sábado, 17 de febrero de 2018

NYC 2011

It's taken me long enough, but finally I've got back to my blog, and this entry I had on hold. Nearly seven years later, and I really can't believe it's been that long, I can still remember. Bear in mind this was post-Crisis, pre-Trump

New York, New York, a wonderful town.
The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down.
The people ride in a hole in the ground.
New York, New York, it's a wonderful town!!

So say three sailors from the '50's in On the Town, including Gene Kelly, so it must be true.
AND IT IS. Where do I start?
By way of introduction, I could've saved on the ticket. New York is EXACTLY the same as everything you see in the movies and series. Really. It feels so familiar.

OK. So, to begin. I'd been looking forward to this trip since February when all my inhibitions disappeared and I pressed send on my laptop to buy my ticket. In truth, I'd been looking forward to this since I was 17. Disappointment assured, almost certainly. Well, no. It helped that I'd had the best summer for many years; a bit of money in my pocket, no work for two months, friends around, hobbies complied with, relaxation achieved, a home visit that was much more than it promised, a visit from my best friend; (coincidentally my brother), and just before starting work, the trip of my lifetime.
It was the last step to making a perfect summer. And it didn't let me down.

The first moment of realisation that I was actually there was at lunchtime on the first day. I'd been running around, trying to avoid the rain, visiting museums, when I ended up at Times Square. I sat down, and suddenly it dawned on me; "My God, I'm sitting in Times Square!".

Now you need to imagine a montage of images. Bear with me. Please. Otherwise I'll just feel like a Billy Joel song. So, picture the following images as if they were coming at you in an old filmy style coming from far away towards camera. Got the idea? I hope so. Well, here goes:

Liveried hotel porters, Yellow cabs, Grand Central Station, 30 Rock at dusk, Empire State, Chrysler, Ellis Island, Battery Park Remembrance, Wall Street Bull, West Village, Subway, Little Italy, Greenwich, Soho.
Exhausted? I was. In 3 days I saw them all, not to mention a Broadway show, the MET, and the infamous Tribeca district. Didn't bump into De Niro though. Bummer.

Aside from all of that, the tourist trap, you get a real feel for... well nothing other than expected really. Sorry. But that is glorious in itself. You see everything you have supposed from the movies and the series you've watched, and yet it's real. You see how the city's colonial history, and its immigration somehow, now, all fit together. And yet the people are not forced. They may be almost too polite, but it feels natural. I used to scoff at "Have a nice day", but it feels as if they really mean it. Whether or not they do. I got quite excited when someone didn't understand me, and then said knowingly, "Oh you're British". When I explained I was actually from (Old) Jersey, he got quite excited, talking about his relatives in "Joisy". To be fair, I think he was just happy because he'd sold me a pretzel on a rainy day when there was no-one else about. But all the same.

So, to sum up: Highlights: The Rock, Grand Central, West Village, Times Square.
Lowlights: None. And I'm loathe to say it, but really, none.

Oh, seeing steam coming out of a subway grate. Now that was a moment. IT REALLY DOES THAT!

I suppose I got a sense, not of the US, but of NYC at least, which, aside from being unforgettable, laid bare my previous prejudices towards the States, and pretty much overcame them. If three days can have that effect. To clarify. I don't need to go back. I've had that experience. It was something I'd exchange for nothing. But neither do I want to go back. I don't want it to be tainted by a second visit. Let me keep my illusions. Please.

sábado, 3 de febrero de 2018

How to be...

OK, so this is an article I wrote 2nd February 2018 in response to two articles published respectively in The Sunday Times and ABC in Spain, the former entitled "How to be Spanish" and the latter "How to be British". There was furore in Spain, there were various responses, in short, everyone got very offended and allegations of xenophobia were rife. So I decided to respond. Needless to say, no-one replied, so I'll publish it here. Hey, got nothing to lose.

Full Disclosure. I am British and have lived and worked in Spain, all over the country, but principally around Madrid for 20 years.
Having read both the Sunday Times column of 21st of January 2018, "How to be Spanish"(Chris Haslam), and the ABC counter on 1st of February 2018, "Como ser británico" (Álvaro Martínez), I must say I had to put pen to paper, or, in this case, fingers to keyboard.

In my 20 years in Spain, there are things I have grown to love and to hate about my adoptive country, just as there are things about Britain that on the one hand frustrate and anger me, and on the other, make me yearn for my native country, if Britain can be considered a country per se, but let’s not get into that.

My reaction on hearing of the original article was amazement that it had encountered such a fierce response in Spain. So naturally, I read it. And my first thought was; stereotypes are of themselves sweeping generalisations about a whole country and/or people. Does anybody really believe that they are true about every individual who holds that nation’s citizenship? The article was hardly a breaking world news story to be taken as read. And secondly, stereotypes come from somewhere…, don’t they? I could easily add to the list of How to be Spanish… I might say, oh, I don’t know… Park wherever you want, or, Always blame someone else. Maybe that makes me a xenophobe too.
So then I moved on to ABC’s response. Now, I’m not going to comment on the content of either article, save to say that there are glaring inaccuracies in both, (of course there are, they’re caricatures of stereotypes), and perhaps a few unfortunately chosen words, but neither was meant to be taken seriously, as far as I can see. However, it makes a difference, and, I feel, can clearly be seen whether something is written from the point of view of love or of anger. And there I shall leave it.
In this day and age, social media, for better or worse, allows anyone to share their opinions, their prejudices, or merely their experiences, but perhaps we have also become hypersensitive and self-righteous because the internet has given us a metaphorical megaphone.

Now, if the article had been written by a Spaniard, would there have been such controversy? Perhaps?
So, in the spirit of olive branching, my humble offering: How to be British… by a Brit.

1 Apologise for everything, even things you haven’t done.
2 Make sure you include the weather at some point in every verbal exchange.
3 Drink tea. Lots of it. It doesn’t matter the time of day, just any time you’re at a loose end.
4 Offer to make tea for someone else at any opportunity.
5 Watch home improvement and antiquing shows. Defend the BBC as the greatest broadcaster in the world and then settle down to watch Strictly Come Dancing. With a cup of tea.
6 Be passive aggressive.
7 Swallow your anger in public and then vent on social media. The trick is to never offend in person.
8 Have wildly contradictory views in private and in public.
9 Never discuss politics with someone who thinks differently from you. (See 7)
10 Always, always, carry an umbrella. (To be honest, this one’s actually quite practical).

So there it is. But before I go, what about “How to be European”?
I have one point only for this.
Being part of Europe, the cradle of culture and democracy, believe in unity, believe in coexistence, but be careful! Make sure to pick a different nationality or nationalities to caricature their stereotypes negatively… Go ahead, there are a lot of countries to choose from, and it’s bound to make you feel better about yourself.

Or… let’s just rejoice in our differences, embrace our similarities, and get along. In Europe, as anywhere, cada uno es como es y cada quien es cada cual, meaning, more or less, we are all who we are and each one of us is unique, to paraphrase Serrat. All we do is adapt to the culture and customs of the society to which we belong at any given moment. Now there’s a thought. Perhaps we should just learn to be, not how to be… Full stop.

domingo, 5 de abril de 2015

Giving a Name

Did you know that “Fitz” in a surname means “Son of”? Like “Johnson” now would technically be “son of John”, “Fitzwilliam” meant “son of William”? Well I didn't, though maybe I should have. After all, it forms part of many, albeit aristocratic, English surnames. I suppose it had never ocurred to me to ponder the root, but there it is. Now I know. For whatever reasons, I had never known this before and it may be that it is common knowledge. But there is something about this discovery that gives me great pleasure and that is; how I came upon this information. Reading avidly and almost addictively the Philippa Gregory Cousin's War and Tudor Court series, I am currently engrossed in Henry VIII's reign. There is a character named William Fitzwilliam, and I think; now there's an unfortunate naming of a son, though it may be for a reason. Then I remember the previous character mentioned with a Fitz in his name; Henry Fitzroy, the bastard son of the King. Fitz: son of, Roy: King. It all becomes clear. Just to make sure, I consult Wikipedia, and Jimmy Wales confirms my suspicions. Yay! I was right, I smirk to myself. Self-satisfaction creeps over me like a snake as yet unwilling to bear its fangs. (Too pretentious with the metaphor?...) Anyway, the point is this: regardless of whether I should or should not have been aware of this historical nomenclature, I wasn't, and to me it was new, and for me I discovered it on my own through the joy of reading, my clearly prestigious powers of deduction and love of, and inevitable curiosity for, linguistics. And hey! It's fun to learn things without having to study them. You can kind of feel superior. Comes in handy when you need an anecdote of sorts.

So yet again, I return to the subject of the written word and my fascination and respect for it. Worlds can be created in the imagination by words on a page. Of course, saying this doesn't make the affirmation anything new, yet I cannot say it enough, so true it is. Gleaning information, understanding, new perspectives and pure unadulterated pleasure from reading is one of life's pleasures for me and I am grateful and proud to have been surrounded by books from the age of one day, and to still be surrounded in my life right now. And I mean right now. As I write this I am sitting in my office? Study? Computer room? Spare room? No I prefer... LIBRARY. It's old-fashioned I know; no-one has a library these days, they have rooms that happen to have books in them. But I'm talking about virtually three walls ceiling to floor of bookshelves, (OK it's a small room) and what's more, with BOOKS on them. AND. THEY. ARE. ALIVE! When I pause to think I glance around and they are there, stoical. Those I have read content in their place, those I have not, resentful and stolid, those I have curiosity for, almost inching off the shelves, tempting me to save them from their obscurity. But I digress, I apologise, they got a hold...
A holiday week having been spent (granted, accompanied by good weather and a garden) predominently sitting outside and peacefully reading, has relaxed me, opened my imagination once more, inspired me to write, and piqued my interest in other branches of research, in this case, historical and linguistic, thanks to damned Henry and damned Fitzroy. The enriching quality of literature cannot and should never be underestimated. It matters little what you are reading if it leads you to question, to search for information or merely to relate, to find a part of yourself in the novel, to enjoy, to relish.

The written word, indeed language, comes from our necessity to have a name for things, to give living creatures and inanimate objects an identity, a description, a place. As I have talked of (or ranted about) before, the roots of the languages we know today are planted in so many different civilizations that in some cases it is hard to discern their origins, yet we know that they come from the human's need to communicate on an equal level with other humans so that when I call a spade a spade you know I am talking about a spade and not a trowel. So much easier, so much quicker. Especially when gardening. Just like Facebook or text messaging when we always know what people are trying to communicate. Full stop. In case you didn't realise that was the beginning and end of that thought. Moving on.
Recently I had the joy of going to see “Tricicle” a Catalan trio (hence the name) of ingenious mimes who have been successful for nearly 35 years in Spain. Their comedy is fresh, slapstick, based on tried and tested techniques brought with a contemporary twist and they are UNIVERSAL. What is so fascinating about them, apart from their longevity, is their lack of need for spoken language. I'm not saying that what they do is revoultionary in the sense that there has been non-verbal communication since time began, and in the performance arts nowadays dance and mime still have pull. But apart from the physical comedy and gesture which they have perfected to a sublime level, what surprises me constantly is when they communicate with each other and with the audience “verbally”. In this last show, they actually speak more than usual, but in general their vocal interventions rely on sounds. It is incredible that simply by the intonation of an “Eee ooh” a person can transmit exactly what he or she wants to say. In that sense they ARE universal, they transmit through sound a type of language that all of us can understand, BUT only accompanied by gesture. And there lies the rub. Another case of non “verbal” communication is that of animals other than humans. They have their language and only occasionally communicate intentionally with humans, usually when food is involved. An interesting BBC documentary, “Cat Watch”, suggested that cats only “meow” to humans, that their sounds and expressions to other cats did not include that familiar sound that may drive us crazy. And there lies the other rub.

So, given that mimes and animals can survive on sounds and expressions, who needs words?! Who needs novels?! It seems crazy to think of it, right? Well, I'll tell you what. Mimes and animals, believe it or not, have their place in giving us joy (often)...or irritation (more often), but language, words, aside from making expressing ourselves easier and quicker, granted, they also give us a means of awakening our curiosity as humans for learning, for developing, for opening our minds and imaginations. Bet you never heard THAT before. Having said that, (self deprecating and ironic that I am), it's also really true. And I can't think of anything else to add. Except that also, we don't have to resort to a grotesque mime to ask for a straw for a drink; (embarrassingly witnessed by your humble writer). Foreign language. WHOLE different world. See blog.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" (Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare) . But would it?...
Well of course it would! Yet we DO have a name for it, and that gives it a greater glory even than its scent. Because we associate the name with something of beauty, of delicacy. Much easier to have a name than to try to describe the flower with its thorns, its petals, its colours and compare your beloved to it. I'd be a bit insulted: “My love is like a red red rose” (Robert Burns)= “My love is like a bloody flower with thorns, that opens and then dies in a week”. OK then, let's get married.

domingo, 18 de noviembre de 2012


I’m blank

The cistern is refilling and it won’t stop. I don’t know how to fix it.

The doorbell sounds like an annoying fly buzzing inside my head. I’ve just realised I can’t get out of the bathroom. The door isn’t locked but I can’t get out. I don’t know why.
Maybe the window. No, there isn’t one. So this is it. My demise. Stuck in an escapable bathroom hearing the hiss of water trying to clean my shit. Nice ending.

Did I just hear a knock? If I did, I’m crazier than I realised, and I had realised it. “Come in?”, I whisper, trying not to let my brain laugh at me for talking to myself. As if my brain is separate from me. Which at this moment it is. “Can you let me out please?” I mumble.

“What?” says someone.

Something has happened. I’m clutching my foot in pain. I seem to have slipped in the
shower. Don’t remember taking one.

“Do you need any help?”.

“I’ve hurt my foot. I can’t get up”. Don’t come in, dontcomein, dontcomein, I’m naked.
I don’t know why.


“Come on, now.”

“I DON’T WANT TO COME OUT!”. Too late. I’m out, and being reminded that I’m
eighty. As if I needed reminding.


Now the sun is shining brightly into my eyes and I’m looking into the eyes of my beloved. I’m aware. I’m grateful for it. I’m scared that the next blank may come soon. So I enjoy.

jueves, 1 de noviembre de 2012


She’s laughing so much her head has actually fallen off.

To be fair, it probably isn’t her head. It's part of her costume. But as she is dressed as a zombie, you could be forgiven for a short gasp of surprise as it happens.

The weirdest thing is that no-one else is dressed up. So she seems, to say the
least, a little out of place. It's Halloween, but the bar they frequent doesn’t go in for all that nonsense. Nobody cares, though. It's up to her how she chooses to express herself.

The joke wasn’t even that funny. Something about penguins wearing sunglasses. Paul feels gratified by her reaction, if a little nonplussed. Maybe later he'd be in with a chance.

Following the burst of laughter, she doesn’t move. Slumped into her chair, it appears she is trying to compose herself. We resume our conversation, ignoring her sporadic spasms. We signal the barman for another round. He acknowledges us, with a nod and a curious look at our friend. We laugh and roll our eyes.

Suddenly, amidst our discussion about mortgages and redundancies Paul vomits, quickly and efficiently, claiming he’s had one too many. We don’t believe him.

After all, there is a human head rolling towards the door.

lunes, 30 de abril de 2012

Stereotypes and Clichés

5.30 am and unable to sleep, dark thoughts start knocking on the back door of my brain. I'm reflecting on how a life can change in an instant. A piece of unexpected bad news from a doctor, from an employer, from a lover, from a family member or a friend. How that news can knock you for six, even if you were on Cloud Nine 30 seconds before. And how, as a consequence, suddenly everything is bleak. Suddenly even all the tiny problems that seemed manageable and the accumulation of events leave you helpless and desperate. Being susceptible to these emotional roller coasters on the fortunately few occasions that something has happened to me to bring my world tumbling down around me, the mere thoughts in my head begin to depress me. So I get up and start to write, secretly thankful that not everything is hunky dory, otherwise there'd be no motivation to compose anything at all. And as I look back on this mish mash of ideas, I giggle to myself. (It would freak out the cat if I did it aloud). What an inane bunch of cobblers I've just put down in words with more clichés than you could shake a stick at. But I'm up now, so I'm thinking, hey, keep writing, but this time more on the lines of clichés and stereotypes. OK, now here's a possible article. The problem I see with clichés is that they exist because they have a basis in truth; in reality and in experience, and yet have become so hackneyed that they cease to have any real meaning, and exist solely to get out of tight spots. In fact they are conversation stoppers, because the reaction to the release of one of them tends to be "how true" from those wishing to make friends, or a silent ironic facial expression from those who believe themselves to be above such un-thought-out statements. Either way, it leaves you nowhere to go, which is just what the conversationalists who wish to appear more educated than they actually are wanted all along. So why can't we use clichés if they actually DO express what we want to say? If you have ever been forced onto the emotional roller coaster you'll realise that it's actually not a bad analogy. You're forever seen as shallow if all you can do is come out with platitudes that everyone recognises, be they or not relevant to the situation. Personally, I blame classic love songs. Of course when we use stereotypes we run the risk of being seen to be racist, sexist or any other ist that exists, and yet, I HAVE witnessed German tourists putting out towels at the pool to claim a spot and disappearing for hours. Granted, that shouldn't define a whole people or even the entirety of an individual's personality; if we use the stereotype as such, that's when we become ists. I don't want to be an ist, indeed I don't believe I am. Neither do I want to limit myself to done-to-death expressions. But recently, I see the English as arrogant separatists, and my difficult experiences as part of the rich tapestry of life. Can't help it. So, to steal again, I leave you with Macbeth: Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

martes, 23 de agosto de 2011

Back to my roots

Aah, the sea. Not the beach. The sea. The smell, the sound, the sight. The infinite expanse of blue is calming, an old friend who never changes but welcomes you, lapping like a kitten at your toes.

My yearly pilgrimage has come to an end once again and I have satiated my need for my roots for another 12 months or so. Seeing the family, visiting the zoo (funny how those two things are apparently related in my brain), walking, eating, not looking at the clock, and generally enjoying the free activities the island affords. When it's not raining, which luckily, it didn't.

I don't think it's necessarily true that those who have been brought up by the sea miss it more than those who spend very little time there. I can only speak for me. And I miss it. Interestingly (or not), I can't even swim that well. I can stay afloat, and doggy paddle my way to safety, if safety is 10 metres away. I can't dive either, never had to. You can walk into the sea, and if a situation required another method of entry, I suppose I'd just jump, and try not to get my head wet.
I remember, at the age of 12, having swimming lessons in a pool. All the cool kids were doing lengths. I was with the remedial group, attempting to do widths, with the ubiquitous white, rectangular, polystyrene float. The best bit was when our sadistic teacher threw a brick to the bottom, which we had to retrieve. Being in the shallow end, and being more or less tall for my age, I attempted to succeed in the exercise by reaching as if my arms were Mr. Tickle's in order to not put my head under. It didn't work. But I did learn a valuable lesson in deception. Splash about a bit and pinch your nose while the teacher is watching and you can get away with not actually doing anything. Ohhh, time's up? Well I'll try again next class. (Incidentally, it was the same with "handstands and cartwheels to finish" in gym. Unable to perform either, I'd try to look as if I were preparing myself every time the teacher looked. Probably didn't fool anyone. But hey, I was good at running.)

Anyway, back to my roots. It's a strange thing to yearn for somewhere without actually wanting to be there. And it's not just familiarity, although that is a great part. The smells, the ground you trod as a child, the memories invoked are all part of that feeling of nostalgia. Of course, you can't live off nostalgia; it is a bittersweet indulgence. But there's more. A need to feel connected to something which will always be yours and never judge you. A link to who you are when you feel lost. It doesn't affect your day to day life, but it is necessary at times to regain perspective. You can change, you can develop as a person; it doesn't mean you don't need your past. Your past is what makes you who you are in the present, whether you reject or embrace certain parts of it.

There are times, when I return to my current home, I think of what it would be to live by the sea again. Where I live in Spain is as far as you can get from the coast in the whole of the country. Good choice. And yet I would miss my life here. Partly because I've built up a life here, partly because I'm lazy. The thought of moving constantly lies in direct opposition to the thought of being able to hear the sea from my bedroom window. It's not even one of those impossible dreams. Technically, I could move at any time. And not necessarily "back to my roots". Anywhere. But why? Is the thought of moving just running away? Is it the grass is always greener?

I suppose I have to be honest. The sea is probably a dream, and all the better for it. Maybe one day I'll get back there. For the moment, I have a life to live, in the present.
By the way, I want my ashes sprinkled in the ocean. Just make sure you know which way the wind's blowing.