Archive for August 2013

My BBC Radio 4 talk on social media: “Why Mount Kimbie is better than Twitter” [2010]


I woke up on a friend’s sofa at half six, my alarm went off at seven, and I got up at quarter past. By then I’d already checked the Internet to see if anyone had Tweeted me during my sleep. They hadn’t, so I looked next for the latest news stories.

You know the world’s changed when al-Jazeera is your homepage. They were reporting on the terrible drought in Somalia which affected 10 million people. It was impossibly tragic, and impossibly distant. The picture on the website was a portrait of misery but it seemed more like a high-definition shot from a film about the misery. It’s odd. Sometimes I wonder what the Internet raises more: our sense of awareness, or our sense of helplessness. Sometimes I feel like the sadness we see on our flatscreens has become just another movie we don’t have to watch.

I moved out of my girlfriend’s place last night, having advertised the break-up on Facebook first. I clicked on a button and changed my relationship status from “in a relationship” to “single”. Thing is, I never even wanted to list that I was in a relationship in the first place. For me, saying that you’re going out with someone on Facebook is a bit like selling your wedding pictures to Hello! magazine. It’s the karmic kiss of death, you’re setting yourself up for an awful fall.

I once read something about a Native American belief, possibly apocryphal, that to have a photo taken of yourself is to lose part of your soul, that it somehow saps away your life-force. I think I see what they mean. Online now are the ghosts of joy, photos taken of her and I when we were in perfect sync. Now they’re remnants of love lived but now lost, and strangers can now scroll through them to see how happy we once were, the same way civilisations millennia from now will look at those first few footprints skipping over the surface of the Moon. There’s an irony in looking at that online photo album: I surf it in silence, but the echoes are deafening.

I needed to keep moving. My brain and my body weren’t made for inertia; I needed purpose. I needed to stay fervent, or I would be engulfed by the emptiness. But I couldn’t go onto Twitter. Twitter makes me feel scattered. I have a lot of followers but I have no idea where I’m leading them. I have 140 characters to impress a passing set of eyes, so that they’ll read about me and maybe retweet me, though they’ll almost never meet me. Speed-dating seems intimate by comparison.

I have a friend who’s very good at tweeting, almost as good as he is at performing. I once joked that I didn’t need a watch: to tell the time, I simply had to check how many followers he had on Twitter, since he seemed to gain them at the rate of about a thousand every hour. I met him three and a half years ago at a show in King’s Cross, few people knew of his talent then. Now he’s just about the most exciting thing in music.

He became famous through YouTube, and so the Internet’s been very good to him. He performed an astonishing show of singing, rapping and beatboxing through a loop station, all the time strumming and slapping his guitar: the web went wild for it. That was millions of views ago: and, though he’s still at the very start of his career, his face has already been in umpteen homes across the globe. It seems almost the wrong way round. As he once said about the music industry, “these days you’ve got to make it before you make it”.

I might make it one day; but, more immediately, things in my offline life needed attention. (You know, life: that thing that happens in between the emails that never arrive.) At worst, I check my email dozens of times per hour, waiting for confirmation that this producer will work with me or that this magazine liked my book or my album. Log in, username, password, enter, look, grimace, refresh. Logout, log in, username, password, enter, look, grimace, refresh. It’s like I’m a kid sitting in the back of my ego’s car, and we’re on the road to success, and I keep screeching “are we there yet, are we there yet?” There’s nothing like an empty inbox to remind you of your distance from your dreams.

Having washed and brushed, I stepped outside. Unusually, Monday was kind. Maybe the day knew of my weekend’s grief, and there was something sympathetic about the sunlight. I didn’t want to disrespect the weather I’d been given by commuting underground to work, and so I waited patiently for the Number 4 bus. In the meantime, I fought to resist the itch that was Twitter. I love Twitter, but I don’t trust it. It’s like comfort food for the neurotic soul. You can sit and rant for hours about anything, tweeting your spleen out, and – whether approving or not – there’ll almost always be a responsive pair of eyes for what you write. And that doesn’t seem right. It’s too easy to vent instead of using that tension to go out and change what you really need to change.

Talking of change, I’m not the only person who’s more than a little miffed at Twitter. I was at a conference in Sweden recently, just outside Stockholm. There was one speaker in particular whose words stayed with me. His name was Mohamed El Dahshan, and forty-eight hours earlier he’d been fighting for a new and fair world in Egypt. Now he was in the West, in a world where there were millions of self-satisfied or merely oblivious citizens who thought that Twitter, and its social media stablemate, Facebook, had prompted the Arab Spring. He was angry about that. In fact, he was so angry he didn’t lose his temper. He was brimming with a righteous rage as he corrected what he saw as a complacent narrative.

Revolution, he made clear, wasn’t something that you achieved by remote control. You don’t get regime change by clicking “Like” on a democracy Facebook page. Freedom can’t be tweeted. You have to scuffle and skirmish in the dust and dirt for it. You need to bleed and yearn for it. He was so angry. Out there they don’t do unmanned drones, they stand against thrones. While we retweet, they don’t retreat.

He finished speaking, to the applause of many hundreds of hands. He asked those of us in the West, particularly those in the media, to do what we could to spread the word, to look inside ourselves and question if we were doing enough in support of the Arab Spring. I had a good think: and after some profound thought, I just started following him on Twitter.

See: there I go again. What came first, the chicken or the egg; what came first, the Twitter or the smug? Was I this flippant before Twitter? I was bad, but not this bad. You’re only given so much space with each tweet to send something witty out into the ether. So you’ve got to make it count, right? “Tweet now, ask questions later.” Otherwise no-one will be impressed. None of those complete strangers out there will be impressed.

I needed to get off Twitter, I needed to get unplugged, but it was harder than I thought. I kept reaching for its homepage like a smoker fiddling for cigarettes. So I did what everyone should do when they’ve just had a breakup, and reached instead for an album by Mount Kimbie.

For those of you who don’t know them, Mount Kimbie are an electronica outfit and they are very, very, very good. They are good friends of a musician called James Blake, who is a very big deal if you are a fan of a brand of music called post-dubstep, which if you are as old as me you will recognise as garage. Anyway. Mount Kimbie have released an excellent album called “Crooks and Lovers”, and the reason it’s so good is that it’s ideal listening for those who’ve just ended a wonderful but ultimately unsustainable love affair.

It’s not one of those pieces of music that gives you instant respite from your sadness – it’s not filled with nauseatingly happy tunes. Nor is it filled with hollow melancholy. As you listen to it, it walks gently with you to the verge of tears, then equally gently it steerss you away. It doesn’t give you easy answers, it doesn’t lead you to extremes, and that’s why it’s better than Twitter.

Anyway. The Number 4 bus arrived, and so I boarded it, walking to the top floor with the subtle vocal hooks of “Crooks and Lovers” massaging my heart via my ears. The weather had been kind to me, and the bus had been kind to me too. There was a group of four of five schoolgirls nearby, and somehow the pleasant energy of their rowdy chatter filtered underneath the drums and bass of Mount Kimbie’s album, so that it felt like an already fine piece of electronica was being sampled and remixed by strangers. I should’ve recorded it and released it as a mixtape, and given them all production credits. I could have called it “Mount Kimbie: The Number 4 Remix”, produced by Jenny, Sarah, Helen, Kate and Jane of, I don’t know, Clerkenwell Girls Technology College.

The bus and I made our way along its route. Truth was, I’d walked half this distance last night: trying to make some space in my head after this break-up, I’d gone for a five-minute stroll and ended up at the Barbican forty minutes later. No-one really knew where I was. I’d left the house while no-one else was home, and a week before I’d had my numbers wiped from my iPhone, so I was wandering aimless and invisible. No Facebook status updates, no pith on Twitter, just me and my blues and my gold Puma athletic shoes.


Look: I know I’m sounding ungrateful about social media, and perhaps I am. It’s allowed people like me to market our work for free to audiences of previously unimaginable size. But sometimes in life you just need a clear, uninterrupted run at things, whatever that is – whether it’s your happiness or your sadness, you just need to feel it and not force it, you need to let that narrative that’s in your guts just roll on out of you. That’s why I had to take that unplugged bus ride. No mentions or retweets. Just me.

Talking of narratives, I think that’s why I like Mount Kimbie – and no, I’m not their press officer. They can do glorious sonic narratives, they can make you lift and tilt and fall and softly prevail. It took me one and a half listens of their album to get to work, by which time I was already feeling entirely better.

In fact, from now on, I think I’m going to express all physical and emotional distances that I travel in relation to the amount of listens to a Mount Kimbie album that it takes me to travel them. E.g. if I’m in a very bad mood, and it takes me two listens of “Crooks and Lovers” to get out of it, then I’m two Mount Kimbies away from happiness. I think that this could catch on.

Well, I think that’s about it from me. I should do some thankyous. I would like to thank the BBC and the RSA for having me. I would like to thank my mate for letting me crash on his sofa and I would like to thank my ex-girlfriend for showing me how love felt a decade after I’d forgotten it.

I would like to thank Ed Sheeran for being a musician whose progress as an artist gives me the greatest happiness. Thank you to Facebook, I’m sorry if I laid into you. Obviously, I would like to thank Mount Kimbie.  And finally, thank you to Twitter. I wrote this without you, but I couldn’t have written this without you.

A-levels: something very short.

I’m seeing lots of “A-levels don’t really matter” tweets. I can only speak from my experience but they were pretty much the turning-point in my life. Education is a way out for so many people, particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds. I could very easily have fallen short of my uni offers, it was only a mammoth round of revision for my resits that saved me. At that point in my life, I’m frightened to think of what the loss of self-esteem would have cost me.

I guess if, in the unlikely event that anyone of A-level age reads this and they’ve got disappointing results, I would say: nothing wrong with having a good sob. All these inspirational stories of how people pulled themselves up by the bootstraps will mean sweet f**k-all at the moment. After you’ve had time to take a step back, just keep it moving however you can, no matter how futile your efforts might seem. It can be a brutal grind at times; so much respect to you as you move forward. Very best of luck. X

UKIP’s Season In Bongo Bongo Land

Today was a day of contrasts. I began it by considering the words of Godfrey Bloom, a Member of the European Parliament for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who stated his displeasure that so much foreign aid was going to “bongo bongo land”. I continued my day by going to watch A Season In The Congo at The Young Vic, a superb production led by the dignity and magnificence of Chiwetel Ejiotor in the lead role. (The play, should you wish to see it, is the story of Congo’s independence; and of the horrifying death of Patrice Lumumba, that nation’s first Prime Minister, at the hands of Joseph Mobutu’s troops. ) And here I am now. It’s later than I would like, and so this post may be somewhat less coherent than I would wish. But, whilst these contrasts remain fresh, I feel that a few things must be noted.

The first thing is that I think that Godfrey Bloom’s comments, for which he subsequently expressed regret, are spectacularly racist. To dismiss Africa, a continent of over fifty nations, as “bongo bongo land”, is to conjure an image of several million generic dark-skinned beggars anxiously squeezing at the benevolent British teat. It implies an image of countless people, somewhere over there, unaccountably waiting for colonial charity. That image is both wrong and offensive (of which more later).

The second thing is that UKIP’s statement on Mr. Bloom’s comments is perhaps more revealing than the original comments themselves. Steve Crowther, the party’s chairman, stated that “it doesn’t sound like anyone banging drums. It sounds like a shorthand way of saying places around the world which are in receipt of foreign aid. It’s not in itself the right word and it could seem disparaging to people who come from foreign countries and that‘s why I’ve asked him not to do it again”.

Mr. Crowther’s words read as a reluctant, tactical retraction, and not as a heartfelt apology. They read as a partial apologia for the type of attitudes that endorsed Britain’s imperial adventures from a conveniently remote distance. Mr. Crowther – like his colleague Mr. Bloom – still seems happy to cast African countries as some sort of unwitting dependant, and in doing so blithely brushes over the oppressions to which these countries were once so brutally subjected.

Reflecting upon A Season In The Congo, I think that this is why I took issue with Mr. Bloom’s words. After all, it’s not as if Congo and other African countries begged to be tied to the master’s yoke. And if those countries did end up receiving aid from Britain and other colonial powers, that’s only because their economies were so shattered by enslavement and slaughter that they ended up needing loans – not mere no-strings handouts, as UKIP would have us believe – so that they could ostensibly sustain themselves as viable trading partners (or, more accurately, as supine pastures for exploitation). In fact, there’s an argument that whatever financial aid Britain provides to these countries, it can never truly be enough to compensate for the horror wrought on these lands in the name of civilisation. All the money in the world cannot wholly replace the generations that were lost to bloodletting and bondage.

So, if we can, let’s depart from this narrative of passive African dependency: because it is as false as it is offensive. And let’s continue to ask ourselves why the UK’s leading political parties are willing to let UKIP, a party playing so fast and loose with historical facts, dictate the terms of our increasingly poisonous immigration debate.


Who was driving the vans, Mr. Crosby?

Now here’s something that I found surprising. After the Home Office’s vans had dragged the topic of immigration into a yet more unsavoury place, we were informed by The Sunday Times that Lynton Crosby, the Conservative Party’s chief election strategist, did not approve of their deployment. To quote the article,

“[Lynton Crosby] has suggested that the Home Office’s scheme for “go home” vans targeting illegal immigrants is flawed and has backfired…In a private meeting he indicated that the vans were playing into the hands of Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, by focusing the debate on the “tactics not the issue”.” [My italics.]

Hmmm. I would believe this, but for the fact that Mr. Crosby has previously been instrumental in focusing the immigration debate on the “tactics not the issue”. Mr. Crosby helped to guide John Howard to four victories in Australia’s general election, and it is the win in 2001 that is most instructive here. Then, during a campaign where immigration was a key concern among voters, Mr. Crosby, in the words of The Independent, “was linked to claims…that asylum seekers had thrown children overboard to drown in order to secure safe passage into the country.” These claims were subsequently found to be false, by which time Mr. Crosby’s party had won the election.

On the one hand, we could step away from this supposition, and say that Mr. Crosby has been unfairly tarred with stigmatising foreign visitors to his party’s shores. On the other hand, we could also note that Mr. Crosby’s tenures as a party’s chief electoral strategist do seem to coincide with that party’s alarmingly sharp spikes in anti-immigration words and deeds. Given that he is a man renowned for his strategic brilliance and tight control of messaging, it seems very unlikely that the Home Office’s series of controversial tweets and the presence of immigration control vans on the streets emerged without his knowledge or consent.

Here’s what I think: and I could be wrong, but here goes. I think that these tweets and these vans (to say nothing of the UK Border Agency’s requests for people’s papers) were all part of Mr. Crosby’s intention to test the water, to see whether there was a public appetite for severe anti-immigration policies. I say this because of the relatively low expenditure that was put into this exercise. All that it cost the Conservative party was a few tweets, and a few vans on the street.

If we look at the UK Home Office’s twitter account, the number of “suspected #immigrationoffenders [my italics]” being arrested was hardly dramatic; just 139 nationwide on 1st August 2013. This doesn’t look like a widespread crackdown: if illegal immigration really is the epidemic that the rhetoric suggests, then this figure would presumably be higher. No: instead, this felt like an experiment, conducted well in advance of the election, to see just how far this wedge could be driven into one of our society’s carefully-developed wounds.

On that analysis, those tweets and accompanying photos of those vans weren’t directed at Twitter. Instead, they were projected beyond London, where Mr. Crosby assisted Boris Johnson to two electoral victories as the city’s mayor, to a less diverse population far less comfortable with all this multicultural stuff. The resounding negativity with which these actions have been received have forced the Conservative Party to take a slightly milder tack on immigration. Moreover, their failure – for now? – has led Mr. Crosby to distance himself from them.  After all, it’s either that, or accepting the gleeful charge from Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, that the vans were “an astonishingly stupid idea”.  Mr. Crosby must now retreat and to calibrate his message more carefully for the heartland: to outflank UKIP whilst keeping the right number of centrist voters in his camp.

Now, some might argue that they see nothing wrong with the Conservative Party’s tweets, vans and spot checks. To them, I would reply that the mere lack of the correct documents does not justify public humiliation: and, moreover, if we’re going to target suspected offenders in this fashion, then why not do the same for those who are suspected to have evaded tax? Why single out immigrants? Some might also say that we should move on: that we should accept Mr. Crosby’s version of events, that it was not he who approved these actions but rather the Minister of Immigration Mark Harper, who was being somewhat overzealous in the prosecution of his duties.

Hey: maybe I should relax. But in truth, there’s nothing about this episode that gives me any cause for comfort; or which suggests that, in the months approaching the 2015 general election, we won’t see the resurfacing of such unpleasant narratives.

A short poem on rhetoric against illegal immigration, “Bacteria”.

Britain is pure, clean and uninfected –

At least, it must be

In time for elections.

It is a fact regrettably learned

That during a recession

Some humans become germs.

So flush them –

Let our vans rush through their streets

Like bleach.