Friday, December 18, 2015

Home in Winter

Image Credit: Marica
I'm going home for Christmas. It's been 8 months since I left and I haven't been back since, so I'm pretty excited. Thinking about this fact the other day led me to imagine my home, and its particular feelings, sounds and smells. I love my house in winter, since we always have a fire going and every morning, I roll out of bed into my dressing gown and head downstairs for a warm breakfast, in full holiday swing. Coupled with the excitement of giving and receiving presents and the general festive cheer that surrounds December, it's by far my favourite time of the year.

But I've also made a new home for myself here in London. It's quite amazing how fast we can adapt to new spaces - it doesn't take long before the place we're inhabiting becomes our cradle, our museum of memories, our sanctuary after a long day. I think we continue to make little homes for ourselves throughout our lives. Here is a poem I wrote about all this - enjoy!

Home in Winter

Home in winter is the morning smell
of burnt toast and coffee, 
wafting through the house as I skitter
down the stairs in slippers.
It's the blaze of a glowing fireplace
as I'm sat, book in lap.
It's the refuge of a house whose walls
have known me forever.
Now, returning there, like an old friend
home welcomes me back in.

Houses seem strange, unfamiliar shells
when glanced in from outside.
A new home begins bare and basic
like brand new, unworn shoes.
With time, the space becomes one's own,
offering up its shelves
to belongings, memory, meaning.

This new place of mine, once a perfect stranger,
has grown to smell like coffee, warm like fire.
Taking my hand, welcoming me in,
much like my old friend
my first home.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Recollections Ep 1: Earliest



When I was a kid, before walkmans, mp3 players and ipods existed, my parents played me cassette tapes before I went to sleep. Some of the best stories of my childhood came in the form of cassettes, read charismatically at bedtime - Roald Dahl and Rudyard Kipling featured heavily. I remember listening to the same stories again and again and never getting bored.

Recently Ed and I decided to relive this lovely childhood ritual by downloading an audiobook to listen to before bed. To keep up with tradition, we went with Roald Dahl's Boy - a beautiful recollection of his childhood memories. When we're too tired to keep our eyes open and read, listening to even just a chapter - I'm pleased to say it's read very well - is such a great way to fall asleep, and makes for some wonderful dreams!

Roald Dahl's process of recollection inspired me to look back on my own memories and write down whatever fragments I can remember. What's nice about doing this is that when you explore one memory, you find that another pops up somewhere else, and pieces of the puzzle begin to fit together to make a kind of story. I thought it might be nice to share these on my blog every now and again.

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My earliest memory is just a foggy image, and I can't pinpoint what my age at the time was, but I must have been very young since I was lying in a cot. I remember lying in the cot at the back of a dimly lit room. There was light emanating from the front of the room, as someone, either my mother or my father, was working at a desk under the light of a lamp. What's actually significant about this memory is the fact that it is the only thing I remember from the period of time when my family lived in Switzerland, before moving to Malta when I was just 2. My brother, who was 4 at the time, remembers more of this than I do, and my sister much more, having spent her childhood and primary school years in Ticino, the country's Italian region.

I always forget the ins and outs of how my parents actually ended up in Switzerland, but that'll make for another story. My brother and I were both born there, and my sister was very young when they moved; she went to the local primary. Our house was in a tiny mountain village called Cimo, in the Lugano district (Lugano is the nearest town). All of my memories of the place after the initial 'lamplight' moment come from the times we visited Cimo after moving to Malta. It was very picturesque and extremely old fashioned - everyone knew one other; everything was small and near. My parents tell me about a little van that used to drive through the streets every day and call out for people to buy their eggs, milk and other groceries. It was a slower, simpler way of life, and a village full of storybook-type characters that never seemed to change between our visits.

One of these characters was our neighbour Carolina, an old woman who lived by herself but was very close to all the surrounding families, including ours. She used to raise and kill rabbits for cooking, and I remember her walking up and down the hill to the enclose where her rabbits were kept, carrying heavy bags on her back to take to the house. She didn't speak any English and me and my brother spoke no Italian, but we understood each other. She was a strong, quite remarkable woman with kind eyes and a lovely smile. I have a strong memory of Carolina throwing me, my brother and sister tea biscuits from her window, and us trying to catch them from below. Another thing I remember is my whole family sat round her dining room table eating polenta, which was her delicious signature meal. She made it the old fashioned way, by cooking a big pot of polenta for a long time over a wood oven, which looks in my memory like a kind of fire pit.

All of this leads me to the memory of the toy chicken. After one of Carolina's dinners, a family friend who had joined us for the meal (possibly one of our neighbours) presented me with a toy chicken. I remember you would wind it up and it would walk around the room, laying its eggs. Then you would put the eggs back in via a slot in the top of the chicken, wind it up and do it all again. I thought it was the best toy in the world. On our next visit, I asked the same friend if I could play with it, and was extremely disappointed when he said he wasn't sure where it was.

It's funny how this simple episode has stuck in my memory so clearly - it must have meant a lot to me at the time.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Very Veggie

One week's worth of veg / Vegan curry made with cauliflower, parsnip, mushroom, and red bell pepper
It didn’t take very long after moving to London to realise that, when working a full-time schedule in one of the world’s busiest cities, even a grocery shop can be hard to fit in. The last thing you feel like after a day at the office and a 40 minute commute is to amble along the Tesco aisles, figuring out what to have for dinner.

More importantly, something I began to notice was the horrific amount of waste that is generated by the hundreds of food outlets, shops and supermarkets across the city (let alone the whole country). I started to feel guilty for pouring my money into institutions that methodically throw away food that is perfectly fit for human consumption, along with all its individual packaging. It is truly astonishing how the world's resources are exhausted beyond capacity, only to then be wasted because the food produced reaches its 'sell-by' date.

Beetroot, halloumi, onion salad
I started looking for ways to make sensible choices when it came to my food. The upside to living in a big city like London is that you have a lot more freedom in this regard. I decided to stop eating meat (poultry, pork, red meat etc)  and it was easy for me to find vegetarian and pescetarian alternatives everywhere. This was already a huge step and another long discussion, but my next step was searching for a farmer's market for my fruit and veg.

I soon discovered Growing Communities, a Hackney-based non-profit organisation that sustains a farmer's market in Islington and a weekly veg scheme, whereby they put together a bag of locally sourced, seasonal veg which you can then collect from your nearest pickup point. I had already heard about delivery veg schemes run by bigger companies like Abel&Cole, but I felt that the whole point of me doing this was to direct less money towards bigger 'corporations' and feed it directly into local, sustainable sources like GC and the farmers they get their veg from. Luckily for me, one of their pickup points turned out to be a 5 minute walk from my house!

I've now been on the veg scheme for over a month and I'm absolutely loving it. It means less trips to the supermarket (not more than one every 2 weeks), and much less money spent while there. I never have to worry about what to cook anymore - instead I research and invent recipes based on whatever the bag provides - which means that my knowledge of veg and cooking in general has increased dramatically. I'm always happy to see the odd bit of soil or misshapen veg as it just reminds me that this actually comes from the ground! 

Starting the veg scheme was the perfect way to complement and complete my fish-eating-non-meat-eating (pescetarian) diet, as well as keeping my body 'in sync' with the seasons. It feels amazing to know that the food I'm eating is the same food that my ancestors would have eaten at this time of year, and not exported half way across the world and pumped with hormones. I think the foremost vehicle for change when it comes to food production is people's attitudes. We all need to adjust our approach to food - to one where we use and adapt to what is readily, and naturally, available, rather than allowing the industry and its resources to be exploited in order to meet our unrealistic demands.

Excuse the poor quality of the photos but my kitchen light is terrible and I'm not the world's best photographer!

Leek and feta frittata / Butternut squash, carrot and coriander soup
Quinoa, onion, mozzarella salad on spinach leaves with salmon / Roast carrots, celeriac root, broccoli, plus a halloumi side salad







Friday, November 13, 2015

Patrick Watson @ IAH





This review was published on online music magazine Both Sides Now, see it HERE

When I found out that Patrick Watson was coming to London, I knew I had to try my best to get tickets. The name refers to both the Canadian singer-songwriter himself, and the four-piece band that sprung, somewhat accidentally, out of his solo career. The band has now produced five studio albums, each one marking a new stage in their eclectic musical exploration.

Patrick Watson’s style is hard to pin down, and they’re famed for using weird and wonderful instruments in all of their live shows. While their 2012 album Adventures in Your Own Backyard had what I would describe as a folky, acoustic sound throughout, their newest album (which this tour is promoting) Love Songs For Robots gives way to layers of instrumentation, echo and more ‘sonic’ type sounds. It makes for an emotive, contemplative listen, and one which I pretty much played on repeat leading up to the concert.

The London show was staged at Islington Assembly Hall, a renovated theatre venue that reopened in 2010 and is a generous size for its 800 capacity. Here, nobody was worried about being pushed or blocked by the crowd - we could really immerse ourselves in the music. The stage, set up with decorations matching the album’s artwork, stood high above us, framed by a beautiful proscenium arch. This set up meant that we had a great view wherever we were standing, but it was intimate enough for us to feel close to the artists and see their facial expressions and movements clearly.

The band came on and jumped straight into the album’s title track, immediately drawing people in with its cinematic sounds. The acoustics were good, with clarity through the individual instruments and Watson’s enchanting voice, the absolute highlight of the show, all of these elements working together to create a magical, poignant tone. They moved between the new album tracks seamlessly, with Watson bouncing around the stage juggling between piano playing, vocals, and at one point, a capella with all four band members gathered around one microphone. These guys were an absolute pleasure to watch as you could see that they were pouring their heart and soul into the performance and really enjoying it - it was an epic production that came across as sincere and humble.

Rather than an abundance of flashing iPhone screens, which is the sad reality of a lot of gigs these days, it was so refreshing to see everyone totally absorbed in the special atmosphere this band - in particular this incredible man - created. It was a concert that I enjoyed from beginning to end, but for me, the key moments came in the encore, when they performed Know That You Know, with its deep, soulful beats combined with Watson’s haunting voice. He then moved on to perform a stunning solo piano rendition of Adventures in Your Own Backyard from the 2012 album.

I can’t really say enough about this man and his band – watching them live was an intriguing, unforgettable experience that left me in a bit of a trance (and with tears in my eyes), the same way a great movie captivates you long after the end credits. I think Watson possesses the kind of raw talent that emerges a few times in a generation, a man totally committed to  losing himself in each moment of his performance. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for his next London visit as I would love nothing more than to watch him again.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Stories we tell ourselves.








"In all affairs, love, religion, politics or business, it's a healthy idea, now and then, to hang a question mark on things you have long taken for granted."  
Today's long overdue blog post is partially inspired by the Bertrand Russell quote above, which I dug up from a book of quotations I have kept for a few years, and partially by a book called The Power of Myth, a rich and important book that highlights the world-view of Joseph Campbell, a mythologist who basically (in a tiny, tiny nutshell) believed that our lives as human beings are underpinned by ancient, universal stories that influence, and also help us to understand, our experiences.

But these stories, which have touched the fields of psychology, philosophy and every social science, go beyond the ancient myths of Classicism. There are stories we tell ourselves on a daily basis - some which have been passed down, and some that we make up as we go along. We feel that what we believe is 'the truth', when in reality, it is just what we are used to. These stories can determine anything from our our jobs, to what we choose to eat, to what political party we favour, even to whom we love.

I thought it might be interesting to, as in Russell's terms, hang a question mark on a few of the things we all take for granted.

Money

Most of us in the middle class Western world consider ourselves free people. We have access to food, health, education, and choice. But ultimately, while we're lucky enough to be free from poverty, we are also enslaved by money. A lot of the success, achievement, 'luck', and ultimately happiness in our lives is measured by what money can buy us. Everything is a commodity and is bought and sold - universities cost thousands, prices of basic living space are on the rise, and to take a few simpler examples - the best seats at any concert cost more. Good food costs more. Quality clothing costs more. The story we've been told is that it's OK for this hierarchy to exist. But who decides? And how often have we discovered that the price we are paying does not reflect the real price, causing someone out there to suffer?

The concept of money is what reinforces the status quo. It allows the rich to remain rich, and the poor to remain poor. And because money is the only way to transcend (or even maintain) our position in society, we might ask if we are also enslaved by our means of earning it - our work.

Work

We all know that to live is to work. Everyone needs a job as a means of survival. The average person will spend 35% of their time at work over a 50-year working life, and this assumes 8 hours of sleep per night. I can safely say that the majority of working people my age sleep less and work more.

Another thing I can say for certain is that the majority of people are less than happy to be at work. You might not hate your job, but you're less than content devoting so many hours to it. This means that most of us are spending 35% or more of our time disinterested, or plain unhappy. How many of us stop to consider other ways of living, or other means of livelihood that might be more fulfilling to us?

Our Place in the World

We all have a very strong sense of our identity and where we come from. But sometimes, confined within the borders of our own countries, and blinded by a mythology which tells us that our individual lives are more important than the collective, we might forget that we form part of a wider world. We disconnect ourselves, not only from the plight of others, but from the planet itself. We know that our lifestyle is totally unsustainable, depleting our natural resources day by day, yet we do nothing about it. To what extent is the story we tell ourselves about our own lives numbing us to the realities of the bigger picture?

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I could go on forever but I'll stop here. What I will say is that questioning our long-held beliefs, while sometimes uncomfortable, is essential. It makes room for serious debate about the way we live in the 21st century, and opens our eyes to the possibilities of living differently - perhaps in a way that is more sensitive to our physical, emotional and spiritual needs, as well as the needs of our planet.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Twenty-two.








Charles Darwin, in case you were unsure

Today is my twenty-second birthday. While I certainly don't look or feel as wise as the bearded man above, I thought it would be nice to reflect on arguably the biggest thing that's happened to me this year: Big City Life.

When I finished uni, I thought taking a break from studying was a good idea. Aside from gaining some good ol' life experience, I wanted the space and time to jump at any opportunity (like moving away) if it came about. So although the move to London was somewhat unexpected, it happened at a time when I was very open to change.

London was a place I dreamed about living in throughout my childhood and teenage years. I thought it was the most exciting city in the world. But, after a brief stint in Brighton, where I lived for 6 months in my second year of university, I gained a bit more perspective. I fell in love with the coastal town, and my burning desire to live in the capital faded.

When my 'significant other' (guess who) unexpectedly landed a job opportunity in London, suddenly, moving to my childhood city of dreams was back on the agenda. It initially took me some time to feel sure that moving was the right decision, I was nervous about essentially dropping everything on the spot and leaving, but images of Victorian buildings, double deckers, unknown people and places tugged at me. I felt I had nothing to lose by going - only lots to gain.

Now that I've been here five months, that initial doubt seems so far away and I can't imagine having chosen to stay in Malta. As with any unfamiliar place (especially one as huge and diverse as London), I discover new people, places and things on a daily basis - part of the reason why I started this blog. And occasionally - when I stumble upon one of the city's incredible landmarks, but also sometimes just crossing the road on my habitual route home - I regain a massive sense of admiration and wonder at the place, feeling like a child all over again.

And now, paying tribute to 22 year-olds across the globe, here are some worldly accomplishments that are slightly more significant than my move to London:

At age 22:

Charles Darwin set off as ship's naturalist on a voyage to South America and the Galapagos Islands.

James Joyce left his family, his church and his country for the European continent, in order to become a writer. (We are one and the same, James)

Caresse Crosby became the first person to patent a brassiere, which was made of two handkerchiefs and ribbon sewn together. (Thanks, Caresse!)

U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz won a record 7 Olympic gold medals.

Inventor Samuel Colt patented the Colt six-shooter revolver.

Dia DiCristino survived 11 brain surgeries.

Andrew Robinson bicycled across the United States, unsupported, to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The quest for a simple life









"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify."
Henry David Thoreau

I think one of the great problems of our time is that our lives are filled with physical and mental clutter. Every day, we face the challenge of steering a clear path through a chaotic world full of choice. It feels a bit like we're on a path sabotaged by distractions - constant, conflicting messages that hit us from a thousand angles. I think it makes our lives unnecessarily complicated.

The outside world is a huge mixing pot of clashing voices and media platforms (who do we listen to?), retail brands (what do we buy?), food that hails from every corner of the globe (what do we eat?). The internet is essentially a virtual reflection of all of this, giving us access to anything at the press of a button, and we each own at least two screens. In the midst of all this, we're left confused, stressed, unfocused, and ultimately unhappy.

I hate that feeling at the end of a long day, when I've been flicking from one tab to the next, one screen to the next, seen a million flashy adverts on these screens, and answered to (sometimes useless) conversations on every platform imaginable, before proceeding to amble down the aisles of the supermarket, disillusioned by the colours and brand names screaming for my attention. Moments like these make me feel mentally exhausted, and I think they take their toll on our general levels of concentration and calm.

Some days I feel more relaxed than others. Some days, I take things slower, multi-task less, make simpler choices. These are the better days. I think there's something inherently satisfying about being able to live simply - and no, I don't mean spending your life chewing on straw in a field (although my inner farmer loves this idea) - but just doing your best to cut away at the unnecessary detail that is so very distracting. The stuff that gets in the way of having clear head space.

For me, simple living is a work in progress - something I aspire to get better at as I go along. Having less 'stuff' is one of the things I'm working on - trying to move away from mass-manufactured junk that I don't need, and make more mindful choices when it comes to the objects I accumulate (this is a lot harder than it sounds). Food is another area where simplicity is extremely satisfying - choosing simple, seasonal and preferably local ingredients without all of the anomalies that come with pre-packaged foods.

Staying afloat of the mess that is the media can sometimes be daunting - it's easy to get overwhelmed by its often contradictory messages. I think it's important to keep a safe distance while staying informed, acknowledge that the stories we're being told aren't necessarily true - nor can they be fit neatly into boxes of 'right' or 'wrong'. This distance is what helps me stay sane, pretty much.

I also think it's highly satisfying to enjoy simple pleasures - reading books, having good conversation, sitting in nature (even if this is a small patch of grass on the corner of your street), leisurely walks. If we can do our best to block out the chaos that modern life imposes on us, I think we can work towards being happier people, and do the world a lot of good in the process.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A dismal day



This bank holiday weekend, a group of us decided to visit Banksy's Dismaland, located in the obscure seaside town of Weston Super-Mare. It began with an overcomplicated plan that involved lugging our hungover selves to Heathrow airport to rent a car (in which we squeezed 8 passengers), then setting off onto the rainy motorway and stopping off for a pub lunch in Bath before continuing onto WSM. It ended with frolic, fatigue, and us having a nickname for absolutely everything, notably our driver Ian (pilot), lead passenger Tina (co-pilot), and passenger who never knew where we were going but provided useful insight along the way, Timmy (co-co pilot). The rest of us left navigation in the hands of the experts while enjoying Heart FM blasting from the radio.

I didn't have very high expectations for Dismaland before we arrived. To me, it seemed like a bit of a media stunt with a very overstated message, by an artist who is normally renowned for his wit and subtlety. I had also read a scathing review of the 'bemusement park' which filled me with doubts. Bearing all this in mind, however, worked well for me, because I left pleasantly surprised with what I found beyond the bleak gates of this derelict - and indeed rather dismal - site.

What Banksy has created here is an expression of a world-view that challenges that of its real-life counterpart, Disneyland. Here, the bleak 21st-century realities of surveillance, oppression and popular culture are laid bare for our observation. And unlike an amusement park, where cheap thrills offer customers a distraction from the outside world of these realities, Banksy's park is designed to remind us of society's failures. If Disneyland is the ultimate portrait of fantasy, Dismaland is a brutal representation of reality.

Anyone expecting an actual theme park experience will be disappointed with Dismaland. This is a modern art exhibition, using the framework of an amusement park to access its audience. Once you realise that this is a parody of a park, and not by any means a park itself, the tongue-in-cheek messages Banksy and other artists are trying to send come across much more clearly.

There were a few things in particular which caught my eye. The picture above highlights one of the 'main' attractions; a grotesque image of Cinderella leaning dead out of her toppled carriage with eerily life-like paparazzi photographing her. Ironically, visitors stood behind the 'paparazzi' taking photos of the scene from their phones and cameras. This jeer at popular culture and our obsession with hounding celebrities (even driving them to their deaths) is even more relevant with the recent release of Amy which I've written about.

I also really enjoyed the main galleries for their showcase of varied modern paintings and art prints. Close by, Jimmy Cauty's 'model village' was on display - a highly detailed miniature of a dystopian, police-run city, that took years to complete and was nothing short of impressive. The outdoor cinema was a great spot to sit back and watch some excellent animated shorts. I would've sat there for ages if it wasn't for the cold creeping in.

While I don't necessarily think this is Banksy's greatest work, it's giving people access to an alternative aesthetic; unusual pieces of work that embody their own anti-establishment message. I think it's good for people to see something like this for the non-restrictive price tag of £3. I really enjoyed immersing myself in this weird (and often true) world, and what better place to present weirdness than at a twisted fairground in Weston Super Mare?

Friday, August 28, 2015

We are all very scared...










Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff taken off The Guardian

... of this monstrous, alien thing they are calling a 'migrant crisis', a 'swarm of migrants', an 'influx', 'flood', etc, etc. The first question I have to ask is: how is it okay for the media to dehumanise people like this? Yes, people, just like us, our brothers, sisters, parents and children. How would we feel if our loved ones (and indeed we ourselves) were discarded as some kind of epidemic?

I feel like a little disclaimer is necessary, so here it is: I am not an expert in international affairs; I am aware that this is an age-old, multi-faceted problem; and I'm not trying to paint myself as some kind of Mother Teresa. I just think it's important, amid all of the negative discourse surrounding this issue, that we re-humanise these individuals; that we strip back the words and phrases that we too easily resort to, take a good long look at ourselves, and face the situation for what it is.

We are all aware of the circumstances these people are fleeing (and if you're not, a quick google search will suffice). We know that these people are desperate - desperate enough to repeatedly risk their lives and endure merciless journeys just to get away. Even a rickety tent in a refugee camp, on the border between two countries, is preferable to civil war on their doorstep. And yet we fail to acknowledge their struggle. 

News channels and indeed nation leaders themselves have constructed a narrative using plenty of neat labels which help us to forget this struggle, like an inconvenient truth that lies beneath. They call it 'the migrant crisis', they call them 'illegal immigrants' or worse, dreaded 'economic migrants'. These labels, coupled with images of people climbing fences and clashing with the police, scare us. We are scared to the point where we adopt a numb, one-dimensional response to the situation: them or us. We are scared to the point where we feel like these people, this problem, this CRISIS, are all impinging on our lives unnecessarily. Go away! we think (or even say).

Our fear is not unfounded when the narrative is depicted in this way. The reality, however, totally distorted by this toxic discourse, is less extreme: Migrants do not want to steal our jobs or our benefits. They do not want to impose their religion onto us, or crush our local culture. They are simply seeking the most fundamental human need, the foundation for a dignified life: freedom. It is our duty as human beings and nations to grant them this freedom, even in its most basic form.

Everyone needs to wake up to the fact that it is more convenient for world leaders (particularly those who lean right) to depict the situation as unsolvable. In reality, the EU has enough money and power to mobilise resources and put a proper scheme in place, in which migrants could be processed much more efficiently, without the mass hysteria and fear-mongering. But why would they, if their voters want the migrants out? If you are one of the people who wants the migrants out, I can assure you that metal fences, policemen and dogs will not stop anyone who is only leaving behind suffering and oppression. 

The only sustainable solution is to demand that our governments do more to put effective schemes in place. But this can only be made possible when we, on an individual level, let go of the fears that the mass hysteria has instilled in us. We must lose our fear of otherness; lose our attachment to the medieval principles of nationalism that claim migration is a 'threat' to our identity. Crisis or no crisis, migration is a fact of life in a rapidly changing world. People are more mobile than they have ever been before - America will be predominantly mixed-race in a few decades. If we want to move forward, we need to accept these realities, and come to terms with the idea of living in more diverse societies, without seeing this as detrimental to our local cultures.

Of course, I am proud to be Maltese. I am also proud to be a citizen of London, where I currently reside. But I am first and foremost a human being, and a citizen of the world. If I am not prepared to extend my morality beyond my own borders, then I am living in fear and denial and shirking my human responsibility.

It is time to stop questioning their nationality, and start questioning our humanity. Only when we do this can we begin to see beyond the political rhetoric that has been set up for us, beyond the fear and prejudice, to see an image of a thousand faces, a thousand real people, who possess the same capacity for love, for fear, for joy, and for life, as each and every one of us.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Do you believe in fate?










Fate
Pronunciation: /feɪt/
noun: The development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power.
While most days in our lives are, for the most part, underwhelming and ordinary, there are moments which stand out as important, even life-changing. I think these moments, that might steer our lives in a different direction, can be reduced down to unexpected events - over which we have no control - and our own decisions, whether they are big or small. Thus the narrative of our lives is moved forward via the ebb and flow of external occurrences and personal choices.

My first, extremely cringe-worthy, idea for a tattoo, was something along the lines of 'life is a collision of choice and coincidence' stamped in typewriter lettering across my forearm. Thankfully, I never went through with it, and as embarrassing as the outcome would have been today, that sentence basically sums up my stance on fate: I don't believe in it.

A lot of people believe in fate or destiny. This means, as the dictionary definition spells out, that what I call the 'ebb and flow' (namely events and decisions) is out of our control, following a pre-existing plan that governs us all. If you follow this belief system, my question is, who decides? If it is God, then I guess my questioning stops there (otherwise I'd just be opening a can of worms on who God actually is). If it isn't God, then who or what is it that controls the course of our lives?

I really can't grasp the idea that my day-to-day decisions add up to some cosmic scheme. 'It was meant to be!' some people exclaim at an unexpected meeting with someone in a cafe. For me, that translates to: my decision to go somewhere on a particular day happened to align with the coincidence of that person being in the cafe. Out of the millions of possibilities of event and choice across the billions of people in the world, funny coincidences - and some which actually turn out to be crucial in the course of our lives - are bound to happen on a daily basis.

Is it really OK to justify accidents, disease, death, bad luck, by fate?

I understand that the idea of it can be consoling, particularly when bad things happen. Fate is one way of rationalising the chaos of life; something to grasp onto when there are just no answers. But for me, renouncing my free will, and the course of actions that I have taken which bring me to the point I'm at now, is a total fallacy, and a denial of my own responsibility. I feel it's too easy to put things down to fate, especially when there's no real basis for it. Where does it originate?

Here is somewhat of a manifesto against fate: Rather than believing I was 'destined' to be born where I was, and had all the opportunities I've had, I put it down to luck and coincidence, and am therefore extremely grateful for my circumstances. Rather than justifying all of the wrong in the world by saying it's part of some supreme plan, I acknowledge it for what it is and do what I can to change it. And rather than believing that all of the good things in my life were 'meant to be', I recognise the steps I took and decisions I made to reach them, through my own free will, and a few chance encounters.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Mindful Journey


Anyone who knows me well enough also knows that I am a big fan of yoga. Far beyond just a form of exercise, yoga (whose 21st-century popularity negates the need for introduction) is a way of life for thousands of people, as it encompasses a philosophy of thinking, acting, moving, and ultimately living, that is refreshingly simple, providing refuge from some of the unnecessary complications of Western life.

When I was 15 years old, I attended an international summer camp in Denmark where each week, we would gather round a fire and our counsellors (camp leaders) would tell stories, sharing a little bit of their wisdom with us. I remember being struck by a speech which was truly unexpected, coming from the slightly eccentric and reclusive camp chef.

He was basically talking about how when we are faced with a tedious task - like washing the dishes - we have two options: The first is to allow our minds to take over, filled with thoughts of boredom and reluctance to the task, racing ahead, thinking, 'what am I going to do after this?', making washing up a miserable experience from beginning to hurried end.

Alternatively, we can make a conscious effort to stop our thoughts from infiltrating, and instead focus, with a quiet curiosity, on the way the warm water feels in our hands, the turn of the ceramic plates and metal pots and pans in the sink, and anything else that is sensory, moment by moment. This way before we know it, the dishes will be clean, and the 'dreaded' task transformed into something neutral, perhaps even enjoyable.

Back then, this unexpected dishwashing anecdote was a striking bit of insight that struck a real chord with me for all its simplicity. I remember thinking, 'this makes so much sense!' It was later that I realised that this was my first 'raw' encounter with the philosophy of mindfulness that is the foundation of a yogic world view.

Years later, when I was writing my BA dissertation and studying for my final exams, I thought it would be a good idea to try a yoga class to counteract being hunched at my desk for hours on end. My mum had sworn by yoga for years, and I always thought I would just find it too slow and wishy-washy. Within a couple of classes I was hooked, mainly by how loose, light, energetic and focussed I felt in the evening afterwards.

With time, yoga's effects on me extended far beyond the physical. Beyond being just a (remarkably) good stretch, I started to notice my daily temperament changing. I was beginning to take life step by step, or movement by movement, as I did on the mat in my classes. I began to feel myself slowing down, losing my ties to predisposed thoughts, frustrations and prejudices, and simply reacting organically with each passing instance. These 'calculated' reactions were made possible by the cultivation of a deep awareness of my body, stepping away from my mind.

The cumulative effect of these classes, as well as reading further into topics of mindfulness, yoga, meditation, and Buddhism, was transformative in every sense. It gave me a strong sense of purpose and direction, as I felt that every practice was making me a more open, kind, healthy and happy human being. It also provided me with a solid foundation within myself, to turn to when things didn't go to plan, or when something made me unhappy. I felt my reliance on external events and commodities wither away, finding peace and contentment in quiet, contemplative moments, alone or with other people.

The best thing about yoga is that it is a journey ('of the self, through the self, to the self'), and one that never ends. Yoga allows us to look at life for what it is, cleaning away the clutter we build up in our minds. In the same way my camp chef explained that we could be mindful about washing dishes, we can find the deepest joy in something as simple as a touch of grass, a hot cup of tea, or a subtle stretch. Yoga has opened my eyes to the reality that these simplicities are already enough to live a life full of meaning and purpose.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Portrait of Amy

This weekend I watched Asif Kapadia's Amy, the much-anticipated documentary exploring the short and volatile life of Amy Winehouse, lifting the veil on who she really was behind the media's one-dimensional 'junkie' façade.

Before watching this film, there was little known about Amy other than the fact that she was a great singer who was notorious, often ridiculed, for her problems with alcohol and drugs. While she was alive, magazines and the internet documented her many substance-fuelled episodes, and I think everyone pretty much forgot that somewhere behind this oppressive media veil and all of the layers of issues, Amy was an extremely talented singer and songwriter who just wanted to be able to make music.

Following the same style as Kapadia's last documentary Senna, this film is structured around archived footage of Amy - some personal moments from her daily life as well as live performances and appearances. Interviews with her close circle of family and friends are layered on top of the footage to piece together the story of her life - at least this version of it.

Of course, a lot can be said with regards the framing of this footage to satisfy Kapadia's particular vision, but while some of Amy's family members (her father in particular) call the outcome inaccurate and untruthful, I think it does extremely well in balancing the tragedy of Amy's personal battles, undoubtedly amplified by constant intrusive media surveillance, with the marvel of the side to the Amy that few have seen before: a sharp, witty, vivacious young woman with a rare and wonderful gift.

It is no wonder that Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil and others who were close to Amy are less than content with the film, as it shows them to be at best complacent, at worst complicit in her downward spiral. Mitch, whom Amy clearly adored, famously denied her need for rehabilitation in the early stages of her career, while Fielder-Civil admits introducing Amy to crack and heroine after their marriage and being less than supportive of her minor attempts at recovery. No-one (father, manager, etc) had any qualms about letting Amy perform, even go on tour, when she was clearly unwell and unfit to do so, leading to a string of incidents that are almost unbearable to watch - most notably her refusal to sing in front of thousands in Belgrade.

While her family's incapacity to help the situation is frustrating, and viewers including myself are angry at these people for seemingly doing so little to help Amy, there is an undertone of inevitability in the way her story unfolds. Amy was a troubled girl before super-stardom hit, and she admits on several occasions that her experiences - in love, life, and with addiction - are the fuel for her brutally honest, soulful musical output. Clearly, having the whole world watching, on top of everything else, was just too much for her to handle.

For me, the biggest tragedy is that Amy never wanted, nor predicted, this fame. She was a jazz musician, in her element performing on small stages in dimly-lit bars. She wasn't ready to face crowds of thousands at massive arenas or music festivals. Moreover, the media's microscopic lens stripped her of this innate identity and turned her into a worldwide celebrity and pop star, more famous for her bad reputation than her music. The pressure to live up to this role and the total shift away from her original purpose may have been the catalyst that pushed her over the edge, and it's sad to acknowledge that her success came at such a hefty price.

The film forces us to reflect upon the culture of celebrity, the way Amy's unravelling was mercilessly documented, prisoning her in a life of surveillance wherever she went. As is the case for so many, she was completely stripped of her freedom, and every blunder, every relapse, and every mistake was heightened by the whole world watching and commenting. This was made possible by people's demand - visiting gossip websites and buying tabloid magazines, and watching this film makes us recognise a portion (however small) of our own responsibility in Amy's self-destruction.

After watching the film, I was startled by a genuine feeling of loss. I felt Amy's absence hanging in the air, and I stood waiting for the bus home, imagining her walking on the pavement beside me. I felt angry, at the media for ripping her apart, at her family members who could have done so much more to help her, at her manager for pushing her beyond her capacity. But then I hummed the melody to Back to Black, Valerie, Tears Dry on their Own, and I smiled at the incredible legacy she left behind. Her life was undeniably tragic, but her music touched people everywhere, and she will forever be recognised as one of the voices of this generation.

Monday, June 29, 2015

London Sunshine



As a 'fresh' Londoner, more specifically a newly settled resident of Hackney, I've only just discovered a side to London I never knew existed before.

Firstly, the city stripped of its grey, dreary winter reputation, and secondly, the casual, people-friendly corners of East London that flourish with life on sunny weekends. Before making the move here in April, my knowledge of this city, along with all the usual tourist traps, was restricted to a small segment of North London as well as Clapham, both places my father's family call home.

It was so nice to walk along Regent's canal, from our end of Victoria Park to Broadway market (despite arriving too late for the food stalls). The beautiful canal boats and colourful floating barges reminded me of Amsterdam, and for a few hours I felt I was entirely cut off from the busy city in which millions of people rush to work every day (though I love that side of London too - the excitement hasn't worn off yet).

Parks brimming with people, the sun shining enough for me to actually wear a pair of shorts, along with the fact that it stays light past 9.30pm in summer, makes for extra long, tranquil days on the weekend. I feel so lucky to call this place home!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Exhibition: Savage Beauty


A few weeks ago we saw Savage Beauty, a showcase of  some of the late Alexander McQueen's collections on display at the V&A museum in London.

McQueen is probably one of England's most renowned fashion designers, famed for his fierce creative edge and designs that broke boundaries, to say the least. This exhibition takes you on a journey through McQueen's life and work, leaving you with a strong sense of both his aesthetic and personal philosophy.

Me and Ed didn't really know what to expect from a fashion exhibition, and neither of us knew too much about the man himself, aside from the fact that he is remembered for some extravagant pieces. Nevertheless, we turned up with an open mind and couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised with what we found.

The exhibition spans a huge chunk of McQueen's (literally) glittering career, showcasing some of his most famous collections, which work well as a series but can easily stand alone as complete masterpieces. Even a first glance at some of his more modest designs makes it clear that he does not fit any of the restrictive connotations of the title 'fashion designer'.

His work, like that of many artists, is a testament to his lifelong pursuit of beauty and meaning, which he explores through unusual, often grotesque imagery. It becomes obvious that McQueen's personal battles, his fears, dreams and fantasies were all the fuel that inspired and were translated into these striking pieces.

What truly impressed me about the designs, aside from their sheer scale - which pushed them so far beyond the realm of fashion - was that no matter how far-fetched and sometimes disturbing the materials used are (feathers, shells, antlers, etc), McQueen retains a sense of beauty; all the components work together to create contemporary shapes that rest, frame or drape dynamically around the human body, each piece a display of stunning craftsmanship and skill.

More than just garments, each item in the collection is its own work of art, in which a struggle between the grotesque and the beautiful manifests itself. These pieces are further enhanced by eery visual and sound effects throughout (my compliments to lead curator Claire Wilcox) that make it a truly enchanting experience.

Savage Beauty works really well as a title as it sheds light on the contrast between light and dark, good and evil, weird and wonderful, that runs throughout McQueen's work, but that also exists somewhere deep within us all.

Read more about this on the V&A website

Thursday, April 30, 2015

First stop: Brixton.


After waiting for the day to arrive for weeks, I arrived in London and headed straight to meet Ed at our first sub-let in Brixton. The house is really nice and bright with a spacious kitchen and living room, and set in a perfect location 2 minutes away from Brixton's Ritzy Cinema and equally close to the tube station which is basically on the same road.

The room is small, a bit too small for a couple, but cosy, and fine for a few weeks. It's funny how quickly you get used to living somewhere as it begins to feel like 'home'. Already, after a long day out in town, or working as I was last week, thoughts of the house and this room in particular, are comforting.

Brixton itself is a really cool place to be. What once was a dodgy neglected area of London is now bustling with life, not least owing to its village and market row which is bursting with mixed up stalls and the best places to eat. The town is known for its multi-ethnic population largely made up of people of Caribbean descent, and I love how this makes the place feel, particularly the music bursting out of speakers on street corners and the various people you see, and dialects and accents you hear walking around, seamless with the rest of the population (or at least it seems that way to me).

In a week and a half we move to Hackney, another area that was, not too long ago, dodgy and underdeveloped, and is now a hotspot for young creatives flocking to East London. I'm looking forward to settling in more permanent dwellings, but I have to say I'll miss Brixton's charm, and certainly wouldn't mind returning at some point in the future.