Arias, Young Love and Rediscovering the Delights of Walking

Memory is an interesting thing, not least for its triggers, the mechanisms behind what we remember and what we (choose to?) forget and also for how something can simmer beneath the surface in the subconscious layer of the mind, feeding a gnawing sense of restlessness but never being comprehended. The return of the Aria Code podcast for a third season this week was one of those jolts, the exploration of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, the kick which opened up the door to a rabbit hole of memories. A few years ago now, in a season of young-ish love infatuation, HMT in the ‘Deen became the centre of many a late night taking in opera, walking along Union Street to cars parked in side streets (for the free parking) but not much else besides. In retrospect, it was very much a period of unrequited love that went no where in the end, although my memories of the time suggest otherwise. The things one chooses to remember or forget, I guess? The one upside to all that remembering was delving into the rabbit hole that is YouTube for performances of the Aria, one of the more fascinating ones for me being the soulful rendition by Aretha Franklin at the ’98 Grammys (which she agreed to do at short notice as Pavarotti was ill).  The aria’s closing sentiment (At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!) is apt given our time, as the Aria Code episode so aptly demonstrates.

I have just completed under a month of walking ten kilometres each day; noise cancelling headphones on and music cranked up to as loud as is comfortable as I do the loop around my house.  On most days I have tended to pass other walkers at pace, eyes averted, trying the least to intrude on their space (or more accurately preserve the sacredness of mine). On the odd occasion when it has not been possible, I have waved in response to others waving. A chance conversation on the bus the other day did however remind me that it wouldn’t hurt to initiate a greeting now and again as I whizz pass others. That is something I hope to take on board for the next batch of 10k strolls. 

Life is fleeting, things can change, and breath is a fickle thing after all. The word for this week, mashshaa‘, for walker.

Recent Finds (x5)

Spring, Shamals and the Aftermaths of Vaccination

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The memories of the days are beginning to disappear into a haze, each one a maelstrom of activity that begins with waking with a dull, lingering sense of dread and ending the same way it began, only with a sense of battle weary tiredness layered on. One day it is Sunday, and then suddenly it seems like it is Tuesday and then Thursday – brings respite – only for it all to begin again; wash-rinse-repeat. The good thing is that somehow it is the beginning of March, and each day that passes quickly brings the arrival of that symbol of the worker’s Faustian pact, a salary, another day closer. In my more sanguine moments, I remind myself that for all my bellyaching, there are far worse things to moan about in the world than work.

With March comes a change of season to spring, if one can call day time temperatures in excess of 30 degrees C spring. December, and my will-I-or-won’t-I-wear-a-jacket phase, seem far away now. It is the season for sand storms, as I found out to my pain the other day when I got caught in a sand storm of sorts. As my bare legs stung with the impact of the grit, whipped into a potent weapon of attrition by the wind, I was grateful for the protection my glasses afforded my eyes. That does not happen often.

The other thing that March brought was getting a shot of one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Every time an opportunity to register came up, I put my name down, conscious of the seeming inevitability of vaccine passports and what not for travel. I opted to get my shot on a Wednesday evening, my thinking being that the timing would allow me sleep off any side effects. I felt especially tired the next day which might be related to not being able to sleep well the night before. My fitness tracker spotted a 0.4 degree C spike in body temperature for the next two days before returning to normal, but otherwise I had no discernible side-effects. One hopes that vaccine uptakes improves around the world, and a sort of normalcy returns thereafter. It has been a long hard year for most people!

For the word of the week, Khamis, for Thursday and respite.

Recent Finds

  • Teju Cole chats Fernweh amongst other things on the Behind the Covers podcast. Baldwin, race, photography and Switzerland all feature in this wide ranging chat.
  • Apparently, eating fresh mango with gold cutlery is the business, at least so say the experts on The Infinite Monkey Cage. Fun-fact, silver (in spite of its reputation as being the material of choice for posh, rich folks actually tastes the worst.
  • Confirmation that the ‘Deen Market demolition is to go ahead is somewhat bitter-sweet news on a personal level. It was hardly the most salubrious of places to eat in, or do anything else to be honest as O points out, but being starved of Nigerian food in my first few years there, popping in there provided some respite now and again.
  • Jane Goodall & Adam Grant chat Leadership (and chimps), not surprisingly there is stuff to learn in the areas they overlap.
  • And something poetry related of course. Naomi Shihab Nye chats poetry, growing up and a whole lot of other stuff with Krista Tippet at the On Being Podcast.

‘Big’ Man coming, and finally getting my Abu Name

The bare, Spartan space just outside my window – which I can just see if I crane my neck a little just beyond its normal range – is just that, barely noticeable. At least it was until a few days ago when swivelling in my chair, the profusion of reds and yellows it has become caught my eye. So certain was I that the flowers were new that at an opportune moment, when I could pretend it was a casual question, I asked one of the guys to confirm. It turns out that I was right, the flowers had not always been there. The coming of a certain big man in a couple of days had prompted the ground staff into sprucing up our surroundings. I am thankful for the splash of colours which will remain with us for a bit at least, but what I came away with was the sense that big men everywhere carried weight. It is a truism, as an old teacher liked to say.

The end of January marked another milestone, six months out here at the edge of the world. Sidebar: there is actually some place called the edge of the world out here I hear, with sunrises which are something to behold. Unfortunately there is an internal lock down again but I have made a mental note to plan for extended weekend outside the province I am in. O’s up for it which should marginally increase the likelihood of it happening. So six months out here then which brings with it a slight sense of having weathered a storm of sorts. Finally getting an Abu name helps with that sense of settling in I suppose.

With shut borders and all, it doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere anytime soon which means one must make my seat at the edge of the world home, or as close to it as it can be. Several times over the past few months I’ve gone back to Nicky Gumbel’s talk from October where he talked about flourishing where you’re planted. It is what it is.

Recent Finds

Sparks, Dark sides and Musings on Sight

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The sparks have quite literally been flying, not for reasons of passion but for the more mundane fact that winter and the very low humidity have resulted in fairly significant amounts of static electricity build up on everything. More times than I care to remember over the past few weeks, I have had the sometimes unexpected displeasure of a substantial shock. I am much more careful now, taking the time to touch walls and other non-metallic objects to dissipate some of the build up. S insists that my refusal to moisturise often, and liberally, is a contributor to this – a google search seems to suggest she is right in some way. The jury is still out on that one I think, but I am leaning towards getting a humidifier, if and when I can sort out travel to the city next door.

I came face to face with my inner dark side this week, no thanks to what looks like a Bitcoin scam. Some website purporting to be associated with Chamath Palihapitiyia, claimed to be 10x-ing deposited Bitcoin. It seemed too good to be true, as quick google search proves (it was just another iteration of a long running scam) but in the moment all I saw was the potential to quickly turn around a small deposit into something substantial. In my head, it was the perfect opportunity to kick-off dollar cost averaging into Bitcoin. Thankfully, the exchange/wallet I ended up signing up for had a 24 hour cooling off period before one could transfer coins out, by which time the website was down and I had managed to do the google search I should have done at the onset. The silver lining is that I am left with about 1,000 GBP worth of Bitcoin which I suppose is as good as any starting point. The downside is that it puts my inner greed into perspective. There is much to shudder at there, I must admit.

On a slightly less troubling note, I found myself stepping into the shower several times this week with my glasses on. Whilst I am not sure what it means for my long term sight, I am willing to speculate. I am taking it as a sign to enjoy the things I still can see now. That, and learning to keep my greed in check, are perhaps the life lessons for this week.

Recent Finds

COVID Days

The other country both enthrals and frustrates me in equal measure, which I’m sure is no news to most others who like me have a foot in both worlds. The events of the past few weeks have left that tension in sharp relief for me in the form of two members of my extended family coming to terms with COVID. That they were in two very different parts of the country only served to underscore how dire the situation could be, the influence and contacts with people of authority in the medical establishments – nay death traps – they spent most of their with time in counting for very little in the overall scheme of things. They are out of the woods now, for which we are all thankful, though the bitter after taste – and light pockets – lingers. One wonders how much hope the common man still has in the event of a medical emergency back there.

Smarter people than I say, the tide is turning back in Blighty, in spite of the efforts of partiers and revellers it must be said. The surge in numbers put paid to my plan to pop back in for a few weeks to clear my head, so I am glad at this direction. One hopes it continues. Out here I have been offered the chance to take the vaccine, which I have accepted with both hands. As someone who has had to show vaccinations for work travel in the past, it is a small price to pay for the possibility of near trouble free travel I hope.

Recent Finds (x5)

  • The BBC’s Desert Island Discs is a series I have returned to from time to time, though I now mainly consume the abridged version via the podcast. Most recently enjoyed was David Olusoga’s debut, not least for the selection of an apt and timely Fela song, and an endearing anecdote about Paul Gascoigne.
  • David Epstein’s Range is all the rage it seems, popping up several times on my twitter feed and some of the podcasts I listen to. For a fascinating conversation on its subject (success, specialists and generalists), this Intelligence Squared podcast is a good one to listen to. Of course it earns bonus points for name checking John Urschel who ditched American football for a Maths PhD.

On A Return to the Reassurance of Routine

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

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In the early hours of the holiday season, it looked like I would spend the bulk of it virtually, the hours a blur of Zoom and WhatsApp video calls. Sometime on the 26th though, my luck changed. I woke up to the persistent sound of my door buzzer. I was half minded to not answer it, given multiple experiences with the gardening folk looking for more work. The door ringer wouldn’t leave and I needed to return to sleep so I dragged myself downstairs to the door. A pleasant surprise greeted me there; the neighbour from a street over stood there with a tub of fried rice and a bottle of wine – of the non-alcoholic kind of course. As it turns out, he remembered there was a lone Nigerian dude across the road with no family nearby and thought to extend some Christmas cheer my way. The rice and meat were wolfed down over the course of the day, saving me the hassle of wondering what to have on the day. Two more invites came my way over the next few days, resulting in my wolfing down some pounded yam and afang soup (the first time since my Eket days) and some pepper soup and snails on the other day. For all my quibbles with being a prodigal Nigerian, and being around Nigerians, moments like these remind me that redemption lurks in there somewhere. My experiences of fellow prodigals have been overwhelmingly positive. I wonder though, if they are a self-selecting group.

The three or so days of downtime ensured my year in reading has gotten off to a steady start. Last year was the first time since 2011 that I cracked the 20 book barrier, most definitely an upside to being out of work for three months, and the lock down. Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities, a stirring defence of big L Liberalism is done whilst I have David Olusoga’s Black &British, A Forgotten History and Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Big Country on the go.

**

Nothing jolts one back to reality like a 4.30am alarm on the day you return to work though. As I scrambled through my morning routine – a quick 5k, setting up my day in Notion, morning ablutions and then jumping on to the bus, it seemed like I was another person watching me go through the motion. Only when I had reset my password, downed two cups of tea and properly positioned my bag of wipes did it feel like I was properly at home at my own desk again. Who knew that the familiarity or routine could soothe the mind?

Recent Finds

  • Talking to yourself is not half bad. I knew I was on to something!
  • I’ve been catching up on my Desert Island Disc backlog. I found Cliff Richard’s one particularly interesting
  • The dearth of British Asian footballers in English football is a recurring motif which I suppose prompted the BBC to research the story of Jimmy Carter. This resonated particularly, I suspect, because I have reading David Olusoga’s book which includes stories of the Black British Victorians such as Francis Barber whose descendants may or may not know of their Black heritage. The accompanying BBC Series is on iPlayer for another 5 months it seems.

Season’s Greetings

It feels very much like my first Christmas up in the ‘Deen, what with being house bound, friends and family some distance away and there being a decided chill in the air. Now, as with then, I woke up to We Three Kings in my ears with all the rabbit holes of memories it brings with it.

The key difference this time is that the lockdown has given everyone practice of staying in touch across the distance. Fortunately or unfortunately, that means I have several family zoom calls to jump on. It is a small inconvenience I guess, given the year we have all had – the best of years and the worst of years to use that oft quoted line from Dickens.

There is a lot to be thankful for on all counts, so all I’ll say is give those friends and family members a call over this period and catch up.

Season’s Greetings from the Edge of The World!

On Lights, Language and that (c)old December Weather

Photo by Lawless Capture on Unsplash

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In about as low key a manner as could be, lights – I won’t go so far as to call them Christmas lights – are slowly making their way on to trees around me. That they first turned up in front of the communal lounge and then a few houses here and there complete with inflatable Santas made me think they were put up by individuals. I am no longer so sure of that, given that some lights turned up on the tree in the middle of no man’s land in front of my house. Lights apart, you would have no inkling it was a week to Christmas – work continues apace and the only official holiday is the 3rd of January. For all the sameness that living in the bubble I live in seems to cultivate, it is these little differences that drive home the realities now and again. The positive is that I get to take the days off when I want which, all things being equal, should be soon-ish.

Two conversations this week, and one of my favourite podcasts, brought the subject of language to my mind. First was a conversation around learning French which for me remains lost in the dregs of the someday/maybe folder. Three months of lockdown had me diving into Duolingo on a regular basis but in the face of real life since then, the inscrutability of gendered nouns, tricky pronunciations and head scratching verb conjugations have put paid to that desire. Maybe English is far too reductionist – or more likely as a reasonably fluent English speaker I have become lazy with languages – but one wonders what the world-view behind gendered nouns is.

The past few episodes of the On Being podcast have focused on the subject of love and loving. In the notes to Ellen Bass’s Bone of My Bone and Flesh of My Flesh, the subject of language and how we refer to the ones we love comes up but perhaps most close to my heart was a conversation with O. O is a distant cousin who insists on speaking to me in our shared mother tongue. In the aftermath of our last conversation I couldn’t shake the thought of how we greet in the morning from my mind. In my mother tongue (and why is it mother tongue?), we say “mole muude”, which loosely translates as welcome from yesterday. Maybe some distant ancestor realized that life was a hard slog, and making it through a night exposed to the elements and wild beasts deserved a welcome of sorts, or not. Given the multiple theories on the origin of language, I suspect we will never know for certain.

When the morning temperatures first dipped below 10 degrees a few weeks ago, I spurned the use of a jacket as I the one I had was not fire retardant. Fast forward a few weeks now, and every morning when I get off the bus without my jacket, I am invariably asked if I am not cold. My usual response is to say that I’ve seen worse, and that 10 degree weather, sans the bracing Scottish wind – is hardly cold. This is an explanation I have overhead others repeating. I fear this is one of those things that will take on a life of its own, with interest continuing until the day I finally cave in and turn up with a jacket. For now, I am still holding out.

Recent Finds

  • Michael Curry (he of the rousing homily at Harry & Meghan’s wedding) & Russell Moore (one of the more considered and nuanced voices amidst America’s Southern Baptists) come from widely differing Christian traditions but manage to have a friendly, wide ranging conversation on the On Being podcast. Well worth a listen if conversations around public theology are your thing.
  • On the subject of language and poetry, David Whyte on the Art of Manliness talks poetry, life and the intersections therein. A theme which seems to be popping up a bit amongst friends and acquaintances turns up here too, the need for men to develop friendships that encourage difficult conversations.
  • Somewhat related, the folk from Love Thy Neighbourhood talk about gender on Where The Gospel Meets Manhood.
  • From Math Twitter, Steven Strogatz (The Joy of X, Infinite Powers) posted a link to The Mountains of Pi which delves into the story of the Chudnovsky brothers and their quest to build a super computer to compute the digits of pi, back in the early 90s. They’re still going, incredibly.

Coming Up For Air

Based on a photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

**

That doing and not doing are both habits is something that I have come to grudgingly accept over the past month, seeing as the longer I was away from here the harder dragging myself back here seemed. In my defence real life has been manic, the stultifying pressures of time-sensitive deliverables not lending themselves to the pursuit of non-essential, creative pursuits. I have myself to blame for some of that pressure, seeing as I somehow thought fitting a poem a day challenge into everything I had going on would be doable. I made it through fourteen days of that – a minor miracle at least. With some breathing space coming up towards the end of the month, my hope is to go back over the prompts, edit, write some more, and begin the process of pulling some of the pieces together into a chap book for the evaluators in January 2020.

Winter is very much here, not enough to turn on the heating (I love it cold at night for sleep) but enough to feel the bite in the wind at noon when I make a beeline for the canteen to grab my regular lunch time fare. My evening walks now include a hoodie for some warmth and protection against the chilly weather which, believe it or not, hovered just above 10 deg C the other night. We have had rain a couple of times too, in addition to the occasional heavy fog rolling in like a wet blanket. Rain and fog most assuredly did not cross my mind as weather effects to expect out here. A learning experience if ever there was one I think. The next milestone – six months in the current gig – is just round the corner. I’m hoping that it goes well, bucking the recent trends of lay-offs, hiring freezes and all the other things the headwinds facing my industry seem to have driven every one from small, nimble operator to lumbering erstwhile giants to. Back in Blighty, Boris and his oven-ready deal have proven to be anything but that, with recent briefings suggesting that no-deal – by whatever name it is called – seems to be the most likely option. Surely his days in the hot seat must be numbered with any number of challengers from his ranks waiting in the wings it seems.

Oil, and the head winds facing the industry, are never far away from the conversation. The recent up-tick in oil prices and what seems to be some sense prevailing amongst the sabre rattling big producers and cartels perhaps delays the inevitable but oil has certainly has its day. In conversation with G the other day at work, we concluded that our generation is probably the last one that will benefit from the ‘largesse’ of the oil industry. The latest cuts at one of my previous employers – whilst borrowing to keep up paying dividends – certainly removes any sense of rose tinted glasses. It is a numbers game now, and any notions of pride in esoteric knowledge very much need t be tempered by the realities of life. I am betting on data and porting my skills into adjacent industries.

Proper reading has taken a back seat to everything else with the only real time I’ve had been on the bus to and from work. Audio books and podcasts have come to the rescue in that regard. Here, for your pleasure are a few bits and bobs from what I have managed to consume.

  • Season 2 of perhaps my favourite podcast is still going strong, now standing 22 episodes deep and featuring a wide variety of work from folk such as Lucille Clifton, Chris Abani, Gregory Pardlo and Ada Limon. Next to Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise, I am finding Dilruba Ahmed’s Phase One an especially evocative one. Something about learning to forgive oneself is particularly resonant given the year we have all had in which carefully laid plains have been disrupted by things outside our control
  • A thoroughly fascinating and wide ranging conversation between Nanjala Nyabola and Yousra Elbagir over at Intelligence Squared had me nodding and smiling to myself from time to time at how very articulated several of the thought which have been kicking about in my head were made. The power of passports is something that I know only too well.
  • My views on government are shifting, decidedly I think, in the direction of smaller, less bloated forms. Fareed Zakaria certainly makes the argument in Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World that the quality of governance is what matters more than the quantity. Nigeria certainly has a lot of quantity (and bloat) and very little quality, good old Blighty seems to have neither to me.
  • And from Church of the Way, Land of The Living, which has become one of my favourite songs over the past month. It might be the song itself, or its lyrics which soothe a craving for certainty but all told, I think it is well worth a listen.

Fighting for the Light

There is not a lot to say this week except to say that the events in Nigeria with the #EndSARS protests have been particularly encouraging, not least because they prove that the trope about Nigerians being endlessly resilient and willing to accept broken systems is patently false. Beyond the willingness to hit the streets day in day out, the speed with which systems of support and organization have sprung up and have been deployed at scale has been a thing of fascination. Young Nigerians do have the tools, the desire and the nous to make a difference, long may it continue!

Also interesting has been seeing quite a few of the popular Pentecostal heavyweights lend their voices, and feet, to the protests. Looking on from the outside, it has often felt like the PFN, and other organizations of its ilk, have previously been far too interested in preserving their access to power than to be effective voices speaking truth to power. Whatever has driven this pivot in certain individuals, it can only be for the better – we all know how closely beholden us Nigerian folk can be to their MOGs (the frothing at the mouth, and general refusal to think in the aftermath of a certain MOG’s 5G revelations not too long are a case in point).

One hopes that this marks a real move away from religious leaders being complicit in the pillage of the country, towards a more outspoken state where they take on the mantle to speak truth to power, with their power. Whatever happens, one feels like the Youth have experienced the power of their voice, and they will not be shut down ever again.