Inspired by Israel-Palestine, 1948: The Sailor and The Farmer.

Having read about Israel and Palestine a great deal of late, I thought I would post this piece, “The Sailor and The Farmer”.  If of interest, please share.


The sailor, stunned, started to shake;
By Fate’s grace, he had just escaped
From a scene of matchless horror
Since he had acted upon a
Hunch and forced some friends to board
His vessel, whilst some who’d ignored
Warnings that they were in danger
Were condemned to taste death’s flavour,
Gas and ash, in sombre chamber…

They’d all been rounded into herds,
The sailor’s friends, and then one-third
Of them had disappeared within
That tomb – but two-thirds came with him…
Previously, they’d lived happily
With people they now had to flee;
That’s why the sailor was struck dumb
That those that they’d once lived among
Could turn on them: but he had dreamt
Of such a day; yes, it was meant
To end like this – or start like this;
That, heartlessly, they’d be dismissed
And, as survivors, set adrift
To find another, safer part
Of Earth. And so, this sailor’s ark
Set sail. The waters were rocky
The crew’s members murmured softly
In a circle, heads bowed, hoping
They’d find homes across the ocean…
Yet this vessel’s journey was hard;
Their flesh was burned by sun, they starved
Halfway to death, and they implored
Their Lord that he’d reward their faith –
The sailor, praying for this grace
Looked out across the shoreless sea
And pleaded: “Please, there ought to be
Some land where we can rest our souls –
Our soles…” The sailor’s forlorn thought
Was that he’d never known a port
Where he’d been welcome: throughout time
There’d been suspicion of his kind -
The script, timeless, had never changed:
They’d come ashore, and they’d remain
There for a while, put down some roots;
They’d swap their sailor’s clothes for suits
Of good, land-bound professionals,
Then some would have exceptional
Careers, leading to jealous hosts
Who’d chase them from their lands, their coasts;
Or worse. The sailor knew of friends
Whose entire bloodlines had been cleansed,
Whose family trees had the sap
Ripped from their veins; he’d seen all that,
The sailor. Coping with this nomad’s
Life was often difficult,
Yet easier than getting caught,
Stranded on dry land at the hands
Of angry clans…yet as he made
His slow progress across the waves
He vowed, both wary and weary:
“My people’s eyes will be tear-free
One day; I will turn the servant
To the served; yes, I’m determined
That the next place where my anchor’s
Shade cascades, will see us anxious
No more; there will be an ending
To the terror we’ve been feeling…”
Then, as if the wind was heeding
Him, it gave wings to his craft,
Which harnessed the storm; came at last
To harbour on a continent
Most of whose folk were competent
At working all day in the fields…
As they landed, a plan revealed
Itself to this smart sailor, who
Barked some sharp orders to his crew.
The first order was “Burn the boat”:
The sailor intended – not hoped –
To stay here, and would not be swayed
By fear; he would cower in shade
No more. The sailor ordered, secondly –
As result of the heavenly
Instructions he’d received in dreams –
That all vacant homes should be seized:
See, there were plenty of empty
Homes, since they were owned by farmers -
All of whom – kids, mothers, fathers –
Toiled between the dawn and dusk
In deep soil that adorned Earth’s crust.
Thirdly, he told them all to strip.
When some refused, the sailor ripped
Their garments from them, shredded them;
Told them they had ahead of them
A future where they wouldn’t need
Sea-gypsies’ clothes. A chilly breeze
Then struck them, left them shivering;
Although they were still listening
To what their leader had to say
They weren’t keen on this naked state;
They felt exposed, humiliated.

“Finally”, ordered the sailor,
“You must all assume behaviour
Of people who are entitled
To live here; this is your tribal
Stomping crowd from here on in.”
They thought that they weren’t hearing him
Correctly; some of them had doubts;
They were guests; was it right to pounce
Upon houses of those who’d left
For work, to leave them dispossessed?
Though, in breasts, they felt uncertain
They felt, in same place, a surge of
Pride – they’d claimed the upper hand,
They’d made their mark upon these sands…

The farmers trod their routes home.
Keen to enjoy fruits of their stoves,
They drove their toothless mules down roads
Towards their towns, streets far from smooth
Beaten anew by horses’ hooves;
The adults, in their sweaty droves
The children in scuffed, dusty clothes,
Shuffled to their front doors, and stopped
In shock: since their front doors were locked.

To start with, each of the fathers
Thought that this was just a harmless
Prank. They never locked their doors.
They laughed. There was even applause:
Then, of course, they slowly took note
Of fact that this was not a joke.

“Open up!” they cried in despair.

“I will not. I live in this lair
Now,” the sailor said. “Who are you?”
Asked the farmers. “We’ve not harmed you.
Why have you chased us from our homes?”

The sailor’s people, in abodes
That they’d chosen, felt pangs of shame;
But they were anxious to remain
Inside, because if they now moved
Then they would be seen in the nude:
So they blocked all entrances,
Imposed on themselves sentences
Of long confinement. Now and then,
For food, they’d sneak out, grab a hen
And run back in before the stones
Were thrown by angry farmers whose
Returns to homes were overdue.

The sailor grew older, and died:
But storm he’d caused did not subside;
Some of his descendants, restless,
Charged out as if with a deathwish,
Went to live among the farmers
Naked, but clad in the armour
Of faith that was absolute:
Some sailors, though they at the root
Of themselves knew they’d crossed a line
Pretended all was fine, and slept
Uneasily, whilst farmers stepped
Slyly past their guards by night
So that, in vengeance, they might strike;
Most farmers camped out in the fields,
Becoming deaf to all appeals
For peace by sailors, and increased
In rage with each passing decade
Until once-succulent olives
Of that land’s trees tasted horrid,
Watered as they had been by the
Sour tears of those inside the
Farmers’ homes, those trapped outside…
Even now, you’ll hear the outcry
Of both tribes: cries of the sailors,
Who for years were homeless, aimless,
Who are now landlords, with tenants
Of extraordinary menace;
And you’ll hear cries of the farmers,
Wandering through their vast pastures,
Scared they’ll find no place to rest:
Feelings the sailors once knew best.

An ode to the World Cup, for the BBC World Service: “Rio”.

With the World Cup drawing to a close, the BBC World Service asked me to write a poem about the time that I had spent in Rio during the tournament. You can hear it at 24:32 of the following link:

The text is below:

“Rio: an ode to the World Cup”

It makes sense that the heart of this World Cup,
Of this country, is Rio,
Because this city might just be
The most beautiful team the world has seen:
Each of its areas, beaches and bays
Sounds like it bears the name
Of an elegant Brazilian footballer;
Reading a map of Rio
Sounds like a list of squad members
Selected by God:
Gloria, Urca, Lapa, Leblon,
Santa Teresa, Laranjeiras,
Ipanema, Copacabana,
Flamengo, Maracana;
Long before football arrived in Brazil,
This country knew it was coming;
It made sure the sand was soft long in advance,
So that feet could dribble across it all day:
Brazil made sure that its cliffs, fields and forests
Were more spectacular than any goal that might ever be scored,
So that even if Neymar or Messi summoned up glorious deeds
Their surroundings would inspire them
To even greater feats.
Or perhaps Rio is a dressing-room
Through which, each day, parade millions;
Through the stench of steak and sweat and salt
As workmen’s tools clatter like studs against tiles
And buses disappear off into the night,
Like dreams;
And high above the door
Is Christ the Redeemer,
Standing on his mountain mantelpiece,
With the best view of each of us -
Of the beach, and, of course, of the football;
And he waves us all welcome, bem-vindos,

Brazil-Germany: the Neymargeddon.

Brazil-Germany: a half-time full-time match report.

Some people are on the beach. They think it’s all over: it is now.

I wandered down to Copacabana Beach this afternoon, since it’s probably only once in this lifetime that I’ll see Brazil play at home in a World Cup semi-final. When I arrived, the weather was in reasonable health: but then, as if dramatically foreshadowing the carnage to come, an iron-grey diva of a stormcloud slowly smothered the Rio skyline. When the match started, it quickly became clear that Brazil were still stranded by the side of Neymar’s hospital bed. They certainly weren’t present in midfield or defence, as Germany tore through them like shark’s teeth through sinew. This was brutal: an utter bloodletting, a spectacular massacre. Five goals within twenty-five minutes; three of those goals arriving within five minutes of each other: and countless new nightmares for a whole new generation of Brazilians. Perhaps the horror of 1950 was bad, but the 2014 sequel, for sheer humiliation, may run it close. At least Barbosa and co. kept the margin of defeat within a single goal.

And here’s a thought, just a wholly futile suggestion: maybe it’s time for
Brazil to somehow stop taking football so seriously. Because it’s miserable to care this much and lose this badly: and, what’s more, if you care too much – and these players did, and given the pressure it was no surprise – then this happens, and it’s no good for anyone.

Out on the beach, there were a handful of distinct and terrifying close explosions, a stampede began, and some people could have been trampled: so I and hundreds of others took the hint and headed away, as riot police both in vehicles and on foot made their way in to patrol the space we had vacated. “Cinqua-zero”, said my cab driver, as we both headed somewhere safer. A contest so mismatched that it felt fitting to file a match report by half-time.

Modern Britain: child abuse and playground trauma.

This morning, I read of child abuse allegations surrounding a series of prominent UK politicians. I then thought of several previous institutional scandals in Britain where those seeking justice were initially sneered at, scoffed at, or entirely ignored; specifically, of Hillsborough, of Stephen Lawrence and Daniel Morgan, of Jimmy Savile and the North Wales’ children’s homes. And then I thought of the constant cry from several of those institutions that public mistrust is not good for governance, that this cynicism and political apathy has a corrosive effect on democracy.

And then I wondered: but what of the counter-argument that trust must be earned, not given freely? Particularly when it involves the lives of the vulnerable, the marginalised, the invisible? The scandals that I have mentioned above are by no means an exhaustive list, but in each case they either hinted at or revealed a level of systemic abuse of power that was utterly breathtaking. In each case, the people whom our society has appointed to protect us have achieved precisely the opposite. What’s more, they have done so with an efficiency of horrifying ruthlessness, and are typically exposed a decade or two after the event.

The child abuse cases are perhaps the most disturbing of all, particularly because they involve such a carefully orchestrated betrayal of trust. When such stories finally break, the widespread public disbelief is quite striking. It reveals a fundamental conviction that most people are good; that ultimately, we Brits are mostly OK. And this reaction is understandable, to some extent. But it is incomplete; in other words, it is a reaction based upon denial.

It seems that so many of us in Britain are afraid to look our institutions unwaveringly in the eye. The collective scepticism towards so many would-be whistleblowers has created an environment where abusers roam free and flourish for years. When people ask “why now, why now are they coming forward with these allegations after all this time”, the answer, more often than not, is “because that’s precisely how long it takes in the current culture to build the support networks and the mental strength to speak publicly about what was done to them”.

Looking at the relationship between British citizens and some of our institutions, it seems at times to be characterised by a curious form of trauma, perhaps best expressed with reference to the playground. Every so often, the bully steals our lunch and kicks us sobbing into the undergrowth, but he’s too terrifying to confront; and so we divert that anger, that frustration, that broiling aggression, towards those nearest and apparently weakest. Towards the immigrant, towards the disabled, and so on.

And meanwhile, some of us comfort ourselves with the stereotype that paedophiles are exclusively those lonely men in white vans who wait opportunistically outside primary schools; that they cannot be our entertainers, our leaders.  Yet this denial is a luxury that children cannot afford. Perhaps it’s time, then, to be much less sceptical about these allegations when they arise, and to greet them not with staggered incredulity but an open mind: particularly when they are of this scale. After all, in recent years, our country has been creating quite the track record.

This World Cup: my short interview with Blade Runner’s Roy Batty.


A few moments before his death, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Blade Runner android Roy Batty for his thoughts on this World Cup. Though he was in excruciating discomfort, he was very kind to oblige with the following statement, after which he tragically passed away.

“I’ve seen a World Cup you people wouldn’t believe.  Van Gaal’s tactics on fire against Chile, Mexico and Spain.  I’ve watched Algerian tears glisten in the dark in Porto Alegre. All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain…Time to die.”

Luis Suarez, the perfect mascot for this World Cup; or, “Aliens are Watching the World Cup”.

Aliens are watching the World Cup, and there is one thing they haven’t yet seen. Sitting high up in the stars, several million light years beyond the Moon’s dark side, they have carefully taken aim with their magnificent interstellar telescope at Brazil, its streets and its stadia, poring over this our grandest of shows with infinite jealousy. They have seen jackbooted cops drive citizens from their lifelong homes, clearing them away like conquistadors hacking at stubborn jungle shrubbery; they have seen concrete needlessly poured into the humid earth of regions where, months from now, a fraction of the current crowds will ever again set foot; they have seen sweating middlemen desperately stuffing their pockets with crumpled bundles of Reais, or simply cramming the cash down their throats as crumbling hospital halls gathered dust and inadequate railway systems gathered rust;

The aliens, spectating in envy from a gas cloud a billion leagues past Pluto, are watching as the World Cup provides we humble humans with weeks of theatre so wondrously unpredictable, so spectacularly wasteful, a drama as spontaneous and explosive as that when the heavens themselves first caught fire; they are watching as Messi rescues and Neymar ascends, as England fall and France thrive, as Ghana survives; they watch as Blatter bulges bank accounts once again; and they think; there’s one thing we haven’t seen;

And the one thing the aliens haven’t seen, is one particular scene; they haven’t seen that moment, that mascot, that proud emblem of all that this World Cup, both brutal and balletic, both cruel and beautiful, truly represents; and then then they twitch their antennae in delirious recognition, because out there in the cold, hollow yet suffocating cosmos they have seen Luis Suarez, of Uruguay, sink his teeth into the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini, of Italy, and they think Yes, this is it, he is the mascot, this is the moment! This Luis Suarez, this is the World Cup: an entity that enthralls and appals, that delights and disgusts, an expensive, gloriously unstable, untameable beast, who looks up in bemusement and bewilderment at those outraged at what they themselves have created;

And the aliens think, show us More, More, More; we should be more upset were we paying for this, but since we are not, More, More, More!

“the beach is so white”; a racial take on Rio.

On matchday,

the beach is so white, and the metro is so white, and the hotel is so white,

Until you look below, at the sellers and the drivers and the washers,

And you see that the blacks who built this country

Are still in its foundations;

Their backs, its bricks and mortar,

Their souls, the bloodstreams of its hilltop homes.

Long after the mansions’ owners are gone, down to town to work or play or eat,

the blacks keep these houses on life support,

chugging patiently through their vast veins,

cooking, cleaning,

sweeping, sweeping, sweeping.

Halftime at the Copacabana



It’s halftime at the Copacabana, just under an hour after we have arrived here, on a subway train where judging by their football shirts everyone seemed to be Neymar. Back then, as we walked to the beach, cool, tree-shaded streets were turned humid with the body heat of thousands. Now we are seated, either on deckchairs or with knees pressed up against our chests, watching a mile-wide screen on which Brazil play Mexico.

Watching this match from up on the hill, Christ the Redeemer has the best view of all. Jesus, whose statue is a sort of compass by which you can judge wherever you are in the city, will later be illuminated in the dying sunlight in yellow and green, a privilege that God’s son is only afforded whenever Brazil play. Right now, it’s that time and temperature of afternoon when almost anyone can be convinced to smoke socially. Our cans of cold beer, helpfully branded Antarctica so that we won’t notice even when they turn warm, are planted up to their waists in the soft earth.

New friends – three French, one Andorran, one English – pose for a photo in their Brazil shirts; caramel-tanned, they all look like natives. Later, one of them, in as much a commentary on the host’s performance as the quantity of homemade caipirinha that he has consumed since midday, will fall asleep during the second half. Later, we will all crane our necks in vain anticipation towards Neymar, who will spend that second half entirely as he spent the first; pursued by two or three defenders at a time, like a bank robber whose security guards have been warned of his precise movements six months in advance. Later, we will half-heartedly curse and then loudly praise Ochoa, the Mexico goalkeeper who will deny an entire beach; grumbling good-naturedly, hundreds of men will amble down to the water and piss two hours’ worth of drink into the sea. The only ones not grumbling will be the small and faithful cohort of Mexicans, and a raucous band of Argentines; there are supposedly sixty thousand of them in Rio, and half of them will apparently spend the match two rows in front of us.

Soon, by 6pm, it will be midnight dark, and I will score my first ever goal on the Copacabana, during a game with fellow fans and locals; and I will jog away casually, pretending not to be filled with childish pride. Later still, the concert at the nearby FIFA fan site will continue into the evening. For now, though, there are fireworks and baile funk and barefoot dance-offs with ice-cream sellers, and I am wishing that this halftime’s final whistle never comes.


The true, eternal magic of the World Cup.

Here I am, freshly roused from an overnight flight out of London, en route to Rio, stopping at a cramped São Paulo airport whose faded-futurist decor looks like something out of Flash Gordon; and here they are.

A Mexico fan coming through Customs with a sombrero of comical width. An Algerian taking a nearby seat, having fashioned a sarong from his national flag. Iran fans bellowing as they unfurl their own colours in the departure lounge, whilst two smiling Nigerians accost a similarly joyful Colombian and get him to pose for a photo between them. Three middle-aged Belgium fans drifting by in their team’s training tops, as several benches of South Korea fans look on, quietly amused by it all. All of a sudden, an ailing late-Seventies airport terminal has taken on the soul of a summer afternoon backyard barbecue – and all of a sudden it’s gone again, as these supporters merrily disperse, to different flights and to different dreams. And this – many miles from any stadium, and without a ball in sight – is the true, eternal magic of the World Cup.

Richard Scudamore’s sexist emails: the triumph of low expectations.

Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, has apologised for the content of a series of his leaked emails, in which he refers to women in derogatory terms.  Scudamore’s former personal assistant, who leaked his emails, stated that “he has no respect for women. I don’t think anyone should have to be exposed to such language and opinions at work.”

A Premier League source, speaking to the Daily Mirror, said that “Richard realises that his comments were inappropriate and wrong but they were not intended for a wider audience. It was meant in a Frankie Howerd style way. His commitment to the equality agenda and anti-discrimination is writ large.” (My italics.)

Whoever the Premier League source was, they have made things worse, since they suggest that Scudamore’s attitude towards women is a pervasive one.  It is worrying if the above statement was carefully crafted by a press team, as it is very revealing for two reasons.  First, to open with a line that Scudamore’s sexism was “not intended for a wider audience” implies that this sexism would somehow be less damaging if no-one knew about it.  Yet this sexism, unseen till now, may already be working to corrosive effect: this sexism may prejudice, for example, every job interview that a woman sits for a senior Premier League position. It may prejudice the budgets allocated to the women’s game, which may come under renewed scrutiny as a result of Scudamore’s comments.  After all, if his commitment to equality and anti-discrimination is indeed “writ large”, we should expect to see robust investment in the women’s game.  All of a sudden, the sums pledged aren’t looking all that substantial.

Secondly, there is the explanation of Scudamore’s comments: that they were meant in a light, comic vein, in the style of Frankie Howerd.  When accused of sexism, there is often an effort among men in football to infantilise themselves: what you might call the “boys will be boys” defence.  “We’re just kidding”, so the argument goes, “chill out”.  However, it’s strange to see these men rely on a defence of youthful irresponsibility, and in the same breath expect to be trusted with billion-pound budgets.

Will Scudamore be disciplined by the Premier League for his comments?  Few seem to think so. Unfortunately, the institution of British football has achieved what you might call “the triumph of low expectation”.  People expect so little in the way of progressive attitudes within the sport that emails such as Scudamore’s are met with a frustrated shrug.  Yet this helplessness is something that women cannot afford.  As Anna Kessel, the Guardian/Observer journalist and co-founder of Women in Football, noted this morning on Twitter, “the impetus lies with everyone else to force [the Premier League] into action”.

Gloria de Piero, the Shadow Equalities Minister, has observed in the Mirror that “Richard Scudamore has let down women supporters, players, referees and coaches.”  I agree with that, and I would go further: he has let down men supporters, players, referees and coaches too, since his emails do not reflect the attitudes of those many men who support the women’s game and the advance of female professionals within the sport as a whole.  The Premier League should make all of this clear in whatever action it now takes.