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What’s the point of art, at times like these?

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.

“Higher Course”

The old ideas return,

We’re on the verge,

The brutes become more brave –

These injured souls,

Their eyes are Berlin-winter-cold,

and frozen;

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.

Rest in peace Carlos Alberto, a true gentleman.

Here is a quick word for Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning side, who passed a few hours ago. He was a true gentleman, and I am very fortunate to have one first-hand story among doubtless many to prove it.

In 2014, I travelled to his house on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro with a brilliant team from the BBC World Service, Jim Frank and Fernanda Nidecker, to interview Mr. Alberto for “The Burden of Beauty”, a documentary that we were making about the upcoming World Cup. Mr. Alberto could not have been a more welcoming host. He spoke with notable warmth about Brazil’s players, most notably Neymar and Oscar, the latter of whom he likened favourably (off the record, since he did not want to put any more pressure on the Chelsea midfielder during the tournament) to Gerson. He pointed fondly to a picture above his mantelpiece where he was embracing Bobby Moore after their classic clash at that World Cup. “He was my friend”, he said, with a moving nostalgia.

After about an hour in Mr. Alberto’s company, during which he described in thrilling detail his famous goal in the final against Italy, we had to head back into town. However, it was rush hour by then, and taxis in Rio were at a premium. The traffic was horrific, and the waiting time for a cab was probably close to an hour. Without hesitation, Mr. Alberto asked us to get into the back of his car, and the World Cup-winning captain joined the miles-long snake of vehicles in the hope of finding us a ride back into town. After fifteen minutes or so, he caught sight of a stray, unoccupied taxi, and flagged it down. The taxi driver, double-taking at the sight of this Brazilian football great, duly pulled over and let us in, and the last we saw of Mr. Alberto was the back of his head and the back of his hand as he waved us graciously away. It was harder to imagine a gesture more humble from a man who had fulfilled the dreams of millions; and it explained why today, and for endless years to come, he will be held in the very highest esteem. Carlos Alberto; an exceptional footballer, and by untold accounts, an even better human being.

On turning thirty-seven.

I am now 37. Thirty-seven! My God, how did this happen? My mother, already widowed, had four children by now. Four! All I’m worrying about is three deadlines. She was much more efficient with her time than I am. How do you manage five lives including your own – how do you feed that many mouths and minds? I rarely have the discipline to sit down for three meals a day. At times like this I marvel at the miraculous sacrifice of parenthood. Meanwhile, three years from my fortieth birthday, I’m still wandering from cafe to cafe, trying to make each piece of work better than the last. This really is the most bizarre of lives, and I still wonder how I ended up here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ageing recently, much more than I would care to admit. Age is a funny thing – it rumbles along unnoticed for the longest while, and there it suddenly is, hammering at your front door. Age is an attention-seeking child; the more you try to ignore it, the more it manifests itself. This summer, I went down to the local basketball court, to work out for some pre-season training; I used to be able to dunk the ball comfortably, but now I could barely touch the rim. Wait, what? When did that happen? When did I fall out of the sky?!

But then I was reminded how it works – that youth is never really yours, it’s just on loan. And, if I’m honest, I would have noticed my loss of leap much earlier, if I hadn’t stopped caring so much about sport – one of the healthier developments of the last few years. I mean, sport is great and all, but an obsessive interest with people chasing each other around the place is ultimately unhealthy. (See also: Internet dating.)

I think the last truly anxious birthday I had was probably my twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth. That’s when I was about three years out from leaving my job as a lawyer, and was wondering whether I had made the right gamble. Since then I just haven’t had so much energy to worry about such stuff. What I have realised, over time, is that I want to do two things with my life, in this order: (1) make work that resonates with people as deeply as possible, and (2) be grateful for the spectacular piece of luck that saw me born in a Western European democracy with free healthcare in the late Seventies. Number (2) is really, really important, because I’m from a group of people known as the Acholi, from Northern Uganda; and at one point in the 1990s, they were confined to refugee camps where a thousand people were dying every week. They had one of the highest child mortality rates in the world at one point; I know this because my mum, apart from raising us, used to go to those camps and provide free healthcare every summer for years on end.

Yes; my mum’s done a lot. I think more and more about that as time goes on, in between contemplating my next poem or slice of cake. I’ve been given a lot, really – more than anyone could ever ask. Sure, I’ve taken many of my opportunities, but I’m ten minutes’ bus ride away from a Syrian refugee centre, where several of the residents will be mourning friends and relatives who never stood a chance.

I am finally learning to forgive myself for not being superhuman. My mum is superhuman, and so I thought it was only my duty to emulate her. I am finally learning to enjoy life, and not to feel too guilty at the life of freedom that I have been given – because, quite frankly, nobody likes a whinger.

I’ll most likely be ranting about something else in the next few days, but at times like this I really do try to reflect, and to be positive. I’m not really a religious sort, and so I think that this is pretty much all there is. And when I think about it, this is good, really. I live in a lovely flat with three windows casting natural light onto my writing desk, on a street corner just busy enough that the traffic is music. The pound is currently doing horrifying things against the euro, but life is still affordable enough; and my family and friends (touching wood, always touching wood) are mostly doing well, making it through. Thirty-seven is definitely one of life’s kinder milestones. I think it may be time for some cake.

A short note about being shy.

I have a running joke with my friends that I am painfully shy. It normally involves me saying how uncomfortable I feel speaking in front of large crowds or talking to complete strangers, and it normally ends with them groaning in disbelief and reaching for my throat in mock despair. For them, the thought of me lacking confidence in any social setting is laughable. Here’s the funny thing, though; there was a time when I was that shy.

 

I thought of this recently when I heard from a close friend, a superb artist who was doubting the quality of her work. It reminded me of just how hard-won my own self-belief has been. As some of you may know, I am a keen musician; what some of you might not know is that I used to hate my speaking voice so much that merely listening to it used to bring me to tears. (Though that might still be the case for many of you, I eventually got over it.) The only way to overcome my horror at how I sounded was to listen to one of my songs on repeat until all of the self-disgust had left my system. I had to do this, I reasoned, because if I wanted to be a successful artist – be that as a public speaker, or anything else – then I simply couldn’t afford to be shy. It just wasn’t an option.

 

Looking back, I think that having grown up as a black person in mostly-white environments has really helped me. If you’re black and almost everyone else in your class and school is white, then you can’t blend into the background – you’re naturally just going to be more visible in a crowd. And so, given that you will more easily catch the eye, you learn to adapt. If you’re going to be conspicuous, you may as well be confident with it.

 

I suppose I’m only writing this to point out that self-confidence doesn’t come as naturally as people might think that it does, whether that be belief in your art or in yourself. Perhaps, when joking about being shy, I am not just mocking this ego that I have successfully grown; maybe I’m also thumbing my nose at the past, where my insecurities inhibited me from doing so much of what I wanted. And maybe, one day, that past will be so far behind me that I won’t even need to refer to it anymore, even in jest.

Simone Biles, and trying too hard.

Art is a funny thing. Creating your best work is often a tortuous process; yet, at the same time, you need to be relaxed, at least to a degree. It’s such a contradiction. I think that athletes – who, in a sense, are artists too – understand this well. It’s the balance between furiously applying a craft you’ve studied for years, and at the same time letting go. If I look back at the better work that I have made, there has always been one thing in common – a period when, however brief, the writing seemed to tumble out, as if it were already there.

It’s possible, as a writer, to want success too much. That often manifests itself in contorted plots, or overly-descriptive prose. I guess the sporting equivalent is the over-hit putt or pass, the relay baton that you drop because your hand’s too rigid. The most successful writing I have ever done, in my view, was that where the work felt almost underwritten; where I had stripped back everything to the point where it felt almost banal. If I have one rule as a writer, it’s this: keep it simple, but never basic. There’s a cliche about how you need to be desperate in order to make it as an artist, but I don’t think that’s wholly true. I definitely think you need a yearning of some kind, but all of the best artists manage to find their greatest poise, their deepest calm, in the midst of that desperation; that’s why Simone Biles, the world watching her for any hint of a slip, still plants her feet with perfect firmness, and grins her way into history.

Pogba x Stormzy: the blackest football transfer ever.

I knew it the moment I saw it: when, just before midnight, the rapper Stormzy posted a short video on his Facebook page, which seemingly announced the transfer of Paul Pogba to Manchester United. In that video, the MC of the moment swaggers his way over a brutal bassline and angrily clattering drums, while Pogba – seemingly plucked straight from the stage at a rave – executes an elite range of skanks. I knew immediately that this was the blackest thing I had seen in world sport since Serena Williams, directly after winning the Olympics at Wimbledon, erupted into a Crip walk all over Centre Court. It is, almost certainly, the blackest football transfer I will ever see.

At this point, many people might say that it was a cynical marketing ploy by adidas, and I’m not going to argue that point – it was a superb piece of promotion. What I find more interesting, and remarkable, is that two black men are currently the face of one of the world’s biggest advertising campaigns. Stormzy himself, in “Not That Deep”, has a lyric which acknowledges this:

“it’s mad, man can’t text me again/Tryna make dark skin sexy again.”

Dark-skinned black men, as Stormzy well knows, aren’t meant to be sex symbols; most of the time, many of them are busy trying to appear as timid and inoffensive as possible, given that their appearance is readily associated with astonishing levels of aggression. Yet neither Pogba nor Stormzy seem to care about any of that. Instead of hiding from his skin colour, Pogba emphases it at every possible turn, his hair frequently crowned with gold highlights.

So does this advert truly matter, beyond bragging rights, share prices and shirt sales? Yes, I think it does. I think it’s significant because it shows successful young black men being unashamedly themselves, at a time when the lives of young black men and women aren’t always seen to Matter that much. (And, beyond any of that societal analysis, it’s a beast of a tune.)

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.

In the UK, there is a crisis no less serious than Cologne.

This morning a friend informed me that 42% of rape crisis organisations in the UK have no Government funding confirmed beyond March 2016. I read this news as I considered that, in the last few days, we have seen the sentencing of people involved in the orchestrated sexual assault of girls in Rotherham, and a release of a report into sexual assault at the BBC. In both cases, institutions funded by the taxpayer emphatically failed to protect young and vulnerable people from rape and its aftermath. In just three weeks, the Government risks making a move that will compound their suffering.

The importance of the proposed discontinuation of funding cannot be overstated. Let us look at the numbers. To quote Rape Crisis England & Wales,

“Last year, our Rape Crisis England & Wales membership answered 165,000 helpline calls and provided ongoing specialist support services to over 50,000 individual sexual violence survivors.

Need and demand for our specialist work is at an unprecedented level and there are 3,500 survivors on our combined waiting lists.

The Istanbul Convention recommends there should be a Rape Crisis centre for every 200,000 women in the population and yet we know that the majority do not have access to one.

It’s estimated that 100,000 survivors of child sexual abuse (CSA) will come forward in response to the current Independent Inquiry into CSA.

Our sister organisation Imkaan…[has ]released a report highlighting the critical state into which life-saving specialist black women’s groups have been pushed.

Much has been written in recent days of how rape victims were abandoned to their fate, either by – among others – the BBC employee who was “obsessed” by his career or the police currently being investigated for 55 separate investigations into allegations of neglect of duty and corruption. The thought that these victims, having suffered such horrific acts, should then be denied access to support services is almost too appalling to contemplate.

Yet contemplate it we must. The infrastructure of support for victims of rape in the UK cannot be weakened any further. If anything, it must become stronger still. When news broke of the sexual assaults in Cologne, there was widespread fury. There should be similar anger at these proposed changes, because the damage they will cause is no less serious than what happened in Germany on New Year’s Eve.

 

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If you would like to read more about the work of Rape Crisis England and Wales, please follow them on Twitter and visit their website.

 

If you would like to read more about the work of Sisters Uncut, a feminist group taking direct action for domestic and sexual violence services, please follow them on Twitter at @SistersUncut and visit their Facebook page.

 

Writing with an Open Wound – my speech at the Story Festival 2016

I gave a talk at Conway Hall for the Story Festival 2016, on the subject of writing journalism and social commentary in the social media age. The text of speech, entitled “Writing with an Open Wound”, is below; if of interest, please share.

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That moment just before I press “publish” on my latest blogpost is often my loneliest as a writer. I say that because, each time that I write a particularly impassioned opinion piece, the three-stage process is always the same. First, I see a story in the media that attracts my fury enough to make me take to my laptop. Secondly, I sit in furious isolation for a few hours, tapping away frantically at my keyboard. Thirdly, finally, I look at what I have produced, and the question is always the same: “Are you seriously going to post this?”

 

This talk is about precisely that scenario – about writing with an open wound, of putting your honest view out into the world in the full knowledge that it may respond with a storm. Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Only a few years ago, you could file a weekly column in a national newspaper and you might never hear from those who loved it or hated it, since the replies would be first be picked up and filtered by a discerning editor. Now, though, anything opinionated that you post on social media can be met with the angriest of comments. In fact, there is a growing likelihood that it will be. How, in such an environment, can journalists say what they feel needs to be said?

 

Well, I have no simple answers: I can only say how I do it, and how I will continue to. On the morning of the 6th of December 2013, I posted perhaps my most-widely shared article. I say “perhaps” because I still don’t have software on my website which tells me how many people have read my work – this might seem naive, but there is something I quite like about knowing that a piece of writing is simply out there by itself, getting shared and hopefully not only resonating but also changing minds. I was inspired to write the article by the events of the night before, when I had come home from teaching a group of students to see that Nelson Mandela had passed away. As is the case with all public figures when they pass away, a conversation immediately began on Twitter about what their legacy might be.

 

Of course, Mandela was a controversial person to many, at least in those stages of his career when polite society was far more comfortable with the concept of apartheid than it is today. Towards the end of his days, though, Mandela was regarded much more by many people as little more than a cuddly uncle, and I saw much of this kind of analysis spilling out onto Twitter that evening. I saw prominent right-wing journalists commenting that, in fact, Mandela had not been motivated by politics or race, but rather by a conveniently nebulous search for a better humanity. This commentary, as I saw it, sought to downplay the role that the right-wing had played in perpetuating apartheid, much in the way that you might see a certain section of the left-wing downplaying the crimes of Chairman Mao. I was watching history being revised in real time; and, as soon as I woke the next morning, I decided to do something about it.

In a state of barely controlled anger, I wrote a piece entitled “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel” and then I read it. I was so taken aback by the starkness of what I had written that I actually got up and took a shower, in some sort of attempt to calm myself down. And then I did what I usually do when I am concerned about receiving a negative reaction to an article of mine: which is to behave as if I would do if I were not worried about any response at all. And so I pressed publish.

 

The thing about Twitter, of course, is that you know very quickly whether or not a post of yours has resonated. It is probably a little like being on the X-Factor, awaiting the decision of the judges. If all goes well, there is euphoria that you have made an intervention that matters, that illuminates a vital aspect of the story. There is also the odd knowledge that, for the briefest moment, you have earned the gratitude or hatred of many thousands of strangers, the equivalent of having one of your hands warmly shaken whilst passing the other one through flame. Most of all, though, there is relief.

 

The reaction to my Mandela article was overwhelming: and, in another sense, it was no problem at all. I received a torrent of tweets and emails, and they were almost entirely positive. I don’t think that was all down to the quality of the article, though. Recently, I wrote another article for my blog, about the sexual assault of German women in Cologne. On this occasion, my subject was misogyny. Again, most of my replies were positive, but – even though this article, in my view, was much less controversial than the Mandela piece – many of the negative replies were extremely hostile. I am making an educated guess here, but I suspect that it makes people far more angry online when you speak out about misogyny than about racism. I will be honest, and say that there were moments during the next few days, as I saw my work and my name attacked on social media, that I wondered whether it had been worth it. I was reminded then what it must be like online for my female friends who are social and political commentators.

 

That’s not to say that I have not had racist abuse, or homophobic abuse for that matter (given that, on the spectrum of LGBT, I identify as B). But if I look at the only death threat that I have knowingly received, it came after I posted an article asserting that men who made jokes about violence towards women were either enabling further acts of that nature, or had possibly been violent towards women themselves. Having been on Twitter for over five years, and also being a football writer, I am no stranger to waking up to insults, and am quite good now at deflecting or ignoring them. (For example, I haven’t read a comment under one of my articles since 2010.) But the anger I get whenever I write anything, no matter how mild, in defence of women’s rights is very startling.  

 

These experiences have made me realise the very different consequences faced by different groups of people when they publish their work online. On one occasion, I saw a female friend post an innocuous tweet. I then looked beneath her post to find that someone had sent her a photograph of a woman’s dismembered body, stuffed into an open suitcase. Fury against women is too often the lava that runs just under the surface of social media.

 

I mention this only because, when talking about the difficulty of putting my views into the public domain, I would like it to be known that – in relative terms – I am fortunate. Yes, I am black, and openly LGBT – whatever that means – which does leave me open to a certain amount of abuse. But I am living in Berlin, the most progressive city in one of Western Europe’s most progressive democracies, where I am free to write whatever I like. And on those days when I might face an online onslaught, it truly feels like a safe haven.

 

If anything, I should feel emboldened by this position – and I absolutely do. Because this is a worrying time for writers and artists who are trying to deal as fearlessly as possible with the pressing issues of our time. In Mexico, in retaliation for their coverage of the drugs war, bloggers have been disembowelled and hung from bridges. The world knows what happened in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. In Taijkistan, journalists are being tortured. In Bangladesh, atheist bloggers and publishers of secular writing have been hacked to death in the street. Last year, Egypt and China imprisoned record numbers of journalists.

 

Of course, the global opposition to a free media is not new; my great-uncle, Apollo Lawoko, was a producer for Radio Uganda in the 1970s, before being thrown into Idi Amin’s jail for several months. But it does feel like we are in a moment where many hard-won gains are at risk of being lost, or even squandered.

 

What can be done to embolden journalists, at times such as these? Well, one solution is financial. These last few years have seen the media suffer eye-watering losses, with papers towards the more progressive end of the spectrum being hardest hit. There is no shortage of journalists jumping ship for a more stable career in the PR industry. Having worked in that world for several years, it is a move with which I sympathise. But the danger comes when progressive media platforms are so poorly funded that they cannot consistently produce vital responses to social events. The danger is that in-depth investigative journalism will continue to go without the funds that it needs.

 

If I have any request on behalf of the next generation of journalists, it is that we try to see their work as an essential public good, and that funders recognise it as such – and it looks as though that might be partly on a non-profit basis. I see no reason why more charitable trusts for journalism cannot be set up, using the many billions of pounds that are currently sitting dormant in large estates.

 

Having broadened the scope of this talk, I would now like to narrow its focus again – to consider how to write with an open wound, and why I think that it is important to do so. If I look back at my career so far, the articles that have had the greatest positive impact have had one common feature: they have been written with a blend of cold reason and almost volcanic anger. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it is what I call “moral fury” – where I not only feel rage at the perceived injustice, but am able to locate and expose the source of it. I think that this style of writing has worked for me because it conveys a sense of urgency – a sense that I have not merely covered an area of human rights because I find it of passing intellectual interest, but because it needs genuine attention.

 

People who write with open wounds are often accused of being “bleeding-heart liberals”, as if compassion were a bad thing. As it stands, though, there aren’t nearly enough of us – and maybe our hearts still don’t bleed enough. After all, we are in a time of increasingly horrific and complex conflicts, with the migration of many millions due to climate change to come. So maybe it’s time for some of us to expose those wounds yet further, and write even more.

Why writer’s block can be a good thing.

Let’s not lie – writer’s block can be brutal. Some people don’t believe in it, and that you simply need to keep producing work until you shake yourself free from your creative torpor. I do believe, though, that writer’s block is actually A Thing.

Very often the inability to create new work is driven by fear – fear that it won’t be of the standard that you and your readers expect. Very often, too, it is driven by the worry that you are not saying anything that you have not said before.  Whenever I encounter writer’s block, I simply tell myself: this is a good thing. It means that I have exhausted all my influences, and it reminds me that the well of creativity is not of infinite depth, but that I must go out and read more, listen to more, feel more. And then, and only then, can I sit down to write again. So, if you have writer’s block, you can use this as an opportunity to pick up a book by a writer you’ve never read, to check out a genre of film or music you’ve previously left untouched: go to an exhibition, phone that friend you’ve not spoken to in too long, have fun. Soon enough, left quietly to replenish itself, your creativity will return.

(I realise that none of the above advice is of *any* use whatsoever to those of you who have writer’s block and are faced by a swiftly-approaching deadline. In your case, I would advise the two things that always work perfectly for me in such a situation: black coffee, and panic.)