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So (no spoilers!) I watched Black Panther last night. My God. I’m not going to write a review, because I’m relatively late to see the film and a thousand majestic dissections have already appeared online. Instead I will only write a hopefully brief emotional response, since that’s the only thing I can add that might be somewhat fresh.
My favourite football player, in visceral terms, is probably George Weah. Not because he was the finest of all time – even though he had qualities which put him firmly among the greats. But because what Weah achieved on the field, where he was the most elegant blend of grace, power, speed and balance, was merely a fraction of what he achieved beyond it. Weah, a proud citizen of Liberia (a country with its own extraordinary place in world history) was one of the first male African footballers to stand at the very front of the world stage, and he was utterly apologetic when he did so. Weah was a man many of us could recognise; tall, dark-skinned, we could have seen him at the barber shop, he could have been an uncle. And yet there he was, gliding across our screens. He looked like us, spoke like us, and so we started to swagger like him.
Watching Black Panther felt like seeing George Weah at his peak. Visually magnificent, thrillingly unpredictable, with duel after beautiful duel against elite opposition. The land of Wakanda itself? A glorious vista of the old and the new. And the women were just as I knew them. In them, I saw my relatives: unfathomably strong and supportive, amazingly courageous at every turn, humbly and patiently building a better world each day. How they persevere through all the exhaustion, I will never know.
Will there be critiques of this film? Absolutely. I look forward to reading them, and after some time I may attempt one of my own. For now, though, I am especially thankful I saw this film in Black History Month, because it feels like a milestone of its own. After the movie, I sat with a friend of a friend who had come to the movie with us; an African-American woman, born in the early Sixties, who well remembered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King (and, with a further poignant nod to Black history, was closely one of the world’s greatest basketball players). She was overwhelmed at the representation of African-Americans on screen, particularly the women, and rightly so. All I could think was: this movie was excitingly broad in its appeal, and yet was also uniquely for her. Black Panther felt both intensely personal and at the same time universal in its appeal, which in my view is one of the pathways to great art.
As for me, it reminded me what a privilege it is to be an artist, and to wake up daily with the chance to create something, anything, which might give hope to anyone. This film not only reminded me but wholly convinced me of the importance of optimistic, forward-thinking art. For that alone, it is a masterpiece.
So, about that Nike advert, which was greeted with widespread ecstasy on social media when it was released last week. Some might say it was “just a commercial” – and, in one sense, it was. From one perspective, it was merely a three-minute celebration of some of the capital’s finest artists and athletes, a uniquely emotive seduction of the wallets of London’s young. From another point of view, though, it was particularly powerful. So many young Londoners, when watching this short film, reacted with an online euphoria that I hadn’t witnessed since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. So many of them felt seen, and understood. Notwithstanding the passionate critiques made by several on Twitter – namely, that people of South Asian heritage were underrepresented in this commercial – it was a piece of work that struck a cultural touchstone.
At this stage, I had to take a step back and ask myself what was happening here. After all, we’d seen this before, this arrival of an optimistic new dawn and a brutal aftermath. Collective joy about the brilliance of the 2012 Paralympics didn’t stop the British Government from driving through a series of severe benefits cuts for people with disabilities. Nike has given us a timely reminder of how much young Londoners love their city – but, in truth, how much does their city love them back?
I don’t mean to be a party pooper. Really, I don’t. I’m based in Germany now, but having lived for many years in Hackney, Finsbury Park, Leyton, Brick Lane, Walthamstow, the Isle of Dogs and Croydon, this city and its surroundings are in my soul. It’s just that, overall, I think that London takes its young people for granted. In her recent report, “London’s lost youth services”, the Green Party politician Sian Berry observed that between 2011/12 and 2016/17 “the average council in London has cut its youth service budget by nearly £1 million – an average of 36 per cent”. Moreover, she notes that cuts of an average of 25 per cent are planned for the following year.
Elsewhere, the outlook seems equally grim. By the start of 2016, it was estimated that around 40 per cent of London’s live music venues, many of them important places for young people not only to go out but to cut their teeth as performers, had closed down. Seeing Giggs in that Nike advert, too, I was reminded that many of London’s rappers and grime artists have not only survived but thrived despite the city’s authorities, not because of them. Just a few ago, we saw the removal of the infamous Form 696, a police risk assessment procedure which for twelve years was used to cancel countless shows across London’s black – sorry, urban – music scene.
I think that Nike advert is significant because it shows us how much young Londoners have made a fightback against such considerable odds. Look how many of them, typified by the magnificent Little Simz, have looked at the difficulty of their circumstances and somehow made a huge success of them. But not everyone – in fact, almost no-one – is as gifted as Little Simz. The grind is brutal, and it shouldn’t be. Travelling around Europe, I am frequently struck by how much cheaper other cities are by comparison. London is a town where house prices are seemingly rising at the speed of sea levels, and where most young people can only look to home ownership as the vainest of dreams. (On bleak days, I wonder if some wealthy developers would be happiest if the city were one giant and pristine high-rise estate, surrounded by an immaculate lawn marked “NO BALL GAMES”.)
If London truly wants to encourage the youthful creativity so lauded by Nike, then it needs to subsidise it. It needs to provide a generation with far cheaper housing and robust contracts to protect them from rapacious private landlords. It needs to ensure that a simple journey from Zone 3 to Zone 1 isn’t financially daunting. It needs to prove to young Londoners from working-class backgrounds that they will be utterly welcome not only in its brochures and on its billboards but in its boardrooms.
Every week, it seems, I see a new article bemoaning the laziness of millennials – how they don’t work hard enough, don’t save enough, how they are ungrateful for what they have. How they are far too demanding. As I write this, though, I am preparing to teach a week of creative writing to a class of wonderful young Londoners – a group as nervous as they are determined, as gentle as they are inventive – and I am reminded that they are not nearly demanding enough. London must demonstrate that it deserves these people. I only hope that it accepts the challenge.
Ian Toothill climbed Mount Everest while he had terminal cancer – and that wasn’t the most impressive thing about him. Not even close. He was a truly beautiful human being – how strange it is to refer to him in the past tense – and for all his spirit of adventure, which was extraordinary, his greatest quality by far was his kindness.
I don’t know much about climbing Everest, and I don’t wish to find out. I get nervous enough looking out over a fifth-floor balcony in a stiff breeze. All I know about climbing that beast of a landmark, a feat which Ian presumably found no more difficult than a brisk walk, was that it was probably a journey far less painful and terrifying than the one Ian faced in hospital these last few months. Yes, we would all visit him: but every night, visiting hours would end, and he would be alone with the journey, ascending to the bleakest of summits.
Ian was – is – remarkable. The BBC, reporting on his death – the Everest feat, undertaken for charity, had won him widespread acclaim in the media – mentioned that he was childless and unmarried, a dispassionate description that might have implied he had no family. But like the footballer Cyrille Regis, who also passed away this week, I have rarely seen someone so loved. He was universally admired. His gifts as a musician were considerable, as I learned when he played bass for one of my previous bands. More importantly, he was what a man, what any human, should aspire to be – gentle, empathetic, compassionate. The only time I ever saw him upset in those last few weeks was when discussion focused too much upon the latest antics of the current American president, whose cruelty and narcissism could not be any further from who Ian was.
Ian was so considerate. In December, when I said I would visit him in hospital, he said I didn’t need to pop in for more than ten minutes – he didn’t want to take up too much of my time on my return to the city. He was wrong, of course; I could have talked to him all night. During that visit, he was the very soul of warmth, even as his health was deteriorating all the while. I don’t know how he managed to summon such positivity in the face of a fate so, so unfair. He was only 48. I would have expected and understood him if he had withdrawn into himself – and I suspect that, privately, he had several of those moments. Overall, though, I think he was furiously determined to wring every last moment of joy from this world before he left it.
Ian had something you don’t see often enough in a world this brutal: he had the courage to love. Not just his friends, or his partners, but life itself. His last gift to me, one of so many, is a message I will forever treasure.
A few years ago a close friend of mine, Nick Eziefula, once gave me a simple and vital piece of advice that I have lived by ever since he delivered it. Nick said: if you think of someone, contact them. I thought of Ian last week, when consuming the very latest of my beloved sweet treats in a Berlin cafe. So I dropped him a line, and he replied:
“Enjoy every single moment, you are living! Not doing deals, not worrying about making loadsa money, and what everyone else is doing, just “being”. It sounds beautiful. I have spent hours in cafes, escaping, dreaming, realising what I have to be grateful for… even getting excited planning impossible climbing/charity Everest climbs on there 😊. Enjoy x”
Enjoy. That was last Wednesday, when his already severe condition was getting steadily worse, though there was no sign of that in his words. It was the last time I heard from him, and is an instruction both vital and inspiring. Enjoy. I will, my dear friend. I will.
I received an excellent critique last night, following the publication of my piece about Harvey Weinstein and a crisis in masculinity. The message arrived on Facebook, and I have copied and pasted it below with the author’s permission.
Hey Musa, long time, I hope Berlin is treating you well, and and sorry to get in touch with you in this way and about this thing, but… the Me Too stuff has me furious for a ton of different reasons, and I kinda felt like since you have a significant platform through your blog, this might have been one of those moments where you could’ve offered that to a woman. I’m sure it wasn’t your intention, but I’ve seen a dozen ‘woke’ men get clap clap clap today and it’s complicated because I’m not saying ‘don’t demonstrate alliance’, but I’m not sure getting accolades, intended or not, is what is needed. I’m having a go at you because you have a larger platform than the rest, but ALL have got more comments/likes/whatever than the women I know who’ve bravely shared experiences of trauma as a result of this bullshit Hollywood engendered meme. Anyway. I hate all of it – seeing the raw hurt from the women, and the tiredness we all feel, and the cheers for the ‘good guys’. So you got picked on. My bad there. Hope life is good, I am glad these conversations are happening. I’m just really pissed off it took mainly rich white normatively beautiful women fingering a rich successful dude to make them happen, and that it’s mainly men who are getting attention as a result. Peace! xxx
Following my friend’s suggestion, if any women want to share their experiences under the #MeToo hashtag they can do so using my blog at http://www.okwonga.com/. They don’t only have to share their stories, they can share however they are feeling about the hashtag too.
They would be welcome to do so under their own names or anonymously. Anonymity might be an attractive option – there might be women who would really appreciate the catharsis of just typing out some of the trauma and posting it there. Women who can’t speak out for legal reasons or because the situation is ongoing and just want somewhere to flush out some of the pain. As my friend points out, I have a sizeable public platform and it would be good to make it available for women who would like to use it and who might need it.
I have a female administrator, Andrea Scheibler, to whom I am paying a fee, so that women do not have to concede their privacy in order to post on my blog. Please send her a private message on Facebook if you have a story you would like to share.
The only thing I would need is that identifying details of the perpetrators were not revealed (lawsuits, argh) but otherwise I would be more than happy for that.
As a middle-class Trump voter this must be glorious. You’ve got your regular income from your job and possibly your buy-to-let, and your liberal neighbours and colleagues are going wild with despair or fury. You’re quietly delighted – this is the time of your life, isn’t it? Being, as you are, comfortable enough to sit back and watch the bonfire. It probably feels as Great as the good old days your grandparents talked about. Trump promised this, and he has absolutely delivered.
What has surprised you, though, is how thrilling the sensation has been. The hurt on the face of your fellow worker when Trump aims another cannon at their existence produces a surge of euphoria in you, almost erotic. And Trump is relentless, isn’t he? You knew he’d be this bad, or this good, but you never knew the hits would be so constant, almost daily, and you’re addicted. It’s worse and therefore better than you’d hoped. By the time he’s done, whether that’s months or years from now, he’ll have shattered the happiness of millions of people you don’t know, and – more importantly – the happiness of dozens you do.
What’s been more enjoyable, so far? The fearless words of a gay acquaintance, beneath whose defiance you detect that she is drained by it all? Or seeing that anxious black family on the school run the morning after Charlottesville? How deeply have you drunk of their terror? You’ll vote for him again, of course you will. Because each day has been a victory – for you, each social interaction with those you loathe is a zero-sum game, where their pain must directly result in your pleasure. This is the greatness you craved, and now it is manifest; for you, as fervent as you are furtive, this is the true American Dream.
The Republican Party hates women. As an institution it absolutely despises them. This is, to me, abundantly clear. I am not saying anything particularly new or nuanced here, I am merely writing this to register and record my fury alongside the millions of those horrified by the passage of President Trump’s healthcare bill. The bill, as noted by the MSNBC journalist Chris Hayes, “cuts about a trillion dollars in funding for healthcare while cutting taxes for the top 2% by about the same amount”. Not only does it do that, it classifies domestic violence and sexual assault as pre-existing conditions – meaning that those, overwhelmingly women, who have endured these offences will have to pay more for their insurance.
This Bill is not only perverse, greedy, and grubby; it is vicious, bigoted, cruel and disgusting. It is an endlessly squalid piece of legislation and it is again clear that the only reason Trump pledged to drain the swamp was to refill it with yet more toxic effluent. The only thing that may surprise Trump may be the fervour with which his party, in which he so long cast himself as the outsider, has so thoroughly embraced his most misogynistic excesses. This Bill is doubtlesssupported by a whole host of people who will go home to their partners and families and tell themselves around their generously-laden dinner tables that they did a good thing today. What they have done instead is to demonstrate far beyond any ambiguity just what the modern Republican Party is about. When I think of them, I think of the James Baldwin quote from “Stranger in the Village”, where he states that “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state on innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” In my view, those who have voted through this bill have turned themselves into monsters. And should Trump last four years in office, should he be re-elected – because, even now, there are still millions largely content with the job that he is doing – he would have to go a very long way, as would the government he leads, to conjure a more shameful day than this.
To resist this Bill, and to aid those who are doing so, then thanks to @Iron_Spike’s account on Twitter there are some excellent strategies at the following links:
Following the news that David Moyes had threatened to slap a female reporter in return for questions that he found uncomfortable, I read an article on the subject by The Independent’s Ian Herbert, a writer whose work I regularly enjoy and share. His article began by noting that this was the not the first time that Mr. Moyes had acted this way, but then quickly took a disappointing direction. I quote in full:
“It was in the 2012/13 season, in Moyes’ Everton days, that a woman had the temerity to ask a question which went against the grain of how he wanted a pre-match press conference to go, during the initial broadcasters’ section of the conversation. Moyes cut her down. There was a very uncomfortable moment, after the cameras and broadcasters had cleared and we got down to the more detailed untelevised discussion, when Moyes tried to break the ice in all-male company with a joke at the now departed woman’s expense. No-one wanted to be impolite but everyone stared at the floor.” (My italics.)
I have highlighted the above section because that section is unfortunately what people mean when they refer to the “boy’s club” of football. Football is a particularly insular sport, where access often is a journalist’s lifeblood, and some might argue that speaking out about misogyny in this context might see them barred from the club. Yet this does not negate the argument that to remain silent about Moyes’ remarks is to enable them.
Mr. Herbert continues:
“That was not the only incident. He lost his temper with another woman journalist towards the end of his Everton time, though it was smoothed over. This correspondent didn’t report any of this, of course – just a reference to the conduct of a “top flight manager” a few seasons later. ” (My italics.)
The two words here, “of course”, are interesting. I don’t think it follows that a journalist, particularly not one as successful and respected as Mr. Herbert, would naturally ignore Moyes’ behaviour. He is a writer with the platform to have made a much bigger deal of this incident, but chose not to. I think that this article reads as a form of mea culpa – that the journalist could have done more to raise awareness about this at the time, but didn’t. The fact that he made a reference to the conduct of a top-flight manager shows that his conscience was clearly piqued – he clearly disapproved of Moyes’ conduct – but he and others did not take the risk to their own careers of speaking out as fully as they could.
Mr. Herbert, referring to another incident involving the former France international Laurent Blanc, describes the scenario thus:
“Just a laugh, a flustered press officer, a woman who wants to be anywhere but that room, and the gilded football world packs up and moves on.”
This, I think, is the problem. Mr. Herbert is a part of that football world, an integral part; he has worked his way up the precarious ladder, and taking too bold a stand would see him sent toppling from it. But nothing changes if we as journalists – particularly male ones – are not more forceful in our critiques. Mr. Herbert seems to drawing this conclusion when he writes that:
“You only have to play back the footage of Moyes to hear something infinitely more threatening and deeply unpleasant about his words and their escalating sense of menace…Since when does a football manager threaten to slap one of the vast male majority? The unwritten message was “because you’re a woman.” And it didn’t stop there. “Careful the next time you come in,” he told Sparks.”
This paragraph, on the face of it, is utterly damning. Physical violence is apparently something with which Moyes would only threaten a woman. The message seems to be clear – that football is essentially a man’s game and a woman speaks out of turn at her peril. Come into the club and try that again, and you’ll get what’s coming to you.
With this in mind, I find Mr. Herbert’s closing thoughts extremely confusing.
“So now we reach the question of whether this episode should bring Moyes the sack and the answer, despite all of the above, is surely: ‘No.’ Women journalists despise the conduct of an individual like this but they want to be involved in the same cut and thrust as every male journalist who goes up against managers with as little self-control as Moyes. Dismissal will make many other managers inclined to make women a special case. Nobody wants that…Dismissal is not necessary to demonstrate that Moyes is yesterday’s man.”
I can’t speak for female journalists. What I can say is – based upon Mr. Herbert’s own writing, just a paragraph before – that no matter how bad the cut and thrust a male journalist might face against Moyes, it is not a cut and thrust which involves the threat of physical violence. It is a danger that Mr. Herbert, and I, and my other male peers will never have to face – if anything, Moyes has made a special case for men like us, because we know that as much as we annoy him he will not suggest striking us. Put simply, a male journalist doesn’t have to go into work facing the fear of being assaulted by a football manager. Why, then, should a female journalist be exposed to that risk?
In short, I think that Mr. Herbert has actually made an excellent case for David Moyes’ dismissal. He just doesn’t seem to realise it.
What’s the point of art, at times like these? In truth, I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that there is a value in hope, and there always will be. And so I made a conscious choice at the start of this year to make art which had hope at its core – that is to say, if I had any creative ideas which had an underlying message of pessimism, then I didn’t pursue them. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of apocalyptic art now and then – Radiohead’s “Idioteque” has always felt like the kind of dance tune you would hear at the end of the world – and I think that there is tremendous worth in music that is the soundtrack to despair. It allows us to feel that others understand our helplessness. For my part, I also feel the need to create work that has a positive outlook – that, if I am honest, has happy endings. Because I think that for many millions of people going about their lives, being happy has always been a radical act; and if I can create anything which enables that act, then I’m going to go for it.
Below are the lyrics for a song I wrote on the afternoon before the US election, “Higher Course”. I have had a strong sense since around late February that Donald Trump would win the presidency, and have like many others drawn parallels between his rhetoric and that of far-right leaders in modern Europe and further back in history. I think it bears repeating, especially now, that there is nothing inevitable about the ascent of these demagogues; that the margins by which they are being elected are still very narrow; and that, within those narrowest margins, there is still room for a message of hope.
The old ideas return,
We’re on the verge,
The brutes become more brave –
These injured souls,
Their eyes are Berlin-winter-cold,
They’ve sold us fear,
and here the price we’ve paid is dear –
But then we pause,
since of course we’ve seen their like before:
They’re nothing new,
The early nineteen-thirties ushered through;
They close their doors,
But we’re answering their storms with warmth –
They stalk the lowest roads,
We take the higher course.