Archive for July 2012

A poem for London 2012: “Heavyweight”

Since the Olympic Games have come to London, here’s “Heavyweight”, a poem I wrote, set to the music of DJ Sid Mercutio, about London taking on Muhammad Ali in his prime.  You can listen to the track by clicking here.

You can also read it below. Hope you like it, if so please share; and thanks for visiting this page.

“HEAVYWEIGHT”

Here’s a question.  Who’s the greatest

Fighter of all time?  The latest

Theory is that it’s that man

Who didn’t fight in Vietnam

Since blacks had been done no evil

By those he called yellow people:

That same man who, far from humble,

Fought that Rumble in that Jungle;

Who said he danced like butterfly,

Whose health has now been scuppered by

The harsh onset of that disease

That makes him shake like trees in breeze…

Some say Ali is the finest:

Some say his appeal is timeless –

But, if you ask my opinion

Then The Greatest is in England.

Who’s that, you might ask? Wait, listen:

This fighter treats opposition

With indifference, disdain.

Well, who’s this fighter? What’s his name?

You’ll ask again. I’ll say: Calm down.

This fighter’s no man. It’s a town.

A town? you say, somewhat intrigued.

Please. How is a town in the league

Of the great Muhammad Ali,

That man who defied his Army,

Who, filled with pride, blessed with special

Skills told black folk not to settle

For the third best, or the second.

What.s this town? What do you reckon?

Take a guess. If your assumption

Is that I refer to London

Then you’re right. This town’s a fighter:

It’s faced foes cunning as vipers,

It’s faced sly and swift invasion,

Embraced hasty immigration.

And it has retained its status

As The Greatest. See, this city’s

Fought them all: it’s fought the sniffy,

Snobbish, and obsessive souls

Each one of whom, nightly, patrols

The King’s Road in a Merc or Rolls –

The fruits of their financial goals:

It’s fought the rudeboys on that bus

Through Brixton, fought their every cuss,

It’s fought punks and Goths in Camden,

Skinheads chanting national anthem:

And the reason that it’s fought them

Is that London will support them

All. It will support the Muslim

And those who would wish to push him

Down: it will support the Jew,

The Christian; in short, all of you

But London will defend its sense

Of self at anyone’s expense.

Veteran of thousand summers

This town’s ground down all newcomers…

See the victories it’s scored

See all the hits that it’s absorbed:

It’s seen off the Blitz, the Romans,

Irish terrorists’ explosions:

And, more recently, it’s seen off

Bombers who blew their heads clean off:

Sure, they rattled it a little,

But to fell it like a skittle

Takes a little more than violence:

To intimidate this island’s

Capital takes something greater

Than those who might smite skyscrapers:

Takes more than that thick, unhealthy

Smog in slow flow over Chelsea:

Takes more than that endless cycle

Of commuters: snarling, spiteful,

Stuck on the M25

To tear apart London’s insides…

It’s a complex city, London,

With more layers than an onion,

Layers made of blacks, Jews, Turks,

White bankers high off City’s perks

Who snorted coke and swapped high fives;

Top football players and their wives;

Stars of the big screen with their chic

Apartments; here and there, a Greek,

A Russian, strolling through its parks,

Who with his fellow oligarchs

Has date-raped his state and escaped…

But this city still can’t be shaped

By those who’d see it gentrified,

Who’d love it if it gently died…

It’s a fearsome adversary

That, for years, has had to carry

All this weight: though millions

Have fought it, its resilience

Somehow remains. If that strength stems

From calm and cold blood of the River Thames

I just don’t know. I just know this:

That London will one day dismiss

Us as it has dismissed all those

Who’ve tried to dress it in their clothes.

That.s why, if you staged a fight

Between Muhammad Ali, right

At top of his game, in his prime,

And London, this home town of mine

I’d bet a few dimes he could blast it,

Outclass it;

But not outlast it.

Dear [Olympic Partner]: The opening ceremony, and The Daily Mail

As mentioned before, I was incensed by the Daily Mail article about the opening ceremony – analysed brilliantly by John Walker – but I thought that mere fury wasn’t enough.  So I wrote a standard form letter (below), which anyone can adapt and send to the communications teams of each of the Olympic sponsors, should they so wish.  I am slowly working through this list myself, and it’s taking a while to find out some of the contact details, but I thought that anyone else who wanted to make a complaint might like template with which to do so.  The list of the official partners for the London 2012 Olympics are at this link: not all of them advertise with the Daily Mail, but the more commercial pressure that is applied to the Daily Mail the better.

—————————

Dear [Olympic Partner],

I hope that all is well with you.  I am writing because I have very serious concerns about a recent article published online by the Daily Mail, which has caused widespread fury among the British public.  Since you may have a commercial relationship with them for the duration of these Games, I feel that the racially controversial content of this article may be a matter for your urgent review.

I, like many millions of others, greatly enjoyed the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.  I thought that, in the course of its celebration of the inclusivity that is British culture at its best, it managed perfectly to embody the three Olympic Values – friendship, respect and excellence – and the four Paralympic Values – equality, courage, determination and inspiration.  All in all, it was a ceremony of tremendous warmth, wit and compassion.

Shortly afterwards I read an article about this triumphant opening ceremony in the Daily Mail, which has been the source of almost unprecedented controversy.  In the course of the article – which has now been deleted from the Daily Mail’s website without any apology for the gross offence that it has caused – the author commented that “[the ceremony] was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.”  The article, whose content has been thoroughly reviewed at the journalist John Walker’s website, openly mocked the possibility that happy mixed-race families could exist in Britain.  Britain rightly prides itself on one of the most happily diverse societies in the world. The Daily Mail’s article is therefore wholly at odds with statistical data and, equally importantly, with national sentiment.  I also contend that this article is entirely opposed to the key Olympic Value of friendship, is entirely opposed to the key Paralympic Value of equality, and, therefore, is inconsistent with the values of your organisation as an official partner of these Games.

Though this article, as mentioned before, has now been deleted from the Daily Mail’s website, it has been shared among millions of readers on Twitter, and copies of it continue to be shared and distributed online.  The Daily Mail is experiencing very severe damage to its brand, and it is very possible that your brand will suffer damage by association.

As a deeply concerned member of the public, I thought that I would bring this issue to your attention, and I hope that you are able to address it at your earliest convenience.  Given its potential ramifications, I consider that it is a matter of the greatest importance.

With best wishes,

[Concerned member of the public]

 

No longer casual about Daily Mail racism

The Daily Mail has written an article of such flagrant racism that it has seen fit to edit itself.  A superb piece has already been written on their post by @botherer, but I am actually shaking with rage and so I thought it important that I capture some of my anger here.  The Daily Mail published an online piece by a man who scorned the very existence of happy mixed-race middle-class families.  Yes, it actually did this.

I understand that there will be many people who will roll their eyes at what they see as such stunts by the Daily Mail.  But I can’t be one of them today.  This article is uniquely revealing.  The Daily Mail has not attacked black men for acts of criminality.  It has attacked them for their happy marriages to women who happen to be white.

That is shameful, and, I think, very dangerous.  The Daily Mail consistently produces articles that give rise to what many would call leftie outrage.  But I’m not a leftie living life in some kind of mythical liberal utopia, who takes calculated offence at every suggestion of prejudice.  I am merely a black man entirely and authentically furious at an article whose main racial thrust I consider to be wholly unacceptable.

Right.  Blood cooling, but that had to be said, or rather written.  Thank you for reading this far.

 

 

A poem, “Living in Hackney”

Living in Hackney –
Is like Rome: it’s where all the roads lead –
In a towerblock standing high as a nosebleed
A young urban Virgil composes the poetry
With his pen diligent, of East Londinium –
Sketches the Town Hall’s pavilion majestic,
As, by its steps, move civilians eclectic;
Villains and detectives,
Evangelicals and sceptics,
Skinheads and immigrants, the spectrum
From the dole queue to the high-roll businessmen,
Whole continuum of citizens; Virgil
Watches as youths boom tunes from their chariots,
Soundtracks for black moods, tracksuited garrisons,
Sees young maidens with their babes in Victoria’s
Park where a stroll blows their woes off like sawdust –
Tastes with his nasal the Turkish cuisine, a
Dinner being finished that is fitting of a Caesar;
Difficult to see the –
Village’s marshes
Where there is a duel with a ball and two arches;
Gladiators, animated, wearing
Shields over their shins; Virgil returns to
The main street, where the roadworks spring eternal,
Street where the lights from the grocery burn all
Night, and Virgil notes in his journal:
“If the world’s a Coliseum, Hackney is Maximus:
Town where, even without fare, you can catch a bus,
Where the train line’s almost as high as a viaduct;
Can’t beat it for the quiet life or the riotous
Pubs or the breakfasts; none quite fry it up
Like Hackney! –
Unlike Rome, never conquered,
Never mastered, may you march ever onward –
Hackney: unlike Rome, never conquered –
Never mastered, may you march ever onward.”

The Independent: Muhammad Ali goes beyond sport

He gave everything.

Watching Muhammad Ali shuffle onto the stage, aided by two loving helpers, it was hard to think anything else. This man gave everything.

Last night, Ali was in London with his wife Lonnie for a summit run by Beyond Sport, an organisation which supports the use of sport to promote positive social change. Though Beyond Sport have worked with no shortage of sporting icons -Michael Johnson, the quadruple Olympic champion, is a close associate of theirs – Ali’s appearance was something else altogether. If anyone embodies what it means to push oneself beyond sport’s boundaries to make the world somehow better, then it is the legendary American boxer.

Watching him enter that auditorium, I was reminded of a moment from a film that I’d seen recently: from Gladiator, where a world-weary Russell Crowe takes to the Coliseum’s sands, to greet his adoring hordes.  Like Maximus, Crowe’s character in that film, Ali knows too well the odd loneliness of being an outcast among those who would place you on the most glorious of pedestals.  It was ironic that Ali, who in many hearts best represents the ideals of the Olympics, once rejected the spoils of the Games in the most visceral way. Having won a gold medal in 1960, he ended up tossing it into the Ohio River, disgusted that he could be accepted by the world as a sporting champion but rejected by his own country as a man.

Joining Ali on stage that evening, to help him give the Generation Ali award to Matiullah Haidar, a young person judged to have lived the most inspiring of lives, was David Beckham.  There can be few times when the footballer can have been visibly in awe of someone else: then again, there are few people like Ali, to whom the wholly natural response each time that they enter a room is a prolonged and raucous standing ovation.

It has been quite a summer for superhero movies, with The Dark Knight Rises emerging, in many eyes, as the pick of the bunch.  It was fitting, then, to see Ali step forward, a man who has been living a superhero movie since he was born in 1942.  In honour of those battles that he has won on behalf of untold millions, it seems only right that every moment of his life should feel like a victory lap.  And so that’s why, when he walked into that packed and rapturous hall, we rose, roared, and clapped till our palms were sore.

“Helpless”, a poem on climate change

About two years ago, in August 2009, I was particularly worried about climate change and wrote the piece below, “Helpless”.  Those fears returned when I read the news in the Guardian that the Greenland ice sheet had experienced an unprecedented melt, and so I thought that I would post my poem here.

“Helpless”

It’s-
Hard not to be selfish
If you feel helpless
If you know the ice shelf’s melting;
Have to look elsewhere, stare at the twelve-inch;
Quick, give me sports statistics to delve in…
Bring it to my doorstep,
Grinning from the tabloids’ foreheads,
Morbid – more wars – more deaths –
I will ignore it, as forceful as storms get;
I will not witness the torment….
Pardon: I can’t watch what I can’t stop,
And I can’t put the oil back, refreeze the seas,
Or uneat the meat,
Or unburn the coal,
Or unfly the planes,
Or unbirth the souls;
So:
I’m not about to halt what I can;
No, I’m off to grab hold of and gulp what I can;
Some will bet that I could have done better
But can’t say I never made an effort;
See, I’ve called on those above us, but none replied
So now all I do is cover eyes
So now all I do is cover eyes

The Independent: Tuition fees, and an Oxford professor’s last lesson

On Saturday I went back to my university for the retirement lunch of one of my tutors, Professor Mark Freedland.  In a 40-year career at St. John’s College, Oxford, Professor Freedland not only earned a reputation as one of the world’s leading academics in the field of labour law, but also found time to teach and mentor many students from a great diversity of backgrounds.  Several of the college’s alumni had driven hundreds of miles to be there, some had flown in from farther afield, and all of us in that hall were overflowing with praise and thanks.

It’s difficult with words to do justice – pun reluctantly intended – to the positive impact that Professor Freedland has had on the lives of countless people, the overwhelming majority of whom he will never meet.  At the same time, his manner was a constant lesson in how to convey authority: calmly, quietly, with dignity.  He is also one of the few people I have met who speaks in prose: before he begins each sentence, you can see him pause briefly to select the ideal words and the perfect order that they will invariably take, like Quincy Jones pondering the final tracklisting for Thriller.

Professor Freedland, it is probably clear by now, is someone for whom I have the greatest respect, and so when he rose to speak I paid close attention to his remarks.  Having kindly thanked us for attending, he reflected humorously on his time as a tutor, and then closed by briefly expressing a wish that the state might, at some point in the future, rethink its decision to raise tuition fees for university students.

For some reason, Professor Freedland’s polite suggestion affected me far more than any passionate polemic that I have thus far heard against the tripling of tuition fees.  I think this is because, until now, I have felt a sense of futility about public protest: a sense that, once a policy is implemented (or, perhaps more accurately, imposed), it is irreversible.  That once rail is privatised, there is no going back: that once healthcare is privatised, there is no going back: that once higher education is no longer subsidised, there is no going back.

But this is wrong: and Professor Freedland was right.  This policy is not irreversible.  That is what U-turns are for.  To raise tuition fees for higher education so dramatically is to make an explicit statement about the type of society that you would like to see.   A society where people, for the mere want of money, are unable to reach their academic potential.  Many people will contend that it is better that the state does not subsidise Mickey Mouse courses for students: in which case, we should fund more and better courses, with more and better supervision of those courses.

This all sounds very simple.  And I think it is, really.  Anyone with children, or anyone – be they sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle – who has ever assumed any responsibility for children, will know the desire to do anything to give them the best possible platform for success in life.  Education is one such platform.  And for all the talk of there being little or no money for such a subsidy, it does seem that the state has been reassuringly good, even in this time of recession, at finding huge sums of money for prestigious events.

This is just a thought, just as Professor Freedland’s comments on this issue were just an afterthought.  I thank him profusely for his last lesson: for reminding me of my idealism that an excellent university education should be affordable to all, and one day will be again.  And if you’re ever walking through Oxford one afternoon, and you’d like to say hi to Professor Freedland, you should look out for him very carefully.  He’s grey-haired, grey-suited and bespectacled; but there are quite a few of those guys about.   To make absolutely sure it’s him, simply strike up a casual conversation, and if he doesn’t pause to punctuate his speech with an “umm” or an “aaah” then you’ve got your man.  If you don’t do that, then you’ll miss him, as the university’s students most surely will.

Snorkelling through Islamophobia

Snorkelling

I’ve been thinking about blogs a fair bit recently, and about the torrent of comments that they receive.  I have also been thinking about what I would call the act of reading those comments: and I can describe it best as “snorkelling”.

Often, as a blogger, you are reminded by your peers that you should not “look below the line”, that you should “avoid the bottom half of the Internet”.  Gary Younge, writing in the Guardian, recently revealed that he had long ago stopped reading comments below his online posts, since he had grown weary of sifting through the bile to find any constructive criticism that might be nestling in the effluent.

I tend not go snorkelling all that much anymore, at least not when it comes to my articles: this is due to a pretty unpleasant insult against a family member, which served as the tipping point for me.  But I had a good read of the thoughts posted underneath Mehdi Hasan’s compelling and important piece on Islamophobia, and it’s some of the most productive snorkelling that I’ve done in months. 

There, I found – amid the bile – a notable number of people offering balanced critiques of the post, who were anxious that their concerns over religious dogma should not be interpreted as racial prejudice.  It was the type of response that tempted me to go and read the comments under my own work, in the hope that I might benefit.  I don’t have that fortitude as of now, but it definitely made me think.  Who knows – I may submerge myself again, before long.

A new poem, “Two-seventy”

I’ve been thinking a fair bit recently about the watchful approach that I have often taken to life, and wondering how much my family’s background as refugees has anything to do with that.  To try to sum up my thoughts, I wrote this poem, “Two-Seventy”:

Before I walk any course that’s ahead of me,
I always look left and right- two-seventy:
This life is sly: it’s a clever beast
That strikes from the side if you move too readily…
Two-seventy: watching my flanks,
If caution were cash, I’d have lots in the bank;
And I’ve got to thank my kin from Uganda
Who heard trouble singing in the wind of the savannah;
And who fled Amin, and fled Museveni –
In a past life, these feet knew jeopardy…
Legacy: two-seventy genes,
From a family of some very shrewd refugees:
Blessings mixed are these gifts from my past;
The nerves that preserve me, deter me from calm:
And so, I’ve a fox of a soul
As I slip through life’s net like a soft finger-roll

A new poem, “Jigsaw”

I’ve been thinking a fair bit recently about society, and how it takes some of us longer to find our way in life than others.  I can definitely say that it’s taken me a while to find mine, and am probably still in the process of doing that, to be honest.  So I did what I normally do at times like this, and wrote a poem about it, which is called “Jigsaw”, and which I have posted below.

“Jigsaw”

This world’s a jigsaw and we are its fragments –
Some of us will never find our place in its pattern –
Some find this mosaic easy to fathom –
Others take ages; we’re not straight, we’re jagged…
Some men are jigsaws; all scattered
With their pieces ignored, lost, or abandoned:
They pray for love to arrange them by magic –
They’re Aladdin pieces, seeking their Jasmine:
Some feel pressurised to fit norms –
It’s what they have kids, maybe get hitched for –
And so they form ill-fitting jigsaws,
They play happy families, with their grins forced:
My friends enjoy the whole package –
Kids, mortgage and the jigsaw marriage –
They’ve chosen home, but my soundtrack’s garage:
Guess I’m no piece who’s seeking attachment