Archive for August 2018

My Impostor Syndrome (my speech at Good Girls Eat Dinner, 22.08.2018)

Here is the text of a short speech I gave at the wonderful Good Girls Eat Dinner event in London on Wednesday 22 August 2018. I thought I would share it here in case it was of interest to anyone.

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Let me make a confession. I think that I have writer’s block. That may seem like a strange thing to say, given that I have been writing non-stop all summer. But let me explain.

Writer’s block isn’t the inability to write anything at all. After all, writers who have writer’s block still fill out their tax returns, they still reply to their emails – eventually, at least. No – writer’s block is something different. It’s the inability to complete, or even to begin, the work that you really care about. It is rooted in fear. And that’s what no-one warns you about the power of words. Sometimes, it is overpowering.

What am I afraid of? Well, I think it is this. Creativity is a muscle. If you don’t keep using it, if you don’t keep feeding it the twin proteins of knowledge and experience, then it wastes away. And over time I have begun to fear – that word again – that I have not worked hard enough, that I am not wise enough. I think that I have good ideas – maybe even great ideas – but, at present, I am not sure that I have the strength of creativity to hold them aloft.

This is not a good time to have writer’s block. My work is on very public display. I am about to begin my most ambitious programme of work yet. I am planning to update the first book that I wrote about football. I am planning to write a third book about football, to complete the trilogy that I started in 2007. I am planning to write a sequel to the sci-fi novel that I wrote in 2016, and for which I am still seeking a publisher. I am planning to write monthly essays about how to navigate the world of race and the world of bisexuality. I am preparing to write a book of short stories based on the four years I have so far spent in Berlin. As a musician, I am about to play three play of the most important gigs of my career to date. This is not a good time to be feeling any creative self-doubt.

But perhaps this period of fear is necessary. We all make our living in the world of words. We know just how powerful are the tools of our trade. Whichever way you voted, you can’t deny the force of the call to take back control or to make America great again. I am afraid because I am fiercely aware that, just like black lives, words truly matter.

How do I rid myself of this fear? How I stop being scared? I need to remind myself, first and foremost, that fear is a luxury. Just as I have writer’s block, I think that a lot of us in this room have climate block. I think that climate change – the heatwaves, the fires in the Arctic, the floods in Kerala – is a threat so terrifying that we feel immobilised before it, that we have to look away. We didn’t expect to have to deal with this in our lifetimes, but it’s right here, right now. And we don’t think we have the tools to deal with that’s coming. But we can start with words. We can start with empathy and with hope.

I have just arrived from Helsinki, where I have been advising a social enterprise, LYFTA, on how to raise media awareness of their brilliant work in almost 400 schools. LYFTA, with the aid of virtual reality technology, aim to connect students all around the world – the future of our civilization – through a series of interactive video exercises. When I return to my home of Berlin this week, I will be helping to launch a social enterprise, a cafe which pays a percentage of its profits to support local projects. Given the arrival of extreme climate change, I cannot afford to be afraid. I cannot afford to be too frightened to write.

The fear isn’t completely without foundation. I am thirty-eight years old and I worry that I have not done enough with the gifts that I have been given. In some ways those fears are valid. But this isn’t about me and it never truly was. This is about using every moment as courageously as we can not only to endure but to embrace what is coming. It’s about building community wherever we can. It’s about that kind word, delivered with a gentle nod and eye contact, to the homeless person. It’s about asking each other and ourselves why we aren’t doing better as a society. It’s about reaching through what may feel like justifiable rage for something which may make us collectively happier.

These may sound like nothing more than words. And that’s exactly the point. My address tonight is an invitation: an invitation not to dwell upon what is wrong with the state of our world, but what, with sufficient time, care and urgency, could be right. And if you, like me, feel overwhelmed by doubt, then start with a single sentence. You can keep it in mind if you find it helpful, maybe even save it on your iPhone as a reminder, stick it on a post-it note above your bathroom mirror or next to your desk. And that single, simple sentence is: “Fear is a luxury”.

All of us in this room are both fortunate. Words are our trade. In a time when winning arguments has never been more crucial, we are experts in the business of persuasion. I think we all know that we can’t continue as we are – that it’s going to take so much kindness, patience, and imagination to extract us from this mess. So let’s start now – whether it’s advocating with greater passion for a stronger renewable energy policy, or signing up for that shift at the local soup kitchen. Let’s not only do the best we can, but do better; and, crucially, let’s not be afraid.

My new post, on Redfish and Russia Today.

I feel sick, but most of all I feel naive.
 
Last week I spent a wonderful couple of hours in the company of a film crew, who interviewed me at length for a documentary they were making about xenophobia and austerity in the UK. A few days later, I was thankfully informed by Oz Katerji, an investigative journalist, that this company – Redfish, based in Berlin – was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Russia Today.
Charlie Davis of The Daily Beast had discovered this after some exhaustive reporting, and Katerji sent me a link from the article where Davis had published his findings
 
I didn’t quite retch when I found out, but my stomach certainly lurched. Yes, the referral came through a dear friend, but it is ultimately my own fault. I should have done my own due diligence – and a simple Google search would have revealed the above article.
 
Here’s the thing about the programme to which I contributed: I think that the topic is a vital one, and I think that the presenter did an excellent job of examining the issues in our conversation. I just don’t believe that Russia Today, given their stance on refugees, are honest brokers. In fact, I think that they are the opposite. Just the other day, they ran an opinion piece asking the Canadian government not to resettle Syrian refugees, on the grounds that they were either “potential terrorists or supporters of terrorists”. The article is here.
 
Yes, I know that Russia Today serve up entertaining segments about sport and other entertainment. But I object so strongly to their general political mission that, had I known of their involvement in this documentary, I would have declined the opportunity to appear.
 
I am very careful with the media appearances that I make, for three main reasons. First, I think it is very important not to become a talking-head, and become the “go-to guy” when it comes to talking about, say, racism in public life. I think that type of status as the “community leader” is very unhelpful. It implies one person speaks for a diverse group of people, which is dangerous. Secondly – though this might be hard for some to imagine! – I would quickly get sick of the sound of my own voice. But thirdly – and most importantly – I do not want to lend legitimacy to certain platforms. Though those organisations to whom I give interviews certainly have their flaws, the crucial difference is that they are not wholly owned by authoritarian states who jail and murder activists and journalists. (If you are not familiar with the following names – Natalya Estemirova, Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsky – please Google them.) I do not know that I have always got the balance of my media appearances right in the past, but it is something I have come to care about deeply. The thought of my views being aired on Russia Today is deeply upsetting on a personal level and deeply worrying on a professional one.
 
Some people would say that I am an idealistic fool for turning down some of the media platforms that I have. Those platforms, after all, often mean more visibility and with it the possibility of vastly better earnings – speaking gigs, consultancy fees, and so on. There are some days – when I can’t send a relative a few thousand pounds to help with that operation or those couple of months of rent – that I agree with those people. I have turned down huge amounts of both exposure and money from people I have suspected to be unscrupulous. Why have I done this? Because, so far as I am conscious and not consumed by desperation, I don’t want to contribute to a worse world, and I think that we are being ushered into such a world by Russia Today.
 
Why am I telling you this? To learn from my example, really: to remind myself, and to remind you, that we have a choice. We don’t always have to say yes when someone puts a microphone under our nose. I don’t judge those of you who do – God knows that writing can be a precarious and thankless life, and if you have people who depend on you financially then it can be hard to reject that camera or that paycheque. Wherever possible, though, we should try to step away. Let’s do our homework, and find out for whose regimes or fiefdoms we may be the unwitting mouthpiece. Let’s at least know who we are working for, and make our judgements accordingly. Because if we are to be held accountable for ignorance and bigotry – as we should be! – then, at the very least, that ignorance and bigotry should knowingly be our own.