Thursday, 28 May 2015

Pretty As A Portobello

A LONG PATH TO THE RIVER, meadows and trees and cows dotting the grazing field. Yonder houses, yonder trees like tufts of hair on the heads of hills. Wispy clouds in the skies of blue, what lies behind the trees I wonder. As bucolic as the pheasant's cry, rolling as far as the eyes can see. Bridges across the waters, coming to me.

I passed by this patch of countryside. I was enticed by the roll of land and the sky and water blue. I fell in love with this span of earth, so I bought it. It cost me £10.

It's as pretty as a picture. It is a picture. It looks like a landscape in oil by a master painter. It is a landscape painting in oil by someone who is, to me, a master painter because I cannot sketch, nor paint, nor draw. I can barely read the signature in the corner. But no, not Constable. Constable paints landscapes that are as pretty as a photo. No, not Turner, the impressionistic expression isn't as hazy. But I love it, even if it came in a cheapo-cheapo frame, but it is on canvas all right and the patina of time is there, layered over the oil.

People, the Portobello Road has sold me a picture for a song and it is now staring at me. It feels like the countryside is looking at me through the window of its bedraggled frame, and it is sitting on a pile of books at a jaunty angle.

I do not have to go to the National Gallery now, I have a landscape by a Master right here at home. Now I can, like some Lords of the Manor, sit and sip my Earl Grey and look at the country. When the car boot trader handed it to me for the tenner, I think he asked if I was going to get it valued. No, of course not: I have bought it and have had it valued by me, myself and I. And it makes me feel like a million dollars just looking up to it from my work in Bill Gates' Windows. Well, he may have the billion dollars but I have the oil.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Inflating the Hippo

LONDON CABS ALWAYS ATTRACT attention: their odd shape and their wide turning circle. "Don't just look at the cab," I tell visitors. "Look at the drivers. They are very interesting fellows."

Some years ago, when a London cab driver by the name of Fred Housego won the prestigious Mastermind contest on television, people started to look at London cab drivers as more than just non-stop blabberers who took you on journeys back and forth when all you wanted was just a period of quiet travel.

"I had that famous pianist in the back of my cab once Guv, " they'd start as you sink into your padded chair. And then they'd go on blah blah blah. This was the gist of a cartoon series that ran for a long time in the satirical magazine Private Eye. London cabbies are a deep mineshaft of unsolicited tales of intrepid travel.

Under brain imaging it was found that London cab drivers have bigger hippocampi than the average person. This came from their two or more years spent cramming up the entire map and knowledge of London locations into their brains, 25,000 streets and famous buildings and the whereabouts of theatres in the road that leads to Trafalgar Square. The hippocampus, that brain area associated with long term memory and spatial navigation grows and grows. It is proof, if anything, of our brain's plasticity and ability to develop, no matter at what age, when we learn skills.

There are debates raging about the benefits of it all. London cab drivers know London from the top of their heads but they perform poorly at recalling complex visual information compared to those who failed the cabbies' test or those who did not do it at all, so Professor Eleanor Maguire of the University College London found in her research. But that may be the red herring in the trail: for me it shows that the brain can be taught to become cleverer or to grow more muscle, to put it in the vernacular.

There is nothing we do that does not affect our brains directly, and the follow-up to that may bring other benefits in the way we think, or the way we move or the way we relate to other people. Other research in neuroscience for instance have shown that the brains of a person from a collectivist community  reacts differently to external stimuli compared to the brain of a person from an individualistic society. So can charity, empathy, generosity and so on rise by osmotic process to become part of your hard-wired nature if you give enough stimulation to the parts that give them muscle?

Take poetry. I cannot think of a society on this earth that is not moved or swayed by the power of sounds, good words recited in a soothing, euphonious scheme of rhymes and metres. Shamans recite their incantations in powerful, poetic sweeps of images and spells. It is difficult not to be moved by poetic prose, hard to hold back tears when you your heart is tugged by poetry.

Music does the same to people: familiar music wakes up areas that can move us to tears. I myself cannot hear our Negaraku in foreign lands without feeling the true sense of nostalgia, and that is the feeling of longing for one's homeland. When men of the Royal Malay Regiment were invited to do guard duty at Buckingham Palace some years ago many Malaysians were moved top tears when they heard them play tunes from the songs of P. Ramlee under that famous balcony. It is not surprising therefore to learn that music moves you along the same channel in your brain that also makes your spine tingle when Richard Burton reads Under Milk Wood in the half light of the gloaming.

These are the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, unpoetic as they are, your brain regions that become active when your are just sitting and relaxing. They also wake up the autobiographical memory, your mood for introspection and self-examination too. So is poetry important then? It is because it wakes up the inner you that cares about how you relate to yourself and things and others. It soothes and smoothes the rough inner self and makes us aware about who we are.

So there are places where poetry is eschewed, prose-writing pooh-poohed as sidelines in our mainstream interest of everyday living and wealth-accumulation skills. We can do that of course and lose more than just a little.

ILLUSTRATION: The Knowledge Area for London Cabbies.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Alexandrian Ice Cream

ON A TRAIN travelling from Alexandria to Cairo one day I met a man named Mr Haniff. He was a businessman, he told me, and a great lover of Alexandrian sweets. So I did not ask him what he did but listened instead to his extolling of the virtues of Alexandrian ice-cream. I learned later that Cairene visitors are in thrall to the the cool sorbet of the Corniche.

As we arrived in Cairo early evening, he asked me if I wanted to meet a famous writer living there. I had nothing planned for the evening except a kebab and the walk back to the Beyt al Shabbab (the youth hostel), so I followed Mr Haniff to Garden City where we took a flight of stairs and then walked a few steps to a flat where a very impressive man opened the door. He was, I remember, wearing a three-piece suit and he struck me there as this imposing figure holding a glass in his hand. This is Mr Abbas Al Aswany, Mr Haniff introduced him to me.

I can't recall much of what Mr Al Aswany said to me, but he did smile, I remember, and then he beckoned me to a chair. Most of the time we were there he spoke to Mr Haniff in Arabic and I gathered from the way they conversed that he was a man greatly respected by my train-travelling friend. During the course of this conversation Mr Haniff turned to me to add another notch to his respected friend's glittering career: Mr Al Aswany is also a prominent lawyer, he said to me.

I could tell from the lay-out of Mr Al Aswany's flat in a leafy corner of Garden City and the appurtenances gathered therein, and his books, that he must have been a gentleman of some wealth. Law would have been a likely supplement to his livelihood besides his writing propensity. They continued to chat about things as Arabs do when they meet, with flows and stops and excitable rises in tone and the mellifluous flow. And then the time came for us to part. I shook Mr Al Aswany's hand and thanked him for the cup of tea and then, outside the imposing block in Garden City, I bade Mr Haniff goodbye.

ONE DAY, many years later, at the Eurostar station in London, while rushing for the train to Paris, I grabbed a book from the newsagent's display rack before going through the immigration rigmarole. A rush followed as the train was about to pull out and only when the drab backyards of the Waterloo tenements were rolling past us that I could take take a closer look at the writer's bio-data. He was Alaa Al Aswany, and the book that fate sent me was The Yacoubian Building, his first foray into English language publishing via a translation by Humphrey Davies.

This is the story of how trains brought me to a book and the author, via an early prelude to his father. Alaa Al Aswany, I discovered to my amazement was the dentist son of the man I had met years earlier in Garden City, the man who had also won the Egyptian State prize for literature in 1972. In the Yacoubian Building the writer son represented the disparity and the varied miens of Egyptian life in a building in Cairo, the Yacoubian Building where the rich lived their prosperous lives in the main tenements while the poor snuggled up in the spaces that were available to them, that were out of view, in the rooftop mainly. Could this have been the building I went to in Garden City, that well-heeled part of Cairo?

PHOTO: Book sculpture, The Old House by Su Blackwell.With thanks. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

A Blonde In the Night

MY STAB AT POLITICAL COMMENTARY came many years ago when, in a meeting with Ken Livingstone in the then new, gleaming, south-leaning City Hall, I made this very perceptive remark. "Mr Livingstone, aren't you the person made famous by Private Eye magazine as Dave Spart?"

His reply was a rather bemused look.

But I must tell you about City Hall the new, a gleaming building as I said because it is made of shimmering glass, is shaped like a misbehaving boiled egg and leans towards Borough Market. Ken Livingstone was its first occupant after a long absence, the absence being caused by Mrs Thatcher's petulance when faced with the taunts of Ken the Red (another moniker given him by the London press). When Mag the Thatch reigned as PM, she had to look daily at the old County Hall building just across the river from Parliament to see banners that proclaimed things such as the number of unemployed in Britain and so on. So one day, peeved and her iron body sizzling hot, she went to Parliament and got the government of London abolished.
Ken was sent into the wilderness for a long time.

It was at the turn of the new millennium that they decided to revive London's government, so they built the new leaning legislative building on the riverbank with a view of the Tower of London and a magnificent office block owned by the property acquiring section of our dear EPF. Ken was returned home again by London's voters to be their Mayor for two terms until he was trounced by another bloke.

Two Fridays ago, I was gadding about in a little district when the pavement before me was suddenly blocked by men and women in a scrum formation. As I approached them I saw the blondie Boris Johnson talking into many microphones. This was, to remind you, election week. So I took another stab at my long forgotten art: "Boris," I said. "You're violating local by-laws. You're blocking the pavement."

Boris was the other bloke above who trounced Ken in the votes, and he is still, now, in office. As great grandson of an Ottoman Turk, he is used to being heckled by the crowd so he studiously ignored me and continued to pontificate. He could not though, in this day and age, send my head to the block.

Boris, as is well known, does not need microphones to make himself heard but this time he was talking to the media so he had to pour his spiel into various mikes. Once, as writer for the Spectator magazine, he became an irritant to various learned and erudite writers there gathered in the Staggers' Library with his very loud telephone talk coming in from the corridor outside. When he finished, someone asked him what that din was all about. "Oh," Boris said, "I was talking to New York."

"With your voice Boris, you don't need a telephone to speak to them," replied one wag.

What I meant to tell you is that even though Boris ignored me on the pavement, he really did not. Last night, just three days after the general election (where Boris came in as MP from a safe seat) he came back to me in a dream. For some reason I was involved in an invite for him to speak to a crowd and as dreams are the most bizarre events in your sleeping life, there he was, standing patiently before me as I was washing my hand from water that was spouting from an overhanging pipe.

"Ok," he seemed to be saying to me. "You can do that, I'll wait."

"No Boris," I said, "You don't have to, this isn't a ritual."

"This isn't a ritual?" he replied. And then he went for a walkabout, during the course of which many people asked him to pose for photographs. So he walked jauntily as they snapped. And then he turned back and smiled. Perhaps a signal to me to say, "See? I can do that whenever I like."

Note: The Mayor of London is not the Lord Mayor of London, of which more later.

 PHOTO: The new City Hall building on the bank of the Thames with Tower Bridge spanning the tide.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Up the Harrods Escalator

I SPOTTED THESE LINES from a poem while taking the up escalator in Harrods this morning. Ozymandias. Not the whole tale of the traveller, not the whole glory and despair of the King (said to be Ramses II) but a snippet of its most vainglorious.

"My name is Ozymandias
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

That's all I could read. Even the reproduction of the Traveller's tale on Mohamad Fayed's wall is not available for viewing now. No entry. Wall under repair.

The impermanence of things, the short life of glory, the proneness of egos to self destruct. Stones crumble, walls needing repair, even glory has to be retouched. In that distant land the Traveller saw two trunkless legs of stone, and half sunk in the sand, a shattered visage. The land is far away and lonely and level sands stretch far away.

So haunting and enough to send a cold chill up the spine and a mystery wrapped in distance and time. Flatness, loneliness and decay of grandeur undone, ego falling flat on its face in the sand. How befitting, in the ostentation of Harrods that was once Mr Mohamad Al Fayed's flagship company (now the property of sand-filled Qatar). This is the territory of Arab opulence, princes of the desert drive up in their booming expensive cars just to park them by the roadside for the deprived to see. The princes, probably plebs with newly found wealth, strutting Ozymandias-like, look at my works and despair.

This is one of the most famous sonnets in the English language, in iambic pentameter. Some say this is the greatest in the language yet it was written in no more than a quarter of an hour when Percy Bysshe Shelley engaged in a playful contest with his friend Horace Smith, a poetry-scribbling stockbroker.

"I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

"And on the pedestal these words appear --
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- Percy Bysshe Shelley