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