Friday, March 29, 2024

Book of the Month - Malcolm X speaks his truth

I've just finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was published in 1965, shortly after his violent death, by Alex Haley, the journalist to whom Malcolm narrated his life story. 

The version I read (pictured) was the 2007 edition. It included a short introduction by Gary Younge, which didn't really add much (and included a weird shoehorned in reference to footballer Zinedine Zidane). Alex Haley's Foreword on the other hand, was a riveting piece of biography and explained the process by which he collated the details of Malcolm X's life including the many sessions where he took notes as Malcom talked. 

My knowledge of Malcolm X before I read this was embarrassingly paltry. I knew he was involved in the civil rights movement (although it turns out he was actually quite critical of much of it) and that he had been killed relatively young. If pushed, I might have remembered the link with the Nation of Islam although I knew absolutely nothing about that movement. 

I feel grateful that Malcolm X took the time to share his life story. He doesn't hold back in detailing his failures and mistakes. His early life as a hustler, drug dealer and burglar in Boston and then in Harlem, New York, is a source of sorrow and shame to him. However, he also clearly sees how those experiences gave him some useful skills and experience that he put to use in later life as a Minister in the Nation of Islam and as a spokesperson for the movement. 

I have read a lot of conversion testimonies by people who have left behind lives of gutter crime, being transformed in some way by an encounter with Christianity. This is the first time I have read a testimony of someone converting into a different religion. But the mechanic is the same - discovering a sense of purpose, an internal renewal and change in moral outlook, a 'calling' to serve and a passionate tendency to take things to an extreme. 

All of this is evident in Malcolm X's description of his conversion to the idiosyncratic brand of "Islam" practiced by the Nation. He explains the Nation's teachings, many of which don't really hold up to serious examination. Although, in fairness, the idea that white "devils" were created as an act of rebellion against Allah is only as ridiculous on the surface as any other religious fables. As with all such stories, they represented a deeper truth - believable to Malcolm because of the brutal reality of growing up black in a deeply racist society where oppression for people with his colour skin was baked into the natural order. 

Reading his account of his early years, it seems inevitable he ended up as a street hustler. After his father was (apparently) murdered by white racists, his mother was driven into an asylum after having her children removed by social workers. Malcolm X is put in his place by school teachers who tell him to aim for a career "suitable" for black people rather than pursuing his idea of being a lawyer. He returns to that several times in his story - it was clearly a source of resentment for most of his life. Justifiably. 

The surprising element of his story is not that he ended up in prison. Where the story takes a turn is his 'rescue' by the Nation of Islam. When he leaves prison he rapidly ascends the hierarchy of the organisation, aggressively proselytising in the black community and founding mosques in cities across the USA. 

His success meant he eventually grew too big for the Nation and its founder, Elijah Muhammad, to deal with. Malcolm's rejection by the man he credited as his saviour left a deep psychological scar on him. It happened only a couple of years before his death and it's widely believed he was killed by members of the Nation on the orders of their leader. 

Following his departure from the Nation, Malcolm went on a Hajj to Mecca and travelled in Africa, seeking to improve the cause of black Americans by promoting brotherhood with Africans. This was in the heyday of post-colonial liberation for African countries. There is a tangible sense of hope that Africa was a rising power in Malcolm's descriptions of his travels. Sadly, that hope hasn't materialised in the sixty years since his death. 

His description of the Hajj, the joyfulness of the pilgrimage experience and the brotherhood he experienced with his fellow Muslim believers, is very compelling. It is the experience of a true believer deepening his faith, seeing the hand of God at work in every little circumstance. As very recent events in his life, this part of his story is obviously still hugely significant - he talks as if it is the culmination of his life journey. Which, tragically, it was.

Reading his life in his own words, it's hard not to like Malcolm X even if his opinions and attitudes have dated. His view of women, generally, is unenlightened, although he was in awe of his half sister, Ella. The Nation had very strict views on gender roles, which he absorbed uncritically as they aligned with his street hustler viewpoint that women weren't to be trusted. He also makes some sweeping comments about Jews even while claiming he's not being anti-Semitic.

However, Malcolm X would probably say I don't have a right to cast judgement on him, as a white man far removed from the context he lived in. I'd happily concede that. There is a comment he makes towards the end of his story that resonated with me:
"I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who is for or against."
I felt I was reading a lot of truth in what Malcolm X narrated to his autobiography's author. 

The book ends with Malcolm presciently saying he expected to die young and violently. I felt sad as it seemed he had just reached a point where he had managed to outgrow the limiting half-truths of the Nation, and was embarking on a much more wide-ranging mission. He had moved through hatred of white people to a mature sense that while whiteness itself was still a huge problem, there was hope for white people as individuals - and indeed many were sincere in wanting to end racism. 

It has left me wondering what he might have achieved if he had been able to explore those ideas more fully.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Dune Part 2 - finishing telling the tale of Muad'Dib (for now)

In 2021 I saw Dune Part 1 with Bryan. Here's what I wrote about it then:

Broadly speaking, I thought Dune was an excellent capture of the essence of the book. I realise if someone hadn't read the book then it might be hard to follow. But, you know what, the book was published over 50 years ago so people have had plenty of time to read it. For once it was nice to watch an adaptation that didn't dumb it down for the non-reading masses. My only criticism was that it had a score by Hans Zimmer, whose one trick is big, blaring atonal noises to signify vastness. It could have done with more subtlety, because everything is vast in the Duneiverse so there were lots of atonal blarts throughout the film.

Now, after several delays and changes in release date, Bryan and I have finally seen part 2 of Dune. I have a few thoughts about it. Spoilers follow below the image...

Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off. Paul Atreides and his mother, Jessica, are fugitives in the desert, seeking asylum with the oppressed indigenous Fremen after the massacre of their people. This is quite an early point in the book so there was a lot more of the story to pack in to the second 'half' including Paul's growth into Muad'Dib, the messianic guerrilla leader foretold in Fremen prophecy. 

In among all this is galactic-level intrigue and power politics. Dune Part 2 manages this quite nicely by actually turning the Princess Irulan into an actual character with something to do. In this case, exposition. But sometimes a bit of exposition works, and this is one of those times. 

In contrast, the character of Feyd Rautha is rather diminished. In fairness, Feyd is played in this film with a level of intensity that would almost be impossible to sustain for long without it slipping into parody. Maybe the director could have made him more subtle, and his true malevolence be less immediately obvious. It's a bit heavy-handed giving him a cannibal harem. 

I read one comment about the film saying there seemed to be no suspense. When Paul sets out to ride a sandworm, we all know he is going to succeed. There wasn't any jeopardy. But I think that's the perspective of someone who hadn't read the novel. As a reader of the book, I already knew he would ride the worm and I knew why that was important in the development of the story. 

I guess that's one thing about going in knowing the story - I was more interested in how they told it. Did they show the mechanics of worm-riding? (Yes, they did.) How much exposition would that need? (Turns out, none.) Is the director's vision of what Fremen riding giant sandworms would look like match my idea of what that would look like. (Yep, it was close.)

Of course, knowing the story has its drawbacks. One major divergence from the book is the time-frame. The desert war goes on for years in the book. Paul's sister, Alia is born and is sort of a superhuman because her mother, Jessica, drank the Water of Life while pregnant. Paul has a son with Chani. The reunion with Gurney Halleck is after some years apart, not a couple of months. And so on...

I was left feeling a bit nonplussed by the ending which felt like it was setting up a third movie. That has apparently been mooted and presumably will be based on Dune Messiah. Fingers crossed it will get made. The first two have been massive box office hits, so it seems likely to get greenlit. 

I'd also repeat the point I made about the score for the first one. Hans Zimmer only seems to have one trick - very loud atonal blasts. For everything. Shai-halud breaks the surface. ZIMMERBLAST! A spice harvester explodes and crashes. ZIMMERBLAST! An atomic bomb goes off. ZIMMERBLAST! Sometimes less is more, Hans.

But overall, it was very good. It's brave to take on a novel that's often been described as unfilmable, and when previous attempts have had a mixed reception. Again, I have no complaints about the opacity of the story. It feels like it was done for people who know it already and its nice, for once, not to have something diluted for people who don't care about it. 

Thursday, March 07, 2024

Snack of the month - Gold Billions Wafer

A mid-afternoon shortage of milk prompted a short walk to the local Post Office, where this unusual confectionary treat was sitting on the counter. One intrigued impulse purchase later... 

It's about the size of a KitKat Chunky. Maybe a fraction thinner.

Colour-wise, it's not as yellow as a McVities Gold wrapped biscuit, despite being a product evolved from that very successful item.

The discolouration on the side of the bar was unsightly.

But explained by a layer of milk chocolate on the underneath of the bar. This chocolate was a decent quality and offset the sweetness of the caramel flavour coating on the rest of the bar.

The wafer was crispy, but not too hard. 

The filling around the wafer meant it wasn't too dry. It wasn't over-filled either.

Overall, this was a very sweet wafer snack. It bordered on sickly. If the caramel coating had been used all over it that would have made it even sweeter so the milk chocolate was a good design  choice. 

And although I enjoyed it enough to not regret my impulse purchase I won't be rushing to buy another one. Worth trying once, though.

Sunday, March 03, 2024

Football recap of the month - February 2024

February 2024 proved to be a megamonth of football for me, as I went to nine matches. This is the most I've ever been to in February.

Game 37: Caerau Ely 3-2 Llantwit Major

Reason for going: This was a late decision, when my friend Steve suggested we go. It was a Friday night game and set me up for a 3 game weekend. 

Point of interest: Llantwit Major came back from two goals down but were only level for a couple of minutes. 

Game 38: Barry Town 0-3 Pontypridd Town

Reason for going: Barry's first game of phase 2 of the Cymru Premier season. 

Point of interest: The first goal of the game was calamitous from the home team's point of view. The goalkeeper rushed out and failed to clear the ball leaving the striker free to fire home from the edge of the box. 

Game 39: Barry Town Ladies 1-3 Cardiff City Women

Reason for going: I'd been to watch Barry Town Ladies the week before and enjoyed it. So decided to go and watch them as they were hosting the table-toppers. 

Point of interest: This was the penultimate game of Phase 1 of the Adran Premier League. Cardiff City were unbeaten up to this point and it was easy to see why. They were a good team. (They lost the following week, though.) This was also the third day in a row I'd been to a football match. 

Game 40: Penybont 2-2 Barry Town

Reason for going: Penybont is one of the closest away trips for me.  

Point of interest: This was my 100th Barry Town game. I got a Futbology badge.

Game 41: Newport County 1-3 Notts County

Reason for going: My friend Paul is a Notts County fan. Although, for reasons of restricted ticket supply, I ended up in the home end with Paul's wife, Val, instead.

Point of interest: We caught the train to the game. Unlike last time I tried to watch Newport County, this time the train from Cardiff to Newport thankfully didn't go via Reading!!

Selfie with Val

Game 42: Llantwit Major 1-0 BK Skjold 

Reason for going: This game was in the Fenix Trophy, which is an international competition for amateur and semi-professional clubs founded in 2021. Skjold, from Copenhagen, were the holders. Llantwit Major were the first Welsh team to compete in this competition and bigged this game up as their first ever European tie. So there were a lot of reasons to go!

Point of interest: Llantwit's ground is known as Windmill Lane and there is a disused windmill next to the football pitch. It provided a vantage point for a couple of hardy souls during the game!

Game 43: Barry Town 1-1 Haverfordwest County

Reason for going: At this point, I think it's a more a case of hope than expectation. 

Point of interest: Former Barry player Rhys Abruzzese scored a very late equaliser for Haverfordwest - clocked at 90+6 minutes. Also Mike Lewis, the Barry goalkeeper, saved a penalty.

Game 44: Cardiff City 2-1 Stoke City

Reason for going: My friend Andrew asked me to act as "football sherpa" because his son, Ben, wanted to go to a football match, so we went and sat in the family stand. Andrew's nephew, James, joined us as well.

Point of interest: Because we were in the family stand, we got a visit from Bartley Bluebird, the Cardiff City mascot, in the second half. 

Game 45: Caerau Ely 1-0 Taff's Well

Reason for going: this was a chance to set a new personal record for February with a ninth game within the month.

Point of interest: Caerau Ely scored what would prove to be their winner after just 40 seconds!

Saturday, March 02, 2024

Love and crime - events of February 2024

And suddenly we are at the end of February, even though this year we had a bonus Leap Day. 

For Valentine's Day, Cathy and I celebrated by building a cute Lego set together. I hope these two hedgehogs are as happy together as we are.

February was a difficult month all told. Halfway through the month a "change programme" was announced in work, which will have an impact on my team. Morale and motivation have definitely taken a hit as a result. It's almost inevitable that it will, particularly if people are leaving as a result - it's reminded me of several aspects of organisational change that I studied in my Business Psychology MSc. 

On the home front we have had some stress too. What started initially with enquiries about some repairs to the house turned into a full blown roof replacement. We are very happy with the result, which included taking the top part of the chimney out and roofing over it. The state of the chimney has been worrying me for a long time and I'm very glad it's sorted. 

However, getting a new roof during one of the wettest Februarys on record meant it took a lot longer to complete than anticipated. The benefit of having it done while it was lashing down with rain every other day meant we could instantly check whether it was watertight. Fair play, it held during some downpours even before the new slates went on. 

Also, I've discovered that getting a new roof fitted is a great way to meet some of your neighbours. We had several people knock on the door asking if our roofers were any good and seeing if they could get quotes for their roof repairs. 

Our roofer, Sheldon, was very good. I liked him a lot and when he finished on the final day and said goodbye I honestly told him I was going to miss him. Apparently he is going to be back in our street soon working on someone else's roof and he says he will knock on the door to say hi. 

Less pleasantly, for the first time in my life I was the target of muggers. I won't go into too much detail, but basically, I was walking home from the city centre at about 6.30pm on a Friday evening. There were two youngish lads at the end of the street and as I walked past them one of them lashed out without warning, hit me and pushed me to the ground, then demanded some money. 

After taking some money, he proceeded to run off. His mate ran off after him. I phoned the police and talked to a 999 call handler all the way home, which was only a few minutes. Obviously Cathy had a horrid shock when I walked in bashed and bleeding. Police officers were able to attend and take a statement within minutes. CID called round the next day. And I'm very happy to say that within two weeks, the police had arrested my assailant, had charged him and he's currently being held on remand.

While the incident was horrible, the response I have had from family, friends, neighbours and colleagues has been lovely. I genuinely felt loved and supported by so many people, many telling me how outraged this had happened to me. Some of our neighbours brought a box of cookies because they saw the police car outside and saw my black eye and wanted to check I was OK. That was the only time I cried about what had happened - crying because of their unexpected kindness.

So, yes, a bad thing happened, but there are still lots of good people in the world and the response to the bad thing really brought that home to me. 

And on a final note, even having that incident happen, didn't stop me from going to nine football matches (full report to follow!), my first ever international ice hockey game, and making a dent in my pile of shame by building one of my Blood Bowl teams that had been sitting there unbuilt for two and a half years! So a good sporting month all round. 

New Blood Bowl Orc team ready for mayhem