The first episode of the new Russell Brand podcast will be live at 10pm Wednesday 25th February.
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“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire
Today Charlie Hebdo is making the news once again with the publication of its “Survivor” issue depicting a cartoon of a weeping Prophet Muhammad. After a horrific week for France which has seen the acts of murder, manhunts & a mass “unity rally” being played out in real-time for all of the world to see. #JeSuisCharlie became the most popular hashtag in Twitter history as the argument of “Freedom of Speech” was debated clearly in cold blood.
Being from London, I vividly remember the 2005 bomb attacks. A friend of mine, Chris “Njoya Diawara” Small lost his life in an explosion that went off on the train that he boarded. It’s awful, it’s gut wrenching. Despite any of my self-proclaimed “tolerant values”, I’ve been there before & seen how it manifests: the first emotion is fear, the next emotion is hate. Security inevitably gets amped up, more black & brown faces inevitably get stopped & searched. There are more inevitable calls for tighter immigration & more Muslims are inevitably dragged onto TV to profusely denounce violence & abate our fears.
Staring at the front cover with its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, it fascinates me. How can such a simply drawn cartoon be at the epicentre of such a tragic storm? I find myself caught between two sentiments: one the one hand, I appreciate that the staff at Charlie Hebdo had to honour the spirit of their fallen colleagues. You can’t have millions of people supporting your right to “Free Speech” & then back down from exercising that right. But on the other hand, you can’t characterise the Prophet Muhammad without offending Muslims and why would that be an admirable intention? It forms an interesting quandary.
As a black man, I ask myself “How would I feel if today’s Charlie Hebdo’s cover had a picture of a golliwog or just had the word ‘nigger’ emblazoned on their front cover?” Would I be able to applaud the daring satire & the bold statement of “Freedom?”. Or would I be unable to get past the fact that a group of white cartoonists were flexing their pen-muscles & exercising their right to ridicule my race? And how would I realistically feel towards people who told me to lighten up & laugh along?
Every joke requires a set-up & a punchline, from satire to slapstick. So if the set-up excludes me, isn’t the joke is likely to exclude me as well? If Charlie Hebdo printed a golliwog edition today, some would see it as: an amusing caricature that’s set-up within a sophisticated use of irony to deliver an acidic punchline. Yet I might only see another remnant of slavery reminding me of a painful link to an ever-evolving chain of oppression. If the set-up excludes me, how can I be realistically asked to partake in the joke?
It could be argued that the violent actions in Paris were born from previous violent actions & not just a bunch of drawings within a small publication. It’s never a single straw alone that breaks the camel’s back, it’s an avalanche of hay. Even with all the pain that the 7/7 London bombings caused 10 years ago, I long realised this. We (as citizens of the West) have no idea what atrocities our governments have committed abroad in the name of “Freedom”. So when these tragic terrorist incidents occur, we’ve got no frame of reference as to what gave birth to them. We only see the cartoons & the jokes, not the drones, the torturing & the bombings. Our media conveniently exclude us from the set-ups so we never fully understand the punchlines.
But it’s always easier to come back from words, ridicule, insults & satire, no matter how cutting or raw. It’s harder to come back from burying your loved ones. Nobody deserves to die over some f**king cartoons & my friend didn’t deserve to die just going to f**king work! As a poet I fundamentally believe in the idea of “Freedom of Speech”, that’s why Voltaire’s quote rings through to my very soul. “Freedom of Speech” allows for dialogue & a healthy exchange of ideas & it must be defended. So let Charlie Hebdo print what they want, let Muslims voice their disapproval & let’s try & understand all sides to this catastrophic tragedy without tearing each other apart.
Sometimes I wonder how the world would react if we knew that a meteor was going to wipe us all out. Would mankind resolve its incessant bickering so we can live out our remaining days & just chill? Or would we still be waging dumb wars on each other, until the final curtain falls & the lights go out?
Away on holiday in a low signal land events in Paris are glimpsed as if through a crack in a door back to a terrible and confusing world.
This violence now though has the eerie familiarity and bilious dread of a recurring nightmare and can be pieced together with weary glances at airport lounge TVs, foreign newspapers and despairing texts from troubled friends.
Devastation in the City of Love, the New Year already feels tainted, blood stained in January by murder and sieges and grieving widows.
I don’t know much about Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine where the murders took place. As a believer in God I respect the beliefs of all faiths, as a human being I respect freedom of speech. Where do we go then beyond fear and condemnation, cowed in the valley of the shadow of death two weeks into 2015?
How can any spiritual scripture be used as justification for mass murder? How can the tenet that The Prophet ought never be depicted ever override Islam’s most mundane greeting AsSalaam alaikum – “peace and mercy be upon you”? It can’t and it doesn’t.
The young, bewildered, pitiable men that carry out these atrocities probably at the behest of older, power hungry men do not speak for Islam or Muhammad or Allah.
This language has nothing to do with the God I believe in or the God any of the Muslims I know believe in.
These men of murder are the symptom of a creed that lies as far away from God as is possible to conceive and do not represent Islam anymore than George Bush, Tony Blair and Halliburton represented Christianity, or ordinary, secular Europeans and Americans when they profited from the bombing of innocent Iraqis.
I suppose there will now be calls to curb our freedom. There will be tension and fear in mixed communities like the one I live in, there will be a temptation to generalise and damn in the bleak and monotonous tears of these insistent tragedies.
The awful fact is that violence of this type is almost impossible to stop. If any of us decide to yield to the terror within us and inflict violence, misguidedly or arbitrarily then how can it be prevented? More gates and bars and guards? More spying and borders and hate? More division and suspicion and derision? That is the philosophy that got us here.
The only answer is in the territory of the spirit, in the deep interconnectedness within us all. In the acceptance that all action on this plane is the manifestation of an inner realm and violence of an inner malady. Our only hope is compassion and love. To marshall vigorously the only terror and violence we can absolutely control; that which is within us individually.
I don’t mean this in a wet, liberal “kumbaye ah me lord” type way. I am saying that we must love as passionately as they hate. We must respect as vehemently as they desecrate. It is not easy to be peaceful and loving in the face of dreadful violence but it’s all we have.
The reason I feel frightened by tragedies such as this is because I think there’s nothing I can do, but there is. I can love and tolerate and reach across the fear. In places where secular and religious folk live together we have got to start observing the main message of every scripture; “be nice”.
All the other stuff is speculation; which book is best, which God is the most mighty. None of us know what’s beyond the sensory realm, this tiny sliver of material life strewn within the infinite. But we each have the power to create heaven or hell here on Earth, extremists on all sides are clear in their intentions and actions, we, the vast, powerful majority, Christians, Muslims, atheists and undecideds have to be more committed and more determined. We must love life more than they love death. We must love each other more than they hate, in God’s name, in Allah’s name in Charlie’s name, in all our names.
John Rogers talks to Donnachadh McCarthy from Occupy the Media Billionaires about Occupy Rupert Murdoch taking place in March.
Donnachadh tells us how five billionaires own and operate the media in the UK: Rupert Murdoch, Jonathon Harmsworth, Richard Desmond and the Barclays Twins.
More info on Facebook
The 93 families of the New Era estate have achieved an incredible victory against greedy corporations and lazy politicians and I believe, and the name of the estate suggests, this is the start of something that will change our country forever.
When I first clattered into Lindsey, Lynsay and Danielle in Hoxton market, East London, bantering, smashing out flyers and hassling shoppers into supporting the campaign to keep their homes, I had no idea that I had inadvertently wandered into the heart of a truly accessible and exciting movement to oppose pointless government and tyrannical big business.
As I stood and listened to the hollering trio, their kids wove in and out of their legs like titchy Agueros. The women have one child each; “The Lindsays” are both working single mums. I was captivated by their abundant spirit, the clear validity of their cause (greedy landlords jacking up rents, inefficient authorities doing F.A) but also by an eerily resonant pang, a ghostly memory of something lost to me, or perhaps stolen.
Over the next few months I became further enchanted by my new neighbours and met more of the New Era families. Initially just popping to the estate to glean information germane to the campaign – how much is rent going up? (it’s being quadrupled) Is this social cleansing? (the growing practice of moving working people out of big cities, yes.) Have Westbrook, the American corporation in charge, done this before? (yes, they’ve been banned for dodgy practices in NYC). Then I started to stay at the estate for tea, perhaps with Lindsey G’s parents Chrissie and Tony. Then for food, Lynsay S is a mean cook. Then for no reason at all Danielle’s boyfriend Ian is a laugh and we chat about football. I went there whenever I had free time. It became, to simplify it, basically the plot of “Dances With Wolves”.
I left my lonely (luxury tax haven!!!) house, which would be Kevin Costner’s fort, waved goodbye to Morrissey, my cat, which, in my mind, would be that wolf, I believe he was called “Socks”, and headed to New Era – in this patronising analogy they’re the Native American tribe.
Drawn in initially by the importance and ubiquity of the cause, housing is the issue of our time, I was compelled to stay, as if held by the heart, by a deeper issue, both social and personal. By something I didn’t even know I was grieving; the loss of community, our connection to each other.
On the New Era estate I was welcomed first by the campaign leaders but then by everyone as I continued to hang out there, Harry, father of a teenage son and a boxing coach, Nell, who speaks mostly in swearwords and still thinks I’m Russell Harty and Mary. Mary who sounds like my Nan and with the first words she said to me hit a dormant chord that hadn’t been struck for ten years since she died.
At Dolly, Linsey’s daughter’s confirmation at St Clements, at the buffet I fell backwards through decades wasted and ignored. Old dears that were old lady shaped cooed and brought me paper plates of nearly vegetarian food, and the memory of my ol’ Nan’s mates; the Joyce’s and the Vi’s welled up in me as I mimed eating bacon quiche. Her house on Lillechurch Road, Dagenham where she lived and died and where I’d crash and hide when I nightly crumbled in London and all that stood between me and suicide was a 3am omelet.
The Eastend communities of her generation spilled into Essex as “The Smoke” coughed up its natives to make room, not for immigrants, like they thought but for creeping gentrification. Their kids, my parent, maybe your parents bought their homes in Essex and Kent, but more was swapped than mortgage for rent. I grew up alone in Grays End Close, a lonely boy, the only son of a single working Mum. By the time my growing up was half done the idea of tribe, community was an abstract one. For me “You make yer own luck in this world son” was my creed and individualism my religion.
I got the things I was told would make me right; fame, money, glamour and it’s not all that. It’s better than signing on or being a junkie but is it ever as simple as that?
Now I know, thanks to the New Era families, that what I was looking for, perhaps what we’re all looking for is already here; “the kindom of Heaven is laid upon the earth but man does not see it”, it is found when we put aside selfish things and come together.
I gave up a lot to pursue my dream of fame and fortune and now I’m not sure that dream was ever mine to begin with. Now I know that what I lost, or perhaps what was stolen was a tender thing that’s hard to weigh or render, but it’s there. It was there at my dear old Nan’s, where the door was always open, it lingers in me still after the decade long crusade for personal glory and it’s there in the New Era estate where 93 ordinary families stood up to corporations and lazy government and won. There’s a little of this spirit in all of us and it is beginning to awaken.
I’ve just got home from recording bbc tv’s political debate show Question Time and if you saw it and found it anti-climactic, I know how you feel.
Nigel Farage in the flesh, gin blossomed flesh that it is, inspires sympathy more than fear, an end of the pier, end of the road, end of days politician, who like many people who drink too much has a certain sloppy sadness. Camilla Cavendish who I was sat next to, seemed kindly and the two politicians from opposing parties, that flanked Dimbleby melted into an indistinguishable potage of cautious wonk words before I could properly learn which was blue and which was red. For my part I sat politely on my hands, keen to avoid hollering obscenities after a week of hypocrisy accusations and half-arsed, front page controversy.
Only the audience inspire passion or connection. Humanity. The usual preposterous jumble that you see in any of our towns, even if groomed and prepped by Auntie, they comparatively throb with authenticity opposite us, across the shark-eyed bank of cumbersome cameras.
The panelists have been together in “the green room” chatting, like before any TV show, and that’s what QT is, a TV show, a timid and tepid debate where the topics and dynamism of the discussion are as wooden and flat as the table we gamely sit around.
There is a practice question prior to the record, so the cameras can position and mics can be checked and the audience can practice harrumphing. In my dressing room at the modern Kentish theatre, before my sticky descent, I can hear them being prepped “ask questions, quarrel, applaud, keep those hands up”.
The practice question is a soft ball rhubarb toss about clumping kids or something and even though I’m determined to concentrate like a grown up, my mind drifts back to the Canterbury Food Bank I visited before arriving, partly to learn about it, as a researcher told me there might be question on them and first hand knowledge would make me look good, and partly because, y’know, I actually care.
In a warehouse in a retail park Christians and sixth formers assemble bags of what would rightly be considered “staples” in a kinder world. Tins of food and packets of biscuits and it’s good that we’re near to the “White Cliffs of Dover” because it feels like there’s a war on and the livid coloured packaging goes sepia in my mind as Dame Vera scores the melancholy scene.
The Christians are as Christians are, kind and optimistic. The donations come from ordinary local folk “We get more from the poorer people” says Martin, a quick deputy in a cuddly jumper. “More from Asda shoppers than Waitrose.” As I contemplate cancelling my Ocado (or whatever the fuck it’s called) order Chrissy, the lady who runs the scheme says that this year people who received packages previously have now donated themselves. Previous recipients often volunteer an all. Here older folk and the students diligently box off the nosh and I determine to give them and their heartening endeavor a shout out on the show and my writhing, nervous gut begins to settle.
Chrissy explains how the Canterbury Food Bank has brought people together, not just those it feeds but those who volunteer. “It seemed like a good way to worship Christ” she says. Martin, who I am starting to gently fall in love with, observes that supermarkets profit from the enterprise as Food Bank campaigns encourage their customers to spend more there. “Do you think there’s an obligation for the state to feed people?” I ask “or room for a bit more Jesus kicking the money lenders out of the temple type stuff?”
Many who use their facility are people that work full time and still fall short, others have suffered under “benefit sanctions”. “They’re very quick to cut off people’s benefits these days” says Martin.
“People think that Canterbury is affluent, but all around us are pockets of the hidden hungry”. The hidden hungry. “I’m gonna use that” I tell him as I scarper. He makes a very British joke about charging me as I get in the car and I tell him I nicked some jammy dodgers, and we laugh so that’s alright.
I think about the hidden hungry as I settle into my QT chair and get “mic’d up”. Farage entered to a simultaneous cheer and jeer, they cancel each other out, like bose headphones and leave an eerie silence. David Dimbleby says something about it being panto season and someone in the audience says “oh no it isn’t” and I love him for it, even though I’m pretty sure he was one of the UKip cheerers.
And a pantomime it is, well not so entertaining, no flouncing dames or doleful Buttons or rousing songs, just semi-staged tittle-tattle and bickering. The only worthwhile sentiments, be they raging or insightful come from the audience, across the camera bank. The man who brings up politicians pay rises, the man who demands I stand for parliament (so that he could not vote for me judging from his antipathy), the mad, lovely blue hair woman who swears at everyone, mostly though the woman who says “Why are we talking about immigrants? It’s a side issue, this crisis was caused by financial negligence and the subsequent bail-out”. This piece of rhetoric more valuable than anything I could’ve said, including my pound-shop Enoch Powell gag. More potent than the one thing I regret not saying because time and format did not permit it. That the people have the wisdom, not politicians, that the old paradigm is broken and will not be repaired. That the future is collectivised power. Parliamentary politics is dead, they, it’s denizens, wandering from aye to neigh from Tory to UKip know it’s dead and we know it’s dead. Farage is worse than stagnant, he is a tribute act, he is a nostalgic spasm for a Britain that never was; an infinite cricket green with no one from the colonies to raise the game, grammar schools on every corner and shamed women breastfeeding under giant parasols. The Britain of the future will be born of alliances between ordinary, self-governing people, organised locally, communicating globally. Built on principles that are found in traditions like Christianity; community, altruism, kindness, love.
In the “practice question” Farage says it’s okay to hit children “it’s good for them to be afraid” he said. There is a lot of fear about in our country at the moment and he is certainly benefiting from it. But the Britain I love is unafraid and brave. We have a laugh together, we take care of one another, we love an underdog and we unite to confront bullies. We voluntarily feed the poor when the government won’t do it. These ideas and actions that I saw in the food bank and across the camera bank are where the real power lies and this new power is the answer, no question about it.
TODAY I’ll be at Waterstones (book shop) Piccadilly (London) signing Pied Piper and Revolution at 4pm.
Hello mate, Russell here
Thanks for giving me your email and signing up for the revolution, I promise I won’t sell your details to a spam firm that want to flog you priapism pills.
I am excited to invite you to participate in our first action.
As you know property developers – in partnership with corrupt, inept or lazy politicians – have created a housing crisis for ordinary people all over the world. I bet your rent is soaring; I bet you are finding it hard to pay. It’s especially bad in cities, and for this first action we want to focus on London.
In Hoxton, East London there is a diabolical situation that we need your help with. The New Era estate provided affordable homes for ordinary working families (they ain’t that ordinary I hang out with em – some of em are right weirdos). The people that live in the 92 flats have grafted to make their homes their own, installing kitchens and heating and most importantly building a community where all the residents watch out for each other.
Then unfortunately (and I’m partly to blame by moving in and being so cool) Hoxton became “trendy”.
That’s when the old Etonian Edward Benyon (brother of richest Tory MP in Britain Richard Benyon), along with billion dollar American property firm Westbrook, purchased the property. They backtracked on the deal to keep the estate as affordable housing. They have told the families that the rents were going to go up to “market rate” and they had to cough up or jog on. But, the people of the New Era estate aren’t going anywhere. They’re making a stand and they need your help. First thing you can do is easy, just sign this petition to save their homes:
If the Benyon’s get their way, an entire community will be forced into B&Bs all over the country. They will be sent hundreds of miles away, to places they’ve never been, where they don’t know anyone. Old people who have lived there their whole lives, working nurses with kids, single mums – They will lose all the work, money and love they have invested in their homes and their community.
This is happening everywhere. Boris, their elected mayor (where did he go to school again?), is on the side of the property developers, not people like you. The New Era residents have decided to organise and fight back -and we can help them. Don’t forget the petition…
Because there’s something else you can help us with too…
On Saturday 8th November at 10.30am The New Era residents are holding a day of protest at the Benyon’s plush offices and numerous nearby cash cow properties. This will be a totally peaceful protest: they are bringing their kids. (If you don’t want to be totally peaceful, please go somewhere else – this isn’t for you.)
Everyone else – join us for a day of “Dickensian fun” to protest against the “3 Scrooges” – Boris and the Benyons! Dress up as a pauper or an urchin – pretty soon you’ll have no choice if they get their way – and support The New Era residents whose demands are simple – to stay in the homes they’ve worked to make their own at the rent that was agreed. Full stop.
I’ll be there – I’m either going as Fagin or Elephant Man – I know he wasn’t a Dickens character, he was a real bloke, but he was Victorian and he was exploited.
Together we can prevent our homes, communities and families being brushed aside to further benefit already loaded individuals and institutions. And it will be a right laugh.
We’re meeting outside the shops on the New Era Estate, Whitmore Road, London, N1
Please forward this email to your friends, share it on Facebook, and Tweet about it with the hashtag #ProtestTheThreeScrooges
If the New Era estate wins, we all win – we get to have cities that don’t belong to foreign oligarchs and corporations, but all of us.
And see you there.
Come to two ‘Revolution’ events in NYC tomorrow Tuesday 14th Oct:
3pm Zuccotti Park – See me reading excerpts from my new book. I’ll also be joined by some Occupy movement specialists and then marching to Wall Street with them.
Then 7.30pm @ The Strand Union Sq.