Archive for Culture

Dear [Olympic Partner]: The opening ceremony, and The Daily Mail

As mentioned before, I was incensed by the Daily Mail article about the opening ceremony – analysed brilliantly by John Walker – but I thought that mere fury wasn’t enough.  So I wrote a standard form letter (below), which anyone can adapt and send to the communications teams of each of the Olympic sponsors, should they so wish.  I am slowly working through this list myself, and it’s taking a while to find out some of the contact details, but I thought that anyone else who wanted to make a complaint might like template with which to do so.  The list of the official partners for the London 2012 Olympics are at this link: not all of them advertise with the Daily Mail, but the more commercial pressure that is applied to the Daily Mail the better.

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Dear [Olympic Partner],

I hope that all is well with you.  I am writing because I have very serious concerns about a recent article published online by the Daily Mail, which has caused widespread fury among the British public.  Since you may have a commercial relationship with them for the duration of these Games, I feel that the racially controversial content of this article may be a matter for your urgent review.

I, like many millions of others, greatly enjoyed the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.  I thought that, in the course of its celebration of the inclusivity that is British culture at its best, it managed perfectly to embody the three Olympic Values – friendship, respect and excellence – and the four Paralympic Values – equality, courage, determination and inspiration.  All in all, it was a ceremony of tremendous warmth, wit and compassion.

Shortly afterwards I read an article about this triumphant opening ceremony in the Daily Mail, which has been the source of almost unprecedented controversy.  In the course of the article – which has now been deleted from the Daily Mail’s website without any apology for the gross offence that it has caused – the author commented that “[the ceremony] was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.”  The article, whose content has been thoroughly reviewed at the journalist John Walker’s website, openly mocked the possibility that happy mixed-race families could exist in Britain.  Britain rightly prides itself on one of the most happily diverse societies in the world. The Daily Mail’s article is therefore wholly at odds with statistical data and, equally importantly, with national sentiment.  I also contend that this article is entirely opposed to the key Olympic Value of friendship, is entirely opposed to the key Paralympic Value of equality, and, therefore, is inconsistent with the values of your organisation as an official partner of these Games.

Though this article, as mentioned before, has now been deleted from the Daily Mail’s website, it has been shared among millions of readers on Twitter, and copies of it continue to be shared and distributed online.  The Daily Mail is experiencing very severe damage to its brand, and it is very possible that your brand will suffer damage by association.

As a deeply concerned member of the public, I thought that I would bring this issue to your attention, and I hope that you are able to address it at your earliest convenience.  Given its potential ramifications, I consider that it is a matter of the greatest importance.

With best wishes,

[Concerned member of the public]

 

No longer casual about Daily Mail racism

The Daily Mail has written an article of such flagrant racism that it has seen fit to edit itself.  A superb piece has already been written on their post by @botherer, but I am actually shaking with rage and so I thought it important that I capture some of my anger here.  The Daily Mail published an online piece by a man who scorned the very existence of happy mixed-race middle-class families.  Yes, it actually did this.

I understand that there will be many people who will roll their eyes at what they see as such stunts by the Daily Mail.  But I can’t be one of them today.  This article is uniquely revealing.  The Daily Mail has not attacked black men for acts of criminality.  It has attacked them for their happy marriages to women who happen to be white.

That is shameful, and, I think, very dangerous.  The Daily Mail consistently produces articles that give rise to what many would call leftie outrage.  But I’m not a leftie living life in some kind of mythical liberal utopia, who takes calculated offence at every suggestion of prejudice.  I am merely a black man entirely and authentically furious at an article whose main racial thrust I consider to be wholly unacceptable.

Right.  Blood cooling, but that had to be said, or rather written.  Thank you for reading this far.

 

 

Snorkelling through Islamophobia

Snorkelling

I’ve been thinking about blogs a fair bit recently, and about the torrent of comments that they receive.  I have also been thinking about what I would call the act of reading those comments: and I can describe it best as “snorkelling”.

Often, as a blogger, you are reminded by your peers that you should not “look below the line”, that you should “avoid the bottom half of the Internet”.  Gary Younge, writing in the Guardian, recently revealed that he had long ago stopped reading comments below his online posts, since he had grown weary of sifting through the bile to find any constructive criticism that might be nestling in the effluent.

I tend not go snorkelling all that much anymore, at least not when it comes to my articles: this is due to a pretty unpleasant insult against a family member, which served as the tipping point for me.  But I had a good read of the thoughts posted underneath Mehdi Hasan’s compelling and important piece on Islamophobia, and it’s some of the most productive snorkelling that I’ve done in months. 

There, I found – amid the bile – a notable number of people offering balanced critiques of the post, who were anxious that their concerns over religious dogma should not be interpreted as racial prejudice.  It was the type of response that tempted me to go and read the comments under my own work, in the hope that I might benefit.  I don’t have that fortitude as of now, but it definitely made me think.  Who knows – I may submerge myself again, before long.

A new poem, “Two-seventy”

I’ve been thinking a fair bit recently about the watchful approach that I have often taken to life, and wondering how much my family’s background as refugees has anything to do with that.  To try to sum up my thoughts, I wrote this poem, “Two-Seventy”:

Before I walk any course that’s ahead of me,
I always look left and right- two-seventy:
This life is sly: it’s a clever beast
That strikes from the side if you move too readily…
Two-seventy: watching my flanks,
If caution were cash, I’d have lots in the bank;
And I’ve got to thank my kin from Uganda
Who heard trouble singing in the wind of the savannah;
And who fled Amin, and fled Museveni –
In a past life, these feet knew jeopardy…
Legacy: two-seventy genes,
From a family of some very shrewd refugees:
Blessings mixed are these gifts from my past;
The nerves that preserve me, deter me from calm:
And so, I’ve a fox of a soul
As I slip through life’s net like a soft finger-roll

“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 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.