On Saturday I played my final game for SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale, the football team I joined shortly after arriving in Berlin in late 2014. SFCF Inter, or “The Unicorns”, have been and will continue to be a huge part of my life. The team, as its name and nickname suggest, is a unique and diverse group of very special human beings. The squad is about twenty-strong, and features people with almost as many nationalities; in that sense, it is the essence of Berlin. It’s not the kind of gathering you readily leave, but my increasingly brittle left ankle and right knee have had other ideas.
It’s not as if I’m truly leaving them: I’ll still train with them whenever my work schedule allows each week. But this moment briefly felt a little poignant, as it’s the first time that I’ve had to admit that my days of regularly playing 11-a-side football are over. At such times, being a poet by disposition, I tend to get a bit misty-eyed and reminisce. I’ve been part of several clubs since the age of nine – first Golden Eagles U10 B, the reserve side so poor that when we lost only 4-0 we were delighted, and who were once defeated 35-0 in a match lasting only an hour and during which the ball entered their half just once. Then there was the all-conquering Sunningdale School 1st XI, which was my redemption for Golden Eagles having been so terrible; a few years playing for various school sides at Eton College, but sadly never once playing for their senior first team; the 105 Club; St. John’s College, Oxford; Mansfield Road; Ferry Hinksey; Brasenose Old Boys; Lovells; Stonewall; and finally, of course, the Unicorns.
Of course, it was never ultimately about the football; because I never played well for a team where I didn’t love those with whom I shared the dressing-room. Love is a strong word, and still not one that many men are comfortable using about one another: and that’s why I use it. I loved all those team-mates from my favourite teams, and I still do. It’s a delight to see them all on Facebook, on WhatsApp, or during the odd visit to any city where they might be living now – Barcelona, Dubai, Shanghai. Many of them are fathers now, and far stiffer of joint than they were when we all first met. But their passion for the game remains the same, as does their affection for each other. At various points, in a world so often brutally unfair and cruelly complex, the simple joy of chasing a ball around the field has been a rare form of solace.
Of course, it was about the football to some extent, which is why I’m not playing any longer. I only really play for teams where I feel that I can make a consistently strong contribution, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore. German football, at this level, is just as quick and physical as it is in the UK, and it is technically far superior too – there are people doing things in training and in matches that were almost unimaginable in the UK. (Alexis Lannoy, my God. You are not fully human.) Playing for the Unicorns has been very humbling, in that sense. When I was playing in the UK, I would often take the field confident in the knowledge that I was one of the quicker and more skilful players there. By the time I came to Germany, that was not remotely the case. I had lost pretty much any acceleration I had ever had (some will laugh, at this point, that I never really had much pace at all) and I found it almost impossible to dribble past players. As a result, I can now admit, I was sometimes very worried when matchday came around: doubtful that, in my greatly diminished state, I would be good enough to deliver what my peers needed.
That’s been the beautiful thing about playing for the Unicorns, though. For the overwhelming majority of my time with them, I relied not upon speed or skill but upon hustle and guts. I have never gladly chased so many seemingly lost causes, hunting down centre backs as they passed the ball gleefully between themselves. I now know what Harry Boyle, one of the first and best captains I ever had, meant when he ordered me to “play this game for as long as you can”. The ritual of matchday is a profound one: the arrival at a ground so alien and hostile that it may as well be the surface of Venus, the Deep Heat searing through your nostrils, the clatter of studs in the hall.
During that time – over those many hundreds of matches – I’ve played in conditions from sub-zero to tropical, and in all manner of different positions. I’ve worn several shirt numbers; 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 14, 17. I started out as a striker, a traditional centre-forward; then I was a number ten, a left-wing and a right-wing, a defensive midfielder (no, seriously, ask Rory da Costa and Peter Nedd), a left-back, and latterly even a left wing-back. I was never deployed as a keeper, but that’s probably best for all concerned. At first, I was obsessed with scoring goals – there was nothing that gave me greater pleasure – but, after a while, I lost the hunger for that. As a striker, you’re oddly distant from your team-mates, often as proud but isolated as the prow of a ship. Playing in central midfield for Stonewall, in a team of gay and bisexual men competing against a league of heterosexual teams, I learned just how wonderful it could be to do all the small things that went unnoticed but which were utterly vital to your team’s success. If Golden Eagles was where I first found my love for playing football, then Stonewall was where I rediscovered it.
But this post is getting long – what was meant to be a short piece has now tumbled on into over a thousand words. I have started this with the Unicorns, so I will finish it with them. After my last game, a 4-2 defeat to Traktor Boxhagener, I ended up being the final person out of the dressing-room, which was as fitting and melodramatic as it sounds. It’s a good thing no-one else wandered in during the few minutes I sat there, because I might have welled up in tears if they had walked in. Somewhere, almost thirty years back, there was a much younger me scraping the mud off his boots. Now, with a grey-haired goatee, I was gazing at the chalkboard where Andrew Weber, the most inspirational of coaches, had scribbled that game’s starting line-up. I had to take a picture of it all: the firmly-worded tactical instructions, the deserted space, the sacred enclave. I took a selfie in which I tried to smile, but didn’t quite manage it; and maybe that was fitting too. You can’t quite be euphoric at a time like that. I packed my things, took one last look round, and turned off the light. I then headed out to the club’s bar and a post-match beer with my friends, before going off to play a seven-a-side football tournament on the other side of town, where I was one of the younger players taking part. This game has been one of the greatest journeys of my life, and it always will be.
Thank you for everything, Unicorns; and I’ll see you all down the pub, or in that WhatsApp group, where I hope you will lovingly and mercilessly mock this sentimental post as fully it deserves. I won’t mind, though. From start to finish, it has been the greatest pleasure.
I watched Get Out last night. It’s only recently reached cinemas here in Berlin, the benefit of which is that it has allowed much of the surrounding hype to die down. I was thus able to assess it on its own terms. And haha, my God. It’s outstanding.
I’m not going to do a review here or recount the facts in any great detail, because – quite frankly – that’s been done countless times already. What I will do is set out my reaction to the film; I’m not sure how long or how structured these reflections will be, since I am trying to type them as freely as they come. Put it this way, though – this film really affected me, so much so that I was up until 2:30am this morning discussing it with a friend. It’s the kind of art that makes you want to discuss it with everyone.
I am very public about many aspects of my life, but the one area where I am furiously private (till now, haha) is that of dating. I think that’s because, since I spent much of my working life in in a state of some visibility, I like to keep some part of my life secret and sacred. That desire for privacy means that there are some setbacks that I just don’t discuss. But, wow, Get Out brought so many of those back to the surface.
We often talk about black people suffering the adverse effects of severe immigration policies, but, of late, I have been thinking a great deal about the supreme version of border control: that is to say, whether you are welcomed into your partner’s family. It’s one thing to allow a black person into your country; it’s quite another to let one of them marry into your bloodline. I have been very fortunate in most of my longer relationships. The first woman I ever loved was a black woman, so no problem there (if you read this on your occasional visits to Facebook, then thank you, thank you, for being such an amazing introduction to the turbulent world of love. I am still so grateful). I went out with a wonderful white British woman whose family were lovely to me; her grandmother had never met a black person before and was an absolute joy to be around. I dated a white German woman who had two very right-wing brothers but I was lucky enough not to have met them before that romance came to a close (with a spectacular abruptness, but that’s a story for another time, if never).
There is the bad stuff, though. There’s the women who you’re on dates with who, out of nowhere, come out with comments that make you realise that you’re little more than a black cock inconveniently attached to an extra few feet of flesh. You’re having a great chat, and then a couple of drinks in you’re suddenly *that* glance to the crotch, you’re chocolate. There’s the white men who want nothing more than to be overwhelmed by a black man, any black man – the stereotype that Keith, in Six Feet Under, described as “Big Black Sex Cop”. There’s the woman I went on a date with who spent much of the evening describing the types of black men she had dated – African, British, African-American – sorting us into behavioural groups like Herman Melville explaining the different types of whale in that chapter in Moby Dick.
Ha, my God. It’s all coming back. There’s the woman I dated who was really nice but not nice enough for me to be comfortable with her revelation that, if her parents knew she was dating a black man, they’d be horrified. There’s the woman who walked across the dancefloor in one club to inform me that she wanted to dance with me – only dancing, nothing more – because black men were good at dancing. “Only dancing! Nothing more!” she ordered. (It’s okay, I have dignity, she didn’t get any dancing.) There’s the woman I was dating who was very pleasant but who said of her best friends that “they really like black guys…they’re just not sure how to go about it.” Go about what, I asked, we’re just regular guys. We’re no different to white guys. What are people afraid of?
Well, the black penis, for one thing. Time and again I have been reminded that the black penis is a thing that some white people talk about or think about much more than I ever thought possible. Some of you won’t believe me – if not, please ask yourselves why that is, it’s not like I enjoy talking about this stuff – but here we are. They really talk about it. I dated one woman who said that white men, having heard she’d dated black men, couldn’t stop asking about their penises – our penises. “How big were they?” they asked her. “What were they like?” (To which, come to think of it, she probably should have replied: “Get one of your own.”) The black penis is a curiosity. A land beyond maps. An object of terror and desire, often both at the same time.
I don’t want to stray too far from the original point here, which is how Get Out made me feel – but maybe that is the genius of the movie, in that it has brought so much of this to the surface. I was talking to a very handsome black friend of mine – the type of man who women stop and openly gawp at in the street, I’ve seen it – and he talked about how so many non-black women seemed to crave him but never dated him. They would express interest but ultimately never follow up on anything – it was as if they wanted to be with him, to try him out, but the taboo of doing so was just too great. For all his brilliance as a human being, for all his physical beauty, he was an object, an oddly unfuckable monolith.
In Get Out, I could identify so much with Chris, the protagonist. So often it feels as though, as a black man, you are expected to prove that you are human – superhuman, even – just to be accepted. Of course, I am long past the point where I want to be “accepted” – because even if I pass all those invisible and absurdly harsh tests – if I have the right education and the right background and the right demeanour – then it means that the people who have accepted me are still judging all those black men who don’t pass them. Basically, life is too short to date racists. Thank you, Get Out, for reminding me of that; and, if I ever go into the countryside with a partner whose relatives are suspect, then you can bet I’ll be packing a spare phone.
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:
When assessing “DAMN.”, Kendrick Lamar’s new album, I think that the late, great Guru said it best. Back in 1998, on the chorus of ‘Moment of Truth’, he observed that:
“They say it’s lonely at the top in whatever you do
You always gotta watch motherfuckers around you
Nobody’s invincible, no plan is foolproof
We all must meet our moment of truth”
On Lamar’s latest effort, he finds himself sitting upon hip-hop’s mountaintop, only to find that though the view might be pleasant the seat is distinctly uncomfortable. When he released the LP’s leadoff single, “HUMBLE.”, the impression most listeners may have had was that he was telling his fellow MCs to know their place; however, upon several listens to “DAMN.”, it is clear that he was reserving the firmest admonitions for himself. This is a furiously introspective record, largely devoid of the immediate radio hits that Lamar has liberally sprinkled throughout his previous outings. That is, of course, a conscious choice; here, Lamar is sitting somewhere with his head just above the clouds, carefully composing his memoirs and occasionally allowing us to listen over his shoulder.
Of recent releases, this album is closest in mood to Frank Ocean’s “Blonde”; like Ocean, Lamar has opted for complex song structures with two or three phases, such as the rousing U2-featuring “XXX”. On that tune, Bono provides a surprisingly fitting accompaniment, one which makes you wonder how good a full track and not a mere fragment might have sounded. Like “Blonde”, too, “DAMN.” has a range of gorgeous soundscapes. At the beginning of ‘ELEMENT’, there’s the moodiness of early Wu Tang. “DNA” shapeshifts into a trap-edged dancefloor monster. ‘PRIDE.’ has the type of chords you’d have expected to find on Tame Impala’s “Innerspeaker”, whilst both ‘LUST’ and ‘YAH’ have similarly psychedelic elements. These beats lend themselves particularly well to the album’s reflective content, which is preoccupied with the biblical sins – mostly to be found in the album’s tracklisting that Lamar is grappling with. These concepts – vanity, humility, loyalty – recur throughout the LP’s 55 minutes.
Early on, firmly establishing “DAMN.”’s religious theme, Lamar refers to himself as an “Israelite”; the implication being that African-Americans are in their country’s (racial?) wilderness, casting about for freedom and maybe redemption. This is slightly contentious ground, since it seemed to suggest that black people, in order to elevate themselves, must first set aside their arrogance; as it says in James 4:10, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.” On first listen, this was an unfortunate echo of the respectability politics to be found in “The Blacker The Berry”, but we eventually see that Lamar is talking about his own uniquely inspiring journey. He has apparently become so surrounded by jealousy and sycophancy that he has fallen back on the support of his close friends and family, and on “FEEL,” arguably the LP’s standout track, he lists a bewildering array of problems and adversaries that his fame has attracted:
This roll call is in addition to his feud with Fox News, one of the only opponents he calls out by name; and it is notable that Lamar is so successful that now he no longer battles mere rappers, but entire institutions within the US media. Yet while Lamar speaks of his yearning to be better, he is at times still too firmly wedded to some old and unsettling habits. Writing for Buzzfeed, the journalist Tomi Obaro noted Lamar’s succinct analysis of misogyny in hip-hop:
“You scream at the person that’s closest to you….coming towards the woman next to you, or the women around. Like, ‘We can’t wife you, you’re just a thot.’ It’s from lack of opportunity.”
Given this profound self-awareness, it is a little disappointing to see Lamar lapse into lyrics such as “See, in a perfect world…I’ll choose work over bitches” – particularly since so many of his other lines encourage the empowerment of black women. Having said that, even the mostly enlightened Andre 3000, as he notes on Solo (Reprise), still has some way to go.
Of course, Lamar’s technique is spectacular on this record. His musical experimentation is as thrilling and sustained as, say, Pharoah Sanders on Olé; he does things with the artform that few could even think of attempting, let alone pulling off successfully. His flows on the aforementioned ‘XXX’ are so good that he even sounds gleeful halfway through, so easy does it appear. Though no other MCs appear on this record, emphasising the sense that he is a rapper in a class of his own, he again shows that he is a skilled collaborator, dovetailing beautifully with Rihanna on ‘Loyalty’. The sheer scale of his talent, and the degree to which he has already honed it, can frequently leave you in awe. Nowhere is this better in evidence than on “FEAR.”, where we are reminded movingly of just how far Lamar is come in just a few years – through the trauma of extreme violence both at home and upon his doorstep, after which the battlegrounds of rap must have been a funfair by comparison. (Indeed, on “DUCKWORTH.”, the album’s closer, we are informed that Lamar – but for an extraordinary quirk of fate – would not even be alive today.)
It is, I think, highly arguable that that this record does not represent as great a leap forward as did “Good kid, mAAd city” and “To Pimp A Butterfly”. To draw an analogy with Radiohead, if these albums were Lamar’s “OK Computer” and “Kid A”, then perhaps “DAMN.” is his “Hail To The Thief” – not his very best record, but still hugely accomplished. If this criticism seems unfair, then it is also a sign that Lamar’s primary competition is no longer with his peers – it is with history. So much has he excelled that, at this point, each of his new releases should be judged against, say, Outkast’s “Aquemini”, and Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation”. With this record, he remains at the summit of his art – but, crucially, there is a sense that there may yet be other musical peaks for him to climb.
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.
I was trying not to write anything about Milo Yiannopoulos this morning, because I have a great deal to do, but I think that his case deserves more analysis than my initial series of tweets. For those of you who do not know, Yiannopoulos is a writer and public speaker who has risen to prominence for championing the far-right, or the “alt-right”, as that fleet of particularly vicious online trolls has tried to rebrand itself. During the presidential campaign, his articles mocking those with progressive values made him hugely popular; during that campaign, he was also banned from Twitter following years of using its platform to orchestrate the harassment of anyone he didn’t like.
There is little more to say about such toxic behaviour. The only interesting thing about Yiannopoulos’ career is the degree to which he has so far been indulged. He is currently facing his most sustained backlash to date; no sooner had he been confirmed as a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, than tape emerged of him apparently endorsing sexual intercourse and relationships between adults and under-age children. Many people, liberal and conservative alike, are calling for CPAC to remove Yiannopoulos’ invitation. Yet the key question is why Yiannopoulos’s career was allowed to get this far, and the answer is two-fold: first, because not enough people cared about his reprehensible behaviour until it began to affect them personally, and secondly, because too many people loved him merely because he hated liberals.
I wonder whether part of the current revulsion at Yiannopoulos is due to the fact that, as a gay man apparently approving of sex with underage children, he has reawakened in some minds the barely-hidden conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia. Yiannopoulos often used his sexuality as a shield; he could be as homophobic as he liked, falling back on the defence that he could not be prejudiced since he himself was a gay man. Ironically enough, he may find that – in the bitterest of ironies – his unique brand of identity politics may be used against him.
This is one of the reasons why I take little pleasure in the setback that he is experiencing today. Because let us be clear: Yiannopoulos has served his purpose, and he has already done irreversible damage. He was as instrumental as the Pepe the Frog meme in giving far-right sentiment just enough cuteness for its advocates to be comfortable with it. Yiannopoulos championed the alt-right as a provocative movement that mocked the excesses of political correctness; with his garish attire and cruel tongue, he scandalised the Left. Bigots have long sought charismatic figures who can seduce them. That is one reason why Nick Griffin failed, and why Nigel Farage succeeded; it was not so much the content of the message that repelled people, but the packaging.
That is what Yiannopoulos has been, for so many of his followers now scrambling over each other for the exit: he has been the acceptable face of hatred. He allowed them to mock gay people by setting up a series of speaking engagements called “The Dangerous Faggot Tour”. He threw LGBT people to the lions, but somewhere along the way he forgot that he was still in the den. Judging by his latest and impassioned Facebook post, he knows that for many he is now beyond the pale; and that, finally, this is a storm that he cannot ignore.
I would not like to say too much more about Yiannopoulos, because he has already taken up too much of everyone’s time. I would only like to remind people how difficult it is to fight for social progress, because people like the above have supporters who frequently put activists in fear of physical harm and even of their lives. Last night I had dinner with an activist who has been targeted for months because her work, critical of the far-right, has been posted on neo-Nazi websites. She has seen threats to her friends and her family, all because people like Yiannopoulos organise the intimidation of brave people like her. I cannot describe how proud I am to know her, and how disgusted I am at those who sit behind their keyboards and toss out complacent tweets about how those with progressive values merely need to suck up their hurt feelings. People like my friend are taking very real risks in order to expose extremism, and people like Yiannopoulos willingly enable acid to be thrown in their direction. I applaud the former for confronting the latter, and they inspire me to go about my own efforts with ever greater vigour.
This weekend I read an article about Donal Ryan, a widely-known author who had received 47 rejections for his novels, and I was soon prompted to share some stories of my own. Rejection is part of every artist’s life – in some cases, including my own, it is the norm. My first book, A Cultured Left Foot, was turned down by every publisher but one, and the person who accepted it didn’t even like football – he just liked the way that it was written. He retired just months later, and if he had not taken a chance on me then I might still be unpublished now.
Footballers who never quite made it in the professional game will often talk about “having had trials at Arsenal”, as if they were only a successful training session away from making it – for which they are generally mocked. Yet if you are an aspiring writer, you are, in some sense, on trial at Arsenal all the time. There are so many talented authors out there that success – that is to say, being published, let alone selling well – is frequently the most distant of dreams.
Why does this feel so poignant now, of all times? Well, for a couple of reasons. The first is that, quite by chance, I was looking back over some old emails and found all the messages I had sent out to promote my music. Dozens and dozens of them, only two of which were answered. If I cast my mind back carefully enough, I can even remember the optimism with which I dispatched them. I am amazed that I found the self-belief, to keep trying again in the face of such indifference.
The second reason is that, once again, I am about to start sending out some of my own writing to a fresh round of agents and publishers, and am currently summoning up the courage to do so. This time, I have written some fiction; a novel set in the near future in which a young black woman takes the lead, because I think that though young black women so often take the lead both socially and politically, they do not have nearly enough stories published about them. It is a very strange thing, having written a novel. You live with it for months, discussing its existence with almost no-one, and then when the time comes to offer it out into the world there is not a wild desire to share it but instead the sensation that you are about to step out stark naked in full view of the morning traffic.
I have written fiction for several years, and right now I am looking at one of my more recent efforts with some regret. About two years ago, I started to write Make Us Human, a novel about race and immigration in the UK, and didn’t finish it, for the reasons set out here. Given the current political climate, it might well have been an ideal novel to be pitching to agents now – and, to make me sigh a little more, the response to the first few chapters of that novel (which I posted online, also here) was both immediate and excellent. I had people I barely knew contacting me to tell me how much they wished I would finish it. I try not to look back too much over my work, but I do think that I paid the price for failing to persist with that story. As any writer knows, it is hard to pick up the thread and the energy of a narrative once it has been left alone for too long.
And where does this leave me now? Well, I think that I will have to continue posting out the novel that I wrote shortly after abandoning my attempt at Make Us Human. And I think that, to honour Make Us Human, I will have to keep posting it out until all options are exhausted, despite the many rejections that will inevitably come. I will do that because the most tragic thing as an artist is not failure; it is the refusal to try.
I have a quick plea to make about the AfD, who as many of you may already know are Germany’s fast-growing far-right party. My plea is simple: it is that, when you hear their name mentioned, you take them seriously. I ask you not to laugh them off; I ask you not to say that they are merely a group of bumbling bigots, the mere result of a protest vote, who will crumble under the merest scrutiny or implode due to in-fighting. Because they are not. There is nothing comical about neo-Nazism and there never will be.
Why am I writing this article in particular? Because the AfD have just come out with a series of quotes that the Berlin-based journalist Charles Hawley has described as “full neo-Nazi”. If you read Hawley’s series of tweets, which you can do by clicking here, you will see it all – the call for Germany to be taken back from foreigners, the thinly-veiled call for Holocaust denial (“need to shift our memory politics by 180 degrees!”). As Hawley reminds us, “remember that AfD started as an anti-euro party. Since then, it has undergone a migration to the extreme right.” And each time it migrates, it sustains its support.
There was uproar in Germany, when, last summer, the AfD took aim at Jerome Boateng, one of the country’s most-loved footballers, merely because he was black. You can read my article on that episode here. There was further uproar when the AfD called for the reintroduction of Nazi terminology to political discourse. And what happened after that uproar? The AfD took 14% of the vote in Berlin. The AfD cannot be dismissed as a party only strong among the disaffected working-class East Germans – even though that dismissal would say plenty about the snobbery of the person who was making it. To quote the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, “nearly 34 percent of AfD sympathizers belonged to the top fifth of the population, while fewer than 10 percent are worried about their own personal economic situation.”
So, please: let’s not laugh the AfD away, because they are currently networking internationally with their far-right cousins with an eye on unsettling Angela Merkel in September. Let’s not allow anyone to “do a Trump”: to neglect their threat, and then panic come election day. Let’s not allow anyone to say that “we were not told”. Let’s support superb organisations who resist them, like the Amadeu Antonio Stiftung. And let’s reply to anyone who tells us “oh, you’re just fear-mongering” that, no, “actually, we’re fact-mongering. The AfD are here, and their danger is real.”