Monthly Archives: January 2013

Only fools can predict a legacy…

During the week in which Barack Obama was inaugurated to a second term as US President, there has been much talk of his legacy. The White House is working to a plan to avoid the usual second term pitfalls, while the pundits speak of legacy as though they can preordain the future.

The lead character in the novel “American Wife,” a fictionalised version of Laura Bush, muses that only men are concerned with leaving a legacy. She may be right. What is more arrogantly masculine than believing that only we control both the inputs and the outcomes of what we do with our lives?

Yet, regardless of the possible masculinity of legacy hunting, it is premature to begin thinking about Obama’s legacy now. He is only at the mid-point of his Presidency. 40 years after Nixon’s Presidency, there remains disagreement over his legacy.

In his second inaugural speech, Obama gave us some clues as to what he would like us to consider for his legacy. Climate change and immigration reform featured. But, in paying tribute to the coalition of forces that secured his victory, he hinted at his symbolic legacy.

“Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” rolled easily off his tongue. He confidently addressed gay rights in a way that no President has before. The first Latina Supreme Court Justice administered the oath of office to Vice President Biden. Richard Blanco was the first Latino and first openly gay person to deliver an Inaugural poem. Myrlie Evers-Williams became the first woman and the first layperson to deliver the Invocation at a Presidential inauguration.

If the pundits want legacy, Myrlie Evers-Williams’ presence on the Capitol steps virtually defines the word. At almost 80 years old, her legacy is one of continuing action and campaigning for civil rights, but one with accidental and tragic beginnings.

Born in Mississippi to a teenage mother, Evers-Williams was raised by her grandmother and aunt. Both schoolteachers, she followed in their steps. Myrlie enrolled at college so that she too could become a teacher. And on her first day, she met Medgar Evers. They fell in love, they married and they had three children.

Medgar became the state-wide organiser for the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Myrlie helped him with his work. Until, in 1963, hours after President Kennedy’s national address in support of civil rights legislation, Medgar was shot and killed outside their home.

Myrlie carried on campaigning. Interviewed in 2011, she said that she continued “out of my love and respect for him and what he did.” Her work involved three trials for the man responsible for her husband’s murder. Two trials in the 1960s produced hung juries; a conviction only secured in 1994. It included writing, running unsuccessfully for Congress, and working as a community organiser and fundraiser.

In 1995 she was elected as National Chairwoman of the NAACP, completing the circle begun by her husband three decades earlier. Her tenure is celebrated for steadying a storm-battered organisation. Evers-Williams herself once wrote “Almost none of those accomplishments were things that I, Myrlie Louise Beasley, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, was raised to do.”

Did the women gathered at Seneca Falls in 1848 imagine a woman delivering the invocation at a Presidential Inauguration? Did those involved in the civil rights movement of fifty years ago picture that woman being black, speaking at the inauguration of a black man? Did the men and women who fought back at the Stonewall Inn imagine that an openly gay man would share the stage with Presidents and Senators, at the inauguration of a President publicly committed to achieving full equality for gays and lesbians?

If there is a lesson in any of this, it is that perhaps those pundits who focus on policies as legacy miss the point. Policy matters as the framework for laws, but laws can change in the blink of an eye. Transformations cannot be achieved without policy. But they are measured through symbolism; that of Myrlie Evers-Williams, of Sonia Sotomayor, of Richard Blanco, of President Barack Hussein Obama all sharing a platform on the steps of the US Capitol.

The symbolism of a changing America has been talked about as Obama’s legacy for as long as he has been a national politician. The reality of how big that change is was visible for all on Monday.

His political legacy is another matter. Amy Davidson summed it up best in the New Yorker. “There were plenty of reminders of how impossible it is to know how any given story ends,” she wrote. Davidson could see what other pundits are paid not to see; that the accidents of life and the whims of others have as much say as we do in what our legacy might be. Just ask Myrlie Evers-Williams.

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The magic of From Our Own Correspondent

Life is full of people or events that have an impact on us. Some are small and seemingly inconsequential, while others have “impact” stamped on them from the beginning. All take on more meaning as time passes, often subtly changing our outlook. Sometimes they can dramatically alter the course of our lives.

As an eight year old during the first Gulf War, I remember mornings filled with news reports on BBC Breakfast News. They invariably featured Kate Adie with wide-brimmed hat atop her head. Her constant and unflappable demeanour was very much a part of her effectiveness as a journalist. She came to epitomise the reporting of that and successive conflicts, from the former Yugoslavia to Rwanda. Her impact on me has been subtle. But I owe much of my journalistic ambition to her breakfast dispatches from the Persian Gulf.

Adie again guides that ambition. As the host of Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent, her clipped tones provide a knowledgeable introduction to the reports from BBC foreign correspondents. Known as FOOC, and broadcast for almost 60 years, it is one of the BBC’s most significant programmes.  It has been a gradual but defining source of personal ambition.

Tony Grant is the long-standing editor of FOOC. On the 50th anniversary of the show he wrote that “It gives listeners a unique personal link to the BBC’s army of correspondents.” It is, he continued, “an opportunity to share in the enthusiasm they feel in covering what are often momentous events in exotic locations.”

From Our Own Correspondent is at once both personal and professional. It is both evocative and informative. Reporters get to tell a story in their own voice. But they are stories rooted by place and context. The programme’s website states that some reporters find writing for FOOC to be cathartic. Listening to the programme, it is evident that many relish the opportunity to go beyond the headlines and the sound-bites. It is their chance to give a small flavour of a place or a people.

Storytelling is at the heart of FOOC, no doubt a feature of its decades-long appeal. Descriptive in nature, it enlivens the context of what is in the news. Most of all, it is about experiences.

The most recent episode featured stories from countries as diverse as Hungary and Mali, France and Syria. Petroc Trelawny got the number 54 bus to a flea market, which he described as recycling Hungary’s tumultuous history. In France John Laurenson informed us of changing wine consumption while his daughters were at hip-hop dance classes. Mark Doyle was in Mali. He told us of French troops in tightly fitting tropical shorts making an 800 mile dash across the Sahara to fight Islamic militants, while Nick Thorpe pleasurably described his odyssey across west Africa 32 years ago. And Lyse Doucet reported from Syria, where “even sympathy is suspect.”

The past year has brought tales of holidays on the Riviera Romagnola from Dany Mitzman, of white asparagus season in Germany from Stephen Evans and of a shortage of eggs in the Falkland Islands from Allan Little. But the most poignant report came from Jon Donnison. His story was of an attack in Gaza in which the young son of a BBC video editor was killed. Donnison’s impressive telling of the story highlights the professionalism of BBC staff. It was balanced and delicate yet emotionally gut-wrenching. Take five minutes to listen to the tale of Omar and how the beds in his home “are now only good for charcoal.”

From Our Own Correspondent resonates because of its international outlook. It brings the world to life and challenges the domestic focus of news reporting. The programme makes far-away correspondents feel like old friends. It is as if we are gathered round the kitchen table having a late-night drink. Some feature regularly, such as Steve Evans in Berlin, Steve Rosenberg in Moscow and Alan Johnston in Rome. But there are always fresh voices, with fresh perspectives.

For all of this, and for the fact that it has given voice to my own ambition of wanting to feature as one of the eponymous correspondents, FOOC is my favourite piece of broadcasting. It took a long time for me to discover its pleasures. But its past absence has been replaced by a commitment to never miss an episode.

I have but one quibble. On Radio 4 it is broadcast year-round on Saturdays, with an additional episode on Thursdays for about half the year. And what is my quibble? For 27 weeks of the year, once a week is just not enough.

 

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Reflections, not resolutions

It was news to me that my writing is too descriptive and, in the phrase of a good friend, “solid”, until I was 29. It may have been a deeply buried yet fleeting realisation on earlier occasions, but such thoughts were dismissed as the fault of others for not appreciating my writing.

This causes a problem because I want to be a writer. More specifically, I want to be a foreign correspondent. Writing skill and style is of rather critical importance to foreign correspondents. Journalists who lack the ability to write well are rarely successful.

Some writers have undeniable natural talents. Others have learnt their craft by writing, rewriting and rewriting lots more. People who want to be writers are told to read. But it is not enough to read the words on the page. The author’s chosen words and phrases must be dissected, critiqued, understood and, ultimately, absorbed by the reader.

This is all by way of saying that I do not do resolutions. Seventeen days into a New Year is not the time to be making New Year’s Resolutions, nor do I have faith in them. Maybe I have no faith in me. In any case, I do not do resolutions. But, two months into my 30s, I am ready to look ahead to when I will be 40.

Reflection  is natural at endings and beginnings. Entering my 30s in late 2012 meant that both November and December were especially reflective. With the melancholy of knowing that I no longer have some choices that I had at 20, but the excitement of better knowing who I am and what I am good at, I am ready to make some decisions. They are not a reaction to short-term impulse, like so many New Year’s Resolutions. Rather, they are rooted in reflection, and an ambition that was always there, but that was allowed to drift.

People who are confident in their decisions often say they have no regrets. They are happy with where they are in life. While I am not filled with regrets, there are undoubtedly opportunities not pursued, places not visited, and choices I wish I had made differently. Not wishing to be someone other than who I am, I do wonder about who that other me would be, and where I would be.

So, to writing. Instead of pursuing journalism after school, I decided that the temperament required to be a journalist was different from the one that I possess. I even justified my decision when a taxi driver regaled me with tales of drunken journos and broken marriages.

Kate Adie and Allan Little have a lot to answer for. From Our Own Correspondent has prompted me to pursue, at age 30, a career as a foreign correspondent. Listening to the programme on BBC Radio 4 has renewed my ambition. It has sparked a specific goal. Call it a resolution if you must. By 40 I will have featured, from some far-flung corner of the globe, on From Our Own Correspondent with a dispatch detailing life as the BBC’s Correspondent in said far-flung corner.

As the programme name suggests, only BBC Correspondents appear on the programme. So I shall need a journalism qualification, for which I will need several thousand pounds, and I shall need someone at the BBC to give me a job. For that to happen I will need to write well.

As I currently read Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady,” I am constantly struck by how none of my teachers took me aside and said to me, “Short sentences. No waffling.”

But reflection brings clarity, and clarity prompts action. So to develop as a writer I will write at least 500 words a day, with at least one published article on my blog every seven days.

Having thought of the what, the where looms large. Amid the self-destructive seizures to which Belfast is submitting itself once again, I question the fact that I still live there. Richard Florida wrote “I want to make sure that every day I see someone that looks and acts different than me.”  Belfast is too limiting, too insular, too toxic to be that kind of place.

Yet it remains home. For reasons both illogical and logical, I stayed. The chances to leave passed by while my eyes looked elsewhere. Other opportunities presented themselves, most notably in having an incomparable mentor and friend as my boss. But remaining in Belfast feels like being strangled in slow-motion. The grip of despair tightens month after month.

So the goal is Istanbul or Buenos Aires or Tokyo, maybe with a stop-off in London on the a way. The real goal is to live in a place that inspires, that contains real diversity and that has a cosmopolitan vigour. It is reflected in wanting to be a foreign correspondent and the chance that no assignment will last for longer than a few years.

It is reflected in my ambition to return to languages. There is an embarrassment at having failed to master a foreign language. Some might say I have yet to master English, but that does not negate my dream of learning a language or two, or three.

Spanish and Arabic are most appealing for the former’s sensuality and the latter’s mysticism. Both would be helpful for a career as a foreign correspondent. Both would be useful for personal adventures to South America and the Levant.

Combined, they amount to my dream that, long before I am forty, I will fondly remember my decade and a half in Belfast, but will do so from the banks of the Golden Horn or the galleries of San Telmo. And I will do so as a fluent speaker of Spanish and a competent speaker of Arabic, maybe even on the way to mastering Turkish.

Istanbul holds special fondness. It is where I became engaged, and it is the place where Kevin, my partner, and I hope to return for an extended period of time. It will not happen in 2013, nor in 2014, but we will live in Istanbul.

There remains, behind all of this ambition, the question of how? Only about 20% of people who set resolutions will succeed. Goals are one thing, taking steps towards them is another. Plenty of people, including teenaged me, are fans of motivational quotes. We all know the ones that urge us to “Dream Big”; something that encourages naïve teenage optimism, but that fails to connect inspiration with action.

I am ashamed to admit that I only recently realised that inspirational quotes on their own are as empty as a student’s fridge. Believing that big dreams and big ambitions would equal big success, I was convinced that success would be natural. It was a low and only a passing consideration that success requires focused, specific  and dedicated work.

Four things fed my natural procrastination: the lack of specific and personal goals; not knowing what exactly I was really good at; a fear of failure that was fed by my need for perfection and my need to analyse; and the fact that distractions are plentiful, whether invented by Steve Jobs or Johannes Gutenburg.

But my future happiness rests upon me making some changes. It will take more than words. My ambitions are now clear and specific. They now require a plan. They require me to reflect on what I have done at the end of every day, every week and every month to help make them a reality.

The path has been set. I cannot allow myself to be derailed. I need to finish what I start, no matter how big or small. I need to take individual and specific steps to make me happier and more successful. That means individual and specific steps to learn Spanish and Arabic. It means a specific and planned timetable to move somewhere more invigorating. It means a specific plan to save the money for a qualification in journalism, and it means developing my skills as a writer.

Fulfilling my ambitions will require me to be selfish with my time. I must be more disciplined and decisive, and develop routines to help. I must accept that I need to do more and analyse less. I will need to hold up a mirror to my excuse-making and time-wasting. I need to finish what I start, and these 1400 words are the start of something new.

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Filed under Ambition, Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Personal