My poem, “Merely David Moyes”, for the BBC World Service.

David Moyes, as you all know by now, was sacked by Manchester United this week, and I was asked by the BBC World Service to write something to mark the occasion.  I think that the main reason that Moyes failed at Old Trafford was that, beyond his tactical shortcomings, he was overawed by the challenge ahead of him, and I have tried to capture that here.  If you enjoy it at all, please share; thank you very much for reading and/or listening.

“Merely David Moyes”

He was Fergie;
You are merely David Moyes.
How can you follow an act like that?
As Fergie leaves the stage to the grandest of applause
You’re standing anxious, nearby in the darkened corridor.
And now the crowd waits for you:
Up the tunnel you go;
Your stadium’s not just any stage, it’s the Theatre of Dreams
But how can you match what Scottish gods have long since achieved?
All football managers are actors,
But you’re afraid you won’t convince;
You’re scared you are the penalty-taker
Who is doomed to miss.
It is over from the first day that you walk through the door
And sit on Fergie’s throne
To find your feet don’t touch the floor.
Every day in training you are greeted by your fear
And the eyes of Fergie’s soldiers, asking:
“Why have you come here?”
Rival armies, sensing weakness, gather at your gates;
Your crowd cheers through its horror as your teams are left in flames.
The worst thing is, that while you’re sinking at Usain Bolt’s pace
You see a gleeful Liverpool
Rising to take your place.
Your back four was a fortress, and now it’s yielding goals
And your players, who were stallions once
Stumble like newborn foals.
You are a good, good man, and you work daily at your lines
But you’ve not worked under such bright lights,
And they bite you like knives.
When the end comes, there will be those who say it was wrong
That you ever took this role, that you never belonged:
And maybe you believe them -
That only special ones should claim this seat -
Yet as you leave, beneath your pain,
You may feel some relief.

 

GitHub: sexism, bullying, harassment, and a curiously clean sweep.

[NOTE: This article was prompted by the tweets of the developer Julie Ann Horvath (@nrrdcore) and Shanley Kane (@Shanley), the technology writer.]

Last night I read about the departure from GitHub, the popular social coding side, of its co-founder Tom Preston-Werner. Preston-Werner’s company had been accused of a culture of bullying, sexism and harassment by one of the company’s then developers, Julie Ann Horvath. In an official announcement on its website, GitHub outlined the steps that it had taken to clean house. However, many of these steps seem to have been spent treading carefully around the elephant in the room. When GitHub’s findings are compared with the comments of two of their most vocal critics, the developer Julie Ann Horvath and the technology writer Shanley Kane,  it seems that much of the picture is still missing.

“Last month,” wrote Chris Wanstrath, the CEO and co-founder of GitHub, “a number of allegations were made against GitHub and some of its employees, including one of its co-founders, Tom Preston-Werner. We took these claims seriously and launched a full, independent, third-party investigation.”

“The investigation”, continued Wanstrath, “found no evidence to support the claims against Tom and his wife of sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation, or of a sexist or hostile work environment. However, while there may have been no legal wrongdoing, the investigator did find evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment. In light of these findings, Tom has submitted his resignation, which the company has accepted…As to the remaining allegations, the investigation found no evidence of gender-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or abuse.”

However, Horvath’s interview with Tim Murtaugh for the Stop Talk Show podcast  gives the impression that GitHub’s investigation has produced a curiously clean sweep. Horvath related the tale of a GitHub engineer who, following her rejection of his romantic advances, took a series of “passive-aggressive” measures to undermine her work. “He’s retaliating against me”, she said, “for not dating him or fucking him, excuse my language; it’s kind of crazy where you can’t work in an environment where, you know, men especially aren’t mature enough to deal with their own feelings.”

Horvath had kept a careful record of his behaviour. “There’s proof that this person went in and ripped out my code”, she told Murtaugh. “There are emails…I spent the last two years documenting all this stuff [so that] there was solid proof of all these things happening”. There is a sense, though, that certain uncomfortable questions were left unasked, perhaps for fear of what their answers might reveal. “They hired an outside firm to do an investigation”, observed Horvath at 24:47 of the podcast, “but…I haven’t gotten a phone call, so…I don’t know how exactly thorough that is.” (My italics.)

Horvath risked her career to make these allegations, and yet their strength has remained strangely untested. This investigation does not sound particularly rigorous: in any event, it is difficult to tell, since no copy of it has been made available to the public. “There was no investigation”, tweeted Horvath.  “There was a series of conversations with a “mediator” who sought to relieve GitHub of any legal responsibility.”  Meanwhile, Werner-Preston has gone on to another company, issuing a defiant statement on his own website to sue anyone making “any further false claims”. As for the engineer who allegedly bullied Horvath, he was not mentioned anywhere in the statement, even though it was his behaviour that lay at the very heart of this case. Instead, he was long ago promoted to a leadership position within GitHub, something which “terrified” Horvath to the extent that she had felt compelled to leave. The picture that she painted of the tech industry for Murtaugh and his listeners was one where women, particularly those at the beginning of the careers, are forced to suffer in silence.

“Why would younger women who are just entering this industry…speak out now?” asked Horvath. “We’re setting such a bad example for them because we’re saying “oh, if you don’t have, you know, [the right amount of] Twitter followers or if you don’t have a job already lined up, like, you’re completely fucked, and you have to deal with these situations and play with the boys’ club until you can create the circumstances by which you can leave.”

Many startups, by their very nature, are close-knit and homogenous – a phenomenon that Horvath refers to as “the tribe” – resulting in structures that are far too informal to deal with serious allegations of bullying and harassment, and situations which, in Horvath’s words, become “dangerous and toxic”.

Shanley Kane, the co-founder and co-CEO of Model View Culture, published a series of compelling tweets on the Github affair. “I need everyone to know that what happened at GitHub is NOT an exception. It is part of the script of Silicon Valley”, she wrote. “To keep Silicon Valley going – sexual harassment and abuse of women MUST happen. It MUST be covered up. The abusers MUST be promoted. The women MUST be punished and silenced. The men MUST NOT suffer consequences. THIS IS INTEGRAL TO THE MECHANISMS OF POWER AND WEALTH. In order for Silicon Valley to keep going as is, this is necessary. THIS IS NOT A BUG. THE SYSTEM IS WORKING AS DESIGNED.”

Taken together, the analyses of Horvath and Kane present a world where scrutiny of the excesses of male employees is routinely passed over in pursuit of profit. The question is how many women have either been inhibited in their careers or lost them altogether as a result of these brutally adverse working conditions; one which GitHub, and other companies like it, have so far been far too slow to address.

David Choe, Tom Meagher and “the non-rapist rapist”.

[Trigger warning: I have tried to minimise references to sexual assault here but there may still be phrases which are upsetting.]

Yesterday I listened to a podcast co-hosted by celebrity graffiti artist David Choe and porn actress Asa Akira. Choe, who became a multimillionaire when he cashed in his Facebook stock, regaled Akira and the rest of the podcast crew with lurid stories from his love life. In the course of their two-hour conversation, Choe tells the story of a time he attended a session with a masseuse and – according to his account – sexually assaulted her. A fuller, harrowing description of these events can be read in Melissa Stetten’s article for XO Jane.

The responses of those in the studio veered between amused, and confused, and quietly horrified. Despite Akira’s chumminess as she drew out Choe’s full story, her shock seemed evident at various points. The other contributors to the podcast, all male, were less taken aback than her, but only marginally so. At several points, they confronted Choe with the reality that, in all likelihood, he had raped his masseuse. At first, Choe was more relaxed in relating that day’s events, recalling that what he did “[was] definitely crossing the line”. He even referred to himself as “a successful rapist” and remarked on his excitement being heightened by “the thrill of possibly going to jail”.

However, there was a moment when his mood began to turn, and he became more defensive, perhaps sensing that his mildly disturbed friends – or, at least, his colleagues – might not be so ready to chalk this one up as just another frat boy misdemeanour.  “You raped her”, said Akira, before adding swiftly, “allegedly”.  At that moment, he began to backtrack a little, whilst still remaining strangely light-hearted and defiant.  “I just want to make it clear that I admit that that’s rapey behavior, but I am not a rapist”, he said later. Choe has more recently denied that these events took place. “I never thought I’d wake up late one afternoon and hear myself called a rapist”, he wrote in a subsequent statement. “It sucks. Especially because I am not one. I am not a rapist. I hate rapists, I think rapists should be raped and murdered. (My italics.) The more sceptical listeners will raise their eyebrows at his retraction, given that he fluently related his story over the course of forty minutes in the most graphic detail.  Whether or not Choe’s tale is true – and the suspicion will linger that he is now disavowing it to evade prosecution – he has again affirmed the existence of “the non-rapist rapist”.

The “non-rapist rapist” is the person that a self-styled Nice Guy could never possibly see in the mirror. That’s because a rapist is someone living far beyond the boundaries of society, someone of no worth (usually financial) to his fellow citizens, and whose sole purpose is the assault of women. A ruthless, malevolent loner driven solely by desire. The “non-rapist rapist”, on the other hand, takes solace in the fact that he could never be so monstrous as the attacker in the above paragraph. No – he is a decent person, fundamentally a good man, and he is therefore incapable of subjecting a woman to such a horrific ordeal. He’s just a regular guy, y’know?

Choe is so visceral in his contempt for rapists that, both ironically and bizarrely, he would like to see them raped in revenge, then murdered. But it’s probably easier to wish for these people to be butchered than to accept that, well, you just might be one of them. Earlier this week, the Guardian published an outstanding article by Tom Meagher, whose wife was assaulted and murdered in Australia two years ago. Meagher wrote movingly of the same denial that runs right through Choe’s podcast and his following statement:

“By insulating myself with the intellectually evasive dismissal of violent men as psychotic or sociopathic aberrations, I self-comforted by avoiding a more terrifying concept: that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything, from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.”

Rapists, as Meagher notes, aren’t just masked predators who suddenly emerge from the dark. Most, often, they are everyday men who feel an sense of entitlement to a woman’s body and any sexual gratification that they can derive from it, regardless of her consent.

The question is what happens now: whether media outlets such as VICE, with whom he currently works, stand by him or cut him loose, and whether the authorities take a very close look at this recording.  In the meantime, what is almost as disturbing as anything else was the comfort with which he told his tale, almost as if he expected to be congratulated for his alleged exploits.  The nature of the conversation, so casual that it was surreal, said everything about how sexual assault is trivialised every day, and was the very essence of rape culture: a culture of which, now that this video has gone viral, Choe is yet another poster child.

 

For Brown Girls: on Karyn Washington, and Sara Baartman

This weekend I was saddened to read of the death of Karyn Washington, the founder of the website “For Brown Girls”.  The reports that she had taken her own life at the age of just twenty-two, following her struggle with depression, were the first that I had heard of her excellent work. If I had known of it sooner, I would have forwarded it to my friends and relatives long ago. The aim of her website is a wonderful one: it was, in her own words, “created to celebrate the beauty of dark skin while combatting colorism and promoting self love! FBG was created to celebrate darker shades of brown- to encourage those struggling with accepting having a darker skin complexion to love and embrace the skin they are in. However, women of all shades may take away from FBG the universal and essential message of self love and acceptance.”

Washington’s mission was as beautiful as the skin of the girls whom she sought to celebrate. I have long wondered and worried about the difficulty that black girls and women face in everyday life, and through the lives of my family and friends I have seen this problem with uncomfortable clarity and frequency. As any one of them can tell you, it’s not that they merely experience racism and sexism separately: it’s that the two prejudices seem to have some sort of strange multiplier effect, intensifying the discrimination that they receive. There’s one person I know who was hounded out of a job because her colleagues couldn’t stand to take orders from her; another whose peers felt so threatened by her progress that she, too, was shown the door; and yet another, who was made to feel as unwanted as an old piece of office furniture before dispatched by her company of several years. The ample sums that they quietly received via their employment tribunals told its own story.

The objectification of black women for the amusement or revulsion of others has been going on for centuries, both before and after the most lurid example of Sara Bartmaan, the “Hottentot Venus”.  Baartman, for those who don’t know the story, was a black woman who was taken from South Africa in the early nineteenth century and paraded around Europe, often in a cage, for the entertainment of the public. Those who came to see her gawped at and mocked her dark skin and large buttocks, which were both supposedly signs of racial inferiority. After her death at the age of 26, her dehumanisation continued, her genitals being pickled and displayed in a French museum.

If Baartman’s suffering was the tale of a racist attempt to destroy the black woman, then Washington’s life can be seen as one more necessary and successful effort to reassert her worth. Indeed, the legacy of the “Hottentot Venus” affair is firmly with us: it can be still be seen in the pages of our fashion magazines and on our catwalks, with insidious effects elsewhere. In October 2009, the online dating site OKCupid revealed from an extensive analysis of its data that: “men don’t write black women back. Or rather, they write them back far less often than they should. Black women reply the most, yet get by far the fewest replies. Essentially every race—including other blacks—singles them out for the cold shoulder.”

I asked a good friend about these findings and she nodded wryly in recognition: after all, what could you do? What can you do when people are conditioned to call you bossy or aggressive or intimidating?  What can you do, as the writer Bridget Minamore has noted, when people have so often been told that you are strong or “fierce” that they have forgotten or never realised that you can be tender?

Well, if you can, you find strength in yourself, in solidarity and the love of those who truly value you, and if you’re truly lucky you’ll stumble across lives like that of Karyn Washington.  Judging by the experiences of several people whom I know well, I think that being a black woman can at times be emotionally exhausting, given the assaults that are frequently launched on their self-esteem. I am therefore grateful to Karyn Washington for making the lives of countless girls and women of all colours so much happier.  I also hope that her legacy is a world where black girls don’t have to be brave, or tough, or any of the rest of it; a world where, quite simply, they can just live.

“We Are Proud To Present”: a reflection on a magnificent play.

I had the privilege, on the penultimate night of its six-week London run at the Bush Theatre, of seeing a truly outstanding play. Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, directed by Gbolahan Obisesan, and staffed by a great cast, the production took a look at one of the 20th century’s forgotten genocides. (The play’s full title – “We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero Of Namibia, Formerly Known As Southwest Africa, From The German Sudwestafrika, Between The Years 1884 And 1915″ – is so long that it needs a sentence of its own. From now on, I will refer to it as “We Are Proud.”) The funny thing is that, though it had been vigorously recommended by Anthony Anaxagorou, one of London’s leading poets, I only ended up seeing “We Are Proud” on a whim. Having absent-mindedly made a note to buy a ticket, but then procrastinated in doing so, I stumbled across an extremely negative review in The Daily Telegraph. In the course of a two-star excoriation, Dominic Cavendish wrote that the play was one of “shockingly inadequate dramatic power” and stated that its “mouthful of a title was the closest the evening [came] to being succinctly informative. The play, he continued, “might equally be restyled: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen: Prepare to be Bludgeoned over the Head with some Racially Loaded Dissension Between a Group of Actors Who Seem Insufficiently Prepared for Rehearsals Let Alone a Public Scratch Performance.”

Well, wow. Cavendish’s opinion was so at variance with the reviews given by both my friends and mainstream media that I had to take a closer look, and so within minutes of reading his withering dismissal I had booked myself a seat. As a result, I ended up witnessing a production almost every bit as moving as “The Season In The Congo”. “We Are Proud” was superb. Its premise was a clever one: it followed a cast of six actors – three white, three black – as they attempted to make an improvised reconstruction of the brutal repression of the Herero people by the German army. As the action progresses, the four men and two women begin to fall out over the form that their work should take. The white cast members are increasingly determined to tell the story from the perspective of a German soldier writing tender letters home to his loved one, whilst the black cast members begin to express discomfort that the narrative of the slaughtered Africans is being abruptly shunted into the margins. “Are we just going to sit here and watch some white people fall in love all day?” askes one of them, exasperated. “This is some Out-Of-Africa-African-Queen-bullshit you are all pulling here right, OK? If we are in Africa, I want to see some black people.” The metaphor of Germans telling the tale of empire through their missives was a fitting one: Africa’s sands were merely a parchment across which they could scrawl the carefully-edited versions of their heroism.

As the actors navigate the emotionally fraught territory of just how we tell the story of the past, their conversations become more tense; the black actors asking that the action addresses the uncomfortable truths of bloody conquest, the white actors looking to embrace denial wherever they can find it. This dynamic is perfectly expressed in a scene where a German soldier, having shot a Namibian man dead for trespassing on land that was only recently his own, then writes home to his girlfriend as if nothing untoward has happened. “Dear Sarah”, narrates the white actor, more and more anguished, “I’m writing to you today. Today is a day. Just a day. Like any day.” Eventually, overwhelmed by the scale of this falsehood, the actor falters and turns to his colleagues, breaking character. “Can I have a minute?” he pleads.

This scene, and this play as a whole, goes to the very core of imperialism: that it was crucial for the Germans and their European counterparts to deny the humanity of Africans. If they had not done so, then it would have been unbearable to murder them in such industrial quantities. In this context, it is fascinating and disturbing to hear the soldiers making jokes casually featuring the word “nigger” as they go about their daily genocidal business. These jibes, the type you might now hear in a private members’ club after too many drinks, are the direct descendants of those first racist instincts which seeded the Empire. A few years later, of course, this racism was to find horrific expression in the Holocaust: and there was something poignant here in the fact that the Herero, regarded as the bravest and strongest of all the tribes in Namibia, were almost wholly exterminated with barely a whisper beyond the continent. Eight in ten of them perished either under German gunfire or out in camps in the unforgiving desert: eight in ten.

Revealingly, Cavendish writes in his review that he thought the cast’s “contrived in-fighting might carry a greater charge [in the US] than it does in a country that experienced the terror of German imperialism at closer hand.” This is a curious form of one-upmanship, given that Drury is African-American, and that the continent of her heritage arguably experienced the terror of German imperialism at closer hand than anyone. Ironically, Cavendish has apparently fallen prey to the same myopia as the white actors in “We Are Proud”: he takes a discussion of black genocide and focuses it around white people, lapsing into an analysis of which Western nation suffered more from the advances of the Nazis. To quote one of the black actors, “that story doesn’t have anything to do with Africa”.

Moreover, I think that Cavendish’s central contention, that Drury’s script is guilty of sensationalism, is unfair. If anything, the unparalleled sadism of imperialist white supremacy was somewhat understated in this play, only represented at timely moments: and, in between these, there were several welcome passages of comic relief. The play’s closing scenes, by contrast, were utterly unsparing, pervaded by silence and leading to a finale as unsettling as I can recall. There is no catharsis here, no rousing Morgan Freeman-style voiceover to make it all better. The truth is there, as terrible and bitter on your eyes as the noonday sun, and good luck if you have the guts to take a look.

In her introduction to the play, Drury writes that “I sometimes think that the most tragic death is the death that is elided over as history is canonised. That elided death doesn’t participate in the process of metaphysical care that creates culture. It is not remembered, studied, imagined. That death is stripped of its humanity, which seems to be, if not a fate worse than death, perhaps a death worth than death. And perhaps, in turn, allowing that death to remain unimagined makes us a bit less human.”

Drury’s work, brought to life by these actors, is a beautifully overwhelming tribute to Namibia, and the Herero people in particular. Due to the racism that has shaped our society, there are children not yet born whom our world has already decided are less equal than others. “We Are Proud”, in all its cantankerous and challenging magnificence, is one more vital tool in reshaping this dangerous narrative.

Why writing is like dating.

Writing, in one sense, is like dating. What I mean is this: with each failed attempt, it gets a little harder to try again next time. I’m in the early stages of working on a new project, and, just like each time I start a new relationship, I am in that familiar haze of fear and excitement. Just as when you meet someone new, the excitement comes first. The ideas come tumbling out of you; everything is fresh, original, the sentences emerge onto the page with a promising fluidity. And then, and then: then comes the fear. The doubt. The wonder as to whether it’s any good. And then come the memories of all the other projects that didn’t work out, strewn forlornly throughout your creative past like lost loves. There have been so many.

Some might say: “but what do you define by ‘working out’, though? Surely even a relationship that ended after a couple of years was a success in some form”. Well, in response to that, I would have to say no, not really. As joyful as an attempt at a long-term relationship may have been at various points, it ultimately didn’t give you the result that you wanted. And the same is true for art, with me in any case. Whenever I begin a long piece of work, I do so with the hope that it will resonate with a great many people; that this resonance will lead me to a far better quality of life. Some might say that this is the wrong way to assess the quality of one’s creative output, that if you touch just one person then your art has been a success, but I learned a long time ago that the applause of a solitary human being does not pay the rent.

So where are things now? Ah, yes; with the fear, my old friend. Here we are again: and here I am at this screen, with this new work, as afraid of the first page as I am of a first date. Not knowing how long it will take; not knowing who it will touch, who will care. But here goes, I will start again: because, just like lovers, that’s what writers do, and always will.

Men need to talk to men about violence against women.

A few weeks ago, I was at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I was taking part in a panel discussion about what men and boys could do to promote women’s rights in Africa and its diaspora.  I felt privileged to be invited along, yet also somewhat nervous: privileged because I had been invited by a group of people whom I deeply respected, but nervous because, as men and boys, we are not doing nearly enough.   The discussion was very good, and good-humoured until the last – and the most memorable – question of all.  A woman rose to her feet and, perhaps observing that a slight air of self-congratulation seemed to have settled over our all-male panel, she asked us: “Where is your anger?”
She was referring to our apparent lack of fury about violence against women; a phenomenon described by Margaret Chan, the Secretary-General of the World Health Organisation, as “a global health problem of epidemic proportions”. Chan made her remarks upon the launch last June of a United Nations report into this issue, which found that “more than a third of women worldwide are affected by physical or sexual violence, many at the hands of an intimate partner”.
More than a third. This is an overwhelming proportion, and is therefore a statistic that, in my view, cannot be repeated enough. If we are to regard violence against women as a global health problem, then it should be regarded and reported upon with the same urgency as AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis. Nothing less will do.
Because, again: more than a third. The other day, I posted a link on Facebook about a woman who had been physically assaulted by a stranger in the street, and who following this brutal event was now raising many thousands of pounds for a rape crisis centre in Oxford. Over the next few hours, I was horrified to learn just how common an experience this was for my female friends. Other than the grim theme of spurned men responding with force, I noticed something else: that this conversation, along with most others like it over the years, was one that I was conducting almost entirely with women. And there aren’t statistics on this kind of thing, but I think there’s a missing piece in this puzzle, which is that men generally don’t seem to talk to other men about violence against women.
Why is this? Well, maybe because the issue itself is an uncomfortable one. But why is it uncomfortable? I partly suspect this is because it would involve acknowledging that the problem is in our midst: that the abusers may be among our friends, may be within our family. The thought that I may have been close to someone who has used force against a woman is almost too numbing to contemplate.
But such squeamishness is of no use to anyone. Worse than that, it is detrimental. Men who are physically abusive towards women are not magically demarcated from other men. They are among us: proud, jealous, domineering, possessive, they very often are us.
What, then, should we do?  Well, on a formal level, it would be great if we could study feminist theory in schools as carefully as we study the civil rights movement. This would remove feminism from the current intellectual ghetto which seems to suggest that it is only a subject that women should think or care about. That might help to lead to a world where casual sexism attracts as much distaste as casual racism.
Simply, and informally, it would also help if more of us were more willing to intervene wherever we see women being verbally harassed by other men as they go about their daily business. This is easier said than done: after all, the kind of man who is brazen enough to call a woman something filthy in the street is often capable of escalating things very swiftly, physically and dangerously against the fellow male who calls him out. Hell hath no fury like a man scorned.
Less dramatically, we as men can also talk more amongst ourselves about these issues: and, therefore, begin to pull up some of the roots of sexual entitlement that have led to violence on this scale. I believe that, with the aid of these discussions, we will one day find a cure for this epidemic.

“The Burden of Beauty”: a note on my visit to Brazil.

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I have just visited Brazil, where I spent ten days working on a documentary that I will be presenting for the BBC World Service. The documentary, called “The Burden of Beauty” and due out in May, will take a look at the pressure on the host nation not only to win the World Cup, but to win it in a style befitting their most glorious forefathers. Towards the end of my visit, a friend asked me if I had enjoyed it. I tried to agree, but instead I sort of nodded. Enjoyment wasn’t the word.  I didn’t just enjoy it: I loved it.  It was overwhelming.

I have always seen football as two things: first and foremost, as a game, and secondly, as a sport. I love the game: the playfulness, the freedom, the spontaneity, the self-expression. So often, though, I have found myself hating the sport: the snarling money-men, the growling profiteers, the blindly tribal. This isn’t what I signed up for when I first set foot upon a ball. I write about football now, something which pays a substantial part of my bills, but I spend more time occupied with the sport than with the game. Learning more and more of the sport’s excesses, I have frequently found myself engaged in the often joyless deconstruction of one of my life’s greatest loves.

I don’t love football because of the sponsorship deals my club has just struck. In truth, I don’t love it because a rival team is struggling. At best, I might smirk if one of them comes a cropper, but it goes no further than that. I love football because it’s the one thing I’ve ever found, beyond even being on stage, which leaves me giddy with the liberation of it all. It’ll sound sad, or revealing, or hopelessly tragic, or perhaps all three, but I have never known any moment more pure than being put through on goal, ten yards from the penalty area, with the wind at your back and the knowledge, the arrogance of the knowledge, that whatever the goalkeeper does you will score.

I know there’s probably some way for a psychoanalyst to explain that – that being through on goal represents breaking boundaries in one’s personal life, it represents going it alone, and knowing I will score means knowing that, when truly under pressure, I will deliver. Yes, maybe it does mean that. But maybe it also means that, whenever I’ve ever felt that nothing else in life is providing answers – when I was coming out of the closet, or having the shit kicked out of me at school – I have sought out the nearest field or five-a-side pitch, put on those boots or trainers, and approached goal thinking: “This. At least, I can do this”.

This is why I love the game that is football. And being in Brazil reminded me why I love this game, and always will. Walking along the Ipanema beach, seeing men in their fifties, sixties and seventies playing volleyball with everything other than their hands, I felt my heart clattering against my ribcage. Standing in the crowd at the Maracana Stadium, as the golden clouds welcomed the evening, I felt as happy on my travels as I ever have. Walking into the trophy room at Santos’ football ground, the home of a team which was the foundation of three of Brazil’s World Cups, I was as breathless as a pilgrim might be on entering a temple. Sitting listening to Carlos Alberto talk his way through his goal, the last one in Brazil’s 4-1 triumph over Italy in the 1970 final, I had to compose myself briefly after he had done so. My grandfather, who coached Uganda’s national team for several years, would have loved to meet Carlos Alberto. He was another great man of football, and the thought of the two of them talking the game together gave me an emotion I cannot, for all my supposed skill as a writer, put into words.

Brazil blew me away. It made me look at Neymar, the player whose transfer to Barcelona is currently surrounded in such scandal, in a new light. Neymar is a man, scarcely in his twenties, who is carrying the bulk of a nation’s hopes; and how lightly he wears that pressure. He is a man who brought the Copa Libertadores, South America’s club championship, back to Santos almost forty years since Pele and his illustrious colleagues had last done it. Neymar understands the burden of beauty all too well, and he bears it with a smile. He is a player who illustrates like no other the sharp divergence of the game, which he plays with such thrilling abandon, and the sport, whose corruption may yet engulf him. In Brazil, I became acquainted again with the former, with the simple and eternal magic of the ball, endlessly welcome at my instep. And, forever, I will be grateful for that.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Happy International Women´s Day; though, in truth, I am not happy at the way that things are. In fact, I am angry. This is not good enough – we should not still be here. The stream of actual and structual violence against women worldwide in our society seems endless. Each new article I see about the state of how things are fills me with a fury I can barely contain, and which leaves me, as now, shivering with rage. It is not difficult for we men to be better people. It is not difficult to set far better standards for ourselves. And those of us who are afraid of starting to improve for fear of falling short of perfection need to get off our backsides, and now. Even now, as I type this, I fear the accusation of self-righteousness. But, at some level, fuck that. There is not nearly enough self-righteousness out there. There are not nearly enough men giving this issue proper thought, or asking proper questions, or doing careful reading, or doing careful thinking. There are a thousand things that do not even occur to us about sexism and misogyny even though these two freely infect the air around us like they were bacteria. This might seem like handwringing, and maybe it is. But there is not nearly enough of that either. There is so much more room for respect and understanding and support and compassion, and I hope that we either begin or continue to see this.

“Love Against Homophobia”: for Russia, Uganda and the USA.

Given the spate of anti-gay laws either mooted or passed in Russia, Uganda and the USA, I thought I would repost this poem of mine, “Love Against Homophobia”; please share it with anyone who you think might appreciate it.

“Love Against Homophobia”

To some people

My love is somewhat alien;
When he comes up, they start subject-changing, and
In some states he’s seen as some contagion -
In those zones, he stays subterranean;
Some love my love; they run parades for him:
Liberal citizens lead the way for him:
Same time as some countries embracing him,
Whole faiths and nations seem ashamed of him:
They’ve tried banning him,
God-damning him,
Toe-tagging him,
Prayed that he stayed in the cabinet,
But my love kicked in the panelling, ran for it -
He’s my love! Can’t be trapping him in labyrinths! -
Maverick, my love is; he thwarts challenges;
The cleverest geneticists can’t fathom him,
Priests can’t defeat him with venomous rhetoric;
They’d better quit; my love’s too competitive:
He’s still here, despite the Taliban, the Vatican,
And rap, ragga in their anger and arrogance,
Who call on my love with lit matches and paraffin -
Despite the fistfights and midnight batterings -
My love’s still here and fiercely battling,
Because my love comes through anything;

My love comes through anything.

 

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