Archive for June 2013

Othello and domestic violence

I’ve just watched Othello at the National Theatre, which was a privilege, and which also made me see the play in an unsettling new light. Like many, I had never perceived the core of the play to be about racism, but jealousy. However, I was struck for the first time by the extent to which domestic violence pervades the narrative. Both the protagonists, Iago and Othello, murder their wives, having spent the entire play being largely dismissive of their opinions. Othello, for all his talk of loving Desdemona “not wisely, but too well” appears not to love Desdemona so much as the idea of her: even in death, she is somehow not fully human but, rather, is his “pearl”, with whom he has ultimately done as he pleased.

There are two main reasons, I think, why I am currently looking at Othello through an even grimmer lens than usual.  The first, and most visceral, was the sight of Othello with his hands to Desdemona’s throat, which was uncomfortably resonant given the recent images of Charles Saatchi gripping the neck of his wife Nigella Lawson.  The second, and no less troubling, was the recent release of a series of papers by the World Health Organisation; in which, reported the Associated Press, “experts estimated nearly 40 percent of women killed worldwide were slain by an intimate partner and that being assaulted by a partner was the most common kind of violence experienced by women.”

These papers, based on global studies made between 1983 and 2010, also found that “30 percent of women are affected by domestic or sexual violence by a partner.”  Moreover, though there was some divergence in results between regions, the numbers remained brutal in their sheer weight:

“The rate of domestic violence against women was highest in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where 37 percent of women experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their lifetime. The rate was 30 percent in Latin and South America and 23 percent in North America. In Europe and Asia, it was 25 percent.”

When the lowest incidence of domestic violence worldwide is 23 per cent across an entire continent, then it’s pretty clear that we are dealing with, in the words of WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, “a global health problem of epidemic proportions”.  These figures are compelling evidence of a systemic failure in the way that men are being brought up and otherwise socialised to relate to women.  They reveal a global culture of misogyny so overwhelming that it is difficult for many of us to look it long in the eye.

Yet look at it long we must; and then deconstruct and dismantle it with forensic care.  The National last night fell into the most horrified of silences as Othello slowly squeezed the life from Desdemona, an appropriate metaphor for the shame and denial that currently surrounds this culture.  Meanwhile, this magnificent production was a reminder that theatre may be one of many highly effective tools for taking this culture to task; and, with that in mind, here’s to its continued success.

James Gandolfini and divas

James Gandolfini has passed away at the age of just 51, and I’m trying to work out why I have been so moved by the death of a total stranger.  It’s partly because he played the toughest of roles, Tony Soprano, with a thoughtfulness and compassion beyond almost any other actor of his or any other generation. Maybe it was the gay hitman he played in The Mexican, an otherwise bland film, where you found yourself rooting for him to be happy. Of course, there is also something unbearably sad about the passing of someone who, through his performances, gave so much to so many.

But I don’t think it’s either of those.  I think it’s because of the sheer humility of his path to the top.  Like many in his profession, he grafted in low paid jobs for years before getting his casting in The Sopranos, a casting which by several accounts was a very great risk.  They could easily have hired someone better known, or conventionally better looking.  But they went for him because, despite everything against him, he was the best.

James Gandolfini was a true artist.  And when I say that, I mean that his primary joy came from the work.  To him, the craft was first.  We artists live in an age – maybe we have always been in such an age – where we are continually reminded that, in order to be successful, we must be pushy and ruthless and overbearing and aggressive.  And, whenever many of us are told such things, we quietly think “but can’t my work just speak for itself?  If I produce work of sufficient beauty, won’t that alone make me shine”?

That’s why James Gandolfini was and will forever remain such a wonderful example.  From the accounts and anecdotes emerging today, he was a warm and humble man who made the very best of his talent.  He reminds us, vitally, that it’s possible to make it all the way, and not be a brute or a diva.   We are so often told that an artist’s work should be viewed separately from their personal life, that how they treated others has no bearing on their legacy, but I have always disagreed with that.  My greatest inspirations have always been artists whose gifts and achievements were matched only by their sense of humanity, which is why I think I will always have Kurt Vonnegut on a pedestal.  For his work, and the life that he led, it looks like Gandolfini should be on one too.

My new poem, about football: “The best bruises”.

I played a game of football once.

It was on the furthest field from my college;

To get there,

You had to walk off the edge of the map of the town.

Of the eleven men on their team that day,

I only remember one:

A centre-back, his ankles thick as my neck,

Thighs twice as wide as mine,

His flesh the faintest shade,

Like two drops of blood in a pint of milk.

Squat and broad, topped off with a scalp bearing rusted grass,

He had a careful fury about him;

After each challenge,

He slowly, thoughtfully wiped his right boot on the grass,

A butcher cleaning his cleaver.

He carved at me many times,

But found little meat into which he could cut deep,

My legs being two shivering stalks of black bamboo.

Maybe I feared him,

But I was lured back always

By the promise of those fifteen yards between his heels and his goalkeeper,

The most exciting patch of land in sport.

Late in the game, which we were leading by now,

I finally found myself there,

Surging into the headwind, my ambition stronger,

Tearing beyond that last, fatigued slash of his limbs,

Then rolling the ball low, firm and decisive.

My team-mates gathered around me like brothers,

And their smiles meant as much as a father’s.

Later, I limped slowly home,

Proudly bearing the best bruises

I had ever earned.

Charles Saatchi and the language of deflection

Note: This post was inspired by “Silence and Violence”, a TEDx talk by Jackson Katz, Ph. D, in which he drew attention to a compelling feminist analysis of how society often uses language to diminish the importance of men’s violence against women.  Very helpfully shared on Twitter by @RoughEstateDate, it is excellent viewing, and well worth nineteen minutes of your time.    


Charles Saatchi has accepted a caution for his conduct in a London restaurant, where a photographer took pictures of him holding his wife Nigella Lawson by the throat.  His acceptance of caution was an admission that he had committed assault.  He also issued a statement which, though brief, I found of particular interest.  It read as follows:

“Although Nigella made no complaint, I volunteered to go to Charing Cross station and take a police caution after a discussion with my lawyer because I thought it was better than the alternative of this hanging over all of us for months.”

Though a short piece of text, I think that it contains a great deal of interesting detail, and I will swiftly take its two elements in turn.

  1. “Although Nigella made no complaint” – The implication here is that the incident was not of sufficient seriousness for his own wife to register it formally with police.  However, his own acceptance of a caution contradicts that implication.  By coming forward in this way, he has tacitly acknowledged the grave nature of his actions.
  2. “I volunteered to go to Charing Cross station and take a police caution…because I thought it was better than the alternative of this hanging over all of us for months.” – This is framed as if an act of altruism, and not limitation of damage to his own reputation.  The language here – “hanging over us [my italics] – ” is of note.  He could just as easily be talking about an accusation levelled against his family as a whole.  However, there is nothing hanging over him and his wife: it is his act which led to the caution, and she is not complicit in it.  There is nothing hanging over her except public sympathy; on the other hand, what hangs over him is the finger of guilt and reproach.  In using this language, he seems to be trying to sidle out of an uncomfortable spotlight.

Nowhere in this statement is there an expression of regret.  Perhaps this is something that he feels that he should express in private, and is not a subject for public discussion.  In any event, his words give the impression of someone who is not wholly contrite, but who rather is trying to deflect attention from the very serious nature of what he did.

A problematic discussion of Saatchi

The photographs of Charles Saatchi with his hands to Nigella Lawson’s throat were, in his own words, “horrific”; though he was quick to state that they “give a far more drastic and violent impression of what took place.”  His subsequent explanation of this altercation with his wife as “a playful tiff”, when taken together with his own admission that she was in tears, lacks credence.  What is also problematic, though, is how this incident was treated by Mr. Roy Greenslade in The Guardian; and it has implications, I think, for how the media treat their coverage of alleged acts of domestic violence.

Mr. Greenslade’s article is primarily concerned with the media’s behaviour, condemning their “rush to judgement” upon seeing the pictures.   Yet Mr. Greenslade has rushed to a judgement of his own, stating – without foundation – that following this incident “the couple went on living happily together afterwards”. [My italics]  There is no evidence for this assertion, which implies that whatever happened was summarily shrugged off in the following days.  It is simply presented as fact.

This assertion is problematic, if not dangerous.  It can have the effect of brushing what looks to be a very serious incident under the carpet; and, ironically, is a textbook example of how the media should not have responded to the emergence of these photographs.

New poem, “The Wilderness”, on dealing with loss

I go to the wilderness –

Where the loneliness, and the stillness is:
I go to the wilderness,
Where the knives end, and the silence begins:
I go to the wilderness,
Just me and my suffering, I’m filled with it:
I go to the wilderness –
It’s there that I recover
The will to live, where I recharge,
Let new wounds quietly subside to scars:
I’m here at the wilderness, the verge
Where lives drift by, and I observe;
Here I shield my heart from the worst,
Then, once healed, to the world return.

To J. Cole: an open letter from a faggot

Dear Mr. Cole,

I have just listened with interest to the first track, “Villuminati” from your new Born Sinner album; and my attention was caught most not by the excellent beat or your finely-tuned flow, but by a couple of lyrics early in the song. They were these:

“My verbal AK slay faggots and I don’t mean not disrespect
Whenever I say faggot, okay faggot? Huh, don’t be so sensitive
If you want to get fucked in the ass
That’s between you and whoever else’s dick it is, pause
Maybe that line was too far
Just a little joke to show how homophobic you are
And who can blame ya?”

Well, let’s take this line by line.

• The first thing is that I’m not sure that you mean no disrespect. Calling for my slaying, whether metaphorically or otherwise, isn’t the most cordial of greetings.

• There’s also the issue of the word “faggot”, which when said in such an apparently aggressive fashion as this is pretty much the same as a racist cop calling me “nigger”.

• There then follows a blanket assumption about what gay men do in bed. Of course, an ignorant heterosexual man’s analysis of gay sex between two men is about as welcome as a woolly sweater in a steam room, but thank you for giving us your two cents. Actually – wait. No thank you. No thank you at all. Please close our bedroom door, we didn’t ask you to open it.

• It’s a strange claim that, by drawing attention to your prejudice, I myself am prejudiced: “Just a little joke to show how homophobic you are”. I would also suggest that, when you have more than 3.8million Twitter followers as you currently do, then such a “little joke” is not in fact so little, and that’s why I am responding to it.

Mr. Cole, two things are almost entirely certain about this letter to you. The first is that you will not read it. The second is that you will not care. As a result, I have decided to write it merely for the record. The truth is, of course, that two gay men having sex is absolutely no threat to your career. What is a far greater threat to your career, at present, is the pressure to produce outstanding material in the lull helpfully provided by the absence of Jay Electronica. That should be the greatest focus of your attention.

It’s early days to say so, but your views on gay men may do some damage to your legacy. Of course, two of the reasons that you enjoy the platform you currently do in the USA – “a young black man with a college degree” – are James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, two great human beings who knew a thing or two about the word “legacy”. They were both gay black men, and their names ring through the ages. Time will tell if yours does the same.

Musa Okwonga

Poem: “What’s In A Name?”, with The King’s Will

I wrote this short poem, which Giles Hayter made into a track with The King’s Will, for a BBC Radio 4 documentary about names and the effect that they have on our lives. I hope you enjoy it.

“What’s In A Name?”

What’s in a name? –
There’s lots in my name:
Three African syllables tossed in my name:
Many refugees fleeing gunshots in my name –
One father, to us long lost, in my name…
Some people frown when they jot down my name:
And often the spelling is botched of my name –
I forgive them. Its rhythm was born not on this plain
But one where the sun soothes the crops with its rays.
We have achieved lots with my name:
There are poets, musicians, doctors with my name:
A name some find odd, but I bear not with shame
But as proudly as some wear a cross on a chain.

On drones: “Monotony”

This is our monotony:
They bring the most hateful of rainfalls,
And don’t make apologies:
They send storms from the jaws of a drone
To slay those who’d take the USA off its throne –
So each day, we’re preparing for rain;
For these drops not of water
But rage;
Wait –
All you’ll hear is the hum as they’re closing
A teenaged male isn’t safe in the open –
So we’ve taught them to run,
Our daughters and sons –
Taught them something most terrible:
That here in Yemen, it is never wise
To gaze up and daydream into our own skies:
This is –
The only way, we are told;
That’s not so bad as it goes:
Shattered bone,
Shattered hope,
Shattered homes,
We all raise our eyes at the drones –
And so:
In many decades, our youth will explain
Why, when about town, they still walk with necks craned