Grace Under Fire

At the time this photo of Kathrine Switzer was taken, Boston Marathon race manager Jock Semple genuinely believed she was doing something wrong and it was his place to stand up for what was right. It was 1967 and at that time women weren’t ‘officially’ banned from running the marathon, but this was due to an admin error as opposed to any desire for equality. Switzer went through the correct channels with her application, received her number and prepared to race. 

According to reports, Switzer was a few miles in when Semple began shouting, chased her and tried to grab her number. She was able to wriggle free when her running companions intervened and completed the race, albeit losing an hour or so from her estimated finish time.

Continue reading “Grace Under Fire”

Sir Lenny & The Skill of Asking Everything

Embed from Getty Images

What space does Sir Lenny Henry occupy in your hearts? Honestly.

Are you struggling?

Assume the correct answer is “Whew, Lenny Henry.” *shakes head, mops brow*. “Lenny was the bold champion of black comics when Great Britain had none. Revered as the man who hacked his own path through the undergrowth of working men’s clubs of the seventies and eighties to mainstream television and beyond, Sir Lenny now occupies that most coveted of roles in public life: National Treasure. We’re very proud.”


That’s what it looks like. Nice, isn’t it? Everyone comes out of it looking like a thoroughly good chap and Sir Lenny Henry receives his due for a career spanning some forty years and counting.

Lean in, though.

Bit closer.

There’s a touch of revisionism going on here, isn’t there? Not with personal comedy preferences – for the purposes of this conversation, they’re not relevant – but with our cultural history and our almost pathological insistence on rewriting history to make ourselves feel better.

I knew you’d understand. You can move away now.

The fact remains, I probably wouldn’t have bothered listening to an interview with Lenny Henry if Amanda Palmer (white, cis, female, author, musician) hadn’t chosen to speak to him on her pod, The Art of Asking Everything. I’m not proud of it, but if I’m going to lightly admonish English culture for being fucking awful, it’s reasonable I take my share of the blame.

I love comedy, just not ‘that’ kind of comedy. As I was growing up and developing my taste, I was attracted to alternative performers, although at the time I couldn’t have defined that for you. I just knew that Rik Mayall’s love affair with Cliff Richard and Neil the hippie sneezing into a binbag made me laugh so much I hurt. Lenny’s output, in comparison, felt a little tame.

Even as I was pressing play, I wondered what the host might have to say to this man, and what could possibly be interesting about it. Last week’s episode, ‘Bullshit Is Everywhere’ with author Elizabeth Lesser, demonstrated Palmer’s skilful and sensitive technique as an interviewer – a surprise from a performer so expressive and dynamic – and my curiosity was piqued.

Only a white child growing up in England could believe that having your own sitcom on national television at twenty-four years old was dangerous. That’s not to say that Mayall, Edmondson, Planer and Elton don’t deserve the plaudits they’ve received over the years, far from it, but having listened to Lenny discuss performing comedy to a crowd of mildly inebriated and unapologetically racist blokes in what’s essentially a glorified outhouse, I feel I now have a better grasp of the term ‘dangerous’.

If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss the clues. Despite heavy indications to the contrary, I don’t believe the majority of us on this septic isle are racist. I still believe in that now beleaguered cliche that we’re a friendly, hospitable bunch who will inevitably be let down by some twats who like to shout.

But dwelling between these comfy binaries is the truly British trait of ‘ooh, that makes me mildly uncomfortable, let’s never speak of it again’. Lenny Henry lives here too. A man who, for many years, was one of very few black faces regularly appearing on television. Who had little choice but to force himself into a box that didn’t fit him so he could stay there, all the while watching fellow comedians (and I use that term loosely) like Jim Davidson perpetuate unpleasant stereotypes and get rewarded with more screen time.

Henry was still there though, wasn’t he? As an advocate of representation, I understand the importance of seeing others like yourself in powerful positions, so surely that’s enough? The man’s got a knighthood, right?

Via this conversation, I learned more about Lenny’s early life and career than I ever picked up from watching him on TV. He discussed his memoir, ‘Who Am I, Again?’ and the necessity to tell his story in its entirety, rather than the sanitised version which TV execs and viewers preferred. The one that won’t frighten an audience only capable of coping with black people who don’t make a big deal of being black. Even better if they play along with the tropes. Henry himself did this for five years as a member of a touring stage version of ‘The Black & White Minstrel Show’; a source of shame that he himself should not be forced to bear.

Even Ricky Gervais, a man who should know better (an article in its own right), riffed gently on Henry’s position in English popular culture as recently as 2006.


I’d expect a guy as smart as Ricky to have figured out the reason Lenny might be perceived as ‘unfunny’ in some quarters is quite simply that he’s built a very successful comedy career despite being unable to tap into his own personal history. I can’t think of a single creative type who wouldn’t have a nervous breakdown upon reading that statement, including myself.

Please listen to it. Especially if you grew up in the UK in the seventies and eighties. In 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement wavers between catching fire and burning out, it’s our job to ensure the former happens and we do this by listening. Don’t assume you already know or you have nothing more to learn. The world can look completely different if you take a second to move slightly and change your perspective.

It’s more important now than it’s ever been.

Amanda Palmer’s podcast, The Art of Asking Everything, is available in all the usual places.

The Social Dilemma: How To Change Your Mind

I checked my phone three times while watching The Social Dilemma. The documentary is about an hour and a half long, meaning I averaged a pick up every thirty minutes or so. It’s only fair to tell you that I resisted the temptation to pick it up another six or seven times because I’m painfully self-aware. Scrolling while half-listening to a twenty-something tell me my mind is being penetrated, data harvested and my psyche transformed is too satirical, even for a woman of my tastes.

Now I really don’t want to pick my phone up at all.

Continue reading “The Social Dilemma: How To Change Your Mind”

Football: The Misery Business

(Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

“Do you actually like football? Or do you just fancy the players?”

Traditionally this question has been the province of male football fans disturbed by the presence of women at matches or pubs showing matches. The assumption being that watching men run around a field for ninety minutes couldn’t possibly be interesting in itself and we must therefore be motivated by other forces. What they failed to take into consideration is that few women would put themselves through the trauma of standing in the tightly packed away end of a third tier football ground with gangs of swearing blokes brandishing cups of hot beef juice, just catch a glimpse of the centre back’s arse.

Happily, we now have 4K TV, so it’s less of an issue.

Continue reading “Football: The Misery Business”

Mental Illness Is Non-Discriminatory. Are You?

If a massive global pandemic should have taught us anything, it’s that we’re all vulnerable to mental health conditions. They’re not just the preserve of an unfortunate few.

Yes, I agree it would be nice if we’d figured that out before, but we didn’t notice our governments were incompetent capitalists whose sole interest is maximising their earnings and those of their paymasters. It’s fair to say we’re slow learners.

Continue reading “Mental Illness Is Non-Discriminatory. Are You?”

Adele Haenel: Not All Heroes Wear Capes

French actress Adele Haenel walked out of the Cesar Awards last weekend when Roman Polanski was awarded ‘Best Director’ for his movie J’Accuse (An Officer and a Spy). Footage of her exit, including her gloriously continental expostulations, was posted to Twitter and went viral.

Continue reading “Adele Haenel: Not All Heroes Wear Capes”

Newcastle United: Mugged Off

Embed from Getty Images

Pre-season friendlies are meaningless. Take the results as an indicator that you’re going to have a banging season and you can fully expect to be out of contention for Europe by Christmas. A tour of south east Asia where the only notable event is your left back making a racial slur on Instagram and you can prepare for silverware.

Continue reading “Newcastle United: Mugged Off”

Megan Rapinoe: Make Yourself Big

Embed from Getty Images
 
Thirty-six hours before a ball is kicked, the narrative is taking shape. In the vernacular of the British tabloid press, England’s plucky Lionesses are now pitted in an ideological battle against the arrogant US Women’s National Team (USWNT). Not for goals, victories or honours, although one can assume that a game of football will break out at some point, but for the title of most dignified.

Megan Rapinoe won’t be winning that. She and her trophy hoovering cohorts’ behaviour on and off the pitch have been endlessly scrutinised and critiqued since this latest incarnation emerged onto the world stage, consistently failing to impress despite winning a World Cup, Olympic Gold, two CONCACAF Gold Cups and two SheBelieves Cups. They’re arrogant, apparently.

Never a good look on a lady.

Continue reading “Megan Rapinoe: Make Yourself Big”

Free Speech Posts Rising Costs

Israel Folau’s contract with Rugby Australia has been terminated after the New South Wales Waratahs player posted the above Bible quote on his Instagram account back in April.

This is Israel’s opinion. I assume he believes it with every fibre of his being and for my part, I hope he’ll be crushingly disappointed when he arrives in the afterlife, realises intolerance is a unwanted by-product of humanity and that he’s about to spend eternity with the drunk gay fornicating atheists who know how to throw a decent party.

Continue reading “Free Speech Posts Rising Costs”