A comment on Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher’s remarks about Raheem Sterling.

It was just a shock to hear them finally say it.

 

“What is the perception of Raheem Sterling in this country for most people, who buy papers and read media stuff online?” asked Jamie Carragher, co-presenting Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football show.  “The perception”, he said, immediately answering his own question, “is of a young, flash, black kid from London”. He continued: ““Anyone reading that, anyone writing that – I can assure you that is absolute, utter nonsense. It’s garbage. Raheem Sterling’s a mouse.” [1]

 

It was a relief to hear them say what so many had been thinking for so long, and to know that a conversation about this subject could at last begin. It was such a relief to hear the issue acknowledged at last. But, on waking this morning, there are further questions. Why did it take so long for Carragher and Gary Neville, one of the show’s other presenters, to speak up? Why did being perceived as a young flash black kid from London – which would not have been a crime in any case – lead to levels of abuse the like of which Neville said he had never seen?

 

Imagine that you are back at school and the senior pupils announce in assembly that a quiet and friendly classmate of yours has been mercilessly targeted by the biggest bullies in the playground for years on end, that they get it now, that he had come to them in confidence before and could not believe why it was happening. Your reaction might be: “well, yes, we knew that, we’ve seen him suffer for ages, at least now you can start to sort it out”. Or your reaction might be: “I saw it happening but didn’t want to say anything in case it turned the anger towards me.” Or your reaction might be: “why are you telling us? You’re the seniors, it’s your job to go to the teachers and sort it out.”

 

Whatever your response, it is obvious that football’s teachers – the Football Association and the football clubs around the country – and football’s seniors – the ex-players and pundits, the editors, the producers and the older commentators and journalists – have collectively failed Raheem Sterling. They have treated the abuse he gets as part and parcel of the game when it is clear from Neville’s own words that it is not. Just consider that Neville was in the same dressing room as Beckham the season he returned from his red card against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, a season when the abuse against his best friend reached astonishing levels – and that Sterling was targeted by hatred that made this pale in comparison. That is a reality too horrific for many to contemplate.

 

This reality is so awful that many people will become numb to it and look away. There is something about discussing racism that makes many uncomfortable. Many black people often downplay it because it is too painful and don’t want to be seen to make a fuss. Many white people often downplay it because it is too grim to admit, yes, I see those attitudes among my friends and family. It’s why we move on so quickly from the game’s race-related scandals.

 

It’s too painful to reflect upon, isn’t? Many of us go to football to escape but here it is, putting society’s ugliness under a microscope. Eniola Aluko, one of the finest forwards her country has seen, saw her international career ended as the result of which her national team manager was found guilty of racially abusing her. [2]

 

When Rio Ferdinand’s family saw John Terry in court due to a charge of racial abuse against Ferdinand’s brother Anton, Ferdinand later revealed that “there were bullets in the post…My mum had her windows smashed and bullets put through her door, and ended up in hospital because of the stress.” At the time many might have seen this harassment as a series of isolated incidents – maybe many didn’t want to look, it was too painful – but now, in the current political climate, we can see that harassment as the extreme end of something worrying, unsettling and deeply wrong within our society. When we look at that harassment it perhaps explains why Ashley Cole, a pupil called upon to ask if he had seen a popular pupil abusing a fellow classmate, decided not to tell tales. [3]

 

That episode involving the two Ferdinands, Terry and Cole arguably ended the career of one of the greatest centre-backs the country has known – and he wasn’t even anywhere near the incident in question at the time. Most poignantly, it tore childhood friends apart, people who had come through the brutal world of professional football together. Whether or not they have been reconciled is not the point. The point is that these toxic dynamics have been allowed to play out time and again and the school’s authorities have chosen to look the other way.

 

Perhaps you find my school analogy more than a little patronising, maybe you find it infantilising or that it doesn’t fully work. That’s a shame – because the more I watch Neville’s comments on Raheem Sterling the more I see a schoolkid in the corner, getting pulverised or ignored by everyone who walks past, and every passerby knowing that, in this school of English football, there are some kids who just deserve it, you know the ones, some kids who are just due a kicking, you know how it goes, they might get spat on each lunchtime and maybe even punched now and then but they’ll come through it, they’ll be fine one day and we’ll all have a laugh about it looking back. Or maybe they won’t – maybe there’ll be a day when they don’t come into school anymore, where no-one will really know the kid well enough to ask why, and no-one will have the courage to name the bullies, because they are still there and scarier than before, they’ve got rich and powerful parents, and eventually no-one will talk about the kid, mention their names, and not worry about any of that because there is a new kid to bully now, a new reason to keep our heads down, get on with it, pass by the phlegm-covered kid and shamefully say nothing.

 

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[1] The full transcript of this segment has kindly been provided by Football365.com:

https://www.football365.com/news/full-sterling-transcript-neville-carra-discuss-abuse

 

[2] The incident involving Eniola Aluko is detailed here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2017/10/18/mark-sampson-found-guilty-racially-abusing-eni-aluko-drew-spence/

 

[3] The incident involving the Ferdinands, Terry and Cole is detailed here:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/england/11094964/Rio-Ferdinand-calls-John-Terry-an-idiot-and-says-he-does-not-speak-to-Chelsea-captain-or-Ashley-Cole-after-race-row.html

 

This is why you shout racist abuse at black footballers.

You go to football matches and shout racist abuse at black footballers because you have paid your money and so for the next ninety minutes you own every footballer in that stadium,  especially the black ones. You own their strengths and their flaws and everything you know or suspect about their personal lives. For that time, your mouth becomes a firehose of hate. You look at this black man and you think: this is my victim, my ground, my England.

Why is this your England? Because just enough people tell you that this is so. There are plenty of people around you in the crowd who will listen to you roar abuse and who’ll still share a drink and a joke with you at half-time and after the match. In relation to racism, they’ll fall into a few different groups. A few will be just as vocal as you. Others will wish they had the courage to shout as loudly as you do but they won’t, not yet. Others still will have black friends at home but will act as if it’s not their problem – they won’t even report you to the stewards. They will know they are cowards and a few of them will later tell their black friends how awful it was, looking anxiously in their friends’ eyes for some form of forgiveness for their inaction, as if black people are suddenly the fairy godmothers of football.

You think this is your England because you read the most popular newspapers in the country and they agree with you – they agree with you that black footballers, like children, must be seen and not heard, that the second they decide to do anything more than score spectacular goals they become a threat. Those newspapers remind you daily that there is no aspect of criminality to which a black footballer cannot be connected.

You think this is your England because – well, why wouldn’t you? You have a political system whose immigration laws have long discriminated against the exact same social group from whom these black footballers claim heritage. You listen to your radio and one of its prime-time presenters has a history of racism stretching back decades. You watch your television and one of its most high-profile producers once edited the most popular newspaper in the country at a time when it was referring to African men women and children as cockroaches at the very moment that they were drowning in the Mediterranean. You log onto Twitter and you see one of the most-followed presenters rolling his eyes as if you are just some lone wolf of racism and have not been emboldened by the years of hard-boiled bigotry that his media outlet and others have been diligently pumping out.

But you are at this game screaming because, at some level, you are worried that this is not your England, and this stadium is the safest place you can take revenge on black footballers for making you feel this way. These black men are crawling all over your football teams and your TV screens and your culture. If you stop for a moment you will worry about how many people seem to love this England, even with all these black men in its national team – and maybe, to your dismay, that’s even why they love this team more.

The black footballer is within earshot so you call him a black cunt in the hope that your words will land with the force of a whip. You hope the black player will respond there and then, in your mind making a champion out of you, but he does so later, online and at length. Somewhere, in a newsroom or a living room, there are countless others with the same bile in them as you, slightly more confident today than they were yesterday.

You still think this is your England because there are not enough people in your immediate circle, even if they disagree with you, who have the courage to tell you differently. Your England is small, bitter, brutal and fearful, and it always has been. Your England thinks it has black friends but would never allow them to date your sons and daughters. Your England desperately needs one corner of a stadium, one section of an angry crowd, its safe space. You ruled the world and now you can’t even rule a touchline. You can never stop shouting because if you hold your tongue for long enough the appalled silence in the crowd around you will forever remind you of what you have lost.

“Keep Kicking”, a post about Pittsburgh.

You began writing today before 6am – it was the only way you felt you could react to what was happening. You couldn’t sleep, your guts were on fire with the news from Pittsburgh, the attack on the synagogue that left eleven people dead. This thing that is tearing at you is not new. It has been there since the day Trump was elected, an event swiftly following which your sleep promptly dropped from six hours a night down to four. For the first few months that you lost a third of your sleep you denied why it was happening, but then you accepted it – that your body was telling you to be ready. You have rested enough, it was telling you, and given what is coming you have so much work to do.

In the early months after the election of Trump you didn’t know best to do, nobody did – maybe not even Trump himself, delirious with the unexpected thrill of his dangerous new pulpit. All you knew was that you were reminded of that scene from Titanic, the awful pause after the ship, having struck the iceberg, had cracked in half and was perfectly poised above the ocean, prepared to plummet. You had to write, even if the quality of the words that emerged was terrible. You had to write, just as you are writing now. You do this because the very act of motion is resistance, that if you stop kicking you drown.

You bumped into two friends earlier this afternoon. You thanked one of them for his furious Facebook posts about Trump’s latest outrages, and he confessed that he felt they were futile. They weren’t, you told him. Everything matters. Your fury matters. Once you are numb to it, that’s the end. We need to keep feeling. It is not inevitable that the very worst is ahead.

You had a beautiful day, even though it is hard to remember that. You visited one dear friend to celebrate her wedding to a wonderful man, and then saw another on her brief return to the city. Both of them are flourishing, doing better than they have ever done. Yet when you woke this morning, you didn’t think of either of them, but of Pittsburgh, and of the hurricane of hatred that Trump continues to unleash.

Your sleep patterns have improved these days, because you have become better at ignoring Trump, of not allowing him to ruin your day, even though the horror of what he is doing often settles across the skies like nuclear winter. But Pittsburgh has happened and the lack of sleep is back. You remember people writing that talk of white supremacy was exaggerated, that the Democrats were crying wolf over the terrors to follow his election, you even remember one friend airily remarking that the Trump presidency, restrained by America’s formidable institutions, would be a quiet one. You remember reminding people, as had countless others, that the toxic levels of anti-Semitism being pumped into the atmosphere would one day thaw some long-frozen and rage-filled plains, allowing ancient viruses to arise from them anew. You and those countless others gain little comfort from having roared these warnings, because this was never a game, never a sixth-form debate where the winner takes home a silver trophy and is treated to a three-course dinner. Like climate change itself, the crisis of extremism, long denied, has always been existential.

Yet there is some comfort – not much, but some. There is comfort because you know that hatred of this nature is predictable, and that the success of this hatred is not guaranteed. You watched from New York with pride as, in your adopted city of Berlin, a quarter of a million people took to the streets to protest not only against the rise of the far Right but crucially in favour of progress and hope. You commiserated with friends from Brazil as they looked ahead in fear to the possible election of Bolsonaro, a man offering ominously simple solutions to complex social problems, but at the same time you marvelled at what fine people they were, and you gained even greater resolve to make the world better for them however you could. We have to celebrate the wins, you tell your friends whenever you bump into them in the street, and we have to celebrate the small things. Everything matters! Everything matters – the briefest act of kindness, the gentle eye contact with the homeless stranger, the channelling of pain into hopeful art, the warmth in the hug when you welcome or say farewell to anyone beloved. Everything matters, even the stream of consciousness I am typing now. Maybe the paths forward aren’t clear, maybe we are still forming a vision of the future where as many people as possible can enjoy health and happiness, and maybe dry land often seems nowhere in sight. But, in the meantime, we need to keep kicking.

“How To Play The Race Card, In 12 Simple Steps.”

Since it’s World Mental Health Day, I thought I would share “How To Play The Race Card, In 12 Simple Steps: it’s an extract from a longer piece I am working on, a kind of self-help guide to sex, race, dating, mental health, and city life. (If of interest, please share.)

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How To Play The Race Card, In 12 Simple Steps.

If you must insist on being a dark-skinned black male in a major continental European city – let’s say, Berlin – then here – assuming that you intend to make your life a little easier – is how you go about it. Here, in a short, simple twelve-step programme, is How To Play The Race Card:

 

  1. Make sure there aren’t too many of you living in your apartment block. Any more than two is officially an infestation. Make sure there are not too many exotic emissions from your flat. Ethnic smells are fine – ethnic sounds and ethnic people are not. Outside, when approaching a local, make sure you greet them in their own language as soon as you are within earshot. Integration!
  2. When going through Customs, don’t look too cocky. You’ll get stop-searched if you look too free, if you’re too gleefully crossing borders. So what if you’re going on holiday? Suck it up – quell that smile. Halt that swagger.  The recommended facial expression, when you encounter immigration officials, is that of a dog taking its final walk – you must look utterly world-weary, careworn, whilst taking care not to avoid eye contact, lest you appear shifty. Remember: visibly broken souls do not smuggle drugs.
  3. Promptly follow every public criticism of the country where you now live with a phrase containing gratitude. For example: “That Nazi march was terrifying but the schnitzel here is nice.”
  4. If you are sitting on a crowded train yet everyone refuses to sit next to you, take advantage of the resultant space. Make a show of it. Manspread. Take a photo of the space and post it on social media, as an example of the Black Gap, the mystical force-field that often seems to appear around post-puberty black men in public. Save the photo on your phone and joke to yourself that you’ll save it for your grandchildren, you’ll enhance it with a sepia filter and you’ll all laugh at how toxic the times were back then. “Granddad, they must have thought you were an animal!” Reflect on whether you smell – look, it is possible. It could be that fellow passengers are utterly repelled by your smell. Later that evening, when you get to your partner’s flat for dinner, don’t tell them that a Black Gap appeared on the train next to you for that second time that week. Not until dessert is served, at least. You don’t want to ruin the mood.
  5. Each morning, before you leave the house, remind yourself that you aren’t ugly. Stare in the mirror and try to feel handsome before you head out of the door. Having a shave often helps – smooth skin feels more attractive. Stubble is for drunken men who have abandoned hope. For the smoothest skin, apply baby oil to your face immediately after a shower, then pat it dry. Don’t leave the flat before you feel handsome. There will be days when you don’t leave the flat.
  6. Don’t leave the flat. Remember that time you saw the bus driver wearing the neo-Nazi dress code. Remember the time you were racially abused by two white women at the top of your road. Remember when they put their hands on you – they actually touched you. Don’t leave the flat.
  7. Get on a plane to another country as if to escape but then come back because you understand that all you ever get wherever you travel is merely different flavours of racism, that the seasoning may be different but ultimately the meal remains the same.
  8. Don’t laugh it off. Don’t make a quick quip when the Turkish kids in the local park ask if they can see your huge cock. Don’t joke about your big dick. If you must, then when someone teases you about it, ask whether they would like you to fuck them with it. Don’t laugh it off.
  9. If you laugh it off that tells people it is fine, and it is not fine – you are not fine. Remember that you have seen other black people arrive in and then leave this country, exhausted at being treated so poorly. Ask yourself the simple question – do you have unfinished business here. If the answer is yes, then stay. If the answer is no, then run, my God, run. You are not a martyr.
  10. For the sake of sheer survival, focus upon the positive. There are people here who love you. People here who love you. Many, many white German people. They love you. Despite your struggles, you have found greater personal and professional support here than you have found anywhere else. Look how Look at the joy with which you are greeted at the local supermarket, at your favourite local restaurant. Brother, they call you. The Lebanese, the Vietnamese, the Sudanese embrace you.
  11. Remember that no matter how much you might feel despised or stereotyped, you are only ever one new conversation or great first date away from changing your life. Cherish your many friendships. Send text messages out of the blue to those who are dearest to you, telling them you love them. When they ask “whatever prompted that?”, then tell them “I am grateful for you, and whenever I feel grateful for someone, I tell them.”
  12. And finally, step number 12. Start wearing brighter colours. Pink, green, red, yellow, orange, even gold. Shine so that you are undeniable. Your skin is a spectacular canvas. Each time you are smiling and vibrant in a place that would rather see you dull and invisible, you will grow in hope. Keep loving, keep pushing. Keep loving, keep pushing. Keep loving. Keep pushing.

My Impostor Syndrome (my speech at Good Girls Eat Dinner, 22.08.2018)

Here is the text of a short speech I gave at the wonderful Good Girls Eat Dinner event in London on Wednesday 22 August 2018. I thought I would share it here in case it was of interest to anyone.

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Let me make a confession. I think that I have writer’s block. That may seem like a strange thing to say, given that I have been writing non-stop all summer. But let me explain.

Writer’s block isn’t the inability to write anything at all. After all, writers who have writer’s block still fill out their tax returns, they still reply to their emails – eventually, at least. No – writer’s block is something different. It’s the inability to complete, or even to begin, the work that you really care about. It is rooted in fear. And that’s what no-one warns you about the power of words. Sometimes, it is overpowering.

What am I afraid of? Well, I think it is this. Creativity is a muscle. If you don’t keep using it, if you don’t keep feeding it the twin proteins of knowledge and experience, then it wastes away. And over time I have begun to fear – that word again – that I have not worked hard enough, that I am not wise enough. I think that I have good ideas – maybe even great ideas – but, at present, I am not sure that I have the strength of creativity to hold them aloft.

This is not a good time to have writer’s block. My work is on very public display. I am about to begin my most ambitious programme of work yet. I am planning to update the first book that I wrote about football. I am planning to write a third book about football, to complete the trilogy that I started in 2007. I am planning to write a sequel to the sci-fi novel that I wrote in 2016, and for which I am still seeking a publisher. I am planning to write monthly essays about how to navigate the world of race and the world of bisexuality. I am preparing to write a book of short stories based on the four years I have so far spent in Berlin. As a musician, I am about to play three play of the most important gigs of my career to date. This is not a good time to be feeling any creative self-doubt.

But perhaps this period of fear is necessary. We all make our living in the world of words. We know just how powerful are the tools of our trade. Whichever way you voted, you can’t deny the force of the call to take back control or to make America great again. I am afraid because I am fiercely aware that, just like black lives, words truly matter.

How do I rid myself of this fear? How I stop being scared? I need to remind myself, first and foremost, that fear is a luxury. Just as I have writer’s block, I think that a lot of us in this room have climate block. I think that climate change – the heatwaves, the fires in the Arctic, the floods in Kerala – is a threat so terrifying that we feel immobilised before it, that we have to look away. We didn’t expect to have to deal with this in our lifetimes, but it’s right here, right now. And we don’t think we have the tools to deal with that’s coming. But we can start with words. We can start with empathy and with hope.

I have just arrived from Helsinki, where I have been advising a social enterprise, LYFTA, on how to raise media awareness of their brilliant work in almost 400 schools. LYFTA, with the aid of virtual reality technology, aim to connect students all around the world – the future of our civilization – through a series of interactive video exercises. When I return to my home of Berlin this week, I will be helping to launch a social enterprise, a cafe which pays a percentage of its profits to support local projects. Given the arrival of extreme climate change, I cannot afford to be afraid. I cannot afford to be too frightened to write.

The fear isn’t completely without foundation. I am thirty-eight years old and I worry that I have not done enough with the gifts that I have been given. In some ways those fears are valid. But this isn’t about me and it never truly was. This is about using every moment as courageously as we can not only to endure but to embrace what is coming. It’s about building community wherever we can. It’s about that kind word, delivered with a gentle nod and eye contact, to the homeless person. It’s about asking each other and ourselves why we aren’t doing better as a society. It’s about reaching through what may feel like justifiable rage for something which may make us collectively happier.

These may sound like nothing more than words. And that’s exactly the point. My address tonight is an invitation: an invitation not to dwell upon what is wrong with the state of our world, but what, with sufficient time, care and urgency, could be right. And if you, like me, feel overwhelmed by doubt, then start with a single sentence. You can keep it in mind if you find it helpful, maybe even save it on your iPhone as a reminder, stick it on a post-it note above your bathroom mirror or next to your desk. And that single, simple sentence is: “Fear is a luxury”.

All of us in this room are both fortunate. Words are our trade. In a time when winning arguments has never been more crucial, we are experts in the business of persuasion. I think we all know that we can’t continue as we are – that it’s going to take so much kindness, patience, and imagination to extract us from this mess. So let’s start now – whether it’s advocating with greater passion for a stronger renewable energy policy, or signing up for that shift at the local soup kitchen. Let’s not only do the best we can, but do better; and, crucially, let’s not be afraid.

My new post, on Redfish and Russia Today.

I feel sick, but most of all I feel naive.
 
Last week I spent a wonderful couple of hours in the company of a film crew, who interviewed me at length for a documentary they were making about xenophobia and austerity in the UK. A few days later, I was thankfully informed by Oz Katerji, an investigative journalist, that this company – Redfish, based in Berlin – was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Russia Today.
Charlie Davis of The Daily Beast had discovered this after some exhaustive reporting, and Katerji sent me a link from the article where Davis had published his findings
 
I didn’t quite retch when I found out, but my stomach certainly lurched. Yes, the referral came through a dear friend, but it is ultimately my own fault. I should have done my own due diligence – and a simple Google search would have revealed the above article.
 
Here’s the thing about the programme to which I contributed: I think that the topic is a vital one, and I think that the presenter did an excellent job of examining the issues in our conversation. I just don’t believe that Russia Today, given their stance on refugees, are honest brokers. In fact, I think that they are the opposite. Just the other day, they ran an opinion piece asking the Canadian government not to resettle Syrian refugees, on the grounds that they were either “potential terrorists or supporters of terrorists”. The article is here.
 
Yes, I know that Russia Today serve up entertaining segments about sport and other entertainment. But I object so strongly to their general political mission that, had I known of their involvement in this documentary, I would have declined the opportunity to appear.
 
I am very careful with the media appearances that I make, for three main reasons. First, I think it is very important not to become a talking-head, and become the “go-to guy” when it comes to talking about, say, racism in public life. I think that type of status as the “community leader” is very unhelpful. It implies one person speaks for a diverse group of people, which is dangerous. Secondly – though this might be hard for some to imagine! – I would quickly get sick of the sound of my own voice. But thirdly – and most importantly – I do not want to lend legitimacy to certain platforms. Though those organisations to whom I give interviews certainly have their flaws, the crucial difference is that they are not wholly owned by authoritarian states who jail and murder activists and journalists. (If you are not familiar with the following names – Natalya Estemirova, Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsky – please Google them.) I do not know that I have always got the balance of my media appearances right in the past, but it is something I have come to care about deeply. The thought of my views being aired on Russia Today is deeply upsetting on a personal level and deeply worrying on a professional one.
 
Some people would say that I am an idealistic fool for turning down some of the media platforms that I have. Those platforms, after all, often mean more visibility and with it the possibility of vastly better earnings – speaking gigs, consultancy fees, and so on. There are some days – when I can’t send a relative a few thousand pounds to help with that operation or those couple of months of rent – that I agree with those people. I have turned down huge amounts of both exposure and money from people I have suspected to be unscrupulous. Why have I done this? Because, so far as I am conscious and not consumed by desperation, I don’t want to contribute to a worse world, and I think that we are being ushered into such a world by Russia Today.
 
Why am I telling you this? To learn from my example, really: to remind myself, and to remind you, that we have a choice. We don’t always have to say yes when someone puts a microphone under our nose. I don’t judge those of you who do – God knows that writing can be a precarious and thankless life, and if you have people who depend on you financially then it can be hard to reject that camera or that paycheque. Wherever possible, though, we should try to step away. Let’s do our homework, and find out for whose regimes or fiefdoms we may be the unwitting mouthpiece. Let’s at least know who we are working for, and make our judgements accordingly. Because if we are to be held accountable for ignorance and bigotry – as we should be! – then, at the very least, that ignorance and bigotry should knowingly be our own.

“Finding Love”: my short speech for Black Lives Matter Berlin, 29.06.2018

I was honoured to be asked to give a short speech at the Black Lives Matter Berlin protest march, alongside some of the very best activists and human beings I have met in the city (and anywhere else, to be honest). Here is the text of my speech, if you have a moment to have a look.

“Finding Home”

I don’t know when refugees went from being human, to a problem to be managed.
I don’t know when the dark-skinned man became the savage.
I don’t know when migrants became a thing to be disinfected.
All I know is that these things have happened,
that the refugees once welcome are being herded into shelters,
and the question is what happens now.
And again, I don’t know.
All I know is that we weren’t supposed to be standing here:
The black spirit was meant to be too broken to survive seas and oceans,
And to many who hate them, or are afraid of them,
it is a mystery that the migrants retain their dignity.
Most of us in this crowd are not refugees,
but we are all migrating towards an uncertain and possibly exciting future.
We can look proudly at the thousands of years of work that activists have done,
and remember that our best years to come.

I would like now to quote part of the “Migrant Manifesto”, written by Immigration Movement International:

“We have the right to move and the right to not be forced to move. We demand the same privileges as corporations and the international elite, as they have the freedom to travel and to establish themselves wherever they choose. We are all worthy of opportunity and the chance to progress. We all have the right to a better life.”

“We acknowledge that individual people with inalienable rights are the true barometer of civilization. We identify with the victories of the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the advancement of women’s rights, and the rising achievements of the LGBTQ community. It is our urgent responsibility and our historical duty to make the rights of migrants the next triumph in the quest for human dignity. It is inevitable that the poor treatment of migrants today will be our dishonor tomorrow.”

“We witness how fear creates boundaries, how boundaries create hate and how hate only serves the oppressors. We understand that migrants and non-migrants are interconnected. When the rights of migrants are denied, the rights of citizens are at risk.”

This manifesto has never been more important.
Just as black lives matter,
All of our efforts matter:  the smallest acts of kindness, of compassion, of resistance, and defiance.
We don’t need to fear the Nazis:
they’re just unhappy people with good marketing.
Instead, let’s continue to march forwards,
With love for each other, with happiness and with hope,
Towards a gentler future, which we all truly can call home.

On being exhausted as an artist.

I had a chat with a friend recently, a very talented fellow artist, who said that he was exhausted at the thought of making new work. He has been putting new work out there and it’s not getting much of a response, positive or otherwise. He seemed a bit despondent and I told him: that’s completely normal. You’d be deluded if you felt any different. The majority of my work as an artist has been met with indifference or hatred at the time that I released it. People often didn’t care at best, or despised it at worst. When I published my first poems about football they were so hated that I didn’t write a poem about football for almost two years. And I mean, hated. As in – don’t-come-near-our-football-club-ever-again hated. Don’t bring your posh poetry around our working-class game. And that’s just the poetry I have put out. Whichever field I have worked in – fiction, music, journalism, whatever – there’s not a moment where I haven’t thought “my God, you are just some weird narcissistic alien putting out work no-one wants”. (And the benefit of working in several different areas is that you have multiple opportunities for often humiliating rejection.) One day when I have time and am completely free of those traumas I will list some of the examples.

My point, as I told him, is basically this – that it’s fine to be overwhelmed by this stuff at times. That you’ve always got people in your life who would love you utterly even if you never wrote another line. Go and spend time with them and hopefully after a while you will fall back in love with your art again, and the desire to create new work will become greater than the fear of that work being rejected. That’s basically what making art is for many people, I think – you’ve got to want it more than you are afraid, and it’s absolutely fine to acknowledge that you’re drained and maybe even scared. Hopefully, in time, you will get your energy back.

Black Panther: an emotional response.

So (no spoilers!) I watched Black Panther last night. My God. I’m not going to write a review, because I’m relatively late to see the film and a thousand majestic dissections have already appeared online. Instead I will only write a hopefully brief emotional response, since that’s the only thing I can add that might be somewhat fresh.

My favourite football player, in visceral terms, is probably George Weah. Not because he was the finest of all time – even though he had qualities which put him firmly among the greats. But because what Weah achieved on the field, where he was the most elegant blend of grace, power, speed and balance, was merely a fraction of what he achieved beyond it. Weah, a proud citizen of Liberia (a country with its own extraordinary place in world history) was one of the first male African footballers to stand at the very front of the world stage, and he was utterly apologetic when he did so. Weah was a man many of us could recognise; tall, dark-skinned, we could have seen him at the barber shop, he could have been an uncle. And yet there he was, gliding across our screens. He looked like us, spoke like us, and so we started to swagger like him.

Watching Black Panther felt like seeing George Weah at his peak. Visually magnificent, thrillingly unpredictable, with duel after beautiful duel against elite opposition. The land of Wakanda itself? A glorious vista of the old and the new. And the women were just as I knew them. In them, I saw my relatives: unfathomably strong and supportive, amazingly courageous at every turn, humbly and patiently building a better world each day. How they persevere through all the exhaustion, I will never know.

Will there be critiques of this film? Absolutely. I look forward to reading them, and after some time I may attempt one of my own. For now, though, I am especially thankful I saw this film in Black History Month, because it feels like a milestone of its own. After the movie, I sat with a friend of a friend who had come to the movie with us; an African-American woman, born in the early Sixties, who well remembered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King (and, with a further poignant nod to Black history, was closely one of the world’s greatest basketball players). She was overwhelmed at the representation of African-Americans on screen, particularly the women, and rightly so. All I could think was: this movie was excitingly broad in its appeal, and yet was also uniquely for her. Black Panther felt both intensely personal and at the same time universal in its appeal, which in my view is one of the pathways to great art.

As for me, it reminded me what a privilege it is to be an artist, and to wake up daily with the chance to create something, anything, which might give hope to anyone. This film not only reminded me but wholly convinced me of the importance of optimistic, forward-thinking art. For that alone, it is a masterpiece.

My cold take on that new Nike ad.

So, about that Nike advert, which was greeted with widespread ecstasy on social media when it was released last week. Some might say it was “just a commercial” – and, in one sense, it was. From one perspective, it was merely a three-minute celebration of some of the capital’s finest artists and athletes, a uniquely emotive seduction of the wallets of London’s young. From another point of view, though, it was particularly powerful. So many young Londoners, when watching this short film, reacted with an online euphoria that I hadn’t witnessed since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. So many of them felt seen, and understood. Notwithstanding the passionate critiques made by several on Twitter – namely, that people of South Asian heritage were underrepresented in this commercial – it was a piece of work that struck a cultural touchstone.

At this stage, I had to take a step back and ask myself what was happening here. After all, we’d seen this before, this arrival of an optimistic new dawn and a brutal aftermath. Collective joy about the brilliance of the 2012 Paralympics didn’t stop the British Government from driving through a series of severe benefits cuts for people with disabilities. Nike has given us a timely reminder of how much young Londoners love their city – but, in truth, how much does their city love them back?

I don’t mean to be a party pooper. Really, I don’t. I’m based in Germany now, but having lived for many years in Hackney, Finsbury Park, Leyton, Brick Lane, Walthamstow, the Isle of Dogs and Croydon, this city and its surroundings are in my soul. It’s just that, overall, I think that London takes its young people for granted. In her recent report, “London’s lost youth services”, the Green Party politician Sian Berry observed that between 2011/12 and 2016/17 “the average council in London has cut its youth service budget by nearly £1 million – an average of 36 per cent”. Moreover, she notes that cuts of an average of 25 per cent are planned for the following year.

Elsewhere, the outlook seems equally grim. By the start of 2016, it was estimated that around 40 per cent of London’s live music venues, many of them important places for young people not only to go out but to cut their teeth as performers, had closed down. Seeing Giggs in that Nike advert, too, I was reminded that many of London’s rappers and grime artists have not only survived but thrived despite the city’s authorities, not because of them. Just a few ago, we saw the removal of the infamous Form 696, a police risk assessment procedure which for twelve years was used to cancel countless shows across London’s black – sorry, urban – music scene.

I think that Nike advert is significant because it shows us how much young Londoners have made a fightback against such considerable odds. Look how many of them, typified by the magnificent Little Simz, have looked at the difficulty of their circumstances and somehow made a huge success of them. But not everyone – in fact, almost no-one – is as gifted as Little Simz. The grind is brutal, and it shouldn’t be. Travelling around Europe, I am frequently struck by how much cheaper other cities are by comparison. London is a town where house prices are seemingly rising at the speed of sea levels, and where most young people can only look to home ownership as the vainest of dreams. (On bleak days, I wonder if some wealthy developers would be happiest if the city were one giant and pristine high-rise estate, surrounded by an immaculate lawn marked “NO BALL GAMES”.)

If London truly wants to encourage the youthful creativity so lauded by Nike, then it needs to subsidise it. It needs to provide a generation with far cheaper housing and robust contracts to protect them from rapacious private landlords. It needs to ensure that a simple journey from Zone 3 to Zone 1 isn’t financially daunting. It needs to prove to young Londoners from working-class backgrounds that they will be utterly welcome not only in its brochures and on its billboards but in its boardrooms.

Every week, it seems, I see a new article bemoaning the laziness of millennials – how they don’t work hard enough, don’t save enough, how they are ungrateful for what they have. How they are far too demanding. As I write this, though, I am preparing to teach a week of creative writing to a class of wonderful young Londoners – a group as nervous as they are determined, as gentle as they are inventive – and I am reminded that they are not nearly demanding enough. London must demonstrate that it deserves these people. I only hope that it accepts the challenge.