A dispatch from 2001 in the midst of one of the most horrific events in modern history.
MY HOLIDAY FROM HELL
Last summer in the US was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for one university graduate. Unforgettable it was – for all the wrong reasons
Tuesday. Another day, another dollar in the sweltering South. Look for clues. Ask questions. Beware the dog.
Knock knock. An all too familiar sound. The door opened. There I stood, side on, a few paces back from the entrance just as I had been taught. My smile, although false and contorted with a grimace of desperation, offered a glimmer of hope. "I am a professional educational consultant. I can do this,"
In front of me stood a hulking figure, in ripped denim jeans, sleeveless check shirt, stubbled face and frayed trucker's hat, under which sat two piercing eyes, the kind that would trouble those with nothing to lose. Before I could get into my stride and explain why this charred, clipboard-carrying figure was standing on his porch, the man reach to his side and pulled out a shotgun. Raising it slowly and pointing it at my midriff with real intent, he hissed these chilling words: "Boy, you got a lotta nerve showing up here right now. Get off my porch."
How had it come to this? Well earlier that year, impulsive and unsuspecting, I had signed up for a business programme selling educational handbooks to families door-to-door. On paper it felt like a raw deal. I would have to raise all the money for flights, two weeks of training in Nashville, accommodation, food and 'office supplies'. Upon arrival in my designated city – Roanoke, Virginia, a sleepy wide expanse of hilly South – I would have to go from door to door asking if anyone had a spare room to let that summer. Once I strapped on my book bag and began wrestling with my map I would be working on 100 per cent commission – no guaranteed wage.
So why do it? The thrill-seeker in me, perhaps. Intoxicated by the brave and rebellious sense of adventure that crackled from every page of Kerouac, Hunter S Thompson et al that I had read up to that point, there seemed no option but to meet uncertainly head on. But on that particular day several troubles were weighing me down: colleagues who had jumped ship, poor sales figures, the fallout from countless six-day weeks of fourteen-hour toil in 90 per cent humidity and brushes with death while peddling along the freeway though the pitch-black night.
The neighbourhood I was working seemed quieter than usual: no toddlers playing with their house-bound 'moms', no nannies busying themselves around the garden, no traffic. Greetings at the door were more hostile than usual, accented by a different reaction. A traumatised stare. Confederate and stars and stripes flags were drooping half-mast.
On to the next house. An elderly lady – the church-going type – recoiled from the door. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she declared. I moped along, confused. Was I missing something here? A public holiday, a hard-line ban on peddlers, the colour of my skin perhaps?
"Keep going," I thought. I turned the corner, surveyed the street and singled out a beautiful white bungalow with a "welcome" mat in front of the door and all manner of flowers delightfully arranged around the garden. Surely I'd be safe from harm at this sanctuary? And thankfully I was right. A compassionate Irish lady ushered me in with worrying urgency. Inside, the television was on full blast. It sounded like an episode of NYPD Blue. “Terrorists have just crashed into the World Trade Centre.” She paused, looked out at the garden for a moment and continued. "I think my son-in-law’s in there,” she muttered. “I’ll fetch some tea."
The date? 9/11.
A tribute to James Brown, one of my greatest heroes and certainly a major influence, not least on my dancing. This was written on Christmas day, after I heard that the Godfather had passed away, in between basting the turkey and preparing the veg.
“'Funky' is about the injustices,
the things that go wrong, the
hungry kids going to school
trying to learn. 'Funky' is about
what it takes to make people move.”
For a guy well past his best work prior to his demise on 25 December 2006, James Brown’s death was quite upsetting. But then no one was going to steal the stage from him. Not even Jesus.
I still remember seeing/hearing him for the first time as a clueless, excited little seven year old settling down to watch the then-latest instalment of Rocky IV and being blown away by this larger than life thunderball decked out in stars and stripes – no doubt a key influence (besides the imperious figure of Muhammed Ali) on the braggadocio character Apollo Creed. Even through the jingoistic hokum Living in America you just couldn’t help but wonder at “The Godfather of Soul”, “The Hardest Working man in Showbusiness”, “Mr Please Please”…or whatever else he saw fit to proclaim himself.
Sliding into the present day and I’ve had the privilege of learning more about the man in his own words, his career, his self-forged path, plus the infamous days with the revue so well documented by key player Fred Wesley in his autobiography. Here is just a taste of his insight into the making of the man:
“The world had taught James that if you wanted something you had to get it yourself. He had never had a mother or father or anyone to provide for him, to guide him, to make a way for him. Everything he had he had to fight for and he didn’t understand giving anything or even letting anyone earn anything from him in an easy way. He had had to overcome tremendous adversity just to live, let alone achieve greatness. He had to work ten times as hard as anyone else just to have food and shelter. You can’t expect mercy from a man who has fought himself up from the degradation to the pinnacle of the entertainment world. Although he did make my life a living hell sometimes, I’m a better man for it. I will always admire James Brown for being a man true to his principles, I certainly respect him for being an extraordinary man and for making himself the greatest entertainer who ever lived.”
Undisputed and well documented facts include James being the key catalyst and driving force behind popular R n’ B, funk and the looped syncopated rhythms of hip hop (Funky Drummer, Blow Your Head etc inspired everyone from Bomb Squad to Brand Nubian). Without James we’d have no Elvis, Prince, Michael Jackson, Fame-era Bowie, Fela Kuti, D’Angelo or Neptunes as we know them. Moreover, Miles Davis, a great admirer of Mr Dynamite’s rhythms, wouldn’t have moved so earnestly into the funk realm with 1972’s On The Corner, and beyond. He prototyped the complete musical entertainer and innovator without forgetting the showbusiness part (that theatrical robe routine borrowed from a famous 60’s wrestler comes to mind).
What isn’t fully appreciated is how the man rose from the bottom of Augusta, Georgia, with next to nothing – surviving and staying ahead of the pack with only his raw fighter’s instinct to guide him. That fearless determination would prove key to his survival on the streets, endurance of prison, his thorough application to the platform of Bobby Byrd’s Avons/Flames, conquering the seldom lucrative and often life-threatening chitlin circuit, contravening the wishes of his label King Records to make one of the greatest and most successful live recordings in the history of music – – out of his own pocket and then using the proceeds to preserve the majestic legacy of the Apollo Theatre itself.
Who could forget that great story of James being scheduled to perform at Boston Garden the night following Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968. His agreeing to let the concert be televised is widely credited with calming the city discontent and averting street anarchy.
Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud speaks for itself: a defiant collective fist in the bloody civil rights fight of the late 60s and a rousing soundtrack to the movement.
Then, who else would turn the misfortune of a band walkout in 1969 to his advantage and recruit from the hot New Dapps such talented hip-to-it musicians as the Collins brothers and Jabo Starks to up the rhythmic ante before Maceo and boys came home to roost?
Accepted, Brown was hardly whiter than white (heaven forbid!). There are those ridiculous demands made of his band (“Get me to the White House now or you’re fired!”), the bruises on then-partner Lyn Collins among others, and his frugal attitude to crediting his band for writing and production work (Fred and the Black Caesar soundtrack, for example). An unforgiving taskmaster and domineering personality, he was abrasive with many but inspiring in equal measure. Post-1965 he had unprecedented control over his music for a black artist, the James Brown revue was the tightest of all and he was a leading light in the black capitalist strategy incorporating radio, record company and other ventures.
However, with James it’s not so much the influence or longevity of his career that saw him move from the early Little Richard- and Fats Domino-styled days of Please Please Please and Try Me through the new bag of Papa…, Sex Machine, Mother Popcorn, There Was a Time (doubling up on the drums with Jabo Sparks and Clyde Stubblefield live) and Cold Sweat to the period of spontaneous, often ferocious, studio alchemy that gave us the likes of Funky Drummer, Papa Don't Take No Mess and Make It Funky between 1969 and 1974. Live, these already rough and ecstatic moments of provocative brilliance reached even higher heights. This was a guy who burned with desire to be somebody and to make something of himself against the odds. He wasn’t musically trained or schooled in anything except the beat of the street and the jungle groove.
Undoubtedly gifted with an ecstasy-inducing and versatile
voice plus two quicksilver feet, more often than not he was guided by a combustible spirit. You can see it on countless live footage clips (see below)
and you can definitely feel it when he pours over and strains for the meaning
of every syllable in recordings of tracks like Mind Power, Don’t Tell It and I Can’t Stand It (’76).
Fred Wesley should be recognised for his vital interpretation, ordering and transcription of the Godfather’s often incoherent and discordant grunts, sounds and shrieks. Similarly, he had supreme talent around him to form his vision (Pee Wee, Maceo, Clyde, St Clair and Joe Farrell among others). But get it straight. As a conductor - both musically and kinetically – and as a medium for the galvanising, empowering and uplifting potential of music (read scratchy guitar, dirty basslines, the double-hard break beats, sweet horns and organ, not forgetting those orgasmic screams of “baaaaaaaaby”) he shall remain unparalleled.
Things turned sour as the disco era dawned: creative drought, drugs, domestic dramas and so forth. This mustn’t detract from the fact that Brown continued to be a positive force, not least as a role model for kids to keep working hard at their passion (those 150-day a year minimum performance levels), to stay in school and to remember their roots.
After almost 50 years in the business and still resident of the South Carolina/GA area this seemingly immortal figure succumbed to pneumonia while conducting his Seven Decades of Funk World Tour. No other artist will ever be as synonymous with one genre of music while being able to claim a direct lineage to several others. Tap a kid on the shoulder in Ethiopia or a grandmother in The Andaman islands – they’ll know all about the ‘Minister Of Super Heavy Heavy Funk’.
I saw James in 2000 live in my hometown headlining the Brighton Festival; the pressure was on and I doubted if he could deliver. Papa didn’t take no mess that night. I was proud and humbled. Black, white or outta sight, James Brown was the greatest of all time. He definitely did it to death. With immaculate hair and teeth. Respect.
Straight No Chaser
A eulogy for my mum who passed away in September 2011 after a year-long battle in hospital against a mystery neurological condition. At first I wasn't sure about sharing these thoughts with others beyond those who attended that day. Then I remembered just how much I loved her. And now I want to tell the world.
I AM MY MOTHER’S SON
It’s difficult to grow up when you’re Nilu’s baby… The doting matriarch whose suckling nature and smothering love led me to believe we’d never part. So there I have stayed. In life, cared for rather than the carer. In death, paralysed by grief instead of feeling heartened at being my mother’s son. But as inconsolable as our severed relationship has made me, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’m just going to take a few minutes to tell you why … but please bear with me. I want you see mum through my eyes. So I am going to give you a truthful portrait of an extraordinary person, and to do that, there are inevitable lows that put the highs into context.
As mum lay on her bed in her final hours, resolute and dignified in her decision to conclude life on her terms, I said: "I’ve been dreading this moment my entire life,’ to which she looked away, forlorn; no doubt concerned for the welfare of her 32-year-old dugga (or ‘old man’ as she used to call me, acknowledging each passing year).
And sure enough, as early as I can remember, this day of reckoning has haunted me. The deepest connection between a mother and son quickly developed into an attachment, which, in turn, became my dependency. A neediness for her unfathomable strength, her values-based grounding and faith, her dignity and courage, her words of encouragement, her indomitable spirit and her unconditional love,
All these things she continued to provide through her most troubled and challenging times, specifically her 10-month battle for life, a battle she gave everything to win. An astonishing demonstration of resilience and the will to live. When her speech was cruelly taken from her on the eve of her planned homecoming back in March, she defiantly found other wonderful ways to communicate: the eyes grew bigger and brighter, the smiles that much broader, her touch even more tender, and those mannerisms – the wagging finger, tilted head, raised eyebrows and tapping little feet – true characterful treasures of her very being. But not even our supermum could beat this one. I guess her time had come before her time.
I thought that this long gap between mum’s passing and today’s service, our last goodbye, would give me a chance to collect my thoughts and to remember countless special moments with her. In reality, it’s been a doubly painful ordeal… Why? Because at first I struggled to remember. Confusion, pain, anger, disappointment were all that came to mind. I began to wonder: had I taken mum for granted all these years wrapped up in my own daily drama?
As a family of four we haven’t fared that well when it comes to making memories together. We toil and grind, We worry. We get by. We come together intermittently and then we disband, into our own ways of being. I know, there are many families that are guilty of this, but that doesn’t make it right. The opportunity to try something new together (the holiday, the restaurant, the show) was often put off by mum and dad, whose first instinct would always be survival, battening down the hatches and sacrificing for their children. Meanwhile, their health suffered. ‘Oh maybe tomorrow,’ they would reply, before throwing themselves once more onto the treadmill. Well for the four of us, there is no tomorrow.
Aside from a few glorious epiphanies, most notably two reinvigorating breaks abroad for mum and dad, firstly with Amudada and Bafoi in Florida, and then with Chai mama and Katherine at Royal Medikwe Lodge in South Africa, the full family holiday never came. So my despondency grew, as I, barely able to look at pictures of mum without a painful sense of loss, wallowed in daze of confusion, missed opportunities and deep regrets … and this eulogy began to largely take the form of a lament.
But then something miraculous happened…
Words, sounds and images soon began to appear in my mind. Reasons to look back with fondness and smile. And yes, there is much to celebrate. Sooner or later, we all come to realise that life isn’t about grand gestures. It’s about the fleeting, spontaneous, seemingly inconsequential moments we share with our nearest and dearest.
There are those Nilu traits that many of us will love and cherish forever: her infectious smile, that mischievous laugh, how immaculately turned out she would always be (this is “the IT Girl of Kampala” we’re talking about, after all), her mastery and subtlety in the kitchen (who could forget her relentless quest to feed and fill family, friends and colleagues with kutchoris, dokara, potato powa, mugg, dahl, baath and shaks, all enriched with just the right measure of spices to warm your heart and lift your spirits. And let's not forget her hearty interpretations of classic fare such as sweet sausages, bacon & beans, latticed potato pie and turkey casserole at Wayland Ave, a best-kept secret of the privileged few and one of the finest eateries in Brighton, without a doubt.
Then there were those cuddles – warm, generous, affectionate – in her embrace the world would always feel like a better and safer place. That silky soft skin. I’d often place the back of her hand on my eyes to sooth them while mum used her other to pull Hemal’s unusually large earlobes (a famous family trait), as if simultaneously playing with him and chastising him.
And there’s more. Through dreams and broken sleep patterns I plucked other magic moments in time. Those idiosyncratic behind-closed- doors Mum-isms that I’ll always treasure:
- Waking up to mum singing along to a bhajan as it played in the room next door, supported by the humming chorus of a hairdryer
- Coming home from prep school to find her hard at work in the shop. She’d beam with joy, wave with that sweet scrunched up expression and wait for me to ride in on my imaginary motorbike right into her arms. Not sure why I chose a motorbike. The influence of 80’s tv show Streethawk and it’s hi-tech two-wheeler, I think
- Mum’s unassuming nature and ability to see the good in most people, something that prompted her to trust a regular customer, but a stranger nonetheless, with the task of teaching her two young sons to swim. He promptly pushed us in the deep end. Lesson learnt
- Moisturising her cracked swollen legs with E45 and regularly giving her a pedicure, a girl’s job I moaned, and that too in full view of the customers. Often I’d hear the quip, “You’ve got this one well trained, haven’t you.” And she did, no question
- Scribbled shopping lists, barely legible, that I’d have to decipher in Waitrose, Superdrug, Marks and Taj food store. How quickly I came to know my Rimmel from my Maybelline. My jeera from my dhana
- Naughty missions now and again to bring her the odd treat like a Baby Cham, a G & T or a beanburger during or after a hard day's graft
- Spelling tests after school as mum began to wind down after a 10-hour day. We reminisced with her about this just before she passed away, thanking her and acknowledging how I’d become pretty good at this one. She tilted her head, smiled and said "very good"
- How mum would stand in the doorway of the house, weeping profusely whenever Hemal or I would return to college or university. The ‘waterworks’ as we dubbed them. She did miss us dearly when we left home for boarding school. But there was always the phone. My weekly, fortnightly, monthly chats with her were playful highlights of my time away, both while studying and travelling. I’d share my latest good news or, more often than not, unload my neurosis of the day and she’d take it all in with a ‘there there’ mother's manner before setting me straight, pleading with me not to drink too much and telling me to get on with making the family proud (getting a good job, buying a home, finding a wife, which she threatened to help with, and starting a family – the masterplan)
- Mum the domestic goddess; how she’d take so much pride in homemaking; her flowers in the garden that she nurtured, veiled and broken-backed, as if they were her own children. Her cutlery and tuppleware, treasured like precious jewels. Her spice tin and cabinet, an aladdin’s cave of mysterious fragrances and taste sensations. Oh how we would talk on and on as we washed the dishes, cleaned the house, rearranged the cupboards… Priceless time, looking back…
- Wading through a mountain of saris to clean her dressing room and choking on the thick layers of talcum powder circulating in the air. Mum did always have a liberal hand…
- Mum the gambler; how she’d itch her palms and then clasp her lucky dip ticket eagerly awaiting the National Lottery result every Saturday night. Though, this belies the statistician in her who would also analyse numbers, always feeling optimistic about her pick of six, plucked from her carrier bag of used tickets and scrawled permutations. Her annual flutter, the big one, was the Grand National. One pound here, two pounds there, guided by a few customers and her copy of the Racing Post
- A staunch Royalist and gossip queen, mum would never miss a TV wedding, a Hello expose or snooty write up in the Daily Mail. I still remember on the day Princess Diana died, she woke up at the break of dawn mourning the loss as if it were one of her own. I’m glad that, thanks to the kind souls in the HDU, mum was able to see William and Kate tie the knot. A great day for this nation to celebrate collectively and a wonderful spectacle of Britain at its best. Mum never forgot her roots but she loved this country because it was her home, even going as far as supporting England against India in the cricket
- The sports fanatic berating teams and managers alike. My funniest recollection being her random, almost irrational support of Newcastle United Football Club. A cult Geordie if there ever was one
- The soap queen, getting caught up in the storylines and taking sides on Emmerdale, Eastenders and Coronation St. Or picking her favourites on shows such as X-Factor, Strictly and Deal or No Deal. She loved the TV and after her time as the most affable of shopkeepers came to an end, with a mixture of relief and sadness, it became her main connection to the outside world. Her prime entertainment. Her escapism. And we all need that
- And how could I forget meal times in front of these shows? I can see her now moistening her lips and softly tap tapping on her tongue as he cooked, tasted and peeked through her steamed up, pink-framed oversize reading glasses (the chachma) that became very much part of her image. Her dinner call, an elongated high-pitched scream of my name from the kitchen … my cue to emerge from my blockaded room, set the table and prepare to feast like never before. Is it any wonder I lived at home until I reached 27?
- A legendary ability to fall asleep any time, anywhere, mouth agape and making that satisfied growl of a “hmmm … hmmm", which grew louder and louder until dad, sitting in the lounge stuggling to do paperwork or watch the TV, woke her up with a resounding “Niluuuu”. It was a gift that I greatly admired although in hindsight it was a symptom of what troubles lay ahead. Who knew?
- Countless epic phone chats with my two mamis Jayshri and Bena (the network as Hemal and I liked to call it) as well as the immensely supportive Bhavna masi and, more recently, Pratima auntie who became a good friend to mum, regularly popping in for a natter on her morning walks around Westdene
But it was at social gatherings that mum would truly come alive, lending an instant dose of sparkle and glamour to the occasion. Her long final chapter as a housewife made her even more appreciative of those Sunday afternoon excursions to the homes of her brothers Hemant, Rohit and Chai, not to mention countless weddings. She rarely needed a second invitation to pull out one of her many beautiful saris, or rather to ask me to pull one out – the shelf was too high – slip on her diamonds and, ultimately, steal the show.
To her family and friends, mum was a joy to be around. In fact, mum was good at making friends with most people: her doctor, her gardener, her hairdresser, her nurse, her neighbour. She radiated warmth and had a contagious, vivacious personality – genuine, generous and sincere. After a privileged upbringing in Uganda she had spent much of her life serving the public as a radiographer and newsagent. I’m sure this instilled in her a strong work ethic and a deep respect for those that are on 'the frontline'. She toiled for many years behind a counter next to a pub and opposite a day centre that often became a crucible for unsavoury and threatening types, yet she always stood firm, served with a smile and charmed customers into becoming regulars at Montpelier Stores in Brighton. It’s no surprise then, that staff at the ICU and HDU at Royal Sussex County Hospital quickly fell for ‘the boss’ as she became known. She was a real lady, distinguished yet polite and deeply thankful and appreciative to those that looked after her.
And I’m equally thankful for everything she’s done for myself, Hemal and dad as well as the wider family of cousins. As we all know, mum had a big heart and enough love inside her cuddly miniscule frame to spread over the world again and again. I only hope that living to see her two boys growing up (not grown up yet, I admit) has made this remarkably selfless woman feel rewarded and satisfied in her life’s work.
Losing mum has been my darkest hour. I feared that, rather than feeling a sense of joy each time I thought of her, I would have to forget her to make it through the days. I feared I’d lost my main motivation in life. But it’s still there, stronger than ever, and I’ll do what I promised mum in our final moments together: to work hard each day to make her proud – the same pride that she felt when her eldest finally qualified as a doctor and her youngest sidestepped the law, to her dismay, and settled into an editor’s chair in the City.
But that doesn’t mean living to work as her generation has had to do. Quite the opposite. She and I would talk at length about enjoyment. We’d exchange tales of amazing places we’d been to around the world – the sights, the smells, the people, the food. We shared the same passions, a sense of life’s romance and an appetite for its pleasures. But unfortunately, we didn’t have time to enjoy together the fruits of many decades of family labour.
The fragility of human existence, it’s the most harrowing of wake-up calls.
Cliches are often spouted in these circumstances. They can seem trite but they’re clichés for a good reason – they’re true. The one I’ve pondered most came from a colleague and mother of two who lost her mum at the age of 14. She told me this: "your mum lives on through you and your brother." I thought about that for a long time. One of the last things mum did was to take mine and Hemal’s hand and place them together in front us in an act of inseparable union. “Two brothers should always be together. Don’t fight. Love and look after each other please,” were the words she mouthed, mustering her last few drops of energy. That was her mantra; well one of them anyway [another you’ll hear as you exit this chapel]. And she was right. At some point we stop looking at the things that separate us from one another and we begin to embrace and nurture the things we have in common.
So to everyone I say this, and I’m sure mum would echo these sentiments: live each day like it’s your last but, more importantly, do it with your family. Because when your working days are done, your new best friends have moved on, relationships flounder and money doesn’t motivate like it used to, the love of your mother, father, sister or brother is all that really matters in this world.