Monthly Archives: September 2007

drumstick

On top of the wall of the walled garden behind St John’s church in central Hackney, a large grey squirrel is eating a chicken drumstick. A few minutes’ walk away, in front of the Town Hall, two men are twisting many metres of Christmas lights into the branches of a pair of trees:
“I know it’s still September but we gotta lot to do before December luv.”
In the West End, G is talking about fiction and journalism and the greater strengths of ‘oblique writing’.
“The journalist bit of your brain makes you ask really stupid questions. When you’re spontaneously you, not you the journalist, you are much more interesting.”
This says much less about me than it does about most journalism today. Less tidy writing, writing that doesn’t have an obvious beginning, middle and (particularly) end, is more interesting, more real, more honest and more revealing. Nearly all journalism is encouraged to be neat. Fit life, fit conflict, fit Buddhist monk protests into the neat box of the report. End on a firm conclusion, a firm question or back at the beginning.
G and I return to questions of fact, questions of truth and questions of fiction. Dropping the aspiration for objectivity and truth is the way forward. It’s not so alarming, if you stop to think about it seriously. Letting doubt in, and fantasy (the KFC squirrel), raises the game of understanding and learning.
At the gallery, the one artist I wanted to meet had stayed in Ghana: Glen Turner, who once gave me one of his oil paintings. I scrawled a note and passed it on to another artist, Wiz Kudowor. Wiz’s work became the subject of much debate later: the men saw the phallus, the ladies only faces and sun. Even when the men pointed us to the testicles below, we all said, “But the faces, the faces.”
“Wombs,” one of the men added.
G gave a good talk, leading us through the painting. And then another piece of Wiz’s work, about colonialism in part. Wiz listened and chuckled.
Earlier, there was drumming. Drumming with branches from Highgate, broken, torn and shaped earlier that day. Master Drummer of the Ghanaian Royal Palace. Asante became apprentice drummer at the royal palace when he was four years old. He is among the very best drummers in the world. Playing for maybe twenty of us in Pall Mall. He drummed and told a story…
“This is a story about the difference between seeing and believing…” drums drums drums “… You cannot always believe what you see…” drums drums drums “… and you cannot always see what you believe…” drums drums drums “…an African diplomat living in a smart white suburb in the States…” drums drums drums “…Goes to his local store to do some shopping…” drums drums drums “…He asks the lady behind the till for some dog food…” drums drums drums “…What for? says the tiller I see no dog…” drums drums drums “… do you eat dog food? I can’t sell you dog food. You eat dog food?..” drums drums drums “…I have a dog, says the diplomat, and the food is for him…” drums drums drums “… but the lady wouldn’t sell him the dog food, believing still that he the diplomat would eat the food..” drums drums drums “… the following day, the diplomat returned to the store…” drums drums drums “…and asked the lady at the till for some cat food..” drums drums drums “… Why do you want cat food? I can’t see no cat. You eat cat food?..” drums drums drums.. “I want cat food, the diplomat said, for my cat, at home..” drums drums drums “… but the tiller refused, I don’t sell cat food for you to eat…” drums drums drums “… The following day, the diplomat returned to the store…” drums drums drums “…with a paper bag under his armpit…” drums drums drums “…He went straight up to the till…” drums drums drums “…What do you want today? said the tiller..” drums drums drums “…The diplomat pulled the bag from under his arm…” drums drums drums “…since you never believe me, I ask you to take this bag and put your hand inside…” drums drums drums “…The tiller took the bag, and slowly, carefully, reached down inside it…” drums drums drums “…She felt something at the bottom of the bag, and pulled her hand out quickly…” drums drums drums “… Her hand was covered in shit…” drums drums drums “… I’d like some toilet roll, the diplomat said…” drums drums drums drums drums drums drums drums..
G wasn’t happy. Some people were laughing. Later, G said it’s about the audience. This Pall Mall audience changes the joke, alters the way the joke is understood, the story is read and received. I wondered if I shouldn’t have laughed. He was right, G. Was he? So I’ve been rethinking some of my conversations with a certain J, since that night. What a good night. The drumming was incredible. I bought an album. Ohene Kesee a Ebin or Big Chief with Shit on his Face. Can’t imagine Phil Collins coming out with something like that. There we go – the wrap up, the conclusion.
Nothing Oblique.
In the taxi, back to Camden, I heard that two people I’d been talking to, who’d disappeared, had been having sex in la galleria’s toilets. Only later did I wonder if Wiz’s Youth was the inspiration. She finally understood. She finally got it. And that was her only response.

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last night

‘So, you think you can fictionalise Africa?’
‘Sorry?’
Silence.
‘Well, no, I’m not sure. What I think is that the journalist’s mantra of objectivity is false. There is no objective truth. What interests me is the area of doubt, and the idea that we actually never know that what we’ve seen is really what was there. I’m not sure that conventional non-fiction forms allow much space for doubt and imagination.’
‘Have you heard of the film Flames?’
‘No.’
‘It’s a film about female liberation fighters in Zimbabwe.’
‘Ah -’
‘It was made by white people.’
‘Oh -’
‘They decided to turn it into fiction because they couldn’t get all the material they wanted on the record.’
‘When was it set? Under Smith, or now, under Mugabe?’
‘Then. Liberation from colonialism. From whites. And these whites, the film-makers, they sexualised the women. The women were doubly oppressed in the film, as black Africans and as women.’
‘That sounds bad. What was the film like?’
‘Oh, obviously I didn’t watch it. I didn’t want to. Why would I want to watch a film about Africa made by whites? Imagine! A film about Zimbabwean liberation made by whites!’
‘Were they white Europeans, or white Zimbabweans?’
‘I think there was one white Zimbabwean and the rest were Europeans,’ pause, ‘but they were Whites.’
The breed, presumably.
‘This reminds me of Kapuscinksi, and the debates about his work.’
Blank.
‘He was Polish. A journalist for the state news agency, and also a writer. He wrote books about Iran, the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Angola and, oh, lots of other places. Some people loathe him, others love him. In Kenya, there are some writes – Binyavinga Wainaina is perhaps the most outspoken on this – who hate Kapuscinski’s work on Africa. They say he was a racist who made things up. And there are some Europeans interested in Africa who agree. Strangely, his book on Angola, Another Day of Life, is popular among many Angolans I know. Many black Angolans. They know he made stuff up but the images and the narrative he employed succeeded in providing a marvellous insight into Angola at that time, when the Portuguese were all leaving.’
‘There are so many whites who make stuff up about Africa. Do you really think you should be considering fiction?’
‘Yes. I do. In part to protect my sources.’
‘And do you really think it would be a good idea to do a project like this in Africa?’
‘Yes, I do. You could take the news reports coming out of somewhere like Sudan, and have Sudanese writers, or East African writers turning them into fiction. It would be great. I love the idea that something very creative, something very exciting and positive can be produced from all the violence and the negative press.’
‘And you think that African journalists could do this despite the lack of electricity and water and all the other stuff they have to put up with?’
‘Sorry?’
‘You think they could keep up technologically, that the lack of electricity wouldn’t be a problem?’
‘Look – it wouldn’t have to be exactly the same project, but it could be something similar. What’s the problem? There are plenty of people across the continent who are writing books and writing journalism, and who manage to file stories every day despite the difficulties they encounter. Why should this be any different?’
She’s laughing now, chuckling to herself: ‘And all that heat. All the traffic. In Nigeria, it would be very difficult.’

I know this is going nowhere. I want to say ‘But there are so many Nigerian writers. Brilliant Nigerian writers. And so many reporters. OK, they’re working in conditions that are not as easy as we are here in the UK, but they produce a lot of work.’ But I know it’s a waste of time. What I am saying is floating over her head because of my skin colour. I have no right whatsoever to write about Africa. And because she is black, she has every right to tell me all about that huge continent. She has the monopoly on the entire continent because of her skin colour, because she was born in Nigeria. That she is mixed race, that she is the product of a Nigerian parent and an English parent is irrelevant. She is Black and only black. African and only African. I am white and only White. I belong to Whiteland.


the night before


‘I get really sick of my friends who are mixed-race who say they’re black. I say to them ‘What about your mum (or dad)? Doesn’t she count? Doesn’t the white bit of you count? And it’s like, they just wanna prove they’re black or they’re against something or they’re angry. They’re half and half, or a third and two thirds, or whatever, but they aren’t one or the other. And why do they care?’
‘Perhaps -’
‘Sometimes, when I’m performing, and I mention that I’ve got a white boyfriend, black people in the audience go crazy. They start shouting. I got bottled in the wrist by one guy, just because I said I had a white boyfriend. When I’m performing and there are lots of white people, I think they all heave a sigh of relief.’
‘Christ, it’s all a bit pathetic isn’t it?’
‘Exactly.’
We drink a bit.
‘But you know white and black audiences can be very different. I think a lot of black people, well, you know, we’re brought up in a way that at the theatre or at a comedy or whatever, we interact and shout out and say what we think. You’ve gotta be up for it with a black audience. With white people, they listen a lot more.’
‘It’s funny you say that. Before you arrived and went on stage, there was a woman here. She was a young black woman. The only black person in the room. And she was very up for it, you know. She was right up there and ready to interact with the comics. At one point, she started singing along to the comic who was singing on stage before you got up. She had an amazing voice.’
‘Oh right! Great!’
‘Yeah, she was. But the comic got kind of annoyed with her, saying she was an attention-seeker. And then she started saying she was mad. And what was worst of all was some of the audience went along with it. They were bullying her.’
‘Oh right. But I’d heard she was mad…’
‘No. She wasn’t. She was just chatty, extrovert and I think a bit nervous.’
‘And maybe she was used to that sort of interaction on stage?’
‘Well, exactly. It’s like when we went to see Elmina’s Kitchen in the West End. The audience was 90% black – and it was the noisiest conventional theatre show I’d ever been to. People responded to the play verbally. But if you go somewhere like the National, the wealthy upper-middle class audiences sit and say nothing, and if anyone does make a noise, people get angry. It’s not done.’
‘Yeah.’
‘But I don’t think it’s simply a black thing. I used to hang out at this Working Men’s Club in Hammersmith. I had a friend there, Betty. We used to go and play Bingo and I’d buy her Port & Lime. Once I won the Bingo and I had to buy seven Port & Limes for Betty and all her friends. But the point is that there, at the Club, a very white very working class club, everyone was very outspoken, very noisy, always shouting and yelling. ‘
‘It’s amazing being a black female comic. There are still times when I get on the stage and a member of the audience will say, Ha! You’re Black! And I’m like, Yeah, I’ve known that for the last 31 years – is there any other insight you’d like to share with us all?

the night before that

‘It’s nice of you to say stuff about the way white people behave in Africa. You don’t need to.’

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33 minutes

6.40am: the 242 bus is passing. Two women are walking to work across the road, and a younger woman with a rucksack is walking, perhaps, to holiday. On Radio 4, a very matter of fact reporter called Jill, in Afghanistan, is telling the Today programme, “…and in fact, British forces had to just drop a 500-pound bomb on a compound…” as if compound meant ‘rubbish dump’ not ‘home’. She made this comment just after telling us that British forces were encountering “resistance” in the area despite “warnings” to “local people” to leave.

6:46am: a bald man outside in a corduroy jacket is getting into his car. He throws his bag on to the back-seat and pulls out a pack of cigarettes which he tucks into the jacket pocket. He gets in the front seat and drives off. John Humphreys, meanwhile, is telling me that the big threat to the people of Afghanistan is not foreign troops dropping 500-pound bombs, but the Taliban’s heroin production. This insight is followed by another reporter, this one in Kabul, saying that onions and tomatoes have gone up in price, maybe three-fold. A local man in a market says this is because the products are coming “from somewhere else”. The price of fuel has gone up by about 45%. At the Chamber of Commerce, a very well-spoken man who uses expressions like “jack-up the prices” blames businessmen and politicians. There is no mention of the fact that typically, where there is conflict, people stop producing, roads close down, transport ceases and prices go up. The reporter also didn’t mention the word poppy or heroin.

6:55am: the sun is coming up here. The sky is pink, blue and yellow. More lengthy discussions about how to find Madeleine McCann on Radio 4. This is the second time since 6:41am that I have heard her name on Today. Meanwhile there’s going to be an interest-rate cut. An interest-rate cut.

7:09am: I receive an email about Somalia which informs me of an attack by Somali security forces on another compound, that of Radio Shabelle. The attack took place on 18th September. “Forces opened fire on the building with staff inside, forcing the station off the air. According to local journalists, police fired repeatedly from 10am to noon at the doors and windows at the compound while staff took cover. No casualties were reported and most staff members managed to escape during a brief respite in the shooting…” But don’t worry about it. Somalia isn’t that important. (The Committee to Protect Journalists says that six Somali journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work this year, making Somalia the most dangerous place for reporters to work, after Iraq.)

7:13am: A woman – she’s a chief constable – is talking about huge immigration in Cambridge. She says that people who come to the UK as immigrants often don’t realise that they can’t behave here as they behaved at home. Unlike the British, who tend to think they can do what the hell they like abroad regardless of the fact they wouldn’t dream of doing it at home.

The wind is getting up. Another bald man passes. The 242 has passed again. Almost empty. And I can hear more planes above. Hackney used to be plane-free. No more. That Man is discussing share prices. I must write the talk on the slippage between fiction and journalism. It’s for Friday. Fiction and journalism. Slippage. Truth. Objectivity. Yes, all that. In 8 minutes.

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Enid Blyton’s secrets

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Enid Blyton’s Mature Lover’s Book. Sitting in a basket on the floor in the second-hand section. The man next to me was telling two chattery ladies about the value of second-hand books, and I found myself glancing with them. I’ve got to buy that. That was what I thought. And then the talk began.

Iain Sinclair introducing Rachel Lichtenstein
, who has written what sounds like a fascinating work On Brick Lane. Forget your Monica Alis and your Tarquin Halls, Lichtenstein spent ten years researching this and another five writing it. Perhaps that’s why I immediately liked her: I’ve got another thirteen years to go. The best work is not set to a timetable. The story is inspired by her Jewish family, her grandparents, who lived and worked around Brick Lane. Lichtenstein goes back, to discover this past and to trace its present. The gentrification, sure, but not so simple, she says. I’ve not read the book so I can’t comment further, but it is one I will read. And would advise you to too, absurdly in my ignorance.

Strange moments arose from this gathering at the lovely Broadway Bookstore. I raised the contradictory and hypocritical fact of us, this group of middle class, almost entirely white middle-aged people sitting around the lovely table of books in Broadway Market discussing, with liberal doses of regret, the gentrification of London. ‘We wouldn’t be here, in this book shop, which would not exist, were it not for that very influx of wealthier people who like to read books.’ That was ok. Then I added. ‘And I, and this lady to my left, couldn’t help but notice the copy of Little Black Sambo in the children’s corner behind us,’ I pointed over my left shoulder, ‘and wondered whether you would put this book up if the shop was frequented by many black people.’ This caused something of a stir. ‘But lots of black people do come here.’ Apparently some have complained that there’s not a black section (missing the point in my opinion). But the lady next to me said she was aghast that Little Black Sambo should be sold in a children’s section in 2007. ‘Fine in the adults’ section, for education or historical reasons, but not the kids.’ I think I agree. A lady who might have been of Chinese origin chipped in: ‘I was given the Gollywog books as a child. I didn’t realise there was anything wrong with them, but now I see that and would never give them to my child.’ Nor I. Another woman said, ‘But black is not offensive any more. We can say that word can’t we?’

It is not the black in LBS that matters, surely? It’s the little and the sambo that really rub. That nice head-patting image; the sweet little harmless black boy, called Sambo. That is what matters. But yes, since you ask, why does he have to be called black? Little White Jonny. I don’t think so.

Later, I went back to find Enid Blyton’s guide for mature lovers. I would buy it, a present for my own mature lover. But, alas, my imagination had deceived me as it so often does these days: Blyton was never interested in mature lovers. It was nature that got her juices flowing.

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ego ergo erection

As if it weren’t bad enough discovering you’ve been found by someone searching erections, you realise that the real voyeur is right there gazing back at you from the screen. The erection looking back at itself. It’s the counter. If it had never been found, happiness and the mindfulness of my meditating friend could have been mine. But the blogger colleagues who’ve encouraged me to discover the counter defeated the breathing techniques of the Far East. Who is looking at you, for how long, from where, and as a result of whom, is the addiction. I’ve given up smoking, more or less given up drugs, given up a lot of alcohol – but the counter, the monitor catching who is out there looking back is above all of these. The desire to be read, laughed at, agreed with, disputed, observed, seen is utterly obsessive. Completely necessary. To chase a viewer around your own screen. It has come to that. I can see where you are, almost guess what you are reading, and in many cases, know who you are. Really who you are. What? Only 2 minutes and 17 seconds! It was better than that, surely? Less than a minute? You bastards. You don’t understand me. You’re not getting me. Stay here. Take time to read the whole thing. Really, really. There’s some good stuff higher up… I mean, no, lower down. Really. Good stuff. And if you just stick about a bit, you’ll see me at my best. Flying. High. You can come with me. But don’t – no don’t, not yet, not now – don’t leave me. Don’t go. I’ve only had twenty-one today. Some have hundreds every day. I’ve had over two hundred. Once. Yes. I thank Lenin for that. Perhaps I should turn off comments? Make the posts longer? No. Shorter. No. Stick at what you’re doing. It’s fine. Why do you do it? An online diary! That’s so fucking sad. No. It’s not that, it’s more than that. You don’t understand. Stay. Stay. Stay. Please stay. It’s important. What a waste. I have so much more to do. I am so busy. I have a book to write. A report to finish. A translation to begin. And I haven’t finished that lobbying work. And there’s the visa. The visa. Visas. The blog. The erection. The ego. You and me. Just to have your contact for one minute and fifty-three seconds. It was so good. So good. The hit. The high. The injection. Of course you don’t care. You aren’t interested in who’s reading you. One person, you’d be happy. But we all know it’s not true. We know we need you. We need the man searching erection, nipples. Yes, nipples. Put them in. This’ll get the count up.

And then I call a friend in Luanda.
‘Sorry I’ve not been in touch,’ he says. ‘You have no idea how busy I’ve been. It’s so hard to get things done here. It’s so difficult to finish work. It never stops. There’s so much to do. We ran out of gas and there’s been no power for two days. It took five hours to find gas for the generator.’
‘Five hours?’
‘Yah. And we’re lucky because a friend runs a gas station nearby. Some have to wait a couple of days. God, I’m tired. Tired. I need to rest.’

I remember that. I know that exhaustion. Real exhaustion. Really doing. Really being. And I come back to this. The blog. And here I am writing now, writing, and wanting to stop. Wanting that exhaustion. But it doesn’t exist here in the land of shops, shopping, and more shops.

Oh, and later, looking, I have found this interesting piece about Tracy Emin on John Molyneux’s blog.

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is best

You have become Westernised, sir. Definitely Westernised. You are no longer in a position to return to your homeland, a third world country where people live basic lives, because you have been living our ways for too long. Our ways. You are Westernised. Your standards have been raised, sir. You like to live efficiently, rationally, hygienically and alone. This is good. You have moved forward in your life, and you cannot go back. You no longer relate to your home country. You no longer know what your nationality means. You are one of us. By living here, you have become us. You may have come here for safety, but now you are like us. You are us. You eat our food. You wear our clothes. You listen to our music. You are one of us. Welcome. You must not go home. It will be bad for you. Bad for your health. Bad for your mental health. It will be dangerous. It will not be good for anyone. You must stay here. You have become Westernised. It’s a gradual process, it’s slow and steady and sure. You may not have noticed, I know, but it has happened. You like our transport systems don’t you? You like our hospitals don’t you? Our schools? You like our shops, don’t you, so many shops, you like them, don’t you? You like choice. You like freedom. You like the fact we vote for our leaders, don’t you? Don’t worry. You are one of us. You have become Westernised. We welcome you, heartily. We congratulate you. It’s good isn’t it. It feels so good, doesn’t it? In a way, you were lucky to have a third world country to run from. Some people don’t have such bad luck, so they have to stay where they are. But you’ve come here. You were lucky. And now, look at you, just look at you, won’t you? You are one of us. You have become us. Stay here. You know it’s best. Stay here. With us. You are us. You have been Westernised. Relax.

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just looking

Boys in the skate-park off Portobello Road. Watching through bars at their focus, their passion, nostalgic for the obsessions of her own childhood that took her away from home, away from family, into a world of her own where only other obsessives went. The first taste of freedom belongs so definitely here in this space, among their bodies and boards. (Bicycling through the park at six in the morning, hearing the howling of stags about to fight, ignoring the warnings about that other girl who was kidnapped here last week.) These boys only see the course ahead, the curves, the slips, the jumps, the blocks, the chip-board dykes they’re going to ride any second now. Gone. Their eyes only look to the other side when they sprint to the precipice to jump gracefully onto the tiny flat board, their greatest ally, and slide and roll down through up the other side. Says a blonde woman who makes pink silver jewellery: ‘There is a girl, Asian, or sort of Chinese-looking, who’s better than most of them. Maybe she’s thirteen. You’ll see here over at Westbourne Park on the other side of the track.’ Face pressed against the bars, the slam and roll of the wheels slapping and smashing on the wooden valleys and hills, a sudden acknowledgement of her age and cynicism emerges from the rhythms of gravity and speed. Trying to shake off their myopia telepathically, she shudders. If only they knew. She lets her thoughts wander as she gazes, resisting all the time her shame of watching this display of young spontaneity, her sheer terror of being seen by them, watching, and then catching sight of their pity for her.
Lines
of men holding hands and linking elbows pass by on the pavement behind her. They’re swarming out of the Muslim Cultural Centre, smiling and talking firmly. Something has been discussed, agreed, compromised. They all belong together. They’re talking at least two languages, switching and flitting within sentences, from one state of mind to another.
Wandering away, passing George Orwell’s old house now painted immaculately in safe pastels. He always felt he was a failure no matter what he did, and I bet the person who lives there doesn’t want to know that.

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