Archive for December 2012

Michael Carrick, the Samwise Gamgee of Old Trafford

Michael Carrick.  He is the Samwise Gamgee of Old Trafford.  The man does so much of the work that leads to glory but curiously ends up with very little of the credit.  I’ve just finished watching The Return of the King and it’s striking how often Sam is left to carry the burden of the Ring’s fate, with Frodo often delirious.  Frodo stumbles from scene to scene while Sam stands there, stoic, humbly and bravely seeing off all-comers.  Sam inches his way forward over ash and broken stone.  He drags himself and his friend through the lair of the most feral of predators.  And when all’s said and done it’s Frodo who gets to compose the trilogy.  Sam just gets on with life.

Getting on with it…Michael Carrick’s a bit like that.  He’s been like that since he arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 2006, taking the shirt of  arguably Manchester United’s greatest midfielder for a fee that many thought excessive.  Four league titles and a UEFA Champions League later, he still has his doubters.  Recently Opta tweeted that “Michael Carrick made 3226 passes in 2012, 577 more than any other player in the Premier League”.  I saw Carrick mocked, as I have before, for only passing the ball sideways, a criticism as inaccurate as it is bizarre.  There is often a perception of Carrick as a player who keeps the ball slowly sloshing about the midfield like stale bathwater, when in truth he gives it something crucial: rapid and efficient circulation.  And in any event, it’s unclear why there is an obsession with relentlessly forward passing from midfield.  After all, Xavi’s not fixated with it, and it’s worked out just fine for him.

Wee Newcastle and murderous players: just Fergie having fun

Why, Sir Alex?

Ferguson is known for his headline-stealing statements, but his last two have come with an unprecedented speed and intensity.  First there was his comment that Robin van Persie could have been killed by a ball kicked in the direction of his head by Swansea’s Ashley Williams.  Then, a few days later, there was his remark that Newcastle United was “a wee club in the North-East”.

Many Manchester United fans have either laughed this off as Fergie being Fergie or as some fiendish strategy to deflect attention from his team’s wildly fluctuating form. Personally, I believe that it is more of the former than the latter.  I don’t see his words as part of some grand design.  Swansea’s qualities are well-documented. Everyone knows that a fully-fit Newcastle team is a difficult proposition.  No-one needs reminding that Real Madrid are lying in wait in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, or that Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes should probably be retiring soon, or that a player like Joao Moutinho is sorely needed at the base of Manchester United’s midfield.

Sir Alex Ferguson is a genius.  But he is also wholly human, with all the attendant flaws.  He seems determined to market Old Trafford as Mordor and himself as Sauron, and I suspect that he is doing it for little other reason than the fact that he can.  (One could speculate, of course, that his all-seeing gaze is becoming agitated as he sees Guardiola approaching Eastlands).  In any event, this may be a title won by the slimmest of margins, and it’s hard to see how it helps to give other clubs any extra motivation.  For better or worse, it seems like it’s just Fergie having fun.

An Open Letter to Christopher Nolan, re: Transformers

Dear Mr. Nolan,

Please please please please reboot the Transformers franchise.  I realise that you are a very busy man and that you probably get countless requests from earnest fanboys wishing that you would breathe life into their favourite dramatic concepts but I can assure you that this request is different.  Well, OK, maybe it is not different but please hear me out.

Transformers were my favourite toys for years.  In Hasbro’s glory days, they were the best-selling gifts in the UK for seven Christmases straight.  Now they are on the big screen, where they find themselves secondary to the screen romance of Shia LeBoeuf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

Transformers, as an idea, is one of the best things there is.  It’s a fantastic allegory for what artificial intelligence might one day be like.  You see, so many writers envisage a time where robots rule over humans, where they will establish dominion over their creators in the same way that our empires subjugate others today.  Very few writers conceive of a time where there might be robots who, despite their intellectual and physical supremacy over us, might just choose – within the vast range of possibilities offered by robotic free will – to like us, and work with us.

However Michael Bay, the director who oversaw the three recent big budget films, turned Transformers into a parody of itself.  The plots had all the lightness and subtlety of a grand piano being pushed off an office-block.  They may have taken billions at the box office and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Megan Fox may have graced the sweaty dreams of many millions of men and women worldwide but, my God, they missed an open goal here.

We live in a time when human beings are building an artificial brain, where there seems to be a new algorithm poking its nose into our business each time we make a web search, and where our phones are so sure that they know best what we need that they have now started talking to us.

The time for a reboot is now. The Transformer series, just like Batman when you took it under your wing, has reached its lowest ebb.  The final film, Dark of the Moon, featured bad accents and Orientalist stereotypes and nauseating frat-boy office culture.  It is Batman and Robin with robots.  In fact, it might be nice if you could have a chat with Christian Bale, in case he’s kicking his heels. I think you two could really knock this out of the park.  Something dark, majestic and terrifying, where the first half-hour of the first film is a rainswept urban scene after nightfall.  I’ve seen this in my head a thousand times and I – ah, I’m sorry.  I’m doing that fanboy thing again.

Anyway, I just thought I’d ask, given that you seem to have managed making box-office smashes that don’t dumb it down.  Hope you have a great 2013, and I look forward to seeing what you do next.


With best wishes,

Musa Okwonga

P.S. I, ah, really liked Bane’s jacket in The Dark Knight Rises, if you could let me know who made it that would be awesome.

For Leo Messi, a tribute: “Just Another”

Tonight, Leo Messi broke the record for the number of goals scored in a calendar year, reaching the total of 86 in a 2-1 win for Barcelona over Real Betis.  In doing so, he passed the scarcely-believable mark of 85, set decades ago by Germany’s Gerd Muller.  I’ve written a tribute to his goalscoring feats, “Just Another”, which you can read below.

“Just Another”    

I guess that, for Messi,
Each goal is just another –
They come to him
As sun does to summer;
Just another low drive with the right or left
Or the odd lob, or deft touch with head or chest;
Just another night making his rival number
Drift past like a ship with a busted rudder;
Just another soul left in his slipstream
By his light-speed shift up from nought to sixty;
Just another free-kick from thirty yards
That will swerve like the letters of his autograph,
Or another free-kick sneaked beneath a wall
Or a handball that gives our praise the briefest pause…
Just another hat-trick scored
Just another home crowd’s ecstatic roar
Just another dribble that will dazzle all –
Watch this juggernaut
Clutch another Ballon d’Or.

Poem for Roy Keane: “Hail to the Tempest”

As a huge fan of the work of @BeardedGenius on Twitter (he creates brilliant photoshops of footballing moments, and writes some of the most incisive blogs on the sport that I’ve seen)  I am very happy to share this collaboration of mine with him, my new poem about Roy Keane.  If Eric Cantona was the soul of Manchester United as they rose to prominence, then Roy Keane was the heart.  Here’s the illustration below; I hope you enjoy it.

To the Financial Times, in defence of rap: “The Autumn Statement”

Yesterday Jonathan Guthrie, the City Editor of the Financial Times, wrote a front page opinion piece that attracted a great deal of comment.  The piece, titled “G-Dawg splashes out tax cuts like P Diddy with Dom Pérignon in his blingiest giveaway”, dissected George Osborne’s Autumn Statement with the aid of a range of hip-hop references.  Mr. Guthrie’s words have been thoroughly dissected by Alex Hern of the New Statesman, but the most startling moment was when he observed that “as an art form, rap is loud, gestural but lacking in substance.”

Rap, of course, isn’t the only art form that gets loud and gestural from time to time – after all, Luciano Pavarotti was pretty good at belting the tunes out – but I felt that Mr. Guthrie had short-changed the genre, to put it mildly.  Saying that rap lacks substance is like walking into a bookstore, catching sight of Pippa Middleton’s new book, and walking out declaring that there is no good literature to be found in the world.

Rap isn’t so much an artform as a culture – much more so, I think, than rock, for example, which I have always viewed much more as a means of escapism.  The type of rap of which Mr. Guthrie writes – the sanitised, materialistic dirge that is pumped out over the airwaves, as opposed to the thoughtful societal critiques that are rarely granted mainstream airplay – is unrepresentative of the artform and the wider culture.

The wider problem with Mr. Guthrie’s article is that it stereotypes a group of people whom a very large proportion of the readers of the Financial Times are unlikely to encounter.  And that can have very dangerous effects.  In my view, one of the problems with the current Government is that many of them have never experienced the deprivation of those whom they are governing, and so they do not understand the pressures that they are experiencing as a result of these cuts.  They are applying a weight that the people cannot take.  Ironically, with his caricature of rap, it is this same lack of empathy that Mr. Guthrie has served to encourage.

A further irony is that, for any rapper to enjoy enduring respect, their rhymes must have substance.  (Incidentally, there are many rappers who could provide brilliant analyses of the damaging effects of the Government’s austerity policies.) It was rappers such as Lowkey and Akala who were among the first to comment on the nuances of the Arab Spring.  It was they who first questioned whether Omar Suleiman, with his notorious past, was truly a fitting candidate to rule the new Egypt.  It was they who questioned President Obama’s extensive use of drones, a full two years before the broadsheets caught on.  It was Wretch 32 who, for years prior to the UK riots, was warning of the possible causes of social unrest.  Mic Righteous and Kendrick Lamar are proving today that rap can be journalism set to music.  These are people who know what they are talking about.  They are be listened to, if not consulted, just as you might consult with business leaders or others who frequent the seats of Newsnight.  I do not see why they are being ridiculed.

Whilst rap is often derided for its negative elements, I think that these are unfairly emphasised.  Rap, at its best, tells the stories of the voiceless and the disenfranchised, of the human cost of societal and economic inequality.  It tells stories of which the readers of the Financial Times would do well to take note.

I have put together a mixtape for Mr. Guthrie, and for others who believe that rap is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.  So I sat down one afternoon after work with Giordano, a good friend of mine, and we compiled the following collection of tracks, spanning the last twenty years; though, in truth, we could have chosen thousands of others.  Given that this mixtape is something of an announcement in defence of rap, I have called it “The Autumn Statement”.


“The Autumn Statement”

  1. Akala – Fire In The Booth
  2. Macklemore – Same Love
  3. Jean Grae – My Story
  4. Devlin – Community Outcast
  5. Lauryn Hill – Lost Ones
  6. Common featuring Lauryn Hill – Retrospect for Life
  7. Arrested Development – Mr. Wendal
  8. Bahamadia featuring Dwele – Beautiful Things
  9. Kanye West – Jesus Walks
  10. Black Star – Thieves In The Night