Smugness

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… and Hillary Clinton

The Washington elite were out-of-touch, the Democrats failed to communicate with ordinary voters, the party machine assumed she was the only possible contender for the nomination.

If I was asked for one word to sum up these deficiencies and explain why Hillary Clinton didn’t win the US presidential election, I would choose this one: smugness.

I think that’s why not enough people fancied voting for her.  They reckoned she was smug.

It’s quite an easy trap to fall into, smugness.  If you believe you are in the right, or you have done really well at something, you are going to be pleased with yourself.  It’s human nature.

In my case, when I’ve convinced myself that I’m right about something, I sometimes have that nice feeling of superiority over people who do not share my view.  So maybe I’m smug – but only about whatever it is that’s just made me smug.  I’m not a smug guy per se.  Indeed, in many areas of life I’m a kind of cautious novice anthropologist, observing but not judging.  I am fully open to altering my view.

Often, even where I strongly believe I am right, I leave the door ever so slightly open in to admit a doubt or two.  I entertain a healthy suspicion that I might not have thought things through quite as well as I should.  And as smugness often comes from a failure of empathy, I try my best to see things through the eyes of others.

Clinton could have rid herself of that air of ingrained aloof smugness that so irked many Americans, working-class ones especially, if she had simply but daringly said she was ready to start again, if she had expressed a desire to ‘disrupt’ – to borrow the IT start-up terminology – the Democratic status quo.

I’ll bet she’s not smug now.

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A gym in the park in Mexico

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In soggy Sussex, the thought of doing exercises outdoors in November makes me want to come down with some sudden illness. Anything, anything to avoid having to squelch and slip around on wet leaves while trying to do walking lunges with dumbbells.

The more distant the memories of dry and warm days, the more I wistfully reflect that it would be much easier to keep up a meaningful new exercise regime if I was still based in Mexico City.   The weather there is more predictable: I am now, as you might guess from my dispirited tone, in England.

In that megalopolis outdoor gyms have sprung up all over the place. Just knowing there was a free gym in the corner of my local park in colonia Nápoles made me satisfied, quite apart from using it. I’ll admit that I discovered the amenity rather late in the day and did not use it a huge number of times. But I did quite enjoy heaving away at the chest press, striding out on the cross trainer, working out arms and legs simultaneously on a rowing machine, or pogoing up and down in a rather fun way on a machine which somehow put me in mind of treading grapes in a winemaker’s tub.

While pushing and pulling on the bright yellow machines I could look at pedigree dogs and their owners passing by, listen to the shouts of the basketball players on the court beside me, and people-watch the other apparatus users. The brisk wind on my cheeks felt so much more wholesome than a windowless, sweaty indoor UK gym which you pay too much to use.

I soon left the monkey bars in my park-gym well alone, finding out that I’m a long way off being able to lift my own body weight. But I had plenty of other contraptions to be getting on with. Sometimes, the one I was eyeing was already taken by some guy who likes to do exercises wearing a smart shirt or hipster-tight jeans. So I would pedal a cycling machine and regard him out of the corner of my eye: perching on his seat, typing into a mobile and nonchalantly bobbing up and down as though proximity to equipment was enough to burn off calories.

At the other end of the enthusiasm scale, muscular youngsters who had signed up to some fitness programme managed impressive bodily feats on and around the monkey bars. Impressed by their example, I rowed a few extra yards.

But my point here is this: Britain’s weather does nothing to get you motivated for a work-out.

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Come sit on me: the gym in my local park, Mexico City

Coffee shop office

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It’s a busy mid-morning in Starbucks, but no weary shoppers are stopping by.

I look around me.  Two men in crisp shirts and ties sit facing each other, notepads and pens competing for table space with disposable cups.  A smartly-dressed woman sits alone in front of a slim Apple laptop. I imagine, based on no evidence, that she is drinking a skinny latte.  An older, suited man sits on a stool at the long bar table with two laptops in front of him.  Both are attached to power sockets, with one monitor displaying a complicated spreadsheet.

Welcome to a branch of Starbucks in Mexico City.  If it is full of professionals at work, then that is only fitting for a coffee chain with a devoted following among the better-off capitalinos.

I’ve noticed in other cafes, like the Mexican-owned rival Cielito Querido, that there is a culture of lingering.  You are not prodded into purchasing another drink.  You can enjoy an extended catch-up with an old friend, or work on your freelance project.  You can even have an English lesson.

Solid tables, comfortable sofas for your break-out sessions, wi-fi.

It’s an office space you can use for the price of a peppermint tea.

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A poor show by provincial cinemas

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Although I was only lucky enough to visit Mexico City’s Cineteca Nacional a handful of times this year, it’s given me a very good reason to pine for my days in ‘DF’ (as the city is popularly known).  Just five weeks back in Blighty is proving quite long enough to get depressed about the thrillers, kiddie films and generic fare hogging the UK’s screens.

The core aim of that Mexican cultural space is to promote outstanding international and national films and to support the development of cinematic culture.  For good measure, a spot of film restoration goes on in its vaults.

With its expansive, grassy grounds and airy modern architecture, it’s a pleasure to hang around before your film and perhaps sample the cafes and bookshops.  It certainly gives the short-stay tourist a reason other than Frida Kahlo’s house to trek southwards.

Its UK equivalent is the British Film Institute (BFI) on London’s Southbank, a big difference being the cost of tickets.  At the Cineteca, to see new or classic films in comfortable auditoriums will generally set you back just 50 pesos, or two pounds.  In London, rather more.

Like the Cineteca Nacional, The BFI exists (in part) ‘to promote access to and appreciation of the widest possible range of British and world cinema’.  And in preserving our film heritage and showcasing the best in international films, the BFI is justly recognised and respected.  But if the ‘British’ in its name is meant to signify a nationwide and not London-centric remit, I’m afraid it’s working well. The fault lies not with the BFI but with cinemas elsewhere in the country which signally fail to follow its lead in curating and nurturing quality films.  The ambitions of the small independent cinemas within reach of me in Kent and Sussex are flagging badly.  They now largely show the same commercial films as the multiplexes.

Why, I would ask them, can you not give us some choice?  Can’t we see the latest Bond and a recent French-language Cannes prize contender?  Why show the animated film Storks in virtually every time slot last weekend?

It’s not uncommon for me to see a review in the newspaper that piques my interest, and then scour the listings in the hope that the film is being shown within a 50 mile radius of me.  It seldom is.  The multiplexes cannot spare just one of their many popcorn-strewn rooms for a film with something different or original to say.  Or if they do, it will have a couple of screenings and then vanish. If you miss it, too bad.

If art galleries up and down the country showed exactly the same exhibitions, with their works duplicated, we would think this very strange and surely wrong.  Yet with the cinematic art form, beyond the major cities, it’s accepted.

So we should complain more.  Good films should not be the preserve of capitalinos.

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Cineteca Nacional (photo: ProtoplasmaKid)

Exploring new places, listening to the same old music

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These days it’s too easy to carry tablets, smartphones and other lightweight what-have-yous around the world.  So you end up doing the very same things in a foreign country that you do at home.  By ‘doing’, I actually have in mind something fairly passive.  In my case, in Mexico, lying on my bed with headphones in ears and tablet propped up on chest, listening to podcasts and watching YouTube music videos.

I learned more about British folkies Fairport Convention during an intense period of musical education this summer than I ever did in several years of living in my home country and getting into folk music.  The broadband in Mexico City is faster than we get in many parts of rural England, so it was new and exciting for me to watch glitch-free footage of Fairport’s dizzy turn at the 1971 Glastonbury Fayre or a Sandy Denny profile.

One afternoon I watched a 1980s performance in which fiddle genius Dave Swarbrick played and sang with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth.  The song ended and I discovered online that he had died the previous day (and that his poor health had been due in no small part to his smoking).  Eerie.

Why was I watching über-English bands?  Good question.  I was guilty too of listening to BBC Radio 4 podcasts, just as I do in East Sussex.  All this when I should have been absorbing myself in all things Latin American.

To be fair to myself, I did listen to the mellifluous Spanish voices on Radio UNAM and buy numerous Mexican newspapers.  It’s just that every minute devoted to listening to book discussions on Radio 4 or lapping up Steeleye Span’s performance at Penshurst Place was a minute I could have profitably spent investigating Mexican folk sounds such as son huasteco.

It’s the fault of the technological wizardry that makes it possible to watch or listen to anything you like, on whichever continent you’ve laid down your bags (even on a bus journey).  You just fall back on the comfortable habits of home.

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Fairport Convention (photo: Beeld en Geluidwiki)

Philosophers in the bedroom

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Unusual reading matter in my new lodgings in Mexico City…

Philosophy books were almost spilling out of the bookshelves.  The relevant sections of Foyles and other well-appointed stores in far-off London hold more titles: but not a vast amount more than here, in this back bedroom tucked away a small street hard by the multi-laned arterial road called Insurgentes Sur.

Putting down my bags, I looked at the spines of the books: Nietzche, Hegel, Kiergekaard.  I was momentarily rather excited by the idea that I was surrounded exclusively by existentialists.  How unforgettably weird!  But disappointingly, I spotted Descartes.

Even so, sharing a room with so many existentialists matched my overriding feeling at that early point in my Mexico stay: unease.  The sense that something could easily go wrong, or was soon to go wrong.  Out of place in a strange land, and strange not only in the sense of foreign or unfamiliar.

The world felt disorientating for me, abroad and with Spanish language skills too underdeveloped to grasp what was routinely being said around me.

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World Trade Center, not far from my home in Mexico City

Six weeks in, I felt ‘thrown into’ (to use an existentialist concept) this world of job seeking in a foreign city.  Somehow, I had no say in the matter.

Naturally, I had chosen to book my flight and pack my things.  But was I really in control of my decision making?  I suspected that fate was at least as responsible as my free will, but pondering it all only confused me more.  I needed some help from those philosophers.

 

Tragic pictures at an exhibition

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The most memorable photographic exhibition I visited during my eight-month Mexico sojourn – and I went to quite a few – was much more than just a Sunday afternoon diversion.  It was a lesson in cultural difference, and in a Mexican way of looking at death and disaster.

Road accidents

I’d already seen too many images of dead humans in the spacious gallery space by the time I examined a black-and-white photo of a boy lying dead on a road, blood streaming onto the concrete.  He’d been knocked off his bicycle by a car in Colonia Roma Norte.  Next to this image, another shot, taken the previous decade (the 1950s) and another child, sprawling lifelessly on the same street; in this one, children and adults have gathered around to stare.

A colour photo from the late 1970s showed a female journalist who had been hit by a car in the city centre one sunny afternoon.  According to those in the know, she had visited a beauty parlour just that morning.  She appears to be straddled over a diagonal metal pole – eyes to the sky, and nails shining.

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Cruz Roja ambulance

Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos

I saw these at the Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos, a sleek modern gallery in a scrappy, flyblown part of Mexico City, while walking round an exhibition of work by Enrique Metinides, a photographer employed by La Prensa who is still alive in his 80s.

The walls were arrayed with images of murder victims, suicides and still more grisly accidents.  Nowhere in the exhibition notes, nor in the quotes by the photographer, was there any recognition that close-ups of car smashes and pylon electrocutions are at all macabre.

A taste for the macabre?

Dead bodies are still a source of intrigue in this part of the world.  While having my shoes polished on a street corner one day I looked at the front page of my polisher’s tabloid.  A roadside sweet seller had been mown down by a wayward car.  Here he was, prostrate and surrounded by packets of mints, under a headline which translates something like ‘Not So Sweet’.

A few days after the Metinides exhibition I was walking to a Spanish class in Avenida Baja California, Roma Sur, when I saw a police motorcycle blocking a road at the big intersection.  A guy had come off his own motorcycle and was lying flat out on the road.   A few policemen stood around him, and on the pavements at all four corners passersby had stopped to lookI only looked for as long as it took me to cross the road and go about my business.  (And I say this merely to describe my reaction for you, and not to pass judgement on the starers).

But was it, in fact, alright to look?  If it was alright to look around that exhibition, then the answer is probably yes.

Meanwhile, the victim wasn’t receiving the slightest bit of medical attention or comfort.  A sign that he was not badly hurt; or, conversely, a very bad sign.

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Casa Lamm in Roma Norte, Mexico City

Which Spanish language to learn?

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My chats over coffee in Mexico City taught me so much about the country.  They also raised a question which had been well off my radar before I started learning Spanish and speaking it with real Mexicans in Mexico:  which kind of Spanish – Castilian or Latin American – is the ‘proper’ one?

A Spanish woman with a job in Mexico was keen to stress that Spanish from Spain not only was the real deal, but was more sophisticated to boot, in effect implying that it is the unsullied original language, spoken long before the Americas were conquered by Spanish adventurers.

Meanwhile, ‘phsst’ and a dismissive hand motion was a Mexican’s reaction when I mentioned the accent of my Valencia-born companion.

The supposedly harsh sound of European Spanish causes Latin American ears no little pain, I gather.

Of course, Latin American Spanish is far from uniform: Argentinian speech in particular is very different to Mexican.  And every region has its unique vocabulary, alongside words which signify something completely different in some other part of the Spanish-speaking world.  ‘Car park’ can be ‘estacionamiento’ in Mexico but ‘parqueo’ in Guatemala, while a visitor to Spain might see a sign pointing to ‘aparcamiento’.

The crucial difference that divides Castilian from the other Spanish tongues is the pronunciation of ‘c’ and ‘z’ which, depending on the vowel which follows them, will typically have a ‘th’ sound in Spain that is absent over on the other side of the Atlantic.

In thinking about which Spanish language is the authentic one, or the better starting point for a learner with no bias towards travel in either region, it is useful to consider English.  Which kind should the non-aligned learner learn?  British or US English?  Or, for that matter, Australian?

Although British born and bred, I don’t view the American use of the language as any way inferior.  They may have borrowed our mother tongue from us, but they have enriched it in their own manner (helped in no small way by Yiddish, Italian and other immigrants).   I’ll happily admit that a word such as ‘apartment’ is actually preferable to our term, ‘flat’.

Meanwhile, people in non-native English speaking countries who use English amongst themselves have developed their own variety.  It works for them, and that’s what counts.

All this supports the argument that we should be teaching and learning a kind of neutral ‘Global English’, which does not presume that the learner is going to be using it in a particular English-speaking country.

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Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City (left of picture, alongside the older structure)

A very public photographic exhibition

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A walk between teaching sessions in Mexico City…

Some class rescheduling one Tuesday gave me plenty of time to get from a mining company’s HQ to a construction firm, the two offices separated by a sweeping stretch of the Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s best known thoroughfare.

After a cloudy start to the day (this was June, in the midst of the rainy season), the sun was glinting off the glass-fronted skyscrapers and pristine pink-and-white taxis.  I was on foot, heading for my second class.  I felt quite jaunty, soul-cleansed by the exercise and breeze.

Halfway along I spotted the enormous photos attached to the railings outside Bosque de Chapultepec, the city’s popular and expansive park.  My mood turned a little more thoughtful, but nothing wrong with that.  I was now in art gallery mode.  It’s a welcome initiative, this programme of photographic displays for pavement passersby.  And this particular outdoor exhibition merits some close attention.  Just because it’s free, and scarcely avoidable (unless you are in a real hurry), it is still an informative cultural experience.

I gazed up at Mexico City scenes, some captured on camera recently, others already looking like history book illustrations.  The great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, after lunching with his wife; a 1990s protest at the El Ángel monument, that focal point for marches and expressions of discontent (coincidentally, I had a great view of it from an office in my construction company); a disconcerting image of a young boy in rural Guerrero, pointing the barrel of his black handgun at the photographer.

I cannot imagine authorities in a British town allowing portrayals of our society’s darkest corners to be put on show in a sunny, very public place.  But they really should consider it: no one would then write off all public art as bland.

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El Ángel de la Independencia, Mexico City (credit: virtual raider)

 

 

 

 

 

Field notes: Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

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My recent outing to Pallant House Gallery in West Sussex to see an exhibition of works by Walter Sickert (1860-1942)

‘Sickert in Dieppe’ exhibition

After looking around Sickert in Dieppe – of which more below – I turned my attention to a small room showcasing works by artists influenced by him (1860-1942). I wasn’t surprised to find Frank Auerbach represented. The main exhibition, which charts Sickert’s relationship with Dieppe, the French seaside town popular with fin de siècle bohemian types such as Oscar Wilde, had made me think of the Auerbach works I’ve seen in London galleries, in particular his engagement with a specific corner of the capital and his depiction of the same scene many times over, from different vantage points.

Sickert’s restricted tonal schemes were in no way inimical to variety throughout his Dieppe stints. Inspiration came from Whistler (for whom he became assistant) and Degas, who encouraged him to heighten architectural detail in his paintings through use of preparatory drawings. While an early Dieppe work, Dieppe Harbour (1885) would have been painted out in the open, in the Impressionist manner, The Laundry Shop from the same year marks a transition to a new way of working, with the windows and door frame displaying a clear pattern of lines. We can see from his preparatory sketch (handily hung beside the finished version) how he had begun to ‘square up’ his compositions through the use of a numbered grid in red pencil.

Among his most affecting works, available as a postcard in Pallant House’s appealing book and gift shop, is The Façade of St Jacques Dieppe (1899). A patch of sunlight lingers on the rose window of the mighty church as dusk approaches.

In his later Dieppe years he returned to his interest in figure painting, which included scenes from the casino (with figures generally painted from behind, to preserve the gamblers’ anonymity). From this period comes The Trapeze (1920), a circus scene that owes an obvious debt to Degas.

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Pallant House Gallery (photo by Claire Sambrook)

The Garden Gallery

In the Garden Gallery and out in the courtyard, where gallery-goers were eating lunch in the warm September afternoon, were some sculpted figures, many overlaid with small mosaic tiles. These were created by the untrained artist Indian artist Nek Chand, who died aged 90 in June, just after this exhibition of 50 of his sculptures from his Rock Garden in Chandigarh opened at Pallant House. He worked with found objects such as cooking pots and spare bits of iron, like many exponents of ‘outsider art’ (not the most useful of terms, when you consider how many big name artists lived their lives some way ‘outside’ mainstream society, but there we go),

The Sickert exhibition, which was well worth seeing, ends on 4th October. After that you’ll still be able to find some of the artist’s works in the gallery’s permanent collection of modern British art. But I don’t recommend gazing at the exterior of Pallant House – a Queen Anne house unhappily married to a formulaic square block modern extension.