Archive for January 2015

A Letter to Uganda.

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“Do you miss Uganda?”

People, including me, ask me this now and then.  The truth is that I don’t, really; I don’t miss anywhere.  My relationship with the country that my parents fled was born in trauma, and I think that a reflexive fear of attachment to any place has been with me ever since.  Despite this, though, Uganda remains with me in a couple of persistent ways. Behind me in the kitchen as I type this, on the cooker’s furthest hob, is a pot of red kidney beans in peanut butter sauce, to be accompanied later by a side of polenta: the same dish that hungry members of my family have been wolfing down for generations.  In my bedroom, crumpled beneath a slowly-growing pile of fellow laundry items, is the Uganda football shirt that I wear to every training session on Monday night.

Every so often, something happens to trigger reflections like these. Most recently, it was reading the first instalment of Letters From Africa, a piece of work serialised weekly by Pigeonhole, a new start-up probably best described as “an online book club”.  Letters From Africa features the work of four writers sharing their impressions of various African cities, in this case Lagos, Nairobi, Harare and Cairo, and the countries whose heartbeats they represent. The most striking of these essays, in my view, was Tolu Ogunlesi’s essay on Lagos, a place that seems to trump even Rio de Janeiro for chaos.  To quote Ogunlesi, “Lagos is a place of freedom; freedom to decide whether a red light means the same as a green light, to decide in what direction to proceed along a road marked ‘one way’. The freedom to decide just how much time you’d like to spend in a police station, should you find yourself there; the freedom to set your own laws and limits and negotiate around other people’s own. The freedom to surrender or to fight back; to run away so you get the chance to fight another day.”

I had felt something similar, if less intensely, on my last visit to Kampala about fifteen years ago. That was the first time that I had set foot on Ugandan soil since my childhood, and so I spent those two weeks taking in everything that I could: the endless clutter and chatter, the rugged terracotta of the clay roads, the huge plates of pork as tender as fillet steak.  On balance, though, this was not the most comfortable of reacquaintances with the land of my heritage. Footballers, when they have been absent through injury for a long while, often complain when they return to action that they are not match-fit: it takes them a few games to get back into the rhythm of it all, to recover their form. By the same token, I felt that I was not “match-fit” for Kampala. It was bewilderingly fast, a pace of life that made New York seem like a Sunday afternoon stroll.  The nightlife surged on into the early hours, showing something like contempt for the dawn.  Even being polite was exhausting. On one occasion, I left the way in the street for someone to pass, and a convoy of people charged through the opening that I had created.  They probably didn’t even notice me: they were all in such a hurry that I may as well have been a bubblegum wrapper in the wind.  After two frenetic weeks, I headed back to Europe, which has been my base ever since.

I often wonder if I will ever go back to Uganda, or whether letters from there will suffice for a connection with the place.  My family are from the north of the country, hundreds of miles from Kampala’s urban churn, and it may be there in Gulu that I find somewhere with a more lasting resonance.  For now, though, Uganda remains a distant relative, whom I am reminded to check in on every now and then; and to whom, every now and then, I am inspired to write.

 

On James Blunt, Chris Bryant and inequality in the arts.

Argh. I shouldn’t be writing this as I actually have another article half-drafted sitting nearby, but I feel I need to do so. Here goes.

Chris Bryant, Labour’s shadow culture minister, made some important comments about the lack of diversity in the arts.  He recently stated that:

“I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for best actor], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk,” he said.

Where are the Albert Finneys and the Glenda Jacksons? They came through a meritocratic system. But it wasn’t just that. It was also that the writers were writing stuff for them. So is the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, doing that kind of gritty drama, which reflects [the country] more? We can’t just have Downton programming ad infinitum and think that just because we’ve got some people in the servants’ hall, somehow or other we’ve done our duty by gritty drama.” (My italics.)

James Blunt, feeling that Bryant was trying to say that his success was unearned, gave a punchy rejoinder in the Guardian, in which he referred to Bryant as “a classist gimp”.  I read Blunt’s letter, and instinctively applauded him for his rebuttal.  But then I took a step back.

Bryant was essentially right. There is a severe problem with diversity in the arts, and the media, right across the board. It’s so obvious that you don’t even need statistics to see it.  And it’s getting worse, now that the cost of living in many large cities plus, for example, the falling revenues in the music industry – means that it is much, much harder to make it. Those who do make it will typically have somewhere to crash during those lean years, and those who do are disproportionately well-off.

So why, then, did I applaud Blunt? Well, here’s where we need to separate the personal from the political. Bryant clearly triggered something in Blunt. Blunt has spent many years being the only boy from a visibly posh background in most rooms he has entered, and being called out for it clearly still stings him now. Blunt sounds like he was something of an outlier at boarding school, and so now to be seen as representative of that world, as the mere beneficiary of a ready and complacent nepotism, is infuriating.

I think I first applauded Blunt because I partly understood, as someone who also attended boarding school, where he was coming from.  No-one likes being told that they don’t deserve whatever position they have reached, particularly when they have worked hard to get there. But Bryant wasn’t trying to be offensive. He didn’t mean that.  And, though it was difficult for Blunt to step back from his rage, it’s something that he could usefully do.

Because the playing field in the arts isn’t level. It just isn’t, and if James Blunt had really wanted to, if he really needed to call goodnight on his dream, then all of those other careers that he mentioned in his open letter were still open to him. And that is the one thing that people with boarding-school educations very often have: the ability to do something completely different with their lives. Very often, for those who do not have degrees or networks that they can tap into when seeking jobs, the artistic dream is all they have. There is no safety net, and if we don’t fund the arts we are consigning them to a pretty bitter future. In fact, screw the future – that is the present we are sitting in, right now.

Yes, it hurt James Blunt when he was called too posh to make it in the music industry, just as it hurts me to be called an Uncle Tom because I am a black person who went to boarding school, even though I sometimes got the shit kicked out of me for being black while I was there. It hurts when you are lazily branded as the metaphor for a social class where you often felt like the odd one out, particularly when that class is scorned.

But you know what’s far worse?  The fact that there is a generation of outstanding artists out there who, due to their lack of opportunity, will not achieve their potential if our funding bodies do not help them as best they can. That was Bryant’s point, and it was vital, and I hope that it is not lost in the ensuing to-and-fro between him and Blunt.

 

Why Game of Thrones reminds me of climate change

I love Game of Thrones.  I love Game of Thrones even more now that I am re-watching it, which I began to do this Christmas. I love re-watching it because now I can brace myself for the horror that I know is coming. Now I can actually enjoy the story’s development and make peace with the demise of my favourite characters several episodes before they are bludgeoned, throttled or eviscerated.  Yes, I know it’s pathetic, but now I can mourn Ygritte days before she dies.  I can say a slow goodbye to the Red Viper.  I can console myself that, hey, the Starks really did have it coming, they were just never cunning enough to make it out of there with their throats intact.  But, above all else, I am realising that Game of Thrones reminds me of climate change.

The underlying premise of Game of Thrones is that, whilst the humans fight amongst themselves in alliances of increasingly bewildering complexity, they collectively face a threat so terrifying that most people are in denial about it. Whilst the various kingdoms hack and claw away at each other, they neglect the reports of approaching dragons and White Walkers, refusing to believe that they might one day be consumed by fire or ice.  Dragons, after all, have not been seen for centuries, and White Walkers have long since passed into the realm beyond myth. Those who first warn of the resurgence of either are dismissed as lunatics: one of them is even beheaded.  The reality is either too numbing or too fantastical to be accepted.

Thankfully, the fate of the first people to flag up climate change as an existential threat was not quite as grisly.  However, those researchers and their successors have attracted a certain degree of ridicule.  Now, though, their work is receiving depressing vindication.  Today, I read an article in The Guardian, entitled “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists”. In the words of one of the bearers of bad news, Professor Will Steffen:

“It’s fairly safe to say that we haven’t seen conditions in the past similar to ones we see today and there is strong evidence that there [are] tipping points we don’t want to cross..If the Earth is going to move to a warmer state, 5-6C warmer, with no ice caps, it will do so and that won’t be good for large mammals like us. People say the world is robust and that’s true, there will be life on Earth, but the Earth won’t be robust for us.”

He continued:

“Some people say we can adapt due to technology, but that’s a belief system, it’s not based on fact. There is no convincing evidence that a large mammal, with a core body temperature of 37C, will be able to evolve that quickly. Insects can, but humans can’t and that’s a problem…It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive.  History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”

Back in 2008, when I first became truly aware of the danger posed by climate change, there was a period where I read every paper and watched every video on the issue that I could find.  I attended a couple of conferences, and found the science so frightening in its implications that I remember sitting there and writing, during a particularly startling speech, “it feels like the autumn of the world”.

Just as in Game of Thrones, it now seems that winter is coming.  I remember howling about environmental degradation to anyone who would listen, and performing a poem, ‘The Creep’, that really only seemed to shock people further.  I have never felt so impotent as I did then, as I tried to network with scientists and politicians, trying to nudge those wealthy philanthropists whom I had encountered in my work to embrace the issue.  And I felt that I had failed, that I could not convey the urgency of what I was reading and seeing.  And so, like a Game of Thrones episode that was just too gut-wrenching to watch, I found some way to tune out my fears of climate change, to change the channel.

And here we are, in 2014, with the environmental outlook increasingly bleak. Unlike Game of Thrones, though, this will eventually be a screen from whose unsettling images none of us can look away.

 

“Searching for Walter Tull.”

A head and shoulders portrait of Walter Tull

Last December, as part of an event held by Philosophy Football to mark the role that football played during the Christmas truce in World War One, I performed the poem below.  “Searching for Walter Tull”, which I was commissioned to write for that event, reflects on the life of one of the first black professional footballers in the UK (for Clapton FC, Northampton Town and Spurs), and the first black man in the British Army ever to lead his white peers into battle. As the day of my reading drew closer, I found myself more and more moved by his story, and the reality that the best and the bravest of human beings too rarely get the lives that they deserve. The title of this piece refers to the fact that his body was never found; but, despite that, he still left a remarkable legacy behind.

————

“Searching for Walter Tull”

Walter Tull.

His life was the ink that stands out on history’s page.
The orphan, this mixed-race grandson of a slave,
The footballer slow in stride but swift of thought,
The soldier who survived the Somme
But who died in World War One’s injury time.
A few weeks from the end of that churning conflict,
In no-man’s land, as he was leading a charge,
Life handed him the red card.
Months earlier, in Italy, he had been the maker of history,
Going where no person of colour or Negro had been allowed to go before,
A black officer leading his white peers into the hungry mouth of War.
So loved was he by his men, that they risked their lives to recover his body after his death.
But Walter Tull‘s slumbering form was never found;
And, a century after his death, we are still looking for him now.
Known for his calm when the world was aflame,
We need his memory at this time
When the humanity of Britain’s immigrants is being so furiously denied.
So sleep well, Walter Tull, and we’ll do what it takes
To ensure that, to your story,
The world remains awake.

Free speech is expensive.  It’s time to pay for it

Like many people in Europe this week, I was numbed by the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris and the subsequent murder of Jews, and then horrified at the latest rounds of bloodletting by Boko Haram in Nigeria.  The atrocities committed by both sets of extremists were, in a sense, acts of storytelling. They were attempts to tell the story of the supremacy of their ideology, and they were tales written in fear and blood.  Much has been expressed this week about the value of free speech, of having the courage to pose critiques of potentially lethal enemies: and I have begun to reflect again on just how expensive free speech actually is.

Most obviously, free speech can cost lives.  Journalists have had a particularly dangerous few years, with 1109 killed worldwide since 1992.  Many of them work under extraordinary pressure, and against extraordinary odds.  They are dying due to their desire to make vital revelations, so that fresh horrors by Al-Qaeda, ISIS and so on remain forever unscripted.  Less starkly, free speech costs money.  Even in those societies whose citizens are allowed to say largely whatever they like, the largest media platforms go most consistently to those who have the deepest pockets.  Press barons with a fleet of newspapers can pontificate either via their outlets’ headlines or on social media, secure in the fact that they have by far the biggest audience.  It is all very well having free speech, but it’s not so useful when you are talking without amplification and the other person has a megaphone. (Especially when, it must be said, they are such consistent engines of misinformation as Fox News.)

What, then, can be done?  Perhaps it is time for us to begin treating investigative journalism, one of our surest means of speaking truth to power, as seriously as we would any charitable cause.  The good health of this field, I think, is essential to a thriving civil society.  I was startled to receive an email at the start of this year from Mother Jones, an excellent nonprofit news organisation based in the USA, asking urgently for donations. That an outlet of their calibre, home to several scoops and with almost 500,000 followers on Twitter, should be struggling so much financially was something that worried me greatly.  It made me worry about all the stories that are going untold, due to a lack of networks and resources, in places like West Papua and the Central African Republic, where the world’s pens and cameras do not find it fashionable to linger too long.

If there is to be any positive legacy from the last week’s atrocities in Nigeria and France, I would like it to include a surge in funding towards journalists covering those areas of the world where free speech is under the greatest threat.  Where should this money come from?  Well, members of the public can help.  I actually think that much more could be done by those companies who pride themselves on providing a wider social benefit: companies, for example, working in the fields of clean energy.  I also believe that private donors have a role to play.  In my more idealistic moments, which are frequent, I imagine a group of a few dozen people – those, say, who’ve tech fortunes, and those who’ve inherited wealth – pooling their resources, and putting together an endowment of a couple of hundred million pounds.  That endowment would then be carefully managed, and then a group of journalists would be paid their salaries out of the interest earned on that endowment. Journalists could also be given fixed-term grants to work on a single story in depth.

Of course, there are already organisations with a similar kind of structure, and so it makes most immediate sense to seek them out, and see whether they need further financial assistance.  The ones I have found most useful, in my last couple of years of internet use, have been the aforementioned Mother Jones, Global Voices, Writers of Colour, Open Democracy, and Democracy Now. I hope that one day at least one of their names might be as readily on most people’s lips as, say, that of a large aid organisation.  Whilst I acknowledge the boundless optimism of this wish, I should only add that this is precisely what dreams are for.

 

 

Re: Charlie Hebdo.

Re: Charlie Hebdo (I know, I know). Here’s the thing about causing offence that drives people to murder you. You never truly know the point at which you’ve crossed the line. We live in a world where writers and cartoonists are sent innumerable death threats every single day. When the threatened murder is finally committed, you may never know the precise point at which the attacker snapped. It could be an offhand remark or picture you’d tossed out into the ether a few months or years ago, which suddenly came to the attention of your would-be killer. It could be an article or image that you’d produced as part of a series of pieces criticising everyone. Or it could be a relentless campaign of mockery, of the most humiliating degree, conducted with merciless focus for months or even years on end.

A problem with trying to censor satirists by law is that what you are effectively trying to do is second-guess the mind state of a murderer, and that is an impossible exercise of itself. You can’t submit your proposed work to a committee of would-be killers before publication and say “hey mate, will this be OK with you? Will this provoke you to sufficient anger to fill up that chamber with bullets?” Another problem is beginning to think that the kind of people moved to murder over satire, regardless of how offensive it is, should have any kind of say in how or whether it is distributed.