Monday, 24 October 2016

I am Mr Bojangles


Today I have been named as the most influential black Briton by the annual PowerList 2017 on its 10th anniversary.

That's a HUGE honour.


It is astonishing frankly. I am not sure who is more astonished - you or me!

On my 50th birthday (yes, I am over 50. You don't believe it? You thought I was late 30's at most? May a thousand blessings be showered upon you), anyway on my 50th birthday I invited the late, great comedian Felix Dexter to come and say a few words at my party. He talked about my background and my so called achievements and then he said "they do say, behind every successful man there is a VERY surprised woman." I can assure you, there is a very surprised woman roaming around my home as we speak.

For me, it feels like I have been awarded an A* before I have sat the exam. I feel as if I now need to earn this amazing accolade. I was planning to start winding down over the next few years, but it looks like I am going to have to step up a gear or two and do something really worthy of being honoured in this way. A challenge has been thrown down and I am going to pick it up.

The other challenge is that of being a role model.

If you don't know me and you have seen me present to large audiences or network in crowded rooms, you may think I am a confident, outward facing, fairly extrovert chap. Don't be fooled. It's all front. Those who really know me will tell you that I am a socially awkward, introvert fellow who is generally uncomfortable in the company of strangers. So having the spotlight shone on me in this way is a genuine challenge.

Of course I will rise to the challenge. I will accept invitations to speak at schools, dinners and anywhere else where my presence will be helpful in fulfilling the role of role model and perhaps inspiring others with my story. Yes, I will even dance for you. I will talk of life and laugh. I will be my alter ego - Mr Bojangles...

"He looked to me to be the very eyes of age,
as he spoke right out,
talked of life, Lord that man talked of life,
Laughed, slapped his leg and stepped. He said his name was "Bojangles" And he danced a lick right across the cell He grabbed his pants, took a better stance, jumped up high That's when he clicked his heels Then he let go a laugh, Lord he let go a laugh,
shook back his clothes all around

That was Mr. Bojangles Mr. Bojangles Mr. Bojangles Lord, he could dance"


Sunday, 19 June 2016

Happy Fathers Day: The Joy and Pain of being a Father

Being a father is to be in a continuous state of joy and pain, to quote the great philosopher Frankie Beverly and Maze.

Fathers don't often talk about how it feels to be a father. We are stoic, calm, in control. We are big. We fix things. We laugh in the face of a spider in the bath.

But inside, from the very first moment we become a father, in fact even before - as soon as we know we will become one - a father is plunged into a world of joy and pain.

Fathers, have you had that Sunday afternoon experience? You lie dozing on the sofa in the afternoon sun with your new, tiny baby lying on your tummy, fast asleep, totally relaxed, totally safe with daddy. You can literally smell baby's head just under your nose. A sleepy, tiny hand reaches up and touches your cheek. You. Are. Father. Nothing bad will ever happen to your child.

Then you are suddenly overwhelmed with fear and fury. How are you going to stop this terrible world trying to hurt your baby? Are you strong enough to protect baby? Can you really be the father baby deserves? You are not good enough. You are already a failure. Why oh why couldn't baby have a better father?

Joy and Pain. Like Sunshine and Rain.

I remember taking my daughter for a walk in the pushchair. I strode down the street like a Don. Stand aside, little people. A FATHER IS COMING THROUGH. Oh the Joy. Then a car drove past. A normal car. Nothing special. A little bit of smoke came out of its exhaust. Smoke that my little bundle of joy might have breathed in! Rage, rage, rage. That car must be crushed. All cars must be crushed. All bad things must be crushed. I Am Father and I bring righteous fury down on your head if you do anything that hurts my little girl.

I took my son to rugby for the first time. Someone passed him the ball and he simply ran through all the other kids and scored as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I overheard someone on the touchline mutter "that new kid's pretty good". I showed no emotion, but inside I was screaming "I Am The Father. Me. Me. Yes Me. I Am The Father". Then someone tackled my boy. Tackled him! Hurt him. Hell and Damnation! I scanned the touchline to try to identify that other kid's father - I was ready to run round and tackle the foolish failure of a father. How DARE he allow his son to tackle mine? I will destroy him. I will go all Game of Thrones on him and his whole family. It will make the Red Wedding look like the Teddy Bears Picnic. Outwardly, I merely stood on the touchline with a slight smile on my face. But inwardly, oh the Joy and the Pain.

I walked my daughter to school. Halfway through the playground, she stopped and said, slightly embarrassed "Daddy you can go back now, you don't need to take me to the door". Oh. Okay. I said proudly as she walked off, a confident and independent tiny young woman. The Joy. The Pride. But inside, I knew that the time had come to throw myself into the dustbin of life. I was no longer needed. I was a liability. An embarrassment. My use as a so called father was at an end and it was probably best that I left home and lived the rest of my life as a homeless person with all the other fathers who had been cast out onto the scrapheap of fatherhood. She was six years old.

I used to wrestle with my son. We would wrestle and laugh. I would hold him down with one hand while drinking a cup of tea with the other. Tai Chi I would say as I used my skills to twist his arm and force him to the ground. We would exhaust ourselves wrestling and laughing. A mighty Father with his young cub of a son. Oh the Joy. Now the cub is HUGE. The father looks on with admiration, with joy. Until he shoulder barges me and sends me flying across the room. Whoops, Dad, did I crush you and your masculinity into the dust by accident as if you were nothing? Sorry old man. I expect to hear David Attenborough narrating "the young cub with his glistening fur and muscles of steel drives away the mangy old former head of the pride into the wild where it will eat scraps and die a lonely and unloved death and be eaten by vultures...". I've seen those programs. I know how it ends.

A father loves and protects. Every time his little child, who is now big and confident, steps out of the house he is filled with joy and with pain in equal measure. When the children become adults and step out with their own friends and he realises that he is slipping down the huggable league table, he is so filled with joy that the young ones are happy and so filled with pain that he will never again experience the true, unalloyed hug that only a four year old child can give their mighty, all seeing, all knowing, all terrified father.

Happy Fathers Day, all you Fathers out there. And if you have someone who is a father to you, you've brought him a lot of joy and a lot of pain so give them a hug like only a four year old child can. I forgot to hug mine last time I saw him and I wish I had.

In the worlds of the Wise One, Frankie Beverly and Maze....

"Where there's a flower there's the sun and the rain
Oh and it's wonderful there both one in the same
Joy and pain like sunshine and rain"

Friday, 1 January 2016

On the wrong end of a sub-machine gun at the age of nine in Idi Amin's Uganda

My first experience of being on the wrong end of a sub-machine gun was at the age of nine in Idi Amin's Uganda.

Those of you with long memories, or an interest in history, will recall that in 1972, the dictator Idi Amin gave Ugandan Asians 90 days to leave the country.

(Aside: I wish that events I lived through were not counted as "history". It makes me feel very old)

That fateful day I happened to be at home, in Uganda, when Amin made his infamous broadcast. The effect was startling and I saw it first hand. An Asian family lived next door to us and we used to play with the kids. A Ugandan friend of mine popped round and we decided to visit our Asian mate. We knew nothing about the broadcast or any political matters so we were amazed to find the house completely empty. The doors were actually open wide and the radio was still on but there was not a single person to be found. Very odd.

Apparently the father had heard Amin's "Get Out Now" broadcast, had driven straight home, collected everyone, grabbed what they could carry and drove straight to Entebbe airport, leaving their entire life behind! Can you imagine it?

Anyway, my mate and I wandered around the house and garden wondering what the hell was going on when we heard shouting and saw heavily armed soldiers running towards us. "Get down, get down, lie down" they screamed cocking their weapons. We didn't realise that there was a shoot-on-site policy for any suspected looters of empty Asian homes or offices.

Fortunately, as we lay face down in the dirt, the soldiers decided to wait for their Major to come along before carrying out their orders. He arrived and around the same time my father happened to drive by on his way home from work. I can only imagine what must have gone through my Dad's head as he saw me lying in the dirt with lots of shouting going on and armed men stomping around. My father managed to get into a careful discussion with the trigger happy soldiers, explaining that  I was just a silly kid looking for my friend, that I lived next door, that he was a foreigner and worked for the TV station and so on.

Suddenly my Ugandan friend, who was slightly older than me, and could read the writing on the wall for him as a local lad when an example needed to be made, lept up and sprinted away for all he was worth. Have you ever heard the phrase "run for your life"? I have seen it in action!

Shouting ensued and the Major himself levelled his weapon and let off several bursts of automatic gunfire. My friend kept running into the bush pursued by soldiers. He wasn't hit when I last saw him, but I never saw him again.

After much negotiation the Major decided that I was indeed a normal kid rather than a looter and I was sent home. I can't even remember what my Dad said to me that evening but suffice to say I went to bed early without any supper.

But I think that event amongst other things help convince him that it was time to close the chapter on our Ugandan experience. Not too long afterwards, without announcing our intentions or saying any goodbyes we slipped away, jump in our car, hopped on a plane and ending up back in good old London.

Six months later I was in a primary school in West London, making friends, playing football and trying to fit in to normal everyday life. They never asked where I had appeared from. I was just the "new boy" from Africa with the funny name and the funny accent. I was so lucky to have the love and warmth of my big family to wrap me up, protect me and knock me into shape. But it was not easy to fit back in. The slight lingering feeling that I had seen things that my young friends couldn't comprehend kept me feeling like a bit of an outsider.

When I watch the TV images and see the frightened eyes of young refugee children arriving on our shores, with experiences a hundred times, a thousand times, harsher than anything I felt at their age, I just hope that they find the love, warmth and welcome that they need to find their way in our world. Perhaps in 2016 I can find a way to help one or two. Perhaps you can too.

Happy New Year to you all

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Exit, Pursued by a Bear (or "how to chase killers away, whilst naked with a cutlass")

Recently a group of very brave men leapt from their seats to wrestle a heavily armed and very dangerous man to the ground on a French train. By doing this they saved a huge number of people on that train. Incredible bravery!

It does make you think, doesn't it. What would you do if you found yourself in that situation? Hide under the seat? Leap up and attack? I don't know what I would have done. Probably hidden under a chair and quivered like a jelly. But I'm pretty confident that I know what my father would have done - he would have charged at the attacker, stark naked while waving a cutlass and screaming incoherently. How do I know this? Because that's what he did last time.

Let me tell you his story because sadly he is no longer here to tell it himself. So I will tell it. We need to tell our stories. Tua Fabula.

Some years back, in Benin City, Nigeria, where my father lived there was a spate of attacks and assassinations. For a relatively small amount of money you could hire someone to go to your business rival's house and have them bumped off (these days it appears it's more efficient to have your rivals kidnapped - much more lucrative).

So, back then everyone made sure they had high walls and strong bars on their windows. And everyone slept with a weapon of some sort under their bed. The idea wasn't to actually use said weapon, it was to let it be known that you slept with a weapon in order to put people off the idea of "having a go" at you. This is know in the business as "security theatre".

But one night, this security theatre was required to deliver a live performance. And what a performance it gave!

My parents were asleep in bed when the men came. They scaled the fence with ease and, to bypass the bars on the windows, they climbed up into the roof and dropped down through the ceiling. Armed with long, sharp knives, they made their way to the bedroom. They made no attempt to steal anything. They had come with one purpose. To kill.

Slowly the chap in front (let us call him Assassin One) pushed open the bedroom door, closely followed by his professional colleague (for our purposes we will assign him the moniker Assassin Two).

Assassin One pushed open the door and his hand holding a long, glinting blade appeared around the edge of the door, followed by the man's head.

At this moment my parents awoke in horror!

Things moved fast. Very fast.

Assassin One said in a loud menacing voice "I will KILL you"

[Aside: I think that was probably his mistake. He had not properly done his homework. My father, Mr N O Ilube Esquire, had joined the Army at the age of 14, by pretending to be 16. He had been posted to the Nigerian Military Training School in Zaria, the far north of Nigeria and drilled and drilled in circumstances that I can barely imagine. He never told me much about his time there, but the only thing I remember him telling me was that they were trained to NEVER, EVER retreat. It probably wasn't a good idea for Assassin One to state his intentions before carrying it out.]

So, Assassin One said in a loud menacing voice "I will KILL you".

Ilube immediately reached under the bed, produced a cutlass, shouted "I will kill YOU!!!" and leapt, stark naked, out of bed.

Taken aback, Assassin One took a sharp step back and bumped into Assassin Two. Assassin Two yelped, assuming that something had gone wrong and turned and ran. Assassin One, faced with an angry, naked, cutlass wielding chap who clearly had no intention of performing the traditional role of "tragic victim" and seeing his loyal assistant showing a clean pair of heals, turned and fled too. This job was turning out to be more work than he had been paid for!

In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Act 3, Scene 3 there is a line "[Exit, pursued by a bear]". I believe that the great man Shakespeare foresaw what was to take place that night in Benin CIty and wrote that line specifically to describe the event.

Assassin Two was in the lead. Closely followed by Assassin One. A short distance behind Naked Berserk Ilube waving a cutlass, screaming at the top of his voice, pursued them down the street in the middle of an otherwise silent night.

The Assassins vanished into the bushes. But Naked Berserk Ilube's blood was boiling. He ran up and down the street, scraping his cutlass along the stones, making sparks fly into the air. He shouted and screamed, demanding that the Assassins come back to face him. He shouted in English, in his traditional language, Emai, in made up noises and languages that weren't intelligible to people but probably made any bears in the vicinity wake up and say "oh boy, one of the lads is pretty unhappy about something".

Neighbours awoke in the dead of night. Candles and lights came on as scared people looked out of their windows to watch my father rant and rave. Gradually they came out and gradually, possibly realising that he was rather lightly clothed, my father calmed down and retreated to his house.

Mr Ilube got one or two funny looks and the odd sideways glance as he wandered out to pick up his morning papers the next day. But at least, he thought to himself, we are alive.

And interestingly, there weren't really any problems with attempted burglaries, break ins or assassination attempts after that.








Monday, 13 April 2015

I visited a brothel in a Kampala slum and I'm proud of it


 Today I visited a notorious brothel in the red light district of Kampala, Uganda and I don't care who knows it!

Do you have any idea what a brothel in a Kampala slum is like? Can you imagine being trapped in that environment, too deep in to claw you way out and not even being sure what you would be climbing out to if you could?

And what about your children? Born and raised in a slum brothel. What are the odds that your child will break the cycle and not end up in the same circumstances? Pretty slim I would say.

Except for the amazing efforts of a young lady, Harriet Kamashanyu and her team, Derrick and Allan, at Rhythm of Life.

The team work with sex workers and their daughters deep in the red light areas of Kampala. They focus on health issues for the sex workers and on trying to create educational opportunities for the children in an effort to break the never ending cycle. This really is the front line of charity work and the team deserves our support


 The Rhythm of Life team took me to the Daido Brothel in Makindye. They hand out male and female condoms, vitamins and other medicines to the sex workers and explain how to use them.

With their partners, such as a healthcare organisation called Touch they conduct HIV and STI testing and put the women in touch with hospitals if needed.

Keep in mind that the three team members are all in their twenties. I know a few young people in their twenties. Many are hunting for jobs in banking or management consulting. They think if they wear a suit and tie and go to work in a shiny office they've made it. The RoL team have more impact on real lives in a week than some of these folk will have in their entire career. But they pay a tough price. They juggle studies with this volunteer work. They face threats from pimps and disdain from some of the die-hard sex workers who just want customers. They hardly earn anything. But I've listened to them talk about their work and they are changing and saving lives one at a time. One at a time. It's humbling.

Let me tell you about being an African sex worker. If you are lucky - yes lucky - you live in the brothel in the picture. You pay your pimp/landlord 5,000 Ugandan Shillings a night to live in a small room with may be four or five other women. You pay that whether you work or not, so you had better hustle for business or you'll literally be out on the streets. So you fight for custom against the thousands of other sex workers out there. Fight. Struggle. Hustle. If you are very lucky you might hit the big time and earn 50,000 UG Shillings for a single session. Happy Days eh! How else are you ever going to earn that sort of money (that's about £12 by the way).

And you dull the pain with alcohol. So much alcohol. But not when you are working. Because you've got to keep a clear head or the customers will refuse to pay, trick you, beat you. abuse you. So they might be high on drink and drugs but you are fighting for survival so keep a clear head at night and drink in the day to forget the last night and tomorrow night.

The women we met ranged in age from 16 to 40's. Many had small children running around the slum. Some of the small children had even smaller children on their backs. A lot of these sex workers came from outside Kampala, looking for what the bright lights of the big city had to offer. It turned out what it had to offer was a tiny room in a brothel and a life locked into a cycle of alcohol, sex and survival.

One of the few signs that the world out there has not completely abandoned them is when the Rhythm of Life team turn up with supplies to help them manage their health and advice, guidance and support. And not a word of judgement. These women are where they are. They need support. Thank goodness someone is willing to give them that support as best they can. I attending one of the sessions as the women were taught how to use female condoms. These hardened women who have seen things that I can only imagine giggled like a group of schoolgirls as the healthworker explain some of the, errr, mechanics.

But as Harriet explains, even simple things like female condoms are empowering. The (stupid) men often refuse to wear condoms (can you believe it?!). And the women can't make them. But they can take matters into their own hands and use female condoms to protect themselves. So much of what RoL do is about trying to empower the women as much as possible to make their own decisions.



Sometimes that decision might be that a sex worker
wants to leave the business. But it's not that easy. What are they going to do instead? They have no or few qualifications. There are no jobs. So do you leave and starve (along with your children) or stay and work? What would you do?

I met a sex worker and chatted to her. She a young lady but already has four children, aged between 9 years and 6 months, and she's working again to keep body and soul together and feed her kids.

But when I asked her what her dream is she opened up. She desperately wants to get out. She dreams of starting a hair salon. But it's an impossible dream. She would need 2 MILLION Ugandan Shillings to set up a salon. let's be brutal about it. If she could save 10 percent of her earnings then she might need to have sex with perhaps 800 drunk, drugged strangers to turn that dream into a reality. So it's just a dream.

Except that 2 Million Shillings is about £500 ($750). Yes, £500. If you've got a spare £500 let me know and we'll stop her having to sleep with 800 more men to achieve her dream. Shall we do that? Or is that a bit much for us? How about we go halves on it?

I asked her whether she would really set up a salon if someone gave her 2m shillings. For the first time she became really clear. She said that she would rent a store to work from by that same evening. She wants out. But she dare not believe. She can't let her guard down. How can she hope and then have it crushed?


It's the children though. Rhythm of Life try to help some of the children into schools if they can. They want to break the cycle. Change the rhythm of life for these girls. Open up another route for them.

Sometimes it works. This young lady is now doing A levels and plans to study accounting and finance at University with the help of Rhythm of Life. She is a strong, delightful student and very proud of what she has achieved and so, so thankful for the help she has received.

Huge cost though. It can cost £150 a term in fees to put a girl into primary school instead of leaving them to run around the brothel. So far Rhythm of Life have managed to raise enough money to put 5 girls into schools. They would love to increase this by another five next year. But you're talking big money - that's 5 times £150 per term right there. I mean, who is going to stump up that sort of cash, just to stop a little girl from being prepared for her life as a sex worker in a Kampala slum? You? No. We've got better things to do haven't we. Have we?

I do like these stock photos of smiling little African kids. I've always wondered where photographers get them from. Well I know where this one comes from. These three little girls were playing around the Kampala brothel that we visited. So happy. Having such fun as they skipped around together and laughing at the funny looking stranger from London.

So, which way do they go? School outside the brothel and a chance at a life. Or follow in their mothers' footsteps. My call. Your call.




We can't get to them. But Rhythm of Life can, do and will if we want them too. And if we do, then we'll really touch some lives.

Some people say "what' the point, you can't solve the problem". But I'm not trying to solve the problem. I like the Starfish principle. Tens of thousands of starfish are washed up onto the beach one day. The tide goes out and leaves thousands trapped in little pools of water in the sand. A little girls picks them up one by one and starts putting them back in the sea. Worldly wise Dad says "there's no point, love, you can't save then all. It really doesn't matter". Daughter who knows no better shows him the one in her cupped hands. "Well, it matters to this one Daddy. It matters to this one"



Thursday, 19 March 2015

How I found my racist again after 25 years

It's always nice to catch up with an old friend after a long time. This week, after 25 years, I have been reacquainted with an old racist of mine.

Well, I say he's my racist but I think that's a bit greedy of me. He probably shares his racism around generously. In fact that's a bit unfair. I don't know that for sure. I only know that I was on the receiving end of it in 1988. It all played out quite predictably I suppose and he won in the end.

So, imagine my delight when, thanks to the power of social media, he was suggested as a possible contact for me! The ability to reconnect with him and chat about old times is almost irresistible. Oh, what fun we shall  have.

It's 1988. I am half way through my MBA and it's time to start job hunting. Off I got to chat to executive search folk and start the process of getting a much needed job to pay of my MBA loan.

I had a very promising chat with one firm. The lady seemed quite impressed and promised to put me forward for a few roles. Imagine my surprise when I got this letter a few days later



Gosh! What do I do now? The organisation is one of the most powerful firms in the City at the time. Do I let this pass or do I take on the fight? I've taken out a big loan to do my MBA and several people advise me that if I get in a public fight it's going to be really hard to get a job whether I win or lose. But given the recruitment consultants strength of feeling and commitment, how can I let it pass? Who is going to be the next victim of this sort of blatant racism? Someone has to act.

After much agonising, I conclude that I have to take the fight to them. I mentally kiss goodbye to my career in the City and contact the (then) Commission for Racial Equality.

It was really interested to find that I had to convince the CRE that this was a genuine case, that I was a credible person and that the organisation was worth taking on. Clearly they had limited resources so they had to pick their fights. Maximum, public impact. This organisation was a global player and dominated finance at the time. They decided it was worth tackling and took on the case.




The next step is that I am assigned a lawyer to review and prepare the case. He did a great job. We had this racist guy bang to rights and we were going to force some changes. No one, individual or organisation, is above the law. This is 1980s Britain for goodness sake not 1940s Deep South. Company policy not to hire black people? Come on, Get real! 

At least, that's what I thought.

Then, things took a slightly odd turn. My lawyer sent me the following letter after a chat with the recruitment lady...


Finally, the recruitment executive called me up. She was in tears.

Her Director at the agency had called her in. The message was delivered straight. If the recruitment firm ever wanted to do any work for this company in the City again it would withdraw the case. If her firm did not withdraw the case, then they would send the word around the City and recruitment work would dry up overnight.

My recruitment executive was told that if she wanted to work in recruitment now or ever she had to withdraw her allegation. Her Director would ring around all the other recruitment firms and make sure she never worked in that industry again. She was ordered to withdraw.

In fact they went further. She was told to call the executive and apologise in person for her outrageous allegation and appeal for forgiveness. This she did. And I don't blame her. Was I going to pay her wages for the next 30 years? Was she supposed to go into shops and say "I'd like to buy that dress please. I have no money but I have principles"?

So, she did what she had to do and then wrote me the following letter.


And so it came to an end. My lawyer formally withdrew the case. My racist carried on with his work. The organisation carried on doing whatever the organisation does, and I put the whole episode in the file marked "It's only a bit of racist banter, what's the big deal, Don't be so sensitive Tom" and got on with the task of building a career.


Until the social media site Linkedin decided that I and my racist ought to get back together and catch up on old times. Perhaps share recommendations. I don't really do recommendations on linkedin but I'm considering making an exception. My racist is now a very senior technology guy at the same bank in the City. I wonder if he uses the same recruitment policy or if he's grown out of it. I'm surprised that I haven't bumped into him before now as most of my career has been in financial services technology. 

Fortunately Nigel Farage assures us that workplace racism is done and dusted and we don't need these silly anti-discrimination laws that people like me use to waste companies time. There are no more racists in the workplace. The young racists haven't grown up into old racists in senior positions. No, I am sure my racist has grown out of his young racist phase. It's a phase we all go through isn't it? I should give him a call. We'd have a giggle about it and may be enjoy a pint together.

Anyway, that's real life folks. We used to have proper racists in the good old days. None of this weak "I'm not sure his face fits" nonsense. A direct "He's black. We don't employ blacks. If you don't like it, go to hell."

(Shall I send him a link to my blog? Stop it, Tom. Don't be naughty :)

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The First Line of your story

They say first impressions count. How you enter the room. How you shake hands. Whether you look the other person straight in the eye.

The first line of a story matters too. I have never written a story, but I imagine that authors take extra special care to make sure that very first line (okay, perhaps we'll allow them a couple of lines and call it the first phrase) says exactly what they want it to say.

I've had a look at the first lines of three of my favourite novels. In doing this, I discovered something interesting (to me). I don't have many novels. I have lots of technical books, business books, science books, history books but very few novels. Strange. I hadn't realised that before.

But I do have three books. And they have great opening lines. Here are mine. What are yours?

Smiley's People by John Le Carre

My favourite spy book. I love the slightly bemused way George Smiley wanders through the murky shadow world of cold war spying. This is the first line of Smiley's People:

"Two seemingly unconnected events heralded the summons of Mr.George Smiley from his dubious retirement"

I love this line. It introduces Smiley, but with appropriate formality as Mr. George Smiley. That tells us a lot straight way. This isn't someone you casually refer to as "George". It's Mr. Smiley to you if you don't mind.

And why did Mr Smiley need to be summoned from his retirement? Why was his retirement dubious? What are these two events? Seemingly unconnected, but how are they actually connected?

This is a slow, intricate wander through a complex world of questions through the eyes of Mr. Smiley. The first line captures the whole flavour of the story in that one opening line.

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

One of my all time favourite books. Some people don't warm to this book but I like it a lot. I think on the few occasions that I do read a novel, I like to drift away into a magical mystery world and you know from the first line that you are in for an interesting journey:

"In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world"

There is a biblical power to this opening statement. "In the beginning was the Word" is the first verse of the Gospel according to John. Here we have a river, which becomes a road. It feels alive. It is in control of it's own destiny and it has a purpose, almost a sinister purpose, branching out unbidden to the whole world. Or perhaps it has a message. Either way, it invites us to go on the journey and see what we find along this road that used to be a river.

Notice that we are not immediately introduced to any characters. Rather it emphasises that the road that used to be a river is the central character in this book. If you haven't read this book, I can assure you that within a paragraph of reading this opening, you will either put this book down and check what's on TV instead or you will be up all night, drifting as the magical road that used to be a river sweeps you along.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

I lift the huge tome that is The Lord of the Rings down from my bookshelves with great reverence. This three volume book helped me at some difficult times. I hid inside it and let the high wall of Gondor protect me. Mine is the Harper Collins edition, beautifully illustrated by Alan Lee. I hardly need to open it to quote the first line but here it is:

"When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton"

Ah, so much, so much to enjoy in this line.This is an invitation to you, the reader, to attending this party of special magnificence. I dream of throwing a party of special magnificence and perhaps one day I will. When I am eleventy-one may be. I urge you to accept the invitation and come to this book's party. You won't regret it.

It does make you wonder. If you think of your life as a story (Tua Fabula) what would your opening line be?