Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Grenfell Tower

The first thing that hit me was the smell as I came to the end of Lancaster Road. Strong, acrid. The second thing I saw was the cordoned-off road, off-limits even to cyclists. The third thing I came up against were the on-lookers. A better definition would be, the vultures. Mobile phone cameras at the ready, snapping away at the blackened husk. Shifting positions to get a better angle. Walking through cul-de-sacs to get a better view. What for, I asked myself? So that in our algorithm-rich world the survivors, two or three years hence, maybe more, would chance upon these images on their Twitter or Facebook feed? Images, I was sure, they would find painful to see? It was then I dared to look up. I remembered it then, from a previous time when I saddle-pushed my two-wheeler the length of Portobello Road and got lost trying to get back to Camden. On that occasion, I went further west by mistake and tried to catch my breath on the grounds of this building, this giant whose hollowed out flats cried out a never-asked-for tragedy. This building around which on-lookers had created their own panopticon. The single point that could be seen from up high in the air or down here on the ground, amongst the vultures.

I cycled on through Verity Close towards Dulford Street and it was then I was aware of another element: silence. Not the normal silence as in absence of noise, but Whitman’s silence: “As I ponder'd in silence/Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long/A Phantom arose before me, with distrustful aspect.” No matter where you stood or sat, this charred phantom followed you around. I, then, looked up for a second time. I counted the floors and stopped at number 15. There, on that one, I could have been on that one. I retraced my steps. Not my actual steps, but my mental ones. I travelled down memory lane more than sixteen years before, when my daughter had been born. On the 15th floor of a 20-storey-tall high-rise. A water birth in a pool we hired from a Mexican/Irish couple. The joy of bringing a much-desired and thoroughly-planned baby into the world and the thought that it could have been followed by death and destruction.

I came down Mary Place and turned right onto Sirdar Road. A sea of “Missing” posters lined up one side of the road, reaching all the way to St Clement’s Church, one of the emergency relief centres and where I had come to give my support. My offer to help was accepted although they weren’t really taking volunteers. The supply had outnumbered the need. My faith in humanity was momentarily restored.

I helped fold boxes and pack up clothes. At some point I was needed to take some stationery to another centre on Kensal Road. Since the streets nearby were heavily congested, the rational went, a bicycle would have found it less difficult to slalom around the traffic and cut through the back roads. I saddled up and fifteen minutes later I pulled up outside another centre with helpful-looking people outside. More volunteers. Please, go on the council website and register, a lady with a clipboard in hand said, you can then list your skills and wait to be contacted.

I turned around and decided to go back home. I returned to the Regent’s Canal, the same route I had used to get here. Along the way I could not stop thinking of the residents of Grenfell Tower. People with dreams and hopes. People whose lives had been turned upside down forever. And for what? For money. To save an extra £2 per square metre. And why? Because they were worthless. In the eyes of this class-obsessed society that likes to style itself as classless, these people lived on the wrong side of one of the richest boroughs in the country. It might sound strange but Whitman’s phantom pedalled with me all the way back home.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Wednesday 28th June at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 17 June 2017

London Cycle Diaries (The Surrey Canal Path)

London Cycle Diaries is both a cycle-based and cycle-orientated series aimed at "discovering" hidden spots in London from the saddle of my Raleigh.

© 2017

Next Post: “Grenfell Tower”, to be published on Wednesday 21st June at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Urban Diary

If this is still spring, it is one that is thickening into a rich summer texture very fast. Hard to distinguish between the two seasons, really, with the warm days we are having. This park sits in a part of fashionable, hip north London and it is in full election mode, rampant with pro-Corbyn posters, restless with the sort of impromptu psephological chat I first came across 20 years ago on the eve of Blair’s ascension to power.

Scantily-clad sun-seekers form a long and wide human blanket that alternates with nature’s green carpet. I cycle down the path towards the south exit. Along the way I am exposed to blue tooth-powered sound systems blaring out Turkish pop, reggae and mainstream, drivetime American rock. The sunshine swells over the crowds and the fields, providing sunbathers with yet another excuse to peel off another layer of clothing and slap the sun cream on. I am suddenly reminded of Clifford Dyment’s poem, The People:

Thousands and thousands of you there are/entered up by a registrar/sorted, and checked, and written on forms/ready for taxes and war’s alarms.

To me you have no name or place/but only a brief or casual face/I see you with impersonal eyes/as a flux of furs and various ties.

I see you thus, and yet you go/about my body, to and fro/treading the pavement of my mind/goes the procession of mankind.

© 2017

Next Post: “One-Minute Cycle Diaries”, to be published on Saturday 17th June at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Thoughts in Progress

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post in which I encouraged people to choose life, love and, amongst other things, empathy. I have always seen empathy as one of the more difficult human traits to show, and to feel as well. It requires a sort of trade-off and giving up. But when it works, empathy enhances the human experience.

When it works…

A few days after I wrote that post I read an interview in the magazine New Humanist. The interview was conducted by writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik. The interviewee was Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University. The subject? Paul’s latest book, Against Empathy. Oh, dear.

The capacity to imagine ourselves in another person’s place and understand their feelings is a powerful tool for social and political change. What could be wrong with that?

A lot, if the intentions are not clear. Paul Bloom dispels some of the myths surrounding empathy and in the process produces a cogent argument as to why this very human trait is somewhat overrated. The empathy in Paul’s sights is not the general type, like identifying oneself with another person’s plight. His beef is rather with those who believe they are feeling what other people are feeling.

The extensive checklist Paul presents as evidence to back up his thinking starts with the Syrian child washed up ashore in 2015 and whose photo caused much anger and revulsion around the world. However, despite this outpouring of grief, the situation for refugees arriving in Europe has not improved. In fact, it has actually got worse. The reason, according to Mr Bloom, is that while we can empathise with an innocent child caught up in a deadly conflict like the Syrian one, we show less compassion towards an adult who, in our view, can fend for her or himself.

This leads us to Paul’s second conclusion: empathy is biased. Once I got over my initial shock, I was able to see his point and I found myself nodding in agreement. Because it is almost nigh on impossible to empathise with every single person in the world, We discriminate against those who deserve our empathy and those who do not. Into that selection go our prejudices and judgments.

I must stress at this point that although the tone of Paul Bloom’s theory might come across as negative, the examples he gives are not. Like many human traits, empathy is triggered off unconsciously and spontaneously. It is also influenced by external factors such as, culture, upbringing and education.

When Bob “give us yer f*****g money” Geldoff organised the first Live Aid concert to raise funds for the African famine in Ethiopia he did not invite any African musicians. He managed to rope in the likes of Queen and Status Quo but there was no Miriam Makeba or Hugh Masekela. Personally I have no problem with him empathising with the plight of that African nation; it is the lack of rational thinking that made me cross. You sit at a table to plan out the concert and you decide to leave African musicians out of a concert on behalf of an African nation? This approach to what I would call “selective empathy” is what makes us feel more compassionate towards victims of terrorism in a European nation than towards those killed by a suicide bomber in a packed market in Bagdad or Kabul.

One of the reasons why this happens is that many western countries still operate with a colonial mindset. I have had the misfortune of being at the receiving end of this most annoying behaviour. Whether you sit on the left or the right of the political spectrum the odds are that your empathy-led charitable act will be rooted in attitudes that have long preceded you and which you might not even recognise as yours at all.

Solidarity campaigns, fund-raising initiatives. These are all well-intentioned, practical ways to support those in distress. However, it is not ungrateful to ask for some long-term vision. Who will benefit more from that project, the person you are trying to help or you? Many times programmes aimed at alleviating the suffering of a particular community in a war-torn country backfire because the focus is on areas where resources are not really needed. Yet, because empathy is the main driver in the project we tend to stop using our brain and start using our heart instead. Just to clarify, there is nothing wrong with using our heart when it comes to supporting those most in need. But our brain also is a fundamental part in the process. So, I will rephrase what I wrote two weeks ago: choose empathy, but also choose using your brain.

© 2017

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 14th June at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Let's Talk About

the English language. Specifically, how it has suffered throughout this dire and needless election campaign.

Do not be surprised if on Friday 9th June a battered, bruised and heavily swollen amorphous figure turns up at the Royal Courts of Justice, on the Strand, central London to sue all the major political parties, except for the Greens. That figure, my dear readers and fellow bloggers, will be the English language.

Where to start? Enough has been said! Actually, that is a good place to begin, “enough”. Was it used as an adjective a few days ago, describing adequacy and sufficiency, or as an adverb, meaning “fully” or “quite”? Or perhaps it was deployed as an interjection? Enough is enough!

But the truth is that enough has been enough for quite a long time. What the speaker forgot to add was that when it comes to cutting police numbers to the bare minimum, thus, putting the UK population at risk of terrorist attacks, enough is enough. That on the subject of stripping the education budget to the bones, leaving headteachers holding a begging bowl instead of a book, enough is enough. That when it comes to privatising our free healthcare, one of this nation’s proudest achievements and leaving it under-resourced with overworked staff, enough is enough. There, I sussed it for ya.

If you happen to be a businessperson and you are desperate to close a deal, especially one where you have not got the upper hand at all and you are at the mercy of the other party, how can a “no deal” be better than “a bad deal”? Especially, if your livelihood and that of your tribe depend on it. English language, I beseech thee, pray, tell me, is the world going mad or is a transaction that can always be improved in the future  not a better option than one where there is no transaction at all and no bargaining possibility?

Sometimes the best answer is honesty. Of course, I am not saying that every time an interviewer asks a question, the interviewee should answer: “Honesty”. What I mean is that if you don’t know the answer, please, just say “I don’t know”. You see? That’s easy. Or, “I don’t know the answer to that question now. I do have the figures you asked me about but I am going to have to check them and come back to you.” Fluffing your lines, being seen checking your iPad and mobile, doesn’t cut it. And the worst thing? That amorphous figure on the corner. It has just been decked once again.

I am aware that in the world of fake news we all suffer, including language. I am just hoping that the English language can mount a challenge, a counter-attack against those who have mistreated it so much recently. Perhaps we could help. After all, enough is enough.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 10th June at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Thoughts in Progress

I recently screened the 1978 movie version of Watership Down to my film club. Strange as it might sound, as I sat at the back of the room, I was the one being affected once again by the conflict in which Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig et al find themselves.

Watership Down is the sort of story that invites multiple readings. This is the tale of nervous rabbit Fiver’s vision of destruction and horror. He manages to convince his brother Hazel and others to leave their warren in order to find a safer home. Their journey is nothing but a peril-ridden adventure. Some of my young charges found a few scenes pretty upsetting.

To me, watching the movie now as an adult, Watership Down symbolises the loss of an identity, human rather than leporid. Roughly half an hour into the film the rabbits are offered shelter in a warren ruled by upper-class-sounding Cowslip. By way of thanking their hosts for their hospitality, Hazel prompts his friend Dandelion to tell a story. The latter chooses the tale of smart El-ahrairah and how he tricks the King Darzin into handing over his lettuce. In the film version the story is never told. Instead Cowslip’s response to Dandelion’s offer is blunt and rather rude, in stark contrast with his earlier politeness. El-ahrairah means nothing to him and his fellow rabbits. He goes on to recite a poem whose main message is that of passivity and being led.

It is clear that for Cowslip the old stories do not matter much. I see parallels between the rabbit’s attitude and the lives we live now. Our human existence has long been underpinned by a system of strong moral values, common to all, regardless of nationality, gender, race, creed or any other identity marker. When they work, these values serve as stable road signs, guiding us through the equivalent of a complicated and labyrinthine traffic grid. When we ignore or misread the signs, we collide with one another, causing damage to others and ourselves in the process.

We are shaped not only by our individual characteristics but also by the communities in which we live. When we lose the power to tell our common story we also lose part of what defines us as humans. No matter to what degree our communities evolve – and they have done a lot, throughout the centuries – at the centre of them there should still be a common shared story.

This is the tale that Dandelion wants to tell but he is not allowed to. Cowslip’s warren, like many others, has lost their common shared story. Their individuality has given way to individualism, a pernicious off-shoot of our complex personalities.

Of course, watching Watership Down also made me think of the current political scene in the UK. Not that Richard Adams would have wanted his creation to be seen as a political allegory. But, we do have a general election next week, Thursday 8th June. Much has been said about the current state of British politics and how it has bred apathy and disengagement. But there is a clear choice for the electorate in my view: on the one hand, that of our common shared story (a free NHS, fair funding for schools and opportunities for small and medium business) and on the other hand, unfettered individualism, the loss of community and the abandonment of our common human story. While Cowslip is askingWhere are you going, stream?” and wants to be taken by it “away in the starlight”, Hazel and co. are already in the process of making a better life for the whole warren. All the time, they are still telling the story of El-ahrairah and how he tricked King Darzin into handing over his lettuce. This is the strong and stable narrative I crave as a human being. Not the robotic, predictable, lifeless and dull individualism that presents itself as the future. Any future we build will still need stories to be told.

© 2017

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 7th June at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

As a reader, I find non-fiction as compelling as fiction. However, non-fiction becomes a minefield when polarising conflicts are thrown in. Biographies and autobiographies are usually straightforward affairs in which history has as much a big part to play as character. Memoirs or real-life-based accounts, however, are a different kettle of fish. I was reminded of their complex nature recently after reading a diary entry by the Libyan-American writer, Hisham Matar, in the London Review of Books.

Hisham was in Arkansas last year touring his latest book, a memoir entitled The Return (I am acquainted with his work through his novel In the Country of Men). At a public reading at a library, a Syrian woman asks him how it is possible for him to still be able to write with everything that has been happening in the Arab world for the last half decade.

Hisham’s response made me think of the relationship between politics and literature. A relationship that is less natural than many people might think and more nuanced than many others would prefer.

In between these two positions: one claiming that all literature ought to be political somehow or other, and another saying that literature and politics should never mix, the writer’s voice is lost. If an author’s oeuvre depends chiefly on adhering to one of these two extreme positions, the result will not be a work of art but a party manifesto.

By coincidence around the same time I read Hisham’s article, I had just finished The Gate, by the French writer Francois Bizot. The Gate is a powerful, detail-rich insight into the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Bizot is an ethnologist who is captured by young guerrillas and taken deep into the jungle. His interrogator happens to be the school-teacher-cum revolutionary Comrade Douch (sadly famous Comrade Douch) who would go on to kill thousands in the horrifying Tuol Sleng prison. Bizot was kept three months in the jungle. He was the only foreigner to come out alive from his group. All the others were murdered. The book stayed inside him for thirty years. This is the price of nuance.

Non-fiction by its very nature tends to be more tyrannical than fiction. Writers need their readers to believe that the way they are telling the story is the way it actually happened. In order to achieve this, sometimes they adopt the view that is more prevalent around them as opposed to the more truthful to them and their narrative. In doing so, they are exercising someone else’s imagination whilst sacrificing theirs. This is why it is so important to understand what the Syrian woman was saying to Hisham. I get it. In the face of horror, how can we pick up a pen instead of a gun?

Horror of the type being visited upon the people of Syria nowadays surely leads to trauma. One of the consequences of trauma is numbness. A mental numbness that cancels out some of our functions. We can still breathe, eat and defecate. But it is hard to create in those circumstances. This is what happened to many Holocaust survivors. The tragedy they had just experienced was too unreal to make sense of it immediately. This is also why it is essential to read books like Primo Levi’s If This is a Man/The Truce. Far from adhering to a particular discourse, Primo comes up with his own one. One that is unique whilst not letting the Nazis off the hook, humourous whilst not “pretty-ing up” what happened in the gas chambers.

In the end Hisham tells the woman that, when faced with horror like the Syrian one, writers should still attempt to write. In doing so, writers should free themselves from any obligation, no matter how lofty the ideal. It is to literature that authors are contracted first and foremost. Writing about a conflict, or a difficult political issue, is fine. But above all, it must be literature.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 3rd June at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Thoughts in Progress

(With permission from Renton)

Choose life. Choose love. Choose being disappointed at the overcast sky and the ensuing storm. Choose being amazed at the resulting vibrant rainbow. Choose snapping the rainbow with your mobile camera and Instagramming it instantly. Choose forgetting your earlier disappointment. Choose life. Choose love.

Choose being dragged to a concert by an artist you don’t like and whose music you find naff. Choose going because your best mate is going. Choose miming the words of a song you didn’t know you knew. Choose putting your arm around your mate’s shoulders and joining in the chorus. Choose losing your voice when you sing more songs by this artist you didn’t like and whose music you found naff. Choose life. Choose love.

Choose smelling your newborn’s head. Choose filling up your lungs with her fragrance, a fragrance that translates as purity and innocence. Choose laughing at the silliness of it all because two years ago you said you didn’t want any children. Ever. Choose closing your eyes and feeling this moment, remembering this moment as you cradle that little head in your hands. Forever. Choose life. Choose love.

Choose helping that old lady or man cross the road. Choose stopping the traffic and grabbing their arm as they readjust their glasses. Choose carrying their bag and asking if they are all right. Choose life. Choose love.

Choose giving way to a stranger at a T-junction as cars pile up behind you. Choose smiling at him/her as you do it.

Choose holding a 99 Flake in the middle of torrential rain somewhere on a beach in Cornwall in July or August. Choose being under cover in a deserted restaurant with fellow miserable-looking holiday-makers who are equally holding onto their 99s for dear life as the dark sky turns even darker. Choose breaking into a well-known, popular song, slowly and sotto voce at first. Choose smiling at your fellow, miserable –looking holiday-makers who join in as soon as they recognise the melody. Choose life. Choose love.

Choose falling out with your loved one over a petty issue. Choose retreating into your own cave feeling bitter, while your other half retreats into theirs with similar emotions. Choose making eye contact some time later in the kitchen as you do the washing up and your partner tidies up the dinner table. Choose cracking a joke you know will elicit the complicit laughter that will make you both inch closer to each other. Choose looking into their eyes as you say sorry and they say sorry back to you. Choose passionate, unbridled make-up sex. Choose life. Choose love.

Choose walks in the park, bike rides by the river, outings to the cinema, random visits to friends, unexpected acts of kindness to strangers, voluntary work at your local charity shop, reading poetry alone, reading poetry to others, skinny-dipping under a full moon, playing pranks on your children, getting caught in the rain, staying up all night to see the sunrise, crying in the theatre.

Choose altruism, empathy, selflessness, friendship, trust, solidarity, respect, humanity. Choose humanity. Choose humanity.

Above all, choose life. Choose love.

© 2017

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 31st May at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Urban Diary

Update from my front garden: it was indeed a family of blackbirds that was responsible for the nocturnal singing. Sadly, the truth revealed itself in the cruellest way possible: a dead chick on our doorstep.

This is the reality of urban living. The life-affirming melodies of birds are obliterated by the sound (noise?) of vehicles. This creates a divorce between the natural world and our metropolitan lifestyle. Still, London might count itself as a very lucky city when it comes to greenery and wildlife. Take a couple of Sundays ago. I was cycling west-to-east on the CS3 (cycle superhighway). Along the Thames I went with dozens of fellow cyclist on a segregated cycle lane. Around us the din of cars, lorries and buses was the only soundtrack that accompanied us. Yet, straight after the Tower of London I turned left and headed for Mile End Park. Immediately I was surrounded by scenery that would not have been out of place in a quaint, typical English village. All that was missing was the scones and tea. Ironically, no more than a few hundred yards away gas-guzzling cars were speeding up Burdett Road, whilst down here people were picnicking on the lush and verdant grass.

Please, don't let me be misunderstood
This disconnection between our natural world and our suburban experience is the main reason why it still shocks to see a magpie attacking a nest of robins or blackbirds. After some of you mentioned the type of bird that might have been the cause for the midnight-serenading, I also noticed that we have had an increase of magpies lately. I usually see one or two around but now, both at home and at work, we seem to have half a dozen “residents”. Please, don’t ask me how I know this. After all, all magpies look the same to me, but I just sense there is a gang going for our local birds.

And why shouldn’t they? Should the magpie not feed its young, too? It is called animal food chain for a reason and we city-dwellers had better get used to it. Even if it means one less singer in the blackbirds’ combo.

Note: I still cannot understand the local cats’ behaviour, though. I mentioned that they daren’t go up the tree where the blackbird’s nest is. Yet, there they are, in my back garden, stalking the birds that come to eat the seeds we put out for them. During the winter season it was fun to see one or two of these felines jumping into our back garden keeping ever so quiet, waiting for all the various birds (and we did have a variety) to alight on the seed feeders. But never, never, did I see the cats catch one.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 27th May at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 20 May 2017

London Cycle Diaries: Stamford Hill's Orthodox Jews

London Cycle Diaries is both a cycle-based and cycle-orientated series aimed at "discovering" hidden spots in London from the saddle of my Raleigh.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Diary of Inconsequential Being

Saturday 25th March

I am on my way to collect my daughter. She has decided to go to Thorpe Park with some friends and one of the dads and I agreed on one of us taking them there and the other one bringing them back.

The journey to Thorpe Park goes surprisingly smooth. Too smooth. Just before the M25 meets the M3 I am supposed to take the fifth exit at a roundabout and stay on the A308. For some reason the route seems suddenly awfully long. I am sure it looked a lot shorter on the Google map I consulted before setting off (I don’t use satnav). I keep driving in what I think is the most likely direction. It takes me a couple of minutes to realise that I am hideously lost. I go back to the M25, taking extra care not to join the traffic heading to London. At the roundabout I perform a similar manoeuvre as before. Again, I find myself back on the A308. Again, I get lost.

Finally I pull into a Tesco (future novelists should make that sentence their go-to cliché. There is always a Tesco to pull into, just like “dusk” always “falls”). After a couple of enquiries and suggestions I decide to use my phone’s built-in Google maps app to guide myself to Thorpe Park. To be honest I feel I have no other choice. The two members of staff who help me out look at me as if I am mad after I say that I use neither a satnav nor Google maps.

The voice telling me to pull out of the car park cannot be described as robotic, but neither as human. It is not warm either. But then, again, what do I expect? Coffee and a chocolate muffin? I suddenly feel hungry.

After three quarters of an hour, during which I exhaust my year’s quota of swear words, I find Thorpe Park. All this time my daughter has been trying to get hold of me, concerned that I was not there at the appointed time. When I tell her what has just happened, she just asks: why didn’t you use Google maps?

Sunday 26th March

The papers still carry the Westminster attacker story. It is funny (both strange and ha ha) that Adrian Elms (to call him by his real name) is called a terrorist whereas Jo Cox’s murderer is being given the “lone wolf” label with mental health issues added on to mitigate the effect of his evil act.

The house is eerily silent. It normally is these days. Both my children have given up playing their instruments. My son used to play saxophone first and then went for the guitar. My daughter, on the hand, plumped for cello and later on for flute. There was nothing better than the sound of him playing guitar and her playing flute mid-morning on a Sunday.

Now they both sleep until noon.

I set up the ironing board and switch the telly on. I am being ever so careful and considerate. I know the girls went to bed late last night. As the first goals go in on Match of the Day, I hear the sound of rushed steps on the stairs and eventually voices in the kitchen.

The silence is broken (and that is another cliché for wannabe writers. No worries, I shall invoice you in due course).

Monday 27th March

I am now convinced that we have a birds’ nest in our bush in the front garden. Not being a connoisseur of tweets and songs, I am unable to say what sort of birds they are. All I know is that they sing at night. By at night, I mean, midnight. They must be fearless, too, because the local cats still have not dealt with them in the way that only cats know how to deal with midnight-hour-singing animals of the avian variety. Perhaps, although they sing beautifully (and I can attest to that), they can all copy the Google Maps voice, neither robotic nor warm. Enough to keep the local cats away.

© 2017

Next Post: “London Cycle Diaries”, to be published on Saturday 20th May at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Thoughts in Progress

I was listening to Thought for the Day the other day and the guest speaker said something very interesting. Thought for the Day is Radio Four’s religion-infused, regular section whose main aim is to reflect on contemporary issues from a faith-based perspective. The occasion was the celebration of Buddha’s Wakening or Enlightenment and the guest was Vishvapani , a member of the Buddhist Order.

On explaining how the Buddha’s new understanding of life challenged all the notions that he had had before, Vishvpavani  said that the Buddha had showed people “how to tap the mind's hidden capacities“. This phrase reminded me of an article I had read in the London Review of Books a few days before. The piece was about Noam Chomsky as a linguist and radical political figure. In the former role Noam revolutionised the field of linguistics. The academic position at the time was a distrust of “the ghost in the machine”, i.e., the human mind. Moreover, both philosophy and psychology followed this trend, preferring conventional wisdom to the prospect of having to deal with subjective experience. Chomsky, on the other hand, claimed that there were things we knew innately, even if they did not manifest themselves explicitly.

Having written a column on how to place adjectives correctly in a sentence in the English language more than a week ago and how this “problem” was hardly a problem for native speakers as they could “feel” what the right order was, I see myself in agreement with Chomsky. Knowledge, both the acquisition and possession of it, can be tacit and unconscious. Watch young children forming their own phrases, sometimes not even using the raw material they are given from birth. More than once when overhearing my own children talking when they were little, I caught myself thinking: “How do they know that?

However, I do have certain doubts. If this knowledge is somehow innate, where does it come from originally? Not being religious at all, in fact, being an atheist, I reject the notion that it is planted in our brains by an external agent. Could this knowledge perhaps be a generational phenomenon? The instincts embedded throughout our evolutionary journey through planet Earth. When Chomsky talks about the difference between the I-language of internal, individual structures of meaning versus the E-language of external expression he is onto something. About the same time I read the LRB article, I was also preparing myself for an entry test to study the Online Celta course at International House London. For the last five years I have been looking at the possibility of returning to full-time language teaching. Here is now that opportunity. I have been accepted at IH for a September start.

As a young graduate I remember being really excited about lesson planning. It was a chance to put some of my wacky ideas into practice. One of them was based on maieutics. This was the method used by Socrates to elicit knowledge from the mind of a person by interrogation and insistence on close and logical reason. Whereas Socrates and his followers were more interested in critical thinking I used maieutics to unlock the linguistic power of my students. English being the unofficial lingua franca of the last seventy-odd years, exposure to it, even in socialist, Fidel-run Cuba, meant that many of pupils had already come across some of the expressions I was about to teach them, perhaps unconsciously.

The first answer of the foreign language adult learner is “I don’t know”. Self-consciousness is their worst enemy. That is why determining the context in which one wants to study is fundamental. That context includes using the knowledge acquired both by conscious and unconscious means. This is where Chomsky and Socrates come together, in my view. The former supports the mysterious “ghost in the machine”. This means that my students have the capacity to generate I-language, which at the same time underpins consciousness. Socrates comes in handy when we, teachers, need to unlock the hidden power of learning in adults. Understanding the linguistic complexities of a foreign lexicon is scary. In order to achieve this, I, the teacher, usually take the grown-up back to a childlike state of mind. Socrates was interested in critical thinking; my goal is to show the adult what they know and how much they know.

Are we humans born with an innate sense of knowledge about certain things? Or, is all knowledge acquired empirically? It seems to me that that “ghost” will continue to be debated for many years, even centuries, to come.

© 2017

Next Post: “Diary of an Inconsequential Being”, to be published on Wednesday 17th May at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

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

Yotam Ottolenghi’s chicken and prawn gumbo.
Photograph: Louise Hagger for the Guardian. 

If you read my previous post you will understand why I have chosen this Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe tonight. In his latest column in The Guardian, Yotam waxed lyrical about his love for the cuisine of New Orleans, which he found both complex and cryptic. As an Ottolenghi enthusiast myself, I don't need much encouragement to follow the master. I will be cooking this dish this coming weekend. 

Chicken and prawn gumbo

4 chicken thighs, skin on and bone in
Salt and black pepper
60ml vegetable oil
70g plain flour
3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large onion, peeled and finely diced 
2 green peppers, deseeded and finely diced
2 celery sticks, finely diced
1½ tbsp Cajun spice blend (make your own or buy ready-made)
300g peeled raw prawns 
1 litre chicken stock
2 tbsp tomato paste
200g smoked pork belly (or smoky bacon), cut into 2cm pieces
200g cooked basmati rice (ie, made from about 80g uncooked rice)

Season the chicken with a quarter-teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of black pepper. On a medium flame, heat a tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy-based pan for which you have a lid, lay in the chicken thighs skin-side down and fry for four to five minutes, until golden brown. Turn the thighs, cover the pan, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes, checking once or twice that the chicken isn’t sticking or burning (there should be enough fat in the pan for this not to happen). Transfer the chicken to a plate, leaving the fat in the pan (you should have about two tablespoons).
Add another three tablespoons of oil to the pan and warm gently on a medium heat. Add the flour, whisk to a smooth paste, then cook, whisking often, for 15-20 minutes, until the roux turns into a dark chocolate-coloured paste. Add the garlic, onion, peppers, celery and spice blend, and cook for five minutes, stirring often. Roughly chop five prawns, add to the pan and cook for five minutes, then pour in the stock, 350ml water and the tomato paste. Stir in the smoked pork and a teaspoon of salt, then leave the gumbo to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes more. Meanwhile, remove the skin from the chicken thighs and tear the flesh off the bones in rough 4-5cm chunks.
Once the gumbo has simmered for 20 minutes, stir in the chicken, cook for 10 minutes more, then add the remaining prawns and cooked rice. Check the seasoning, simmer for a final three minutes, until the prawns are just cooked, and serve hot.
This is heavenly food from New Orleans. So, the first melody has to be Dixieland proper. Stand to one side because the saints go marching in, led by the one and only, Mr Louis Armstrong.

That gumbo is thick and filling. That's the way I want my music tonight. Preferably with a bass-driven helping and a guitar-led consistency. Enter Black Sabbath's Paranoid.

Food so exotic makes want to explore the same in music. I love Soapkills and their laid-back sound.

We go as we came. With Armstrong. I have never included the same musician twice in this section. There is enough music to go around. But, for some reason this recipe has given me the New Orleans bug and I cannot resist another dose of good ol' Dixieland. Enjoy.

Next post: "Thoughts in Progress", to be published on Saturday 13th May at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Thoughts in Progress

The first time I heard it I did not hear it at all. I was not prepared for it. I was too young and my parents did not warn me (I am going to blame my parents, especially my dad; I need to blame someone and parents always come in handy). It was not included in my folks’ small record collection. That is, if a bunch of random LPs bundled together in a corner of a minute one-bed flat can be called collection. If truth be told, years later, when I became a fan of it, I was surprised at its absence from our house. After all, my parents, especially my father, were music lovers. My dad was (is, still) a musician, composer and arranger. If someone was capable of appreciating it, it should have been him. Records by Roberto Faz, Orquesta Riverside and La Original de Manzanillo were amongst the few gems that were played at very special occasions on the old, blue record-player (a relic from pre-revolutionary days). These were big bands that had a lot in common with the Glenn Millers and Buddy Riches of this world. Yet, it did not feature at all chez moi. I do not think that it was unknown to them. I just think that they did not get “it”.

Most of the music played at home when I was a child, was of the dance variety. Later on, when my auntie brought home the first cassette player we ever had it was my cousin (big sister, really) who took over DJ-ing duties. However, we still did not tend to listen to Anglophone music very often.

"It", jazz, was surplus to requirements since its demographic was non-existent in our household at the time.

I went to the kind of college (high school for US readers) which defies conventions about Cuban education’s supposed equality. Though uniform-clad, we all knew where we belonged and which tribe was ours. I was in the scruffy, working-class, rock-faithful one. However, I had one good friend in the “Trova” (New Song) gang. Once I happened to be at his house. We were both playing tapes to each other. And there it was: the piercing sound of a trumpet, if not out of tune, out of everything I conceived at the time as “being in tune”. Seeing the frown on my face, my friend asked me: you don’t like Dizzy? Not wanting to be rude, I shrugged my shoulders. Inside, though, I swore never to return.

There is a certain built-in philistinism in the life of a teenager. It is easier, however, to notice it in others than in yourself. Aged fifteen, I listened to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins at my mate’s and found their sound foreign and alien.

1989. I had just turned eighteen in November and was in my first year at university. What was I doing here at midnight, in the lounge where my cousin and her mum slept on foldable beds? What was that sound, low and mellow, coming out of the old, battered Russian radio? Was that the same piercing sound of the trumpet I had rejected fours year before? What had happened?

Let us rewind to the month of February of the same year. Let us go back to the corner of 23rd Avenue and L Street, one of the most popular corners in Havana. There I was, scruffily dressed as usual, in my rocker’s get-up: skintight jeans, oversized shirt and canberras (steel toe-capped Russian boots). I had no plans that night. My jazz-enthusiast friend from college happened to pass by. He was on his way to the Havana Jazz Festival. He had a spare ticket. Would I care to join him? I said no. He would not take no for an answer. After all these years, I think he saw something in me that night. Perhaps the face of the willing convert who refuses to believe he will be inevitably converted. He insisted. My replies became more elliptical and my reasons weaker.

Together we set off, Casa de la Cultura de Plaza-bound.

I would like to say that a full moon flooded the stage and that in the quiet of the night the sound of a saxophone triggered off my epiphany. The truth is rather more prosaic. It was very noisy when we got to the venue. We went inside, which was outside (the concert was outdoors) but then I went back inside.

I went back inside my own mind.

You see, jazz in Cuba did not have a tribe in those years. Correction, it had its own specific tribe, but it did not function like others. Rockers, salsa-lovers, trovas, pop-enthusiasts; they were distinctive. We wore uniforms; we wore our allegiance on our sleeves. Sometimes literally. Jazz, on the other hand, belonged to old people. That is how we saw it, us youn’ uns.

That night I, the refusenik, sat down. I had my speech ready. I imagined that as soon as the concert ended the words would spill out, of their own accord, without any push or shove from me: I only came because of you. No, I didn’t like it. I don’t like jazz. I don’t like jazz. I don’t like jazz.

And then he came on stage and played the trumpet. He, being Arturo Sandoval, Cuba’s foremost trumpeter.

I cried that night. Moreover, I cried, sitting next to my friend, amongst people I did not know. I cried, conscious that as a man I ought not to. That’s what they always said: men don’t cry. Well, I bloody well did. That was the effect Arturo Sandoval had on me that night: uncontrollable tears.  But also joy. I had found yet another layer of my humanity. A metaphysical one perhaps; its abstract nature not fully decipherable prima facie. Whatever had caused that emotion, I had to get more of it.

That is how I found myself in November 1989, in the darkness of our small flat, listening to a radio DJ, more used to playing classical music than compositions by Gershwin and Coltrane. Every Wednesday night between midnight at 1am I would silently come to our lounge, move the radio to our dinner table and switch the kitchen light on. That was the start of my love affair with jazz. That was the gateway to Ella, Billie and Nina. Through CMBF, the aforementioned station, I learnt the difference between bebop and smooth jazz.

Years later, as an adult, and while trying to rationalise my strong, lachrymose reaction to Sandoval’s trumpet-playing all those years before, I came up with a theory for my conversion. My love of rock was partly responsible for my newfound passion. The musical patterns, or lack of them thereof, of a Yes or Pink Floyd track were not dissimilar to the unorthodox approach taken by the likes of Thelonius Monk or Ornette Coleman. At the heart of it, jazz musicians tried to break or bend the rules. My initial mistake, at my friend’s, was trying to understand a phenomenon I deemed “absurd” at the time. It is only when we stop trying that we become more open to music genres we do not comprehend.

In simple terms: my defences were lowered that February night in Havana at the jazz gig. Then, again, since then I have lowered my defences on purpose whenever I am confronted by the new. A couple of years ago it happened, when I saw Bill Laurance and Snarky Puppy at Jazz FM’s Love Supreme Festival. Not knowing what to expect, I prepared myself to welcome the unknown. The result was the sort of experience some people might call religious.

Jazz bares me. In its syncopated/discontinuous, uniform/wandering notes, lies a truth that calls to a part of me. It is there in Roberto Fonseca’s eclecticism and Aziza Mustafa Zadeh’s vocal range. It is there in Sarah Vaughan’s unforgettable voice and Alice Coltrane’s Vedic-influenced, mystical harp. I didn’t find jazz. Jazz found me.

© 2017

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 10th May at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Adjectives and their Order)

Read the two sentences below and tell me which is the correct one:

He is an ugly little fellow.

He is a little ugly fellow.

You guessed right. The first one is the correct one. That is, if we are to go by a paragraph, gone viral last autumn, from a book called The Elements of Eloquence. The extract dealt chiefly with the order in which adjectives in English should appear (only applicable if you’re using more than one adjective per noun): opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. That is why “ugly” (my opinion), comes before “little” (size).

But I bet that you, native English speaker, knew that without bothering to read the why. That is because you “felt” it was the right way. It is a strange phenomenon, this “feeling”. I began to experience it when I started to think in English halfway through my uni years.

This is a life-changing event that does not announce itself. I am not exaggerating with the life bit. Just think of someone having to translate internally every single word and phrase that is said in a conversation before voicing them. It would be exhausting. The way the mind goes from translation-based communication to a native-speaker-level, sentence-building mindset is almost magical. It just happens. One minute you are consulting your grammar book, the next you “feel” that this is the way these adjectives ought to be arranged if you want your sentence to make sense.

Ugly or little? Which one comes first?
English is not a language famous for its rules, yet, there are plenty. The fact that not many people care about enforcing them doesn’t mean that we should ignore them. For instance, I would never think of placing and adjective after a noun in English, the way we generally do in Spanish and other romance languages (in the case of English, since it is a Germanic lexicon, the adjective+noun structure makes sense). It is just a rule we learn by rote and apply it without any second thoughts.

I am not aware that adjectives in Spanish must be ranked following a pre-arranged order. The sentence above could well be “Él es un hombre feo y pequeño” or “Él es un hombre pequeño y feo” (notice the conjunction “y” [and]. That’s another difference between the two languages). Perhaps there is a similar rule that I have not yet discovered but I doubt it. We have far too many linguistic precepts to deal with already to even contemplate adding a new one.

Without blowing my own trumpet, I am pretty sure that I have, unconsciously, placed adjectives in the correct order most of the time since I became a fluent English speaker. But it is always gratifying when we are validated by hitherto unknown laws of grammar or syntax.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 6th May at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 29 April 2017

London Cycle Diaries: Truman's Ales and Stouts

London Cycle Diaries is both a cycle-based and cycle-orientated series aimed at "discovering" hidden spots in London from the saddle of my Raleigh.

Next Post: "Living in a Multilingual World", to be published on Wednesday 3rd May at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Cubafonía by Daymé Arocena

Daymé Arocena’s outstanding second album, Cubafonía, can be summed up in two words: maturity and intensity. The former can be evidenced in her approach to song-writing and arranging. It is bold and with a take-no-prisoners attitude. Opener Eleggua combines multi-layered vocals with looped bass and horns. This is followed by a lively party number, La Rumba Soy Yo. Scatting her way through parts of the song, Daymé reminds the listener that she is a pretty good jazz singer in her own right.

The intensity is found throughout the record, mainly in the first six tracks.  Lo Que Fue builds up slowly, starting with Daymé’s signature low rasp and ending with a Cuban descarga. Maybe Tomorrow (sung in English) deals with hope. Infectious Negra Caridad is a throwback to Cuba’s 1940s and 50s big band golden era. That a 24-year-old can hold her own belting tunes that the great late Celia Cruz took years to master, speaks volumes about Arocena’s standing in the Cuban musical scene at the moment.

The largest island of the Caribbean has always been a hotbed of creativity. However, for the last twenty-odd years the sounds coming out of my country of birth are more boundary-breaking and genre-defying than ever. Daymé joins Roberto Fonseca, Yusa, Danay Suárez and Telmary in the search for an identity which, although still recognisably Cuban, is not afraid to draw from other influences. A good example of this is Cómo, a ballad that would not be out of place in a record by Jill Scott. Performed confidently in both English and Spanish, the track shows off Arocena’s softer and more reflective side.

Special mention to Ángel, a minimalist composition (pared back percussion and piano) in which Daymé demonstrates a total vocal control. And also to the closer, Valentine (in which the chanteuse goes from English to French, to Spanish), a cute changüi number.

Cubafonía is a must-have for any jazz/Latin music aficionado. On the strength of this outing, I can only see a brighter future for Daymé Arocena.

© 2017

Next Post: “One-Minute Cycle Diaries”, to be published on Saturday 29th April at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Thoughts in Progress

No sooner had the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced that there would be a general election on June 8th than the political obituary of the Labour Party was quickly drafted up. Pallbearers were contacted (perhaps Blair and Campbell would do the honours?). Flower shops were e-mailed. What size should the wreath be? And just what song or anthem would be appropriate to play as the coffin was being lowered into the ground?

Here we go again

For the third year in a row the British electorate goes to the polls. Fourth, if you live north of the border. Remember the Scottish referendum in 2014? Bet you had already forgotten about that one. Well, Nicole Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party leader, she is calling for another one. If that sentence does not provoke mental – as well as physical, but mainly mental – fatigue in you, then, congratulations! You have finally succeeded in transitioning into a robot. Your future is secured. It is us, mere mortals, who have reason to worry.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

Although Labour lags well behind the Conservatives in the polls (remember those? They were supposed to be very accurate, until they got Brexit and Trump wrong), May and co. have not had an easy ride. Had you asked me back in July last year if Jeremy Corbyn had any chances of getting Labour’s fortunes back on track, I would had said no. Just like that, a rotund no. After Cameron’s cowardly exit (he and Osborne got us into this Brexit mess and rather than face the music, they both abandoned the ship while it was sinking), May was seen as a safe pair of hands. Even I cast my usual cynicism aside and read Labour’s last rites quietly as soon as Thatcher 2.0 moved into Downing Street. Despite the Brexit-related imbroglio in which Mrs May found herself, she began her premiership with a firm hand.

But the honeymoon is over and Theresa knows it. She is the prime minister under whose guard the Chancellor of the Exchequer broke a Tory election pledge on national insurance. She U-turned on that decision. She is the cheerleader for the return of grammar schools. Even her own MPs are against the idea. There has not been much talk of grammar schools recently. She is the leader who went to Washington to meet the new incumbent in the White House. To say that she did not make much of an impression on him or anyone else worldwide would be the understatement of the century. Here is someone who probably thought that by not giving away much about herself she would be able to breeze through the next four years until the general election of 2020. Yet, keeping one’s privacy (good) does not equate to being boring (bad). Theresa May is boring and she has been shown up by someone who has problems creating punchlines for his own jokes. Jeremy Corbyn looks and sounds like a member of the public watching a stand-up show who has suddenly been asked to come on the stage to finish the act of the top comedian on the bill because she or he has been taken ill. Standing in the spotlight and faced with a hundred expectant faces, Mr Corbyn tries out his best jokes, only to see them falling flat on their faces, stepped on and kicked away by a demanding audience.

And yet, only two weeks ago, before May made her unexpected announcement, the Labour party put out a set of policies that were electorate-friendly enough. Not too scary, not too loony-left-sounding, just sensible enough that people could see Jeremy Corbyn in a different light, with a new pair of glasses, if you like.

Mrs May has been dealt a terrible hand with Brexit. She is the Remain-voting politician who has to negotiate a hard Brexit with the EU. In addition to that, salaries have stagnated and job prospects look grim. From a safe pair of hands ten months ago, she has turned into the grim reaper. Burying recovery, real or potential.

Enough has happened in the last year to convince me that the political landscape has grown more unpredictable per day. This works in Corbyn’s favour. I would probably advise him to ditch the “socialist” tag and concentrate on a progressive agenda. It is also the turn for Corbyn’s merry band of followers to stand up and be counted. The Tories are not interested in anyone else but themselves. Their motivation is not just Brexit, but the total annihilation of the Labour party. Victory on 8th June would also send a powerful message to those pesky Scots with their demand for a second referendum. Faced with these grim prospects, Labour supporters have nothing to lose. Go for broke, then. Canvass on every street, knock on every door. Remember, you have nothing to lose.

I doubt Jeremy Corbyn will be our next prime minister. That would be taking unpredictability to a whole different level. However, good results in the general election for Labour will make a dent on the Conservative armour. A coalition would be a realistic target and one that Jeremy should pursue. Whatever the outcome, I do not think that the pallbearers will be used just yet.

© 2017

Next Post: “Cubafonia”, to be published on Wednesday 26th April at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

A fellow parent confessed to me recently that she was struggling with her adolescent daughter. Her behaviour was erratic, she had lied on a couple of occasions and she was lagging behind in her exams. All part and parcel of parenting, I thought. Then, she made a comment that left me scratching my head for a nanosecond before realising what she meant: “You see, I don’t want to be like those other parents”. She didn’t point at anyone in particular, there were no other parents around us and she kept her eyes firmly on the ground as she spoke. Whether she was feeling embarrassed or guilty, I don’t know. What I did know was what she meant by “those other parents”.

Retrospective analysis is a powerful tool. Especially for those with no past in the country to which they have relocated. I came to live in London facing the imminent arrival of my son (my wife was heavily pregnant) and an almost-zero knowledge on parenting on arrival. Whatever I had experienced during my previous stay in Londontown (just the one month) was nothing compared to upping sticks and moving here permanently. Talk about challenges! A new culture, new ways of being, expectations (both of myself and of my future home) and a baby craving attention.

A few of the difficulties were overcome pretty soon. I found a job and I got used to the British accent (especially the London twang) almost immediately. It was the parenting bit that took me longer (has taken me longer, I should write). That is why I was able to understand this fellow parent’s concern.

As soon as I settled in London, I, ever the observant, began to listen carefully to what people said and to watch what they did. The outcome of this gave me a powerful insight into the world of parenting in the UK.

Being a parent/carer is not easy. Along with education it is the profession that almost everyone has an opinion on, whether parents themselves or not. Note the use of the word “profession”. Being a parent is a job, just not a paid one. We are raising little human beings with the hope they will become responsible citizens in the future.

What that parent was telling me on that day corroborated the suspicions I had long harboured about parenting in the UK: it is a much divided element of society with a silo mentality that conspires against the very world we want to create for our children.

Let us go back to that parent for a second. What she was confessing to me would not have made anyone bat an eyelid. In fact, we would all have chimed in with our own anecdotes of stroppy teenagers. Yet, the more I scratched the surface, the more I realised she was being snobbish.

Look at the gates of a modern primary or secondary school in Britain and you will be exposed to a modern urban zoo. Whether a comprehensive or an academy, it is the same spectacle: parents forming their own mini-tribes and clans with very strict rules on who is allowed to join in. Forget The Who singing “the kids are alright”. It’s the adults who are screwed up.

Class, I noticed in those early years when my son was in reception, had an overarching, albeit thinly-veiled, influence on parents’ integration into the school community. The scruffy-looking, hair-up-in-a-bun, chain-smoking parent – usually, a mum – was shunned. The 4x4-driving, high-flying, dapper-looking progenitor was welcome. As I mentioned before, this was not openly done. Like a secret language, the way parents interacted with each other was full of codes and signals.

What this other parent really meant when talking to me was that she did not want to be seen as a rubbish parent. After all she did not yell at her daughter on the street. Or, give her fast food for breakfast and dinner. Or, she was not the type who refused to play with her little one, choosing to be on her mobile 24/7 instead. No, she was the other kind: the one who used to take her bairn to the museum, who always took advantage of free drama workshops or who baked cakes together with her daughter.

Let me say something really controversial: there is no such thing as a rubbish parent. There is, however, challenging parenting. How could there not be? You go from thinking mainly of yourself (OK, maybe, the boy/girlfriend, too) to caring for another human being who, in the first years of their life, cannot articulate clearly what their needs are. It is enough to make someone want to blow their brains off. Add ingredients such as class, race, gender and age and public perceptions of them and you have a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, with the government’s latest announcements on the new education policy, there will be even more division in the school community. The proposed return of grammar schools and the expansion of academies will contribute to the entrenchment of privilege. Those parents with greater means will flood the grammar school a mile away, whilst the local comp, unable to compete, will just die a slow death. Guess whose children will attend the former and whose the latter? 4x4 glamour parent’s and chain-smoker’s respectively.

My answer to my fellow parent’s worries was that sometimes we need to get to know the other parent before rushing to judge them on their appearance. An appearance that occasionally includes a sign hanging from their neck with the caption "Please, touch me with a bargepole". By the same token that parenting is hard, it is unfortunately an opportunity to get up on one’s high horse and point our accusing finger to all and sundry. As Philip Larkin said: “They f*** you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do”. The trick is in understanding that this is never intentional. Remember: there is no such thing as a rubbish parent. But, boy, is parenting challenging!

As usual, this is my last column before the Easter break. I hope you have a very relaxing time and get to do all the things you have been planning to do but have not found time to. I know I will be doing more cycling around London (if my bike allows me to). I shall return late April. Until then, take care of yourselves.

© 2017


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