Archive for June 2012

Poem for Pirlo: “Good evening, the name’s Andrea”

I’ve just watched Italys Andrea Pirlo dismantle England’s Euro 2012 hopes with a display of near-faultless playmaking.  England barely survived until the penalty shoot-out, managing to hold their opposition to a goalless draw in normal time, but then Pirlo stepped up to the spot and did something so special that I thought I would write a poem about it.

Pirlo told the press afterwards that he had deliberately taken a nonchalant penalty so as to unsettle the England penalty-takers; and so I thought I would write a piece about what he might have been thinking as he stepped up to face Joe Hart.  I’ve included my poem below, as well as a video link to Pirlo’s special deed; it’s called “Good evening, the name’s Andrea”.

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Good evening; the name’s Andrea -

Which means “I’m half art, half player” -

I don’t shout this out, I’m too modest -

So I’ll say it through my boots, with my spot-kick;

Tribe Called Quest asked “Can I Kick It?” -

I thought they were pansies, I plan to chip it;

I will float this down the middle;

Down England’s hopes like a row of skittles…

So I’m approaching Joe Hart,

Ball on the chalk, I start the slow dance:

Waltz forth; to the lawn he falls fast,

And watches forlorn, as the ball soars past.

 

 

 

“Jubilee”: my talk for the Sunday Times Education Festival

On Saturday I spoke at the Sunday Times Education Festival at Wellington College, where I debated the meaning of Britishness with a panel including Professor David Starkey and Laurie Penny.  The debate itself unfortunately ended in acrimonious scenes between Professor Starkey and Miss Penny, which is a shame as I thought it was shaping up well. I have included below the talk with which I opened the debate, in case you might find them of interest.

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I live in Walthamstow, which is east London’s last outpost before the city succumbs to Essex.  A few weeks ago, to take advantage of the consistently wonderful weather, my neighbours held a Jubilee street party.  The weather was predictably appalling.  We were each asked to bring a dish and a present for the raffle; so I took along a tub of Ugandan satay chicken, and a copy of Secret London, a guide to some of the capital’s unsung treats.

It was only a short walk to the nearby marquee, but if it hadn’t been for my tattered English FA umbrella it would have taken hours for me to dry out.  I arrived, greeted Teresa and Linda, the couple organising the party, and after a respectful pause went in search of food.  In a tent, fashioned from perilously low-hanging tarpaulin, I found tables laden with steaming pots and cool bowls; quiches, lasagnes, salads, and so on; the pick of which dishes would turn out to be a masterful Massaman chicken curry, cooked up by the wife of the Scottish guy at number thirtysomething.

I shovelled a greedy amount of food onto a flimsy paper plate, and wandered back to the main tent, which was pitched high over three very long tables. Here I joined the growing crowd of guests; somewhere on my way to them, I had picked up an ill-fitting plastic hat emblazoned with the Union Jack, and every few minutes I found myself cramming it back onto my awkward cranium.

I got talking to an elderly English couple, the parents of one of the couples in the street, who’d driven in from the Thames Valley; it had taken them a mercifully short time to get here, up along the M25.  Nearby, a West Indian woman and two Greek sisters were discussing whether or not the ailing Prince Philip was indeed racist, or just a habitual gaffe-maker.  While they politely disagreed, a few more people turned up, including Neil, the Asian Liverpool fan who I recognised from the local pub.  Stella Creasy, our local MP, came for about half an hour or so, before heading off to one of several other similar parties in the area; after she left, I spoke with a mixed-race woman who’d been fostered in her youth, and was now a vicar. I talked to her about the Queen.  She really liked the Queen.  If we didn’t have her, she pointed out, we’d have a dictatorship.  What’s more, the Queen had had to live a life that was not her own.  Later on, I found Neil, and we won the three-legged race by half the length of the field.  I didn’t win anything in the raffle, but I made off with half a day’s supply of fresh cooking.

This party is how I see Britishness, I think.  It’s a rambling, often cantankerous but tolerant family, at the head of which sits a distant and unknowable royal elite. It is this odd cocktail which makes Britishness as a concept so nebulous, so fluid and therefore so exciting.  Since Britishness evolves so quickly, it is probably different now to what it was when I began speaking.  Instead of trying to define this concept, I think that politicians should merely try to enable its evolution as best they can.

The Independent: Iran, Israel, Gandalf and the bomb

This article originally appeared in The Independent’s blog on 18 June 2012.  The link is here: http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/06/18/iran-israel-gandalf-and-the-bomb/

Sometimes fantasy makes more sense than fiction. When looking at the latest developments in the diplomatic standoff between Iran and several Western nations, the words of Gandalf in that epic Lord of The Rings trailer spring to mind. “The board is set”, murmured the White Wizard. “The pieces are moving”.

Every now and then an article emerges which feels more like a movie teaser, introducing a larger drama that is in already in motion.  The piece which has most recently given me this sensation is one by Jason Burke, in the Guardian, titled “Iran was behind bomb plot against Israeli diplomats, investigators find”.  The piece soberly discusses the multinational investigation into the bomb plots against Israeli diplomats, including the clearest indications yet that Iran was behind them.  The piece also looks ahead to the Moscow talks over Iran’s nuclear programme, scheduled for 18 and 19 June and notes that expectations for these talks are low.  It also notes that the cost of the failure of these talks will be high.

How high?  Like Gandalf in the Mines of Moria, I hear “drums, drums in the deep”: the drums of war.  This is a familiar script.  After all, it’s only a few years since the West went to war with a Middle Eastern regime feared for its similarly bellicose intent.  If there is going to be consideration of war with Iran, just like there was one with Iraq, it would be ideal if we went about things differently this time.

The last time that there was a war like this, people were very, very angry, not least because they knew that very many people would die, most of them in horrifying fashion, and they didn’t feel that the case had been sufficiently made.  So this time it would be great if all the cards were on the table.  Here, therefore, follows possibly the most naïve paragraph in the history of foreign relations.

It would be great if we had real disclosure from the two main protagonists.  It would be if Iran let us know exactly what it was enriching all that uranium for.  It would also be great if Israel let us know once and for all if it does have nuclear weapons, and if so how many.  Because if, as a nation, you’re going to launch strikes against another nation to stop them having nukes, it’s only reasonable for everyone to know if you already have nukes of your own in the chamber.  Nuclear weapons are terrifying things and they are terrifying whoever has them, whether they are being used or not.  So an inventory of some sort would be nice. It would also be great if there were an equally vigorous multinational investigation into whoever was blowing up those Iranian nuclear scientists in 2010.  Because they are an important part of this case too.

I suspect that everything in the above paragraph is far too much to ask for.  Which means that we will very possibly continue on a similar path, until all of a sudden we are on the doorstep of yet another Middle Eastern slaughterhouse.  And there won’t be a thing we can do to stop it.  Worryingly, though, I fear that the war movie for Iran may be in the early stages of production, even though the war movie for Iraq is still showing in cinemas.

A Father’s Day piece, “Passport”

My father is one of my greatest influences, and so I wrote a piece about him some time ago.  I thought it would make sense to share it today; here, at the following link, is “Passport”.

 

 

The Independent: Leveson, and why the public do care

This article originally appeared in The Independent’s blog on 15 June 2012.  The link is here: http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/06/15/leveson-and-why-the-public-do-care/

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I was reading a piece by Paul Goodman on the Leveson Inquiry, when one particular line leapt out at me.  It came at the very end, almost as an afterthought.

“P.S.”, it read, “I may write later about the rest of the Prime Minister’s appearance in front of the inquiry that very few people outside the Westminster Village have the slightest interest in.”

There it was again.  The assumption that I have seen from so many politicians and media commentators that almost no-one outside the political world cares about what is happening at the Leveson inquiry.  I think that this assumption is wrong.  Worse than that, it is staggeringly, appallingly, dangerously wrong.

I have never known people to care more acutely or passionately about the way in which our country is being governed.  I suspect that Mr. Goodman and his peers have drawn this conclusion of Leveson mass apathy from polling figures, from low electoral turnouts.  If so, they would be in error.  Public anger is intangible – but palpable – over such matters.  I see the fury over Leveson all over my Twitter timeline, as people from both Left and Right converge to voice their disbelief at the manner in which the reins of power are allegedly being passed between the hands of a chosen few.

I write this piece with something like rage at the failure of Westminster to understand just how badly this is playing out among the general public. I don’t actually think that most people are baying for blood, for the head of Jeremy Hunt as some symbolic gesture.  I actually think that most people would just like feel that they are being governed with an appropriate amount of checks and balances.

I think that many if not most people are angry that the NHS is apparently on its way to dissolution and there was very little if anything that they could do about it.  I think they are angry that tuition fees are rocketing north and jobs are so thin on the ground that they’re having to scrabble for the chicken feed offered by the welfare state.  I think that Leveson is a very important symbol, because at a time when many people in the UK have been brought financially to their knees there is the uncomfortable and unfortunate image of an elite deflecting and sometimes even smiling on the stand, blithely oblivious to the damage that they are doing with their conveniently collective failure of memory.  Leveson is a metaphor, the same metaphor that we saw at the outset of the riots last summer: it is the hard, unyielding face of Establishment denial.

The anger at metaphors like Leveson is there, all right; it’s just not there in the places that Mr. Goodman and his peers are looking for it.  It’s not primarily in the polling booths, or in the spreadsheets predicting which way votes will go in marginal seats.  It is in the lyrics of grime artists, in the classes that I take in East London schools, in the Tumblr accounts of people like Aaron John Peters, in the feet of the kettled marchers, in the words of writers like Luke Turner at the Quietus.

The greatest mistake that politicians can ever make is to think that, just because they may be re-elected with ever-lower numbers of votes, they have somehow “got away” with Leveson.  After all, as perhaps the sharpest commentator has noted, people register their discontent with this type of metaphor in far less sophisticated ways than tactical voting.

Euro 2012 gives us a new noun: the “cassano”

Euro 2012 has so far been an extraordinary tournament, for so many reasons. We have seen passing, playmaking and finishing of the highest order; we have seen two of the game’s elder statesmen, Andrea Pirlo and Andriy Shevchenko, at their most lethal; we have seen the Dutch undone, the Spanish stymied, the Germans surging. And that’s only on the field. Off the field, we’ve seen civil unrest, and vigorously-denied allegations of racism. But that’s not all. Euro 2012 has also given us a new noun: a “cassano”.

This noun is named after Antonio Cassano, the Italy forward who this Tuesday was asked what he thought of the rumour that there were two metrosexuals and one homosexual in his squad. He was somewhat wary of the query – “the (national) coach had warned me that you would ask me this question,” he said – but was still game enough to give an honest response. “If I say what I think … I hope there are none”, he replied. “But if there are queers here, that’s their business.”

These comments had the predictable effect. Cassano, seeing the media ablaze, quickly issued a fire blanket of a press release. “I am sincerely sorry that my comments have caused controversy and protests among gay groups”, he said. “Homophobia is not a point of view that I share. I didn’t want to offend anyone and I absolutely don’t want to put a person’s sexual freedom under discussion. I only said that it was a problem which was nothing to do with me and I don’t let myself express judgments on other people’s choices, which should all be respected.”

This press release is a textbook cassano: a retraction of an offensive statement, a retraction which occurs even faster than that very famous Dutch dragback. Typically speaking, a cassano is beautifully drafted, yet strangely unsatisfactory, as if it did not truly acknowledge the degree of offence that was caused. It wasn’t only “gay groups” – read, special interest whingers – that were put out by the forward’s words. It was a whole lot of regular people. What’s more, the presence of gay people in a football squad should not be “a problem”, as was implied in the cassano; and given the apparent contempt with which the Italian used the word “queer”, it seems unlikely that his press release was prompted by a genuine change of heart.

This is not his finest few hours, it must be said; and most people seem content to let the matter rest there. In the wider scheme of things, then, let’s look on the bright side. This forward, who has produced several memorable moments since he first emerged at Bari, has given us a new word, and has thus added to his legacy in the unlikeliest of ways.

The Guardian: don’t treat black players as sacrificial lambs

This piece originally appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is free section, on 8 June 2012.  The link is here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/08/euro-2012-black-players-sacrificial-lambs

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Hundreds of fans subjected Holland’s black players to monkey chantsin Krakow on Thursday. All things considered, this really isn’t the start to Euro 2012 that Uefa would have wanted. Racism is an issue that has hung over the tournament for weeks, with the families of some England squad members refusing to travel to Ukraine because of it and an alarming Panorama documentary, which featured footage of racist attacks in Euro 2012 stadiums. Uefa’s press office must have prayed that this storm would abate at some point.

But in truth – once those beleaguered press officers have run their heads under cold taps, and then blinked anxiously into their bathroom mirrors – they must reflect that they are not entirely without blame. In that same documentary, Uefa explained that one of the reasons it had chosen to award the tournament to Ukraine and Poland was to shine a light on the issue of racism there. The unpleasant thought is therefore that, while some Polish fans were happy to greet the black Dutch players as monkeys, Uefa is more than happy to treat them as sacrificial lambs.

Uefa has since sunk its foot further down its throat. Its president, Michel Platini, said on Thursday that a player would be cautioned if he chose to leave the field as a result of racist abuse. Instead, he should suspend his anguish and leave it to the referee to deal with the issue. Following that announcement, Uefa’s first response to news of the alleged monkey chants was to reject suggestions that they were racially motivated: it has then conceded, somewhat begrudgingly, that “there were some isolated incidents” of such abuse. Mark van Bommel, the Holland captain, was suitably unimpressed, telling those in denial to “open your ears. If you did hear it and don’t want to hear it, that is even worse.” It looks like Uefa have not taken him up on his advice, having decided not to investigate the chanting further.

Three things must be noted here. First, Uefa seems consistently quick to threaten sanctions to the victims of racial abuse, rather than its perpetrators. Moreover, as is well documented, the levels of fines that it levies reveal something interesting about its priorities. In the most famous example, in April 2012, Manchester City was fined a greater sum for returning late to the pitch for a Europa Cup game than Sporting Lisbon, the opposing team, was fined for its fans’ racial abuse of two of their players.

Second, allegations of racism cannnot be simply swept under a Uefa-emblazoned carpet. The irony is that, among all the competing nations at Euro 2012, Holland knows this best of all. In Euro 1996, the team’s poor performance was blamed on the apparent racial divide between its white and black players; though this divide was later attributed to a pay dispute rather than anything else, the affair, never fully examined, lingered in ugly fashion over the team for the next couple of years.

Third, and most important, although it might be said that footballers are not delicate flowers, many of them receive appalling abuse each week and do not respond. Indeed, the amount of player walk-offs as a result of racist chants is so small that the most notable examples can be counted on one hand. This is remarkable forbearance and Platini should have shown greater sensitivity in this case. He should have given a player, who would presumably be in exceptional distress, the discretion to walk off without fear of punishment. Now, however, it is difficult to see a team risking a swathe of yellow cards to make what would be an important stand. After all, the particular horror of racial abuse is that it serves to objectify the victim; and, once a victim is successfully objectified, it liberates his oppressors to do whatever they like to him. This is a lesson that Europe, given its relatively recent history, has learned all too well.

The New Humanist: Pantomime polemic

This article originally appeared in The New Humanist in the March/April 2012 print edition. The link is here: http://newhumanist.org.uk/2824/pantomime-polemic

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A few weeks ago I received an invitation to the Sunday Times Festival of Education where, among other things, I would be debating the definition of Britishness with Professor David Starkey. Last August, following the UK riots, Starkey made an infamous Newsnight appearance in which he laid the blame for the civil unrest on the wholesale adoption of black culture by white youths. “The whites have become black”, he said. “A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion and black and white boys and girls operate in this language together. … This language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England and that is why so many of us have this sense of literally of a foreign country.” I didn’t feel that this was the most responsible or accurate of analyses, and so I welcomed the opportunity to challenge him publicly on the basis of his views. Joining me on the panel would be Laurie Penny, the author and journalist, and the historian Vivian Bickford-Smith.

There are potentially two problems when you debate someone like Starkey. The first problem is that your fury at his opinions is so great that it becomes impossible to control your rage and consequently your argument. The second problem is that you will receive pressure from friends and colleagues to get him into intellectual checkmate, to bewilder him so thoroughly that he will utter a quote of wholly toxic prejudice. Fortunately Starkey doesn’t make me all that angry. He and Jeremy Clarkson are from the same school of pantomime polemic, which is to respond to outcry at his musings with even more inflammatory remarks. Furthermore, I think that Starkey is far too intelligent to say anything about race that he does not absolutely wish to. The more realistic goal, I thought, would be to prise apart his logic as often as possible.

The day of the debate came. To illustrate what I saw as an ideal of Britishness, I stood and gave a short talk about a Jubilee street party that I had attended in Walthamstow; where we had gathered not so much to celebrate the Queen, but to feel a sense of community. Starkey went to the podium next, and spoke without notes; though he confessed that he had liked my prose, he considered my talk to be “floppy” on content and noted that the type of multiracial utopia that I had described did not exist outside London. He also argued that Britishness was an artificial creation, which had only been around since the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland, and as such it was not the best tool to express the character of our nation.

Vivian Bickford-Smith spoke next, giving his thoughts on the nature of national identity, and then Laurie Penny stepped forward to speak. She criticised Starkey for what she saw as his attempts to play xenophobia for laughs. I didn’t know what she was referring to at the time, but in an earlier session, which I had not attended, she had heard Starkey comment that the gang of men from Rochdale who had been jailed for the sexual abuse of children had values which were “entrenched in the foothills of the Punjab”. She then moved on to make a point that I thought was one of the most compelling of the evening: that the rhetoric about Britishness, with its emphasis that we are all pulling together, is a salve for the growing inequalities and class issues that beset modern Britain. I thought that this was a fruitful line of enquiry.

David Goodhart, who was chairing the debate, was not so keen on Penny’s take, and questioned her “neo-Marxist” take on our society. All pretty spiky so far, but still relatively civil. But that’s when it all became a bit Punch and Judy. Starkey continued to advance his argument, during which Penny noted that he had a house in the United States and then asked him where, in the light of his vigorous patriotism, he was domiciled for tax purposes. Incensed at her question, Starkey then rose to his feet and told a story about an event at the “impoverished” Thomas Paine Society where he and Penny had both been booked to speak. He said that he had agreed to speak free of charge, but that Penny had requested such a large sum of money that the society had had to cancel the event. Penny contested his version of events, while adding that she was not earning particularly good money and was entitled to be paid for her time (The Thomas Paine Society have since responded, comtrdicting Starkey’s version of events). Blood was now up. Starkey approached her, angrily jabbing his finger in her direction, and called her a “jumped-up public school girl”. The debate had long since descended into acrimony, and ended soon afterwards.

At first I was bemused by all this, but later my frustration set in. Looking back on it all, Starkey’s Punjab comment might have fired me up if I’d heard it, but then again I have been in plenty of environments where I have heard such parlour prejudice, and by now am largely used to it. Penny was right to note it though. What got to me, in the end, was that the event succumbed to a clash of personalities.

Here’s the worst thing, though. Saturday represented a missed opportunity. For all Starkey’s quick wit and rhetorical polish – for he is a brilliant speaker, illustrating his points with numerous historical references – I thought that several of his arguments were curiously hollow. When I pressed him, he failed to acknowledge the British Isles’ long history of integration, reaching back to the Normans and Romans, Angles and Saxons. In support of one of his arguments he cited France as a country that had achieved a collective conception of national identity, despite the deep racial tensions running through its society. But I didn’t have time to question him on these and other points.

When I mentioned I would be debating Starkey, some of my friends were incredulous that he was being given a platform. The thing is that, as unpalatable as many people may find his views, he has plenty of support for them; one look at the comments beneath a recent Daily Mail article tells me that. Personally I was grateful for the rare chance to make my case against him. Given how polite Starkey was to me after the debate, I think that he is actually just enjoying the notoriety that his comments provide. He has a public persona and a private one, and the two are very different. Onstage though, he and Penny played their parts in a regrettable piece of theatre, which overshadowed the very real issues at hand. And so it was that I returned home, frustrated, with a notepad of unused rebuttals.