Archive for March 2013

Regulation, not immigration, should be the new black

Our Prime Minister is talking a great deal about immigration – and not all that accurately, as it turns out.  David Cameron would doubtless argue – as would Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband – that he is merely addressing the concerns of voters.  Yet, with every day that he and his political peers continue down this path of either reckless or wilful disinformation, they are avoiding a subject of the greatest importance.

Ratings agencies have still not been fully scrutinised for their role in the financial crisis.  As a former worker in that industry noted last summer, speaking to Joris Luyendijk for his excellent Banking Blog, “Now here we are four years later, and the most incredible thing has happened – we’ve learned nothing from the whole thing.  Everybody pretends it’s all OK.”

And, of course, it is not all OK.  Immigration is not so severe a threat to our society and economy as the unchecked promotion of new and bewilderingly complex financial products.  Yet, judging by the recent focus of our politicians, this topic is occupying a vastly disproportionate percentage of our airtime.

Immigration reform is all the rage.  Meanwhile, the better regulation of ratings agencies and other related areas of the financial sector is very, very far from being the new black.  Why is that?  Perhaps it is because the subject is difficult to reduce to slogans and other soundbites – perhaps it is too unsexy to sell to the floating voter on his or her doorstep.  Well, so what.  It is vital to the future financial health of our country, and the most responsible thing is to keep it at the forefront of our thoughts.  Sadly, though, I am not holding my breath.

 

Regret, and running in the rain

Whenever I come to make a pivotal decision, I remind myself of the same phrase.  “The hard thing is always the right thing.”  Very often, the correct choice is all too apparent: what’s often absent is the courage to make it.  That’s not to say that I continually pursue the appropriate course of action.  What it does mean, though, is that I should always be prepared for my progress to hurt a little.

I realise, just as I type this, that I could simply have expressed that last paragraph as “no pain, no gain”.  Ah well.  In any case, the exercise metaphor is a fitting one.  This morning, I was faced with the most pressing of questions; that is to say, whether I should go running through a cold, wet Leyton, or stay within the loving cocoon of my duvet.  As I peered out of the window, I knew what had to done: after all, the hard thing was always the right thing.  The last thing I wanted to do this Saturday was go out there into these miserable elements, and so it was the first thing that I should do.

I forced myself out there, and immediately felt the better for it; out the door, first left, and up the Lea Bridge Road.  Before I set off, I had been thinking about regret.  In fact, I think about regret a lot, and how I am not always honest when I answer questions about it.  It’s not that I mean to be deceitful, it’s just that I try to remain positive whenever I can about what’s in the past.  At 33, I’m not particularly old or particularly young, but like most of us I have already had to make a series of tough decisions to live the live that I want to.  And whenever I am asked “do you have any regrets?” I say “No: ultimately, I did what I had to do.”

That’s not true, though.  I do have regrets.  Plenty of them.  The ways that I acted, or reacted.  The places I lingered too long, or stayed too briefly.  All sorts of regrets.  I remember them all, of course I do; and, therefore, I harbour them. In doing so, I suppose I honour them. In many ways, they are the cost of my progress.

And that’s the funny thing.  People often ask me how, given that I do so many different things to earn my living, I manage to balance them all.  And the answer, which I’ve never really given until now, is that there is nothing more awful than to give up a passion.  There is nothing more devastating than to walk away from a dream.  Often it is the fear of further regret that forces me forward, just as I willed myself over those rain-greased pavements an hour or so ago.  Behind me I leave the anguish of countless sacrifices, of love, money and time; until there is so much wind and rain between me and my regrets, that I can scarcely hear their sighs anymore.

 

Love, the courage to stay still

As a writer, there are generally two main rules by which I have been taught to abide.  The first of these is to write what I know.  The second of these, as fellow poet Roger Robinson kindly instructed me a couple of years ago, is to write about that which I am most afraid of.  Looking over the many poems that I have written over the last few years, it strikes me that a couple of them are about love.

Love is something that I have always viewed with intense suspicion, like a security guard eyeing a hooded teenager in a crowded supermarket.  Every time the possibility of love enters my environment, I become wary about what it might be up to.  And then I realise what the real fear is.  See, so many of my best poems are about running, escaping, about making transition from one stage to the next – Accelerate, Plane, The Flight, Cooper Chimbonda.  But love means slowing down.  It means resting one place awhile with someone, and being happy there.

I’ve never seen life that way, though. At some level, I’ve always seen this world as one long dusty and deserted highway, and I suppose that love is the occasional warm inn that I stumble upon during my ill-lit way.  Every so often, the lights of such a happy place will glow out towards me as I approach through the endless brown dusk, the innkeeper will welcome me within; and I will gladly stop there for a moment, which becomes a month, then more.

Eventually, though, something shifts in me.  My eyes keep glancing to my soil-scuffed boots by the door, and then out towards the forgiving loneliness of the open road.  And then I have to leave, before I become more attached to this wonderful refuge I have found.  It’s something I have recognised more and more as I have grown older – that love means commitment, of course, but commitment also inevitably means disappointing people, and for some reason there is nothing more painful to me than disappointing a lover.

This is why I don’t write about love.  Because the love poems and the love songs that I read and hear are about joy and aspiration. They’re written by people who see the world as a sunny garden path, with Love as the charming redbrick cottage at the end.  Love, though, is the exam for which I fear that I have done insufficient revision.  It’s the test that I’m worried I am not going to pass.

I know very well where this worry comes from.  Having lost my father very early, at the age of four, I have no real idea what happy adult relationships look like.  I also became occupied, from an early age, with the terrible burden of manhood: of being a responsible male at all times.  For those reasons, then, I have believed that solitude is my default state.  The many departures that I have made since then from a more traditional path – be they leaving state school for boarding school, leaving the closet, or leaving the City – have confirmed that view.  They’ve all involved abandoning one place of relative comfort, or predictability, to walk another darkened path.

Of course, though, the time must come to stop running.  After all, there are only so many inns that any of us find on our journeys, and I must not so swiftly reject the hospitality of the next place that I come across.  There might be an innkeeper out there who would like me to stay, or who might even join me on that highway.  I hope that, when the time comes, I will have the courage to sit tight.

 

On being black: “Black Is”

I don’t write about race all that often; I rarely write about anything when I feel that I have nothing new or different to add.  I wrote this piece a while back, and then a good friend, Bridget Minamore, got in touch to say that she really liked it and that I should bring it out again.  I have only performed it twice but I’m looking to change that.  In the meantime, I’ve provided the text along with a free download below.  Here, then, are my short thoughts on media portrayals of being “black”, whatever that means.

 

“Black Is”

What is black?

 

Black is rap;

Black is jazz,

Tap;

Black is Hackney as a habitat;

Black is

“No backchat to your mum, she’s a battleaxe”…

Barack is the new black;

The old black,

Back when they sold black,

Was trapped in the shadow of the gallows…

Black is a straitjacket;

Black is a lower-than-average paypacket;

Black is not gay!

No!

Black is Man!

Black is a brag, a swagger;

Black is baggy jeans, an urban teen with a dagger;

Black is –

Twice as long a wait getting through Customs;

Black is “I don’t know what it is about those boys on the corner, but I don’t think I trust them”;

Black is millions of Billie Jeans –

Single mums with sons whose dads were gone before their delivery;

Black is laughter and anger,

Richard Pryor and gangland pistol fire,

Black is hardcore, Darfur –

Black is a victim…

Black is a street-corner yelling evangelical Christian;

Black is a true story more compelling than fiction –

 

Black is black-and-white, always the extremes, it seems;

Either President or menacing,

Either thief or first-class degree in medicine…

But my black is grey –

Most, if not all warts on display;

My black doesn’t worship God, but his friends are saints;

My black is not on the Pele, Othello, Mandela level of melanin;

But every day, it’s a little more genuine.

 

My feminism, a work in progress

I have been thinking about feminism a fair bit recently, and particularly so since reading “The World According To Garp”, an outstanding novel by John Irving.  It’s as moving and beautifully written a book as I can remember, and examines the relationship of Garp and his mother, who raises him alone and is one of the world’s foremost feminists.

Irving’s work was resonant in so many ways.  Like Garp, I grew up around women who had the guts of iron.   Like Garp, I knew all too well the many ways in which men failed them; and I promptly became afraid of failing them myself.  For that reason, I had for some time been cautious of calling myself a feminist.  A feminist, as far as I can see, is someone who consistently upholds the autonomy of women, and in a society where I was being force-fed their objectification every day I was not so sure that I could claim that title.

In time, though, I relaxed.  Now I see being a feminist a little like being a poet.  It’s a lifelong process, at which I may never be great, but the important thing is to keep working at it.  That may not seem like much, but for me it represents significant progress.  After all, it took me several years to describe myself as a poet, as opposed to someone who merely wrote poetry: being a poet was something more than writing verse.  It was educating myself about the field, it was humbling myself by learning from those who had gone before, and from those around me.

And being a feminist means exactly the same to me.  As in poetry, I cannot claim to be an academic in my chosen area, or even impressively well-read.  But, in both cases, I am struggling towards something better.   And so I should.  Feminism, as the lust-addled Garp discovered, is work at which he was far from diligent.  Yet my anxiety that I may not be perfect is no excuse for not trying.  It was once the case that I would read of sexual discrimination or sexual violence against women and numbly shrug my shoulders, overwhelmed at the oppression of it all.  But that was an unacceptable response.   Those women were my sisters and my mother and my aunts and girlfriends and my grandmother.  And if an army of men came to the door against those women I loved, or sneeringly converged on them in the workplace, then I would defend them with all the fury I had in me.

I must remind myself that I do not have to fight or understand every battle.  All I must truly do is listen, and call out my fellow men when we slip into sexism as many of us do.  I will stop there before I begin to put myself on a pedestal from which the plummet will be painful: and will state that feminism, like poetry, is a discipline to which I commit.

Benefits tourism, the enduring myth

“Benefits tourists”.  I was reading a piece by a friend in the Telegraph, and all of a sudden I encountered this phrase.  I contacted him at once, and he said that, regrettably, it was one of common usage.  Our own Prime Minister has done little to discourage this concept.  In January, appearing on the Andrew Marr Show, David Cameron asked “should we look at arguments about, should it be harder for people to come and live in Britain and claim benefits?”  In the next breath, he answered “Yes, frankly we should.”

The picture is thus painted of a group of immigrants who scour the world’s countries for the juiciest welfare markets, rather like discerning locusts looking for a hearty feed.  Anecdotally, though, I know of no immigrants who arrived in the UK so that they could sit in their council flats and plunder the State.  I do know of many immigrants who have arrived in the UK and worked countless hours for minute paypackets.  Factually, too, the numbers suggest that the concept of “benefit tourism” is recklessly inaccurate.  As noted in The New Statesman, “The DWP published research on the subject last year (the first time a government has done so) and found that those born abroad were significantly less likely to claim benefits than UK nationals”. The rest of the article can be read here.

But back to the original piece which prompted my post.  The article, titled “The Left are closing down the debate on immigration”, contended that any attempt to address the issue of immigration was impeded, if not halted altogether, by the Left’s deployment of “the racist card”.  The article then went on to support Melanie Phillips in her argument that “a clear-headed discussion needs to take place about our capacities and resources. (She was speaking, of course, not of refugees fleeing European persecution, but of jaded economic migrants and benefits tourists.)”

It feels crashingly obvious to say this, but sometimes the crashingly obvious things need to be said.  It is absolutely not racist to talk about immigration.  What is very often dangerous, if not altogether racist, is how we talk about immigration.  A clear-headed discussion, as desired in the paragraph above, involves careful and forensic analysis of the burdens that Britain’s economy can bear.  It does not involve the propagation by our Prime Minister of concepts that serve to stigmatise hundreds of thousands of people.  And, on a personal note, there are few things which make a child of immigrants feel as utterly unwelcome in the UK as a conversation which is couched in these reductive terms.