Notes for your exit interview.

If you’re about to break up with your partner, and you’re reading this the night before you’re going to tell them it’s over, then here are some tips or guidelines as to how you should conduct that fateful conversation. Unless you are a sadist, no-one particularly enjoys the exit interview, that time when you look into the eyes of someone who cares deeply about you and sever all ties. Of course, you may want to inflict pain upon them for all the terrible wrongs they have done you during your relationship, in which case my advice is irrelevant: I have written this only for those who retain some significant amount of compassion for their doomed lover, and who therefore want to make the breakup as painless for them as possible.

Obviously, the news that you’re leaving them is going to hurt. At the same time, there are degrees of agony, and if tomorrow will be a car crash for their emotions then you have the choice to pass them an airbag. Because you are going to break them tomorrow – the only question is how much. You’ve presumably already chosen the venue. Here’s hoping it’s a coffee shop at a neutral location, safely in the middle of town and close to transport links for your speedy and relieved escape immediately afterwards. If you’ve selected a restaurant, that may not work so well if you’re aiming for urgency and discretion – people tend to eavesdrop when hunched over their meals, it’s just one of those things, and your partner, oblivious to their fate, may order food, which will string the whole miserable experience out.

Wherever you do go, make sure that you sit near the door, or in the corner nearest the street, so as to avoid too much scrutiny. And when you begin to speak, to utter the spell that will release you, please remember two things. The first is that your partner will probably have no idea what is coming. Only the very smartest animals can sense the day when they are being summoned to the slaughterhouse. As a result, there will be a moment when they slow the chewing of their food or the sipping of their coffee and sit up with wide, terrified eyes, a moment when they realise, my God, this is the exit interview, this is actually happening. When that moment comes, and it will, keep your tone as level as you can. You have come this far with conviction; do not fail yourself now.

The second thing you must remember is that, during the course of your once-joyous and now-terminal romance, your partner solemnly gave you possession of a series of weapons. At the time, your partner was not aware that these were weapons. Instead, they were your partner’s greatest fears, their most vulnerable truths. Each of those fears and truths is now a nuclear warhead that you can aim at their self-esteem. When you sit there tomorrow morning, with this silently-seething array of nukes for which your partner had the good grace to hand you the launch codes, there may be a moment when you are tempted to use them. Perhaps one of them, perhaps all of them. Who knows – when your chest is rumbling with emotion, maybe even the thrill of imminent freedom, you may find it cathartic to set off these detonations deep in your partner’s heart. But please be careful. The news that you are leaving them will, of itself, be sufficiently devastating. Any additional bombs that you explode run the risk of being gratuitous and therefore cruel.

That being said, say what you feel you must. Please know, though, that whatever you say to them tomorrow will stay with them for months or years afterwards, like radiation. And know that your mark is already on them. For far longer than they will like, your partner will think they see you walking by in the street, reminded of your gait by a stranger; they will pick up their phone to text you a joke, before remembering that they no longer store your number; they will wander down a supermarket aisle, and then stop themselves, realising they only came this way to collect that food you loved. And every now and then, when they pause the frenzy of tasks they’ve taken on to stop thinking about you – at a traffic light, maybe, waiting for the green to beckon them across – their eyes will fill uncontrollably at the loss of you. Or maybe it won’t be there, in public: maybe they’ll make it back to their home, under merciful cover of night, and shudder with tears against a pillow that they hold unusually close.

How To Get Respect, Should You Die In The Public Eye.

Don’t be Syrian,

Don’t be a working-class black teen;

Be a middle-class kid, preferably white, from a two-parent home.

Don’t live within reach of a drone.

Don’t be pictured with a joint while alive,

Don’t let your fingers be seen anywhere near a gang sign.

Don’t date a man who hates you with all the breath in his breast

Since, when he eventually kills you, they’ll just say

“You should have left”.

(On which note,

Don’t die at the hands of a male celebrity –

that never ends well.)

Don’t be Syrian –

you heard us the first time.

If you’re Syrian,

Your problem is that you may die in a conflict too complex for people to understand,

Or so monotonous in its gore

That they’ll merely throw up their hands.

Don’t die a dull Third World death,

Failed by healthcare,

In a land where diarrhoea is lethal as Ebola.

Don’t die a death that fascinates people,

Or your existence will be chopped up and podcasted,

Fed back to us as pop culture.

Don’t die a death where we risk getting distracted

By the fact your suspected killers

Are particularly attractive.

When you die,

Make sure we can relate to you.

Do some charity or some public service.

We’re busy. We need to know quickly

That you weren’t worthless.

If you don’t die how we like

Then you’ll be killed twice:

The first time, when you lose your life

And the second time, when the world destroys your memory as well –

You see, our affections abandon nothing more swiftly

Than a story that’s not easy to tell.

Nigel Farage, the cost of living, and immigration as political time-wasting.

Nigel Farage remarked this morning that there was no longer any need for most racial discrimination laws in the workplace. Given that such laws have recently been vital to protecting the rights of good friends faced by racist employers, I am not going to give that ill-informed view the outrage it seeks. Instead, because we are all busy people, I thought I would set out below a series of tweets that I posted this morning, setting his remarks in a wider political context. (That saves you, should you be interested, from having to read them off my timeline.)

– What is most interesting about Farage is not what he says, but how politicians from bigger parties respond to him.

– Farage refers to racial discrimination laws as past their sell-by-date, inviting other parties to agree or disagree. Watch their responses.

– Cost of living, cost of living, cost of living. It is not working-class immigrants who have put the rental market out of control.

– Cost of living. It is not working-class immigrants who have sent housing prices and petrol prices through the roof.

– Working-class migrants scrap for the same crumbs they always have; that’s only a problem as now you’re down there too. Ask who put you there.

– Huge companies enter the UK, pay almost no tax, force up the cost of living, yet it’s working-class migrants who are “straining resources”.

– This isn’t even an attack on huge companies. It’s merely a request that we be honest about the roots of inequality.

– Breaking news: even if you stop every immigrant entering the UK from now to eternity, it will not bring your rent down.

– The focus on immigration is time-wasting, running down the clock to election time, keeping the cost of living off the political agenda.

– Here’s the dirty truth about immigrant bashing. It’s all about making *just* enough people wake up feeling racist on election day.

– Many people are tired, busy, emotional. They are shattered. They are living hand to mouth. Many of them are in the perfect mood to lash out.

– The working-class immigrant is the perfect political target. Visible everywhere, yet systematically muted, denied a voice. Bullseye.


My tweets on that racist football fan video (with RapGenius annotations, and Johnny Cash).

Last night I saw a video where a bunch of racist football fans stopped a black man getting onto a train. I then went onto Twitter and wrote a series of tweets giving my thoughts on the incident. I didn’t mention the club whom the fans supported as I didn’t think that this was a phenomenon particular to their club.

I then received answers from some people who agreed with me, and some who didn’t, which is after all the nature of Twitter. Some people thought I was saying that this video should not be condemned, and so I thought I should write a short note clarifying my tweets.

So I’m going to do the following, which might seem a bit of an odd approach, but I am doing it mainly because I don’t have time to write a full new article on this (deadlines etc etc).

First I will republish the tweets I wrote. Then I will briefly annotate them, RapGenius style, explaining further what I meant by them. Then I will finish up with some music from Johnny Cash.

I hope that makes sense, and that you’re not bored yet. Right – here goes.

My tweets were as follows:

1. Hm. Many people who will express revulsion at that racist football fan video are just as unpleasant in far subtler and more dangerous ways.

(Explanation: If you condemned that video, awesome. My wider point was that there are a lot of people who have an eye for a conveniently easy fight. The same people who will condemn video of these fans will continue to laugh along with people who make jokes about gas chambers. They are the same people who will embrace bigoted individuals if they can bring some kind of advantage to their club, or simply if they are just fun to hang out with. It is these hypocrites who were the subject of this tweet.)  

2. Extreme, overt, drunken racism by fans is only the symptom of attitudes that may be more commonplace that people would like to admit.

(Explanation: The black man last night faced racism in a very intimidating form. What is particularly worrying is that those racists felt comfortable enough to express those views at such volume and with such confidence, just like that racist who threw the bananas at Dani Alves. We will never know how many passive onlookers silently agreed with their reprehensible views. At such times, the club’s reaction is vital, and to Chelsea’s credit they have acted swiftly in response to this matter.)  

3. The outraged condemnation of drunken racist football fans, without further examination of the underlying issues, is nothing but cathartic.

(Explanation: Yes, you’re right to be angry, absolutely. Let’s also be vigilant about other forms of racial discrimination within the game, and not be quick to dismiss them when they arise. If you are already vigilant, then this tweet was not aimed at you.) 

4. The average racist these days is far, far smarter than a football fan on an away day who gets hammered and abuses a random black person.

(Explanation: The one redeeming feature of those football fans on the train is that they were stupid and so we know exactly what they thought. Again, I was merely saying: let’s stay vigilant. There’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment out there at the moment – just look at UK politics. If you’re already vigilant, then that is awesome – you don’t have to duck, this tweet was not aimed at you.)

5. The drunken racist football fan on the evening train is the least dangerous racist of all since you know exactly where you stand with them.

(Explanation: This isn’t entirely accurate as a racist frothing abuse in your face can be pretty intimidating, particularly if they are bigger than you or if there are more than you or if there is nowhere to run or if they are quicker than you. Those ones are pretty scary but they’re thankfully not as commonplace as they have been. So they are physically dangerous, yes. I guess I have just become a little bit desensitised to their excesses. At least, because they make their threat so obvious, I know what I am dealing with.)  

6. The most dangerous racists of all are those who will keep you conveniently at arm’s length for years. They are the ones I worry about.

(Explanation: These are often the really scary ones – the ones who discriminate against you in the workplace, the ones who pass discriminatory laws, the ones who practice what Ta-Nehisi Coates has referred to as “elegant racism”. They are the ones who are clever enough to marginalise you without telling you that it’s down to your race, and it’s only when you look back over the accumulated evidence that you realise that’s what it was. A good friend has a successful claim at an employment tribunal to show for it.)

7. As someone who has experienced both verbal and physical racist abuse on the street, I am not belittling what happened tonight.

(Explanation: No, I’m really not. I hope that poor guy was not too shaken this morning.)

8. I am merely saying: let us be clear. Racism does not simply arise from nowhere. It is mould that has been allowed to fester too long.

(Explana – actually no I think this one is pretty clear.)

9. So no, I’m not going to get on my high horse about the drunken racist fans, and I would advise you to be very very wary of anyone who does.

(Explanation: I am as angry about this as you presumably are. Just watch out for the people who are up in arms about this video, but then go back to their own bigoted ways next week. Trust me, they’re out there.)

10. *end transmission*

(Explanation: I always give some kind of sign-off when I have finished an extended series of tweets, normally when my thumb gets tired, so that anyone who has tuned out in the process of my stream of conscious knows that they can have the timeline back.)

I will now send this article to everyone who wrote to me last night asking for further clarification of my thoughts. And I would like to thank Mashable for putting all of these tweets in one place so that their readers could review them for themselves. Have a great day, all.

(And PS – if it does turn out that these tweets were indeed aimed at you, then they should burn, burn, burn, like the ring of fire, the ring of fire.)







God bless Kanye West, and God bless Ida B. Wells.

Last week, Kanye West got on stage at the Grammys and, in his own words, acted like “an asshole”. This weekend, I was a guest on the BBC World Service, looking back at the week’s news. One of the items for discussion was the Equal Justice Initiative’s report on lynching in America’s Southern states. This made me think in turn of Ida B. Wells, whose pioneering and fearless research in this area cannot be praised enough; and finally, at one profoundly historical level, it made me thank God for the asshole that Kanye has become.

We will return to Kanye West very soon; but, for now, we should go back to the formidable Ida B. Wells. In 1892, following the murder of three of her friends, she began a vigorous investigation of their deaths and the social circumstances which enabled them. She interrogated a world where black boys and men were routinely taken out in the street, tortured and killed, very often in broad daylight. This happened under the pretext that they had raped white women: most commonly, though, it seems that their true offence was to have had consensual sexual relations with those women. On one occasion, in 1891, one black man – Will Lewis, of Tullahoma – was taken from jail by a mob and hung, for the apparent crime of drunken rudeness to his white superiors. Black girls and women were not remotely spared either, with one Mildrey Brown hung in 1892 “on the circumstantial evidence she had poisoned a white infant”. Well’s resulting publication, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases”, is a seminal work, and simultaneously a daunting read. Yet so audacious was Wells in her efforts that, at one point, I found myself smiling with glee.

I began to imagine the faces of those everyday white supremacists, so complacent and comfortable in their racial tyranny over the South, if they could have seen Kanye preparing to take the stage at the Grammys. Specifically, I imagined the faces of the editorial team of the Memphis Evening Scimitar. On June 4 1892, they wrote that:

“The chief cause of trouble between the races in the South is the Negro’s lack of manners. In the state of slavery he learned politeness from association with white people, who took pain to teach him. Since the emancipation came and the tie of mutual interest and regard between master and servant was broken, the Negro has drifted away into a state which is neither freedom nor bondage…he has taken up the idea that boorish insolence is independence, and the exercise of a decent degree of breeding toward white people is identical with servile submission….there are many Negroes who use every opportunity to make themselves offensive, particularly when they think it can be done with impunity.” (My italics.)

As I read this I thought of Kanye mounting those steps, I thought of these racists watching him, and as I sat at my kitchen table I allowed myself a quietly maniacal chuckle.  After all, if these editors could have created an algorithm that would have produced their worst nightmare, then it is pretty safe to say that it would have produced someone like Kanye West. (In fact, in the quoted paragraph above, they virtually prophesied his emergence.) Kanye does not even have the good grace to be humble about his talents. He lacks manners; he is frequently impolite; he is rude, boorish, offensive, intemperate, obstreperous and vulgar. And, as I read these words from 1892, I absolutely loved him for it.  Kanye is critically acclaimed, he is independently wealthy, he has the ear of millions whenever he opens that mouth of his, that awful goddamn mouth – in short, he is everything that the slavers feared the day they reluctantly unlocked that final yoke.

Towards the end of her magnificent paper, Wells wrote that  “the more the Afro-American yields and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.” There is no chance of Kanye ever yielding and begging, and that is thanks in very large part to the extraordinary efforts of Wells, who made possible an America in which a black person could be so free, so bold, brash and unrestrained.

And so I find that there are two contexts in which I view what Kanye did at the Grammys, when he went onstage to tell Beck, the winner of the Best Album award, that Beyoncé would have been a more deserving recipient.  The first context was immediate, in which I rolled my eyes and thought “Kanye, for God’s sake, you’ve been an ass yet again: you’ve disrespected and possibly ruined someone’s big day, a moment which may be the culmination of their career as an artist, let it go.” The second context is historical: and here I watch as the editors of the Memphis Evening Scimitar look helplessly into the future, a world featuring the unapologetic arrogance of Kanye, an uppity Negro the type of which they would gladly have seen dragged out and butchered.  And, in that context, I howl with laughter: and I think, God bless you Kanye West, and God bless you Ida B. Wells.


A Letter to Uganda.

photo (1)

“Do you miss Uganda?”

People, including me, ask me this now and then.  The truth is that I don’t, really; I don’t miss anywhere.  My relationship with the country that my parents fled was born in trauma, and I think that a reflexive fear of attachment to any place has been with me ever since.  Despite this, though, Uganda remains with me in a couple of persistent ways. Behind me in the kitchen as I type this, on the cooker’s furthest hob, is a pot of red kidney beans in peanut butter sauce, to be accompanied later by a side of polenta: the same dish that hungry members of my family have been wolfing down for generations.  In my bedroom, crumpled beneath a slowly-growing pile of fellow laundry items, is the Uganda football shirt that I wear to every training session on Monday night.

Every so often, something happens to trigger reflections like these. Most recently, it was reading the first instalment of Letters From Africa, a piece of work serialised weekly by Pigeonhole, a new start-up probably best described as “an online book club”.  Letters From Africa features the work of four writers sharing their impressions of various African cities, in this case Lagos, Nairobi, Harare and Cairo, and the countries whose heartbeats they represent. The most striking of these essays, in my view, was Tolu Ogunlesi’s essay on Lagos, a place that seems to trump even Rio de Janeiro for chaos.  To quote Ogunlesi, “Lagos is a place of freedom; freedom to decide whether a red light means the same as a green light, to decide in what direction to proceed along a road marked ‘one way’. The freedom to decide just how much time you’d like to spend in a police station, should you find yourself there; the freedom to set your own laws and limits and negotiate around other people’s own. The freedom to surrender or to fight back; to run away so you get the chance to fight another day.”

I had felt something similar, if less intensely, on my last visit to Kampala about fifteen years ago. That was the first time that I had set foot on Ugandan soil since my childhood, and so I spent those two weeks taking in everything that I could: the endless clutter and chatter, the rugged terracotta of the clay roads, the huge plates of pork as tender as fillet steak.  On balance, though, this was not the most comfortable of reacquaintances with the land of my heritage. Footballers, when they have been absent through injury for a long while, often complain when they return to action that they are not match-fit: it takes them a few games to get back into the rhythm of it all, to recover their form. By the same token, I felt that I was not “match-fit” for Kampala. It was bewilderingly fast, a pace of life that made New York seem like a Sunday afternoon stroll.  The nightlife surged on into the early hours, showing something like contempt for the dawn.  Even being polite was exhausting. On one occasion, I left the way in the street for someone to pass, and a convoy of people charged through the opening that I had created.  They probably didn’t even notice me: they were all in such a hurry that I may as well have been a bubblegum wrapper in the wind.  After two frenetic weeks, I headed back to Europe, which has been my base ever since.

I often wonder if I will ever go back to Uganda, or whether letters from there will suffice for a connection with the place.  My family are from the north of the country, hundreds of miles from Kampala’s urban churn, and it may be there in Gulu that I find somewhere with a more lasting resonance.  For now, though, Uganda remains a distant relative, whom I am reminded to check in on every now and then; and to whom, every now and then, I am inspired to write.


On James Blunt, Chris Bryant and inequality in the arts.

Argh. I shouldn’t be writing this as I actually have another article half-drafted sitting nearby, but I feel I need to do so. Here goes.

Chris Bryant, Labour’s shadow culture minister, made some important comments about the lack of diversity in the arts.  He recently stated that:

“I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for best actor], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk,” he said.

Where are the Albert Finneys and the Glenda Jacksons? They came through a meritocratic system. But it wasn’t just that. It was also that the writers were writing stuff for them. So is the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, doing that kind of gritty drama, which reflects [the country] more? We can’t just have Downton programming ad infinitum and think that just because we’ve got some people in the servants’ hall, somehow or other we’ve done our duty by gritty drama.” (My italics.)

James Blunt, feeling that Bryant was trying to say that his success was unearned, gave a punchy rejoinder in the Guardian, in which he referred to Bryant as “a classist gimp”.  I read Blunt’s letter, and instinctively applauded him for his rebuttal.  But then I took a step back.

Bryant was essentially right. There is a severe problem with diversity in the arts, and the media, right across the board. It’s so obvious that you don’t even need statistics to see it.  And it’s getting worse, now that the cost of living in many large cities plus, for example, the falling revenues in the music industry – means that it is much, much harder to make it. Those who do make it will typically have somewhere to crash during those lean years, and those who do are disproportionately well-off.

So why, then, did I applaud Blunt? Well, here’s where we need to separate the personal from the political. Bryant clearly triggered something in Blunt. Blunt has spent many years being the only boy from a visibly posh background in most rooms he has entered, and being called out for it clearly still stings him now. Blunt sounds like he was something of an outlier at boarding school, and so now to be seen as representative of that world, as the mere beneficiary of a ready and complacent nepotism, is infuriating.

I think I first applauded Blunt because I partly understood, as someone who also attended boarding school, where he was coming from.  No-one likes being told that they don’t deserve whatever position they have reached, particularly when they have worked hard to get there. But Bryant wasn’t trying to be offensive. He didn’t mean that.  And, though it was difficult for Blunt to step back from his rage, it’s something that he could usefully do.

Because the playing field in the arts isn’t level. It just isn’t, and if James Blunt had really wanted to, if he really needed to call goodnight on his dream, then all of those other careers that he mentioned in his open letter were still open to him. And that is the one thing that people with boarding-school educations very often have: the ability to do something completely different with their lives. Very often, for those who do not have degrees or networks that they can tap into when seeking jobs, the artistic dream is all they have. There is no safety net, and if we don’t fund the arts we are consigning them to a pretty bitter future. In fact, screw the future – that is the present we are sitting in, right now.

Yes, it hurt James Blunt when he was called too posh to make it in the music industry, just as it hurts me to be called an Uncle Tom because I am a black person who went to boarding school, even though I sometimes got the shit kicked out of me for being black while I was there. It hurts when you are lazily branded as the metaphor for a social class where you often felt like the odd one out, particularly when that class is scorned.

But you know what’s far worse?  The fact that there is a generation of outstanding artists out there who, due to their lack of opportunity, will not achieve their potential if our funding bodies do not help them as best they can. That was Bryant’s point, and it was vital, and I hope that it is not lost in the ensuing to-and-fro between him and Blunt.


Why Game of Thrones reminds me of climate change

I love Game of Thrones.  I love Game of Thrones even more now that I am re-watching it, which I began to do this Christmas. I love re-watching it because now I can brace myself for the horror that I know is coming. Now I can actually enjoy the story’s development and make peace with the demise of my favourite characters several episodes before they are bludgeoned, throttled or eviscerated.  Yes, I know it’s pathetic, but now I can mourn Ygritte days before she dies.  I can say a slow goodbye to the Red Viper.  I can console myself that, hey, the Starks really did have it coming, they were just never cunning enough to make it out of there with their throats intact.  But, above all else, I am realising that Game of Thrones reminds me of climate change.

The underlying premise of Game of Thrones is that, whilst the humans fight amongst themselves in alliances of increasingly bewildering complexity, they collectively face a threat so terrifying that most people are in denial about it. Whilst the various kingdoms hack and claw away at each other, they neglect the reports of approaching dragons and White Walkers, refusing to believe that they might one day be consumed by fire or ice.  Dragons, after all, have not been seen for centuries, and White Walkers have long since passed into the realm beyond myth. Those who first warn of the resurgence of either are dismissed as lunatics: one of them is even beheaded.  The reality is either too numbing or too fantastical to be accepted.

Thankfully, the fate of the first people to flag up climate change as an existential threat was not quite as grisly.  However, those researchers and their successors have attracted a certain degree of ridicule.  Now, though, their work is receiving depressing vindication.  Today, I read an article in The Guardian, entitled “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists”. In the words of one of the bearers of bad news, Professor Will Steffen:

“It’s fairly safe to say that we haven’t seen conditions in the past similar to ones we see today and there is strong evidence that there [are] tipping points we don’t want to cross..If the Earth is going to move to a warmer state, 5-6C warmer, with no ice caps, it will do so and that won’t be good for large mammals like us. People say the world is robust and that’s true, there will be life on Earth, but the Earth won’t be robust for us.”

He continued:

“Some people say we can adapt due to technology, but that’s a belief system, it’s not based on fact. There is no convincing evidence that a large mammal, with a core body temperature of 37C, will be able to evolve that quickly. Insects can, but humans can’t and that’s a problem…It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive.  History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”

Back in 2008, when I first became truly aware of the danger posed by climate change, there was a period where I read every paper and watched every video on the issue that I could find.  I attended a couple of conferences, and found the science so frightening in its implications that I remember sitting there and writing, during a particularly startling speech, “it feels like the autumn of the world”.

Just as in Game of Thrones, it now seems that winter is coming.  I remember howling about environmental degradation to anyone who would listen, and performing a poem, ‘The Creep’, that really only seemed to shock people further.  I have never felt so impotent as I did then, as I tried to network with scientists and politicians, trying to nudge those wealthy philanthropists whom I had encountered in my work to embrace the issue.  And I felt that I had failed, that I could not convey the urgency of what I was reading and seeing.  And so, like a Game of Thrones episode that was just too gut-wrenching to watch, I found some way to tune out my fears of climate change, to change the channel.

And here we are, in 2014, with the environmental outlook increasingly bleak. Unlike Game of Thrones, though, this will eventually be a screen from whose unsettling images none of us can look away.


“Searching for Walter Tull.”

A head and shoulders portrait of Walter Tull

Last December, as part of an event held by Philosophy Football to mark the role that football played during the Christmas truce in World War One, I performed the poem below.  “Searching for Walter Tull”, which I was commissioned to write for that event, reflects on the life of one of the first black professional footballers in the UK (for Clapton FC, Northampton Town and Spurs), and the first black man in the British Army ever to lead his white peers into battle. As the day of my reading drew closer, I found myself more and more moved by his story, and the reality that the best and the bravest of human beings too rarely get the lives that they deserve. The title of this piece refers to the fact that his body was never found; but, despite that, he still left a remarkable legacy behind.


“Searching for Walter Tull”

Walter Tull.

His life was the ink that stands out on history’s page.
The orphan, this mixed-race grandson of a slave,
The footballer slow in stride but swift of thought,
The soldier who survived the Somme
But who died in World War One’s injury time.
A few weeks from the end of that churning conflict,
In no-man’s land, as he was leading a charge,
Life handed him the red card.
Months earlier, in Italy, he had been the maker of history,
Going where no person of colour or Negro had been allowed to go before,
A black officer leading his white peers into the hungry mouth of War.
So loved was he by his men, that they risked their lives to recover his body after his death.
But Walter Tull‘s slumbering form was never found;
And, a century after his death, we are still looking for him now.
Known for his calm when the world was aflame,
We need his memory at this time
When the humanity of Britain’s immigrants is being so furiously denied.
So sleep well, Walter Tull, and we’ll do what it takes
To ensure that, to your story,
The world remains awake.

Free speech is expensive.  It’s time to pay for it

Like many people in Europe this week, I was numbed by the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris and the subsequent murder of Jews, and then horrified at the latest rounds of bloodletting by Boko Haram in Nigeria.  The atrocities committed by both sets of extremists were, in a sense, acts of storytelling. They were attempts to tell the story of the supremacy of their ideology, and they were tales written in fear and blood.  Much has been expressed this week about the value of free speech, of having the courage to pose critiques of potentially lethal enemies: and I have begun to reflect again on just how expensive free speech actually is.

Most obviously, free speech can cost lives.  Journalists have had a particularly dangerous few years, with 1109 killed worldwide since 1992.  Many of them work under extraordinary pressure, and against extraordinary odds.  They are dying due to their desire to make vital revelations, so that fresh horrors by Al-Qaeda, ISIS and so on remain forever unscripted.  Less starkly, free speech costs money.  Even in those societies whose citizens are allowed to say largely whatever they like, the largest media platforms go most consistently to those who have the deepest pockets.  Press barons with a fleet of newspapers can pontificate either via their outlets’ headlines or on social media, secure in the fact that they have by far the biggest audience.  It is all very well having free speech, but it’s not so useful when you are talking without amplification and the other person has a megaphone. (Especially when, it must be said, they are such consistent engines of misinformation as Fox News.)

What, then, can be done?  Perhaps it is time for us to begin treating investigative journalism, one of our surest means of speaking truth to power, as seriously as we would any charitable cause.  The good health of this field, I think, is essential to a thriving civil society.  I was startled to receive an email at the start of this year from Mother Jones, an excellent nonprofit news organisation based in the USA, asking urgently for donations. That an outlet of their calibre, home to several scoops and with almost 500,000 followers on Twitter, should be struggling so much financially was something that worried me greatly.  It made me worry about all the stories that are going untold, due to a lack of networks and resources, in places like West Papua and the Central African Republic, where the world’s pens and cameras do not find it fashionable to linger too long.

If there is to be any positive legacy from the last week’s atrocities in Nigeria and France, I would like it to include a surge in funding towards journalists covering those areas of the world where free speech is under the greatest threat.  Where should this money come from?  Well, members of the public can help.  I actually think that much more could be done by those companies who pride themselves on providing a wider social benefit: companies, for example, working in the fields of clean energy.  I also believe that private donors have a role to play.  In my more idealistic moments, which are frequent, I imagine a group of a few dozen people – those, say, who’ve tech fortunes, and those who’ve inherited wealth – pooling their resources, and putting together an endowment of a couple of hundred million pounds.  That endowment would then be carefully managed, and then a group of journalists would be paid their salaries out of the interest earned on that endowment. Journalists could also be given fixed-term grants to work on a single story in depth.

Of course, there are already organisations with a similar kind of structure, and so it makes most immediate sense to seek them out, and see whether they need further financial assistance.  The ones I have found most useful, in my last couple of years of internet use, have been the aforementioned Mother Jones, Global Voices, Writers of Colour, Open Democracy, and Democracy Now. I hope that one day at least one of their names might be as readily on most people’s lips as, say, that of a large aid organisation.  Whilst I acknowledge the boundless optimism of this wish, I should only add that this is precisely what dreams are for.