Archive for Society

Fury towards Glenn Beck, and thanks.

Before I can be gracious, I must express my fury.

I am aware that this is my second blog of this nature in two days, but maybe this is a place where I need to park my rage for now. It appears that Glenn Beck, the radio host and American media personality, is absolutely horrified at the rise of the “alt-right” (or, as I prefer to call them, the Racist Right), and is making a series of media appearances to condemn their flagrant racism. Beck should not be remotely surprised by their ascent, given that he has devoted years of his career to promoting the very same bigotry whose wave the alt-right is currently riding.

And I am angry, even as Beck continues to make his way in a positive direction, and continues to renounce his past. I am still furious. Because now Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States, and he looks likely to appoint a white supremacist as his chief strategist. And for years, black people were dismissed as overly sensitive when they criticised Beck, as they watched him laying the foundations for Trump’s election. They were told to stop whining, their worries were dismissed as mere political correctness. Meanwhile, with every bigoted broadcast, Beck gently pushed Trump closer to the White House door. And here we are, and now Beck is sorry.

Perhaps, at some level, it was all just a game for Beck; perhaps he was just chasing ratings, pumping his prejudice into the air as part of the racist arms race that is so much of American shock-jock radio. Maybe he just didn’t see the damage that his rants were doing to black people and to other minorities. In any case, shame on him.

And I needed to say that, first. Because what I will now say is this: thank goodness Beck is doing what he is doing. Because he is taking the conversation about racism to the place where it must consistently go: to the dinner-tables of white America. He was far too late to help to prevent Trump’s election, but maybe in the years to come he can extinguish a small amount of the fires that he so recklessly started. What he is currently doing takes no no little bravery, and once my rage subsides I will commend him properly for that. And if there is anything to be learned from Beck’s career arc, it is this: please listen more carefully, and in timely fashion, to black people who are painstakingly noting the rise of racism. We assure you that we aren’t doing this for fun.

Trump, Black Lives Matter, and transforming the terms of debate.

A very worrying thing is taking place, right before our eyes. I have just read a post from the columnist Tim Montgomerie, in which he approvingly quotes an article by Andrew Sullivan, one of the most prominent conservative thinkers in America. In the post, Mr. Montgomerie approvingly quotes the following section of text:

Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”

And so they wait, and they steam, and they lash out. This was part of the emotional force of the tea party: not just the advancement of racial minorities, gays, and women but the simultaneous demonization of the white working-class world, its culture and way of life. Obama never intended this, but he became a symbol to many of this cultural marginalization. The Black Lives Matter left stoked the fires still further; so did the gay left, for whom the word magnanimity seems unknown, even in the wake of stunning successes. And as the tea party swept through Washington in 2010, as its representatives repeatedly held the government budget hostage, threatened the very credit of the U.S., and refused to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee, the American political and media Establishment mostly chose to interpret such behavior as something other than unprecedented. But Trump saw what others didn’t, just as Hoffer noted: “The frustrated individual and the true believer make better prognosticators than those who have reason to want the preservation of the status quo.” (My emphasis in bold.)

It’s a long piece of text, but the section that I would like to talk about briefly is that piece in bold. It’s only one line, but it’s very revealing, I think. Black Lives Matter is an ongoing protest movement to address the wrongful death of black people at police hands; it is an attempt to encourage greater scrutiny of a problem that is now getting some attention but not nearly enough resolution. Sullivan doesn’t adequately scrutinise why the desire of some black people for justice should have been so upsetting to the apparently monolithic white working class. After all, what skin was it off their collective nose? What was it to do with them? How exactly is a wish for better treatment by the police any kind of affront to “the white working-class world, its culture and way of life”? In Sullivan’s article he is not sympathetic to Trump’s bigotry: he rejects it throughout. However, in failing to critique some of the apparently racially-motivated elements of Trump’s support, he helps to cast aspersions on the Black Lives Matter movement. He implies that the problem with the Black Lives Matter movement is that it somehow pushed white working class people too far too soon, and Trump’s election was a logical result.

Elsewhere in the article, Mr. Sullivan refers to Black Lives Matter as part of “the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers [Trump]”. (My emphasis.) Yet Black Lives Matter is not “identity politics”, in this newly-negative sense: it is not asking for special treatment for a particular marginalised group, it is asking for equal treatment under the law. It is asking why Freddie Gray can have his spine severed in the back of a police van and every officer involved can walk free; it is asking why Sandra Bland can be pulled over for failing to execute a turn signal and end up dead in a jail cell. It is about asking why Eric Garner had to die for selling cigarettes. If that long, painful advocacy is to be reduced to the now-pejorative phrase “identity politics”, then we are in a troubling place indeed.

Mr. Sullivan notes that “Neo-fascist movements do not advance gradually by persuasion; they first transform the terms of the debate”. Yet in framing Black Lives Matter as a movement that has served primarily to provoke white ire, and not as one which is looking for justice in cases where it is being denied, Mr. Sullivan actually helps to transform those terms of debate. It is the same transformation which has led to the characterisation of those who are concerned about equal rights for marginalised groups as “elitist”That is a dangerous shift, and it must be resisted at every turn.

On Donald Trump, “the naysayer”, and deep-space travel.

So Donald Trump has been elected as the President of the United States; and so I would like to say two things. The first is about the naysayer, and the second is about deep-space travel.

A few days ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about a distressing recent incident, where I was racially harassed (and perhaps assaulted) in the street. I mentioned my discomfort at what had happened, and offered the opinion that choosing where to live as a black person, in many parts of the world, was often a matter of choosing the place that was “the least shit” (not the most poetic of phrases, I will admit). I didn’t think this was a very controversial statement – after all, whenever a friend recommends that I visit a particular city, my first question is frequently “what’s the racism like there?” (This, I assure you, a question borne of painful and personal experience.) I was very surprised, then, to hear my friend tell me that he had “lost all respect” for me. His reasoning was that I should not be scared away from a city by its racism, but that I should stay and confront it. I was upset by his reaction, for which he subsequently apologised, and we parted on friendly terms; he is a very good person, after all. Why, though, had he reacted like that?

We actually discussed this, and we got to the bottom of it; which was important, I think. There are some people, like my friend, who have a very positive outlook on the city around them (in this case, Berlin). Their emotional attachment to the city is so powerful – for them, it is a place that gives them unparalleled freedom – that any presentation of its more unpleasant sides immediately meets with a negative reaction. It is a little like telling someone that beneath their beautiful pedicures lies a fungal infection. And this is the insidious thing about racism – it is so ugly that its mere presence unsettles people; good people, who would be horrified if they saw a Nazi trying to intimidate you on the train. But these good people need to do more, otherwise they become “the naysayer”: the person for whom the existence of racism is so uncomfortable that they would rather turn away from it, in the hope that by covering their eyes it will no longer be there.

What can these good people do? Well, that’s where we come to the second thing I would like to say. There are two places in this Universe, both equally remote, to which I will never be able to travel: one of those is deep space, and the other is a conversation about racism at an all-white family dinner table. As a black person, I won’t be in the room when white people discuss how they feel about ethnic minorities, but I really think – given the emerging demographic details of Trump’s victory – that the all-white family meal is the most important conversation in America. It’s at this dinner table where fears and misconceptions about non-white people will be aired, and it is here that those who are unafraid of us must speak up, and not turn away; it is here that they should try to respond with the same degree of indignation, that my friend replied to me. I don’t think for one moment that this conversation will ever be an easy one: in some cases, those people will be outnumbered at the dinner table by people they dearly love, and who have always shown them great kindness. Nevertheless, it is the kind of conversation that is essential, in its own way as revolutionary as any street protest; and, if we look at the current polls, it is not happening nearly enough.

As for me? I am not here merely to point fingers at others. I will continue to write as I always have, and to speak as boldly and precisely about these issues as I can. I will try to listen, and where I can reassure those who are only afraid, rather than triumphant in their bigotry – because I am not arrogant enough to think that I can affect that latter group. And, most of all, I will try my very best not to despair; since while I may be despondent now and then, prolonged misery is a luxury that I cannot afford. On I go, then; away from fear, and hopefully towards more effective work.

The start of a novel on race and immigration that I was too angry to finish.

Okay, I am going to do something that you’re never actually meant to do, which is to share a novel before it is finished.

In February last year, I began writing a novel, Make Us Human, about race and immigration. There were only two problems with this. The first problem is that I hate writing about race. The second problem is that I hate writing about immigration. Like, I absolutely hate it. With a nuclear intensity. I took that intensity and started to write.

And then, 7,000 words into that novel, I stopped. Why did I stop? Because I hate writing about race and about immigration, and I knew that, if I finished this novel and it ended up being published anywhere at all, I was in danger of becoming the Race and Immigration Guy for the rest of my writing career. And I would hate that. And, most of all, I was too angry. And I really mean angry – I was clattering away at that poor keyboard. I would sit down in that flat and the fury would just come pouring forth, and it felt unhealthy. It didn’t feel like writing, it felt like rhetoric.

So why am I sharing this now? Because of Brexit.  Yes, I know a lot of people voted Leave to regain the sovereignty of the UK, and yes, I know a lot of people voted Leave due to their disillusionment with the political establishment and their fears over pressure on local services. But there were also a lot of people who voted Leave because they just hated foreigners, and I’m not even going to sit here and argue that case anymore, because it’s pretty much all that I have done in much of my political commentary for the last few years and I am tired of falling out with my friends on Facebook.

So here it is. The opening chapters of “Make Us Human”, a novel I was too angry to finish; if you find it of interest, please share it. The story is based in the late 1990s in West Drayton, a dull suburb of West London; it’s the tale of a British Ugandan family quietly trying to make their way in the UK. It’s also the tale of two teenage brothers, Danny and Michael Okello; Danny, the narrator, is fully aware of the growing anti-immigration sentiment in the country, but Michael, to his cost, is oblivious.

***

 

Make Us Human.

 

One

You don’t fucking want us here. It’s OK – we get it. We know. And we know that you never really did. What it made it OK before was that we were only a few drops of rainfall to you, as irritating yet ultimately tolerable as the damp toes of either sock.  But there are more of us now, the water’s higher, and you have to pay attention.  And you fucking hate it. Don’t worry – don’t worry. We fucking hate it too.

The only problem is that there’s nowhere for us to go. We can’t go back to Africa – that wormhole’s fucking closed. Back to Uganda, if you really must know. Idi Amin came after my parents with machetes and they took the fucking hint. Came here and kept a low profile. Studied hard and sucked it up, just like the good immigrants do. Got solid jobs and always smiled the brightest at office parties. “Look at that cute black couple”, their colleagues probably thought. “They might look different but underneath they’re just like us.” Except they weren’t just like them because Mrs. Carter who sat opposite my mum in the typing pool never had her best mate dragged out in front of the class and raped and Mr. Williams who played with my dad in the law firm five-a-sides had never seen what Ugandan dictators slowly and gleefully did to footballers they didn’t like. And Mum and Dad never told Mr. Carter and Mr. Williams anything, not really, they spared them, and I actually said to them once, I can’t believe I was this bold, I said to them “one day you’ll pay for this, we all will. Because we make them think it’s been easy. Mum, Dad, you make it look too easy. Maybe you should complain. Because all these people around us think that the pain wasn’t real. And why should they? None of it’s been written down. None of it’s been on the TV. They don’t know how you’ve suffered. If they did they would respect you more.”

“Daniel, Daniel”, Dad had sighed, as Mum shook her head. “No-one gives you a medal for living a hard life.”

“Well, maybe they should”, I said, feeling stupid even as I said it, and looking across at Michael, who was suddenly studying each cornflake in his bowl in minute detail. “Maybe there should be – I don’t know – a national remembrance day for refugees or something. So people can actually know what you went through.”

“But what for?”, said Mum, sliding my empty plate away from me. “Why are we special?  Everybody suffers.”

“But not like you, Mum”, I said, in a tone that was almost pleading. “Not like you.”

Not like us, I realise now. Not like us. Because this is what you did. You came and you told us all the rules, so fucking many of them, and we followed them all, we jumped as high as you ordered, we scraped as low, lower, than our dignity would go, and what did you do after all that? You took the very best of us, you soiled our jewel, you broke us, you really fucking broke us. And I warned everyone you would do this, I warned Mum, I warned Dad, I warned Michael, but they all gave me that look, that Daniel-you’re-too-paranoid, and now those who are left of us are still here, with the tears and the regret and the fists that aren’t strong enough to break the things that they need to, or strong enough to drag things back to the way they were. And things were good, they were so good – they weren’t perfect, and that was best of all, because they were improving, they were on their way somewhere. And now all that’s gone, and I’ve just gone through the hollowness of the horror, and the rage is with me, the fucking rage, and my eyes and my nose are filled and the blank page is cowering underneath me because though it knows that though I need to write I don’t want to, I want to take this pen and stab the fuck out of it but, but I must write, I must write through the grief, because people need to know how hard this was, I must write, I must write. Because people need to know, and most of all you.

 

Two

Michael had the top bunk. I don’t actually remember how that came about, the same way people still can’t tell you who was the true forerunner, the chicken or the egg. The top bunk was Michael’s and that was that. This was how big brothers worked – they asserted their view of the world and all their surrounding inferiors fell dutifully into line. Often, too, they would even alter certain uncomfortable truths, in order to fit a more satisfying narrative. Now, I’m not saying that Michael behaved like some unscrupulous imperial historian, but every now and then he did display a flexible relationship with the facts. For example, anyone who attended Langley Grammar School with both of us in the early 1990s would know that it was I, and not he, who first snogged Theresa McClean. Theresa, argh. Half-Jamaican and half-Scottish, golden skin and amber curls. Skirt stopping halfway down thighs, calves pulsing through the tops of her socks. Are you mad? No way she should have looked at me over Michael but one afternoon she did. There were three of us standing about having a cigarette and we each wanted a second and I offered her my last. She looked in the upturned packet and saw that Marlboro Light in there all by itself and something in her must have turned because Theresa was hard back then, not yet mean, that came later, and she said “fuck, Daniel, you’re alright you know, you’re really alright.” And right there, in front of Kelly Ripley, you can call her as a witness, she took my neck in the crook of her right arm and pulled me towards her, into the long slow syrup of her tongue, and for all all of six breath-held seconds we were beyond the spiteful afternoon wind and Kelly wailing “what the fuck, he’s only a kid”, and I was in a place of softness and kindness so terrifying not only because I feared it never existed, least of all in a heart like Theresa McClean’s, but also because I feared once we came apart I would never find it again. And sure enough – when our lips separated, the taste of that warmth was gone, as sharp and swift as the aftermath of a mouthful of cranberry juice. She snatched that cigarette, and finished it, and I didn’t see her again for two weeks.

In the meantime, Michael had quickly heard about all this, and given his own designs upon Theresa was suitably devastated. Of the two of us, Michael was the more obviously romantic, and so was both frustrated that I had beaten him to it and appalled by the opportunistic nature of my conquest. “So that was it – you just snogged her?” he asked, bewildered. “You didn’t even take her to see a film?” I shook my head. “Or – or bowling?”

“Nope”, I shrugged, somewhat smugly. We both knew it – if you were a teenager in Slough at that time, kissing Theresa McClean carried the same kudos as if you’d first set foot on the Moon. For days afterwards in the school corridors, older boys who’d never noticed me before gave me solemn nods of acknowledgement. People offered me fist-bumps and pats on the back, each of which I graciously accepted. Of course, Michael found all this infuriating.

“So you’re famous”, he said one afternoon, once it had got too much. “Theresa is out of your league, you know.”

“Obviously not,” I said proudly.

“Obviously not, obviously not.”

“Look, take the piss all you want. But what happened, happened. Facts are facts.” At which Michael had frowned. “No, see, that’s the thing”, he replied. “It didn’t happen. I don’t want to think about a world where it happened. So it didn’t.”

“Michael that’s ridiculous.”

“Exactly, it’s ridiculous. There’s no way Theresa McClean could have chosen the younger, uglier Okello brother while the handsome one was on the same campus. So, it didn’t happen.”

“Michael – ”

“How many witnesses were there, anyway?” he asked, stroking his chin as he looked away into the middle distance. Only Kelly. And Theresa’s not talking about it.” This was true. Theresa was notably monkish in discussing her sexual exploits, widely rumoured though they were.

“But Kelly – ”

“Kelly’s not credible either”, continued Michael. “Kelly was so ashamed that her boyfriend had dumped her as soon as he got to uni that she told everyone that they were on a break while he went travelling round the world. Which was news to everyone who saw him a week later in a Reading nightclub with his hand up the new girl’s shirt.”

“But Kelly wouldn’t lie about her friend’s business like that – ”

“Why not? Kelly likes a story as much as the next student”, argued Michael, saying student as though he were a disapproving magistrate. “And who says Theresa is Kelly’s friend? Theresa doesn’t have friends. That girl is a ghost.”

This was true. Looking into Theresa’s gaze was like peering over the fence into an exquisitely-kept private garden: it was beautiful to behold, but you knew you had no business there. Wherever Theresa went, she floated without trace, as elegant and fleeting as a late-autumn afternoon.

“Look Michael, say what you like about Kelly, but this is stupid. I know what went on. I was there.”

“Were you?” He smiled, slyly. “Are you sure you didn’t just make it up? Being eager to please?”

For a moment, I was suddenly, strangely unsure of myself.

“Haha, piss off”, I laughed, perhaps too loudly; because, somewhere in my certainty, Michael had pulled a thread loose. And so the weeks went by, and Theresa reappeared but ignored me; and whenever I brought up the kiss Michael denied, denied, denied, and I quietly found myself wondering if it had ever even occurred at all.

 

Three

For the first five years of my life, I wasn’t entirely sure that my father existed. He seemed as much a myth as the kiss I had allegedly shared with Theresa McClean. If I woke early enough or stayed awake sufficiently late I would hear the front door creak apologetically open, the signal that he was heading to or from the office that claimed most of his days. As I grew older, I treated his appearances at home with the reverence some would reserve for celebrities. Looking back, I’m not sure how much he or Mum appreciated this. Mum worked more reasonable hours, and so she saw Michael and I all the time, and therefore at our worst; while Dad encountered us mostly at weekends, and though perhaps flattered by my attention was too exhausted to do anything meaningful with it. Instead, he spent most of Saturday and Sunday next to the radio, where he silently and slowly recharged with the aid of huge servings of red kidney beans, chupati and chicken. He spent the rest of those afternoons asleep, with my mother often wandering in to remove his shoes long after he had dozed off. As a result, it was often very difficult to extract any information about this stranger in my living room, and so for answers I pestered Michael, who was three years older than me and for whom the novelty of Dad’s presence had long since worn off.

“Michael, what’s Dad like?”

“What do you mean, what’s Dad like?”

“I mean what’s his favourite colour. What food does he like.”

“Daniel that’s a stupid question.”

“Questions. I asked two questions.”

Michael rolled his eyes.

“Questions. Stupid questions”, said Michael, in a tone that was presumably supposed to be firm and final, but I was undeterred. “They’re not stupid”, I said.

“Well why don’t you ask him?”

“Because he’s never awake and when he is awake he gets angry with me and I get shy.”

I had drawn Dad something once – a tractor. It was red and and yellow, like one of those Tonka ones, and I had left it out on the living room table for when he got back from work. I labelled it with his name, which I had assumed was Dad, and wanted to see what he thought. It was there for one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine days. After five days I asked Mum if she could tell Dad it was there and after ten days she gave it back to me. “You should take care of this Daniel, you’ll lose it”, she said, pressing it back into my unwilling palms.

“But it’s for Dad.”

“I know”, she said, cupping my cheeks in her hands, “I know. You should save it for when he is less busy.”

But Dad was never less busy. And Michael had known this, which is why he had looked across at his five-year old brother who was asking stupid questions and realised that he had better get there quickly or he was going to do the first thing that boys learn to be ashamed of. And as I saw Michael run across the room towards me, I realised in horror in turn that the speed of his feet was not as great as the speed of my tears, and the room drifted away from me through a warm, humiliating glaze.

Over the years, I came to see that Dad was best communicated with via Michael. At times it was as if my father was a disobedient piece of technology and Michael was the only mechanic who could activate him. I could wander over to Dad three or four times during the same Saturday afternoon and ask him how the match was going, receiving either a grunted reply or silence. Meanwhile, all Michael would have to do was yell “Score?” from the hallway and Dad would suddenly sit upright, reeling off a two-minute summary of the match thus far. Mum would notice this, though not without a smile. “Your father spends so much time in his own head”, she explained to me once, “that often the only person he speaks to is himself”. Michael looked so much like Dad that sometimes that’s what he thought he was doing.

Mum would laugh at how alike Michael and my father were. We were all tall, the three men in the family, but it was only my brother and Dad who shared the same expression when at rest – a frown into the middle distance, as if they had just seen smoke advancing over a distant hill. Dad’s nose for trouble was notorious. Back in Uganda, when people were only slowly waking to the terror of Idi Amin, Dad knew. “Stay away from the dormitories today”, he’d told four of his schoolmates, as they’d sat in town on their lunch break. “Don’t go back. Let’s hang out.” Everyone had laughed at him, except Alfred Agoga. Dad and Alfred had remained in town till the next day, skipping class, playing cards and then sleeping in the shadow of the local bus stop. Meanwhile, the other three had returned earlier that evening, to find an escort of soldiers awaiting them with bayonets. They were never seen again.

Mum had told me and Michael the above story, like most of the others about our family: in the old days, back in Uganda, she would have been one of the tribe’s oral historians, capable of flawless recall of decades-old conversations. She had a Jay-Z of a memory: I never saw her write anything down to help her remember it, not shopping lists, nothing. Yes; in more momentous times she would have been hailed as a great sage, maybe even a prophet, dutifully bearing the secrets of entire worlds between her ears. Here, though, in the West London suburb of Yiewsley, Mum’s gift was mostly a pain in the arse. When she went on holiday, her fellow secretaries at the local health centre would often call the house in various states of agitation, since Mum had yet again failed to leave behind a copy of that week’s rota that she assumed everyone else carried round in their heads.

But back to Dad, who always managed to slip out of the picture if you let him. It’s not fair to say that I didn’t resemble him at all; just that I looked like his nephew rather than his son. My skin was slightly lighter than his, and my nose was a little broader and flatter in definition, as if Nature was telling me that I would be even better able to sniff for danger. I also had his hands, those Okello hands, with which I could easily palm a basketball. But as for Dad and Michael – their similarities were uncanny. It was as if God had fallen asleep when supervising the production line and had accidentally churned out a clone. When I ate too much, you could see the weight race to all corners of my frame, with the same urgency of a drop of ink over blotting paper. But Dad and Michael were eternally thin. It was incredible that two figures so skeletal could consume such large amounts. Watching them feed was akin to witnessing a physical miracle, like seeing a sack of flour being successfully stuffed into the top of a bamboo shoot. “Where does it all go?” Mum would ask, though not without pride. “Eh! You boys can eat.”

That’s as closely as me, Michael and Dad ever bonded: when we leaned back in our seats after a sleep-inducing feast of kwon, red kidney beans and chicken in peanut butter sauce, pimples of sweat around our temples, exhausted as men who’d just uprooted a field of sugar cane with their bare hands. The smiles we shared then were a thing of rare elation: “we did good, lads”, it said, “we did good”. After such Sunday afternoon triumphs, though, Michael and Dad would evaporate with my mother’s blessing, off to watch a local game of football: an obsession that they shared, and a plague that I had largely avoided.

Out of guilt, I would help Mum with the dishes, and then the two of us would sit in the living room, accompanied by a stack of books. Mum would typically read something about history, whilst I would opt for a detective novel, the Hardy Boys or Hitchcock. I never understood Mum’s fever for studying the past, given that she had spent so much unpleasant time in it already. If I’d seen what she’d seen in Uganda, you couldn’t have catapulted me into the future fast enough. Once I’d subtly tried to steer her reading habits forward by a few thousand years, casually passing her some short stories by Isaac Asimov that a friend had lent me. After browsing a few pages, she’d handed the collection back to me, glaring at me over the top of her glasses with the hostility of a traffic warden.

“This is science fiction”, she’d said accusingly. “Robots and what-not.”

“Yes”, I’d admitted. “I – ”

“New things, new things. You people always want to think about new things.”

You people. She always said that! You people. As if there were billions of other Earth-dwellers, oblivious to their folly, and it was only Mum, in the dimly-lit corner of her own lounge, fighting the world’s good fight.

“Asimov is very good”, I’d said, suddenly feeling as though I was giving a book report at school. “In his writings, he predicts all kinds of things that come true.”

“Predictions, predictions. What does he predict about Uganda?”

“What – what do you? – well, nothing! But that’s not the point – ”

“He doesn’t care about Uganda? That doesn’t sound like any kind of writing for me.”

“It’s not that he doesn’t care about Uganda, he just doesn’t write about it – ”

“You people don’t write about Uganda, and you don’t think about it.” She’d tapped her stack of books. “All the things that have happened there are still happening there.” She’d waited for me to answer, but I had nothing. “Well then”, she’d said, returning to her book with a triumphant snort. “Asimov.”

Mum could be stubborn as hell. I suppose Michael and I owed our existence to that. Years ago, when she and our father had first met, she’d had what you could call a reverse Rosa Parks moment. When travelling down from Gulu to Kampala to start the school term, boys and girls were allocated their seats on the inter-city coach by alphabetical order. My mum, whose surname began with A, ignored this minor inconvenience when she saw that Solomon Okello, of whom she decidedly liked the look, was due to sit several rows behind her. And so, in protest at this absurd state of affairs, she promptly went and sat next to him at the back of the bus.

“Akot!” called the coach driver, when they were shortly due to set off on the six-hour coach journey. “Margaret Akot.”

“She’s here, she’s here”, called Clara Ocheng, in a voice that barely hid her anguish. She had her own designs on Solomon, and the fate of the alphabet seemed to have brought them together. But here, right in her seat, was Margaret Akot, arms folded and scowling obstinately out of the window, spoiling all of Providence’s well-laid romantic plans. Solomon, my father-to-be, saw that there was to be no negotiating with Margaret, and stared forwards and upwards, presumably at an approaching cloud of smoke. Clara, distraught, was dispatched to sit alongside the far less eligible Godfrey Bwoyo.

Mum and Dad had got to know each other on that odyssey south; though, as Mum later recalled, it hadn’t been easy going. Solomon, whilst initially flattered by Margaret’s attention, had no idea what to do now that he was in the crosshairs of her desire.  The first few questions that she asked him were met with two stages of silence: first confusion, as he pondered how best to evade this irritatingly attractive new travelling companion, and then resolution, as he decided that, no, he would not entertain this threat. Looking back, I think Dad knew even then that the moment he opened his mouth it would be over, that the second he spoke he would succumb to the narrative that Mum had long since planned. And so he spent several hours gazing over her shoulder as the countryside of Northern Uganda rattled past, and his monkish vigil might have lasted all the way to Kampala if Mum, by now somewhat desperate, hadn’t brought up the subject of football.

“You like football, don’t you”, she’d said, almost resentful that she’d had to refer to the sport.

“Yes”, he’d said, refusing to make it easy for her. Still, thought Margaret, at least he’s talking now, this is progress.

“You have a favourite team, don’t you.”

“Yes.”

“Which one is it?”

Guess, he dared her with a sideways glance. She thought of the few names she thought she knew. “Gulu FC.” Solomon shook his head. “Sporting Jinja.”

“Those last two weren’t even real names”, he’d smirked. “You don’t know a thing about football.”

“Solomon!” she’d said, in a sudden blend of anger and anxiety.  “How is this supposed to work if you don’t even try?”

Wait, what? How was what supposed to work? thought Solomon. Were they already part of a thing? What was that thing? To his dismay, he was already answering.

“Margaret, I’m so sorry, I – ”

“Solomon I’m going to be in so much trouble when we get to Kampala because there are such strict rules on where we’re meant to sit, and I made such a fuss to sit next to you because I thought it would be so nice. And all you can do is mumble at me.”

Solomon now wanted to speak more than ever but his mouth was overcome by an unaccountable dryness. He heard sniggers from the seats around him. James Obee, who was sitting in the row ahead of them, turned round and knelt on his seat, tapping Solomon lightly on the top of the head. “Come on Solmon”, he said, smiling broadly, “talk to her”. And then, with a devious wink in Margaret’s direction, “or I will”.

“OK, OK”, stammered Solomon, to both James and Margaret, but mostly to himself. “What do you want to know about football?”

Margaret beamed, and relaxed. As she did so, her shoulders dropped a full two inches, and Solomon realised that they must have been that taut the entire journey. “I’m sorry”, he said, almost under his breath. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” She put one palm on his forehead, and drew it back over his scalp. “And I want to know whatever you know about it. Just talk.”

“OK”, said Solomon, “OK”, and then he saw his father loom into view outside the coach window, furiously waving a raised fist at him from among the racing trees, don’t you dare answer me back Solomon, don’t you DARE answer me back; and then he looked back at Margaret, and her eyes were deep as pools of stars, and his old man disappeared.

“Ha,” he sighed. “Well, there is one player my father loved. His name was Okot p’Bitek.”

 

Four

Okot p’Bitek: among our tribe, he was as acclaimed as a plate of plantain or posho. A poet, singer, dancer, drummer, dissident, teacher, lecturer, theatre director, international footballer and Olympic athlete, he was the son every parent wanted and the man every younger brother silently resented. His peers regarded him as a folk hero, and it was over tales of both his sporting feats and his acts of political mischief that Mum and Dad eventually bonded. Okot was renowned for his mockery of authority, which in that intensely murderous era made him one of the bravest practical jokers who ever lived.

Mum and Dad still loved Okot now, and had a large photo of him in that most sacred of Northern Ugandan cultural spaces, the front room. There he was, just a few feet above the television, peering out of that silver-and-bronze setting like some kind of African Han Solo. Every now and then, when you caught eye contact with him, you felt though he was about to begin and then win an intensely academic argument. His enviably resilient hairline and his soft cheekbones framed an accusing stare, the type a teacher might give you if you suspiciously slurred your speech just after your lunch-break.

Though Okot hadn’t been that much older than Mum and Dad, they ended up outliving him by several years. He’d died back in 1982, at the age of just fifty-two, succumbing to a stroke. In doing so, he was yet another one of Africa’s proudest sons who passed away with perhaps decades of their best work still ahead of them. Okot’s early demise seemed especially unfair. After the overthrow of Idi Amin in 1979, he’d returned to Uganda and had just settled into a teaching role when Fate came for him. In some of her more nostalgic moments, Mum would wonder aloud how different the continent would have been if some of its greatest leaders had made it to old age. “Eh! Oyite-Ojok!” she would say, referring to the remarkable commander who had deposed Amin. “So clever! You could not catch Ojok.” She shook her head. “And Biko, Lumumba, Sankara, Luwum! They were impossible.”

It was maybe strange to see Mum and Dad still taken by Okot’s revolutionary zeal, given that their faith and politics were one that he would probably have rejected. My parents were monarchists, who would venture out to a rain-whipped central London to attend a royal procession; while Okot had railed against the effects of colonisation with every cell of his being. By the time of his death, Okot had long since left religion behind him; while every Sunday morning, Mum and Dad attended Yiewsley Methodist Church as faithfully as the sun attends the sky.  And so here were Mum and Dad, two God-fearing suburban Tories, watched over in their living room by Okot, a fiercely leftist secular saint.

Though they shared Okot’s passion for Uganda, they had a far greater stomach for exile than he ever did. In many ways, their adaptation to their new habitat was remarkable. They had come from a land of slowly-baked sandstone to one of snarling concrete; in Uganda, the end of a street had meant the beginning of a rustling, sugar cane-filled field, and in England the end of a street merely meant the beginning of another. Mum complained so little, though, that you would have thought she was living in terraced heaven. Meanwhile, Dad showed slightly greater signs of his discontent. Sometime, when the sun briefly deigned to emerge over our suburb, Dad would gaze up at it with a look of pained betrayal.  Sadly, the sun had been a reluctant immigrant to British shores. Perhaps it felt more welcome elsewhere; maybe it was having a better time searing the soil of more accepting countries. Whatever its reasons, it was one of the few who hadn’t packed its bags for less violent climes during Amin’s years. Instead, it had stayed to witness him slash his way through the flesh of his enemies, to warm his shoulders as he worked.

Unimpressive weather aside, life in West Drayton really suited Mum and Dad. It was that most British of locations: it was convenient. It was pretty much the first stop that any newcomer found when they tumbled out of Heathrow Airport, and no-one had heard of it. There was a West Drayton, but no North, South or East: this was because, as someone once cruelly joked, that after finishing work on the West the builders simply gave up in horror.  This may have seemed unfair, but it was notable that the town did have suspiciously excellent transport links, almost as though it was constantly encouraging you to leave. There was a train line that rattled swiftly into London or out towards Cornwall, there were buses aplenty, you were only a few miles from the borders of the M4 and the M25; and, if you were feeling especially desperate and flush with cash, there was for many years a Concorde that could spirit you away to New York.

Despite all these slightly aggressive hints to escape West Drayton, not that many people actually did. That’s why I think Mum and Dad liked it. When you’re raising a family, one of the understated qualities of an area is the consistency of your immediate surroundings. Where you live may not necessarily be peaceful, but it’s good to know what you can expect for your children on a daily basis. West Drayton was great because it was a place where black people could go under the radar. There weren’t enough of us for the bulk of white residents to feel that we were staging some kind of gradual conquest, that we were trying to terraform the town into Uganda-upon-Thames.

Well – I say under the radar, but that’s not strictly true. Something seemed to have been happening the last couple of summers, like all of a sudden people were paying attention to us. And by people I mean police, and by us I meant me.

So, me and the police.  I guess it began in about 1994. One July afternoon, sitting with my older cousin Janani at a local bus stop, I saw one of their cars slide up the high street. Seeing us on their way past, they slowed and turned back on themselves, rolling into the vacant bus lane.

“Christ”, said Janani, sucking air in through his teeth. He’d known how this was going to go. “Look, Danny”, he said, “keep calm.”

“Keep calm, for what?”

Janani looked at me as though I’d just suggested skipping barefoot through a minefield. “Trust me, you’ll see.”

The two police – a woman, probably in her early thirties, and a man, a few years younger – got out of the car. The man was on the passenger side, and so he was closer to the pavement, and to us. He was almost five-nine, which at that point was an inch taller than me, but he didn’t look likely to grow any more in his life. His pectoral muscles looked like they were trying to punch their way out of his white shirt, and his slightly-too-short black trousers flared out over the ankles of each dark, sullen boot. He hadn’t bothered to close the door, and his peaked cap rolled about on the vacant car seat behind him. His hair was a soft, milky blonde, a brimming field of lambswool, and his eyes were a surprisingly gentle blue.

“Have you ever been arrested, Sir?”

He was looking directly at me. He had one thumb tucked behind his belt, and as he spoke he opened out and extended his right palm, as though hoping to catch my reply.

“What?” I almost coughed.

“Danny – ” hissed Janani. “Remember – ”

“I said have you ever been arrested Sir?”

At once I became aware that there were other people at the bus stop, and that they were all listening. Apart from Janani, who was simmering to my right, there were three others: an elderly white man, who was staring ahead with such intense indifference that he was clearly straining to hear every word, an elderly white woman, who was gazing at us in bemusement, and a white boy, about my age, who was dressed as if on his way to an idle day on the beach. He was chewing his way through a cluster of bubblegum, and watching me as if through the glass of an aquarium.

The policeman was still awaiting a response.

“I’m fourteen”, I said, in a tone that sounded something like begging, and for which I immediately hated myself. The policeman smiled and allowed his right thumb to join the other one behind his belt.

“I’ve arrested younger ones like you.” He tilted his head back slightly, his mouth streaked with something like pride.

“Can we help you?” asked Janani. He addressed his question to the man’s partner, who had sauntered round the side of the patrol somewhat deliberately, as if waiting for my interrogator to make the initial attack. The policeman looked up at Janani.

“Big lad”, he said thoughtfully.

“Yeah,” said Janani, and then paused, looking down. “Someone’s got to do it.”

The elderly woman burst out laughing. The old man stared furiously ahead and the boy gulped his gum. The policeman flinched forward and was about to say something back but then he noticed the policewoman grinning and checked himself. I looked up at Janani too. Yes, he was big; and he never made any effort to scale it back. You could most often find him in his Houston Rockets tracksuit, an outfit of red, gold and white that he wore in vague homage to his hero Hakeem Olajuwon. He was nineteen then, and looked just too short to make the NBA; he was a humble six-foot-four, rounded off by a thicket of dreadlocks that added an extra two inches.

Janani peered down at us along those jagged cheekbones of his, the ones his ancestors had given him to jut out at times like this. Yes, big lad; and Janani was very dark-skinned too, the kind of dark that either made you preemptively and perfectly polite to police officers, or which meant that you just didn’t give a fuck.

The policewoman had now arrived alongside her partner. Unlike him, she was wearing her cap. She must have been about five-ten, and had these large hazel eyes which blinked so little that looking into or away from them made you feel equally awkward. The sharp edges of her auburn hair rattled down over her collar like the teeth of a portcullis. She spoke.

“Can you let us know what you’re doing in the area?”

She was looking at me but Janani answered.

“We’re cousins”, he said, reaching around my back and softly palming my left shoulder in his left hand. “He lives here, I’m visiting him.”

“Where do you live?” she asked me. Janani nodded.

“Just off Falling Lane,” I said. “You know near Rabbsfarm school? Just by the fields.”

“Yes, yes, I know it”, she said, somewhat irritated.  There was a clear severity in her voice which, weirdly enough, almost made me warm to her. At least she was being honest about trying to screw us. I was going to say more, but she impatiently waved away my next sentence with her hand. “Where are you visiting from?” she asked Janani.

“London”, he replied.

“That’s a big place”, she said, hoping for more detail.

“I know.”

She sighed, and then looked at her partner, who shook his head. Their little show had lost momentum. Up the road, our bus was beginning to draw into view.

“Better get going, Brenda”, said the policeman, which caused her to glare at him. “What?” he said, retreating towards the car.

“You”, she said, pointing first at me then Janani, in a suddenly comical manner that seemed straight out of primary school. “Stay out of trouble.”

“Yes, ma’am”, said Janani, breaking into a smirk, and holding it. She got behind the wheel, and moved off. The policeman stared at Janani, even turning back towards him to maintain eye contact, until the patrol car was out of sight.

Relieved, we clambered aboard the bus to Uxbridge.

“That was nuts”, I said, trying to sound nonchalant.

“You OK, Danny?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, but my shoulders were shuddering. I could still feel the white boy’s eyes on me, quietly judging. “I mean, I guess, they must have thought we looked shifty, or something.”

“Shifty”, said Janani, shaking his head. “Bruv, you’ve got a lot to learn.”

“I mean”, I said, “I mean, you have been in trouble with police before Janani. Graffiti and stuff.”

“Haha, Danny. Danny,” said Janani. “As if they would know that! That was in Camden. And look who they came after. They came after you. Why was that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they just – ”

“Whatever, Danny,” he interrupted. “Don’t act like you don’t see it. You already do.”

I wasn’t ready to say the truth out loud, and I couldn’t find a conveniently comfortable change of subject: and so we settled into silence, as the bus meandered through the backstreets.   

 

Five

Do you know what being a refugee is like? No? Well, neither do I, really. I was born in the UK. But from talking to Mum, and from watching Dad, I think that leaving your home country has all the trauma of talking a walk in space.  I don’t know if you’ve seen that film – 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick. There’s a scene towards the end of that movie which, in my view, precisely depicts the refugee experience. The hero, an astronaut, is trapped outside his ship; and in order to save himself, he has to drift towards the ship’s airlock, through deep space, without a helmet. For a brief eternity, he floats through that vicious void, the vacuum clawing each breath from his lungs: and then, desperate yet undeterred, he somehow reaches safety. That astronaut, David Bowman, knew what it was to be a refugee. You set off from a familiar shore, and you grope through oblivion in search of a calmer harbour; and you know, all the while, that you’re probably not meant to make it.

Auntie April didn’t make it. I mean, she arrived in the UK straightforwardly enough, but after a few months here the person she was was long gone. April was Dad’s older sister, by a couple of years; a smart student at school, she had been slated for some kind of elite career, probably in the diplomatic service. The war had caught her during her second year at university, and she had been forced to evacuate a few months after Dad. Judging from that old headshot of her in our living room, propped up behind a crystal bowl near Dad’s drinks cabinet, she was something of a village beauty too. She had a shimmering afro, a soft, dark halo that reached tenderly out into the air around it; and she didn’t quite have the family nose, since hers was slightly longer and thinner (“you’re Sudanese”, they’d teased her at school). Her widened eyes were fixed in a sort of oddly knowing sorrow.

Having been separated from her friends and family during that war, April hadn’t contacted Dad till almost a year later. Having just started university, he’d received a call in his halls from a detention centre near Heathrow, and had jumped in a taxi at once, thus busting much of his budget for that week. He had found her there, but she was not herself: her hair, now the colour of rust, was short and patchy, as though afraid to make its way out of her scalp. His sister, a debating champion whose voice had once seared the timber of Kampala’s finest debating chambers, now spoke in a parched, cracked whisper; and the only thing Dad had truly recognised about her was the melancholy of her eyes, which finally made perfect and heartbreaking sense.

Maybe April was a prophet: maybe she’d known all along that the guillotine would drop towards her future one day, and that she wouldn’t be able to get her neck out of the way in time. The council had moved her into a flat near Dad’s home, and every Sunday they would take her to church over in Yiewsley, where she’d arrange flowers for a couple of hours before the service. April loved flowers. They were the only thing left in the world as gentle as she was. Seeing this, Mum would go round to hers every so often with a fresh supply of daffodils and lilies, April’s favourite; Dad pretended to be upset about the bill that Mum was running up, but that was just his way of showing vigorous enthusiasm. Whenever Dad was outraged at your behaviour, it was his coded way of saying: Look, my old man would have killed me for this, but if you defy me that’s just another step towards freedom. (At least, that’s what I learned to tell myself; it made his disapproval so much easier to absorb.)

Each Sunday Mum would help April to get dressed, and on a pleasant day would walk her part of the way to church before catching the bus. It was a little sad to see that April, even though she only had five years on Mum, faltered along as anxiously as an ailing grandmother, as if grateful for every new step she was allowed to take. She always had the same combination of clothing – black penny loafers, a long skirt of bright, corrugated nylon, and a blouse with a floral pattern, over which she wore a cardigan of thin, white wool. Lastly, in a concession to whatever ordeal her hair had suffered in Uganda, she wore a cream headscarf that shrouded everything from her neck to the very beginning of her forehead.

Of course, Auntie April’s experiences in Uganda were not freely discussed with Michael and I – in fact, they were not discussed with us at all. She sat with us at family meals, and I thought I saw in her timidity an embarrassment at who she now was. Dad didn’t make it any better. As if to impress upon Michael and I that April really had been a big deal in her youth, he would start telling stilted, rambling stories about what a wonderful pupil she had been. “Ah, ah, April”, he would say, in that plodding bassline of his. “The other girls and boys used to fear her. In class she was always the best! Everyone else was fighting for Number Two.”

Whenever Dad went on like this I could see Mum wince, and Michael try to divert the conversation. It felt unwittingly cruel, as if Dad was sitting with an ageing, punch-drunk boxer and playing him tapes of himself in his prime. Once I saw Auntie April raising her soup spoon to her mouth, and it had got three-quarters of the way there when her eyes glistened with something: maybe the thought of a world where her life had surged gloriously forward, untouched by the monsoon of blood that Amin had brought down upon Uganda. As Auntie April had quivered her spoon towards her mouth, maybe she saw it all, what she could and should have had: her well-polished Mercedes gliding silently home after work, where she was awaited by her husband, a successful playwright, and their charming young daughter. Seeing her eyes, I had to release her somehow.

“More bread, Auntie?” I had asked, offering her the basket.

“Oh, thank you Daniel,” she’d said, almost scrambling across the table for it.

“Very good”, Dad had said, similarly relieved. “Very good”.

Dad wasn’t always awkward around Auntie April, though. I just think he felt he had to put on a show for us. Sometimes, so that Auntie had company, he would bring her over and they would sit in the living-room together, while Dad put on those old soukouss records that she’d adored in her youth. They’d rest on the same sofa, shoulder to shoulder, gazing out into that peaceful suburban side-road, and we’d leave them to it: two tranquil siblings, with something slightly torn but unyielding between them, both clutching at something of home.

Wie umgehen mit den sexuellen Übergriffen in Köln und Hamburg?

Für jede Frau muss ein solcher Moment im höchsten Maße furchterregend sein. In Köln haben in der Silvesternacht betrunkene, agressive Männer im Stadtzentrum Frauen eingekreist und diese angegriffen und begrapscht. Die Zahl der Männer wird hierbei auf 500 bis zu 1000 geschätzt, und ersten Einschätzungen zufolge waren die Angriffe koodiniert. Ein Minister beschrieb die Ereignisse als einevollkommen neue Dimension von Verbrechen”. Wolfgang Albers zufolge, dem Polizeipräsidenten, fand hier ein sexuelles Verbrechen besonderen Ausmaßes statt. Er gab an: “Die Taten wurden von einer Gruppe von Personen verübt, die dem Anschein nach zu großen Teilen aus Nordafrika und der arabischen Welt stammen.”

Das Ausmaß sexueller Gewalt gegen Frauen weltweit ist überwältigend: Es ist grauenerregend, herzzerreißend und letztendlich macht es wütend. Ob in der Öffentlichkeit oder innerhalb der vermeintlich sicheren eigenen vier Wände, die Angriffe gegen Frauen kennen keine Grenzen. Um die Vereinten Nationen zu zitieren: “Es wird angenommen, dass 35% aller Frauen weltweit im Laufe ihres Lebens entweder körperliche und/oder sexuelle Gewalt eines Intimpartners oder sexuelle Gewalt eines nicht-Partners erfahren. Manche nationalen Studien zeigen, dass bis zu 70% der Frauen im Laufe ihres Lebens körperliche und/oder sexuelle Gewalt eines Intimpartners erfahren.”

Die Übergriffe in Köln sind also nicht im luftleeren Raum entstanden, sondern vielmehr Ausdruck einer ernstzunehmenden, globalen Situation. Das mag sich dramatisch anhören, aber die Zahlen und Augenzeugenberichte sprechen für sich. Die Zeitung The Guardian berichtet: Eines der Opfer, Katja L., sagte gegenüber dem Kölner Express: “Als wir aus der U-Bahn Station kamen, waren wir von der Gruppe ausschließlich ausländischer Männer, auf die wir trafen, total überraschtWir sind durch die Gruppe gelaufen, es gab einen Tunnel durch sie hindurch. Ich wurde überall angefasst. Es war ein Alptraum. Obwohl wir schrien und um uns schlugen, haben die Männer nicht aufgehört. Es war entsetzlich, und ich glaube ich bin auf den 200 Metern Fußweg bestimmt 100 Mal angefasst worden.” Einer der Ermittler sagte gegenüber dem Kölner Express: “Die weiblichen Opfer wurden so schlimm herumgeschubst, dass sie heftige blaue Flecken an Brüsten und Hinterteilen hatten.”

The Guardian berichtete weiterhin: “Die Angriffe waren zentraler Diskussionspunkt auf Twitter, wo manche den Medien Vertuschung unterstellten und die Besorgnis, die Vorfälle könnten von Anti-Flüchtlingsgruppierungen für sich genutzt werden, Ausdruck fand.”

Innerhalb der Auseinandersetzung besteht die tatsächliche Gefahr, dass die angegriffenen Frauen aus dem Blick verschwinden, begraben unter einer Debatte zwischen Links und Rechts. Genaugenommen passiert das bereits. Bleiben wir daher bei den Fakten.

Zahlreiche Frauen wurden auf einem öffentlichen Platz von bis zu eintausend Männern in eine Falle gelockt. Neunzig Opfer haben gegenüber der Polizei ausgesagt. Es gab darüber hinaus ähnliche sexuelle Übergriffe in der selben Nacht in Hamburg. Die Selbstverständlichkeit, mit welcher die Männer hierbei über die Körper der Frauen verfügten, ist entsetzlich.

Die Vorfälle sind dabei durchaus kontrovers zu verstehen, hat doch Kanzlerin Angela Merkel im Verlauf der letzten 12 Monate um die 1 Million Geflüchtete aus Afrika und der arabischen Welt ins Land gelassendieselbe demographisch dominante Gruppe unter den jungen Männern, die diese Angriffe ausführten. Merkels Politik wird nun von vielen für den Anstieg von Sex-Attacken verantwortlich gemacht.

Dennoch wird dies keinen Einfluss darauf haben, dass sich die laufende Debatte um das ThemaRassedreht. Also können wir uns auch damit beschäftigen. Deutschland ist nicht gerade divers und die Mehrheit der Schwarzen und arabischen Menschen scheinen der Arbeiterschaft anzugehören. Dafür gibt es alle möglichen wirtschaftlichen Gründe, zum Beispiel die Tatsache, dass Menschen aus Afrika und dem Nahen Osten es durchaus schwer haben, Papiere zu bekommen und Arbeit aufzunehmen, wenn sie erst einmal hier sind.

In Berlin, wo ich lebe, ist die überwältigende Mehrheit Schwarzer, im Alltag sichtbarer Männer arm, obdachlos oder im Drogenverkauf auf der Warschauer Straße oder am Görlitzer Park, zwei der belebteren Bahnhöfe der Stadt, involviert. Und mit überwältigender Mehrheit meine ich so um die 80%, wenn nicht noch mehr. Und auch wenn es provokant klingt, ich denke die sozio-ökonomischen Umstände und die Frage, weshalb diese Schwarzen Männer eigentlich so arm sind, interessieren einfach auch nicht genügend Menschen hier vor Ort. Ich denke es gibt vielmehr eine weit verbreitete Tendenz, die größer ist als so manche hier anerkennen mögen, zu glauben, Schwarze Männer seien grundsätzlich weniger vertrauenswürdig oder eben kriminell.

Ich behaupte dies teilweise auch aufgrund meiner eigenen Erfahrungen in der Stadt und von Berichten mehrerer meiner nicht-weißen Freunde. Ein Freund aus Westafrika fand es bei einem Besuch der Stadt so schwierig eine AirB&B Wohnung zu finden, dass er jemand Dritten für sich buchen lassen musste. Berichte von Schwarzen, die versuchen in der eh schon schwierigen Wohnsituation in Berlin Zimmer oder Appartments zu finden, lassen ein Gesamtbild von Diskriminierung ziemlich deutlich zu Tage treten. Ziemlich alltäglich bin ich immer wieder überrascht, wie oft es passiert, dass weiße Berliner – auch in voll besetzten Zügen – den Platz neben mir verlassen, allem Anschein nach wenig angetan von der Aussicht neben einem Mann mit afrikanisch anmutendem Äußeren zu sitzen. Und sollte sich das paranoid anhören, dann muss gesagt werden, dass mir dies erst auffiel, als ich von einem weißen, kopfschüttelnden Mann amüsiert darauf hingewiesen wurde. Für jene, die denken, ich sei übersensibel, möchte ich ein paar Fakten herausstellen. Ich liebe diese Stadt und hier zu leben ist es wert auch mit solchen Unannehmlichkeiten zurecht zu kommen. Aber diese Dinge haben mir vor Augen geführt, dass die kulturellen Erwartungen an Schwarze Männer in manchen Gegenden Deutschlands bereits erschreckend niedrig sind. Und jetzt haben wir also auch noch solche Angriffe wie in Köln, einer der schlimmsten seiner Sorte, an die ich mich überhaupt erinnern kann.

Also was schließen wir jetzt aus dieser Analyse? Eigentlich simpel. Stehen wir den Frauen bei. Als Schwarze nner mit afrikanischen Wurzeln hassen uns die Rassisten in Deutschland sowieso. Sie dachten schon beim ersten Anblick wir seien Vergewaltiger und Perverse und jede sonstige Form von Sexualverbrechern. Ihnen sind die Frauen, die in Köln und Hamburg angegriffen wurden egal jenseits der Möglichkeit hier die vermeintlichen Beweise dafür zu finden, dass wir genauso animalisch sind, wie sie es immer schon befürchtetoder gehoffthatten. Deswegen sind mir diese Leute eigentlich egal. Es stört mich auch nicht wirklich, wenn irgendjemand eben nicht neben mir im Zug sitzen will. Die Angst vor dem Unbekannten ist schwierig abzugewöhnen. Mich interessieren vielmehr die Frauen, welche sich jetzt in der Öffentlichkeit mehr denn je unsicher und ängstlich fühlen müssen. Ich denke nicht, dass Frauen sich jemals wirklich wohl gefühlt haben, bei Nacht durch Ansammlungen betrunkener, agressiver Männer gehen zu müssen, egal welche Herkunft diese haben. Aber Männer afrikanischer oder arabischer Herkunft werden zukünftig mit noch mehr vorsichtiger Zurückhaltung und Mißtrauen von Frauen zu tun haben.

Hier ist also was ich denke, was getan werden sollte. Wieso fangen wir nicht bei dem prinzipiellen Grundrecht der Frau an, sich, wo immer sie sich auch auf der Welt befindet, frei auf der Straße bewegen zu können, ohne dabei angegrabscht zu werden.

Und wieso sehen wir dies nicht als perfekten Moment für den Mann an, egal welchen Hintergrunds, ernsthaft wütend darüber zu werden, wie Frauen im öffentlichen Raum behandelt werden und sich dem Glauben, es sei irgendwie sozial anerzogen und Teil unseres unkontrollierbaren sexuellen Drangs, Frauen zu objektifizieren und zu belästigen, wenn sie vorbeilaufen, mit Nachdruck zu widersetzen. Lasst uns unser Bestes tun, der global schon viel zu lange vorherrschenden Frauenfeindlichkeit entgegenzutreten und den wie auch immer gearteten sexistischen Lehren der Unterdrückung zu entsagen. Weil Frauen es leid sind uns darüber zu berichten und einen Kampf zu kämpfen, der viel zu lange schon viel zu wenig Aufmerksamkeit erfahren hat.

How to deal with the sexual assaults in Cologne and Hamburg.

For any woman, the sight must have been terrifying. On New Year’s Eve in the German city of Cologne, groups of drunk and aggressive men surrounded them in the town centre, groping and mugging them. The estimates are that there were between 500 to 1000 attackers, and the early indications are that their efforts were co-ordinated. A minister described these events as a completely new dimension of crime”. According to Wolfgang Albers, the police president, “sexual crimes took place on a huge scale.” He continued: “The crimes were committed by a group of people who from appearance were largely from the north African or Arab world.”

The volume of sexual violence against women worldwide is extraordinary: it is horrifying, heartbreaking, and finally it is enraging. Whether women are in public or in the supposed safety of their own homes, the offences committed against them are off the scale. To quote the United Nations, It is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. (My italics.) The Cologne assaults, then, did not occur in isolation, but as a particularly severe eruption of a situation which, in global terms, has always been volcanic.

If that sounds dramatic, then so be it: after all, the statistics and the eye-witness accounts are stark enough. As the Guardian reports:

One of the victims, identified only as Katja L, told the Kölner Express: “When we came out of the station, we were very surprised by the group we met, which was made up only of foreign men…We walked through the group of men, there was a tunnel through them, we walked through…I was groped everywhere. It was a nightmare. Although we shouted and hit them, they men didn’t stop. I was horrified and I think I was touched around 100 times over the 200 metres.” One investigator told the Kölner Express: “The female victims were so badly pushed about, they had heavy bruises on their breasts and behinds.”

The Guardian continues:

“The attacks have been the main talking point on Twitter in Germany, with some people accusing the media of a cover-up and others expressing their concern that the incident would be seized on by anti-refugee groups.”

In the ensuing conversation, there is a very real danger that the women assaulted will disappear from view, quickly buried beneath a tug-of-words between the Right and the Left. In fact, it has already happening. So let us reiterate the facts. Scores of women were set upon by up to a thousand men in a public place. Ninety of them made complaints to police. There were also sexual assaults of a similar fashion in Hamburg on the same night. The level of entitlement that these men felt towards the bodies of their victims is appalling.

These events are proving particularly controversial because the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has within the last twelve months admitted something like a million refugees from Africa and the Arab world – the same demographic dominant among the young men who carried out these assaults. Merkel’s policy is therefore being blamed by many for the influx of sex attackers. On a point of accuracy, it must be noted that many of these attackers were already known to the police, and were not drawn from the recently-arrived refugees. (UPDATE: The Cologne police, in a fresh report issued a few hours ago, have stated that the majority of the attackers comprised freshly-arrived refugees. The link is here.)

This conversation will inevitably be dominated by the issue of race, so we may as well go there. In racial terms, Germany is not particularly diverse, and the majority of the black and Arab people you see tend to be working-class. There are all sorts of economic reasons for that, one being that those arriving from Africa and the Middle East find it very difficult to get papers or work once they are here. In Berlin, where I live, the overwhelming majority of black men you see every day are poor, homeless, or selling drugs by Görlitzer Bahnhof or Warschauer Strasse, two of the city’s busier train stations. And when I say the overwhelming majority, I would say something like eighty per cent, if not more. And, at the risk of sounding uncharitable, I don’t think that as many people as I would like are concerned with the socio-economic nuances of why these black men are so poor. I think that there is instead a tendency, more widespread that many people might like to acknowledge, to regard black men as inherently untrustworthy or criminal.

I say this partly because of my own experiences in the city, and from speaking to several other friends who are non-white. A friend from West Africa, when visiting the city, found it so difficult to secure an AirB&B apartment that he had to ask someone to do it on his behalf. The stories of black people struggling to find rooms and flats in the city are legion – not that it is easy to rent in Berlin anyway, given the popularity of this place, but the tales of discrimination do all start to stack up after a while. More mundanely, I am struck by how often – even on the most crowded of trains – white Berliners will leave a space next to me, somehow fearing the prospect of sitting next to a male of African appearance. And if that sounds paranoid, then it was only something I first noticed when a sympathetic white man, shaking his head with bemused laughter, pointed it out to me.

For those who might think that I am being overly sensitive, I will say that I am merely stating facts. I love this city, and life here is well worth dealing with these inconveniences. But these instances have made me realise that the cultural expectations of black men in some parts of Germany are already dangerously low. And now we have these attacks in Cologne, one of the worst incidents of its nature that I can recall. 

So, what to do with all of this analysis? Well, it is actually simple. Let’s just keep sticking up for the women. As far as being a black man of African descent goes, the racists in Germany and elsewhere hate us anyway. They thought we were rapists and perverts and other assorted forms of sex attacker the second they set eyes on us. They don’t care about the women who were attacked in Cologne and Hamburg, except to prove the point that we are the animals that they always thought – or hoped – we were. In return, I don’t care about them. Nor am I too bothered by the people who don’t want to sit next to me on the train. Fear of the unknown is a hard thing to unlearn. I am most concerned, by far, with the safety of the women who may now be more frightened than ever to enter public spaces.  I don’t think that women have ever felt particularly comfortable walking through crowds of drunk and aggressive men at night, regardless of the race of those men. But groups of young men of North African and Arab origin, whatever their intentions, will most likely endure more trepidation from women than before.

So here’s what I propose we do. Why don’t we just start with the premise that it is a woman’s fundamental right, wherever she is in the world, to walk the streets and not be groped. And why don’t we see this as a perfect moment for men, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds, to get genuinely angry about the treatment of women in public spaces: to reject with fury the suggestion that we are somehow conditioned by society forever to treat women as objects, condemned by our uncontrollable sexual desires to lunge at them as they walk past. Let’s do our best to challenge the rampant misogyny which has gone on worldwide for far too long, and reject whatever lessons of sexist repression we may have been taught. Because women are tired of telling us about this, and exhausted of fighting a battle that for too long has gone overlooked.

 

My new articles for The Economist on innovation and the future.

Late last year, I was commissioned by The Economist to write some articles on innovation and the future. I thought I would put them in one place, in case you’d like to read them in a spare moment or two. I hope you have time to take a look, and that you enjoy them.

  1. A wider cast: the ethics (and economics) of diversity in film
  2. Time over money: Wandering the world with the New Rich
  3. Holograms and the democratisation of modern football
  4. Softly, softly: the future of impact investing
  5. Spontaneity and the modern office
  6. In praise of “techno-optimists”
  7. The rise of the countryside

 

Role models for men are underrated.

Right, since it’s International Men’s Day, I thought I would write something quick. I would simply like to say that I think that role models for men are underrated. I remember watching a popular Charles Barkley advert for Nike, in which he said that he was not a role model, and that parents should be role models. I understood the sentiment – that it should not be the job of a total stranger to raise or inspire your child – but I disagreed with it then, and I disagree with it even more now. If you grow up without parents, or without attentive ones, then you often look for those figures elsewhere – and, at the risk of sounding wishy-washy, I do think that we have a responsibility for how we conduct ourselves, particularly when it comes to the next generation and the examples they take from us. It is remarkable how many men will adopt without question the behaviour of men they admire. This is why men like Sonny Bill Williams, Hakeem Olajuwon and Andres Iniesta are important – because even at the peak of their fame, they show compassion, humility and warmth, qualities not readily enough associated with being a man. This is why men like Adel Termos, Captain Mbaye Diagne, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Janusz Bardach should have statues in their honour. 

And manhood, being a man, are things we frequently take for granted, but I don’t think being a man is particularly easy. I don’t mean that in some sob-story kind of way, but more strategically: as in how, in a world which is weighted so much in favour of men, I can usefully act to make a positive difference. And I don’t claim to have any particularly enlightened status here – at the age of thirty-six, I am still watching, and learning, and listening. Because I definitely won’t always get it right, but that is never an excuse for not trying.

 

On the Paris Attacks.

In a few hours I’ll meet up with my local football team, SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale, to play football. I’m not sure if I’ll get a game, as my first touch seems to have regressed as quickly as my hairline in recent years, but I am so proud just to be part of the squad. I think that there is something very special about my club’s ethos: to quote, “SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale is an international ‘freizeit’ football team based in Berlin which stands against sexism, racism, fascism and homophobia.

What a beautiful, noble aim. Just last night, when news of the Paris attacks first broke, I and some fellow team-mates had been watching a friend – one of our first-choice centre-backs – launching his new single. (He’s a singer-songwriter in that late-Sixties style, really good actually. He is definitely a case of “you should probably give up the day job”.

This weekend I am indulging in two of my favourite things: watching football, and playing live music. Of course, these are two of the things that Parisians were so enjoying just before the horror. And there was something so overwhelming, so jarring, so futile about watching the news develop on our smartphones, knowing that the innocence of a night out just like ours was being torn away forever.

So, at a time like this, how can we respond? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I will try to respond in two ways. First of all, with bravery. And by bravery I don’t mean lust for retribution – for any response obviously needs to be considered calmly and carefully. By bravery I mean trying to be more kind and compassionate than ever; by critiquing and rejecting extremism wherever I can. And secondly, wherever possible, I will try to respond with gratefulness. My world was not broken apart last night, nor has it been touched by the desperation faced by so many refugees. And so, in that spirit of gratefulness, I will try to be that little bit better a son, brother, and human being; and, maybe, even that little bit better a footballer. Because this brief, gentle, fragile life is all that we have, and I will set forward to live it with as open a heart and with as much optimism as I can. And so, now all that’s said: Go Inter.

“Danger: The Role of the Poet” – my talk at Mikrofestiwal, Wroclaw, 26 June 2015.

Recently, I was very kindly invited to speak in Wroclaw, Poland, at the town’s Mikrofestiwal; below is a copy of the short talk that I gave on Friday 26 June.

—–

I have been asked to say some words today about the political potential of contemporary poetry and spoken word in the UK. And so I thought I would give my short talk the title “Danger: The Role of the Poet”.

Why am I saying that it should be the role of the poet to create a sense of danger? Well, I’m probably being a little dramatic. After all, poetry can just be about describing nice countrysides, and flowers swaying in the breeze. But it can also do so much more. Poetry is dangerous because, in a world where we are so often encouraged not to feel, poetry makes us connect with the people and the society around us. It makes us pause through its perception, through its beauty: and, most frighteningly of all, it makes us think.

Authorities are well aware of the threat posed by poets. Just a year and a half ago, in Qatar, a court upheld the prison sentence of the poet Mohamed Rashid al-Ajami, who was jailed for insulting the emir and spreading incendiary material. Al-Ajami had been arrested late in 2011 for his poem, “Jasmine”, in which he appeared to look forward to the prospect of political revolution in Qatar. “I hope”, he wrote, “that change will come in countries whose ignorant leaders believe that glory lies in US forces”. By Western standards, this might have seemed relatively tame – after all, it was alleged that Al-Ajami did not even perform the poem – but the authorities had seen enough danger in his words, and consigned him to fifteen years in prison.

Fifteen years. Qatar clearly understand the danger of the poet. Al-Ajami was speaking at a time when the “Arab Spring” looked as though it would sweep away a succession of governments. “We are all Tunisia”, wrote Al-Ajami, referring to the first country where an authoritarian leader had fallen. Shortly after the publication of these words, in what was perhaps the ultimate sign of his potential influence, he was deprived of his freedom.

British poets have a far easier time of things. For the most part, we are able to speak as we please. If I would have to name the UK poets who, in recent months, have been particularly effective on the political stage, I would have to identify five people: Hollie McNish, Michael Rosen, Kate Tempest, Inua Ellams and Raymond Antrobus. I will discuss those poets each briefly in turn, but first I must explain what I mean by “effective”. By that, I simply mean that they have, through their skill with words, enabled many people to reflect upon what it means to be human, and to celebrate our common humanity.

That may not sound like much, but we are currently in a political climate where we are being encouraged daily by our media and our elected leaders to think less of “The Other”. Just last Friday, in Berlin, I attended the funeral of an unnamed Syrian man who had died whilst crossing the Mediterranean. His burial, with the consent of his family, was carried out in a cemetery in the German capital by a group called the Center for Political Beauty. The Center’s aim, in their words, is to “tear down the walls surrounding Europe’s sense of compassion”. They seek to do this by reminding us that these dead migrants are people, by making us grieve for them.

This is why the work of the five poets that I have mentioned is political, and therefore dangerous. Each of them examine the lives of those whom we would regard as marginalised, and they do so with a sympathy that is not helpful to the powerful. The first of those poets, Hollie McNish, published a poem on YouTube in February 2013 called “Mathematics”. In this poem McNish, who studied development and economics at university, challenged the assumption that immigrants merely came to the UK to take the country’s jobs. This poem has now been viewed almost two million times, and has seen McNish tour the nation with its message. “Your maths is stuck in primary”, she recites, “and most times immigrants bring more than minuses”.

Alongside McNish is Michael Rosen, whom you can follow on Twitter as @MichaelRosenYes: he uses this platform to write poems and open letters critical of institutional excess and corruption. Kate Tempest, a poet, playwright and musician, is fearless in her examination of the struggles faced by everyday people. Inua Ellams, like Kate a poet and playwright, writes and performs work with nuanced portrayals of black life. Raymond Antrobus, meanwhile, is one of the country’s first graduates of a programme where poets are trained as educators. He now teaches poetry at a school in East London, and performs his best-selling poetry collection to audiences at various festivals.

What do these poets have in common? Well, they recognise the tremendous power of the spoken and the written word. We arguably now live in an age that is better for poets than any other. The poet, after all, is gifted at one thing above all, which is to distil an image or an emotion into just a few lines, just a few words. In a world where attention spans are shortening all the time, where many of us – including me – are constantly staring at our smartphones, poets still have the ability to capture us, to captivate us. There is a reason why, when advertising agencies are looking to launch their campaigns, they come looking for the expertise of poets. It is because they know that we have an eye for a slogan, for a quick catchphrase.

This skill – to condense a complex situation into just a few lines – also lends itself well, I have found, to a career in journalism. I would encourage any poet who thinks keenly about the world around them to blog more, to report more, to comment more. When leading UK poets are called upon to provide their view to the media, they are frequently very impressive. Benjamin Zephaniah, for example, has been an outstanding advocate for social change for many years. Many other poets are actively involved in fundraising for political causes, and can be found joining marches for progressive causes.

I have spoken of the danger of poets, but I should also speak of the danger for poets. Speaking frankly, most poets will never make that much money or gain that much visibility, which can make many of us susceptible to flattery by the powerful. In that desire for publicity, celebrity or attention, we must be wary of lessening the severity of what we wish to say in order to be acceptable to a wider audience. This is, I think, a temptation. At such times, we poets need to remember that we can amplify the voices of the marginalised partly because, as a genre of artists, we are often marginalised ourselves. We poets must remember that we can promote the cause of the Other because, in so many ways, we are Other.

I don’t mean to congratulate myself and my peers too much, but I am proud of one thing. I am proud that, though the poetry world is by no means perfect, it at has at least managed to provide spaces for self-expression that many other art-forms have not. Some of the most compelling voices in the genre right now are women, or women of colour: Sabrina Mahfouz, Jessica Horn, Warsan Shire, Rosie Knight, Chimene Suleyman, Vanessa Kisuule. Poetry has also been something of a refuge for black people, for queer people. And that, I think, is because – despite the conservatism of the institutions that sometimes surround it – poetry represents freedom. It represents, at its best, the ability to speak from the heart with a carefully-honed craft.

That is poetry’s danger, and its power within the political context. Whether using YouTube or Vine, using microphones or speaking in front of a classroom, we have the ability to humanise, to inspire. That is a skill that those on our society’s fringes – the disabled, the poor, the carers, the unemployed – need us to use more than ever; and, at the risk of preaching, we must not fail them.