Saturday, 12 December 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

I am more than half way through George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (I know, I know, not your usual, jolly, Christmas reading, but there you have it, I am not your usual season-themed reader either) and I am loving it. One of the reasons is the manner in which Orwell educates me on British culture and history without intending to. The following passage is a good example. Here he is referring to the coal mines in the industrial north, the type of hard work that was done in them and the impact that back-breaking labour had on the society of the time:

Working-class heroes. Their descendants work now at Sports Direct. Photograph: Kurt Hutton/Getty Images 
It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp. and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throat full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

That remoteness did not stop in the post-war years when Orwell penned this non-fiction book based on his travels around the north of England. It continues today even if our economy is no longer coal-dependent. It is hard to fathom that at one point, not just a whole nation, but also the majority of the fast-developing, industrial nations of the West relied on coal. If you ever read The Road to Wigan Pier (and I strongly recommend it) you will begin to understand a bit more the class system in British society and the subtle ways in which it works. As I mentioned before, even if I was made aware of how classist the UK still is many years ago, I was still surprised to find it spelled out in such a blunt and no-holds-barred language as it appears in this book.

Perhaps the timing to read one of Orwell’s most famous non-fiction pieces is not that bad. After all, 'tis the season when we want to gather round the tree, so to speak, and spend time with those we love and care for. We also tend to think of those who make a positive difference in our lives and who have an impact on them. I wonder if someone in Hampstead or Surrey, back in ’37 or ’38 ever thought fondly of John Smith, coal miner in Lancashire, who ensured the fire was always burning down south. I wonder if we ever think of their modern surrogates: the zero-hour contract workers, the back-of-the-van, cash-in-hand, newly-arrived immigrants, the recent graduates manning tills at Tesco’s and other supermarkets on Christmas Eve and the below-the-minimum-wage workers grafting at billionaire-controlled retail chains. They do not make things and they do not make our fires burn, especially because most of us enjoy central heating these days. And yet, where would our modern consumerist-minded society be without their contribution? They might not walk underground for hours on end at the mercy of rocks falling and gas explosions as the miners in Orwell's book did, but they are still an essential part of our economic – "unfair", I would add, before that “economic” – cycle. This last post of 2015 is for them, for those unsung heroes that ensure our children are taught well, our hospitals are kept clean, our shops and supermarkets are open at all hours and our brand-new mobiles are delivered before Christmas. To all of you, thank you, I hope you manage to get some time off to spend with the people you love and care for.

See you all in January 2016. Until then, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!

© 2015

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Killer Opening Songs: "Convoque seu Buda" by Criolo

For more than three decades rap has been mainly known as an Anglophone, US-born, African-American-driven musical phenomenon. At the beginning, lyrics focused more on social and political issues. However, with the passing of time and with the wealth-accumulating habits of certain rap artists, the genre has lost its initial bite somewhat.

Not everywhere, mind you. There still exist places around the world where rap is being used as a weapon of war to address important issues. Killer Opening Songs is proud to introduce an artist who has done precisely this since his scene-stealing debut album No Na Orelha in 2011.

Criolo is a slum-raised Brazilian singer (and singer is the key word here as he not only raps but also has the pipes to deliver some of the most beguiling and beautiful melodies ever. For evidence of this, please, listen to the third track on No Na Orelha, Não Existe Amor em SP). It is to his second album, Convoque seu Buda, that K.O.S. is turning its attention tonight, especially its Killer Opener, the title track. The song builds on the same elements that made its predecessor, No Na Orelha, Rolling Stone magazine’s Best Album of the year almost half a decade ago. There’s the hard-hitting commentary on the economic, social and political situation of Brazil, especially in the build-up to the Olympic Games next year. All this is mixed with catchy, foot-tapping beats and delivered with panache and maturity.

Whilst rap is Criolo’s main means of expression, the album Convoque seu Buda (literally, Invoke your Buddha) is testament to other styles this son of São Paulo has adopted. There is reggae, Afrobeat and samba throughout the record. Killer Opening Songs even detected the influence of Tropicália, the 60s and 70s musical movement that sought to blend different styles such as rock and funk with more traditional Brazilian rhythms. As mentioned before, Criolo is not just an outstanding rapper but also an excellent singer songwriter as demonstrated in the fourth track, Casa de Papelão, a haunting song whose harsh subject matter, homelessness, contrasts beautifully against its sophisticated arrangements. It also has one of the better bass hooks Killer Opening Songs has heard in a long time.

It is again the K.O.S. that is the leading character in this album. Convoque seu Buda, both title track and album show that rap has not died a slow death; killed by corporate appropriation and greed. No, rap has found a new lease of life, but now it is singing in Portuguese… and Spanish.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 12th December (GMT)

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Traditions are one of the first manifestations of a host country’s culture to which the immigrant gravitates upon arrival. Whether consciously or unconsciously, most of us adopt them as ours, even if sometimes we only celebrate certain aspects of it.

Christmas is a good example. Because I did not grow up with it, it was hard for me to understand what it meant to British people. Add to this the fact that I arrived in London in November’97, as shop fronts go Crimbo-mad, and you can imagine what an eye-opening experience it was. It did not take me long to learn that the Christian ethos that this annual holidays is attached to has given way to a more consumerist-driven celebration. Still, I do enjoy my time off with my family and catching up with family and friends.

However, other traditions have not had the same impact on me. Especially those that are late-comers. Black Friday is one of them. This retail orgy is a recent – and unwelcome, at least from me – phenomenon in the UK. It apparently started with online behemoth, Amazon, half a decade ago and caught on very quickly with other businesses.

Unlike the bathos that surrounds Christmas (at least its uplifting sentimentality comes garlanded with a certain, typical British charm), Black Friday is a cynical US-import exploit to squeeze every single last penny out of bargain-hunters. I usually give it a wide berth but this year a conversation with my children around the dinner table made me wonder why on earth a tradition-rich country like the UK needs to latch on to this thinly-disguised capitalist display of retail power.
On your marks! Ready! Shop!

The chat with my children centred on the discounts most shops were offering, especially online. The issue for me was that these were not discounts at all. 15% or 20% knock-offs are still dear, especially when the original price is in the hundreds of pounds. It makes you ponder on the wisdom of shoppers and their ability to spot a good clearance or the lack of it thereof.

I confess that I felt funny having these thoughts about Black Friday. As usual my first reaction was: should I – a non-native of this country – be critical of this very recent US-led retail-friendly invasion?  Yes, I should, was my immediate answer. Not only because it is a most unwelcome sight (last year, there were overnight queues and brawls at some of the major stores on Oxford Street) but also because I am part of British life now and one of the steps towards acceptance of and assimilation to the host country’s culture is to occasionally feel aggrieved with the rest of my British compatriots when unwelcome phenomena like Black Friday make their presence known. You could say it is a right that arrived with my British passport in the post many years ago.

I had a Scrooge-like reaction when I heard that in the end Black Friday was not the success most retailers had hoped for. Either online or at the shops, the windfall expected fell way below what experts had predicted. There is hope, I thought, there is hope that maybe in a couple of years’ time Black Friday will be the equivalent of a horrible dream we all had and from which we woke up feeling confused. After rubbing our eyes we will, a few years hence, hopefully take stock of our surroundings, think of the things that really matter in this short life of ours and hit our pillow again; this time dreaming instead of the arrival of Christmas and the meaning of it.

© 2015

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 9th December at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Urban Diary

An Africa-shaped puddle greets me as soon as I pull into the car park. A remnant of last night’s heavy rainfall, this is a reminder that we still have some (wet) autumn to hang on to, even if this year one of my two favourite seasons (the other one is spring) has faded away faster than before. This time I have chosen Tottenham Marshes as the location for this section.

Because of the “urban” in the title of this regular column, I have made the mistake of writing more about metropolitan, inner-city London than the green one. Yet, the British capital has some of the most breath-taking outdoor areas, not just in Europe, but also in the world. Tottenham Marshes is an excellent example.

The low wetlands sit on either side of the River Lee Navigation which runs from Hertfordshire, in the north and outside London, to the Thames in the heart of the city.  There is a wealth of wildlife to find here, including voles and kestrels, the latter usually hunting the former.

The nostalgia-tinted landscape owes more to a rural setting until the sound of the nearby fast-moving traffic reminds me that Watermead Way, a busy thoroughfare, is only twenty or thirty yards away. I spot the dipped headlights of passing cars through a gossamer curtain of trees on which a few yellow, auburn and orange leaves stubbornly remain. My drive up here turns out to be longer than my walk. I have, naively, gone out today wearing just a jumper and a hooded top. The temperature already feels winter-like and the wind picks up as I head for Tottenham Hale. I give up after a dozen steps. As I make my way back to the car park, I turn around and take a last, envious look at the surviving reddish-brown leaves that defy the near-arrival of December. Autumn’s gone; winter’s here.

© 2015

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 5th December at 6pm (GMT)


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