Monday, 13 November 2017

Remembrance Day, Jazz and Sex

It was quite apposite, I thought as I walked away from the venue, that this concert was staged on Remembrance Day. Earlier on, just a stone’s throw from the theatre, I had watched the oldest procession in the country as part of the Annual Lord Mayor’s Parade.

If Remembrance Day is about acknowledging the sacrifices made by the fallen and injured to secure peace, what better way to honour them than through music? In my opinion, the most universal of all the art forms and the one that gives us the succour we need in our darkest hours.

That was exactly what Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba served to a musically-hungry audience at the Barbican as part of the London Jazz Festival. Two world-strutting behemoths with a Grammy collection that would be the envy of any well-established pianist, this was probably one of the must-see shows of the ten-day event. On the one hand, seventy-six-year-old Chucho, a pioneer and trailblazer of modern Cuban jazz, who with his band Irakere not only broke the mould of what Latin jazz was supposed to sound like, but also created new rules along the way. On the other hand, smaller in stature, but definitely not in craft, virtuoso Rubalcaba, who redefined jazz for a late 80s, 90s both Cuban and international audience.


The two masters together

In addition to all this, the experience, at least to me, of watching these two colossi was akin to what I could only describe as an aural orgasm. Yes, this post is certainly X-rated, my dears, so do not let your little ones read it (smiley, with a wink). By the way, all puns are intended. Yep, it is that kind of post.

Where to start? Maybe with the teasing, long, foreplay-like meditation at the beginning. It was as sensuous as it was deft. Delicate notes, exploring, probing, feeling. It was Rubalcaba who broke away first, his Steinway gathering pace as a patient and calm Valdés kept back and watched.

What followed thereafter can only be described with the language of love, or sex, if you prefer. There were sprints and sudden stops, polyphonic dialogues the two masters lunged at and percussive, quick-fire, repetitive tapping. A Cuban montuno became a climax-inducing piece. A “zapateo” was given a full big band revamp… minus the big band. The sound was big, all-encompassing. I looked both to my left and to my right. I saw plenty of open mouths and eyes, bobbing heads and shaking shoulders. Those twenty fingers on stage, eliciting occasional gasps and sighs in the audience, every time they travelled up and down the ivories and hit the desired spot. Would we have been down on the aisles grooving it had the concert not been at 2:30pm? You bet.

And just when you thought the concert was over, the encore came. Even the ”Duke” would have approved of Chucho and Gonzalo’s take on Caravan. It was full of razzmatazz and panache. The final stage of copulation and the post-coital ciggie all at once (I threw the latter in for good measure, I don’t smoke. But I’m feeling generous.). A tumbao-heavy version with a thirty- or forty-second Manteca riff halfway through. This was not a battle, in the same way sex should never be one. This was collaboration, banter, care, tenderness, playfulness, a bit of rough and calmness (at the end). My only gripe? Where was my second part? Where was the interval and follow-up? Because as many of us know, when it comes to sex, sorry, music, second parts tend to be as good as, if not better than the first ones.

© 2017

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Thoughts in Progress

Lancaster Sandland Hand painted Hanley England”. The inscription was as enigmatic as the design. I held the mug in my hand wondering what the two figures on it meant. You’ll be my first customer today if you buy it, the woman in charge of the stall said. It had just gone two o’ clock on a sun-draped, summer afternoon. I offered her a couple of quid and she took them. I think she’d have even taken 50p for the item.


It was my first time at the Hackney Flea Market. I’d heard of it from a friend but had never visited it. A monthly weekend event that started life as a pop-up project back in 2013, the market is now the go-to place for vintage enthusiasts. The mix of wares on display is amazing and bizarre in equal measure. Old cassette-players (80s boomboxes abound), handmade goods from independent creatives and even some striking taxidermy.

Still, my mug left me scratching my head. As soon as I got home and put my bike away (you knew that was coming, didn’t you? I cycled to the market), I went online to dig out some information about the enigmatic inscription on the mug’s bottom. I must add that I did ask the seller where she had got the mug from. Like a lot of merchandise on sale at flea markets, people do not really know the provenance of the products they are flogging.

Lancaster & Sandland of Dresden Works was a British manufacturer that specialised in pottery. They were based in Hanley, Staffordshire from 1944 until the 70s. This immediately reminded me of an article I had read many years ago about this region. Close to Stoke (whose football, or soccer, team plays in the English Premier League), this was an area known as The Potteries because six of the local towns (Hanley being one of them) were the driving force in the ceramics and decorative arts industry in the UK.

While the range produced was varied, some figures proved very popular. Amongst them were Dickens characters and famous, historical people, like Francis Drake. My very own mug depicted what I can only describe as a pub scene. On one side you see the pub landlord tidying up the bar, and on the other there is a customer, hat still on (which does not look normal, what with this scene probably taking place in the 1800s, when “doff yer cap indoors” was less of a request and more of a command) pipe in hand, having a pint. This might be his local boozer. At least the whole set-up conveys a sense of bonhomie, comfort and cosiness.



After rinsing my new, special cup (I have a couple of them that fulfil very specific functions. One is for herbal tea, another one is for black coffee), I fixed myself a mocha. As I sat in my lounge looking out onto the back garden, I kept thinking of the pub landlord and his tired-looking face, and the pipe-smoking patron. History has a way of sneaking into our lives. Sometimes in the form of a mug.

© 2017

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Urban Diary

The air is heavy with the smell of sex and death. It is spiders' mating season out in both my front and back garden. Soon after breeding the male of the species will be given its last rites. Staying behind, the female brown house spider will sit quietly for hours on its tangled and sticky web.

A wet summer, a damp autumn, unusually warm temperatures. All these factors have led to an increase of eight-legged creatures on my doorstep. And inside the house. Especially in the bathtub, on the off-white walls, or scurrying from one corner of the kitchen to another (usually the male), stopping for a second in the middle of the white floor, thus, becoming the initial Damien Hirst-inspired black dot on a blank canvas, and then legging it again (pun intended).



The courtship is a beauty, although not for Mr Spider in the long term. It (He?) spins a small web on which a tiny drop of its semen goes. After carrying it around on two palps the male spider will eventually find a female partner with a ready-made web (talk about finding a Sugar Mama!). Cohabitation follows after which Sir will be surplus to requirements. Outside my kitchen window this scenario is being played out as the sky darkens and the clouds close ranks. The whole set-up reminds me of Queen’s Killer Queen:  “She's a Killer Queen/Gunpowder, gelatine/Dynamite with a laser beam/Guaranteed to blow your mind/Anytime”. The scent of sex and death. Somehow the air feels incredibly heavy.

Photo taken by the blog author

© 2017

Saturday, 7 October 2017

One-Minute London Cycle Diaries

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, 27 September 2017

Meals on (two) wheels

The autumn equinox is but two days old when I find myself in a short-sleeve top cycling along the Regent’s Canal west London-bound. My destination? Acklam Village, on Portobello Road. More than my two feet pedalling me forward, what drives me towards this street food heaven is a Proustian madeleine: a long-held desire to sink my teeth into a well-cooked Cuban sandwich again.

The waterway is teeming with sun-seekers, willing to soak up the last drop of warmth this surprising, still-lingering summer has gifted us. It is like watching bees and butterflies feasting on late flowers in back gardens.

I arrive at Acklam Village desperate for some heart-filling nosh and Leximan, le chef at Taste of Cuba* is happy to oblige. Here is a man who not so long ago was trying to build his own musical career only to realise that his future lay in the kitchen. Good for him, we need more cooks like Leximan. His signature dish is the Cuban sandwich, Santiago-style, and he certainly brings a personal touch to it. Roasted for approximately seven hours, the meat looks soft and tender. I go for the whole gallimaufry: the meat, diced finely and de-boned, a few pieces of skin, two slices of ham and cheese, plenty of salad, a dollop of chilli sauce and a bit of ketchup and mustard. The latter two are not really necessary and too much of the red and yellow stuff can mar a tasty dish.

I would describe myself as a “first bite/last bite” type of eater. This is easy to explain. The first mouthful sets the mood, tests the taste buds and asks questions. The last morsel on the plate is the one you want to savour slowly and take home with you. That last spoonful or forkful guarantees the return ticket to the restaurant or café.

Leximan does not disappoint at all. The only comparison I can draw is to the final scene of Ratatouille when the food critic Anton Ego eats the eponymous dish prepared by Remy the rat. Just like Anton and the childhood memories the rodent’s recipe triggers in him, Leximan’s Cuban sandwich reminds me of my much-loved, much-missed, late grandmother. She was the one in charge of cooking the pork in my house.


The first bite I take leaves me licking my lips. The meat is well pulled, tasty, tender, juicy and it has a kick to it. The skin is crackly, just the way I like. Neither the cheese nor the ham interferes with the flavour. I notice that I am scarfing down the food and force myself to slow down. I look around. Leximan’s stall is flanked by two Latin American joints: a Venezuelan and a Peruvian. A woman is singing a The Cranberries song in the indoor bar. Couples wander around feeding each other. Wherever you turn there is the unmistakable sign of activity. A couple of Far Eastern-looking women stop and check the menu at Leximan’s stall. As I take the last bite of my Cuban sandwich I am reminded once more of the bees and butterflies gorging on late flowers in back gardens in this still-lingering summer. I wave goodbye and saddle up. Still in short sleeves, down the Regent’s Canal.

* Although I have known Leximan for a few years now I paid for my food and this review is completely independent.

© 2017

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

London, my London

Wood and coal were transported along the river Lea, in Edmonton, north London, in the 19th century. Coach-building featured highly amongst the industries that made this manufacturing area popular. This is the reason why back in the summer I cycled up the River Lee Navigation to meet Alejandro, one of the co-founders of Building Bloqs, one of those forward-thinking organisations that make London one of the main hubs of creative power in the world.

But instead of me telling you the story of Building Bloqs, I will let Alejandro do it. My thanks to both Alejandro, Andrew and the rest of the team for allowing me to disrupt their very busy working day (and it was busy the day I went!) to do this interview. I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

... That 20 Years Is Nothing?

There's a funny moment in our lives (funny, both ha-ha and strange) when we realise that we have fallen for what we used to mock before. This Augenblick can only be interpreted as a journey from a carefree, fun-filled summer day to the crepuscular beauty of an autumn evening in no more than twenty-four hours. This is that moment in our lives when a "bolero", a “fado” or a "tango" calls to a part of us that had hitherto lain hidden. Or dormant. Or unexplored. Or covered up by layers and layers of identity markers. Those markers we pick up from the shop we call life. There we are, little, hopping, skipping creatures, barely able to reach the dinner table, entering the shop stage right and many years later, exiting stage left, carrying with us multiple transformations, disguises and masks.

It is that time of the year when rain-soaked, dark-inked pavements trigger off feelings of nostalgia in me. This time around, a wet summer, combined with the early onset of autumn has unleashed a deluge of memories. Not just any memories, mind. In November it will be 20 years since I landed in the UK. To stay. To set down roots. To throw my lot in with the people of this country. But the question that has arisen in the last half decade is: have I succeeded?

Succeeded at what could be the swift response.  Perhaps, I should rephrase that question: has it been a fulfilling life for me so far?

With the rain still hanging over the low-rise flats in my neck of the woods and weak sunrays spearing through eastbound, grey clouds, I recently pulled up just outside my house after another long bike ride around London. Whilst catching my breath back, I paused to ask myself that question: has my life been fulfilling so far? The short answer is yes, above all personally and professionally. The long one would be: it’s a work in progress (I haven't even developed the immigrant's usual love-hate relationship with their new home). It is easy to relocate to another place and not have a sense of belonging to it. I believe that the process of settling in another country is a two-way system: you give and take in equal measure. I looked at my bicycle and retraced my steps all the way back to that morning. It had caught me in east London interviewing a guy who can only be described as an essential part of the incredible, creative power this city has. The afternoon had seen me have my lunch in west London in a beautiful park; the dry grass a provocation to the gathering clouds. Trafalgar Square was a sight to cycle past, not a tourist stop. The downpour caught me not long after. It gave me time to think. Unlike running, when most of the time I listen to music, whenever I am pedalling my way around London my ears remain earphone-free. Instead I focus on the sounds of the city: the loud-revving car engines revealing impatient drivers, the voices (with their various accents), the beeping, the swearing, the muzak blaring out of cafes and restaurants, the R'n'B/reggae/rock/grime blasting out of open windows, the football chants, the soft, swishing sound of the closing doors of a double-decker, the whispered plea, "Can you spare some change, please?"

Part of the progress I have made in these 20 years is figuring out what the pattern of this city is. All cities have one, especially metropolises. Havana’s is laid-back, London is a rush-hour one, with a nowadays added screen-facing, neck-bent population.

During the next few weeks, up until November, when I will be celebrating my second decade in this country, my posts will be even more London-centric, if that’s possible. I will be posting interviews I conducted during the summer holidays with some of the makers and shakers of this city’s incredible entrepreneurial might. There will be plenty of autumn-coloured reflections, impressionistic in their design with perhaps a surrealist touch in their delivery. After all, another element in London’s pattern is how often it confounds expectations. Here is a city that is not afraid to wear its eccentricity on its sleeve. A city in which anyone can end up being bathed in nostalgia-scented memories by the power of a fado or a bolero.



© 2017

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 20th September at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 15 July 2017

London my London

This is my last post before my annual summer vacation. The clip below was made using photos taken during my regular cycle jaunts around the British capital. My London is one of unknown faces and trace-leaving feet. It is also a place of handshakes and hugs, of intimate conversations overheard on the Tube and late-night revellers. This is my London and I love it to bits.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Sometimes I remember an article not so much for the content of it but for a particular sentence that captures my attention. That has nothing to do with the quality of the piece but with the quality of the writer; someone who is so skilful that certain phrases cause me to do a double-take and go back to them. That’s exactly what happened recently when I came upon a feature by one of The New Yorker’s staff writers, Adam Gopnik. I love Gopnik’s writing and on this occasion I was really looking forward to what he had to say about a new Hemingway biography. Yet, I was more drawn to a couple of sentences almost at the beginning of his review than what came after.

On talking about Hemingway’s fall from grace after a long period of almost-sycophantic celebration, Gopnik states that “few would now give the old man theheavyweight championship of literature for which he fought so hard, not leastbecause thinking of literature as an elimination bout is no longer our style.We think of it more as a quilting bee, with everyone having a chance to add apatch, and the finest patches often arising from the least privileged quilters.In recent decades, Hemingway has represented the authority of writing only forpeople who never read.

I swear that I had never contemplated literature as an elimination bout. Elimination from what, exactly? It is my assumption that Adam is perhaps referring to an era when writing, especially in the States, was all about working on the Great Novel (or the Great American Novel, if we are going to be really specific). The next sentence and his mention of a quilting bee sounds slightly snobbish and sniffy. To me it looks as if Mr Gopnik disapproves of the way editors and publishers have cast their nets wider in recent decades to include an ever-growing, varied readership.

Literature is not just about the person who writes the book, but equally important, the person who reads it. The world we enter may be the writer’s, but the one opening the door is the reader. The reader then decides to stay in this world or not. Sometimes the reader stays when this world resembles their own somewhat. Sometimes, they stay for the opposite reason. The landscape in front of their eyes looks nothing like what they experience in their daily lives. Whether realism or escapism is the outcome, literature has achieved one of its main aims: to create a relationship between writer and reader.

Reading is a skill not to be learned passively. It doesn’t matter if you choose a couch or a chair to sit on whilst devouring a book; you are still allowing a piece of someone’s brain (to put it crudely) into yours. You, reader, deserve utmost respect.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

What happens when literature becomes a single-identity creative platform, catering chiefly to a particular demographic? Is this the elimination bout Adam Gopnik was referring to? A group of writers from said demographic sparring with each other to see who comes out on top? In my view, this goes against the democratic nature of reading. Let’s consider this: writing, by its very nature, is anarchic, or at least it should be. It should only obey the laws imposed by its master/mistress. Reading, on the other hand, is democratic (and individual[istic]). We share our passion for a specific book or author with like-minded readers. Harry Potter, pre-marketing frenzy, is a good example. For some reason, the idea of JK Rowling being given a free ride as a quilter (After what? Dozens of rejections from publishers!) makes no sense to me. If I were to twist Adam’s theory around, I would say that the quilting bee he so easily dismisses also includes patches by renowned writers like Papa Hemingway. But the more diverse patches we add, the better literature we will have.

© 2017

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Saturday 15th July at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Thoughts in Progress

Many of you, fellow bloggers and readers, know how interested I am in the human mind, consciousness and rational thought. The way our brains process information and our subconscious mind works has always enticed me. Recently I read an interview with the philosopher and scientist Daniel Dennett in the New Humanist which reawakened this passion. In it Daniel attempted to throw some light on that strange, elusive and confusing phenomenon known as consciousness.

To Mr Dennett consciousness is not one thing but a combination of different elements. They are our thoughts and experiences. This group also includes our subconscious, that always hard-to-define region of our brain where we hold information we are not even aware of having.

I first came across Daniel’s theories a few years ago via Steven Rose, one of The Guardian’s book reviewers. He also happens to be one of Mr Dennett’s staunchest critics. One of the reasons for this antagonism is that Daniel uses computer-based language to describe the way the human brain operates. Personally, I, too, find this hard to accept. To me the human brain has an infinite capacity to generate ideas and thoughts. To compare it with a PC’s storage capability is to fall into the same old trap of seeing the human mind as mere RAM. However, where I do agree with Mr Dennett is in his view of the mind and body as a single entity. There is no miracle, in my view, in the way the mind is linked to the body. The evidence is in the fact that when one of those two elements is not functioning well, the other one suffers.

The extraordinary nature of the human mind can be explained through the way we transform social learning into norms and habits. Elements of culture, no matter how disparate, are drained through a collective-focused colander, leaving the more human-friendly (hopefully) parts and chucking out the flotsam and jetsam. And yet, this process is not without faults. For, no matter how carefully we sift these cultural, moral and social norms through, we will always be at the mercy of human unpredictability, otherwise known as… the human mind.

If we accept, as I believe, the notion that because of evolution human beings developed a collective/individual duality, we also have to accept that throughout our existence this duality has led to the need to communicate, cooperate and compete. The latter is not a word many would find attractive nowadays. Competition has been given a bad rap, especially in our current neoliberal, market-obsessed society. Yet, it is a reality that we compete with one another. What we cannot deny is that in order to communicate, cooperate and compete we have to engage our minds. We have to be able to think, organise, evaluate and learn.

Consciousness is, as I mentioned before, that elusive and confusing process whereby we cook up all these ideas and thoughts, intentionally or unintentionally. And although it might come across as an otherworldly, mysterious entity, it is as human as our hands, legs and feet.



© 2017

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 12th July at 6pm (GMT)

Thursday, 6 July 2017

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

 Photography: Louise Hagger for the Guardian
I confess that when I first heard the recent horror stories about people getting wounded whilst trying to cut avocados I laughed. I was not being mean, I swear. I felt sympathetic to those involved in avocado-caused accidents. It 's just that the way these injuries were described was... hard to believe. Most people apparently got cut trying to flesh out the large seed. Any Cuban (or Mexican, or Brazilian) will tell you that if you quarter (there, that's a massive clue) the avocado, the seed will fall out without any further intervention.

I love avocado, which is the reason why I am posting this recipe. I am always looking for new ways of getting the best of this highly nutritional fruit. Yotam's recipe offers a new twist.

Avocado with curried prawns and lime


100ml groundnut oil
1 banana shallot, peeled and halved lengthways, then each half cut lengthways into quarters
1 red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
20 fresh curry leaves
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 limes, 1 finely shaved and juiced, the other cut into four wedges, to serve
Salt
300g sustainably sourced raw king prawns, peeled and deveined (cooked peeled prawns are a perfectly acceptable shortcut)
20g mayonnaise
80g Greek-style yoghurt
1½ tsp mild curry powder
1 tsp honey
2 ripe avocados, cut in half lengthways and stoned
Heat 85ml of oil in a small saute pan on a medium-high heat, then fry the shallot and chilli for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is golden and fragrant. Add the curry leaves, fry for 20 seconds, until crisp, then take off the heat and stir in the coriander and black mustard seeds, lime skin and a pinch of salt. Set aside for 20 minutes, to cool and infuse, then discard the lime skin.
Put the remaining tablespoon of oil in a medium sauté pan on a high heat, then fry the prawns and an eighth of a teaspoon of salt for a minute or two, stirring, until the prawns are cooked through and fragrant. Transfer to a plate to cool.
Mix the mayonnaise, yoghurt, curry powder, honey, two teaspoons of lime juice and an eighth of a teaspoon of salt in a small bowl. Finely chop half the prawns and stir into the sauce; toss the remaining prawns in the infused oil.
To serve, put an avocado half on each of four small plates and sprinkle with a small pinch of salt. Spoon in the creamy sauce, then top with the whole prawns, allowing some to fall off around the avocado. Drizzle each portion with a tablespoon of infused oil and sprinkle with the crisp aromatics. Serve with a lime wedge.

The music to go with this dish has to be equally punchy. That is why I am opening with Laura Marling. I saw her set at the recent Glastonbury and she was excellent once more. Here's Salinas.



Second track tonight comes a band I discovered only a year or so ago. The Airborne Toxic Event makes music as unusual as their name. This melody is as haunting as the emotions that probably motivated.



The last song is a classic, reworked by the flamenco singer El Cigala. Cheo Feliciano made this salsa number a worldwide hit and now it has been given a new lease of life by El Cigala. El Ratón (The Mouse). Enjoy.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Let's Talk About...

distance. As in the distance required to be considered safe. Take public transport, for instance. It’s off-peak time, so the expectation is that there will be plenty of empty seats on the tube. The issue is that they are all randomly placed. That means that you have a split-second decision to make as soon as you board the train. Where to sit? Or more specifically, where is it appropriate to sit?

In the grand scheme of things this dilemma can be filed away under the category “First World problems”. Yet, if you get caught in the middle of it, you are painfully aware of what I have just described. You rush into the carriage and without a second thought sit next to a woman immersed in her book, or as it is more common these days, glued to her mobile phone. It is only when you look at your surroundings that you realise what you have done. There are twenty-odd empty seats in the rest of the carriage. You suddenly feel self-conscious. What is worse, you now feel her eyes on you. Is she thinking the same thing? You do the only honourable thing. You get off the train at the next stop and wait for another.

Another example is open spaces, like parks. With the recent high temperatures we have had in London, it goes without saying that we have been enjoying the outdoors a lot more. Plonking your personal self in a park should be hassle-free. After all, London is probably the city in Europe with most parks and green areas. The only problem is when the thermometer hits 34 degrees and you find half the neighbourhood down your local park. Space becomes an issue and distance between sun-seekers awkward. This situation is more difficult for adults on their own. I count myself amongst those. Many a time I have been cycling, when all of a sudden I have decided to rest my weary bones on the soft grass of one of the many parks that dot my adopted city. The look I get is a mixture of distrust and hostility. Especially if you should happen to choose a space in between two Prosecco-guzzling groups. Eventually eyes are turned towards me, voices are lowered and belongings moved closer to owners (this tends to happens in the leafier parts of London. I live in a deprived area. No one bats an eyelid if I decide to sit on my own next to them). Luckily, I usually carry the weekend Guardian or a copy of The Observer with me. As if by magic bags go back to where they were before.



Distance is just another bone in the skeleton of social awkwardness, a structure that underpins the way many denizens on these isles interact with others. There are more components such as conversations about money (as in salary) and class. Distance just happens to be more visual.

Going back to my first example: where is it appropriate to sit? Well, whoever talked about sitting? I usually remain standing.

© 2017

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Thursday 6th July at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 1 July 2017

London Cycle Diaries: Institute of Contemporary Arts

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: “Let's Talk About...”, to be published on Tuesday 4th July at 6pm (GMT)

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: “London Cycle Diaries”, to be published on Saturday 1st July 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)

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