Fisticuffs, Bitterness and Fame

I have just got this sudden craving to watch black and white talkies; anything with Lauren Bacall or Elizabeth Taylor, who in case you were not schooled became a celluloid goddess after her performance in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’. I dare you to consider going through with a marriage proposal after watching that train wreck of a film!

The other evening, while weighing whether to endure the guilt of procrastination or completing two overdue dissertation chapters, I decided on the former and turned to the TV in the hope of catching some good old Jerry Springer. If you have ever wanted to feel blessed, brilliant, loved and morally upright, I highly recommend an hour of Jerry ‘take care of yourself and each other’ Springer. Unfortunately, there was nothing to appeal to such base tastes. However, I did came across a late-night screening of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. And was soon riveted by the emotional disintegration of Jake La Motta the boxer character played by Robert De Niro. The film is two hours of cringe and is based on the true story of La Motta who was a middleweight fighter in the late-1940s and early-1950s.

From winning the world championship with the kind of ferocity that only comes from deep issues, La Motta starts throwing fights, brutalises his wife, sexually exploits minors, takes to heavy drink and finally ends up as a washed-up grossly overweight stand-up comic at an obscure nightclub. All the while De Niro is matching his character’s weight gain and you can see him literally falling apart physically and psychologically. The film has all the elements it takes to make the ab&h list of celluloid fame, fisticuffs, bitterness and fame. And of course it is about boxing, a subject that has long fascinated me to the point that I am in danger of being one of those old men whose constant refrain will be, “I couda been a contender son, then your momma done gon an gotten herself pregnant…”

So a few days later, I am doing my little pre-summer jogging routine and I start daydreaming that I am wearing a hoodie, running with a grim determination to win an upcoming title fight. Before you can say “snap out of it”, I am at my laptop doing a Google search for boxing gyms in the neighbourhood. And behold, there happens to be one a mile or so away. So what other option did I have but to inquire about joining in the hope that at 34, the gym owner would run his bleary eye down my library ravaged body and spot the savage beast within.

And that is exactly what the elderly and laid-back – to the point of unconsciousness – owner of the Fitzroy Lodge did. His sceptical eyes took me in, concentrating to my surprise not on my bulging with skin, bone and blood vessels biceps but on my ever so slightly protruding belly. With what I hoped was a tone implying that I had banged heads with the toughest of them but did not wish to call attention to a dark past, I announced that I was there to “work out.” He extended his hand in greeting and I shook his dry palm with what I hoped was a squeeze that would let him gauge a hidden strength that I imagine must be someplace in me even if its stayed well hidden all these years. And no, don’t you dare suggest that my hands gained their hard grip hanging out with five-fingered Betty in boarding school. But this is a digression that is not to my advantage.

The gym was tucked away behind a line of FedEx delivery trucks, under an unused rail-track giving it the slightly seedy, industrial atmosphere anyone who has watched Rocky associates with such ventures. Inside, the ubiquitous and much described in every boxing story was an overpowering smell of sweat, chalk and leather. I was in: the first step to a fight in Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace ring!

The room was dominated by two boxing rings occupied by bouncing, jabbing, parrying, shuffling pairs. They looked clumsy to me, I could already tell that they were not going to match the athleticism that saw me into the Lenana School rugby team all of fifteen years ago. Heavy bags hung from the low ceiling like big, red fruits that had somehow managed to make a roomful of men angry enough to whack at them with varying degrees of violence. From all the boxing sagas I had read, and my lifelong fascination with the Kinshasa fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, I knew that ‘working the bag’, as the latter did so famously, is an art form of controlled aggression and playacting since you must visualise an appendage-less opponent who looks like a red, squat four-foot long sausage hanging from the ceiling.

Standing out from the crowd of young, mostly white males was a thin black woman who was bouncing clumsily from foot to foot with a kind of crazed energy as she tried to pummel the bag under the watchful eye of the whole room. You could tell right away that everyone was intensely conscious of her presence and I wondered whether I would come in for the same attention – perhaps even a challenge to spar with a brutal customer who would try and ‘blood’ me. These impressions were brief since our walk across the room to the office was all of thirty feet.

To be continued … my ego can take no more writing for now. I must save the triumph or the agony for later; my chapters are calling for some loving attention.

Anonymous Reacts to Africa’s Brain Drain With Uncommon Honesty and Courage

I just received the comment below to my recent post on Africa’s brain drain debate. The writer who chose not to reveal his/her identity had such a visceral and honest reaction that I wish I millions of people could read it. Anonymous, please reveal yourself and tell us more!

Survival first is the most real of all human existence.

Money, but not patriotism pays the bills.
What is often laughable is it is the same beggars in government that have the temerity to label acts of sacrifice by Kenyans …brain drain.

Some go as far as saying they don’t understand how someone will leave a good job in Kenya to go and wipe arse in America.

Well the answer is plain and simple.
Wiping arse in America pays me 10-fold what the paltry pennies in Kenya did.
Wiping arse in America has given me an opportunity that those beggars in government stole.
A chance to be somebody.
Wiping arse in America pays the bills and restores dignity to my family.
Wiping arse in America keeps my younger sibling well provided for so she doesn’t have to go the streets to get it.

While banking in Kenya what did I ever have?
Paltry wages, strained family relations, hopelessness and the list is endless.

Yes I wipe arse in America.
Yes I also don’t think the bank suffered very much when my behind left my position in the words of my boss … you leave, we hire someone else.

Well understood.

Unlike the people in the Kenya government I hate handouts. I hate pity. I hate pretending. I hate stealing from others to build myself.

I love to work with my hands, break my back and at the end of the day see the toils of my labour pay off.

Me and many like myself are the true patriots of Kenya.
We didn’t leave her or sit back and feel sorry for her.
We knew that we make her.
We knew that when we are better than she is better.
Unlike those taking comfort in appearing in infomercials about Kibera begging for food while there is plenty in Kenya to feed us for years to come.
The donations that are given go straight to that fat white woman’s pocket and that nasty funky looking meero who can’t wait for another summit on the brain drain being a bigger threat than AIDS in Africa.

We choose to hide Kenya’s nakedness by the little differences we make in our own way.
Kenya knows that and appreciates it.
That for me is enough.

If You Think Africa is Suffering From a Brain Drain, Your Brain is Drained

I am getting sick and tired of this knee-jerk, sanctimonious and yes, stupid Africa-is-suffering-from-a-brain-drain argument. Every week, on one newspaper or the other, I read of a conference to decry the movement of Africans to the West as the latest neo-imperial plot to bring down long-suffering Africa. When they are not after your gold, oil or cobalt, they are after your mind goes the plaintive wail of the unreasoning aid and development industry do-gooders.

I wish they would just shut up, start a business and get some real work done that increases the wealth and security of their countries. Instead, they prefer to play the old ‘White Guilt’ game of joining with the West’s liberals – who make up the bulk of the aid industry – to call for regulations to stop the flow of hopeful people who are trying to do right by their families and themselves. The argument goes something like this: African professionals have been costly to train and are now moving abroad to pursue their professions thus benefiting the West, rather than their home countries which are now suffering the consequences of this migration. What twaddle.

In 2004, Kenyans abroad, just as an example, conservatively remitted at least $600 million to their friends and relatives through official channels such as Western Union. This is only the tip of the ice-berg as a lot more dollars are sent home through other channels. In 2003, the World Bank estimates that remittances by migrants to their (overwhelmingly poorer) countries exceeded $93 billion, twice the level of worldwide official development assistance. There are other estimates trying to account for informal remittance networks that put the figure at $120-$180 billion per annum.

Unlike development assistance transfers – a large proportion of which pays for luxurious NGO lifestyles and lines corrupt politicians’ pockets – migrant remittances go directly to family members. They are available to the recipients to use according to their own priorities and are used to finance basic consumption, education, health, purchasing or building homes, starting businesses and funding retirement.

My mother was a nurse in the UK for nine years before she returned to Kenya last year. She had initially trained as a nurse in the early 1970s, worked at a succession of government hospitals paradoxically managing to get poorer with every year as the cost of living got more expensive and her professional opportunities shrunk. After a decade of this grind, she went into business for herself and eventually ended up competing for small government tenders – a dirty, corrupt business. Every procedure was fraught with either red tape or dishonesty, and she again ended up almost financially insolvent when the government would not pay her for services she had provided.

Her decision to migrate to the UK was a difficult one: she was broke, in debt and two young children, not to mention my grandmother and a sickly sibling, were dependent on her. She moved to Kent in her mid-forties with kids in tow; having to re-qualify as a nurse by starting at the very bottom of the rung; and not knowing how to drive and unable to even afford a car, had to walk 6-7miles each way to her first £6 per hour nursing home job.

She was forced to often work 80-hour weeks, while meals tended toward baked beans and curry deliveries punctuated by intense worrying about Britain’s youth culture destroying her children. Few were the moments that were not stressful. Opening the post was a nightmarish affair; it was always a bill demanding more money and too rarely a cheque in her name. I can remember her calling me once almost in tears when she realised that she owed the BBC £100 for its compulsory license fee even though she could not remember the last time she had managed to put up her feet to watch ‘Celebrity Big Brother’. But through these travails, she scrimped and saved, and took some advanced nursing courses to qualify for better paying work. Eventually, having been offered a part-time postgraduate place at one of the better universities, she was finally able to come into her own.

The hours remained long but in the final three years before she happily returned to Kenya, they had become far more lucrative. She was now earning £20-30 per hour by working for nursing agencies. This enabled her to buy a property to rent, paid down her mortgage in Kenya and put my brother and sister through university. The former studying astrophysics with the dare-you-doubt-me intention of being the first Kenyan to go to space, while the latter reads international relations with giddy plans to change our country’s political landscape. But my mother’s achievements were not limited to Britain’s shores. She invested her money in Kenya by buying land, supported her mother and brother and provided financial assistance to dozens of friends and relatives during her nine years away. This, we are supposed to believe, represents a brain drain and a sort of imperialist plot. If it does, then I am all for brains draining with all speed and would love to hug imperialism.

The alternative discussed in the ever ongoing conferences bemoaning the brain drain is that my mother had remained in Kenya, getting poorer and perhaps eventually being one of those trades-people that the government treats like criminals when it is not taxing them punitively. Headlines and distinguished dignitaries in the all-knowing aid industry call for the governments that made my mother’s hopes untenable in Kenya and forced her to seek greener pastures abroad to be responsible for regulating and “encouraging” less brain drain. Every such pronouncement draws a bitter laugh from me.

The Kenyan state has routinely devalued and destroyed the aspirations of its citizens with its high taxes, over centralisation, arrogance and criminal conduct. It is akin to the colonial state that we supposedly got rid of 41 years ago though now staffed with black faces whose mouths spout a hypocritical nationalism that enriches them at the expense of those like my mother.

I am weary of the brain drain argument. It belongs to donor and NGO conferences, not to the real lives of those who must live by their wits and effort as opposed to a cheque from Western taxpayers. Those who bandy the argument are relentlessly statist and even now have their eye on remittances that they believe can be directed better by government and development organisations than by the people who earn them. It is an argument beloved by middle class paternalists in hock to donor money and who believe that without those who have left, everything at home will fall apart – it is nonsense of the worst kind.

They make the case not because they believe it, but because they are paid to. Most have been abroad and even worse, make the argument while in London or Washington or Paris. Not for my mother the benefit of migration, but for them who are in the United Nations or Oxfam, being abroad to pursue their vulturous careers based on beggardom is just fine. Ultimately, they choose to not appreciate that people own their own lives and the fruits of their labour belong to them to utilise as they wish provided it does not harm others.

The obvious response to the sentiments I have expressed is that African governments paid for the training of (health) professionals so people such as my mother owe something to the system. This argument, which infuriates me whenever it is made, ignores the fact that most professional who leave their countries do so after years of trying to make a go at home while paying their taxes the whole time. My mother had been a taxpayer for a quarter century before she left. And finally, shocking news to the brain-drained developmentalists: you have failed.

Four decades of your hot air, smugness, arrogance, paternalism and poverty of ideas have only built on equally vacuous colonial legacies to leave many people in Kenya and Africa reduced to a brutish existence that does not reflect their effort, flexibility and hope. Stop bemoaning the brain drain and start thinking of how to use your brain better.

(c) MMK

Blam! And You Thought You Knew Architecture (I.M. Pei)

One of my best friends, Roland, recently sent me a response to a cocky little email I had sent him awhile ago just after I had visited Paris for the first time. On seeing I.M. Pei’s famous glass pyramid in the Louvre, I pronounced it Mitterrand and Republican France’s middle finger to the monarchism of Louis XIV. Roland’s eye saw more, so much more that I have been driven to sharing his email below. I think it is the most illuminating, learned and madly enjoyable critique of an architect’s work that I have ever read.

ab&h,

I’m in the middle of writing another little ditty to you and then I see that you are (or were) in Paris. I didn’t know you were going and if I did I would have written this for you before you left. Actually this is over two years old. I should have given it to you before I saw you in March 2004.

You wrote me an e-mail long ago with your observations on French culture and particularly I.M. Pei’s (pronounced “Pay”) the Louvre. You saw this stark modernist thing sitting right there and it caught your attention. You thought it was Chirac’s gigantic F___ you to France’s past. Not quite. Please be seated for the following lecture on modern architecture of I.M. Pei presented by noted architectural historian Dr. Roland. Exams will be on Tuesday.

Good afternoon. (ab&h, if you continue to throw those spitballs, I will be forced to send you to the headmaster’s office!) Today’s lecture is about the modernism of I.M. Pei. First we will discuss Pei’s use of modernism in the pyramid in front of the Louvre. Contrary to what one would think of at first glance, his pyramid is not an affront to the 2nd Empire style architecture of that portion of the Louvre. What is going on here is what you may have heard in art called “comparison and contrast.”

Let us look at form and break it down. This area of the Louvre is an interior courtyard surrounding the pyramid. What is the characteristic of the style of the buildings? They are all 19th century additions in a very ornate style, very richly and heavily decorated. What is the characteristic of the pyramid? It is a modernist style of steel and glass whose lack of texture suggests smoothness. You see? Highly textured versus smooth. This is the type of thing that is done to highlight the differences and bring out the uniqueness of both qualities. One contrasts with the other, not for the purposes of embarrassing the other or to say F.U., but to bring each other into greater relief. Next, we can see that the older building, being built of stone, is opaque. In contrast, the pyramid is made of glass. This highlights a juxtaposing of solidity, weight, permanence against transparency and light. The old buildings stand proudly on the ground pronouncing their import. The pyramid introduces a new subterranean level, which we must consider. The old buildings invite us to go up into them, but create clogged traffic flows that mess up the vista of the plaza and make it less appealing. (I can remember being accosted by little ragamuffin Gypsies constantly running up to me trying to sell/steal something, which took away something from the experience. Please excuse any bourgeois condescension here.)

The pyramid invites us to acknowledge the previously unconsidered subterranean and directs traffic flows down into it. Here the pyramid provides an accent to the composition that forces us to look at the old buildings again and concentrate on what their architectural statement actually is. In turn, the old buildings force us to look at the pyramid and ask more questions about it. Never does the pyramid function by itself, or overshadow the older buildings. As I said before, it “accents” them. It doesn’t call attention to itself for its own purpose, but only in serving the purpose of the composition as a whole. Now that the contrast between the old and the new has forced us to look at the pyramid more closely, even as we have just looked at the Louvre itself more closely, we delve to a different level of analysis.

We notice that the pyramid is built in a modernist style. But wait a minute, the pyramid is a very ancient form, in fact, the most ancient form of architecture. So we have an old form in a new style—again, contrast. Now let’s add the Louvre to the mix. Isn’t the Louvre supposed to the old building? But wait, again! The pyramid is harkening back to a form that’s older than the building that’s supposed to be the “old” one! Once again we have contrast. That which is really an old form is actually the newer form in this composition. That which is the newer form is, in many respects, the older form in the composition. In this way the two forms dance back and forth, never really allowing us to rest—never allowing us to take them for granted and constantly creating the slight tension that provokes passion, thought and interest.

Now for the coup-de-grace—context. Ask yourself which civilization does the pyramid bring to mind. Egypt, of course. Who in the modern world brought Egypt to Europe? That’s right, the French. One might say that they brought Egypt into their ongoing conversation about civilization, mankind and his origins known as European thought. But Pei asks us to think about this one minute. Is France really bringing Egypt to Europe or has Egypt brought civilization to the world? Who’s old? Who’s new? So is the Louvre really introducing the pyramid to us, or is the pyramid introducing the Louvre to us? Who’s the Daddy here?

Now look at the above and see all the different ideas. Note how they juxtapose—jumping back and forth. The “old” building is really the newer form. The old form is in a newer style. One is solid, the other opaque. One is above ground, the other primarily below. The “old” buildings, facing the pyramid, are really the newest additions to the Louvre. Once again, we are not allowed to rest, get complacent and be comfortable.

Now let’s look at two other places where Pei has used the same tricks. And you should know both of them because they both are in Boston! You’ve seen them a million times. One of these you (should) know very well!

The first is the John Hancock building in the Back Bay section of Boston. (Feel free at this time to do a Yahoo image search for “John Hancock Building” and “Boston.” Find a pic of the building plus Trinity Church at various angles (more). The John Hancock building is also a design of I.M. Pei where he had to deal with the relationship of a modern structure to an old one. The square footage requirements for the design were great, making the building outsized for the neighborhood. How did Pei handle this? First look at the site plan. He made the floorplan into a rectangle instead of the usual square (or something like a square). He then took his rectangular floorplan and turned it sideways to the neighborhood that might be most offended by its size, Back Bay. In so doing, he turned the skinniest side to them making the building almost disappear. Think of a person turning sideways instead of being seen straight on from the front. This works so well that you don’t even feel the presence of the building when walking in the square. (Normally buildings of this size hover over you and make you feel as if they are about to fall on you.)

This, of course, leaves us with a flat, broad side on the other two sides doesn’t it? Its mass couldn’t be avoided right? Well, what he does, instead of trying to hide its mass, is to use the whole side like a huge mirror. What does the mirror reflect? Trinity Church. Trinity Church is the main attraction in the square. That church was designed by H.H. Richardson and is a very important work that exemplified the now famous “Richardson Romanesque” style. Pei knew that this is the very thing tradition-conscious Back Bay people would want to protect. He knew that their first fear was that this new monstrosity would overshadow their precious church. So he made the entire building defer to the older church. He mirrored the whole building. It was quite fortunate for him that this style was “in” at the time. This allowed the building to step itself back in importance (Size usually conveys importance. This is why so many artists paint large paintings. A small painting of the exact same subject would not fetch proportionately as much. But I digress…)

Anytime anyone looked at the building, all they would see is the church, despite the building being hundreds of feet taller and thousands of square feet larger than the church. Which direction does the huge mirror face? It faces downtown, where a large number of people who would be interested could see it. Do you see the same contrast used at the Louvre? Something large and important must not be large while something small is to be made all he larger because of how it is handled. There’s that juxtaposition again. By deliberately not calling attention to itself, it, by turns, calls attention to how well placed it actually is and how well it works within the environment, which just might call more attention to it!

Next consider texture. Once again, the new building is smooth and the old building is ornamented. One building is highly textured and the other is like several sheets of smooth glass.

The church is heavy in its Neo-Romanesque styling yet the larger building seems as light as air. Now look at a picture taken from the base of the Hancock. Notice that the mirror now, no longer reflects the church, but the sky. One really has to look carefully to see whether you are looking at the sky or the reflection of the sky in the uppermost mirrors. The fact that it is 800 feet tall and mirrored makes the top of the tower virtually disappear. This also makes the tower seem much lighter and less likely to feel that it is oppressively leaning over you.

See the same contrasts? Light/dark, big/small, stone/glass, heavy/light. Now criss-cross them. Make the heavy thing seem lighter than the smaller thing, which should seem lighter by comparison, etc. Use that to highlight the differences, not obscure them.

What’s the next example, which as I said, you should know well? Any guesses? IT’S The Christian Science Plaza in Boston! Pei also designed this and it was the first thing I thought of. I know that you didn’t pay to much attention to CS and all that stuff pertaining to it, but I thought that you would at least catch that. Yes, Pei did the church plaza and he used the same tricks here as you saw in Paris and at the Hancock building aforementioned. (Please open picture now) If you can see the old Mother Church is in the Neo-Romanesque style and the Extension is Neo-Classical, you have identified the two “old” elements of the design. Can you find the contrasting new element? It’s not just the new buildings—it’s the pool. Yes, the pool functions as the same type of element in the design as the Hancock tower does a few blocks over.

While interesting in and of itself, it creates a soft reverse image of the “hard” and formal buildings on the plaza. I’m sure you will find a number of pictures of the plaza at night with its pool shimmering and all the lights lit. Notice the columns in the formerly named “Colonnade” building. Notice the repetition used to create a rhythm, drawing the eye all the way down the plaza. Note that the newer buildings could overwhelm the older ones but they never do. They are brought down a couple of notches on the grandiosity scale so as to allow the churches to continue to capture the center of interest. Please look for the same ideas and their various uses in other areas in this design.

This concludes our lecture for today. Remember, you exam is Tuesday. I think you now can supply your own critique from here on as it is 2am and I’m getting tired.

Dr. Roland

Professor of Pencil Sharpening

The beautiful sights one is likely to see in the Louvre Gardens. Posted by Hello

Fit bastards. You will notice the woman in the yellow T-shirt who was also a Capoeirista, but in terrible shape. Yet there she was doing these crazy somersaults and twisting every which way. I was aghast, it has been years since I could be flexible enough to fold a fist! Posted by Hello

Capoeira on the streets just outside the huge and madly expensive Printemps. It was right about this moment when I decided that I indeed need to get my lazy self fit. Posted by Hello