In Conversation: Watcha Clan

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hanging out with Sista K, Supreme Clem and Nassim – three members of the Marseille based ‘global fusion’ band Watcha Clan. Their fifth album, Radio Babel, comes out in April and it’s simply the most awesome take-everything-you-can-get-hold-of-and-shake-it-all-about concoction I’ve ever heard; a mix that includes dubstep, drum & bass, rai, and folk music from Europe and the Middle East, underpinned by a strong sense of social justice. The band were as much fun to talk to as their album was to listen to. But don’t just take my word for it; have a listen for yourself…

 

Shahbaz Bhatti: A Tribute

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people in my time – both the very famous and the nowhere-near-as-famous-as-they-think. Some of them have been on the receiving end of threats (mostly those involved in campaigning for the human rights of others); some have even been attacked once or twice. But this week was the first time that someone I’ve interviewed has been murdered because of the stance he took. I am still in shock, even though it’s been eight years since I last spoke to him.

I met Shahbaz Bhatti (Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, who was assassinated on Wednesday) in February 2003, when he was Chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. He was also Executive Director of Pakistan Council for Human Rights and Democracy and Founder/President of the Christian Liberation Front of Pakistan (CLF). George W Bush and Tony Blair were warming up for their war on Iraq, and Shahbaz was on a tour of Western countries, basically to explain to those in power what sort of nasty backlash Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities would suffer if the war went ahead.

“I’ve met many policy-makers in Europe, and discussed this issue at length with them,” he told me. “People have shown deep concern towards the situation in Pakistan, and I think that at their own levels, they are taking up this issue and showing solidarity with us.”

Shahbaz was a Christian, but his fight wasn’t exclusively on behalf of Pakistan’s Christian population; he also championed the rights of Hindus, Sikhs, Balmeeks, Bheels, Maingwals, Zoarstrians, Kelashes and all the other groups the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance stood for. All he wanted was to see Pakistan’s non-Muslim communities able to live without fear of harassment – and an end to the blasphemy law which is routinely abused by unscrupulous people; often used to persecute minorities and to steal people’s property by accusing them of blasphemy so as to get rid of them.

The CLF’s job, Shahbaz said, was to protect and defend minorities who are persecuted because of their faith, or through discriminatory laws such as the blasphemy law. The organisation had over 50,000 members, and branch offices in 90 of the 106 districts in Pakistan. Its free legal aid cell provided legal aid and assistance to those unjustly imprisoned victims of blasphemy and other discriminatory legislations. They also provided shelter and material support to victims’ families.

To quote an often-used cliché, Shahbaz was a voice for the voiceless in Pakistan. May he rest in peace.

Click here to hear me in conversation with Shahbaz in 2003.

Greenbelt ’10: Looking back (sideways) with fondness…

It’s been a week since my last Greenbelt-related post; a week since that fun two hours I spent spinning tunes in the Blue Nun. The rest of the festival’s still fresh in my mind (well, it has to be; I’ve been writing reviews of it for other websites and magazines all week!), so maybe I should round up here with the rest of my personal reflections and impressions from the festival that celebrated ‘the art of looking sideways’…

The DJ set in the Blue Nun (aka “Madonna’s Bra”) went well; there were a lot of feet tapping and heads nodding as people supped their pints (always a good sign for the humble bar DJ). I even had one or two punters ask for song titles and/or a playlist. I even had a congratulatory tweet from someone in the bar as I was playing! Social media on mobiles; it’s so immediate…

As per usual, I spent more time in the press room and less going to see things. I’m not necessarily complaining, because some quality people came through and spoke to us (Clare Short, Robin Ince, Milton Jones, Richard Rohr and Roger McGough, to name a few). Earlier on on Sunday, I went along to the Medianet’s first birthday party, and ended up having tea with Nick Park (as you do).

The gigs I did see have mostly been brilliant, though. I caught much of Greenjade‘s gig in the Underground on Sunday, plus a bit of Extra-Curricular. The London Community Gospel Choir were on brilliant form on Mainstage Sunday night. So too was Beverley Knight – but there were so many photographers wanting to take pictures of her that I could barely make it into the pit. In the end, I stayed for a couple of songs.

Gil Scott-Heron was a no-show on Monday (so I took both your novels all that way with me for nothing – thanks, mate!), but judging from the audience reaction, the last minute inclusion of Foy Vance on the Mainstage lineup was a good choice (as was the King Blues‘ promotion to headliner for the night). Jars of Clay also went down well with an extended set to make up for the Scott-Heron deficit.

Away from the Mainstage, my favourite act to play on Monday was the Dodge Brothers. I actually think I like Mark Kermode more as a musician than as a film critic now! (not that I hate his film review shows and articles; I just enjoyed the vibe at their gig. They make good banter with the audience, those guys!)

Overall, I didn’t see as much of the comedy as I wanted. But the two acts I caught in the Festival Bowl on Monday night were pretty funny. And DJ Ayo‘s jazz & Bossa Nova selection in the Blue Nun was a nice way to wind down whilst looking forward to the Tuesday Morning Tent Takedown.

And that was it; another amazing Greenbelt over. Roll on, GB2011; in the meantime, I shall continue looking sideways…

Greenbelt 2010: Why I’m Excited…

And we’re off…

The 09:48 1st Great Western to Cheltenham Spa has just pulled out of Paddington. In about two and a half hours’ time, I should be searching for a nice accessible spot on Cheltenham Racecourse on which to pitch a tent. I’m still pondering whether to go and socialise or just lie in it and sleep once it’s up.

The tent will be home for the next few days while I’m at the Greenbelt festival. I hadn’t realised it before, but this is actually my 20th Greenbelt! All of a sudden, my DJ set tomorrow evening has a whole new meaning.

It’s been an interesting 20 years – in which I’ve gone from being the unsure rookie punter whose borrowed tent fell in on him on his first night in it, to a virtual resident of the press room. These days, I even get to inflict my choice of music on the other punters! Nice…

There’s a lot I love about Greenbelt. Back at the start of the 90s (and the start of me dabbling in this writing thingy), the writing workshops held at Greenbelt’s London HQ were key to my early development as a writer (thanks a lot to guys like Dave Roberts and Martin Wroe, who used to share their insights and expertise with us). The more I went, the more I realised there was more to Greenbelt than music. I’ve discovered an array of writers and thinkers (Caesar Molebatsi, Robert Beckford, Jim Wallis, Phillip Yancey and the late Mike Yaconelli, to name a few), and made lots of friends through my annual pilgrimage to Cheltenham (and to Castle Ashby and Deene Park before that). And of course, I’ve heard more great bands and singers than I care to remember.

On the Greenbelt blog (see my blogroll), there’s a series of “Why I’m Excited” posts, in which people associated with the festival have been talking about what (or who) they’re looking forward to the most. Here’s my “Why I’m Excited” list:

Jars of Clay are playing! So too are Brownmusic, Gil Scott-Heron, Ty, Beverley Knight, Foy Vance, Courtney Pine and Greenjade. Just a few of the acts I don’t want to miss.

They’re screening Africa United on Sunday afternoon (check back here for a review soon after).

A couple of ‘must go’ workshops and panel discussions – including one on storytelling and one on the relationship between music and activism.

The comedy line-up’s brilliant: I have to see Jude Simpson, Milton Jones and Andy Kind (he’s recently been featured on Channel 4’s 4thought.tv – top bloke).

And did I mention that I was Djing? 7Pm on Saturday in the Blue Nun wine bar. Drop by just before Shed Seven on Mainstage…

Asha: Bringing hope to Delhi’s slum dwellers (Part 2)

Here’s the second part of my interview with Dr Kiran Martin, founder of Delhi’s Asha project.

 

One of Asha’s big success stories last year was persuading India’s banks to give loans to slum dwellers. How did it come about?

Being a paediatrician, my first effort was in the area of healthcare. But I realised very early on that unless and until the socio-economic status of families improves, they’re not going to be able to pay for healthcare.

As far as India’s banks were concerned, there was no relationship between them and the slum dwellers. They had nothing to do with each other. Slum dwellers only had access to money from loan sharks – and those guys know how to extract money by muscle power. Their interest rates were 10 percent a month: 120% per annum! Slum dwellers took loans from them only for emergencies; not to improve their lives. It would be cases such as there being an illness in the family, for which you immediately need money for hospital expenses. Or your daughter’s getting married; in India, parents have to spend a lot on a girl’s wedding.

I had the good pleasure of inviting India’s finance minister to Asha in 2007. He was amazed to find that not a single slum dweller had a bank account. He asked me how come there was such a big gap, and I said that was because banks are so far removed from the lives of slum dwellers. Not physically, because geographically they were only a few yards away from a lot of the slums. But they had nothing to do with each other. Slum dwellers wouldn’t ever enter banks.

We said to the finance minister, ‘Look – these slum dwellers have been trained by Asha. They’re honourable people. So many years of relationship exist, and what we should do is give them direct access to banks. Get rid of all the middlemen in between, and let them enjoy the banking services that you and I enjoy.’  We then tailored a scheme for provision of credit and other banking services to the urban poor. The rates of interest were a little lower because they were so poor. We did a pilot and  had a 99% repayment rate – much higher than the normal average, which is 93%. So many loans go bad. People don’t give money because they think that the banks will stop bothering them after some time. And big companies are the biggest defaulters! If there’s a recession in the market, they just say, ‘my company’s doing really badly. We have no money.’

The banks were earning money just by people opening accounts, and the slum dwellers paid back so well and so honourably. It was a commercial proposition for banks. The scheme became so popular that it then got expanded to the whole city. There were big announcements made nationally that banks would be willing to lend to the urban poor through mechanisms that would ensure that these people would return the money back.

What sort of things have these loans financed?

Some very, very interesting businesses. Expansion of existing business too. For example, if you were working for a courier company, you’d decide you wanted your own goods carrier and run your own courier business instead of working for someone else. That suddenly enhanced the that person’s income by seven or eight times, because he was no longer working for a company.

There were people who expanded barbershops; people who have grocery stores, and people who had home improvement loans; people whom I’d initially helped to get land to build their own houses.

And of course, Asha’s big success story last year was seeing over 100 slum kids going to university…

Kiran having a chat with some children from on eof the slums

It’s just amazing, because up until two years ago we never even thought something like this would even be possible.

We worked very hard with these kids. We taught them how to tackle A Level exams; how to complete their papers on time; we gave them lots of extra books and resources… we motivated them a lot. We told them, ‘You might be the very first child going to university from your whole slum. Just think about it – if you got there, you would really have a passport out of poverty and become something in life. It would be a dream fulfilled in your lifetime; it would be so amazing.’ All of this motivation meant that these kids then faced the A Level exams with a lot more confidence. When we looked at the results, we saw that they were good enough for them to find places at Delhi University – and it’s not easy to find a place in Delhi University; it’s very competitive!

We faced lots of obstacles. Parents weren’t willing; they thought it would be very expensive, and I had to do a lot of fund raising to ensure that we could pay for their college tuition, their clothes and everything else they’d need in order to be able to live life in college. It was a very big challenge.

Not only was it a celebration for this group, but the celebration of those tall ivory towers having fallen. And for so many doors of opportunity having been opened for these children and many many hundreds and thousands of children to follow. Now there’s nothing stopping the youngsters. There’s a very big knowledge pool in the slums now, that exists to guide and mentor the kids who are following.

An Asha staff member teaches basic hygiene to children

Asha’s very big on women being empowered. Why is that important?

In India, it’s basically a male-dominated society. It’s a feudal, patriarchal society. And that is very old Indian tradition, coming down through hundreds and hundreds of years.

You find that same expression in a slum, where the woman has no voice of any sort. They’re always in trouble – right from even before they’re born. Abortions are very common so the sex ratio is skewed; in Delhi you have 875 girls to 1,000 boys because the moment they find out that it’s a girl, they get the foetus aborted. If they escape that, then there’s the possibility of female infanticide. And then later on in life you find that girls are always given worse treatment than boys.

A slum dweller trained by Asha gives first aid to another slum dweller.

Whatever it was, it seemed to be the woman doing all this work and suffering the most. And so we felt it was very important to help the women to understand that they could be a force to be reckoned with if we began to train them. We formed these women’s groups in all the slums. It was very hard at first, because they were all so inhibited – so shy, lacking in confidence. But with the passage of time, we trained them; we helped them to see a little bit of success that got them excited, and they understood the power of their unity, and what they could achieve.

By and by, they began to lobby politicians. They realised that the politicians were responding, and they started getting clean water; they started getting drains; they started getting electricity (legally); they started getting roads paved, toilets constructed… and they were just thrilled! They realised they had so much power. The  local politicians had to listen to them, because with all this knowledge and power they had, the politicians would not be welcome in the slums if they didn’t respond.

Where does does Asha get its financial support from?

As far as money goes, most of ours comes from outside India. That’s a choice we’ve made because we want to be watchdogs. We don’t want to become a stooge or an arm of the Government; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to tell them what they’re doing wrong. Neither would we be able to hold them accountable, nor would we be able to create democratic structures in a slum, or gently challenge the authorities if slum dwellers were being exploited.

In terms of the breakdown, the UK is our biggest funder. Then we have the Netherlands; we also have Ireland, the USA… in all these countries and others, we have generous supporters who believe in what we do, who share our vision, who stand in solidarity with us, support us and help us in our work.

You mentioned your faith earlier on. What part does it play in all this?

Well, it’s the reason why I do what I do. I feel that as a Christian, my faith drives me to want to help people who live in so much poverty. And in fact, because I come from a Hindu background, it would make no sense for me to be a disciple of Christ and then completely have a dichotomous life where what I did with my life had nothing to do with my faith.

I do feel very strongly that the Bible has a lot to say on social justice. It has a lot to say about systemic poverty and how we as Christians should be at the forefront of social change. That is what I feel I’ve been called to do, and I try to do it to the best of my ability.

Asha: Bringing hope to Delhi’s slum dwellers (Part 1)

In April last year, a group of ten of us spent a week in Zakhira, a slum area on the outskirts of Delhi.

Kiran Martin is a paediatrician by profession and founder of Asha, an Indian charity dedicated to improving the quality of life of Delhi’s slum dwellers. Asha has worked tirelessly on behalf of slum residents – primarily in the areas of healthcare, women’s rights, and children’s education. Zakhira is just one of the many slum areas the charity operates in.

2009 was quite an eventful year for Asha. For a start, it celebrated its 21st birthday. 200 young people from the slums it operates in started their first year in University – the first time in India’s history that slum residents have entered higher education in such large numbers. In September, Australia’s deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited Ekta Vihar, another of the slums Asha operates in.

Around the time of my visit (and in the midst of the credit crunch), India’s major banks started giving loans to slum dwellers after Asha campaigned on their behalf. Several slum dwellers have since been given loans to expand businesses they started with Asha’s help.

During our brief spell in Zakhira, we helped decorate the building Asha had turned into a community centre for the area. The only thing I didn’t get to do was interview Kiran properly (we never managed to get some free time together, busy woman that she is). I did get to do an in-depth interview with her later in the year, when she made a brief visit to London. We talked about the history of Asha, what motivates and inspires her, and shared a few success stories from the slums of Delhi.

Asha’s been going just over 20 years. How did it start?

Dr Kiran Martin (right) at a women's meeting in one of the slums Asha operates in

I qualified from the University of Delhi as a paediatrician, and in 1986 I completed my residency and had enough experience to launch out. I’d already been working in hospitals for a while.

You have slums in every big city in India. You see them all over the place. I come from a middle-income family, and I’d see them all over Delhi. But you take them in your stride; nobody from a middle-class family ever sets foot in one. I certainly hadn’t! But the hospital I worked in was a public hospital, and so there were poor patients coming in all the time. I suspected that they came from the slums.

I was driven by a very very strong spiritual desire to reach out to these communities and use my services and skills, my gifts and talents for people who really needed me. Most of my batch mates – 180 of them – were either in private practice or had left for the UK, the US or the Middle East to make lots of money. I wanted to see what it was like in the slums. In fact, I used to go and volunteer there while I was a student. My desire kept getting firmed up with the passage of time.

What were your early slum experiences like?

Well, it was a shock! First of all, it was so dirty, so filthy. It was unimaginable – as I said, I’d never been in one! There were mountains of garbage. You couldn’t even see beyond them. There was slush everywhere; the roads were so dirty – in fact, there were no roads, just muddy paths!

People had these shallow hand pumps that they’d dug – 40 or 50 feet into the ground – because there was no clean water. This particular slum had 7,000 people living in it. The water was brown and contaminated with sewage – in fact, there was a cholera epidemic. Children were getting cholera; people were getting all kinds of gastro-intestinal diseases and diarrhoea, and they were dying of dehydration. I used to have to jump the fence at the back, just because I couldn’t get access through the main entrance!

Back then, I didn’t know you had slum lords. These slum lords are self-styled leaders, because there’s no democratic institution in a slum; no organised community or a cohesive body that gets together to discuss development issues or solve poverty problems; there’s nothing. They are the only leaders there. They’re very, very powerful; they are basically linked with the powerful political parties. In fact, they are grassroots level politicians and it’s their job to protect their party’s interests; to ensure that during election time all the slum dwellers are herded to the polling booths to vote in favour of whatever party the slum lord represents.

The slum lords also exploit slum dwellers for every little thing. So the average slum person was thrilled that I was there. I had this tiny little space where I would see patients; it was all out in the open. I didn’t even have a building! I would see 200-300 patients. But the slum lords felt very threatened by my presence. I had no axe to grind; I didn’t want anything from the slum dwellers. I wasn’t a politician; I wasn’t there for votes; I was just there genuinely to help. And so people started forgetting about the slum lords and started coming to me instead. My being there was a direct threat to the slum lord’s popularity – to his existence, even. And so I faced a lot of opposition from them.

So now – have you won the slum lords over, or have they learnt to live with you?

I realised quite early on that unless you have them on your side, slum development is not going to be possible. If you just want to do something cosmetic, it’s different. If you want to have a little clinic and just be this good doctor who sits there very day and examines 100 or 200 patients and then go home at the end of the day, that’s a different story. But if you really want to tackle the systemic causes of poverty; if you wasn’t to tackle poverty by going to the roots of it; if you want to work with politicians and with Government; if you want to address areas such as women’s rights, or water and sanitation, or slum housing, or any other radical areas, you cannot do it without the slum lords’ cooperation. They’ll just throw you out! So it was really necessary for me to have good relationships with them. I realised that early on.

My philosophy has always been that I must never reject a person. This is what the Bible has taught me; this is what my faith has taught me. I can reject their deeds, but I cannot reject them. They’ve all been created in God’s image, and I believe that they’re a product of their past circumstances and their past life. And therefore, whatever they are today is because of that. And therefore I have always had the approach that even if I confront them or challenge them for something wrong that they’re doing, it must be in the context of a relationship that exists. Because if there’s no relationship, then their defences will go up. And then they’re never going to listen to you.

And so I thought, first things first. First thing is acceptance; they must realise that I’m not here to reject them or pass judgement on their actions. So I’d eat, drink, have tea with them, talk to them, sit down with them, befriend them… whenever meetings were held for the benefit of the community I would invite them over.

Gradually I began to win over many of these slum lords and we became good friends. They began to realise that I wasn’t really directly a threat to them, and I was willing to work alongside them. 21 years down the line I have many, many friends among the slum lords… and a lot of them have actually lost their power completely!

The reason for that is that the women have been empowered by my work. Just with the passage of time, I don’t think the slum lords realised what was happening. But the erosion of their powers has happened because of the empowerment of the women. The balance has tilted in the other direction. Nowadays, the slum lord is really no longer that much of a necessity because the people themselves are so empowered. He’s basically out of business!

How many slum areas in Delhi does Asha operate in?

We work in 50 slums. There are roughly 3.5 million slum dwellers in the city, and we work with about 350,000 – 10% of Delhi’s slum population. The slums we work in are scattered all over the city.

In Conversation: To’Mezclao

DJ Lyng Chang on the "unos y doses" with To'Mezclao at Africa Oye

I’ve already talked about my time at this year’s Africa Oye festival in my last blog post. I’ve been beavering away with the audio I recorded there… and now, for your listening pleasure, here’s the interview I did with Lyng Chang, DJ with the Cuban band To’Mezclao.

AFRICA OYE 2010

Man, this year has flown past. I can’t believe it’s been a whole 12 months since I made my now annual trip up to Liverpool for the Africa Oyé festival. But it has – and I’ve just enjoyed a brilliant day in the sun with a field full of friendly Liverpudlians and some awesome music acts.

Africa Oyé’s definition of what constitutes African culture and music remains as broad as it’s always been. Not that I’m complaining; the range is great, and it gets people in. Haiti featured quite heavily this year, represented by the folkloric stylings of Ti Coca, and Saturday’s headliners, the upfront Boukman Eksperyans.

I landed at Sefton Park just before 1pm. No sooner had I introduced myself at Event Control and picked up my press pass when I bumped into Maya, the friend I’d made at last year’s festival, together with her Irish radio DJ friend and his wife. Last year, he’d been unable to come, and Maya had borrowed my equipment to record interviews for him. Friendly hugs and handshakes all round, and then we headed out into the main area to see the stalls and see the first act on the bill.

The Cuban band To’Mezclao were the opening act. Unfortunately, their set was plagued with technical hitches; they barely made it through their first song when the power cut out. And again. And again (this time, during their second song). And yet again. Still, you have to commend them on their professionalism. The hitches didn’t faze them, and when the power problem was sorted for good, they delivered a fantastic set which spanned salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton and more.

I saw a good chunk of To’ Mezclao’s set before retreating to the Hospitality tent with Maya and her friends, for an in-depth interview with the lead singer of Boukman Eksperyans. He talked about everything – Haiti’s history, the sore relationship between politicians and musicians there, rebuilding after the earthquake, all the things Irish mythology and Haitian tradition have in common, and his disgust at Monsanto’s “evil seeds” being planted in his country. I left the interview feeling somewhat educated, I don’t mind saying…

The Guinean band Les Espoirs de Coronthie were on next, and gave a dazzling display of kora playing, a nice fusion of bluesy guitar and ‘Cookie Monster’ style ragga vocals. Ti Coca and his group Wanga Nègès were mellow and easy-going. I particularly enjoyed their cover of ‘Bobine’ – a song I was introduced to by Ska Cubano (now that’s a band I’d love to see play here!). Halfway through their set, I nipped back into Hospitality and interviewed To’ Mezclao’s DJ, who talked about everything from younger Cubans’ approach to their musical heritage, through to what effect Barack Obama’s easing of restrictions on Cuba has had on the music coming from there. I kind of got the impression he wasn’t in any hurry to move to Miami…

After saying goodbye to Maya and her friends (who had to leave early to meet some other people), I caught some of Victor Démé’s gig. I was completely blown away by Victor’s guitarist. He looked rather unassuming when you first saw him… and then he’d pick up his white Stratocaster and suddenly turn into Slash Clapton. The moment Victor came offstage, I made a beeline for his tent and got a copy of his latest CD off his tour manager. After he’d rested a bit, we did a press conference-style interview together with some radio people from Manchester, and their French translator.

I’d first come across Victor’s music a couple of years ago, when he’d released his debut album at the age of 46 (or 47, depending on which magazines you read). I wanted to know if other late starters saw him as an inspiration for having started recording at that age (especially given that anything over 24 is considered ancient in pop star years).

“Yes!” was his short answer. “Young people do too,” he continued. “What a lot of them say to me is, ‘If you can do it at your age, then we can do it too.’ But one thing I do tell young people is not to be fooled into thinking that they have all the time in the world to do the stuff they want to do and achieve. Imagine that you’re already late, and act with that urgency.”

With the Victor interview done, I was free to enjoy some of Boukman Eksperyans’ storming set before heading back to my B&B with one of those legendary Liverpool-sized Chinese takeaways. Sadly, I couldn’t stay for the whole weekend due to work commitments (and trust me, that is not a complaint!). But I’m more than positive that Andrew Tosh (son of Peter), the Rasites, Carlou D (whom I’ll be seeing perform live on Tuesday) and les Freres Guissé will be every bit as entertaining as the line-up I did see were… and that To’ Mezclao will make it through their set without any hiccups.

Liverpool, see you in June ’11…

On Movies, Hoodies, Slums & Messages – Knowotimean, Harry?

The other day, I went – somewhat reluctantly – to a film screening at the Albany theatre in Deptford.

The main feature was Michael Caine’s London-set vigilante thriller Harry Brown. The support act (sorry – music reviewer’s habit) was English, the debut of Tarun Thind, a young British Asian with no formal training in filmmaking. Both Tarun Thind and Gary Young (the screenwriter who wrote Harry Brown) took part in a Q&A session afterwards.

Gary Young describes Harry Brown as “a British Death Wish” and he isn’t far wrong. It’s extremely dark, depressing and very, very violent. Michael Caine turns in a flawless performance as the ailing ex-marine whose life revolves around visiting his terminally ill wife in hospital and having a pint and a game of chess with his old mate Len. The only characters you feel anything for are Harry and Len, whose brutal murder is the tipping point that turns Harry into the Equalizer of Elephant & Castle. The various hoodies, pimps, drug & arms dealers and low-lifes of some description are either so grotesque or so irredeemably evil, they might as well just have giant multicoloured neon signs saying “HATE ME” stuck on them.

As you can probably guess from what I’ve just said, Harry Brown wasn’t my cup of tea (hence my initial reluctance to go to the screening). On the other hand, I cannot recommend English highly enough. The last time I’ve seen such a non-patronising portrayal of deaf characters in a film was in Four Weddings & a Funeral. And that was some time ago…

I found the Q&A session quite insightful. I’ve spoken to a few filmmakers and writers in my time, and as I grow older, I find myself believing in hard-and-fast rules less and less. This Q&A session just reinforced that further. Gary’s viewpoint is that people don’t go to films to ‘learn’ stuff, and he seemingly has no time for any of that “a film must have a message” nonsense. He also didn’t seem to care much for issues such as whether a filmmaker has a responsibility in how they portray certain groups of people. In this regard, he was the polar opposite of Tarun Thind, who set out to make his film with the intention of countering the negative image of ‘hoodies’ so prevalent in the media today. While I can see both their points (and I’m not just saying that to sit on the fence), the difference in the characters in both films is enormous; Tarun’s ‘hoodies’ are a lot more human than Gary’s.

But Gary is right, up to a point. A writer works best when s/he writes what’s on his or her mind – not when trying to “write to order” or deliberately trying to shoehorn a moral into their work. “Write what’s on your heart” is the best advice you can give any writer. And I suppose it is possible to make a film and not have some sort of agenda beyond wanting to create something you find entertaining. I’ve seen some of the work done by filmmakers who claim that “all films have agendas” (especially some of the new breed of Christian filmmakers), and a lot of the films they make do end up being very preachy.

But when it comes to the issue of responsibility in how you portray people on film, there are personal reasons why I can’t see Harry Brown in such an objective manner as Gary suggests: The Heygate Estate where it was shot is literally five minutes’ walk from my home (in fact, I can remember walking through it while it was being prepped for shooting this very film, and wondering if it was 1Xtra shooting another of their “music for the sink hole estate massive” trailers). My brother and sister-in-law had their first home (and first child) there. A cousin of mine lived there for many years with her husband and baby daughter before eventually emigrating to the USA. It might be a dump, but Harry Brown made it look like the tenth circle of Hell (and trust me, if it really was that bad, I wouldn’t walk through it as casually as I do on a very regular basis). I know it’s fiction, yada yada yada – but I bet if someone shot a film somewhere in Newcastle that Gary had fond memories of growing up, and made it look that nasty, a small part of him would go “Hey – that’s out of order!”

The film opened in the US this week, and I’ve already read one review from there saying it was set in a “slum”. That reviewer really ought to see the ‘slum’ being built on the other side of the road…

‘Happy Thingymas’

Since I’m writing about a religious topic here, I think I ought to start with a confession.

I may be a God-botherer, but I’m also a pragmatist. If I’m miles away from home and it’s cold, wet and dark outside, I don’t care what’s written on the side of the first bus that comes along; I’m taking it. And that’s exactly what I did one Saturday night/Sunday morning last winter, after an awesome Dele Sosimi gig in east London: I (whisper it) rode home on one of those ‘atheist’ buses several Christian Facebook groups were urging me to boycott at the time.

The “there’s probably no God; now go and get plastered” (or whatever it said) bus ad campaign is now just a vague memory for most of us. But a follow-up to it has been launched to coincide with the festive season… and so it was that a few days ago, I found myself in Foyle’s bookshop in central London, for the launch of a book titled the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.

Ariane Sherine (the journalist/comedy writer who devised the bus ad and edited the book) was host for the event, along with guests Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, David Baddiel and Derren Brown – four of the book’s 42 co-authors – who read the essays they’d contributed to it. Apart from acquiring a new spiritual dilemma for myself (will I go to hell because I think Ariane Sherine is hot? I’m sure me fancying her is what my team calls “being unequally yoked”), I found the evening simultaneously thought provoking, amusing, and in places deeply tragic.

The thing that stuck out most for me was how similar atheism is to the religions it is so opposed to. Guess what? Atheists argue over dogma and doctrine just like Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Ahmadis, or Orthodox and Reform Jews do. Boy, do they! During the Q&A session that followed the readings; in the lift; on the street walking to the Tube station… Even more interestingly, even in a roomful of people generally disposed to believing that faith is irrational, there were a fewwho were brave enough to admit that there were some mysteries cold, rational thinking could not sufficiently explain.

It’s been said that the ‘New Atheists’ (is that the same as ‘New Labour’ or “new Windows operating system”?) are every bit as intolerant in their atheism as religious fundies are in whatever religion they subscribe to. They certainly have an equal amount of smugness about it, that’s for sure. I mean, what’s the difference between David Baddiel’s blanket statement that people who profess a faith are “all wrong” and the ranty Imam who labels all non-Muslims “infidels”?

Derren Brown made a passionate argument for people to be kind to those around them – not just at Christmas, but all year round. The advantage atheists had over religious people, he said, is that religious people did good deeds because they expected a “reward from God” whereas atheists didn’t have any such carrots to motivate them, and so had purer motives for the acts of kindness they did. Sounded good at first – but then he had to go and spoil it by mentioning the “benefits of kindness”… and it was then that you realised that he was basically preaching Karma without the Buddhism. Derren, you say “benefits” and I say “rewards from God”. Tomayto, tomato…

Having said that, some of the contributions made me wonder whether religion (Christianity in my case) wasn’t partly to blame for people’s unbelief – and no, I’m not referring to that lame joke about Dawkins being the second biggest cause of atheism in Britain after Cliff Richard (and on the subject of lame jokes: Richard Dawkins, stick to science and leave comedy writing to the experts. That Jeeves & Wooster skit was terrible). I found myself feeling for Derren Brown when he said he’d been a Christian for many years, but had packed it in because he’d found himself unable to defend his faith intellectually as he had wanted to. The un-intellectual (sometimes anti-intellectual) streak I find in some Christian circles bothers me too, but I’ve stuck with it. I even found myself agreeing with something Richard Dawkins said: that Jesus taking the punishment for sins he hadn’t committed himself “just doesn’t add up.” It doesn’t – but then, forgiveness and love (and the things people do for them) have never “added up”.

On the other hand, I found AC Grayling’s claim that “once you’ve achieved a few major things in your life, you have less of a need for a God figure” seriously lacking. Four years ago, I met Dr Charles H Townes. For anyone who doesn’t know who he is, Charles Townes is a Nobel Prize-winning American scientist, credited with the discovery and development of the laser. In the 80s (at the height of that USA vs. Russia who-can-wee-the-highest contest we called the Cold War), he helped persuade then President Ronald Reagan not to flood the planet with strategic nuclear weapons, as he was being advised to. Those are pretty big achievements by anyone’s standards, yet Dr Townes had an active Christian faith – a faith he still holds on to now, well into his 90s. And let’s not forget Desmond Tutu, who’s still a bishop in spite of his Nobel Peace Prize and other accolades. Maybe “achievement” is just relative…

I received quite a few responses when I reviewed the launch for a Christian magazine. Many of them were positive (and that’s always good to have), but a lot of them simply parroted the usual cliché responses Christians come out with whenever stuff of this nature is discussed: “They would never say things like this about Mohammed”, “Why do they hate Christianity so much?” – you know, the usual…

Here’s the thing (at least, “the thing” as I see it). This martyr mentality isn’t doing Christianity any good, and statements like that only serve to prove that we’re a bit too self-absorbed and not really listening to what’s going on around us. The so-called ‘militant atheists’ aren’t singling Christianity out; they’re opposed to ALL religions. So yes, they do say ‘things like this’ about Mohammed. And about Vishnu. And G_d. And Shiva, The Force and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Enough with the whining already – and can we please have one Christmas without any complaints about shopping malls not having Christmas trees, or someone resurrecting that urban myth about some council somewhere trying to change the holiday’s name to ‘Winterval’? (It’s not true. I’ve checked). This whiny victim mentality does nobody any good; it just trivialises the very real persecution Christians face in places such as Sudan, Eritrea, Burma, North Korea and Turkmenistan.

Happy Christmas, whoever you believe in (or don’t)…