Archive for Uncategorized

Losing Las Vegas

In the media tent for MayMac – just a few weeks later and a few metres behind where I stand in this pic, 58 people were killed by a gunman armed to the teeth and shooing from the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

A few weeks ago we sat in that white tent in the boiling desert, there to witness one of the biggest fights of all time between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor.

On Sunday night, music fans visiting the lot-turned-concert-venue witnessed the worst mass shooting in American history.

When things happen in Las Vegas, they can be hard to ignore.

The lot across the street from the Luxor can be anything – a concert venue, a media tent, a trade show, a parking lot.

For MayMac it was the home of the media tent, a white vinyl oasis in the crushing August desert heat.

Outside, day and night, the security guards stood watch, searching our bags and ourselves with good humour, putting us through the metal detectors and making sure we checked in and out with our wristbands.

Every day for five days we made small talk – one man told us how he had come to Nevada from Chicago and had grown to love the dry desert that his grandchildren were now growing up in.

Another younger man wanted our opinions on the fight, a few dollars earned in the blazing sunshine burning a hole in his pocket on the way to the sports book across the street at the Luxor or the Mandalay Bay.

Then there was the supervisor from the midwest, her accent unchanged despite decades spent in Sin City.

The lot on South Las Vegas Boulevard, a short distance form the fabled “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign is adaptable, central and out in the open.

In other words, there is nowhere to hide – especially if someone opens fire on it from an elevated position.

From the gold-diggers to the dam-builders, Vegas has always been a rough-and-tumble town where folks go to let their hair down.

It’s big and it’s loud and it wears you out fast, but it’s hard not to love it.

It is one of those places that encapsulates everything about America, good and bad – the ambition, the drive, the will to win, overcoming adversity, the suspicion of regulation and the dream that anyone coming here can be anything they want to be if they just work hard enough.

It’s a place where people have no problem drinking a skinful and getting in their cars, careering home along the I-15.

“The most dangerous thing you can do as a motorcyclist is drive home after dark in a drinking state,” a motorcycle equipment salesman called Aaron told me in July. He has the scars to prove it.

Las Vegas is no longer the Wild West, but there are still plenty of guns about in Clark County.

I know, I’ve fired them.

I’ve fired .357 Magnums, MP4s, AR15s, pump-action shotguns, you name it.

It’s nothing unusual – all along the strip you’ll find flyers from gun ranges that will collect you and drop you off at your hotel in stretch Humvees.

In the meantime, you can fire as many rounds as you can afford from everything from a .38 special revolver all the way up to heavy, powerful weapons.

Don’t believe me? For about three grand you can fire an M60.

From a helicopter.

For the Europeans who make up a small but lucrative part of their clientele, guns can be hard to understand, especially if they have never fired one before.

For those who have, it’s makes slightly more sense – they have experienced having the power of life and death in their hands.

For that is what it is – to have a gun is to have the power to kill someone, or let them live.

It is a feeling so powerful that my friend Angus (an extremely knowledgeable gun owner and instructor) has told me of grown men crying the first time they fire one.

Apparently, it’s not uncommon.

Somehow, the Second Amendment to the Constitution has been interpreted as imparting the right to own and keep a military arsenal in a private home, with little demand for either security or training.

I spoke to Angus at great length about it, and it is no easy subject; nor is there a simple solution.

It’s hard to underestimate how much people distrust politicians in America.

Many want them to provide the bare minimum in terms of upholding law and order, and then just get out of the way.

Much has changed since the Gold Rush, but the self-sufficient mentality that fuelled that frontier spirit is still everywhere you look.

That is what makes rolling the gun laws back so difficult.

For a start, there are so many guns in circulation that it would be almost impossible to collect them all – and that’s before we get to the sense of paranoia and mistrust of the federal government that mean that many won’t give them up without a fight.

There are plenty of gun owners who are well-trained, who keep their weapons secure and who would never dream of marching down the street in combat fatigues in a show of strength to protect their privilege.

There are also and awful lot of them that have access to powerful, lethal firearms who have no idea how to handle them properly, and who lack the maturity to know when to handle them at all.

The Nevada desert is a harsh place at times, and this tragedy is unlikely to change attitudes to guns at all there.

At the root of that desire for lethal power is fear – fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of not being able to protect one’s loved ones or oneself.

Fear, as politicians and corporations have long been aware, is a powerful selling tool.

Whereas we see mass shootings as an obvious reason to remove as many weapons as possible from society, those who believe in the right to bear arms see it as the opposite – hence the rise in gun stocks yesterday in the wake of this tragedy.

If America can witness the deaths of children at Sandy Hook and remain unmoved, do not think for one second that the actions of the Mandalay Bay shooter will change anything.

To do that would require a long discussion about whose rights are most important, and a deconstructing of the apparatus of fear, driven by the media, politicians and vested interests, that keeps the buyers coming to gun shops in their droves.

It is a complex problem to solve, but it can be done. Airports are now bastions of security, and smoking is banned pretty much everywhere.

Once the country’s national sport, drink-driving is now frowned-upon in Ireland.

But I won’t hold my breath.

Instead, I’m waiting to pore over the list of the dead to see if any of the security guards on a few bucks an hour who were so friendly to us a few weeks ago are on it.

Because no matter what the outcome of the political or intellectual discussions around the subject are, the undeniable fact is that 58 more people are dead.

Nothing can change that now.

 

 

 

 

Time running out for MMA’s Tipper Gores

I have to say, I find it abhorrent.

Bare-knuckled, talentless thugs fighting it out for supremacy while the crowd, both those in the arena and those who pay for expensive cable subscriptions to see the spectacle, bays for blood?

Nope, ice hockey is not for me.

As a sports journalist I’ve covered two ice hockey world championships and an Olympic final, and interviewed numerous world-class players and officials but, if you’ll pardon the pun, I just can’t warm to it.

But despite my misgivings about the sport, its inherently macho culture evidenced in regular on-ice fights between team “enforcers”, and the undercurrent of performance-enhancing drugs at virtually every level, I do not question its legitimacy, nor do I judge its players or condemn its fans.

I write about it with the same respect I would any sport or any athlete.

I wish the same could be said of the modern-day Tipper Gores who, every time the name of Conor McGregor or the sport of mixed martial arts are mentioned, boom out their contempt for all involved form the highest of vantage points, despite their own admissions that they have no idea what they are talking about.

I mean, think about it – in what other area of sports journalism would ignorance of the subject matter be worn like a badge of honour?

You remember Tipper Gore, right? The busy-body wife of Al Gore who in 1985, before he became vice-president of the USA, demanded that music (in particular rap, hip-hop and hard rock) be censored?

Her legacy is not a world devoid of the evils of rap and heavy metal – in fact, both genres have flourished, with Jay Z now topping many entertainment  rich lists and tours of hard rockers raking in the millions across the world.

Instead, her legacy is one in which t-shirts bearing the imprint “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” are worn ironically, in tribute to the staggering arrogance and stupidity of her and the Parents Music Resource Centre, the gang of worthies she set up to decide what is and what is not acceptable culture.

Luckily music fans simply did not give a shit – much like the MMA fans of today.

Don’t get me wrong – I too find it difficult to watch sometimes.

When Ilir Latifi, a Swede from Rosengård in Malmö, was knocked out in a recent fight, I felt crushed – the few times I’ve met him he has been warm and decent to me, and to see him flying back unconscious was hugely unsettling.

And despite the fact that I rank the epic fight between Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald as one of the best I’ve ever seen, I can almost feel MacDonald’s pain at the end as he finally succumbs, his nose a smashed, bloodied mess.

I get the fact that people don’t like it.

I get the fact that people don’t like McGregor.

On many occasions I have stated how I believe his foul mouth and his tendency towards misogyny and racial epithets is extremely troubling (and indeed damaging to his “brand”).

I’m not asking anyone to like it. Or him.

But there are a lot of people who do, and their interests are not being served or indeed taken seriously by many in mainstream media at the moment.

(One well-known Irish commentator actually sought me out in the press room at a soccer game to tell me how much he hated it, and editors regularly feel compelled to condemn the sport to me, even as they order coverage of it.)

The argument is made that criticism of the sport is not about class, and writers point to their own working-class roots as evidence that they cannot be biased.

Once again they are putting themselves at the centre of the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture.

The truth is that, wherever I go in the world at the moment, young, working-class men are the ones who talk to me most about McGregor and mixed martial arts.

When I asked him a question at last week’s press conference at Madison Square Garden, my phone started buzzing in my pocket even before I reached the end of my sentence.

All young lads, all watching live, all sending me messages, from all corners of the world.

In previous years it might have been Mike Tyson and boxing that were the subject of their affections, but things have changed.

It is not that young, working-class men are the only fans of MMA – it is that they make up a fairly large constituency, and they are the section of society that are roundly and regularly ignored in the media as it is.

That is what is meant by classism and snobbery.

In a week when an Irish athlete made history in Madison Square Garden, I would have expected sports journalists to put aside their personal prejudices and try to hide their ignorance while giving the sport and the subject the respect it – and its fans – deserves.

It hasn’t happened yet, but it is happening.

For the most part I work for very mainstream, respectable media outlets, and the fact that I have covered several UFC events for them this year is a good indication that the crossover is well underway.

Like Tipper Gore, the pearl-clutchers of Irish sports media will soon be left behind, left to celebrate their self-confessed ignorance to an ever-decreasing audience of retweeters and commenters as the rest of the world moves on.

And as has already happened in the USA, MMA fans will eventually enjoy the validation that comes from being featured in the mainstream media, and the sport will likely replace boxing as the number one combat sport.

And the UFC and McGregor?

They’ll continue laughing all the way to the bank regardless of what any of us says, so we better get used to it.

 

 

Hej media, kom inte hit nån mer

Hej alla ledarsidor som tror att ni är blåa, men har blivit lite sådär bruna i kanten senaste tiden!

Det räcker nu.

Vi i förorterna har haft nog.

Det är inte så att ni inte får skriva eller rapportera om förorterna.

Vi som bor här ser gärna att mer skrivs och rapporteras om dem.

Men helst av folk från förorterna – du vet, de som faktiskt vet vad de pratar om.

De som lever här och vistas här och pratar med folk varje dag.

De som har nätverk och känner folket och luktarna och nyanserna.

Eller åtminstone folk som någon gång har satt sin fot i en förort.

Någon gång.

Men att låta fokl idiotförklara sig och skriva bajs om att det ska vara utgångsförbud i Husby och Tensta efter 2100, eller kräva snabbare domstolsprocesser för ungdomar i orterna från folk som aldrig har varit här, och som aldrig skulle kunna tänka sig ens prata med någon här?

Tyvärr.

Nej tack.

Det duger inte.

Det här vet ni förstås, men ni vill inte göra något åt det.

Det är åt det här hållet den bruna vinden blåser, och ni hänger gärna med – antingen genom att upplåta era debattsidor till folk som vill “ta debatten” eller genom er tystnad.

Men det finns ju för många klick att skörda, för många ögonglober att locka.

Att det görs på bekostnad av de i förorterna – de som ni ser till att de aldrig får komma till tals – skiter ni i.

Och det är helt OK.

Vi förstår det.

Det är ni som har kontrollen över tidningarna och radio- och TV-program, och vår roll i det hela är att acceptera det.

I bästa fall kanske kallas vi för att försvara våra orter – men aldrig, aldrig någonsin får vi komma till tals först.

Vill ni fortsätta så?

Varsågoda.

Men i så fall kom aldrig hit någon mer.

Och sluta erbjuda pisssummor för reportage som journalister härifrån gör, som om de borde vara tacksamma från smulorna från ert publicistiska bord.

Sluta gärna rapportera från TV-Huset eller Radiohuset, eller Gjörwellsgatan eller Kungsholmen om det som händer här, som om det vore Baghdad eller Mogadishu när det är en del av Sverige.

Skicka inte ens hit folk, för det räcker inte med att vara här en kvart eller en halvtimme för att förstå vad som händer, och varför.

Och framförallt – sluta låta de som vill göra en politisk eller journalistisk karriär genom att trampa ned och klättra över samhällets svaga.

Vi förstår att ni inte vill ha med oss, vi förstår att ni inte vill hjälpa oss.

Men i så fall krävs det att ni inte skadar oss genom att berätta samma jävla trötta osanna historia gång på gång på gång, utan att ens fucking kolla med oss först.

Det räcker nu.

Why Prince wants you to pay for art

“Get off your ass and go pay to have someone entertain you.”

In the Internet age, the death of a great musician has its own pattern.

First comes the tweet.

Then the confirmation tweet.

Then the Facebook post.

Then the Youtube clip and the Spotify list.

But when Prince died yesterday, it came to an abrupt halt after the tweets.

Fiercely protective of his music, he’s not on Spotify, and there’s not much to be found on Youtube either.

Much was made in the obituaries of how staggeringly prolific he was, and virtually all of them mentioned his clash with Warner Brothers and the music industry in general.

In truth, he was the first to see where the business was going – towards a marketplace where everything was free, nobody wanted to pay and the only money being made was going into the pockets of the least creative people in the room.

He rebelled, and you should too.

Prince could rebel by giving away his music with concert tickets or newspapers, by scrubbing it from streaming sites and pulling it off video services.

He rebelled by releasing his music whenever it suited him, in whatever format and at whatever price he saw fit.

He rebelled by touring on his own with a piano, or by announcing shows a few hours beforehand, and then torching the venues with his electrifying brilliance and a never-ending mountain of hits to choose from.

You can rebel by sticking your hand in your pocket and going to see a band, or funding a Kickstarter, or buying a CD, a download or – and this might sound a little crazy here – a vinyl record.

You will be disappointed. There is an inordinate amount of rubbish out there, and you will waste money on shit live bands. You will get CDs with one decent song that are filled out with tripe, and stuff that you will listen to once before converting the disc into a coaster.

But you will be breathing life into art again, and whether artists, musicians and writers like to admit it or not, the audience is an essential part of the whole relationship.

Prince arrived on the scene almost fully formed, but there are few artists that do so. For the rest, they must hone their craft over thousands of hours of gigs and rehearsals and recordings.

The creation of any kind of art or journalism takes time, and if all the audience is prepared to pay is peanuts, then all they are going to get is a never-ending stream of monkeys who should never be let near a mic or a word processor in the first place.

Worse still, we will be limited to the mindless droning of the over-privileged, the only ones who can afford to document and project their experiences.

Many of those who mourn Prince most lambast the youth of today for sitting in front of their computers, happier to play FIFA on a Playstation than real football on a playground. When it comes to art and music, we do exactly the same.

Spotify is great, as is Youtube and iTunes and Twitter.

But nothing online can replicate the raw, visceral feeling of being in a dark room and seeing a comic or an artist or a poet on a stage performing something they have created themselves.

If we ignore the corporate whores filling the stadiums at staggeringly over-inflated prices, music and comedy and art has never been cheaper. For a few bucks you can see one of the world’s best improv groups at Dublin’s International Bar, and Stockholm’s music scene is full of promising artists in interesting spaces.

We mourn the passing of a great musician and songwriter, but at the same time, whether we will ever see his like again is now up to us.

We can either sit at home and take what this world spoon-feeds us, or we can take it upon ourselves to go out and invest the time and money necessary to give future generations something to marvel at.

Honour Carvalho’s memory by ignoring MMA vultures

A picture of Joao Carvalho taken from the Team Nobrega Facebook page.

Long before Joao Carvalho expired on Monday night, the vultures were circling.

And as soon as news broke that the 28-year-old Portuguese mixed martial artist had passed away as a result of injuries sustained in a bout in Dublin’s National Stadium on Saturday night, they swooped.

In no time at all, social and mainstream media were filled with the empty-headed squawking of the ignorant and ill-informed – those whose need to be heard is always at its greatest when their expertise is at its most non-existent.

There were radio interviews and hot takes online, using words like “savagery”, “thuggery” and, in one utterly bizarre instance, “legalised killing” – needless to say, that particular article was among the most read.

One Irish radio station headlined their discussion “Death in the Cage,” the minor detail that Carvalho died in hospital some 48 hours later seemingly lost on them.

But then again, what use is knowledge, facts and informed opinion when you can have revulsion, ignorance and hyperbole instead?

Most laughable of all are the sports journalists who question whether or not MMA is a sport at all, a stance so archaic and pathetic at this point that it’s not even worth engaging with.

There are a lot of people who don’t like mixed martial arts. They find the violence, the blood, and in many cases the athletes themselves repulsive.

I get that.

Luckily, no-one is asking them to watch it, and fewer still who actually follow the sport have any interest in hearing the opinions of the uninitiated on it.

And while everyone is entitled to an opinion, no-one is entitled to their own facts.

Though a young and undeniably violent sport, mixed martial arts has so far proved to be no more dangerous than boxing, and it takes its responsibility to the athletes very seriously.

According to credible reports there were three doctors and seven medics at the National Stadium when Carvalho was injured – far more than I have ever seen in many nights spent at amateur boxing nights there in the nineties.

Big organisations such as the UFC regularly bar fighters from fighting for varying lengths of time following an injury, with particular attention paid to concussions.

The UFC – the flagship of organised MMA – also invests in research into head trauma and brain injury, as well as other injury-prevention programs in an effort to better understand what is happening and to protect its athletes.

Given the nature of the sport, the bar for stopping an MMA fight is undeniably set quite high, but it is also very simple – in all serious fighting organisations, the rules state that as soon as one of the combatants cannot “intelligently defend” themselves, the fight is over.

You will see or hear none of this from the vultures who use Carvalho’s death to advance their agenda against a sport they don’t understand and know little or nothing about.

To listen to them, you would think that Carvalho was the latest warrior to enter a graveyard filled to overflowing with the cadavers of young fighters.

Nothing could be further from the truth – does anyone really think that mixed martial arts would be experiencing such explosive growth if its participants were dying like flies?

That there is an enormous element of snobbery in the current wave of criticism should come as no surprise – the hoi polloi have never really understood the attraction of combat sports, the bizarre concoction of violence and chivalry, and what they term the bloodlust of the crowd.

They will tell you the participants are too stupid and too greedy to realise the dangers they are exposing themselves to; but at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, no-one knows more about the risk of fighting than the fighters themselves.

The commentariat reduce the audience to braying simpletons who just want to see blood fly.

That they might be intelligent people who actually understand what it is they are seeing – in contrast to the empty-headed rent-a-quotes that are invited on talk shows or to fill column inches – is a notion easily dismissed.

That the fans actually have a deep respect and appreciation for the participants, for their mentality and technical skill and toughness, is brushed aside in favour of the Colosseum narrative – give the proles blood and gore, it’s all they understand.

I have always been interested in boxing and martial arts, and first became interested in MMA after reading “A Fighter’s Heart” by Sam Sheridan.

The rise of Conor McGregor and the UFC in general in recent years is something that fascinates me, especially given the fact that the UFC was perilously close to bankruptcy on several occasions.

It is undoubtedly a brutal business, but one of the most breathtaking fights I have seen was between Rory McDonald and Robbie Lawler.

It was a bloody, thrilling, enthralling affair where McDonald had the upper hand and might have snatched a victory, but in the end the pain from yet another blow to an already-broken nose finally broke him, and the fight was stopped shortly afterwards.

Despite the fact that he lost, the respect I have for McDonald as a fighter and an athlete following that bout is enormous. He is quite simply one of the toughest men I’ve ever seen.

Nothing teaches you more about the effect of violence than getting punched in the face, and the paradox of fighting, and something often ignored, is that those who learn to fight often have the greatest respect for and awareness of the consequences of their actions.

There is little doubt that boxing and martial arts provide an excellent framework for young people to learn about themselves, in particular kids who might otherwise wind up on the wrong side of the tracks. MMA is no different.

In learning to fight to any competent degree, you also need to learn self-discipline, humility and respect for the craft and your opponent. If you don’t, sooner or later you’re likely to find yourself on the wrong end of a beating.

Paradoxically, by learning the damage one is capable of inflicting with one’s bare hands, many end up realising that, outside of competition, they never want to fight for real,

You don’t like the violence of MMA? Well, tough. There are plenty who do, and besides, the violence is only one part of what is a much more complex and layered sport.

There are plenty of people out there who find the pleated skirt of the tennis club, the creased slacks of the golf course or the rarified air of the Formula 1 pit lane equally provocative and repugnant, discriminating as they do against those who could never hope to afford to indulge in them as fans, let alone participants.

Not so the boxing and MMA gyms that will continue to spring up in the cities and the suburbs.

Fighting is, and always has been, rooted in the experience of the working class and the unemployed, from the National Stadium in Dublin and the dirt-floored Thai boxing rings of Bangkok to the Madison Square Garden and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

It provides the hierarchies, the discipline and the framework that many need to achieve their potential, in most cases without imposing a glass ceiling on them. If you’re good enough, and you work hard enough, you can progress, regardless of your accent or your education.

Despite the stated desire of the empty talking heads, mixed martial arts is not going away, and as such it is badly in need of further comprehensive research and strict regulation.

The death of any young athlete is an enormous tragedy, for his or her family, their friends and their sport.

But it is a profound insult to the memory of Joao Carvalho to suggest that he did not know what he was doing, or that he should not have been doing it.

He chose to be a warrior, he fought bravely and tragically, he paid the ultimate price.

His memory will not be honoured by banning the sport he gave his life for, or by denigrating those who practice or watch it, or by listening to the empty waffle of the dull and ignorant.

Instead, we owe it to him, and the current and coming generations of warriors, to make combat sports as safe as they can possibly be, while still retaining our respect and admiration for the fighter’s heart.

The Proclamation, 2016

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of a god most of us have thankfully abandoned and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of spin and whataboutery, Ireland, through us, summons her children to Twitter and Instagram to remember the centenary of 1916, a month before the fact.

Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Meeja, and through her open organisations, Google and Facebook, having patiently perfected her memes, having resolutely not waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and supported by her exiled children in broadcasting and by gallant allies in Bórd Fáilte,  but relying in the first on her own self-righteousness, she strikes in full confidence of whitewash.

We declare the right of the wealthy people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by poor people and their entitlement culture has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the self-made entrepreneurs and the Web Summit.

In every generation the wealthy Irish have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty, mostly in the pages of the Sunday Independent; every week for what feels like the past three hundred years they have asserted it in print.

Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in print in the face of the Internet, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic of the Wealthy as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and in particular the lives of the poor to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the hedge funds.

The Irish Republic of the Wealthy is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance, labour and assets of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty to some, equal rights and equal opportunities to men that can afford them, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally as long as they are born into money, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by parliamentary democracy, which has very occasionally divided a minority from the majority in the past.

Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government based on neoliberalism and the musings of Oprah, representative of the wealthy people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her wealthiest men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people, in conjunction with the Germans, the EU and the IMF.

We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High Corporate Tax Rate, whose blessing we invoke upon our black box trading systems, and we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by generosity, humanity, or charity. In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline, and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good of the wealthy, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which some of us are called, and which the rest of us will have to put up with.

Signed on your behalf by people better than you.

Bowie’s true genius was his generosity

There is something both comforting and pointless in the reams of articles being written following the death of David Bowie from cancer, and I am well aware that I am simply adding to the pile.

But short of the formal obituaries (and even they will be found wanting, such is the scale of their task), no single essay can grasp the breadth of the greatness of one of Britain’s foremost artists, and it would be foolish to even try to do so.

Instead we are left to sift through the remains of a staggering career to see what it is we can take into the future, and for me, it is the fact that it was Bowie’s artistic generosity that truly made him great.

Listening back to over fifty years of his music in the last 36 hours it became even more apparent – in short, he let others be brilliant, and in doing so he shone even more himself.

Possessed of a voice whose emotional power increased exponentially the closer he came to the edges of his vocal range, he was a natural solo artist, but even then he was never a man to go it alone. He always chose to include others.

At almost every point in his career, he generously allowed others not just to stand in the shadow of his vision, but to bask in its spotlight.

In the seventies it was Mick Ronson, whose slashing guitars and piercing melodies were a counterpoint to Bowie’s decadent alien rock star persona.

Later in that decade he entrusted the mixing board to Brian Eno, not just allowing him to twiddle the knobs but to introduce the full spectrum of his knowledge of electronica and technology.

He was no stranger to the other side of the console either, producing seminal and wildly different works by Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and making them musically immortal in the process.

And in 1981 there was the remarkable collaboration with Queen that produced Under Pressure, an instant classic powered by a simple bass riff, a watertight rhythm section and a surprisingly complex arrangement layered on top.

Perhaps inspired by that rhythmic success, he allowed the riffing of Nile Rodgers and the thundering drumming of Tony Thompson to take centre stage for Let’s Dance.

And when Bowie turned his back on commercial success and formed Tin Machine, he turned to Reese Garbels, a breathtaking versatile guitarist; while the albums may not have been great, one can never doubt the artistic ambition.

Even Ricky Gervais was allowed to bask in the glow of his brilliance – the Extras clip of Bowie’s jam about his character is funny, but it would be far less so if it wasn’t for Gervais’s superb reacting.

But for me the defining moment of Bowie’s artistic generosity was etched in eternity at the Point Depot in my hometown of Dublin during the recording of A Reality Tour that ultimately became a live album and film.

Amid the hi-hats and finger-clicking of the intro, you can hear him say “go girl” as he hands proceedings over to bassist and vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey for Under Pressure.

Many other artists would be loathe to share the limelight with a mere sidewoman or backing musician, and those with less courage would choose the safety of faithfully recreating the original over trying something new.

But given that he started out in free jazz, it’s hardly surprising that Bowie gives her the room and space to express herself. They perform the duet as equals, and in fact they had done so many times since she joined his band in 1995.

What follows is amazing – so much so that one almost forgets that it was Freddie Mercury who made the song famous with Bowie, and not Dorsey, such is the power of her performance.

A hugely accomplished session musician and artist in her own right, she has perhaps never gotten the recognition her talent deserves outside of the circles of professional music and Bowie fans.

But during that duet there is no doubt that her star matches that of Bowie.

And if there is one tiny thing that I can take with me from a half-century of his work, it is that – we should never be afraid to collaborate, to allow others to have their moment, to listen to ideas that we might otherwise not hear.

It is that generosity of spirit that makes the difference between achieving something alone – in art, in sport, in business, in life – and doing something valuable and memorable together that resonates with others.

If you’re in any doubt, listen to Bowie singing with Gail Ann Dorsey again.

Love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves.

- Queen and David Bowie, Under Pressure

 

 

Home, God willing

The original shelter in Akalla By, where Laith and his friends were guests on the first night.

Laith has been told that I am taking him to a shelter, but I could be taking him anywhere.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone told him he was headed somewhere, only to find himself somewhere else entirely.

Like when the people smugglers told him that he would be getting on a plane to Sweden, where he would be whisked away and given a place to live, and his family would be brought to him.

With his excellent English – learned working with the Americans as a policeman during the occupation of Baghdad – he would easily get a job.

Or so the smugglers said.

The plane was mysteriously cancelled.

Instead, he wound up in a boat packed with people, making the journey from Turkey to Greece.

The motor died.

So did some of the people.

Most panicked.

The women with children panicked more.

Laith thought it was natural. They were the ones with the most to lose.

He and some of the other strong young men tried to swim ahead and pull the boat.

Some of them died too.

So too did a little bit of Laith.

Swimming for his life and the lives of others, and those of his nine-month old child and his wife hidden in her parents’ house in Iraq, sheer pig-headedness would keep him going.

He made it.

First to Greece, then to Copenhagen and Malmö and Stockholm.

At the first shelter in Stockholm there was a disagreement over space with some Syrians.

Laith and his friends were asked to leave. When you have nothing, you protect it fiercely, even if it costs you.

Laith left and came to Akalla with his friends, where he spent the night. I drove them there.

The next day, someone else drove him back to the Central Station.

All he wanted to do was go home to Iraq, but for now he would have to keep going – to Finland, probably – until he found somewhere safe for his wife and child.

The tension – especially when strengthened by the lack of a common language – when in the car with people like Laith is palpable.

They have a story to tell.

It is a story of a life left behind, with no idea when or where or if it will be picked up again.

For some, it works out OK. For others, not.

Many of them don’t want to tell that story.

Some have no choice.

Today, we closed the shelter. A few cars gathered to take the last dozen or so guests to different places.

Some headed to the Central Station, to follow Laith’s path towards Finland, the trip getting colder and darker the further north they came.

Others had given up.

Lonely for their families, told that they had little chance of being granted asylum, or just put off by the cold and the dark and exhausted by the grinding fucking drudgery of being on the run, they gave in.

Some agreed to return to a home they risked so much to leave.

This morning they would fly back there.

I drove them to the terminal.

“Al-matar?”

The airport?

“Yalla!”

Let’s go!

There were more bodies than bags or suitcases. One man asked if he could have a rucksack to take with him. His friends laughed at him.

“You don’t have anything to put in it!”

The tension wasn’t as palpable on the journey to the airport, but it was still there.

At least now they knew where they were going.

But where they are going is the very reason why they left.

As they took what little they had out of the van, they convinced themselves and each other that this is what they wanted all along.

“Al-bayt, al bayt.”

Home.

Home.

“Insh’allah”

God willing.

——————————————————————————————-

Today the last guests at the temporary shelter in Husby set up by local residents left, and the doors closed for the last time. 

Having had to move premises twice while catering for hundreds of refugees over three weeks, it is no longer possible for the shelter to carry on – the resources in terms of time and money are just not there.

The “refugee crisis”, as it has become known, will continue, and we will continue to help in any other way we can. 

This essay is dedicated to Leo Ahmed, Sonja Dousa and to everyone who gave anything during the last three weeks – all over Scandinavia, people sleep tonight on a pillow of your kindness. 

Refugee relief is not a numbers game

So far the focus of Ireland’s response has been to concentrate on how many Ireland can actually take in – this despite the elephant in the room that is direct provision – and not what will happen once they get here.

First we had Simon Coveney’s pathetic opening bid if 600.

But, like a bad poker player assumed to be bluffing, he was quickly forced to raise it to 1000.

The latest bid comes from the smouldering remains of the Labour Party, with Joan Burton apparently saying that Ireland can take 5000 refugees.

What nobody seems to be saying is what we will do with them when they arrive here.

As with everything else in Ireland, there is no long-term plan, just a knee-jerk reaction.

Whether we take in one or 100,000, we need to have a concrete plan, a process to ensure that those who do come to Ireland are given a better life than what they currently have, and not simply warehoused in direct provision – or worse still, sluiced out into a society that neither cares about them nor wants them.

I live in a suburb in northern Stockholm where I see the results of failed integration every day.

This failure is not down to those who have come here; it is down to a society that either doesn’t know what to do with them, or in many instances doesn’t want anything to do with them at all.

Last Monday evening I sat in one of Stockholm’s most classic downtown cafés with Mahad.

Mahad speaks seven languages and is a qualified doctor – two of the languages he speaks are Arabic and Somali, a pair of mother tongues that very few in the Swedish medical profession can claim to master.

When I look around the suburbs of Kista, Husby, Akalla, Rinkeby, Tensta and Hjulsta I am struck by how his skills should be a goldmine – but rather than employ him and allow him to treat patients in their own language, he is locked into a bureaucratic nightmare.

First, his credentials had to be evaluated – after a year, he was told that he must compliment them and take tests here in Sweden, despite reading the same books and carrying out the same procedures as any EU-educated doctor.

Then he must learn Swedish – he speaks it competently already but doesn’t consider himself as fluent as he is in his other seven languages – and then he must negotiate a labour market that, while seemingly open to all, is suspiciously closed to those with a similar background to his.

There is an unspoken, structural racism at work – why take the black African unknown quantity, when you can take the blonde, blue-eyed person from up the road? Okay, their qualifications and experience might not be as good, but at least you know what you’re getting…

That is Mahad’s experience at this moment, and he is just one of many that Sweden has failed to integrate.

I see it in journalism too – white, middle-class people populating the press boxes and the press conferences, asking questions in white, middle-class tones about issues that affect white, middle-class lives.

A brown face with a microphone is perceived as an uppity outsider, rather than a breath of fresh air – Sweden tends to avoid conflict, so the critical voices of brown people are silenced by simply not inviting to the party in the first place.

And then, to add insult to injury, when they can’t find a job, we call them lazy and use them as a reason not to offer sanctuary to others.

The vicious circle is complete.

Time and again last Monday night, Mahad stressed to me that he doesn’t want handouts from the state – he is grateful for what he has been given, but he simply wants to be allowed to practice his profession, contribute to society and have a dignified life in a country that is safe.

Ireland risks going the same way.

Have Coveney or Burton or anyone else in the Irish government considered exactly how they are going to help refugees into Irish society?

How will they learn the English language? How will they be exposed to Ireland’s customs and culture?

How will they learn about hurling and craic and dodging responsibility for everything, the three core things all Irish people hold dear?

How will they be integrated into a labour market destroyed by the economic collapse and further fragmented by the free labour scam that is Jobbridge?

Unfortunately for our politicians, refugees are not simply there to be taken in to  score compassionate political points for parties who have shown no compassion for their voters.

They have needs and wants like everyone else.

It takes effort. It takes compassion. And in the short and medium term, it takes money too.

In many cases – such as my friend and team-mate Hashem, whose mother was killed by Assad’s bombs in Damascus and who fled across the sea to Greece and then on to Sweden – they need time to heal their psychological and physical wounds.

They need support, and they need a process in place to ensure that they can once again begin to live their lives with the dignity that they have been robbed of in their home countries.

Lurking, as always, in the background, are the racists who will pounce on any opportunity to spew bile on those born abroad.

You only have to look at the Facebook page of Identity Ireland (who claim to be a political party and have launched as such, but are so inept that they haven’t managed to register) to see how the spores of hatred flower in the darkness.

If we fail to integrate Mahad and Hashem properly and instead force them into the lower socio-economic echelons of society, we are creating an instant conflict between them and others who battle for the meagre resources at the lower end of the scale.

This is where the visible racism occurs, but it is born of the invisible structural racism – and indeed the destruction of any protection offered in our labour market – that has happened long before they even got here.

Citizens of the EU have already spoken by their actions, welcoming refugees and insisting our politicians do more.

But these people have been failed by their own countries and we owe it to them not to fail them again.

We owe it to them to offer a life that is better than a Jordanian or Kenyan refugee camp.

Whether one or 100,000 come, we owe it to them to offer them a chance of a life that we ourselves would want to lead.

 

For your betters, brow-beating beats being there

“I threw a brick through a window…”

Today the column inches will stretch to feet, yards, miles – infinitely longer than a single water balloon or brick can fly. The airwaves will crackle.

There will be news, there will be comment, there will be analysis on the collapse of democracy that occurred at the anti-water charge protest that hindered Joan Burton’s car in Jobstown at the weekend.

Despite their fleeting appearances, the brick and the water balloon will feature heavily.

Just one question to all of those breathless hacks painting dark pictures of the End of Days, caused by a violent mob of working and non-working class people in a Dublin suburb.

How many of you were actually there?

Because if you’re going to pontificate about the death of Irish democracy for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of readers or listeners, then I expect you to have dropped everything and headed for Jobstown.

It’s not that hard to find. There are busses, and failing that the taxi company on your speed dial will take you there swiftly.

But such is the laziness and insular nature of the long-distance columnist that it is easier to make pious declarations about democracy from a safe distance rather than take the risk of talking to people for whom “th” in any word is an optional extra.

In truth, there is no need for any journalistic foundation to a column about certain areas of the country – after all, what are they going to do? Complain?

But for me the front line is the only place to start.

Because if I see a man throwing a brick, my instinct is not to ascribe a motive to him, or to find out what a well-to-do person in Dublin 6 thinks.

My instinct is to ask him why.

Then my instinct would be to find out if he is representative of the greater mass of people.

And my instinct is, in this case, that he wasn’t.

If I was in Jobstown, the ultimate journalistic bounty that day would have been an interview with the brick-thrower – after all, who better to explain his actions than the man himself?

I’d ask him how he felt.

I’d ask him what he thought of the fact that his brick was likely to do more damage to the peaceful protestors than it ever was to the Garda car he aimed at.

I’d ask him if his slip as he made his getaway was a fitting metaphor for something else.

But based on his actions, the instinct of virtually everyone else in Irish media this weekend seems to have been to scream “MOB!!” and write long, pretentious articles about democracy that are completely without any sense of nuance, understanding or first-hand experience of the situation.

But that’s OK, because what are they going to do? Complain?

Write a letter to the editor that will never be published?

Call the radio show that screens out exactly the prevalent accent used in that part of the city?

During the riots here in Stockholm last year, more people were injured in the rush to condemn the violence than were ever in danger from the riots themselves.

Such condemnation serves nothing but the ego of the politician or journalist already well-served by the democracy they claim to be upholding – the one that depends on the votes and the purchases of working-class people, and then abandons them as soon as power is secured.

The kind of people who live in places like Jobstown, Neilstown, Coolock, Ballymun and Darndale.

The kind of people who voted for Joan Burton – who sat in that car – and then saw her completely betray the mandate they had given her.

If you want a real story about the collapse of democracy, it was sitting in the car, not rocking it or shouting at it.

That story is how an unelected four-person “economic management council” has, with the support and full active participation of Labour, set aside Ireland’s parliamentary democracy until further notice.

No, the only thing that ran riot in Dublin yesterday was the middle-class sensibilities of journalists and politicians confronted by the dawning realisation that it is too late, and the proles have had enough.

For the hacks, there is no point back-pedalling now.

So do not start with your own answers and then tailor the facts to fit, as currently seems to be best practice at the Irish Water Meter and on Water Meter FM.

Instead, put aside your pointless pontificating, go back to your basic journalistic training and ask the five Ws and one H that we all learned on our first day in class.

And of all those questions you should be asking, right now “why?” is the most important.

And from what I’ve seen in this morning’s papers and online, not one of you has asked it yet.