Saturday, 28 February 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact it’s cold as hell/And there’s no one there to raise them if you did.

Well, you are wrong, Mr Dwight. It turns out there will be people there to raise your kids in Mars if you wish to leave them in the care of a fellow earthling.

The news that 100 hopefuls (50 men and 40 women) have been shortlisted with the objective of embarking on the first Mars-bound expedition has been met with derision in some quarters, whilst being applauded in others. Suicide mission? Ultimate sacrifice for science? Commercial opportunism? Opinions are divided and I have yet to side with either camp. It is not the mission itself that made me take to my keyboard to knock this post up tonight but a comment made by one of the wannabe Martians.
Enough to make your mind go blank

I can’t remember her name but at 27 (if my memory serves me right) she was one of the younger applicants. She was interviewed on Radio Four’s Today programme and when she was asked if she felt afraid to go to a place no one knew much about and whence she, sadly, might not be able to return, she answered that going to Mars was no different to getting run over by car. She made it sound as if this were like for like. I disagree. The fact that people do get run over by cars and some lose their lives does not mean that cars pose more of a danger to human life but, rather, that they are driven by careless drivers who on many occasions flout the rules imposed by the Highway Code. On the other hand, as explained by Professor Todd Huffman from Oxford University, going to Mars means coming into contact with an ecosystem that has followed a completely different evolutionary from that of planet Earth. The chances of surviving in this environment are slim. It is almost as if the 100 shortlisted applicants to go to the Red Planet were signing their death sentence, or a collective suicide pact.

The one-way Mars One project (the key is in the word “one-way”. No one is expecting the wannabe astronauts to come back) is the apex of human hubris, in my humble opinion. Once more, we are looking up, beyond the skies, and not up to the uppermost part of our body, the brain. We are desperate to find out about the universe but the same funds are not always available to carry out better research into the beautiful and puzzling ways our brain operates. The fact that the mission to Mars will be filmed like a reality show smacks of irresponsible behaviour to me. Big Brother on Mars? Great working title, lousy and predictable ending: everybody dies. Maybe run over by a Martian driving the equivalent of a BMW.

I sympathise with Natalie Bennett. I really do. The Green Party leader suffered a “mind blank” on a live radio interview on LBC when launching her party’s political manifesto. Specifically, she failed to justify her claim that the Greens would be able to provide half a million new council homes.

Whilst I do not wish to rub salt in her wound (I shall leave that to the Daily Hate), I must admit that even if she had backed up her answer with numbers, I still would have found her claim difficult to believe. Purely because it was of the “crossed fingers” type.

Nevertheless, her performance reminded me of the time I also suffered my own “mind blank”. True, I was only eleven and about to move up to secondary school but I had already developed a good reputation as a singer. People - not just relatives - have told me over the years that I had a good voice and I guess that the competitions in which I participated and in which I won a few awards bear witness to my erstwhile talent.

But back to my Year 6’s final show. There I was, pretend mike in hand (it was basically a mike-shaped fist) and the whole school in front of me. They were calling out my name; I was the last one on the bill. One of my Year 6 teachers held me by the hand (I had a pre-pubescent crush on her so my little heart was beating faster than usual), my parents were at the back, my classmates were in a straight line facing me, but I could see heads poking out to either side trying to steal a glance at their fellow pupil on stage. The younger children were sat on our tiled floor. In those days there was no backing track. It was all a capella. I had done the song before, in fact, I had performed it at a festival a few weeks back. I opened my mouth...

And nothing came out.

My mind went blank. I had forgot the words and with it panic kicked in. I began to sweat profusely and to shake. My eleven-year-old self could not understand a word my teacher (the one I had the prepubescent crush on, remember?) was whispering in my ear.

I sympathise with Natalie. Of course, there is a difference between a primary school child attempting to sing in front of the whole school and forgetting the lyrics and a grown-up politician launching her party’s manifesto and being unable to articulate her ideas.

That is why we need to devote more time to study our brain.  Do not look up to Mars; the truth might be closer, as in, in the uppermost part of the human body.

© 2015

Next Post:” Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 4th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Let's Talk About...

... Christmas, or rather, let’s talk about the toys your child/nephew/niece/godson/goddaughter was given for Christmas.

Yes, I know that Christmas is now a distant memory, buried in a two-month-old grave only to be resurrected like St Lazarus as early as... September. But, spare a thought for the volume of plastic tat that has already been chucked out.

I have said here before that I did not grow up with Christmas around me. Therefore, I completely missed out on the annual razzmatazz that is present-giving at Christmas. I did get toys on other occasions especially, as also mentioned here previously, on 6th January to celebrate The Three Wise Men (that was down to my late Catholic grandmother). But the 25th December was just another date on the calendar.

That means that I only began to experience the actual phenomenon of Christmas and its ancillary gift-bearing and gif-offering (without any Greeks involved, mind you) pantomime in the last seventeen years. This has given me plenty of time to notice a few changes.

For instance, by the time I got acquainted with the “bearded guy” in the red and white costume, I don’t recall seeing many wind-up toys around. Most of the sets my wife and I bought for my son first and later on for our daughter were battery-powered. They were novelty for some time, until the battery ran out, by which time our toddler(s) had moved on. With wind-up or more rustic-looking toys, on the other hand, we noticed that our children tended to bond more, but their attention was inevitably diverted once another battery-powered Thomas the tank engine arrived on the scene.

Let’s talk about the post-Christmas toy graveyard that seems to spring up around January and February and expand its boundaries every year. Let’s talk also about attention span.

What came before, the chicken or the egg? What came before, short attention span or the visual onslaught of plastic tat on our little ones?

Let’s talk about that moment – dreaded moment as I have found out in recent years – when your little cherub opens the first Christmas present, sits there, mouth agape, heart pumping and broad smile adorning its angelic face. Fifteen presents later and the debris of opened and discarded wrapping paper littering your lounge floor, the same angel has suffered a transformation: she/he is the devil incarnate. The way they tear through the flimsy gift paper, looking for yet another present, the equivalent of a sugar rush (shall we call it Christmas-toy-giving rush?) is enough to want to open a savings account in order to put some money away for the psychologist your little angel will probably end up visiting in years to come.

May I have your attention, please?
Just like a dog is not just for Christmas, a toy should be for longer than two months. But what to do when faced with a gallimaufry of brightly coloured, battery-powered items ensconced away in your child’s bedroom? Meanwhile, she or he is downstairs playing on the iPad bequeathed to them by a generous uncle from... fill in the blanks with the name of the country yourself. And here you are, being winked at by Buzz Lightyear, the lagniappe of a trip to McDonald’s or KFC. Oops, you just pressed his chest by mistake. To infinity... and beyond!

Let’s talk about Christmas toys. Even if they are not of the wind-up type.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 28th February at 6pm (GMT)

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The old codger in me was tested recently. I ordered the movie A Little Princess for the film club I run in my school. Halfway through the 97-minute-long film, I realised that I wasn’t cut out for this riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches phony story anymore. I was taking the mickey (silently, of course) of everything in the movie: the implausible plot, the weak performances, the beyond-caricature dramatis personae, the obvious manipulation of feelings and emotions. Even the interaction between white, (ex) rich girl, Sara and black servant Becky had me muttering: She can’t even pull off a credible Harriet Beecher Stowe! Yes, I confess, I was behaving like a grumpy, old git, but when you have been exposed to the sugar-coated Hollywood machine for so long, you might begin to understand why I was playing Mr Grinch.

A Little Princess was made in 1995, twenty years ago. Twenty years! Has anything changed in the film industry in the interim? Yes, looking on the positive side, some things have. We have better films and better-written scripts. Also, nowadays with movies aimed at the younger generation, we usually get a nod in our direction, too. A wink at us, oldies. Companies like Pixar make intelligent films. Yet, the mission statement of the film industry remains the same: whatever happens, she (Always a she. apparently characters in children's films are not allowed to be gay) marries the guy at the end. Don’t believe me? Exhibit A: Frozen. I was looking forward to watching it with my film club (silly me, every single member had already seen it and knew the songs by heart) because I was told that the story was so original and the score was so original, too, and the animation was so... well, you get my point.
A change is gonna come?

Bloody Frozen. Or should I say: Bloody Frozen? That is how I felt after the final credits rolled up. Beyond cold. What’s so original about a girl who depends on a man to save her sister? There was a moment in the film when Elsa is on the verge of confessing her secret to her sister Anna and I willed her – actually willed her! – to make a comment along the lines of: You know what, Anna, I’m dating Nigel Farage. There, I’ve said it. I know he is married to that German woman but I also know that he can’t tell Teuton from Slavic. It’s all the same to him. We have similar opinions, too. I mean, have you seen all these bloody foreign princes coming here to eat our food? At least I would have hated her, but hated with passion and with good reason. But no, we got another bland character, or rather, a whole set of them instead. And a catchy tune that has probably been incorporated in the torture regime in Guantanamo.

Not all animations bring out the dormant old codger in me. My favourite kids’ movie in recent years has been Kung Fu Panda. The main reason is that we get well-rounded characters with a back story and flaws and virtues like everyone else. The eponymous hero is fat and clumsy and remains fat and clumsy until the end, even after he defeats the dangerous Tai Lung. It is a funny movie but instead of laughing at the characters I was laughing with them. There is even a message about the way we bring children up and how, the damage we might cause them in childhood, will probably emerge later in life with unpredictable consequences. That’s what happens to Tai Lung. Others might opine that there is a certain undercurrent of biological determinism in the movie. This mainly applies to Tai Lung as he was seen as “destined” to be bad. Whatever your view of the movie is, the fact that we can interpret it in different ways is evidence of the good quality of it.

I can hardly say the same about A Little Princess or Frozen. My brain went dead for an hour and a half. I know that some of you will say that it is only a movie and the implausible plot follows a long, historical line of implausible plots whose main objective is to rake in the greens. Yes, I agree. Some of you might also point at new female characters emerging in a sort of counterculture movement (Cat, the PhD student dreamed by Will Brooker being a case in point). Yet, they usually end up copying their male counterparts, including violence.

The only solution I can see on the horizon is when studios stop seeing movies as the word I mentioned before, “industry”, and begin to see it as what it was at the beginning of cinema: an art. An art that is not dependent on gender or stereotypes. An art where characters do not have to break into song every five minutes telling themselves to “let it go”.

A recent item on Thought for the Day, Radio Four’s flagship religious section, had me scratching my head. Two babies, born with jaundice, were put in an incubator. They were handed back to their mothers who checked with hospital staff to make sure they had the right infant. Ten years later and after some DNA tests... well, you can imagine what happened.

The reason why the case came to the attention of the media was that the hospital in which the babies were kept was found guilty of negligence. However, that was not the salient point of the mix-up for me. What I wanted to find out was the parents’ reaction. Would they love their child less now that they knew it wasn’t biologically theirs? Or was faux-biological, paternal love strong enough to withstand this challenge?

The answer was provided by the bishop Richard Harries, who read the item in his Thought for the Day slot. One of the mothers said: “We were so afraid to lose one another that we realised how much love we have for each other. We don’t need the same blood to feel part of the same family”. End of head-scratching for me.

Whilst Richard used Jesus as a prop to illustrate the fact that we all belong to a big family, a religious family, this story of children being brought up by accidental, surrogate parents returned once more my faith – humanist faith – in my fellow humans. Believe me, I needed that after A Little Princess.

© 2015

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About...”, to be published on Wednesday 25th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

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


Last time out this section got a bit of a grilling (pun intended!) from my fellow veggie blog-friends. Fret not, mis amigos, this time, I've got a beautiful, lovely, delicious veggie recipe for you. This first appeared in the January issue of The Observer Food Supplement under the theme of how to feed four for a tenner. The total of the recipe below amounts to just over four quid. Photograph by Jean Cazals and text by Sam Harris, chef patron of Zucca.


large white onion 1, thinly sliced into rings
olive oil 4 tbsp
garlic 2 cloves, crushed
fresh mussels 200g
medium-sized waxy potatoes 4, thinly sliced
red pepper 1, cut into thin strips
large courgette 1, cut into thin discs
risotto rice 100g
tin of whole tomatoes 1, drained of juice and cut into quarters

Sweat the onion with a pinch of salt in olive oil for 10 mins, then add the garlic and cook for a minute.

Add the mussels and 100ml water, put the lid on and allow the mussels to open up. Remove from the heat, reserve the liquid and take the meat from the shells.

Take a baking dish and in layers place a little of the potatoes at the bottom, then the onions, pepper and courgette. Sprinkle some rice over, add a few pieces of tomatoes, then the mussel meat. Continue doing so until everything is used up.

Pour over the juice the mussels were cooked in, and add 150ml cold water. Cover as tightly as possible and place in an oven heated to 180C/gas mark 4 for 40 mins, until everything is cooked. Rest for 15 minutes and serve.

The mussels opening up in the pan bring to mind slow-burning music (remember Killer Opening Songs last week? Same pattern but non-jazzy). That's why I have enlisted the help of two of the more famous Brazilian singers in the history of that country's rich musical history: Simone and Roberto Carlos. Have you ever met someone after 20 years of not seeing each other? 20 Years. That's the name of this track. Enjoy.

If we talk about layers in cooking, then, I have to mention Beth Hart, because she is a "layered" singer. I love the way this song just keeps building up until around the three-minute mark she hits a high note with her trademark husky growl and then, the way she keeps that high note and just carries on... damn, she's just the "baddest" girl in town. Love me some Beth Hart and her Baddest Blues.

We're going out tonight with a bang. Why did I choose this recipe? Mainly because of the risotto rice. I love the way the rice sucks up the water and cooks ever so slowly. This is what this track does to me. Even though it's a few decades old, it leaves me feeling tender like that risotto rice. Mel Torme's Comin' Home. I defy you to stay quiet.

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 22nd February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

You don’t update your Facebook page very often, do you?” The tone was not accusatory, but the question asked by my fellow Cuban had the word “curiosity” tattooed all over it. We had bumped into each other in our little patch of London after not seeing one another for a good couple of years. Whereas I had followed the developments in his life quite closely (birth of his second child, his older one growing up healthily, happier times with his wife, disappearance of his wife from photos, new “home setting" in photos), he had not been able to do the same with my life. The reason behind it, as I came to realise after our conversation was that I treat my social media like my e-mail accounts. I go to them only when I need them and I never divulge too much information, especially of the personal kind.
Facebook: still like a "normal" e-mail to me

We live in such dynamic, interconnected times that we tend to assume everyone else is equally prompt at updating online profiles and posting photos of family gatherings. Some of us do not. But whereas you will find people who actively rebel against the “tyranny of social media”, I am just a procrastinator. That is just a very posh way of saying that I am a lazy sod and can’t be arsed to check my Facebook wall or my Twitter feed. The latter gets a look-in every time I publish a post. Facebook, on the other hand, only gets irregular visits. I guess Mark Zuckerberg will be knocking on my front door soon. Just to make you aware of my laziness when it comes to interactive social platforms, I do not even have the Facebook or Twitter app on my smartphone. So, no “pinging” for me.

This unusual behaviour – as measured by modern life standards – has spilled onto other territories. Take reading, for instance. I am an avid reader as you all know and yet I got a headache the other day after reading a column in Prospect by the writer Sam Leith. Sam has just been appointed as one of the judges of this year’s Man Booker Prize. He is supposed to read approximately 150 books. 150 books! Sam Leith, a man who makes a living out of writing book reviews is supposed to read around 150 books. Please, pass me the smelling salts, I’m about to pass out. As much as I love reading I could never do it as job. Not that I will ever be eligible anyway. First off, as I mentioned before I would have to confront my own laziness (other people would call it “pace”). I like reading in my own time and when I feel like it. Secondly, if I were one of the participating writers I would never trust someone like me to judge my book.

150 books approximately. I’m still thinking about it and I’ve got a couple of Paracetamols in my hand. And still my friend queries my Facebook status.

News that the Church of England is debating whether to have a baptism of service without mentioning the devil or not, put a smile on my face. I can just imagine our horned friend marching up to the nearest job centre, queueing up and meeting one of the much-feared advisors whose main role is “to get people off benefits and into work” (by whatever means possible, even if the means do not justify the end). I can just picture pumped-up, face-turning-puce Mephistopheles holding forth, chest out, shouting out the predictable question: Do you know who I am? And an unimpressed advisor answering: No, but that attitude will not get you very far, sir. Following this exchange, the usual protocol will ensue with questions about the devil’s current status (unemployed and unemployable, according to the church), previous work experience (“last job was with HSBC’s Swiss private bank but that one didn't go very well”) and ambitions (“to take over the world, both this one and the ‘other’ one”).

By the time Satan signs on, he will find out exactly how much he’s yet to learn from the Department for Work and Pensions and its inscrutable, tough-looking, soulless army of IDS clones. The Church of England needn’t debate about mentioning the devil in its liturgy. After his first visit to a job centre, it is very likely the devil himself will change his name and career.

© 2015

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 18th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Killer Opening Songs (Outre Mer by Garage a Trois)

As you all know well by now, and if you do not know, then, you should know, Killer Opening Songs is always on the lookout for some good, slow-burning, trail-blazing, soul-enhancing groove. Genres mean nothing to our little friend’s search for melodies that make it shake its you- know-what all the way to the ground. And back up again. This is how K.O.S. came across Garage a Trois.

Outre MerGaT, as its followers call it, was born in New Orleans (where else but?) as a trio-cum-quartet at the tail end of the 90s. Their first full-length studio album (which is sitting by K.O.S.’s side as it is typing this post) was Emphasizer and it defied genres and styles. Its follow-up, Outre Mer, was even groovier and more uniformly harmonic. This is the one on which Killer Opening Songs is focusing tonight. The title track has all the elements one has come to expect of GaT: strong funk hook, brilliant guitar work, innovative percussion, steady and reliable drumming and an explosive, winner-takes-all saxophonist. And you know what? This is just the opening track.

Charlie Hunter on guitar, Stanton Moore on drums, Mike Dillon on percussion (although it looks more like a xylophone what he is playing in the clip below) and Skerik on saxophone have created the sort of musical landscape that can only come from a place like New Orleans. Like the city itself, GaT’s music is hard to define but easy to fall in love with, even for an entity like Killer Opening Songs, that has never been to the States. At times the melodies are quirky (K.O.S. remembers Plena for my Grundle from their previous record, Emphasizer), on other occasions they are loose and yet there is a tightness all the way throughout their pieces, a togetherness, if you like.

If you are into modern jazz, you will surely become a devotee of Garage a Trois. If K.O.S. were pressed to define their style, our Regular Section with Murderous Tendencies would have to invent a category, like jazz-punk-Latin-funk or something along those lines. Above all, Garage a Trois is groove, just pure groove.

© 2015

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 15th February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I was recently having dinner with friends and relatives at home when the topic of class arose. One of the guests insisted on putting me in the category “middle-class”. When I asked her why she couldn’t give me a straight answer which left me pondering about the way some of us see ourselves in relation to how others see us.

I have always considered myself to be working class regardless of my profession. Although I have never done the sort of job that belongs in blue-collar worker territory, I was brought up with an ethic that had more in common with the working class than with the middle-class.

Remnants of a class system are still part of Cuban life. True, they are not as conspicuous as they are in other countries, but they do exist. They manifest themselves differently and yet they still retain features that non-Cuban readers will easily recognise as elements they come across in their own backyards. Amongst these traits is the very definition of “middle-class”.

It was not until I moved to the UK that I began to think seriously about class. Not so much in terms of which class I belonged to but more in terms of how much in-your-face the class system was in this country, whilst at the same time managing to stay hidden. You could say that in Britain the class system is hidden in plain view. The person who labelled me “middle-class” was middle-class herself. Whereas in order to arrive at her conclusion she must have factored in my job, income and aspirations, I, on the other hand, had a different idea about the group that most resembled my social standing.

Let me be clear about one thing: I am not embarrassed about being called “middle-class”. I do not think anyone should be either. As you know I do not do faux self-deprecation. I just do not think that I have that status. For starters, I do not possess many of the traits commonly associated with the middle-class. I do not own the house in which I live (it’s unlikely I will ever be able to afford a mortgage, let alone buy a house). Secondly, I come from a humble background as I mentioned before in which hard work was always encouraged. As my mother used to tell me: “Even if you decide to be a road-sweeper, be the best road-sweeper ever!” I must admit, though, that my father did have lofty aspirations for me. He wanted me to read law but I have always believed that that idea owed more to his own shortcomings (he always wanted to be a lawyer himself and at some point signed up to the equivalent of Open University in Havana to read law) than to whatever academic prowess he imagined I had. The final reason is that whenever someone attempts to “upgrade” your status, it says more about the person doing it and their prejudices than about your actual social rank.

There is a fourth reason. Although the woman who called me “middle-class” was vague about the reasons to label me so, I suspect she had the following elements in mind: most of my jobs in the UK so far have been of the white-collar variety, my wife and I have created a stable home (which we still do not own, as I stated before) and brought two children up who are very well-mannered, intelligent and creative. We do own a car, not an old banger, but not an Audi, either. Furthermore, since they were little our offspring have always been encouraged to think independently. What little money we have had we always made sure that some of it went towards paying for music lessons, swimming classes and trips to places we thought would enhance our children’s understanding of the world.  My wife’s job as a teacher is another reason for the “middle-class” categorisation; ours is what you could call a professional household. Our combined income hovers just over the average income in the UK (not London, however). We are both articulate and should you, fellow reader or blogger, happen to ever visit our domicile you will see copies of The Guardian, The Observer, The New Statesman, The New Yorker, The Economist, The London Review of Books and Prospect on our coffee table in addition to several books dotted around the house. So, yes, we read a lot and we read publications that make us think. Last but not least, we try to go abroad at least once every couple of years. Again, part of this decision is rooted in our belief that broadening up our children's geographical and cultural horizons is part of their development as functionally active and useful citizens.

Typical middle-class family: coming to a Poundland near you
Is that enough to be classified middle-class?

Tricky question and a no less tricky answer. If I answer yes, I would almost unintentionally cast the working class in the opposite role. Yet, I know from my own and other people’s experience that this is not the case. Income does have an influential part, no doubt about that. If parents of children from humble backgrounds haven't got the dosh to cough up for music lessons or swimming classes, their children will be at a disadvantage in relation to their better-off peers. At this point I need to come clear about something: my children learnt how to swim when Labour was still in power. The local swimming pool was free for under-12s. The coalition ended that. So, perhaps the drive to get children to try something new is also there in the working class household but the money is not. The other reason why I struggle with this unsolicited “middle-class” definition fostered upon me is that it creates an unfair division in which on one side you have the cleverer, aspiration-focused, hard-working middle-class and on the other one you have the (nowadays) feckless, tabloid-reading, football-loving, dumb working class.

It is unfair to think this way, especially in our current times when the formerly ubiquitous class
system has muddle up somewhat. One outcome from the 2008 economic crisis was that it suddenly sent both hard-up families and hitherto well-off ones to the same Poundland shop or Lidl supermarket that the former was already used to frequenting. The second tier up that the middle-class stood for has evanesced. What we have now is a disenfranchised working class, a middle-class that still insists on keeping up appearances despite the fact that many of them had to sell off and move out of London or similar urban centres and an upper class that has hardly been affected by the economic downturn. Where before the aspiration void was filled up by the middle-class, now there is almost nothing. Or rather, there is, but you will have to take part in that “reality TV” show in order to get there.

My point is still the same. I do not care what my income is, or what it will be in the future. House ownership is a topic my wife and I have discussed but which we feel is too out of our reach for the foreseeable future. Being articulate, in print or verbally, is not a byword for class status. There are plenty of working-class people who express themselves in a nice, clear way. When my wife and I talk about our aspirations for our children we do not mention higher education, but satisfaction in life, contentment. “If you want to be a road-sweeper, be the best road-sweeper ever!” Yup, I have taken up my mother’s mantra. Reason enough to carry on calling myself working class.

© 2015

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 11th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Urban Dictionary

Summer stripper (n)

It is a contradiction of which Urban Dictionary is well aware that at the time of writing they are predicting the first snowfall in London. And yet, the phenomenon of the summer stripper is so interesting – in any season – that to ignore it is, in footballing terms, the equivalent of missing an open goal.

The summer stripper is a species that, as the name indicates, comes out as soon as the temperature turns warmer. The “summer” part is a red herring, however. The summer stripper can appear as early as March when spring sends a thousand flowers blossoming. There have been (unconfirmed) sightings of summer strippers in their almost-birthday-suits in January and February on the rare occasions when temperatures have hit double figures.

You always know when you are in the presence of a summer stripper, even when they are fully clothed. It is their ebullient, outgoing, fearless personality. They are one card short of a full exhibitionist deck, minus the psychiatric element and with added eccentricity. The summer stripper is the last person on earth to deny themselves a pleasure, whether it be allowed or restricted. Boundaries – especially those in urban areas – are to be transgressed.

Let us be clear about one key issue: the summer stripper is harmless. Also, his/her act of stripping in public is almost unconscious, although it is widely accepted that there are many examples of narcissistic summer strippers. Of all ages. Let us emphasise that last element. All ages. Summer stripping can be done as young as eighteen and as old as eighty. All the summer stripper needs is a public place in which to display her/his “wares”. This is also important: the summer stripper has an uncanny ability to convey nudity without actually taking all their clothes off. Nearly all, but not all.

The summer stripper’s habitat consists mainly of public places such as local parks (or better known ones like Green Park or Hyde Park in central London), pubs, supermarkets, bus stops and main thoroughfares. Wherever there is a space to be seen in when the temperature hovers in the late teens (it used to be early twenties, but that’s so 2003 now) you’re bound to find a summer stripper. They come in various colours, they do, summer strippers: from milky, Antarctic white to salon-tanned orange. Some summer strippers beef up during the months of December, January and February in the same way hamsters cache their food for winter. By the time they come out in late March, early April, puffed-up, muscled and with bodywork inked down their arms, they are ready to give you a show. Not that you asked for one, but they will still entertain you.

Urban future?
The perennial battle inside the summer stripper is between her/himself and the achievement of a perfect tan without the lines. Hard task to pull off as no matter how skimpy the bikini or minute the trunks are, they still have to keep them on. Or else they are arrested for public indecency. Some people will correct Urban Dictionary and say that the summer stripper’s mere presence in a public place is indecent enough. But as Urban Dictionary averred previously, summer strippers are harmless. You could even claim that the older species is a sort of crusader, raising awareness of the importance of the human body in all its different phases: from the aforementioned washboard tummy to the wrinkly chest. You could perhaps think otherwise: you have seen the older species in a mankini.

As our planet gets warmer and seasons play up (the summer stripper is not specific of just the one country or hemisphere, but she/he has a preference for climates where there are four defined seasons, the better to stand out) Urban Dictionary predicts that the summer stripper will be a more familiar presence. Who knows, maybe in a few years Father Christmas will not be delivering presents wearing a red and white thick coat but a mankini. That is one wager I would be willing to have.

© 2015

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

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Are you sitting comfortably? Did you have a nice breakfast/lunch/dinner (depending on what time you are reading this post)? Did you have tea or coffee with your meal? Are you even a tea or coffee drinker? Did you sleep well last night? Did you wake up this morning and looked through your bedroom window? Does your bedroom window provide you with a nice view? Does this view make you feel alive? Does this view make you aware of your own existence and as a consequence you feel happier?

To be honest I am interested in your answers, but I am more interested in the process that led you to those answers. I am interested in the intricate web of sensations and thoughts that shaped your responses. There is no right or wrong in any of your answers. Then, again there is no right or wrong when it comes to consciousness.

I am fascinated by the phenomenon of consciousness. You could say it permeates my blog and the posts I write, although not always explicitly. Why do I feel so attracted to consciousness? Because it is at the core of who we are as humans is one answer. Another could be that it is the most (un) human element, the most mysterious one, the one that has eluded scientists and philosophers so far.

I began this post straight after reading Oliver Burkeman’s recent excellent essay on the subject of consciousness. One reason why I loved Oliver’s article was because it was not heavy on scientist lingo. I am still a layperson when it comes to defining, explaining and making sense of consciousness. That does not detract from my fascination with the topic, but as soon as you mention the thalamus, you lose me.

What is consciousness, then? To me, in a nutshell, is the awareness of being. That sounds easy, but it’s the “how we get to that realisation of being” that has divided the scientific community and pitted scientists against philosophers and theologians.

If I exist, then it follows that I can be measured, weighed, assessed and observed. En bref, I can be explained. There is evidence to substantiate my existence. But what if the way to prove my existence is a non-physical phenomenon that can only be perceived by me internally?

Burkeman traces the origin of the debate back to the 1600s and Descartes’ famous maxim: “I think, therefore I am”. What? I am what? I still remember asking myself that question when I first heard that phrase many years ago. I am what? A person? A being? Consciousness minus the body?

The main point about Descartes’ theory is that you might arrive at the conclusion that your surroundings are illusory, that your physical self exists only in the eyes of others, or in relation to others, but consciousness does not work the same way. When you make sense of your existence through a “device” that is non-physical you eliminate the possibility of perception by others. Especially because said “device” is based within yourself.

Descartes mentioned the g-word. That might be the reason, as Oliver explains, why scientists avoided the subject of consciousness for many centuries. As we became more rational, God became more distant.

What's inside?
And yet...

If you have seen the film 21 Grams by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, you know that the film explores various themes, such as love, death and whether the latter can be weighed or not. If it can, it is alleged that we all lose 21 grams (hence the title) at the exact moment of our death. If you can measure such a difficult and hard-to-describe phenomenon, can we not apply the same principle to consciousness? The brain weighs 1.4kg, how much do you think consciousness weighs? If the answer is that we can’t weigh consciousness because it is not physical, then, does that necessarily mean that this particular phenomenon on which we all depend to make sense of ourselves was gifted to us... by... someone... else?

I can see you, my fellow atheists, frowning and wondering if yours truly was a closeted religious believer all along. No, but it is science that dictates that to close down the argument on a subject is to deny the possibility of error and of further development. My explanation is completely amateur and befits my layperson’s category. To me consciousness is an essential part of the brain in as much as rim tape is an essential part of a bicycle. Without the latter you will get puncture after puncture. But do you see it? Same with consciousness. Without it, we would not be able to make sense of the world, or you, readers and fellow bloggers, would not be able to make sense of this post. The difference, as some of you will hasten to add, is that if you dismantle a bicycle’s tire you can see the rim, whereas if you open the brain... mate, what did you do with my consciousness?

I don’t know whether I am right or wrong. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post I am more interested in the process(es) my consciousness unlocks and sets in motion. Read Oliver Burkeman’s essay (it’s part of The Guardian’s The Long Read series, so, make sure you are sitting comfortably) and let me know what you think. Remember, there’s no right or wrong.

© 2015

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Wednesday 4th February at 11:59pm (GMT)


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