Archive for October 2016

Rest in peace Carlos Alberto, a true gentleman.

Here is a quick word for Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning side, who passed a few hours ago. He was a true gentleman, and I am very fortunate to have one first-hand story among doubtless many to prove it.

In 2014, I travelled to his house on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro with a brilliant team from the BBC World Service, Jim Frank and Fernanda Nidecker, to interview Mr. Alberto for “The Burden of Beauty”, a documentary that we were making about the upcoming World Cup. Mr. Alberto could not have been a more welcoming host. He spoke with notable warmth about Brazil’s players, most notably Neymar and Oscar, the latter of whom he likened favourably (off the record, since he did not want to put any more pressure on the Chelsea midfielder during the tournament) to Gerson. He pointed fondly to a picture above his mantelpiece where he was embracing Bobby Moore after their classic clash at that World Cup. “He was my friend”, he said, with a moving nostalgia.

After about an hour in Mr. Alberto’s company, during which he described in thrilling detail his famous goal in the final against Italy, we had to head back into town. However, it was rush hour by then, and taxis in Rio were at a premium. The traffic was horrific, and the waiting time for a cab was probably close to an hour. Without hesitation, Mr. Alberto asked us to get into the back of his car, and the World Cup-winning captain joined the miles-long snake of vehicles in the hope of finding us a ride back into town. After fifteen minutes or so, he caught sight of a stray, unoccupied taxi, and flagged it down. The taxi driver, double-taking at the sight of this Brazilian football great, duly pulled over and let us in, and the last we saw of Mr. Alberto was the back of his head and the back of his hand as he waved us graciously away. It was harder to imagine a gesture more humble from a man who had fulfilled the dreams of millions; and it explained why today, and for endless years to come, he will be held in the very highest esteem. Carlos Alberto; an exceptional footballer, and by untold accounts, an even better human being.

On turning thirty-seven.

I am now 37. Thirty-seven! My God, how did this happen? My mother, already widowed, had four children by now. Four! All I’m worrying about is three deadlines. She was much more efficient with her time than I am. How do you manage five lives including your own – how do you feed that many mouths and minds? I rarely have the discipline to sit down for three meals a day. At times like this I marvel at the miraculous sacrifice of parenthood. Meanwhile, three years from my fortieth birthday, I’m still wandering from cafe to cafe, trying to make each piece of work better than the last. This really is the most bizarre of lives, and I still wonder how I ended up here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ageing recently, much more than I would care to admit. Age is a funny thing – it rumbles along unnoticed for the longest while, and there it suddenly is, hammering at your front door. Age is an attention-seeking child; the more you try to ignore it, the more it manifests itself. This summer, I went down to the local basketball court, to work out for some pre-season training; I used to be able to dunk the ball comfortably, but now I could barely touch the rim. Wait, what? When did that happen? When did I fall out of the sky?!

But then I was reminded how it works – that youth is never really yours, it’s just on loan. And, if I’m honest, I would have noticed my loss of leap much earlier, if I hadn’t stopped caring so much about sport – one of the healthier developments of the last few years. I mean, sport is great and all, but an obsessive interest with people chasing each other around the place is ultimately unhealthy. (See also: Internet dating.)

I think the last truly anxious birthday I had was probably my twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth. That’s when I was about three years out from leaving my job as a lawyer, and was wondering whether I had made the right gamble. Since then I just haven’t had so much energy to worry about such stuff. What I have realised, over time, is that I want to do two things with my life, in this order: (1) make work that resonates with people as deeply as possible, and (2) be grateful for the spectacular piece of luck that saw me born in a Western European democracy with free healthcare in the late Seventies. Number (2) is really, really important, because I’m from a group of people known as the Acholi, from Northern Uganda; and at one point in the 1990s, they were confined to refugee camps where a thousand people were dying every week. They had one of the highest child mortality rates in the world at one point; I know this because my mum, apart from raising us, used to go to those camps and provide free healthcare every summer for years on end.

Yes; my mum’s done a lot. I think more and more about that as time goes on, in between contemplating my next poem or slice of cake. I’ve been given a lot, really – more than anyone could ever ask. Sure, I’ve taken many of my opportunities, but I’m ten minutes’ bus ride away from a Syrian refugee centre, where several of the residents will be mourning friends and relatives who never stood a chance.

I am finally learning to forgive myself for not being superhuman. My mum is superhuman, and so I thought it was only my duty to emulate her. I am finally learning to enjoy life, and not to feel too guilty at the life of freedom that I have been given – because, quite frankly, nobody likes a whinger.

I’ll most likely be ranting about something else in the next few days, but at times like this I really do try to reflect, and to be positive. I’m not really a religious sort, and so I think that this is pretty much all there is. And when I think about it, this is good, really. I live in a lovely flat with three windows casting natural light onto my writing desk, on a street corner just busy enough that the traffic is music. The pound is currently doing horrifying things against the euro, but life is still affordable enough; and my family and friends (touching wood, always touching wood) are mostly doing well, making it through. Thirty-seven is definitely one of life’s kinder milestones. I think it may be time for some cake.