Friday 15 May 2020

The last time I was called a monkey was at work

It's been quite a few years since I've been called a monkey. It was at work. I was a senior executive in a bank at the time.

The incident came back into my mind after reading about the appalling online abuse that Ian Wright, the Arsenal legend, experienced this week. A day or so later I was being interviewed for a podcast and I was asked whether I could share any positive examples of leadership in diversity.

Well, it turns out my monkey incident triggered what has probably been the best example of leadership in this arena that I have experienced.

About twenty years ago I was involved in launching a pioneering internet bank. It was an amazing experience and we were an incredibly motivated team of about 200 working flat out to deliver on time, to budget and make sure it worked. I was in a leadership role, driving forward the technology programme. I was focused and rather intense and would patrol the floors sticking my nose into any problems I could find.

One evening, working late, I wandered into an empty conference room. There was a flipchart. Someone had sketched a big cartoon picture of a monkey and, in a different pen, someone had written "Tom Ilube" underneath. I doubt that whoever did it expected me to be the next person to wander into the meeting room!

I remember being hit with a wave of feelings. There was anger of course, but also disappointment I think and, strangely, some embarrasement. I had an image of some of my colleagues, people that I would see every day, sitting in the meeting room, laughing at the image and my name and sauntering out of the room, not even bothering to tear it off and throw it away. I felt quite sad really and I wasn't sure exactly what to do. I took the piece of flipchart paper with me and mentioned it over a drink that evening to a colleague and close friend. I explained that I still wasn't sure what to do as I had no idea who it was, but I would sleep on it.

The next morning, word had got around before I even got into work. The CEO and Founder of the internet bank called me into his office. He had been briefed and he explained calmly what he wanted to do.

He said that what he wanted to do was to stop the entire project and call in a corporate security firm. They would set up an office and they would interview all 200 staff one by one. By the end of this exercise, they would know who had done this and then he would fire them. He stated this in a clear, matter of fact way. Was I happy for him to proceed with this course of action?

Wow! What should I do? How would I feel after subjecting the 199 people who didn't do this to such an experience? How would they feel about me? What would you have done? I thought hard about it, but I told him that I just couldn't say yes to that. Okay, he said, leave it with me.

What he did next was, for me, the important step in this. He wrote an email. To all staff. I wish I had kept a copy of it (I was searching for it last night but couldn't lay hands on it) but essentially it said something like the following (and I am paraphrasing, but not by much as I remember it well):

"To All Staff

Yesterday Tom Ilube walked into an office and found a picture of a monkey with his name underneath on a flip chart. I told him that I wanted to ask a corporate security firm to interview all of you to find which one of you did it so that I could fire you. Tom declined as he did not want to put you all through this.

However, let me speak direct to the person or people that did this. Your values are not our values. I want you to leave this company. I will never know who you are or whether you do leave but be in no doubt, I do not want you and your values in this company. Please leave."

The impact of this was quite profound. There was zero ambiguity about the message and the values. There was absolutely clarity from the top. No vagueness. No playing it down. No "running it by HR to see what they think". No "thinking through the possible negative PR". There wasn't any shouting, just cold, hard unambiguous clarity that was heard absolutely clearly across the organisation. That CEO took that one nasty incident and used it to teach the organisation a crystal clear lesson.

This may be controversial but I think that, sometimes, these incidents can be a strange gift to leaders of organisations. They create the opportunity for the leader to show who they really are. The reaction can be far more powerful than the original incident. I have told this story many times in the hopes that it will reach the ears of leaders and inspire them to send their own crystal clear messages about where they stand, so that good comes out of these incidents.

Saturday 8 February 2020

Can you see me?

"You cannot imagine the vicissitudes of being made sudden and violently homeless" she said, looking straight at (or through?) me with an incongruously broad smile.

I had an unusual and quite profound experience last week. I spent two hours chatting to a middle aged homeless woman.

It happened like this. After an early business meeting, I and the chap I met were walking to the station. At the top of a short slope a middle aged woman stood alone with two large suite cases and a couple of plastic bags. There was nothing else unusual about her except that she looked slightly bemused. I thought perhaps she needed help getting her bags down the slope, although I wasn't sure if she had just climbed up the slope, so I paused as we passed and said "hi, where are you going?"

She looked surprised that I had spoken to her and said nothing. Slightly concerned I asked "are you okay?" and she broke into a huge smile and said "I'm sorry I didn't smile, but I am in crisis".

That wasn't the response I was expecting and I didn't know what to do with it. My companion and I looked at each other and I said something facetious like "oh well, keep smiling!" and we hurried away.

But I felt uneasy.

When I got to my nearby office, I narrated the odd experience to my colleagues. I was confused and unsettled. The woman didn't look homeless. She was wearing a nice, warm looking coat. Her suitcases looks fairly new. I wondered if she had literally just been ejected from her home or something. I couldn't settle down, so I decided to go and look for her.

Off I went. I walked all over the town for about 20 minutes but there was no sign of her. I had almost given up and was kicking myself for walking away from her the first time when I noticed her sitting in the corner of a cafe nursing a cup of tea!

So, I walked straight in, sat down opposite her, smiled and said "I'm getting myself a cup of tea, would you like one?" She looked up and said "hot porridge". "No tea?" I asked. She looked slightly concerned and repeated "hot porridge". I realised she thought I was asking her to make a choice between tea or hot porridge, so I went and got both and say back down.

That's when she looked straight at me and said "You cannot imagine the vicissitudes of being made suddenly and violently homeless".

Over the next two hours I sat silently sipping my tea and listening as she ate her porridge, drank her tea and, gradually at first and then with more enthusiasm, told me the story of her life. Her life now and her life over the past fifty years.

She told me she was going to our local library because it is warm and if you sit with the books quietly and you don't smell or disturb anyone they leave you alone and you can doze off. She said she tries to stay awake at night because it's dangerous on the streets as a woman, so she sleeps in the day if she can find somewhere warm. But right now the weather is cold. "Your bones turn to ice" she said and that's why she wanted the hot porridge. She said you learn about all the libraries. What time they open, how friendly they are. I didn't realise our libraries performed this vital function!

She said "I keep myself clean. I respect myself". She goes to shopping centres really early and cleans herself in the loos. She sometimes goes to the airport, blends in with her suitcases and sleeps there as if she is waiting for a flight. She talked about being harassed on the tube train by transport police. She knows which stations have public toilets and which have nasty guards.

Gradually she went back in time. How happy and cheeky she was as a little girl. How her family navigated a civil war. he was "a gifted mathematician" at school, she told me. How she came to Britain thirty years ago, with her father promising to send money for her studies but then it never appeared. She came to the UK to study accounting. Plunged straight into crisis as a young woman almost as soon as she came off the plane, with little money and no relatives. She got herself a restaurant job and worked part time whilst studying part time up in Newcastle. It took her many years but eventually she qualified as an ACCA accountant!

But life didn't get easier. Then she's an immigrant in her early thirties with years of cafe work experience and an accounting qualification but no-one would give her an accounting job. She managed to get into teaching at higher education colleges and worked hard, sending money home to a large family that kept wanting more and more. So much pressure.

Then in 2009 she got "ill". She told me both mentally and physically. It was too much. "Look at me speaking to you here normally. Back then I could not speak. I was not able to say a word for four years. The words were inside but they wouldn't come out"

At some point she improved enough such that the powers that be decided she could work and therefore cut off her rent. She used whatever money she had to buy food and pay heating bills but the bailiffs eventually came round and "violently through me out onto the streets."

Now she roams the streets of London, with her life in two big suitcases, keeping clean, keeping warm, smiling at strangers, dodging trouble, staying awake, being invisible.

I had to return to work, I told her, two hours later. "Thank you for talking to me" she said, and she meant it. She really meant it. She didn't ask me for anything. She didn't need me to point her towards a shelter or anything. She knew what to do and where to go. She just really appreciated someone listening to her life and I was privileged to listen.

Of course, I popped across the road to the cash point, came back and pressed a little something into her hand. But that's not what our meeting was about. I didn't change her life. But, just by listening to her story she felt "seen". Amongst all the awful days that she has to navigate, today would count as a good day.

Before I left she looked at me and asked quizzically, as if it had just occurred to her "Did you come back and look for me?" . Yes, I confirmed.

"Thank you so much" she said, "thank you."

Tuesday 30 April 2019

Sisters are wonderful...even when hitting you with truth bombs!

Sisters are wonderful aren't they?

My sister is wonderful. Her name is Susan Gill. She passed away unexpectedly, but at the end peacefully, yesterday morning surrounded by all of us who loved her deeply. We are heartbroken.

Sisters are wonderful. They tell you the truth in a way that no-one else in your life can. And Sue was a wonderful Teller of The Truth. Truth bombs wrapped in love and delivered loudly with joy.

I would walk in and say "Hello, Sue."

"Hello, Fatty" she might say, loud enough to ensure that everyone in a fifty mile radius could hear,  "Look at that Fat Belly! Are you still on that ridiculous diet? No bread but chips are okay? It's daft. I've never heard of anything so stupid. You're getting fatter and fatter. Anyway, how are you? You look tired. You look exhausted. You have bags under your eyes. You are working too hard. And you're going bald. HAHAHAHA. Stop working so hard, you idiot.  Look after yourself, foolish boy."

And that was just for starters!!!

Everyone else in your life will dress up their words and position carefully. But a true sister will give it to you straight. From her heart direct to yours. That partner? They are no good for you! That shirt? It makes you look like a clown! That job? They are taking advantage of you! It is so refreshing and you know that it is delivered with love, because sisters protect you. They love you and they won't let anyone hurt you. They won't let you hurt yourself and they definitely won't let you fool yourself. Woe betide you if you start to get big-headed!!! You may think you are a big shot out there, but in here you are just a silly little brother and she's seen you sitting in your pants, crying with snot coming down your nose, so just sit down, shut up and listen.

And Sue was a true sister who loved us and loved life.

Sue loved life and loved the world. We all grew up together in Sunbury and Richmond, and in Kampala, Uganda. She loved observing everything going on around her and was a fount of surprising knowledge from all over the world. A few years ago we went on a lovely and memorably holiday to Jamaica. I can see Sue now, relaxing on a raft, drifting slowly and lazily down the Martha Brae river, one hand in the gently flowing water, the other holding a freshly cut coconut, loving the sunshine, loving life...

But the real love of Sue's life was her late husband, Roger. They met over forty years ago and were inseparably from then on, until his untimely death thirteen years ago. Their devoted sons, mirror images of their Dad, supported Sue every day and she loved them deeply but she missed Roger so, so much. Roger died on the morning of 29th April, 2006. On the morning of 29th April, 2019, Sue left us to be reunited with him.

We hurt beyond words. But they are together again, just as they should be.

Goodnight, Sue. Thank you for the love and the truth.

Tuesday 1 January 2019

New Years Resolution - I aim to achieve nothing in 2019

First day of the year. Time for New Years Resolutions. This year I have one very clear resolution - my aim is to achieve nothing in 2019.

It's not that I don't set New Years Resolutions and go for them. Last year I set some big ones and hit a few major milestones. 2018 Highlights? Yep, we had a few:

So 2018 was a hard driven, milestone hitting year. But I always look for balance. Yin and Yang

2018 was a Yang Year for me. I forced the pace. I had goals. I ticked off milestones. I came. I saw. And I KICKED BUTT. By the end of 2018 I was exhausted. Drained. I need to look for the balance.

2019 will be a Yin Year for me. That's how I live my life. If you know me, you know that I can often be found waving my arms around, performing the 108 Wu Style Tai Chi Form. At the heart of Tai Chi is the philosophy of Taoism, of balance, of Yin and Yang.

Yin and Yang. Soft and Hard. Black and White. Night and Day. Balance is everything.

So after a hard, forceful, Yang year in 2018, I am going into 2019 with a Yin mindset. 2019 is going to be a year of powerful forces and when you are faced with such overwhelming power, Tai Chi teaches you not to try to defeat it with even more power. If you try that, it will break you. You relax into it, embrace it, shape it, harness it and things will happen. The principle of action without action. The things that are supposed to happen will happen.

I will start today by slowing down my breathing, relaxing my body, performing 108 slow, deliberate Tai Chi moves, feeling for the balance, sensing the Yin, as soft as a gentle stream, the sort of gentle stream that has the power to reshape mountains. Wei Wu Wei. Action without action.

So, I am not setting any resolutions this year. I will leave that to you! I am aiming to achieve nothing. No pressure. What freedom!

But if you misunderstand this for thinking that nothing will be achieved, you are very much mistaken. Oh, yes, my friend, very much mistaken...

Sunday 14 October 2018

Last week Wednesday was World Mental Health Day. I watched, listened and learned but I didn’t speak because I felt it wasn’t really meant for successful, middle aged men like me. Sure, I thought, I feel down sometimes but big men like us don’t call it depression, we call it “feeling a bit down” and we “pull our socks up and get on with it.

But I was chatting to my wife this morning about how some people are allowed to talk about this stuff and others just carry on and hold tears behind the eyes. She said “yes, people probably see everything you achieve, on social media, and think your life is wonderful but I see the pressure you carry behind the scenes. I see you waking up at 4.30 in the morning.”

That’s interesting, I thought. I wonder if it would be helpful to the people who think I glide through life, picking up CBEs and Honorary Doctorates, building companies, making money, launching schools and giving inspirational talks, to know how a big, old chap like me feels behind the smile?

And I wonder if other successful middle aged executives ever feel the pressure too, or is it just me?!

The problem is that it immediately triggers a strong sense of Imposter Syndrome. Seriously, compared to others I don’t have problems. I was listening to an excellent edition of BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour on World Mental Health day, and two young guests were talking openly about their mental health challenges. If I had got involved in that conversation it would have been like being in a room of soldiers just back from the front talking about how they are coping with having lost limbs and me saying “yes, yes, and look at me, I hit my toe hard on a stone and it really hurts too.”

Perhaps folk like me who essentially live in a state of mild sadness, with occasional bursts of happiness, are sort of “high functioning depressives”, a bit like high functioning alcoholics. Perfectly able to carry on and do amazing things in real life but always carrying around a cloud that won’t quite go away. High functioning depressives - I was very pleased with myself for inventing a brand new phrase. Until I googled it and was surprised to find there is a whole industry of high functioning depressives out there! There are even checklists that you can use to see whether you fit the bill. Wow, who knew such a condition was even available?!

The problem is that the checklists look like pretty normal behaviour to me.

A persistent feeling of sadness? Well, of course! I assumed we all live under a persistent cloud of sadness, punctuated with occasional moment of happiness. You mean some of you people are actually constantly happy, like, all the time? Gosh, that must be exhausting. I’ve not known that feeling for a long, long time.

Difficulty experiencing joy? Well it depends. If others achieve something, I can really, really enjoy it. When Fulham FC scored that goal at Wembley at the end of last season that got them promoted back to the Premiership I SCREAMED WITH JOY LIKE A WILD MAN. But when I achieve stuff, I shrug my shoulders and think “oh well, that couldn’t have been such a big deal then. I supposed I’d better try to do something better” and so it goes on...and on…and on…

Messed up sleeping patterns? Hmmm, okay you got me there. Sleep at 1am. Or 3am. Or 9pm. Wake at 5am. Or 4am. Sometimes not bother sleeping at all, if I’ve got a lot of work on. It’s quite a thing to work all night and listen to the birds break the morning silence. It’s also quite tiring.

Constant self-doubt? That’s an odd one. I am REALLY good at the things I do well. I mean world class. I’ve shared the stage with Bill Gates in front of 2,000 people, for goodness sake, so I’m not going to kid myself that I doubt my abilities. On  the other hand, someone asked me once why I do some of the things I do and I said, honestly, I think it’s because I’m afraid that the world might decide I’m not good enough so I’d better keep doing useful things just in case the world notices that I’m not adding enough value.

Lack of energy? Isn’t that due to not always sleeping enough? Yes, sometimes you wake up and see a mountain in front of you, but by sheer dint of will power you bound over it or drive a hole straight through the middle, don’t you? You would be amazing at how much will power I can bring to bear. Oh, I know what you’re thinking – coping mechanism, right? Damn you and your tricky insights. But that doesn’t stop me driving on and on relentlessly when 99.9% of the rest of you give up – energy or no energy.

To be honest, I’m not convinced I quite make the cut for this high functioning depressive thing though. I laugh way too much. I find life too funny. I exchange messages with my brother all day and we chuckle silently at things only we understand. Once I was sitting on the sofa reading a book and laughing so much that my daughter came rushing in to check if I was okay. So, I reckon I’m probably fine. But thanks for worrying anyway.

They even have a name for this high functioning stuff. Dysthymia, they call it, so I guess it’s a real thing. But I know what real, heavy duty depression looks like. I’ve visited that place and it’s a whole different ball game. When my brother died, I think I cried every day for six months. Every single day. Whilst travelling to work and staying away from home all week, building a company and chairing a couple of schools. That was a tough period, I’ll admit. I definitely nearly broke then. Nearly, but not quite. I dug deep, swam upwards and clawed my way back to the surface. I found a way. I looked for the beauty in life. Did I mention my fabled will power? I do not break. Never, ever.

But sometimes big, strong men do break, you know. I remember, around that same time, I bumped into an old colleague of mine. We were reminiscing about chaps we used to work with 15 years early. “What ever happened to old so and so? He was good. Rock solid. Calm under fire. The ultimate professional” I asked. He fell silent. “Sorry to tell you, Tom” he said “but he got up one day, put his suit on, said his goodbyes, then walked down to the tracks and stood in front of an express train”.

I was shocked. Really shaken. But I have to confess, I also sort of understood. The relentless pressure. Mountains of pressure that he must have been carrying, with no way out. No way to make it stop. All lifted and gone in a split second. No, I would never do that, but yes, I sort of understood.

So, next time you see a big, successful, super confident executive, just be open to the possibility that they might be struggling too. They won’t tell you. No hashtag for them. You won’t see it unless you look very closely. But I’ll tell you where to look. Not at the smile. Not at the swagger. Not the booming voice. Look behind the eyes. Behind the sad eyes.

Friday 8 June 2018

"So, Tom, how do you feel about being awarded a CBE?"

A few weeks ago I received a letter notifying me that the Prime Minister proposed to submit my name to the Queen to appoint me a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).

Well, I say I received a letter. Actually my law firm received an envelope addressed to me. Someone in the post room probably opened it and dashed upstairs to hand it to my chap. He then emailed me saying "Tom, we've received an important letter for you". I thought "oh, no, what's this now?". I emailed back asking "can you tell me what it's about?" and he said "no, I think you need to read the letter for yourself". So I tried to put the impending hassle out of my mind as I went about my daily life.

When I finally received the letter my first thought was "HURRAH! I'm not being sued!!!"

It's only then as it sinks in that I really got into The Question.

I call it The Question because it seems to be The Question that people want to know The Answer to. The Question is this - "How do you feel about being awarded a CBE?"

The answer of course is that I am hugely honoured. Also that this is about all the people who have got me to this point. I feel incredibly honoured. And I know perfectly well that there are hundreds if not thousands of people who have propelled me to this point. I tell my students, the brilliant young women of the African Science Academy, that they will change lives, they are butterflies and a flap of their wings can cause tornadoes half way around the world. Well, they have changed my life because if I hadn't started ASA then I would not have received this incredible honour, that's for sure. Thank you, girls!

But, let's go a bit deeper. Let's asked the question again. "Come on, Tom, how do you really feel?"

Gosh. That's a tough one. Well, if you know me well then you know that nothing I do is ever good enough. I am getting better at it but I still find it difficult to accept praise. This is not any sort of false modesty - I know that I'm pretty good at some stuff - but it's probably some deep psychological flaw that would have  analysts rubbing their hands together with glee as they lie me down on the counselling couch.

So I really feel like I haven't done enough to deserve a CBE yet. When I list my achievements I know I've done quite a lot, but you asked about how I feel, not the facts. So, I feel like I really need to prove that I am worth a CBE now. The next ten years are going to have to be something pretty special. It's game on! I feel like I've been told "Here. Hold this CBE. But it's not yours yet, now go and earn it" and that's what I'm going to do.

And, really, I felt sad that my Dad missed this moment. He died about five years ago and he would have loved to have seen this day. Don't get me wrong. We are not talking hugs and high fives. Mr N.O. Ilube did not do hugs and high fives. But it is possible he would have nodded his head slightly and said "Go on, boy. You are in order". I felt like I should have stepped up my game a decade ago and perhaps I could have made him proud while he was still here to enjoy it.

But I also really feel like I have been handed a juicy mango and I intend to enjoy it. Have you every eaten a juicy mango fresh from the tree? You plunge your face into it, loving the sweetness as the juice runs down your cheeks and for a few joyful moments you simply stop thinking and just enjoy it.

Yes, I, little Tom Ilube have been handed a great big CBE, the juicy mango of life, and I am very, very VERY PLEASED. THANK YOU!!!!

Thursday 27 April 2017

Me, My Old Man and the BBC

Today, I attended my first ever BBC Board meeting as a non executive Director.

The BBC is, know...the BBC so it is a huge honour to be appointed as a Director but for me it comes with a very personal story. It's a story that I told the interview panel during the very formal selection process (in fact it was the first time I have found myself being properly interviewed across a table by a fearsome panel in about 20 years. I'm still recovering!).

To tell you this story, I need to go back a few years.

In 1957, my father travelled from West Africa to Harrogate, North Yorkshire to be trained as an electrical engineer by the British Army. Think about that. One day you are a young soldier marching up and down under the scorching sun in pre-independence Nigeria and the next day you are yomping across the Yorkshire Moors in winter!

Well, the boy Ilube survived and in fact thrived. He was a smart lad. So smart in fact that by the early 1960's he was recruited by the BBC to be trained as a TV engineer. That in itself is pretty amazing - a young black lad being offered a proper professional job at the BBC back in the early 60's. Well done, Beeb.

Nathaniel (for that was his name) was forever grateful for this opportunity and hoovered up every bit of information he could. For the rest of his long career in the TV industry, spanning Uganda and Nigeria and setting up several TV and radio stations, he would often declare to long suffering staff and colleagues "That's not how we used to do things at the BBC!"

Of course, it wasn't all rosy for young Ilube. It was the 60's after all. Dad worked behind the scenes on some of the most popular programmes of the day, including the infamous Black and White Minstrel Show at a time when it was getting audiences of over 20 million! Oh, those crazy Minstrels. They liked a laugh "Hey, Nat, old chap, what do you think of my make up hahaha?"

The old man did have lots of friends at the BBC too though. He was a keen hockey player and played in the BBC team (see if you can pick him out in the photo above. I'll give you a clue...). As a young boy I remember being taken to the former BBC sports ground Motspur Park to watch him play hockey. I remember standing next to the goal in front of the club house watching the huge men rushing around slashing at the ball with their hockey sticks. I remember the ball flying straight at my forehead. I don't remember anything after that. They would probably have safety nets up nowadays - huh, health and safety gone mad I say.

My father left the BBC over 50 years ago in the mid 60's. But the BBC never left him. It was the time of his career that he was most proud of and rightly so.

As I sat in the BBC Board today I could only imagine how proud he would have been if he knew where I was. Sadly he passed away a few years ago. But I think he's probably pleased anyway.

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 :)