In a taxi with Baloji

balojialbumcoverLast November, the Congolese rapper Baloji paid London a flying visit for a gig at the Village Underground in Shoreditch.

It was a hip hop gig, all right; the swagger and all the other elements that make up a good hip hop act were all present and correct. But it was so much more besides. It was oldies night for African music fans of a certain age; it was a political rally… and it a good old party, with a charismatic host and a very tight band.

I was due to interview Baloji the next day, just before he hopped on a Eurostar train back to Belgium where he lives. Unfortunately, certain wires got crossed somewhere along the line in the booking process, and I ended up having to do the interview in the taxi that took him from his hotel in Whitechapel to St Pancras station where he was catching the train. With London lunchtime traffic, the ride took just under 20 minutes – just about enough time for him to give me the run-down on his music, his acting aspirations, his concerns about his country and his hopes for the future.

Here, for your listening pleasure, are some edited highlights of that interview – plus snippets of tracks from Baloji’s album Kinshasa Succursale. Enjoy.

In a cab with Baloji by George Luke on Mixcloud

Checking in

I haven’t been here in a while…

It’s March. March, for [insert deity or rude word of choice here]’s sake, and this is my first blog post of the year. I didn’t do the customary “What I liked/hated about last year” blog post at the end of 2012. Nothing in January (I tell a lie; there’s a post waiting to be published, just as soon as I’ve finished the audio piece that goes with it). No reflections on growing older when my birthday rolled round in February. Nothing. For two whole months.

No, I haven’t given up on blogging (or writing, for that matter). I just haven’t been here. I guess this short post is my way of saying “Still breathing over here!” whilst waving my hands in the air like an apathetic person (I’ve always wondered if that line was one of hip hop’s earliest attempts at irony).

As it goes, I’ve been writing more than usual these past few weeks: ‘morning pages’ most days, beavering away at the novel I started last NaNoWriMo, plus whatever writing/editing the day job requires me to do (speaking of which, you really need to read this). I guess this must be the period of no apparent action between a seed being planted and a little shoot appearing above ground.

Anyway, I am still here. And I will be blogging this year. Thanks for caring; can I stop waving now?

PS. While I’ve got your attention, I’d just like to point it in the direction of a few things that deserve it. I’ve already kind of mentioned the Joint Public Issues Team‘s The Lies We Tell Ourselves report, debunking some of the popular received wisdom about poverty. Also well worth your time is Jendella‘s beautiful collection of photography and poetry, Deaths, Dreams and the Dull In-betweens. If you like Indian music, my friends Chris and Pete (aka Aradhna) have released a live album – the proceeds from which go towards helping women out of the sex trade. And if you do ‘do God’, why not try the God52 challenge?

Remembering Terry Callier

On Sunday 28 October (the day after my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary), I received the news that the singer Terry Callier had passed away the previous day.

I first discovered the folkie soul legend through an old college mate who was on the same access course as me, back in 1997. Shortly after, I saw Terry play live at the Forum, and then had the privilege of interviewing him for an entertainment listings magazine (the article was never published, as the magazine ceased publication shortly after we did the interview). I saw him in concert a second time a few years after that when he played Greenbelt (I forget which year, but he closed with ‘Occasional Rain’ – and the song proved to be a weather forecast for the entire festival!).

After Terry died, I decided to dig out the cassette on which I’d recorded the interview we did – but after a week of searching I couldn’t find it. Eventually I did – the thing was right under my nose the whole time; it was on the same cassette as my Ladysmith Black Mambazo interview was – which means I must have done both those interviews within a week or two of each other.

The half-hour long interview has now been transferred from cassette to computer, cleaned up and posted onto Mixcloud for your delectation. Have a listen to it here:

One night, two gigs

hate it when things clash.
Back in the summer, I went to the launch of Andy Flannagan‘s new album, Drowning in the Shallow, and it was great. Great enough for me to say “Of course I’ll go!” when I received a Facebook invitation to a special radio/press launch for the album. But then bad news: salsa “leg ends” El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico were playing the Electric in Brixton on the same night – Thursday 18 October – and I’d already bought a fairly pricey ticket for it.
My first thought was, “Seems I’ll have to miss out on Andy’s gig this time.” But then I noticed that Andy’s gig started at 6.30pm and was due to finish at 8pm, while the ‘doors open’ time for the Gran Combo gig was 7.30pm. Guessing that they would take the stage sometime around 9pm, I figured I could safely go to both – so that’s what I did. My first stop was a little side road off Tottenham Court Road, where Andy had booked a nice Spanish bar/restaurant called Nuevo Costa Dorada for his gig. I started bumping into old mates almost as soon as I set foot in the place (always a good thing).
The gig was a warm, intimate affair; two short sets with a complementary tapas buffet in between. Accompanied by Lucy Payne on cello, Yves Fernandez on bass and Phil Jack on percussion, Andy went from profound and serious (songs about people he’d met in India and Egypt and during the time he lived in Luton) to romantic (a couple of songs from different periods in his relationship with his then girlfriend, now wife Jen) to endearingly silly (a medley of songs that included LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’ and Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Business Time’). Lucy the cellist’s husband acted as MC for the evening, and I found myself sharing a table with Alan Branch, who produced the album.
The bonhomie continued after the band had packed their gear away, but I had my appointment with El Gran Combo to head off to and couldn’t hang around. “They’re like the Rolling Stones of Latin music,” I offered by way of an explanation when a mate asked where I was off to (well, it is their 50th anniversary this year too). I hummed my favourite Gran Combo song, ‘Azuquita pal Café’, as I walked to Tottenham Court Road Station.
Turns out I’d called it absolutely right. When I arrived at the Electric just after 9pm, I breezed through security without having to queue up. The MC and house DJ were still keeping the crowd warmed up in anticipation when I walked into the auditorium.
About another 15 minutes later, El Gran Combo took the stage in their trademark blue and green striped shirts. They opened with their classic ‘Me Libere’ and rolled out the pick of their arsenal of hits: ‘Brujeria’, ‘Verano en Nueva York’, plus a few tunes that were favourites of mine but which I hadn’t realised that they were responsible for. They didn’t sing ‘Azuquita pal Café’ – but it kinda didn’t matter; all the other stuff was so good. Halfway through the gig, Charlie Aponte (one of the band’s three lead singers) gave a special ‘shout out’ to all the people in the audience who weren’t Latino but had come because they were interested in Latin culture or just loved the music. “Muchisima thank you,” he said.
The audience participation was an event all on its own. One guy in the audience had brought a cowbell with him and played it all throughout the show. Despite us being packed pretty tight, a few couples managed to find enough floor space to execute a setenta or two. I even got to do a spot of bailando con una Hermosa Latina myself. As El Gran Combo sang and played their hearts out, a string of smartphones  – obviously attached to some extremely sturdy arms – hovered in the air for the duration, capturing every sidesteppy move. I did take a few pictures myself; in fact I did at both gigs. But if I were to post them online, HTC would probably sue me for bringing their smartphones into disrepute. (or maybe give me one that does take decent pictures. You never know…)

Sod it – they can sue me if they like…
¡Señores y señoras – El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, en vivo!

I got home just after midnight, tired but immensely fired up, and grateful that I’d been able to pack two inspiring gigs into one evening. Cheers, Andy – and “Muchisima thank you” a ustedes tambien, Gran Combo.

Murderball: my new favourite sport

So yesterday I finally got to see the Olympic Park from the inside. After several frustrating days of trying in vain to log on to the Paralympics’ ticketing site, I was at work minding my own business when a round robin email from our Help desk popped up in my inbox, saying that there was a day pass going free to whoever called up first and asked for it. And so instead of my usual Wednesday evening swim, I found myself in Stratford, wandering round the Olympic Park.

“Day pass seats for the Basketball Arena are still available,” the PA systems blared, as I ambled about, trying to figure out what to go and see. Wheelchair basketball was the main reason I’d spent so many fruitless hours on the ticket site; now that I was here – for free – I was definitely going to see some!

No, I wasn’t. Apparently, basketball had been moved to the Venue Formerly Known as the O2, making room in the Basketball Arena for something else.

Not for the fisrt time, the Olympics and Paralympics introduced me to a sport I never knew existed. Before yesterday, if you’d mentioned wheelchair rugby (aka “Murderball”) to me, I’d have assumed that it was some fake sport from a Ben Stiller film (as it happens, there is a film about it – but it’s a documentary). “A mixture of basketball, handball and ice hockey,” our host described it. He could have added stock car racing. With slimline Daleks instead of cars. This is a game with only one medal (no second or third prizes here); one in which women compete alongside men.

Out on the court, they call it murder…

The first “murderball” game of the 2012 Paralympics was between Canada (where the sport was invented in 1977, according to our host) and Australia. Four eight-minute blasts of pure adrenalin, beautifully (and chaotically) choreographed. Sandwiched between wheels that sloped at bizarre angles, the players whirled about on the hardwood floor. They bumped into each other – hard. Wheelchairs flipped into the air and landed face down. Every now and then, techies would run onto the court to replace a damaged wheel.

Of the two teams, the Australians seemed much better at ‘long distance’ goal-scoring. The moment you saw Ryley Batt (in the number 3 shirt) with the ball on his lap, you knew he was going to have an uninterrupted roll up to Canada’s goal line. The Aussies were also the more aggressive tacklers. That said, Canada’s goals were a much more collaborative effort, and subsequently more exciting (and, dare I say, artistic) to see executed. The spectacle brought back memories of the Toronto Maple Leafs game my friend and fellow writer Mags Storey took me to see when I visited her fair city at the beginning of this year.

In the end, Australia won by 64 goals to 52. I left after the first quarter of the Japan v France game that followed, as it had gone past 10pm (can’t stay out too late on a school night). But if I was tired, I was too stoked up on murderball fever to notice.

Greenbelt 2012

Ten days.

It finished serving its actual purpose five days ago. But it’s still here, jostling with my watch for wrist space, now serving a higher purpose of reminding me how great the August Bank Holiday weekend was.

And it appears that I’m not the only Greenbelt punter who develops this weird emotional attachment to their festival wristband and can’t bring themselves to cut it off the moment they’re off the festival site. Friends and I have joked about it on Twitter, where some crazy “let’s see who can leave theirs on the longest” contest seems to have started. Ten days is the longest time mine’s been on for. It may come off tonight – but then again it might not. And why should it? As I said before, reminding me of how great Greenbelt was is as worthy a duty as getting me in to things on the festival site – especially now that I’ve washed away all traces of the mud I brought back…

At any minute, I expected Shrek to show up and yell at us to stay off his swamp…

Greenbelt 2012 was by far my muddiest Greenbelt. But unlike Greenbelt ’92 (which held the record until this year, and which I’ve declared my worst ever, after falling into some mud on my first night and not recovering), Greenbelt ’12 was truly awesome despite the mud. Infinitely muddier than ’92, but a much more joy-filled experience.

It was also my busiest Greenbelt. When I wasn’t interviewing performers and speakers for Surefish, I was either being filmed (for a promo video that should be out soon), DJing (which I did three times over the course of the weekend) or fretting over how well my short talk for GTV (on the topic “How to be a DJ”) would go.

The talk went well, thanks for asking. It would have gone even better from my point of view if I’d stuck to the script all throughout – but that’s me being my own harshest critic. The feedback I’ve had has all been good (especially the 12-year-old girl who found it “inspiring”; I do hope I’ve inspired a future Annie Nightingale!). The scariest part of it for me was doing the live beatmatching demo – but I nailed it first time, which was good.

Of all my DJing gigs over the course of the festival, the Friday night silent disco was by far the most surreal. For a start, you were DJing with two pairs of headphones on (you can’t do the “one ear on, one ear off” thing because there’s no sound from the speakers in the room). And of course, you immediately can’t tell who’s listening to you or to the other DJ – except for those odd occasions when the ones who are start singing along to what you’re playing. I now have a video clip on my mobile phone of a tent full of people singing “Where’s Your Head At?” after one such moment.
Silent DJs
Hard at work, Silent disco DJ-ing (Photo taken by Elaine Duigenan)

While I may not have seen all the speakers and gigs I’d wanted to (Frank Skinner and Bruce Cockburn being just two of the many I wanted to see but missed), I was able to chat to a good few of them in the Press room. It was nice meeting Richard Coles in person, having become Facebook friends with him earlier this year. Bruce Cockburn, Tony Campolo and Steve Taylor were all in fine form. Abigail Washburn offered to hold my mike for me when she noticed that my energy was beginning to sap – lovely woman she is.

Other memorable moments? Simon Parke’s talk on solitude; Hope & Social in their blue blazers, running around the Mainstage (“the Hope & Social Workout”, they called it); bumping into Chris Hale from Aradhna in the beer tent on the first night, and us subsequently chatting over pints of Crazy Goat until 1am; seeing the Proclaimers from both backstage and the front; Bobby Bovell introducing me to his dad after his gig on the Canopy Stage… and the blind guy I met at Cheltenham Spa train station on Tuesday morning, who overheard Simon Cross and I talking about the festival and joined in the convo to tell us how much he’d loved Sugarfoot’s Performance Cafe gig on Friday night.

I say it every year (well, apart from 1992): Greenbelt was excellent this year. And if a little strip of grey plastic evokes all those good memories a little longer, then that’s no bad thing. Maybe I could just leave this wristband on for another ten days…

Yeah, it’ll be fine for another 10 days, I reckon…

Me llamo Alvaro

(a work in progress)

“No hay que llorar, la vida es un carnaval…”

Ah, Celia Cruz – she was a legend. She sang that life is a carnival and so there’s no need to cry. Well, Celia, no se; I like your songs and all, but right now, my life isn’t a carnival. It should be, but it seems that you just can’t have one time when everything in your life is perfect. So although I’m supposed to be the happiest man in the world right now, I’m not. I’m not ungrateful; I’m just not 100% happy.

Anyway, I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Alvaro Montes, and I am a carpenter from Cali, in Colombia. I’m actually not really from Cali itself, but Cali is the biggest town closest to my village, and everybody knows it. You know; it’s like if you’re from Croydon, you’re not really from London but you are. But “the carpenter from Cali” has a nice ring when you say it, no?

I’m actually not really a carpenter either. I do do carpentry, but I’m more what you call a handyman. A very handy man! I can fix anything: furniture, electrics, your kitchen sink, your kid’s bike… anything. You just bring it.

I’ve been learning my trade ever since I was a muchacho. My tio Jose taught me. When I was small, Tio Jose was the handyman in our village. He could fix anything. I used to sit in his little workshop and watch him work. It was so much more fun than going to school. He could see how interested I was, and he would give me little things to take apart. “Nobody is allowed to sit idle in my shop,” he would say with a smile. “You want to sit in here, you fix something.” and he would throw me an electric plug and a screwdriver. I would take the plug apart and put it together again. From the plug we moved up to a toy car, and then a bicycle. I would take them apart, and then I would put them back together again. Sometimes I would even get all the parts in…

That was how I got my first cassette player. It was a battered Philips machine, flat and rectangular with five keys in front. It used to belong to my abuela, but she gave up on it when it stopped working. “It needs a belt,” Tio Jose said. “You could maybe improvise with a rubber band.” I took the toughest rubber band I could find, and just like that I had my first cassette machine. The sound was rubbish, but it was my machine.

It wasn’t only how to fix things that I learnt in Tio Jose’s workshop. This was also the place where I discovered my love for music. Tio Jose always had the radio on while he was working. He would sing along to every song that came on the radio. Always very loudly, always out of tune, and he always got the words wrong – especially with the English songs. For a very long time, I thought the Beatles were singing “Hey, Jew” because that was what Tio Jose used to sing. But his big love – our big love – was salsa. I already mentioned Celia Cruz. And she’s good, but my main man – my hero – is “El Malo”, Willie Colon.

Willie Colon’s music was my big love when I was younger. It taught me about politics; it taught me about life; it taught me all the other things that Tio Jose’s workshop didn’t teach me. But my biggest love of all was – is – la luz de mi vida, Luz.

I was a cheeky boy in school – always looking at the girls who were older than me. Luz was two years ahead of me in school, and she was very popular. All my classmates went to her quinceañera. She looked so beautiful in her white dress. I said to my friends, “The next time she wears a dress like that, it will be at our wedding.” Of course they all laughed at me. But guess who had the last laugh, eh?

To this day, I don’t know how I got Luz to marry me. But Dios mio, I’m glad she did. She kept me out of a lot of trouble when we were together. When I was 19, I had some problems with the Police. I was so angry – at them, at all the corruption going on, at all the people who were ruining our lovely country. I wanted to do something; to change it all. FARC started the year I was born. For a while, I was seriously looking to them as the answer to Colombia’s problems. Thank God Luz is cleverer than I am. Wise woman – she saw where I was headed and she stopped me before I got in too deep. Some of my old friends actually did join FARC; they never forgave me for not joining their revolution. But I trusted Luz and valued her opinion. She said, “stay away.” I did. She supported me when Tio Jose died and I took over his workshop.

We had two beautiful children. Clarita is the eldest; she looks so much like her mama, it’s unbelievable. But she has all my ways of thinking. Victor looks like me but thinks and acts just like his mama. It’s like Luz and I exchanged bodies, or something.

And just when everything was going well, it happened. Luz’s mother lived in another village miles away, and was very ill. We begged her to come and live with us, but she wanted her independence – which meant that every other week, Luz had to take a very long bus ride to go and see her. And then one day, she took the bus and we never saw her again. They say it crashed, but we never saw the wreck. Or any bodies. The driver, his assistant, all the passengers… no sign.

I knew immediately that I had to get away. As much as I love ‘Locombia’ and will always be a Cali boy, I couldn’t stay. In the years that I was building my business, my old ‘friends’ were moving up the FARC food chain – and those guys had long memories. Every business in the village pays FARC a ‘pension’; that’s just how it goes. But I was paying double what the other local businesses were paying. But as long as Luz was with me, I had the strength to stand up to the bullying. With her gone, that would only get worse. And so I gave away everything and brought what was left of mi familia with me to England: Clarita, Victor, my Mami and my hermana Sylvia. We arrived here the same week that Tony Blair became Prime Minister. I thought that was a sign: new life for me I n a country that was also having a new life. What could possibly go wrong?

I do love London. It’s a nice place. But if you’re not careful, London can turn you into the kind of person you don’t like. Everybody keeps to themselves. That’s hard to get used to when you’ve spent your whole life in a small village in a country where we’re all friendly. Back in Cali, I was always trying to solve other people’s problems. But after a year in Londres, I started to avoid people who might need my help. I didn’t even notice that I was doing it – until one hot afternoon when Victor and I were waiting for a bus on the Old Kent Road.

One good thing about having children is that when you start going bad, they can help bring you back to how you should be. If it had just been me on my own at the bus stop that afternoon, I would have just looked the other way the moment I saw that skinny black boy with the torn plastic bag crying bitterly. But l had to have Victor with me! He insisted that I ask the muchacho what he matter was. And so I did. And he told us – when he could stop crying – how his uncle had thrown him out of his house and he had no more family left to go to. And that was how this young African boy called Brima ended up becoming the newest member of our familia.

Thanks to Victor, I gained another son. He’s a good boy. But don’t tell him I said that; he’ll just try to use it to make me allow him to watch MTV. I like my music, but that boy is too small to be watching that channel!

Brima has been a great addition to our home. He reminds me of myself in so many ways, and my heart breaks for both our countries. Some truly great things have happened in my family’s life since Brima joined us… and then, just when everything seemed to be going great for all of us, all of a sudden the Police came to lour home and arrested Brima. They accused him of murdering his old boss at work. I know for a fact that he is innocent, because I was with him at the time they say killing happened – very, very far away. Where? Well, that’s a bit hard to explain…

And now this innocent man is in prison. They have set the bail so high, Victor’s grandchildren will still be paying it. But he is family, and so we’re committed to getting him out. “Todo para la familia,” as they say on that TV show Clarita likes to watch. Bailing him out will be hard – no, it’s impossible. But it’s the only real option I have that doesn’t involve me getting locked away myself.

So if you know half a million people whose doors need fixing, give them my mobile number, por favor

Film review: “Nefarious – Merchant of Souls”

With a title like that, you’d be forgiven for expecting this film to be some LOTR/Game of Thrones-style fantasy flick (more so when I tell you that it’s part 1 of a trilogy). In actual fact, Nefarious is a hard-hitting documentary exposing the dark side of the sex trade.

The Nefarious film trilogy is produced by Exodus Cry – one of a number of organisations that have cropped up in recent years with the aim of tackling human trafficking and raising awareness about it. This first episode takes us to see the Eastern European gangs who shift women across the continent and into places such as Amsterdam’s red light district. From there, we head to the Far East, where we see men who travel across continents to buy girls as young as 10… and then hear the shocking news that many of the girls in the brothels have been put up for sale by their own parents.

After Eastern Europe and the Far East, our next stop is the USA itself – and it was at this point that for me the film seemed to veer off-topic – or rather, to settle in on the subject it was really interested in. The stories we heard from ex-prostitutes interviewed in the film were no less harrowing than the ones we heard from trafficked European women and Asian girls. But to describe them as being “trafficked” in the same way that the first batch of girls/women that we met had been just didn’t work for me. When we were in Eastern Europe and Cambodia/Thailand, we saw organised gangs of people making a concerted effort to round up women and girls for sale. In Las Vegas (and London), we saw a handful of individuals who had been abused earlier in life and had drifted into prostitution more or less of their own accord years later. I’m not saying that one route in is any better or worse than another, just that they’re not exactly the same.

Also, having been told that I was coming to see a film about human trafficking, it bothered me a bit that all we ever saw about trafficking was the sexual side of it. I did raise this issue with someone from Exodus Cry after the film, and her reply was that they had deliberately chosen sex trafficking as their primary focus, but were planning to expand their vision and to start looking into trafficking for labour purposes. I hope they do; it’s great that trafficking is on people’s minds, but it does sometimes feel as if all the focus is on sex and no-one is speaking up for the slaves hidden away sewing our designer clothes, assembling our electronic toys and harvesting our coffee and chocolate.

Anyway, back to Nefarious. As I said before, prostitution is where the film’s heart really is. We’re told of the psychological damage it takes to make a young woman prostitute material. The ex-prostitutes interviewed tell us of their scariest experiences “on the job” and the low spots their lives hit before a turnaround came. We go to Sweden and see how effective their policy of criminalising prostitutes’ customers has been (by this time, I’d forgotten the little Cambodian girls, and instead found myself gaining a new appreciation for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels). This being a film made by a Christian organisation, the obligatory Christian testimonies are in there, along with the equally obligatory reference to William Wilberforce in the form of a rallying call to become an “incurable fanatic” in the fight against the sex trade.

And that was Volume 1 of the Nefarious trilogy; harrowing and heartbreaking, but ultimately full of hope. Although I still think it doesn’t fully do human trafficking justice as a subject, I would happily recommend it to friends of mine who work with prostitutes.

Making it up as I go along

I’ve kind of been in ‘stock-taking’ mode for the best part of the past month. Being on the ‘wrong’ side of your 40s will have that effect on you anyway, but in my case, quite a few other things have conspired to make me even more reflective than usual. Going to an old family friend’s 80th birthday party was one; an old school reunion was another. Then there was the preview of Fast Girls last week, at which I got to meet Paralympic athlete Martine Wright, who’d lost both legs in the 7/7 Tube bombings. And then I came across a couple of blog posts: one written by Loretta Andrews and one by Steve Best.

But what really kicked it off was an invitation from some former workmates to a reunion with the ex-director of the company I was made redundant from in the early 90s. The reunion took place last Friday; about 20 of us met in the Ladbroke Arms in Notting Hill and had a fantastic time reminiscing, catching up and just talking about life in general. So maybe my lists of things I’m thankful for and things I’ve learnt/done should begin with that old job…

Things I’m thankful for

Printronic International was a direct marketing firm based in Wimbledon, which I joined in 1987 as a computer operator, and was made redundant from exactly seven years and two days later.

To say that I was gutted at being made redundant would be a massive understatement. This was my first proper job since coming back to the UK, having spent my childhood and early growing-up years in Sierra Leone (yes, there was the crappy burger place I spent a year and a bit in before that, but that doesn’t count). I’d started writing in 1990, and was still finding my voice, so to speak, when I lost the job. The combination of the security of a living wage and the convenience of a four-day week had given me some space to grow as a writer without starving in the process. Losing that was a massive blow.

But if I hadn’t left Printronic, I wouldn’t have ended up spending a year at the South London Press, learning the journalist’s craft full-time and realising that I didn’t want to spend my writing career asking mugging victims how old they were (the SLP’s then news editor had a thing about getting the subject’s age into every story – even when you couldn’t quite see how it was relevant!). I would probably have never got round to going to university either.

Weird as it sounds, going to uni in my 30s is something else I’m thankful for. It would’ve been nice (and considerably less of a financial burden) if I’d gone a few years earlier (my going to uni coincided with Tony Blair scrapping student grants). But at least I knew what I wanted to do when I went. And for all that’s been said and written about how rubbish media degrees are (a lot of it justified), mine has helped me land a great job, a handful of fun writing and radio gigs and a nice radio award on my mantelpiece – y tambien, ahora puedo hablar un poquito de Español. Not too shabby…

I’ve become very experience-rich since my Printronic days, and for that I’m thankful. There are other things I’m thankful for as well; I’ve put them in the “things I have/have done” list below…

Things I’ve learnt

  • Circumstances can change very quickly, and it only takes one bad experience to screw up your perspective on life.
  • What you like in school doesn’t necessarily dictate what you’ll end up doing when you grow up. That said, I still love maths (yes, I’m weird. Got a problem with that?).
  • Empty vessels really do make the most noise. Sadly, we still live in a society where he who shouts loudest gets the most attention…
  • That thing about stuff being for a season is true, but some seasons go on for longer than others.
  • We’re all our own worst critics. And we really do need to cut ourselves some slack.
  • Everyone needs a ‘Team Me’.
  • It might be true that everyone has a book in them. It might also be true that some books “just write themselves”. But you still have to type the bloody things…
  • Passion counts for a lot.
  • In 95% of life’s dramas, the most reassuring thing one can say is “I’ll put the kettle on”.
  • You really are never too old to learn something new. As I write, I’m listening to one of the zillion albums I get sent to review. It’s by an Austrian musician called Gottlieb Twerdy; an architect who only learnt his first instrument at the age of 53, and has just released his debut album – at 60!

Things I have/things I’ve done

  • Some good friends (I may not see some of them for lengthy period of time, but we’re cool)
  • A kick-ass music collection (any rubbish you find in it was either given to me or is meant to be ‘ironic’)
  • A church where the people aren’t right-wing, and God isn’t just there to make you a millionaire (yeah, I’m a God-botherer. As such, finding a church I can be me in matters to me)
  • A degree
  • An exotic drum collection (all right then, three djembes and a darbuka)
  • A passport full of stamps (there would have been even more in it, but I accidentaly stuck my old one in the wash after a trip to Spain, and had to start afresh with a new one. A very expensive mistake)
  • Had a ride on an elephant
  • Traveled to Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, and seen how a little compassion and generosity can make a big difference to a poor child’s life
  • Played daft games with kids on all four afore-mentioned continents – and in the Middle East too
  • DJed at a rock festival
  • Written a book and co-authored a few more
  • Waded in a waterfall
  • Eaten a guinea-pig
  • Had a walk-on part in a crap film
  • Learnt to swim as an adult (falling into the Pacific Ocean was kind of a wake-up call; boy am I glad my mum isn’t on the internet to read this!)
  • Met a few of my boyhood heroes – and not been mentally scarred in the process
  • Sailed on Loch Ness (if there is a monster there, it’s an incredibly shy one)

Still on the “wanna do” list…

  • Visit Cuba sometime before the ‘Miami Mafia’ take control of the place
  • Visit Brazil and join a samba school
  • Maybe I should just be one of those ‘single and proud’ older guys, but I’m not really sure I want to totally give up on the love thing just yet…
  • No kids (yet) – we live in hope

Things I’d have done differently (or, “Regrets? I’ve had a few…”)

  • I wish I’d known about introversion and all that stuff while I was in school, or that it was talked about in the more constructive manner in which it’s discussed nowadays. It would have made those awkward teenage years slightly easier to navigate…
  • I would have started writing earlier – even if it was all rubbish. A lot of rubbish gets written on the road to becoming a great writer. It’s all in the rewriting – well, most of the time, anyway…
  • I would have read more, too. Making up for that now, though…

Note: This blog post is not complete. Like life, it’s a work in progress – and I’m making it up as I go along.

“All we want here is peace…”

It’s now been a week since I returned home from a my first ever trip to Israel and Palestine, and my head is still trying to make sense of everything I saw, heard and felt while I was out there.

Two Saturdays ago, a disparate bunch of arty types (and one seriously cool reverend) got into a plane headed for Tel Aviv, on a trip organised by the Greenbelt festival and the Amos Trust charity. I was in Istanbul when I received the invitation to go on this trip; prior to this, I’d tactfully steered clear of the Israel/Palestine conflict issue. When you grow up in certain Evangelical circles, you pick up on the party line very quickly… and if it’s a line you’re uncomfortable with, you kinda learn to keep that discomfort to yourself (at least that’s one way of dealing with it, though not necessarily the right one).

One Bible scripture that’s always meant a lot to me is Galatians 3:28, in which Paul says, “There is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” It’s been a source of encouragement to me as a person of colour in a society where racism is prone to raise its ugly head every so often, with its assurance that (ideally, at least) church was one place where we could all be truly equal.

However, it’s always seemed that when it came to Israel – and, dare I say it, to Palestinian people – the Evangelical response seemed to owe more to George Orwell than to Paul: “You are all one in Christ, but some are more equal than others.” I never could accept that everything Israel’s government did was right, or that all Palestinians were inherently evil, as it was always kind of suggested to me. And I really hated the way that anyone who felt any different was immediately branded “anti-Semitic”. I still reject those labels: “pro-Israel”, “pro-Palestinian”, “liberal”, “conservative” and the like. It’s sad that Western Christianity – like much of our media – can only deal with issues Harry Hill style (“I like Israel and I like Palestine. But which one is better? There’s only one way to find out…”). At the end of the day, it’s not an either-or thing for me. None of the Palestinians I met when I was there wanted to “obliterate” Israel; they simply want a peaceful life, living like regular human beings. Walls, checkpoints, appalling (in some cases, nonexistent) amenities… nobody deserves to live like that. And for Christians to condone or actively support such injustice due to dodgy theology is absurd. If I am pro-anything with regards to Israel/Palestine, then it’s pro-reconciliation and pro-justice. I resent the patronising notion that my unwillingness to be blindly Zionist is because “You believe what you see on television” – especially now that I have seen the ‘separation wall’ with my own eyes…

Banksy was here...

So, wall aside, what else did I see and what did I make of it? Well, the trip was quite full-on (there was easily a month’s worth of activities packed into seven days). What I’m grateful for the most was being able to meet both Israelis and Palestinians who are committed to seeing peace and justice prevail in the region – many of them with incredible hope-filled stories. People such as Daoud Nassar, who runs the Tent of Nations in the West Bank; Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem; Marwan and his multicoloured pet birds (“My birds all believe in nonviolence”), and Iyad our guide who showed us round everywhere (except Jerusalem, which he can’t go to on account of his being Palestinian).

There was Munther, the Jerusalem bookshop owner from whom I bought a copy of Amos Oz’s How to Cure a Fanatic and Suad Amiry’s Sharon and My Mother-in-Law. Jeff, Itay and Ruth from ICAHD, with whom we shared about a ton of pizza in a tent in Beit Arabiya, on the site where a Palestinian family’s home had been demolished. Claire, whose gift shop/guest house struggles to make a living ever since the wall was put up right in front of it. Zoughbi, who runs Wi’am, the Palestinian Conflict Transformation Centre. And there’s no way I could forget the three members of Combatants for Peace – two Palestinians and an Israeli – who spent an afternoon with us in Beit Jala, telling us about their work, and the various reasons why they now embraced non-violence as a way forward.

One thing’s for sure: I’m never going to believe the ‘Palestinian suicide bomber’ stereotype ever again (not that I actually did). It’s impossible to label an entire race of people as anti-Western Muslim fanatics when you’ve sat with them in a pub called “Cheers”, having a pint, smoking water pipes and watching Milan play Barcelona. Or when a handful of Palestinian schoolgirls have tested your volleyball-playing skills to the limit. Or when you’ve spent an evening having dinner with a granny who’s about my mum’s age, and she’s told you about all the work she’s been doing with other women for years and years. These are all human beings with everyday needs and dreams, just like any Londoner.

At the end of it all, the comments that will stay with me are our Palestinian guide’s plea to the outside world (“We’re not asking you to hate Israel, or to love them any less. All we’re asking is that you show us a little love too.”) and the Israeli lady from Combatants for Peace (“At some stage, somehow, peace will come. And we need to be ready to live in it when it does.”). That and a bloke called George, who came up to me on a busy Jerusalem street while I was recording some background noise, and introduced himself to me: “All we want here is peace. Just peace.”

We can but hope…

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.