From 2008-11 I worked as a political advisor in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. When I went into it, I was not exactly starry eyed and naive, but I was a great deal more idealistic, and in some senses more alive than I am today. While I was at LBTH, I saw my own party turn on me, I saw corruption (not just material corruption, but corruption of the soul, which is so much worse) and experienced white collar racism and Islamophobia such as I genuinely did not believe existed. It is no exaggeration to say that my experience there broke me, and several months since I had any contact with that benighted place, I’m still struggling to forget the unpleasant lessons it taught me about people and power. That said, I am determined not to forget what it taught me about the dangers of righteous anger and the seduction of making yourself into an instrument of vengeance.
This poem was written just after I left, and as the Arab spring was gaining ground, one of its central themes is the comparison between the sudden fire of revolution and the grind of trying to do good work day-in-day-out. It also touches on the difficulties of fighting the good fight when everyone around you (including your own side) are playing dirty. It is more personal than much of what I’ve written in the last couple of years, and perhaps it is a weaker poem for it, but I do think it has something to say for those of us who have not experienced big victories, who know that we are unlikely to see great upheavals and the flowering of a more just world in our rich and complacent societies but are still compelled to try for a less unjust world.
On Leaving Public Service
Is this , then, how the warriors feel?
All straightness of back and lightness of step
And a purpose that animates muscle
Into more than just animal flesh.
Hard luck, then, that war was not how I earned
My place among the glorious dead.
I did not go fierce like Afghan candles,
Lighting the world with their blasphemy
Nor did I rise like Bouazzizi
For my name to be etched in a racial memory
And my body wreathed round in jasmine and myrrh
Hard luck at how I was tried
By a lengthier justice
Hard luck how the case was weighed
By precedent and incident
How by minutes, seconds and motions
The sentence carried my life away.
It was there,
In the theatre of the debate
Among lawyers and orators
(That straight of back and light of step)
I closed my eyes