Today I had the pleasure of undertaking my first interview for a magazine. The magazine (unsurprisingly) was ‘Speak Out‘ (unsurprising because I’m the editor of it…!!!) and the interviewee was one of my teenage idols, Ranking Roger from Birmingham/Two Tone ska band The Beat. Best thing about it is that Roger loves it and gives it his seal of approval…!!! Just so that you know, the first edition of ‘Speak Out‘ will be available circa 25th August and if possible, I will upload a free downloadable pdf copy onto the blog (by the way, it’s title has not been finalised yet, hence the amazingly un-original ‘Ranking Full Stop Part 2: Interview with Ranking Roger’). Read and enjoy…
2009 marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of ska band The Beat, one of Birmingham’s most loved musical exports. Following a string of successful live dates around the country – including a homecoming gig at the Birmingham Carling Academy – and in between being on various festival line-ups this summer, Speak Out magazine caught up with The Beat’s front man, Ranking Roger to find out more about him. We started by asking him what it was like growing up in Birmingham.
“It was both exciting and dangerous. We grew up in Stechford a predominantly white area that was also home to the headquarters of the National Front. Even though they weren’t as violent as the British Movement became, I always remember how they used to march right past our house. But Stechford was good too because there was a lot of Irish people living there and they were on our side because they felt threatened too.”
“This was the start of me realising that the way forward was peace, love and unity because people shouldn’t live in fear just because of their colour or because of who they are. From a very early age – from when I was about 9 – I was thinking about how I wished the world was more equal.”
This commitment continued throughout Roger’s teenage years. “When I was 15, I became a punk rocker. And whilst there was an element of racism in punk, this wasn’t what punk stood for. I remember Johnny Rotten going on the radio and telling punks to listen to reggae music because it had the same message as punk: a totally different music but completely the same message.”
“From then, punks started listening to more reggae and bands like the Clash began doing covers of reggae classics such as ‘Police & Thieves’. Despite being four white blokes, they had grown up in multicultural areas and you’d be surprised how many black artists they were involved with – it was phenomenal.”
And out of this came the ska and highly influential Two Tone movement. “Many of the punks that were racist seemed to become skinheads over night and this came out with the Two Tone thing. But many of them didn’t understand what Two Tone was really about. It took about a year before people started realising that it was about black and white uniting. Bands such as Madness used to get skinheads chanting ‘Seig Heil’ throughout their gigs but they hated it.”
Politics was an integral part of the Two Tone ska phenomenon, with tracks like The Beat’s “Stand Down Margaret” and The Specials’ “Ghost Town” perfectly capturing the mood of an early 80s Thatcherite Britain. We asked Roger how things were today compared to then.
“I think the difference between then and now is that the kids have not been educated. They don’t know what happened in the late 70s and early 80s. We knew because we were there but we haven’t told them and so a lot of their rights – our rights – are being taken away by the Government – much of the time under the banner of what they call ‘terrorism’. No-one is doing anything about this because we’ve pacified our kids with Playstations, DVDs, televisions – weapons of mass distraction.
“Our generation of youth was genuinely angry and we wanted to do something to change the future. We had learnt about how tough it was for our parents and for our communities. But today, that element of community is not even here.”
“Because of this, the lyrics The Beat sing are still as relevant today as they were then. There’s still unemployment, there’s still war around the world. We still shouldn’t pay attention to people’s colour yet we do.”
If things haven’t changed that much, what then for Britain?
“Well Britain kind of looks like there’s going to be a lot of decision-making to be made by people. I know it sounds a bit controversial – rebellious even – but there’s going to be questions asked about which side of the fence are you on. I see it already. People are sick and tired of the Government. They’ve had a bloody long run – maybe too long.”
“It’s funny, because nowadays I sing ‘Stand Down Gordon’ which is a real shame because I used to sing stand down Margaret. Between him and Tony Blair, I think they’ve done as bad a job as Thatcher. In a way, Labour have become the Conservatives and that makes me think about things that The Beat have always been involved in – Rock Against Racism, Love Music Hate Racism. In many ways, we came out of the Labour movement but that has really changed. Everything is all very, very controlled now.”
He went on, “I don’t know where it goes wrong with politics: someone sets out with all the right goals, with all the right answers, with all the right things that they’re going to do…but somewhere along the line it all gets warped and by the time they’ve hit the top, it’s impossible.”
After a moment’s pause he quickly adds, “I’m so glad I’m not a politician…!”
Given the fact that Roger has recently taken on the role of patron at human rights and equalities charity, BRAP, we ask Roger whether racism is still present in today’s society.
“It’s definitely changed but of course it’s still there. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, we got rid of all the SUS laws [informal name for ‘stop and search] but they are all back again. There were riots in England against the policies put in place against black people and that got things changed. Yet today’s new racism seems to be aimed towards the new influx of people coming here – the Poles, Africans and others. One day, I was sitting there and I thought, ‘My God, racism is back and nobody is realising it’. “
“In two or three years time, I hope I don’t see black and white people marching on the streets trying to get rid of the Eastern Europeans and others. That’s what the National Front and British National Party want.”
“Racism has never gone away – it’s a new kind of racism today, but it’s still as dangerous. And people need to be aware of this and do something about it.”
For a man who can claim Sting (The Police), Mick Jones (The Clash & Big Audio Dynamite), David Byrne (Talking Heads) and the late Joe Strummer (The Clash) as friends, Ranking Roger is a grounded and real person, someone that is committed to eradicating discrimination and prejudice from British society as well as ‘doing something about it’: his music and activism are testament to that.
And with a new album to mark The Beat’s 30th anniversary next year and his new role as patron of BRAP, it is clear that Roger’s message of peace, love and unity will continue to underpin all that he does.
You can read my earlier piece about meeting Ranking Roger for the first time by clicking here.
Below is a short ‘think-piece’ that I’ve written and due for publication in the first edition of the Birmingham based magazine, ‘Speak Out’. It’s closely derived from a column I wrote for the Birmingham Post.
If you’re interested in Britishness and being British? you can read my latest Birmingham Post article on the subject by clicking here.
Questions about citizenship and belonging have never been more intense than they are today. 7/7, immigration, proposed new equality legislation, citizenship tests and the burgeoning ‘war on terror’ have all had an impact on what it seems we as a society think it means to be a ‘citizen’ and to feel that you ‘belong’.
No doubt some of this has also underpinned the recent debates about what it means to be ‘British’. Here the Government has put forward suggestions that teenagers swear allegiance to Britain and the Queen when they leave school as a means of reinforcing a greater sense of having a British identity, whilst Gordon Brown has suggested establishing a ‘Britishness’ bank holiday. A recent YouGov poll also showed that 51% of the general public thought that Britishness should be taught in schools to improve young peoples’ sense of belonging and to make them into more rounded citizens.
Having been born in London, it’s interesting to see how my children – all born in the West Midlands – unquestionably belong here. Admittedly, we have not had to earn our British identity. Because both I and they are white being ‘British’ is something that is accepted as a given. Never has it been questioned, or not openly at least, despite having both Irish and Jewish heritages on competing sides of my family.
Unlike myself, my children have a strong emotional attachment to Birmingham and the West Midlands given that it was the place they were born and have since grown up. I do not have this emotional attachment but like almost 80% of the population – if the Government’s Citizenship Survey is accurate – I feel as though I belong in my local area quite irrespective of whether I have that same emotional attachment or not.
Almost unexplainably, my emotional attachment remains with Bermondsey in London: home to the Tabard Inn, a la Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ and regular haunt of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit. Despite it nearing twenty years since I last lived there, Bermondsey is where my heart remains. My head though tells me that today’s Bermondsey is far from where I belong and that I undeniably belong here in Birmingham.
It is my head then that tells me where my home is. Given that I now live here, work here, my children go to school here and that I may even eventually die here, Birmingham is where I belong. Given that I neither participate in anti-social behaviour nor do I have a penchant for criminal activity, I guess I’d also be described as a ‘good citizen’. All this whilst remaining a Londoner by definition.
To what extent then is an emotional attachment to somewhere else a barrier to belonging? And why do we worry so much about people maintaining their identities or keeping a part of the heritage in their hearts?
For me, whether the heart is attached to Mogadishu or Moseley, Kingston or Kingstanding, Warsaw or Weoley, Bermondsey or Bournville, it doesn’t stop your head from telling you where you belong. Yet in our quest for greater citizenship and belonging, we increasingly make unnecessary demands of those whose hearts may forever be elsewhere: asking them to ‘prove’ they belong, to ‘prove’ they are citizens, and to ‘prove’ they are British.
For many who have an attachment outside the UK, their experience of ‘Britishness’ may be very different from my own. As mentioned previously, I don’t have to earn or prove that I have it: it was attributed at birth without question. But for those who don’t look the same as me or don’t fit this profile, the same may not necessarily occur despite the possibility of them being second, third or even fourth generation British-born citizens. Despite having been a multicultural country for near half a century, notions of what it means to be British can still be seen and interpreted along overly simplistic ‘racialised’ lines.
This notion of Britishness was coined in the late 18th century, a time when the Empire and British monarchy were both extremely powerful throughout the world. This notion of what it meant to be British therefore emerged at a time when Britain was – in some people’s interpretation – truly ‘great’, hence the name ‘Great Britain’.
Following the major changes to have occurred in Britain since the end of the Second World War, most prominently the demise of the Empire and the influx of migrants from Commonwealth countries, much of what made Britain ‘great’ in this period has diminished, leaving the notion of what it is to be British as little more than a series of nostalgic moments in some far-off and distant past. As such, what we have traditionally understood being British to mean has been thrown into a state of flux, where the familiarities of the old world order – the ‘great’ Britain – no longer reflects either Britain in its contemporary setting of the 21st century or its position and role in an increasingly shrinking world.
What we know and understand about being British therefore fails to adequately answer the questions about who we are today. Because of this, a void requires filling that adequately explans this in a way that is meaningful for all in today’s Britain and not just those that maybe look like I or my children do. No surprise then that the politicians and commentators are panicking and left desperately scrabbling for ideas and answers to explain exactly who or what ‘we’ are.
Until we find ways to do this and negotiate around the obstacles created by our history, Britain will continue to make the experience of those who do not ‘look’ like they might be British increasingly difficult. Many will face interrogation and scrutiny, others unfounded mistrust, and some even outright xenophobia and racism in trying to make Britain their home. Whether this will be the same for those migrants that have recently arrived from Poland and indeed further east in Europe – given that they ‘look’ more like what traditional notions of being ‘British’ demands – only time will tell. But this in itself raises the question of when and how you might ever become British if you are never able to look the way traditional and historical notions tell you that you should. Irrespective of what the head tells you therefore, it’s the message that what we as a society and country send that will make the ultimate difference. No amount of citizenship lessons or national holidays will ever change these.
Due to the climate we currently live in, we don’t give people the opportunity to make Britain their home. Unlike my experience of being able to live, work and belong in Birmingham despite my heart remaining emotionally attached to London, many will never feel that they truly belong or that they can ever be citizens, many of whom will have been born and raised in Birmingham and who unquestionably belong in this diverse, vibrant and dynamic city.
The recent story about whether or not Thatcher should have a state funeral made me recall an old friend of mine – ‘Dave’ – who I saw just a few weeks ago. On the subject of Thatcher – and because of his intense loathing of her and her legacy – he has always claimed that when she finally dies, he will ‘party like it’s 1999′ or at least something like that.
Personally, I’m with him (‘Dave’ is his real name…) and can’t believe that we are even contemplating giving Thatcher a state funeral – not even the Queen Mother or Princess Diana had one of these (although I hasten to add that I’m no monarchist and definitely not advocating that any or indeed every two-bit royal is given some pomp and ceremony send of…!!!).
So to prove the point that she should not have a state funeral, I set out my case below (in no particular order)…
“Politically, Margaret Thatcher was Reagan with ovaries. Women didn’t gain much under her prime ministership in terms of equality”
And two final arguments that surely clinch the case for her not having a state funeral…
And so, in the words of Prince…”they say two thousand [add the numbers of the year when she actually dies] party over oops out of time, And so tonight I’m gonna party like its Thatcher’s funeral time”.
Following Channel 4′s ‘Dispatches’ programme – “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim” – being aired last Monday, and given the fact that the brochure accompanying the programme ‘thanks’ me for my support and contribution to the show’s making, you can now download pdf copies of all the relevant polls and documents using the links below.
If you’re interested in reading more about this programme, you can do so at:
You can also watch the programme using Channel 4′s ’4 On Demand’ service, available at:
Being comfortable with both my Britishness and my Englishness – at the same time being proud of my Irish and Scottish ancestry – I have to admit that I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the whole St George’s Day thing. Avoiding the celebrations here in Birmingham and elsewhere in the Midlands, I did have the misfortune to stumble across one event that was being advertised, its centrepiece a medieval jousting competition. Also on the bill were Morris Dancers and a ‘Ye Olde England’ fayre (probably involving a hog roast and some mead served by buxom wenches no doubt). Add in the jingoistic waving of St George cross flags and the wearing of red and white curly wigs and I have nothing to ask but is this really the best that we can do? In the words of Ultravox’s 80s electro-pop classic ‘Vienna’: “this means nothing to me…”.
My views on this however are – I appreciate – somewhat irrelevant. Once the greetings card industry add a date to their calendar, there’s little chance that it’s going to be removed. Having said that, I do remember card shops launching ‘Grandparent’s Day’ a few years back although that – thankfully – seems to have fallen by the wayside.
This all got me thinking about what it is to be British, especially given the seemingly ever increasing emphasis that our political leaders and national tabloid editors attribute to it. From the musings of Gordon Brown about the feasibility of having a ‘British Day’ to British citizenship tests that measure – through multiple choice questions – just how ‘British’ you are, it can all get a bit much. Lacklustre and uninspired are just two of the words that I would personally choose to use as my mind is haunted by the recurring nightmare of St George’s Day celebrations.
Given the task of facilitating a team meeting at work this week, I decided that it would be good fun to get my colleagues to take the British citizenship test (or at least part of it). With a pass mark of around 75%, I asked my colleagues ten questions to test their Britishness. Ranging from ‘what do you do if you spill a drink over someone in a pub’ (offer to buy them another) to what the name of the document was that was signed at Runnymede in the 13th century (the Magna Carta), as the questions unfolded so did the puzzled looks.
As I read out the answers, there were a mixture of sighs, groans and exclamations as people realised that they actually knew more (a few) or less (most) than they thought. Most got around 60% that under exam conditions, would have meant they failed and by consequence, refused legal citizen status.
Thinking about this further, those taking the tests can – if their means allows – re-sit as many times as they like and so passing it first time is completely un-necessary. Which begs the question, does learning a series of key events or responses really make you feel any more British? Do Morris Dancers make me feel more ‘English’? Unfortunately (thankfully?) no…
Where then are we going with understanding ‘Britishness’ and is this really the best that we can do?
There’s got to be more to it than merely answering multiple choice questions by rote or God forbid if the dreaded ‘British Day’ gets the go ahead, standing in orderly queues all day followed by a night of binge drinking. Any suggestions?
Since Jack Straw made his now infamous comments about the niqab being a barrier to blah-de-blah…the image of the niqab clad woman has become de rigeur in any newspaper article wanting to present Muslims or Islam as a ‘problem’.
However, amongst all of this, one particular niqabi has begun to acquire something of a cult status: offering something quite different to that which Jack Straw suggested. As the increasingly widespread ‘face’ of British Islam, what do we know about the niqabi behind the V-sign?
Well her first appearance was in the Daily Mail in January 2007 when she appeared alongside a report about the dawn terror raids in Birmingham to arrest those plotting to behead a serving British Muslim serviceman. Whilst it is near impossible to verify the fact, it said that the image was from the ‘streets of Birmingham’ and so must assume that she is a Brummie.
Shortly afterwards, the journalist and writer Melanie Phillips used her image on the cover of her reprinted edition of her controversial book, ‘Londonistan: how Britain is creating a terror state within’.
Since then, the same image has been used in The Sun newspaper on the 8th February 2008 alongside a story about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments around the ‘inevitability’ of Sharia law in Britain. What this image had to do with the debate in question is far from obvious but with a headline, ‘What a Burkha’, it would seem that the niqabi woman was used solely to reinforce the fact that the article was about ‘Muslims’ and ‘Islam’ (despite the fact that ‘Muslims’ really were quite incidental to what the Archbishop had said).
In returning to her roots, the most recent appearance of the ‘face’ of British Islam has been in the literature produced by the British National Party (BNP) to oppose the building of a mosque in Solihull. As with her appearance in the Sun however, there seems to be little relevance to what she is doing and what the campaign material is suggesting.
What is really interesting about the image is that its apparent defiance and subversiveness – in contrast to the typical submissiveness and oppressiveness identified within images of the niqab – is repeatedly used to capture how Muslims are perceived to feel towards the laws and values of British society. Indeed, to Britain in general. Its message therefore seems to be clear but at the same time not. Its message is mixed.
The niqab obviously does not fit with what is perceived to be ‘our’ culture, ‘our’ way of life, ‘our’ values and so on, and because of this – as the fallout from Jack Straw comments suggested – the niqab (and possibly even Islam) could not be understood as being a part of ‘our’ shared identity or culture. So whilst the niqab in the image becomes symbolically established as all that is not ‘normal’, other aspects of the image suggest quite the opposite.
A populist and extremely ‘New Labour’ way of identifying what constitutes ‘our’ culture is to visit a website established by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Entitled, ‘Culture Online’, the site houses a sub-site dedicated to the ‘Icons’ project. This project sets out to capture what it is that we perceive to be the ‘icons’ of our culture. Setting out a clear criteria for inclusion, all icons have to be:
Symbolic – they represent something in our culture, history or way of life
Recognisable in a crowd – if no-one has heard of it or knows what it looks like, it cannot be an icon
Fascinating and surprising – they have hidden depths and unexpected associations
Without any doubt, it would seem that the image of the niqabi ticks all of these boxes.
Even more ironic about the website however is the fact that alongside such famous ‘cultural icons’ as the good old cup of tea, Stonehenge, the pub, the FA Cup, the black taxi, and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, sits the same ‘V-sign’ that the niqabi is flashing.
As the site puts it:
In Britain, the V-sign – when done with the palm backwards – is a rude insult, meaning “Get Stuffed!”. Although it is now losing ground to the American single finger, it is still seen from time to time. Recent two-finger saluters include deputy PM John Prescott, Liam Gallagher of Oasis and England striker, Wayne Rooney.
Surely the Icons project should now add the Brummie niqabi?
Interestingly, the first photographic evidence of the V-sign dates from 1901, when workers outside the Parkgate ironworks in Rotherham were being filmed and a particularly defiant and unhappy young man aggressively made the gesture to the camera. Twelve years later and a photograph of a 1913 football crowd also shows a man making the sign. Again, the protagonist is using the gesture as an act of defiance.
Even when Winston Churchill began making his victory V-sign, his too was one of defiance.
And this of course is where the greatest irony of the image becomes apparent. Whilst it is clearly being used in such ways that it embodies the notion that Islam and Muslims are separate, ‘Other’ and everything but normal, it also highlights the very fact that the niqabi is doing something that is entirely in keeping with ‘our’ cultural ‘norms’ but so too is it being performed as part of a long standing tradition: defiant in exactly the same way that numerous others have been in a British cultural context beforehand. As such, she becomes both normal and abnormal, ‘us’ and ‘them’, passive and aggressive, compliant and defiant. Yet at no time do any of those using the image – the Daily Mail, The Sun, Melanie Phillips or the BNP – realise this.
The ‘Icons’ website states that the contemporary use of the V-sign is almost entirely ‘ironic’. What better irony then the ‘face’ of British Islam?