Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The cleaning lady at Number 10

This morning I attended a round table discussion at No 10 Downing Street with a bunch of other mostly middle-aged-men-in-suits (us men-in-suits are like a tribe all of our own. Gang culture for the middle class, over 40’s).

I won’t bore you with our conversation but for those who haven’t visited No 10, the pantomime is always interesting.

Even if you have been to No 10 before, and I’ve been a couple of times on social occasions, it is quite fun to be invited. Over breakfast I did a lot of “Oh, is that the time? I must dash. Got to get to No 10 for a meeting”. “What are you doing this morning? School? Work? Me? Oh, nothing really. Just popping in to No 10 for a meeting.” My teenage son remained resolutely unimpressed. My wife almost hissed.

Getting in the front door involves navigating security. They seem to allocate very large policemen to the gates of No 10. I’m 6 foot (okay, okay, 5 foot, 11 and a half) but this chap towered over me. I wore my best City chalk stripe suit and proper tie “that looks a bit like an old school tie but isn’t actually an old school tie” tie so that he wouldn’t mistake me for a rioter and spray me with a water cannon. They are very polite, even when your name is spelt incorrectly on the list and they can’t find you. But eventually, after navigating the tough looking security lads in the hut, who try to appear all chatty and informal but you get the feel would relish the opportunity to see a bit of action, you get to walk towards the famous Big Black Door.

The Big Black Door always opens just as you get there. I had rather wanted to knock but I guess the doorman is peaking through the keyhole as you walk towards it (or perhaps a thousand hidden cameras, a drone or two and a satellite are peering down at you, watching every footstep). The uniformed doorman asks your name. I assumed he was being friendly as he didn’t take a note of it or check any lists, but it has just occurred to me that perhaps there are a bunch of faceless young men in suits listening to your answer ready to “take you down” if your name is not expected.

All phones are left in reception, so no live tweeting from the meeting itself. Except for the PM’s special advisor who laid an array of smartphones on the table in front of him, presumably to taunt those of us who were having blackberry withdrawal symptoms ten minutes in to the discussion.

There is a complex science to seating people at these meetings. Charming young chaps shimmy around with place cards, getting the positioning just right. Minister in the centre (but where is the centre?). A note taker here, an advisor there. A gaggle of Government types at one end, quietly wielding immense power. And us invited guests carefully placed around the table. I don’t know what the seating criteria are but I ended up being placed directly opposite the Minister. I tried to stretch my legs out under the table to play footsie but couldn’t quite reach.

There is a particular way of speaking at this type of meting. It was quite similar to when I was doing something for the Secretary General of one of the UN Agencies in Geneva. We are being Very Senior People. If you are being Very Senior People it is important to speeeaaakkkk veeeerrry slooooowly and in a rather deep voice. Speak slightly more quietly than you would normally so that people need to strain a bit to hear. You must look slightly bore. You can’t be excited to be there. You must endorse something. It doesn’t matter hugely what is it, but emphasise that you “ECHO WHAT THE MINISTER SAID AND FULLY ENDORSE ....the choice of biscuits”. Then as you are Very Senior People, you must calm things down by issuing a fatherly word of caution. Whist you encourage youthful enthusiasm you (smiling, but slightly tired eyes) just want us to think about the implications of spilling hot water whilst making tea. Remember also that Very Senior People never commit to anything. That is a skill honed over many years and many tricky meetings.

Lifestyle Partner: would you like your dinner now?

Very Senior People: I FULLY ENDORSE the concept of dinner and I applaud your decision to push down that path. Over the years I have been served with many dinners and I would just caution the risk of dropping food on your own lap. But I am certainly optimistic about the dinner situation moving forwards and its positive impact on the global economy.

Lifestyle Partner: oh for goodness sake, why don’t you go and boil your head

Possibly the highlight of the meeting involved the No10 cleaner. I suspect there is more than one No10 cleaner but it is nice to think that there may be just one lady who pops in “of a Wednesday morning” to dust and vacuum.
As the meeting progressed we heard a vacumming noise in the next room. We tried to ignore it and it would rise and fall as she moved around the room. Then the Minister spoke and was in full flow as the huge door was flung open and Mrs Moppet the cleaner burst in to the room waving a very noisy vacuum cleaner. Very Senior People are not used to this sort of thing. We wouldn’t accept it in our own home/office let alone at No10. The whole room went quiet for a fraction of a second. She looked horrified. We looked horrified. We looked at the Minister. He laughed. We all laughed as if it was the funniest thing that had ever happened to us in our whole life. Phew. Panic over.

The meeting ends. You shuffle around waiting to be led out (don’t go wandering off – faceless young men waiting round corners will probably “take you down”). Don’t forget your phone at the front door. Stride out of the gate, hoping that tourist take photos of you thinking that you are Somebody.

Then, pop, you are outside the No 10 bubble and back in the real world. From Very Senior People to civilian in the blink of an eye. You fish out your oyster card and jump on the tube, watching people watching you and wondering whether they are thinking “he looks like he’s just been to a meeting at No 10”. Sorry to burst your bubble. They aren’t!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

On Being Mixed Race and Quantum Physics

The BBC is currently showing a major series on Mixed Race Britain, fronted by George Alagiah.

I have a particular interested in this give that I am "mixed race". I am also a physicist (or at least I read physics at University) (by which I mean I occasionally turned up to lectures that had the word "physics" in the title - much to the surprise of the lecturers). As a mixed race physicist, I naturally find myself asking what being mixed race has in common with quantum physics.

The conclusion that I come to is that the aspect of quantum physics that best helps to explain the experience of being mixed race is wave/particle duality. It's obvious when you think about it.

To provide a one line explanation of wave/particle duality (that will be immediately debunked by anyone reading this who has any knowledge of quantum physics, and such clever people I am sure will provide a much clearly and correct explanation rather than just saying "that's not right")...the principle states that matter (stuff)  and light-waves behave like both waves and particles, depending on whether they are being watched. Or to put it another way, look at the behaviour of something like an electron. Does it behave like a particle? YES. Does it behave like a wave? YES. What? Did you just answer yes to both questions? YES. That's confusing. YES. Does it depend on how it is being observed? YES. Do you answer all questions in capital letters? YES.

As I mentioned, I am mixed race. White mother, black father. Mixed Tom.

Growing up in the UK (mostly) in the 60's and 70's was interesting. In those days, we knew how to "do" racism properly. Who doesn't remember having 20 kids standing around you in a circle chanting that inspiring song

"Hey Tom
Wogs the matter?
Feeling a bit Browned off?
Didn't have your Coon-flakes?
Nigger mind
Go Black to bed
You'll feel all White in the morning"

So, as I entered my teens, I was very clear that being "mixed race" in London meant being black. I began to shape my confused teenage identity in this context.

Then, when I was in my mid-teens, my Dad took me to live in Nigeria, West Africa and I discovered something rather confusing to a sensitive teenager wrestling with issues of identity. I changed colour. Who doesn't remember being followed up the road by groups of small, smiling children chanting

"Oyibo pepe
You go yellow more more"

(rough transation: White man, pepper. If you eat pepper, you will turn that funny yellow colour that white people become in the sun)

Followed by shrieks of laughter as the whiteman in question (me in this case, in case you have got confused) turned around and chased them away. I lived as an Oyibo for about eight years before returning to the UK and switching back to being black again.

Even today, when I travel to Uganda, in East Africa, for my African Gifted Foundation, I am generally referred to as a Muzungu  i.e. white man in Swahili. My Ugandan sister is known in her village as the woman with the muzungu brother.

Tom, are you black? YES. Okay, are you white? YES. What? Did you just answer yes to both questions? YES. That's confusing. YES. Does it depend on how you are being observed? YES. Do you answer all questions in capital letters? YES.

Wave/particle duality explains being mixed race perfectly. It's really very clear. I don't know why George Alagiah needs a whole BBC series to explain it. Understand quantum physics and wave/particle duality and you will understand me completely. It's that simple.