Archive for October 2013

About Thierry Henry in England: a poem, “Thierry Be Good”

Thierry Henry is the most elegantly devastating forward I have ever seen.  I recently received a flipbook of his finest goals, and having read it I was inspired to write the short poem below about the impact that he had when playing in England.  If you’d like a free mp3 of the piece, I have included a free recording below.  I hope that you enjoy it; if so, please share with a Gooner or two.

“Thierry Be Good”

Thierry Henry:
One of the few footballers you knew
Who could have played the game in a three piece suit.
The man had a free-jazz swagger,
And rock star status was his:
From Highbury to Madrid
He toured his greatest hits.
The ex-winger
Who became the frontman of a band of winners
And a whole ground of backing singers.
The one-man blizzard
Leaving back fours with sore innards
And so many opponents’ hopes undone.
No major trophies left unwon:
There’s never been a better weapon in a club full of guns.
Manchester United nil,
Thierry one;
While Spurs threw endless derbies at him,
But could never beat Thierry once.
Thierry Henry:
Letting him sprint
Was like giving Jordan
A leg-up to the rim;
Leaving him unmarked
Was like giving Senna
A getaway car.
Go Thierry, go, go;
Go Thierry, go, go, go;
Any week,
Against any team,
Thierry be good.

On Russell Brand: wrong tone, wrong timing.

So, it’s been a pretty miserable couple of days. In trying to provide a nuanced opinion on Russell Brand, I worry that I have shifted some attention – however small, or unwittingly – away from the necessary observations that he has made of late.

I recently wrote an article expressing what I felt was mild criticism of a couple of Brand’s public recent utterances. My concern, as expressed in the article, was that if Brand truly wishes to advocate a revolution, then his message will be all the more effective for being inclusive. Specifically, that there’s a sizeable number of women who find it difficult to get behind the terrific work that he is doing, because they feel that he is sexist. If he can mobilise their support, then he will have an even greater impact than he is already having.

For several months, I have been enthusiastically sharing all manner of Brand’s work on Twitter and Facebook: his writings on Woolwich, on Hugo Boss, on the Houses of Parliament as metaphor, and his interview on MSNBC. I think that he represents one of the most important spokespeople that we have for progressive causes. My only point was that the danger of elevating spokespeople to euphoric heights is that if they let you down then the disappointment is devastating.

Far better to acknowledge some of his problematic positions at the outset, I thought, but still support the overwhelming good that he is doing – which, for the avoidance of doubt, is my position. All advocates for social change must learn on the job. Hell, even Malcolm X had to learn on the job. Not all of us get it right first time, and my aim was not to write a hatchet job on Brand.

Advocating for social change is a work in progress, and I only meant to state that Russell Brand is a work in progress too. That’s all. I’m certainly not perfect and nor is anyone else who has publicly articulated a political position of any sort. If I could have changed anything about the original article that I had written, it would have been the title: it implied a greater condemnation of Brand’s work than appeared in the actual piece. I almost went so far as deleting the article altogether today, but ultimately felt that it would have been an act of cowardice to do so.

It’s a very important time for our society, both in Britain and far beyond that, and it’s vital that people such as Brand, flaws and all, step forward and make the arguments that they are making. There are too many people who would rather sit by and say nothing. There are too many people who don’t care and who will look for any excuse to dismiss the activism of those who do, and I fear that I have inadvertently provided them with ammunition.

A painful parallel dawned on me this morning. A day or so after Mehdi Hasan made his brilliant appearance on Question Time, a superb two-minute speech in which he excoriated the Daily Mail, that same newspaper published a pitch for an occasional opinion piece that Hasan had written to their editor, Paul Dacre. The negative effect of this publication was both to check somewhat the momentum and goodwill that Hasan created through his speech, and to arouse suspicion of Hasan’s motives in left-wing quarters. I worry that my article has already been used (albeit on a vastly smaller scale – I don’t flatter myself) to do exactly the same thing.

All in all, I think this is probably a good moment for me to take a break from Twitter and Facebook. The constant examination of what I increasingly feel was an error of tone and timing is exhausting, and for the time being I can do without it. I have a whole shelf of unread books, and I should probably begin to attend to those.

Thank you very much for reading this far; I hope that you have found it of some interest, and maybe even some benefit.


On Russell Brand and lazy sexism: be wary of jumping on the Brandwagon

So there’s a new vehicle in town: let’s call it the Brandwagon. It’s been built from the unquestioning adulation for a stand-up comedian who is developing a voice as a popular social commentator. And it’s something that people should be wary of jumping aboard.

I should say here that I am very, very, very pleased that Russell Brand is raising so many of the issues that he is raising. He is addressing inequality of opportunity and the stale centrism of mainstream politics in a manner that is compelling, accessible, entertaining and crucial. His is a voice that resonates with many. His prose and media appearances are always thoroughly engaging, and frequently brilliant.

I should also say that it is not Russell Brand’s fault that the Brandwagon exists. It is not his fault that he has stated opinions which speak directly to the concerns of many, and that he is currently one of the few figures in British public life whom people feel that they can rally behind.

But, but I think that Russell Brand is still learning, and refining, his craft as a political advocate. I say this because of the torrential horror on my Twitter timeline from several people alarmed that he is apparently being placed upon the podium of left-wing political comment. Their horror stems from what the writer Sarah Ditum has identified as his “lazy sexism”, evident both in his celebrated MSNBC appearance and in the opening line of his New Statesman guest editorial. Right there, beneath a sub-heading which states that “before the world, we need to change the way we think”, Brand writes that “When I was asked to edit an issue of the New Statesman I said yes because it was a beautiful woman asking me.

See, here’s the thing. I and others will run the risk of sounding like killjoys for pointing this out, but if you’re advocating a revolution of the way that things are being done, then it’s best not to risk alienating your feminist allies with a piece of flippant objectification in your opening sentence. It’s just not a good look. Plenty were turned off by that introduction, which might seem churlish to some, but to me seems entirely logical: it confirms their concerns that, on this front, he has not made sufficient progress.

With all that said, I would rather end this on a positive note.  As I become increasingly familiar with his work, I see that he is someone who is open to examining his own views on various issues, and his self-assessment is often caustic.  Moreover, I am extremely glad to see that Brand is out there and vividly questioning so much that is broken in our politics.  He has energised the debate and has created the space for other people to state their cases for social change, towards a fairer, more equal society. But he’s still got some way to go himself: and, in that context, for left-wingers to hitch themselves to the Brandwagon seems premature.

Tommy T-1000 Robinson, Snickers, and why I almost miss Nick Griffin

I almost miss Nick Griffin, as I always suspected I might.  As racists go, Nick Griffin had a couple of things against him.  The first was that he wasn’t particularly smart, and wilted in the face of the most elementary debating points.  The second was his haughty manner, which made him easy to caricature as an elitist, as a class snob who’d caught the TARDIS straight from the dying days of the Third Reich.

I almost miss Nick Griffin because Tommy Robinson is smart; and he is a far better communicator than Griffin will ever be.  Griffin was an adversary whom many found it easy to outfox.  Robinson will be a far tougher proposition, and the news that he has now left the EDL and taken his prejudice freelance is, I think, great cause for concern.

Tommy Robinson is smart because every time that we write, type or utter the stage-name Tommy Robinson we help to take him further from his original identity of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the child of Irish immigrants who swiftly realised that to portray himself as the saviour of the English he would have to change his name.  After all, you can’t parade so comfortably yourself as the indigenous working-class white hero if (a) your surname is visibly foreign and (b) double-barrelled.  Just listen to his stage-name: “Tommy Robinson”.  It’s rhythmic, and can roll off your tongue even when you’re drunk in the guts of an angry crowd at noon.  Yaxley-Lennon very possibly thought about stuff like this.  The marketing of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as Tommy Robinson is the most successful piece of rebranding since Marathon anointed itself as Snickers.

Just as with Snickers, I strongly suspect that Yaxley-Lennon offers the same flavour under a different name.  There are many who are rushing to see him as a reformed character now that, alongside the Quilliam Foundation, he has apparently turned his back on the EDL’s violent outliers.  They would do well to remember that just last week he attempted to intimidate the editor of an anti-EDL website by tweeting photos of his home.  Yaxley-Lennon, a former member of the BNP, has not to my mind had a Damascene conversation.  I think that he has merely done what all canny executives do, which is to leave a failing brand in search of better job opportunities.

Yaxley-Lennon is a man of relentless agility; in that sense, he reminds me of the T-1000, the upgraded robot in the second Terminator film.  The early models of the Terminator, of which Nick Griffin was one, were summarily repelled: they didn’t look right, they didn’t move right. The T-1000, however, was far harder to confront.  Like Yaxley-Lennon, it keeps shifting shape, and it keeps advancing.

I watched one of the shows where this T-1000’s advance was partly checked: and this was when he was in a debate with Akala, a rapper, record label-owner and teacher, on BBC Three’s Free Speech programme.  Their debate was as great a mismatch as that time when Portugal met North Korea in the 2010 World Cup, for the simple reason that Akala was exceptionally well-prepared and kept his cool.  What was a worry, though, was the way that several other people on the show engaged with Yaxley-Lennon.  Filled with understandable fury and horror at the progress of his far-right organisation, they opted for soundbites and angry point-scoring rather than carefully and coldly dissecting the tortuous logic that lay beneath Yaxley-Lennon’s ideology.  The result, if you mute the footage at certain points, is the unfortunate image of a white working-class man being laughed at by a gleeful audience of the metropolitan elite.  Yaxley-Lennon is wise enough to understand how this sight would burnish his credentials as a true outsider.

That’s not to say that Yaxley-Lennon is entirely dishonest.  When he remarked that leaving the EDL was a huge step for him, he was right.  He has turned his back on the heartland where he created a substantial following.  At the same time, though, he knew that he had outgrown the EDL, just as a leading Championship forward will get restless when Premier League clubs come calling.  The real question is who will pick him up next.  Yaxley-Lennon is apparently about to make the step up to a higher division of prejudice: and it is this leap in public life, one that Nick Griffin desperately desired but could never make, that I watch with trepidation.