceded it. Senescence is the concept they didn’t tell you about back in school because you were too busy being young. We will never be old, we tell our younger selves, with the bravado that characterises our adolescent and young adulthood years. When I was a teenager, I looked at my grandmother, with whom I still shared my flat in Havana (and with my mother, my auntie and my cousin. By then my dad had disappeared from the scene) and saw an active woman. She was in charge of the house chores, always fussing after visitors, always smiling. But I never saw myself as her. I never thought of myself as ever being her age. To me my “Mima”, had sprung up into my life in her 60s, or 70s, or 80s. Any age but a young age.

That’s what I see around me today. Not just in the UK, where the obsession to look young (or not to look old, take your pick) is taking its toll on the current and possibly on the next generation. I see that in Cuba when I visit. I have seen that in Spain and Italy where I have holidayed. Old age is stereotyped. That’s why The Bear Came over the Mountain left me mentally paralysed and unable to write. It is a different world Alice Munro writes about with very real characters. There is love aplenty in the story. Natural, ageless love. But there is also love that leads to wrong decision-making. Fiona falls for a man, Aubrey, at Meadowlake. Her mental state doesn’t let her realise that she is still married to Grant. The latter comes to visit her twice per week and becomes an unwilling witness to the development of his wife’s romance with Aubrey. The Bear,,, is a short story that hurts. It is also a story full of grey areas, because senescence is hardly a black and white issue. The movie is just as nuanced with Julie Christie in top form in the role of Fiona.

One of the many misconceptions of old age is that the elderly envy the young. I don’t believe so. Or, at least, I don't believe it is applicable to everyone. It is true that there are activities that become off limits with the passing of time. That might make some people yearn for better health and robustness. Yet, since old age is just another stage in life’s grand journey, the key word is adaptation. I am lucky in that I have three very close role models. My mother still works at the same copyright agency she joined when I was nine years old. She is seventy-six. My father, at seventy-one, still gigs as a pianist. He has been forced to reduce his working hours but his skills are as sharp as they were when he still lived with me. Lastly, my mother-in-law, who turned eighty earlier this year, still composes (she is a singer song-writer) and has an active life.

The other often mistaken notion is that old people do not have sexual lives. This is partly based on the same youth-, beauty-obsessed attitude I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The idea of big, wrinkled bellies, sagging breasts and grey, pubic hairs might be a turn-off for many. And not just for the young, mind you. However, sex is just as important to someone who is seventy as it is to someone who is twenty-seven. Perhaps what changes is the intention and the setting. I would like to believe that there is more intimacy, closeness, love and romance involved. There is a beautiful passage in The Bear Came over the Mountain that clearly proves my theory: “Grant skied for exercise. He skied around and around in the field behind the house as the sun went down and left the sky pink over a countryside that seemed to be bound by waves of blue-edged ice. Then he came back to the darkening house, turning the television news on while he made his supper. They had usually prepared supper together. One of them made the drinks and the other the fire, and they talked about his work (he was writing a study of legendary Norse wolves and particularly of the great wolf Fenrir, which swallows up Odin at the end of the world) and about whatever Fiona was reading and what they had been thinking during their close but separate day. This was their time of liveliest intimacy, though there was also, of course, the five or ten minutes of physical sweetness just after they got into bed—something that did not often end in sex but reassured them that sex was not over yet.”

Old age is not a faraway land full of wrinkled, drooling, absent-minded, incontinent and senile inhabitants. Old age is a land full of people who were once young and are now embarking on the last stage of their journey. A journey which should be as enjoyable as the ones that came before.

© 2013

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 30th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Living in a Multilingual World (The One ABout Twitter and the Spanish Language)

Going through my Twitter feed the other day, it struck me how strange my mother tongue, Spanish, has become. There were words and phrases in my co-Twitterers’ pages that I could not recognise. Sometimes, it was only after the third or fourth attempt that I was able to decipher what had been written.

Because English is so dynamic, fluid and adaptable I no longer bat an eyelid when I see a LOL or ROTF. I expect that. After all, social networking sites’ roots are mainly Anglophone. But that such an austere language like Spanish dares to use a verb like “Twitear” (literally, “to tweet), is taking the biscuit.
Yo twiteo, nosotros twiteamos...
And that’s where the challenges lie. You could say that the Anglicisation of Spanish was foreseeable. An irony, really, as in the real world Spanish is overtaking English in the US and could be the official language of the largest English-speaking country on Earth in a generation from now. But online, English still holds the triumphant card. In our cyber-world we speak Spanglish. The second challenge is that social media’s spontaneity invites grammatical sloppiness and typos. Lots of them, in fact.

Because of the Spanish language’s structure – long, three or four-line paragraphs can easily be made up of one single sentence with many subordinate ones – Twitter would be the last place where you would find fluent and articulate Spanish speakers. Which logically poses a hurdle to us. And where there is a hurdle, there exists the desire to overcome it. That’s how we come up with aberrations like “ke” (“que”, “what” or “that”).

Is there a way back from this situation? There has certainly been a backlash. Unfortunately it has been led by academics and language specialists for whom even my Cuban accent would be an anomaly. That, to me, is taking it too far. I would dare to ask Twitter to increase its word limit, just for the sake of Hispanics. But having read recently that he media giant is planning to float in the New York Stock Exchange in November, I thought that maybe Jack Dorsey would be too occupied to answer my phone calls. Or my tweets.

The linguistic fate of the Spanish language on most social media, especially Twitter, is one of those topics that becomes like the annoying fly that drives you mad at dinnertime. Very rarely you will be able to swat it and when you least expect it, it will alight on your food. “Twiteando” to the whole world.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 27th October at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I recently coordinated a five-week literacy course for parents in my school through our local community learning unit. The weekly sessions (still going as I write) are meant to acquaint parents with what their children are learning in school. I have known the tutor for quite some time now and he has always struck me as someone who goes the extra mile in making his lessons fun. Like the other day, for instance, when I happened to walk in on him waxing lyrical about poetry and what characterises it. He was in the middle of defining what poetry was and I lingered in the room for longer than I needed to hear what he had to say. He spoke of stanzas, of verses, of rhyme (and non-rhyme) and rhythm. This last element was what caught my attention. Most people would agree with the tutor that a poem is made of verses, stanzas and the like. But rhythm is so subjective, so hard to define that most people would probably not give it a second thought.

However, to me, this is the difference between a good and a bad poem: rhythm. An under-par poem sounds flat to me whichever way I read it. On the other hand, a poem with its own groove, jumps, skips and hops around. When I was younger I paid a closer attention to rhyme (it took me a while to get into non-rhyming poems) and this, ironically, gave me a sense of rhythm. As a grown-up cadence became more internal and therefore more subjective. No longer did I depend on rhyming verses, whether assonant or not. I searched for authors who could provide the kind of rhythm to which I was getting used.

Dylan Thomas: a good sense of rhythm
An example is Dylan Thomas’s poem “Should Lanterns Shine”, from which the current quote adorning my blog header comes. I love the beginning of the second stanza with its alliterative second verse:

I have been told to reason by the heart,
But heart, like head, leads helplessly

Needless to say, for a Spanish speaker that “heart... head... helplessly” is a linguistic nightmare. But Dylan’s honesty overcomes any pronunciation issues. I first came across this poem through a Spanish translation of the last line in an Argentinean film. I then sought the original in English and I loved it even more. Dylan is on a quest, looking for guidance on how to lead his life. He has tried reason (the “head”) and love (the “heart”) but the ball he threw in the park “has not yet reached the ground”. Isn’t that what life’s about? A constant search despite our adulthood and maturity. This constant search is rammed home by a beautiful combination of syncopated verses.

Closer to home, as in Latin America, an author who has always made me value the importance of rhythm in poetry is Oliverio Girondo. Although long gone, his poems have never gone out of fashion. Oliverio was a master at creating rhythm through repetition. His poems (usually short) are like little melodic explosions where a crescendo is reached very quickly. A good example is “¡Todo Era Amor!” (“All was Love”) and its mid-section:

Amor con una gran M, con una M mayúscula,
chorreado de merengue,
cubierto de flores blancas...
Amor espermatozoico, esperantista.
Amor desinfectado, amor untuoso...”( apologies for the lack of translation)

The repetition of the word “love” (“amor” in Spanish) is not an empty gesture, the result of an out-of-sorts poet. He is merely attempting to describe the different kinds of love there are. I must say that he could have gone on for another twenty or thirty lines and I wouldn’t have bat an eyelid. I love Girondo’s poetry.

My last example is a rarity in that it is a poem by an author who is not a poet. Toni Morrison wrote “The Big Box” in collaboration with her son Slade in 1999. Thought-provoking is too mild a term to describe “The Big Box”. Three children Patty, Mickey and Liza Sue are put in this big brown box that has swings and slides but it also has a door with three big locks that only opens one way. The three children each take turns to tell their stories but the following stanza (with slight variations) is included in all their testimonies:

Even sparrows scream,
And rabbits hop,
And beavers chew trees when they need ‘em.
I don’t mean to be rude: I want to be nice,
But I’d like to hang on to my freedom.

The cadence of the poem reflects the complicated relationship between the adults of the story and the children. It is far from simple and yet beautiful. That beauty is partly brought about by that indispensable element in good poetry: rhythm.

© 2013

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Thursday 24th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Just before I started writing this post I realised that I was about to repeat myself. Yet again I was going to write how I was jogging the other night when I suddenly thought of something I’d read a few days before. I don’t like repeating myself, but I have noticed that most of the ideas I come up with for my posts arrive during times of physical exercise, whether that be riding my bike, jogging or walking.

So, the other day whilst out running a thought suddenly assaulted me. By which I mean that this mental intruder jumped out from a nearby bush, blocked my path, forced me to perform an emergency stop and delivered a storm of blows to my whole self for which I was, sadly, unprepared. The result was that for the rest of my run I was mentally bruised and desperate to avenge myself. I’m hoping that with today’s post I’ll be settling the score with the intrusive thought. You, fellow bloggers and readers, will the judges.

Nijinsky: mad genius or misunderstood creator?
An article that appeared in the London Review of Books recently (Half Snake, Half Panther by JamesDavidson) attempted to throw some light on the unfortunate fate suffered by the genius ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Charting his rapid ascension to fame as part of the Ballets Russes, the company directed by Serge de Diaghilev, the piece was not just an excellent analysis of Nijinsky’s achievements and misfortunes but also a good insight into the mind of the troubled artist. Especially, the artist gone mad.

Nijinsky’s final performance before being committed to an asylum took place at the Suvretta House Hotel in Budapest, Hungary. In front of an audience of two hundred people, the creator of L’Après-midi d’un faune, sat in silence staring at them. After half an hour he began to dance, but not to a set routine. His movements were unpredictable and wild. According to Mr Davidson, Nijinsky “laid a velvet cross on the floor and stood at its crosspoint with arms outstretched. He then proceeded to dance the First World War.” His encore saw him facing the wall and making strange movements.

Thus, Nijinsky’s “moment of madness” had arrived. Madness that had been accelerated by Diaghilev’s rejection of him when the latter found out the dancer had married the Hungarian socialite Romola de Pulszky (Nijinsky and Diaghilev had been in a relationship years earlier). Reading the article again for the purpose of this post I thought of a different reason for Nijinsky’s mental instability. My theory does not override James’s analysis at all; it merely expands on it. Besides, my totally unscientific proposition is based on what I’ve come to observe in and accept from what we have come to know as “the artist as a crazy genius”.

What if Nijinsky, like many other artists, had made an imaginary map, a map that signified the territory their art had created and struggled with the idea that not everyone would be able to navigate freely on that map? A piece of art, whether it is a choreography, a musical score, or a sculpture demands a rather intimate level of commitment from those to whom it is directed. When you, as an artist, are in the process of building this imaginary map, you must accept that between conception and completion, reality will set in and your map might look and feel utterly different to what you expected or believed it to be. This can be rather disappointing for many artists, but it becomes really frustrating if the audience (your audience) “gets lost” whilst traversing your map. For Nijinsky the answer to this question arrived on the night that he premiered The Rite of the Spring. We all know what happened that night at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. What is less known is that the audience didn’t have any problems with the musical score (after all, Stravinsky was able to play the entire piece a few days after without any interruptions) but with the choreography. Traditionalists were outraged, critics were divided over it and the attending public didn’t know what to think so many joined forces with the traditionalists. Unsurprisingly, Nijinsky fell out of favour with Diaghilev who thought the world was not ready for the former’s ballets. As a consequence Diaghilev spoke to the dancer’s sister, Nijinska, and asked her to advise her brother to take a sabbatical.

Was, then, Nijinsky’s madness partly a case of his art being misunderstood as opposed to mere pathology? If art lovers are used to a certain type of map, what happens when their cardinal points are dislocated? What happens if north suddenly becomes west and a desert is no longer barren land, but the depth of an ocean?

I am not suggesting that there is a causal link between madness and art (or vice versa as some of you will rush to say). Plenty of artists go through life without ever paying a visit to a sanatorium. However, the history of art is full of creators who, sadly, lost their minds for various reasons. Lack of acknowledgement at the time they existed has always been one of those elements. Art is not just an ability we possess, but also a skill we develop through life. A reader who rejects a writer’s ability to create an alternative map; a ballet enthusiast who refuses to engage with a choreographer’s futuristic vision; they are not merely stating an opinion (for opinions are there to be expressed freely since we all have them) but also violating – albeit unconsciously – the artist’s individual human experience. No wonder, some artists go mad. It is this dichotomy of creating, first for him/herself, and then including an imaginary public. Here, of course, I’m referring to those artists for whom there is no such thing as “target audience”. If you are an author or a musician who knows which levers to tweak in order to get a reaction – and acclaim – from your “crowd”, then, this post is not for you. If you, on the other hand, have drawn or are in the process of drawing your own map, Nijinsky’s tale is a cautionary one. Even if a little bit of madness in the arts world is welcome every now and then.

© 2013

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Tuesday 22nd October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Last Friday 4th October, one of the finest poets I've ever read but whom I never had the privilege to meet, died peacefully. I found out about his death through another equally excellent poet. The news left me speechless and tearful.

Dave King, the author of the Pics and Poems blog, was that autumn light that breaks through the tall trees bringing solace and comfort to those who venture through the multi-coloured foliage Mother Nature gifts us every year. Sometimes facetious, sometimes sombre, his poetry was (is) hard to categorise. Yet, what no one can deny is the sheer quality his oeuvre had. His output was incredible. There were times when I would spend a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon at home reading the three or four poems Dave had posted during that week.

I'll leave you today with a poem I uploaded on my blog back in 2009 to celebrate National Poetry Day in the UK. Dave, very kindly, allowed me to use this beautiful poem. Also, in memory of Dave King this blog is officially in mourning for a week. It will resume on Sunday 20th October. My most sincere condolences to Dave King's family.

On Turning Over a New Leaf

When the apple tree turned over a new leaf
it began producing plums.

When the pear turned over a new leaf
it brought forth grapes instead.

When the cherry turned over a new leaf
it found acorns on its branches.

When The Book of Life turned over a new leaf
a skeleton crawled out.

When the woods turned over their new leaves
a million tiny creatures saw the sun.

When these turned over the dead leaves
the dust and ash beneath began to smoke.

When humankind turned over its new leaves
it took leave of its senses

and not until it turned again the old leaves
did the trees bring forth their true and ample fruit.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Let's Talk About...

... you, my morning nemesis, clad in black, Lycra shorts, black vest, black helmet and racing in front of me... on a bike.
Yes, let’s talk about you, my daily companion (look, it’s just an expression, all right?), as you speed away from me, ducking cars, weaving your way around lorries and jumping red lights.
Which one will jump the next red light?
That’s where the problem lies.
It is not the fact that your bicycle is better than mine, that you are taller than I am, that you have longer legs and therefore ride faster than I do. It’s the fact that you seem to have almost no respect at all for the Highway Code.
A code, by the way, by which we all ought to abide: motorists, bikers, lorry drivers, skaters and... cyclists.
Is it a sense of superiority that consumes you? The thought of overtaking each and every cyclist you whizz past on the road. I see them as you leave them behind, huffing and puffing. Breathless. I, too, get breathless. And all the time you, looking regal and majestic, ducking cars, weaving your way around lorries and jumping yet more red lights.
I could live with the ignominy of defeat. After all I get my own back on the 8:12am guy. You know the one because by the time I cheetah past him you are a good two hundred yards ahead of me. What I cannot live with, though, if the thought of the damage you do to cycling.
Listen, brother, we are the baddies in this story. Even if we are the ones who get crushed under the wheels of an LGV. We are the cyclists riding on the road two abreast, we are the ones who climb onto pavements (you are, actually!) and we are the ones with the Lycra shorts (as if showing off our well-shaped legs were a crime). Finally we are the ones who run through red lights (you, again!)
So, let’s talk about you, Mr Early-Morning-Rush-Hour-Fast-Rider.  Let’s talk about the hateful looks drivers give me after you have jumped yet another red light. I stay behind, you see? I am the scapegoat for their anger. Lorries close me in, bus drivers pretend not to see me on their side mirror and bikers compete with me for the small gap in between cars. This is the consequence of your selfish actions: you leave me, your fellow cyclist, in the middle of this Roman gladiatorial arena. With most thumbs pointing down.
I know I will see you tomorrow again. And the day after tomorrow. And the day after that. I wish I had the opportunity to let you know at least half the message I have written here tonight. But I know that won’t happen. Tomorrow, as I come up from one of the many side roads near my house and turn right on to the high street, I will wait for that instant, that moment when you will overtake me, without so much as a nod of the head, speeding away into the distance, leaving this motorists’ bête-noire muttering obscenities under his breath as you duck cars, weave your way around lorries and, not for the last time this week, jump another red light.
© 2013
Photo taken from The Daily Telegraph
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 13th October at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

What is a patriot? According to, it’s “a person who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests with devotion.” According to The Daily Mail (henceforth known as The Daily Hate) it’s a person who apparently loves and shows devotion for such British institutions like the monarchy, the church and the army.

Well, beat me, guv! I didn’t know I wasn’t a patriot. I don’t hate the Queen, mind you (although I am a fan of the band), but I couldn’t give a toss about ma’am either. I am an atheist, so religion ain’t my cuppa tea either. As for the army, I consider myself a pacifist, although I would go to war to defend a country’s right to self-sovereignty. For instance, if that country were the UK and our democracy were under threat. Same with my country of origin, even though I don’t agree with the Castro government I would die to defend the land where I was born.

So, am I a patriot or not? I have loved and supported the British way of life since I arrived on these shores many years ago. At the same time I believe that no country is above criticism. I might not use a past-its-use-by-date theory like Marxism to express my views, but I do, too, have a social conscience and want a better future for the people who live in Great Britain.

Ralph Milliband: not patriotic enough according to The Daily Hate
Just like the late Ralph Milliband, the father of the current leader of the Labour party, Ed Milliband.

If you live in the UK, you will probably have borne witness this week to the furore caused by The Daily Hate’s decision to smear Ed Milliband’s father with what can only be labelled “distorted views”, otherwise known as “lies”. Under the umbrella of free speech, the paper laid into Ralph Milliband, saying that the late academic "hated Britain" and going as far as to making him look as if he agreed with Stalin’s excesses.

Fortunately for Ed Milliband, most people sided with him. An apology was demanded from The Daily Hate immediately. Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, showed solidarity with Ed as well. The former actually said that “"if anyone had a go at my father, I would want to respond vigorously".

The problem with The Daily Hate is that it is frozen in a time-warp. A time, perhaps, when there were no single mothers, gays, immigrants and working class people in Britain, or in England, which is how The Daily Hate usually sees the United Kingdom. Immigrants, single mothers and homosexuals are the usual targets of The Daily Hate, amongst many others. The problem with The Daily Hate, to sum up, is that it has not realised, or it hasn’t wanted to realise that Britain has changed beyond recognition. On my arrival here my first impression was how different the country of my lectures in university was from the one on whose soil I was setting foot.

If someone hates the UK, it is not a long-deceased Jewish immigrant. Ralph Milliband's ideas about social and economic justice were drawn from a long-standing tradition of British liberalism. The Chartists, the suffragettes, the miners in the 80s, the Levellers. They all represented Britain somehow. They also represented the promise of a better future for Britain. By contrast The Daily Hate is never short of articles to run about what they see as the poor state in which this country is. If someone hates the UK, it’s The Daily Hate. This is the same newspaper that allied itself to Oswald Mosley’s infamous fascist blackshirts. This is the same newspaper whose owner not only appeased Hitler but also admired him as well as looking up to Mussolini. The Daily Hate does not represent the views of most British people anymore than football hooligans symbolise British football.

That’s why I am doing my bit for this country. This country that is not perfect but which I have grown to love over the years, warts and all. This is the country that gave me the person I have loved for seventeen years and where the two other people I love equally - my children - were born. I may not be British by birth, but I feel as British as I am Cuban. Taking a cue from Mehdi Hassan's outstanding performance on Question Time the other night I will be fighting The Daily Hate where it hurts it more. Sales. Like Mehdi, I think enough is enough. He was right when he said that we needed a “debate about who hates Britain more, it isn't a dead Jewish refugee from Belgium who served in the Royal Navy, it's the immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, Muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting Daily Mail." Starting today, every time I walk into a newsagents or news outlet I will take whatever copies they have of The Daily Hate and place them under another newspaper. It could be The Independent, or The Guardian (that’ll probably make Paul Dacre, The Daily Hate’s editor, very, very cross), or The Times or even The Daily Telegraph. I ask you to join me.

This is not just about Ralph Milliband, or Marxism, or a reporter (from The Hate on Sunday) gate-crashing a private memorial service for a relative of Ed Milliband’s and trying to gather yet more information on his father. This is about what I believe Britain, my adopted land, in the 21st century stands for: diversity, acceptance and fairness. Moreover, this is not about readers of The Daily Hate. Obviously, trying to find their paper under any of the other big piles of publications might be a tad bit inconvenient. I apologise beforehand. They could, however, take their complaints to Paul Dacre and Geordie Greig, the editors of The Daily Hate and The Hate on Sunday respectively. I know that in the grand scheme of things my initiative will not unleash a revolution. It's a small act of rebellion. But sometimes we need to stand up to bullies, no matter how small our actions can be. Besides, I am one today, you, reader or fellow blogger, are another. Tomorrow there will be others and before we know it, together, we might have caused a dent in The Daily Hate's sales.This is our Cable Street moment. Let’s smash the fascists, let’s show The Daily Hate what we’re made of.

© 2013

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About...”, to be published on Wednesday 9th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Killer Opening Songs (Shout by Tears for Fears)

Back in the summer the author of this blog asked his readers and fellow bloggers whether they were children from the 60s, 70s or 80s. The enquiry was related to the clip he’d uploaded on this occasion.
Now it’s the turn of Killer Opening Songs to reminisce. Born in the 70s but hooked on 70s music, it was in the 80s when our Introductory Track With Murderous Intentions got its mojo on the dancefloor. From Madonna to Miami Soundmachine, K.O.S was the soul of the party. And then Shout happened.
Understand that this was the era of synthesisers. Soft Cell and Human League ruled the charts with their portable consoles, modifying and altering the soundscape of the post-punk musical world. Smoke on stage was everywhere, a legacy of 70s prog- and glam-rock. And in the midst of this mist Shout broke through.
Killer Opening Songs still remembers the night it first heard this anthemic melody by the British band Tears for Fears. It is sure it came upon it at a party in El Vedado, a neighbourhood in Havana quite renowned for its cool parties in the mid-80s. The chorus came first: “Shout, shout/let it all out/these are the things I can do without/Come on, I’m talking to you, come on. Cue people on the dancefloor pointing their finger at their dance partner.
Shout was the sound of an adventurous band. One that, sadly, didn’t get its due credit at the time. The album, Songs from the Big Chair, was a marvellous blend of pop chart hits and soundtrack quality B-sides. Take another single, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, slower than Shout and with a more foot-tapping beat to it. Mother’s Talk and I Believe were two gorgeous melodies that deserved more airplay in their day. Overall this was an album that was not afraid of sounding modern.
The key as usual was the Killer Opening Song. A powerhouse of a tune, Shout was mind-addictive in its time. For weeks (months, even!) after all K.O.S did was repeat the chorus ad nauseum. Almost literally, to the point of nausea. Our Introductory Track With Murderous Intentions could even mimic the mid-song keyboard solo. Forget air-guitar, this was air-piano.
There are many songs which could sum up the 80s. However, you would be hard-pressed to find a better example of a song that captured the zeitgeist of this decade like this classic, timeless pop (yes, pop!) feisty number. Ladies and gentleman, join K.O.S. in the chorus:
Shout, shout/let it all out/these are the things I can do without/Come on, I’m talking to you, come on.
© 2013
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: “Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 6th October at 10am (GMT)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...