Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About MLE)

Michael Rosen is an acclaimed British author who has written countless books for children and adults. Whilst not familiar with the latter that much, I am well acquainted with the former. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Sonsense Nogs and Tea in the Sugar Bowl, Potato in My Shoe are some of the titles I have read over the years. Michael’s imagination knows no limits.

That is why I was really looking forward to reading his contribution to Radio 2 and the New Statesman’s What Makes Us Human series. The name might ring some bells to some of you as, back in the summer when I was away from my blog, I uploaded a couple of articles from the series. Mr Rosen did not disappoint me. His essay was on history and what he called the “paradox” of it. Like his monthly “letters” to Michael Gove, our education secretary, his column was thought-provoking as well.

Reading Rosen’s wonderfully crafted write-up led me also down a path I had not considered before. On musing over what history represents for humans (I’m the bloke scurrying about trying to find out stuff to do with my great-grandparents or great-uncles and aunts. More history. Or I’m the bloke wondering why British people say “I’ve got” and Americans say “I’ve gotten”) Michael reminded me of the role language has played in the making of our history. As part of our human culture, regardless of nationality, gender, class or race, language is a key element of our identity. No two human beings speak the same way, have the same inflection or even pronounce words the same way. The current rising-intonation-at-the-end-of-affirmative-sentences epidemic sweeping the UK teenage population might mortify some, but, believe you me, these adolescents still sound British, as opposed to Australian.

Recently I have been hearing more and more people talking about the correct way we ought to speak English. Or rather, about the incorrect ways some people speak it. More specifically, there are self-appointed guardians of the English language who are terrified of a new phenomenon: the linguistic melting pot. We all know about the melting pot. New York is one, so is London and Paris does not lag behind. It is the confluence of different nationalities and races in one place. It is what makes an ordinary, run-of-the-mill city a metropolis all of a sudden. Language is a logical part of this process. So far, though, linguistic contributions had remained in the periphery with the host nation being able to fend off (unintentionally) most advances. Think of the RP accent that dominated the BBC for so many years. But the landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. Regional intonations are frequently heard now on both radio and television. What could have been thought of niche accents years ago, are taking on a more prominent role nowadays, if not on mainstream media, at least amongst the youth. It is this last group that is calling the shots. They are changing the rhythm with which English is spoken, stressing syllables that are normally unstressed.

Without wanting to come across as a fence-sitter, I understand both camps. Those who criticise the expansion of what’s come to be known as Multicultural London English (although it’s not a phenomenon that only takes place in the British capital) might be striving for a linguistic structure that is easily accessible to all and perfectly understandable. I can sympathise with that feeling. As a non-native speaker, I find my language resources wanting when faced with a regional dialect or a slang-ridden sentence. Even those born and bred in English-speaking countries sometimes struggle with certain speech patterns. The desire for a linguistic level playing field is, thus, justified. Besides, with a job market getting narrower by the day, people need to show as many skills as possible. In order to do this, they have to be able to be fluent, confident speakers. Someone who ends her/his sentences with “innit?” is not going to get very far, no matter how much we protest and say that experience and the ability to perform the role efficiently is what counts.

However, that would be almost like denying the evolution of language. To me that would be as if the creationist movement suddenly took control of the way we spoke and built its own Royal Academy of the English Language. God made us this way and this is the way we ought to speak forever and ever. Again, I turn to Michael Rosen for a beautiful reflection on history: People all around us sing songs, tell stories of what’s happened to them, talk about their parents and grandparents, where they used to live. We remember some of this, and somehow it all becomes us. Becomes us. That is what happens to language, too. It becomes us. We become it. When we sing “Old pirates, yes, they rob I; Sold I to the merchant ships”, we forget about the objective case of “I” and lose ourselves in the message of redemption the song conveys. I say “ourselves”, I can’t vouch for you, but I do. When I talk to older people in my barrio who have lived in it for so long they can’t remember any longer, they tell me tales of exodus, of Cockneys migrating to Essex and Poles, Somalis and Turks replacing them. Whether the self-appointed guardians of the English language like it or not, this influx has an impact. On our lifestyle, our habits, our culture and, of course, it has a deep impact on our language. I have no other option but to (willingly) embrace it. Will you, too?

© 2014

Next Post; “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 2nd March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

What to do about the poor? There they are, ignoring the bailiffs knocking on the door, soon to kick it in. Enjoying their cold showers (that’s not a euphemism, by the way). Enjoying? What do you mean “enjoying”? Nobody enjoys cold showers in January! Haven’t they ever heard of warm water running smoothly down your body on a chilly winter morning? Ah, they can’t put the water heater on. Can’t afford it. All right, then. OK, how about this, how about all that greasy food they put in their fat bodies? It’s a disgrace. Oh, comfort food, you say, cheap food, you say, whatever is available, you say, from the local food bank, you say. Whatever. Whenever. Wherever.

What is poverty? Or rather, what isn’t? The latter is less difficult to define than the former. It surely isn’t yet another banker or CEO pocketing another billion-pound bonus.

I have realised in my many years living on planet Earth as a fully functional human being that in order to attain a degree of normality certain social groups must be occasionally demonised. The way it works is as follows: we create a problem, then, we come up with a scapegoat, or scapegoats, to masquerade the problem we can no longer solve. But the problem doesn’t go away, in fact, the problem comes back at us as strong as the urine that damps our clothes when we take a leak against the wind. But instead of acknowledging the problem (pissing against the wind, or the micturition dilemma to put it more politely) and our role in it, we look for another patsy to blame. All the time with our clothes reeking of urine.

Let’s establish a fact first of all: nobody wants to be poor. I have never met a single person in my entire life whose main aspiration is to live below the breadline. The opposite? Yes. All you need to do is turn your telly on and almost every channel on both terrestrial and satellite television will have its own “reality” show where contestants compete against each other to win a prize that will make them instantly rich. Or at least recognisable, which is a way to become famous and therefore rich. But poor? There is no programme called How to Become Poor and Be Really Good at It (although Channel 4 might already be working on it). Which means that poverty can be caused by many factors: redundancy (voluntary or not), learnt culture (born into a household where dependency on state handouts is chronic), loss of an industry upon which a whole region relies, i.e., mining. The list goes on. Why, then, the vilification of the poor as if deprivation could be explained by one single element?

I have a theory. I think that one of the reasons is classism. Throughout history different groups have been maligned for various reasons: blacks, Jews, Arabs, women, you name it. But in the case of the poor disapproval of their status and lifestyle has been constant. Why? Because the poor are a reminder of the flaws in our society, especially in the so-called developed world.  In developing nations, like Cuba, my country of birth, the existence of poor people is not a welcome sight, but it is understandable. After all we are “developing” as a country. Plus, the Cuban government can always be trusted to blame the US embargo for this situation, even if the big shots have never had to put up with hardship. But in the case of western polities, the poor are a stain that refuses to go away. They are that class with which the middle and upper classes have to contend every day even if they don’t share the same postcode. It doesn’t matter whether you sit on the left or on the right of the political spectrum. Whilst you might think twice about using inappropriate language when discussing race or sexual orientation nowadays out of political correctness, when it comes to the poor, anything and everything goes. Those of a blue-tinted hue (conservative, for those not au fait with British politics) condemn poor people and label them as lazy, good-for-nothing and scroungers. If only they got off their fat backsides and look for work! The red side (Labour) doesn’t fare better. It is constantly chasing the middle ground and therefore cannot make up its mind as to what to do with those who have fallen on hard times. When the liberal, progressive, forward-thinking brigade opens its collective mouth to talk about the poor what comes out is usually draped in condescension.

What to do with the poor, then? Well, the question is, what to do with them when they finally break through? When they come off benefits and find their own feet (again, for some). I tell you what, they still get a kicking.

The poor: damn if you do, damn if you don't
Enter Jack Monroe, the doyenne of one of the better blogs around, A Girl CalledJack. Ms Monroe is a dynamic, clever and feisty woman who, as a single mother of one, has unintentionally incurred the wrath of the rightwing press. All because she has dared to raise her head above the parapet and bring a much-needed empirical angle to the discussion about the welfare state. Oh, and she’s a lesbian with lots of tattoos.

When Jack writes about being on the dole she does not use figures or statistics. She lets readers know exactly what she had to go through when her housing benefit payments were delayed, leaving her in arrears. Monroe’s life is not the “Benefits Fantasy Island” parliamentarians debate about in Westminster, where apparently all claimants wear the latest Nikes and have Samsung 32-inch LED televisions in their living rooms. Hers is the real face of poverty in Britain in the 21st century.

I do not deny that some people abuse the welfare system. Sadly they give a bad reputation to those who really need it, but we have to accept the fact that fraudsters do exist. That is why we need the likes of Jack Monroe to tell us about her experience of watching her son eating the only food available in the house whilst she went hungry. We hear too much about the person who cheats the system of a few hundred pounds but less of the many claimants who can’t even make ends meet because they lack the ends.

To carry on with Jack, her blog was picked up by a few media outlets and before she knew it she had a column in TheGuardian and was fronting a Sainsbury’s ad. You would have thought that the rightwing media would have been happy with how her life turned out. After all, she got on her bike and found work! No more feckless and unemployed Ms Monroe but a proper full-time employee contributing, through her taxes, to the safety net from which she had benefited. She was still a tattooed, lesbian single mother, though. Oh, well, you can’t please everybody all the time, can you?

So, was the rightwing media happy? Hell, no!

The Daily Mail has been at the vanguard of the onslaught against Jack Monroe in the form of Bigot-in-Chief Richard Littlejohn. Jack’s problem apparently is that she talks. And she doesn’t just talk, but she talks, articulately, about problems this government would rather people forget about. Like, for instance, how over 5,000 people have been treated for malnutrition in the past year in the UK. Jack’s problem (in the eyes of The Mail and other reactionary newspapers) is that, although she belongs to the underclass, she’s dared to rise above her station. Monroe is expressing opinions to which her ilk is not normally entitled. In the eyes of the rightwing media this is a mortal sin.

There is, however, another side to this coin. Welcome as it is that Jack Monroe has made The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Mirror her natural home, one - unintentional - reason for her acceptance is the existence of a different type of snobbery against poor people, this time from the well-meaning left. Monroe ticks all the boxes that would rile the average The Daily Mail reader: "lefty, liberal, lezzer cook" (her words) . (We) Guardian devotees love this. There is nothing we enjoy more than putting one over The Daily Hate. But scratch the surface and I know that many of my fellow Guardianistas would not be seen dead in their local sink estate talking to the heavily-tattooed bloke, hoodie up, staffs let loose in the park terrorising families, smoking a roll-up and expressing himself in monosyllables with the f-word cameoing in almost every short sentence. That is also the face of poverty in Britain. Unfortunately it does not come accompanied by toasted pitta bread topped with chunks of fried sardine and a runny egg.

Jack is not to blame for this state of affairs. She is doing a sterling job. She is not only a brilliant cook (I will be nicking one of her recipes for my food and music section soon), but also a much-needed feminist model in times when most girls look at Rihanna and Beyoncé as women to emulate. To me the issue remains the same: what do we do about the poor? Answers on a postcard, please.

© 2014

Photo taken from The Guardian

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday26th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I have been running a film club in the school where I work for the last four months and a bit. It is one of those activities that gives me great satisfaction. I had already had a similar experience before but the difference this time is that the club members are really keen to write about the movies they have watched. The weekly session is divided between screen time on a Tuesday and online review time on a Wednesday. As I said to them after I showed the first film: watching a flick is not just about entertainment, it’s also about seeing the credits roll up at the end. It’s about the experience, as a whole.

So, what’s a film club got to do with literature, I hear you ask me? A lot, as it happens. One characteristic of this after-school club is that some of the members are what is commonly known as EAL children (English as an Additional Language). Through the medium of cinemascope I am providing them with opportunities to improve their reading and writing. It is too soon to talk about results but so far the majority of non-native English speakers have risen to the challenge. I have also noticed a phenomenon that reminded me of my own childhood: speed-reading.

The way I usually start my online review sessions is with guidelines to help members write better posts. My rule is simple: no one-word reviews, or one-liners. To that effect I get them to choose from headings I have already prepared for them. I also get them to read the headings aloud, helping those students (EAL or not) who lack the confidence to do so. What works in my favour in this enterprise is the size of this special “writing” club; roughly ten or eleven regulars out of the twenty members in total I have on screening days. The following will not surprise anyone who’s been around children of primary school age. Some whiz through the sentences I’ve copied on the board like miniature Michael Schumachers of the written word. Others read as if each word has been fitted with its own brain and it is pondering whether to come out or not. Some people, including teachers, see the former as a measure of success. But does speed equal efficiency? Is a fast reader a better reader than a slow one?

I learnt how to read and write before I was meant to. As I have mentioned before on this blog, I had the misfortune to be diagnosed with gastritis and stomach ulcer when I was five. That meant missing out huge chunks of curriculum time when I was in reception. My mother made up for this by teaching me how to read and write when I was bed-ridden in hospital. By the time I began my Year 1 I was well ahead of the class in literacy (not so much in numeracy and the maths curse has followed me since then). I became, not just a fluent reader, but also a fast one. The type who left visitors to my house with their mouths gaping open. Over time I developed this trait internally as well. When reading in silence as a child I sped through passages. I sometimes used to read entire books in two or three days.

Agree or disagree?
But whilst this gave me confidence in reading and developed my love for literature, I don’t think it skilled me up much for in-depth reading. This is the type of activity you do in further and higher education. By the time I started university in ’89 I was ill-equipped to cope with the amount of literature my course included. The other disadvantage I found was that up to then I had the freedom to choose my reading material, whereas now, in uni, I was expected to delve into books that sometimes didn’t interest me much, classic status notwithstanding.

That was when I slowed down. I remember it was Margaret Atwood’s fiction that caused me to forgo the strict timeline I imposed on myself and to seek out and enjoy instead the beauty of a well-crafted sentence. Whereas before the plot was my main source of literary fulfilment, now I also began to pay closer attention to the nuances of sentences, ideas and words. Doing a degree that dealt with linguistics helped me out, too. I started to look at languages (English and Spanish alike) in a different light.

All this came to my mind recently. Not just because of the progress my film club members have made, but also because I have been on a good run in terms of the books I have read. First it was The Smile of theLamb by the Israeli writer David Grossman. Using a Palestinian village in the West Bank as setting, this many-layered novel explored two sides of the occupying forces in Uri and Katzman; the former an idealistic type of soldier, sympathetic towards the villagers, the latter a more gung-ho squaddie. The style was rich, beautiful and delicate with plenty of cliff-hangers to keep the reader hooked. Then came Grace Notes, a novel in which musician Catherine McKenna, the main character, had to come to terms with her past: on the one hand, a claustrophobic Catholic upbringing and on the other hand, a destructive relationship with a drunken and abusive man. Despite the subject matter, this was a very poetic book about the healing power of music in the face of adversity.

The hat-trick has just been completed by NoViolet Bulawayo and her Booker Prize-nominated novel We Need New Names (I haven’t finished reading it yet at the time of writing this post, though. But I’ve got only about twenty-odd pages to go).  At times innocent and at times brutal, the book demands to be read at a slow pace, the better to savour sentences like this one, thought up by the main character, Darling: In America we saw more food than we had seen in all our lives and we were so happy we rummaged through the dustbins of our souls to retrieve the stained, broken pieces of God.

Three books that acted as reminders about why being a fast reader doesn’t mean being a better reader, in my opinion. Now, if I could just get this message across to the members of my film club.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 23rd February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As I wrote on this blog a couple of weeks ago I was recently invited to attend an event about Hispanic bloggers. Especially those based in London who write about this great city. It was a lovely affair. There were probably between thirty and forty people in the audience and five bloggers in total: three Spaniards, one Argentinian and yours truly, the only Cuban in the house. The event was very well organised, the food gorgeous and the afternoon networking session productive.

On the way back home I kept thinking about my fellow bloggers and the circumstances that had brought them to London. There was a word that cropped up often in my thoughts: synchronicity. Despite the fact that we all had different motives to relocate to the Big Smoke, we all shared a common desire to make sense of our new surroundings through the magic of blogging.

So, there I was, pensive behind the wheel when all of a sudden the traffic slowed down almost to a halt. It happened as soon as I hit Shoreditch High Street. Sometimes when I find myself in a situation like this, completely unexpected and beyond my control, I go with the flow. Other times I lose my patience little by little. Luckily it was the former mood that got hold of me first. Since I had already written my post about hipsters in my new section, Urban Dictionary, but lacked an image to go with it, I thought to myself that here was the perfect occasion to take that picture. I pulled over and got my camera out.

I went back to the main thoroughfare, this time Kingsland Road. The scenery around me, however, owed more to a little market town in another country. Women with multi-coloured headwraps crossed the road slowly. Men wearing drainpipes waved drivers like me to stop as they manoeuvred their way through the dense, almost stationery traffic. Bandanna-ed old geezers sashayed on the pavement. A dreadlocked couple (hair length about the same in both man and woman) clad in gold, black and green carried what seemed to be heavy Tesco plastic bags, eyes set on each other. No one was in a rush. This wasn’t the London I was used to. The one with the frantic pace, horn-tooting and swearing. Maybe it was because it was Saturday, maybe because it wasn’t raining (for once!) or maybe because in the absence of rain we had been allowed a tiny bit of sunshine. The truth is that everyone was in chill-out mode.

The traffic build-up was total. It felt as if somebody had cast a spell over our engines. You could almost hear the soft purr of them, but it was all in vain, we weren’t going anywhere. I reflected more on what happened earlier on the day. So many people from different Spanish-speaking countries (Mexico, Colombia, Spain, Argentina and Cuba) sharing our experiences. Again, the same word flashed before my eyes: synchronicity. I remembered then an e-mail I had received some months ago.

If, like me, you  have been blogging for a long time you might recognise the following scenario: a message pings into your inbox telling you that the sender has been following your blog for quite a while and do you think it would be possible to plug such and such product for a modest sum? My response is usually the same: no, I’m not interested. I haven’t even got Google Ad Sense on my blog. I want people to come to read me not to buy stuff from me or a company with which I am not familiar. Unless what I am flogging is that book that I keep meaning to write but always manages to elude me (note how I always blame the inanimate object).

Over time this type of correspondence has increased. From the odd e-mail I used to get every two or three months six or seven years ago, now I receive almost two or three per week. Occasionally, though, I find a little gem amidst the unsolicited mail.

Synchronicity: unexpected but pleasant
That was what happened last September when a message from someone called Darragh (I really didn’t know whether it was a bloke or a woman. I’ve never been very good at Irish-sounding names, sorry) arrived at my virtual doorstep. Darragh was promoting an up-and-coming singer called Roisin O. There was a link to a youttube clip which I clicked and I was immediately hooked. Not only was Roisin gifted with a crisp, clear, beautiful voice, but the video of the song (Hold On is called. Click here to watch it) was highly imaginative and creative. In its simplicity lay a well-thought message.

I must admit that when it comes to acknowledging correspondence I have always been on the procrastinating side of things. It was only recently that I got back to Darragh. However, instead of telling me off – quite rightly – for being so slow to respond, Darragh sent me a link to the whole album, The Secret Life of Blue (link to album here). And as I sat on Kingsland Road I suddenly recalled that there was a song in the record named Synchronicity. As soon as I got home that night, I logged onto my e-mail and listened to the melody again (clip below). Roisin O’s mellow tones completed the picture I’d been trying to sketch in my head all day long following the Sharehoods blogging workshops. When she sings: See the zig-zag of a shoelace/The way a jigsaw fits into place/When our hands tightly knit/I think of all the ways we fit I immediately go back to that room at Google Campus where all the pieces of this gigantic Ibero-American “jigsaw fit into place”.

The Secret Life of Blue probes the depths of pop music. It is a very well-balanced record. Opener Here We Go has a lovely, foot-tapping groove with highly sophisticated multi-layered vocals that show off Roisin O’s versatility as a singer. Climb High foregrounds an expressive, otherworldly piano which matches Roisin O’s own otherworldliness note by note. Let’s Find Some People reminded me of Tori Amos but with a KT Turnstall twist.

Altogether the album is a reinterpretation of Irish music, mixing the craic with soulful ballads. Roisin O is one of those artists who bridges the gap between modernity and tradition. In her case she leans more on the former than the latter. To me that was also what the event about the Ibero-American blogosphere was: a way to bridge the gap between the culture we left behind (but which never left us) and the culture to which we are adapting now. That all this brings like-minded people together, it’s a bonus. Then, again, that’s synchronicity for you, totally unexpected but usually pleasantly surprising.

© 2014

Photo taken from Roisin O' website

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 19th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Let's Talk About...

... Vladimir Putin, one of the gayest (in a homosexual sense, although he might also lead a merry life, who knows?) dignitaries of the 21st century.

It is clear that Putin is in denial. That could go some way to explain all the anti-gay laws recently passed in his backyard, sorry, Russia. It has long been thought that in the privacy of his boudoir, the president lets his imagination run wild and the real Vladimir comes out of... oh, well, there’s no other way of putting it, is there? Comes out of his shell. Apparently one of his minions caught him once clad in Chelsea blue, including Samsung logo stuck on his chest, running around his room pretending to have scored a goal whilst from a nearby stereo a Cockney-accented choir screamed out: Stick Your Blue Flag Up Your A**e! West Ham supporters will recognise this chant as one of the many ways in which they serenade those who swear allegiance to the team based in SW6. It is not known where Putin’s loyalties lie, but what his servant, sorry, minister, did notice was how elated he became on hearing the final three words. The chant was on a loop, his official remembers, and the louder and more climaxing the voices became, the more Putin ran and the higher he jumped. The spectacle was similar to watching a performance of Kamarinskaya, but instead of the full orchestra, the butler, sorry again, the minister had to content himself instead with thousands of Eastenders belting out simultaneously: ...Up Your A**e!

After that Vladimir Putin went for a horse ride shirtless. And had his photo taken, of course.
A gay icon for our times?

Let’s talk about this über-macho of world politics. Putin, the Invincible, Vlad the Impaler (he is probably half-Romanian anyway. There’s probably some hidden great-great-great auntie somewhere along the line), Herr Judoka par excellence. All this points at Homo Super Masculinus, doesn’t it?

And yet...

I sense in Putin a perpetual sense of alienation. A feeling of estrangement from an ever-enclosing reality that refuses to go away. This creates a need that he can’t satisfy because... well, because he is a homo super masculinus and besides, isn’t the other side a gay conspiracy that wants to pervert the minds of the little ones? Aren’t they all paedophiles? But on his own and with Lyudmila at a safe distance, Putin can allow himself to lose that mask. Besides, even he must realise that gay people come in all guises. He, like many others, has probably mistaken “camp” for “homosexual”. Yes, some camp people are gay, but not all gays are camp. That is, I believe, what Vladimir is really afraid of. He is afraid that he might be a “normal” gay. Not a Village People impersonator or a disco fan. But someone who likes to go fishing (I’m sure that's Russian slang for “cruising”) and take his top off. And have more photos taken of his hairless torso.

Let’s talk about Vladimir Putin, probably the gayest politician nowadays. Let’s look beyond his tough-guy image. It’s just a mask. Deep inside, we know who you are, Vlad, and it’s OK, we understand. After all, you don’t even like Pussy... Riot.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 16th February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Some deaths affect one more than others. Even when one doesn’t know the deceased, the full impact of their demise never really disappears. Often this happens with performers, be it actors or actresses who have left a long-lasting impression on us through an iconic role; or musicians who, with their charisma, have pulled us out of dark moments in our lives.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of those people.

To me Philip was in the same category as a John Malkovich, a Tilda Swinton or a Forest Whitaker. At their best, these actors make the audience forget that they are playing a role. And yet, when you see them with the make-up off, or without the special effects, or the prosthetic limbs, they look so ordinary. They look as if they are about to pop down to the shops for a bit of washing up liquid, a couple of lemons and some garlic. I grew up on the same block a famous Cuban actor used to live on. He still does. I often wondered: how is it possible that this man made me cry last night at the theatre and now he is queuing in front of me to get the same milk I’ll get, using the same ration card I’ll use and talking to the people from the barrio without any airs and graces?

I first saw Hoffman in Happiness, a film so disturbing that I remember travelling on the Underground at the time trying to work out who was hiding a possible Allen inside. I then saw Boogie Nights and I knew that he had it. He had that knack of not just transforming himself into the role he was playing but also transforming the viewer’s notion of what acting was. A couple of years ago Film Four showed The Big Lebowski and would you believe it? There he was again, in a minor role, but you couldn’t miss it.

Drugs: a complex issue
Seymour Hoffman  not only had a strong, chameleonic stage persona, he also had a trait common to all of us: he was a human being. A fallible human being, as it turned out. One who was addicted to heroin apparently. It is this dichotomy that makes his death hard to take. On one side we were exposed to his versatility as an actor, his fearlessness in taking on difficult roles (his Capote was as good as Toby Jones). On the other side there was a fragility, a vulnerability that even he himself must have repudiated and struggled with.

All this made me think of drugs and why people take them. I don’t just mean the act or the context, but also our views on the whole process. Mention the word “drug” and many of us put our blinkers on. We become judgemental rather than logical. It was only after I became a parent that I began to think of drugs more seriously. What if? There’s always a “what if?” with parents. The more I read about the subject, the more in the dark I found myself. Also, the more afraid I was.

I used to be a firm believer in prohibition. Ban drugs and order will follow. Lock up drug dealers and society will improve. Notice the past tense. I used to believe that. But not anymore. Just like it happened with capital punishment – in which I also had great belief – I used to think that if you put more resources on the ground, i.e., more police, more coastguards, better border controls, you could eventually solve the drugs problem. But addiction is not straightforward. First of all it's the nature of it. Is it a mental or physical condition? We know that the body doesn’t demand heroin natural (it demands food and water), so therefore the need to shoot up comes from a social environment. This environment could be a learnt one (children exposed to drug addict parents), or one they have accessed through their peer network. What I have come to realise is that we lack strategies to deal with different scenarios.

When someone suggested to me many years ago, when my children were still very little, that the better way to deal with the perennial drugs and booze problem was let teenager have them in a safe environment, I confess that I gave my interlocutor a dirty look. To me that was to admit defeat. However, he was half-right.

Hoffman died on his own, shooting up. He wasn’t in a party indulging himself in a cocktail of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. That means that it can happen to anyone anywhere. I have no information on the quality of the drugs he was using at the time of his death, but I do know that many of the junkies looking to get high right now will most likely end up buying an unregulated product from someone who doesn’t give a damn about human life.

Do I agree with the consumption of drugs? No, I don’t, even though the title of this regular column has the name “coffee” in it. Caffeine is a drug. Do I agree with people dealing with drugs? No, I don’t. I admit that whenever I think of this topic part of me sometimes becomes a human version of The Daily Mail whilst on other occasions it is my liberal, progressive mindset that is in control. But I believe that there is something on which I am sure everyone will agree. We need to talk about drugs. We owe it to Philip and others. We also owe it to the next generation, unless we want to see more people ending up dead with a syringe by their side.

© 2014

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About...”, to be published on Wednesday 12th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Urban Dictionary

Hipsters' paradise

Hipster (n), chiefly British
An urban species commonly found in the area comprised between Clapton Common Road in E5 and Shoreditch High Street, via Kingsland Road. However, sightings have been confirmed in Brixton. Hipsters’ habitat usually follows this formula run-down area+regeneration=gentrification=loft/basement/warehouse conversion=hipsters. Hence their large numbers in the eastern part of the British capital.
Appearance: There are various guises, but the main uniform consists of rolled-up skinny jeans, V-neck T-shirts or long-sleeved “sailor” tops, or in the case of the female of the species, cardies they tug on endlessly as they sway unconsciously from side to side whilst dropping the word “like” twice or three times per short sentence. In the case of males, a lumberjack shirt in winter and a fully grown beard are commonly found nowadays. An ironic beard. Hipsters are big on irony.
Feeds off: The Next Big Thing. Especially if no one else’s heard about it. Hipsters are big on The Zeitgeist even if they’re not aware it’s a German word or they can’t pronounce it. remember, they are big on irony and Zeitgeistic (or should that be Zeitgeistich?) irony is the best.
Likes: Modernism, post-modernism, punk-post-modernism, retro-counter-culture-punk-alt-post-modernism and art-rock (a tautology, I know, but remember, hipsters are big on irony). When it comes to visuals, the line between porn and art is one that must be crossed, because what is art if it doesn’t provoke? Don’t call them sexists or misogynists, though. Whatever your opinion is about the Japanese picture of the naked woman about to be “raped” by the octopus with the eight penises instead of tentacles, keep it to yourself. The hipster won’t be interested. You, commoner (read below), have failed to see the irony behind the painting.
Dislikes: Common People (no relation to the hit song by Pulp. In fact, Jarvis Cocker’s latest re-incarnation as radio DJ has created a whole new subgroup of hipsters: the Geography teacher look). Hipsters strongly dislike people who like mainstream music, mainstream art exhibitions and mainstream everything. You might as well magic yourself out of the place in which you are if a hipster happens to stroll in. The odds are they will be looking for signs of alien art life so will, like, fail to notice you, commoner.
Speech pattern: Rising intonation at the end of statements, because remember? They do, like, irony? And, you know, dude (Americanisms are limited but they do exist), life, like, kinda sucks, doesn’t it? They also tend to speak slowly. Common words include, like, you know, the usual: so, sorta, kinda, like, cool, massive (usually an elongated sound, as in maaassive). When reverting back to their British accent, hipsters go for an “Inbetweeners” inflection.
Means of transport: Single-speed, fixed-gear bikes, mainly vintage or of a Dutch provenance. What the VW campervan was for hippies, the single-speed bicycle is for hipsters. Occasionally you will see the male of the species sporting a handlebar moustache whilst leaning on his bike. And looking at people walking past in an ironic way. Remember, hipsters are big on irony.
Origin: Obscure, with some sources claiming a direct link to the famous “hepcats” from 40s US, especially New York. But unlike their Lower East Side ancestors, hipsters don’t really do jazz (unless it’s on vinyl), they go more for the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and Arcade Fire, although the latter has fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years.
Enemies: None recognisable, except that almost every other person in London hates hipsters. Hipsters don’t mind that, though. They see themselves as non-conformist rebels without the whole anarchist mindset. Above all, the more you hate them, the more they feed off that hate and use it as energy to pedal on the streets of the British capital on their single-speed, fixed-gear bikes. All the time, smiling. A wide, ironic smile. Because, like, hipsters are like, so big on irony?
© 2014

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 8th February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Every Sunday morning (for instance, today) I make myself a half English breakfast. Half, because I only go for the hash browns, sausages, egg, fried toast and beans. Occasionally I go the whole hog (pun intended) with black sausage, bacon and mushrooms. Every Sunday I also make myself a tall cup of real, ground coffee. Hot Lava Java, since you ask. Every Sunday I also go to the same newsagents to buy a copy of The Observer. Every Sunday I also do the ironing whilst watching telly and catching up with the programmes I have missed during the week. Every Sunday, weather permitting, I go for a run (at the time of writing this post it looks like it will happen because, luckily, we can put our boats and oars to one side and use the pavements in London as we are supposed to).

Every Sunday. That could be the title of my post today. Every... day, month, evening, you name it. We are creatures of habit, aren’t we? But how did we get here?

Excluding those who suffer from OCD (and I might be a member of this club, although not a high profile one) most of us, humans, fall into habits very easily. That’s probably the norm in one’s country of birth. After all, it’s the same streets you walk every day or the same bus you take or the same people you meet. What happens, however, when you relocate to another land?

We try to make sense of our surroundings by creating our own map. A mental map within a physical one, if you like. We grab the equivalent of the posts or stakes you see in pens and fences and hammer them into an imaginary ground. After we have run some barbed wire around them, we can then stretch or shorten these boundaries. The feeling of safety and, above all, normality this metaphorical enclosure provides is a satisfying one.

That is ultimately the goal: normality. And order, and discipline, too. As the parent of a teenager and an almost-adolescent (as she never tires of reminding me) I recognise the signs of convention-breaking in them. I was the same at that age. There was nothing I hated more than normality, routines and conformity. Because at the end of the day that was what routine meant to me: conformity. Not for a second did I think that when I got older I would be running towards the safe arms of Lady Routine.

Babies have it easy: eat, poop/wee and sleep. Then, do it all again. But that baby gets older. And older. And older. At some point her/his “routine” will involve getting legless in a city centre on a Saturday night with no prior planning, just for the fun of it or finish work and meet their best friend in town instead of going straight home. The irony is that these former babies would not call this “routine”. For them, an impromptu visit to a new restaurant would be labelled as “spontaneous” or “out of the norm”. So, why do we, then create regular regimes for our daily lives after?

First, because they are effortless. They also tend to be unconscious. We do not always have a reason to adopt a particular way of doing things. I mentioned the immigrant’s experience before and, obviously, this is an issue close to my heart. My love for London grew stronger when I began to commute to the travel company I was employed at many years ago. The simplicity of that journey, travelling the same route every day, seeing almost the same people on the overground, gave me a sense of belonging. Even when I had to change my travel plans because of diversion or problems on the tube I still felt that I was not disorientated any more. I realised that unconsciously I had gone from the “Cuban relocated to London” to the “Cuban living and belonging in London”. There could also be another reason why we opt for routine in our mature years. To free up our creativity and imagination more. It sounds like a paradox, I know, but by doing things in a certain order and with the same regularity we are almost inducing in ourselves a state of catharsis. Faced with the quotidian once more, we then strive for the extraordinary, either something that we produce or a new experience we expose ourselves to. So, after all routine has its (positive) uses, even if our young ones might see it as the dreaded Dull Monster to escape from.

© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Wednesday 5th February at 11:59pm (GMT)


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