My Royalist mother must have been smiling down at me from her seat on the right-hand side of God, as the taxi arrived to pick me up to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Today would have been her seventy-third birthday, so I hope she’s still smiling down at me as I write this little missive.
The idiot Eastern European driver parks his car at a bus stop two hundred metres from my flat. So, I am forced to stride up to him suited and booted with dreadlocks flowing in the cold evening wind. He looks almost straight through me just as I reach the stationary Mercedes, and starts the engine to pull out into the street. I quickly knock on his window and manage to open the passenger door as he steps on the brakes.
“Are you the car for Buckingham Palace?”
“Hurry up and get in, man,” he shouts back at me, “I’m parked in a bus lane. It’s a fifty pound fine!”
“I didn’t tell anyone to ask you to park here. I told your controller exactly where my flat is.”
“I was looking at Beaufort Mansions,” he offers up as feeble excuse.
“That’s your problem, mate, that’s not where I live.”
“My problem?” he says with a snarl. “If I had known there was a problem parking, I would not have accepted this job.”
Well, naff-off then, I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t want to be late to meet Her Maj. So, I got in the car and uncharacteristically bit my tongue. “Just drive on, will you!” I said, in my most obnoxious tone.
He turned to look at me then, and slapped me in the face with a breath so foul that I immediately had to open the window. “Damn!” I said, but even the chill in the air couldn’t kill the stench.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing,” I replied. “I’ll need a cash-point on the way.”
Had he been a little friendlier, I might even have offered him one of the mints in my pocket. However, by the time we reached our destination to be guided through the main gates of Buckingham Palace by the security police, he had completely changed his attitude.
“Are you a little nervous about meeting the Queen?”
“I am a bit,” I reply, grudgingly.
“Don’t worry, my friend, you won’t be alone.”
‘My friend’ now, is it? I thought he must be gearing up to charge me that bit extra, now he thinks I have friends in high places. He was, and he did, £20 from Chelsea to Buckingham Palace just down the road, and I couldn’t even be bothered to argue with him.
“Will your driver be returning to fetch you afterwards?” said a policeman opening my door.
“No,” said I. “He can go.” And I smiled to myself at the absurdity of it.
We are welcomed into the palace and ushered up stairs and through halls into the Picture Gallery, a long top lit room about 50 metres deep, which serves as a corridor linking a series of smaller state rooms. I’m certainly among good company here.
There are people I’ve known and worked with in the past, plus some others I’ve only read about or seen on television. Newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald; Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri (making what seemed like a staged entry armed with an ornate Zulu walking cane); fashion designer Ozwald Boateng along with his following; the effervescent Linda Bellos, and many more recognisable faces whose names escape me.
While others are furiously networking, what strikes me most about this central area is not the imminent guest list but its gallery hung with classic works of art. There are paintings by Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens, Vermeer, and other multi-million pound masterpieces by painters I’ve never even heard of before. Leading from here are the Throne Room and the Green Drawing Room in which I can just about glimpse paintings of various royal ancestors because we are not allowed too much wandering around just yet. It is in these very formal rooms – used only for ceremonial and official purposes – in which we will be entertained on Champagne and canopies for the rest of the evening.
We don’t know why but for some reason the room falls strangely quiet as guests starts to form a queue leading into one of the stately side rooms. I’m chatting to a former Miss Universe contestant, the ex-Miss Zimbabwe, when we too decide to get in line. In front of us is a blonde from the Foreign Office who suddenly starts to hyperventilate the minute we draw closer to what seems to be the focal point of everyone’s attention.
“Oh my God…Oh my God! It’s her. She’s there. You go first,“ she says.
From where I’m standing, I can see the Queen alongside the Duke of Edinburgh through a crack in the door ahead. “Calm down, woman,” I try to tell the Foreign Office blonde. “It’s only Her Maj. Ladies before gentlemen,” but my own heart was racing now, ten to the dozen.
“What do you say to the Queen?” she says.
“I couldn’t tell you, but I’ve heard you wait for the Queen to talk to you.”
“I thought they’d made a mistake when I got the gold-embossed invitation. I wanted to scan it and put it on my Facebook profile, but my friends would only accuse me of attention seeking.”
“I had the same thought,” I said, “but I’ve gone one better. I’m going to have mine framed in the bathroom opposite my throne. So when I’m sitting on the throne, I can remember back to when I met the Queen, who sits on the throne of England.”
The woman from the Foreign Office laughed out loud, but in the course of events, the Queen passed her by with a quick handshake, and then it was my turn.
From what seemed like a great distance away, which in fact was less than two metres, a man in a silly looking uniform announced, “Mister Paul Bo-a-che, ma’am.”
I had half expected him to pronounce my name incorrectly, and so as I walked towards the Queen and she extended her hand, I took it, and shook it, and said off the top of my head, “Your majesty, ma’am, I’m delighted to meet you.” As I did so, I bowed, and my dreadlocks swept forward. The Queen pulled back her head almost unconsciously and eyed me with a sideward glance. Then in that peculiar high-pitched Spitting Image tone inside my head, she said, “Oh – and what do you do here?”
That’s when I started to stutter. I’d understood each word the Queen had spoken, but I was having difficulty computing the question. “I was born here. I live here. I don’t work here, your majesty,” I wanted to say. “So what do you mean?” But in the end I simply answered, “I…I…I…I’m a writer, ma’am,” just like it said on my gold-embossed name-tag. “Oh, really,” the Queen replied, in the same deadpan tone in my head, and that then was my cue to move along. I was now standing before the Duke of Edinburgh.
“Good evening, Your Royal Highness,” I said.
“So what kind of things do you write?”
“I am originally a playwright but these days I’ll write just about anything I’m paid to do.”
“Do you have anything on at the moment?”
“Not at the moment, but I am currently writing my first novel.”
“Very good,” he says, and turns towards the ex-Miss Zimbabwe. “So do you write with him?”
“Oh – No!” she says. “I’m a model.”
“Right you are,” says the prince with a devilish smile.
The rest I didn’t hear because I was being directed back into The Gallery Room where we were now able to get up close and personal with all the paintings on display. It all happened so quickly anyway that I felt slightly giddy. Everything around me looked surreal, as if I had just fallen down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland. Not a drop of alcohol had I touched so far, but now I needed a drink, if only to get things into perspective.
“What would you like, sir? A glass of Champagne or some freshly squeezed Sandringham orange juice?”
“You have your own orchards?”
“Yes, sir. Only the best for the Queen.”
“I’ll try a mix of both, may I?”
“Certainly. Thank you, sir.”
How the blued-blooded idle rich live, huh? You’d think that they would all be stuffy and boring, but I had just had a great conversation with one of the Ladies in Waiting who talked very eloquently about living in Washington DC and the poverty and racism she witnessed there. Then this very charming Edward Griffiths talked to me for a good long while about how they selected the guests for this evening’s event. They had come across me because of my sexual health promotion work around HIV/AIDS, Drum magazine, and my stint on BBC1 covering the newspaper reviews on a Saturday morning. Apparently, the Royal Household have a team of researchers who go out looking for distinguished people from all walks of life (arts, sports, music, science, and so on) to attend these types of functions. He himself had been a high-flyer in the hotel industry before being hand-picked to head the hospitalities team. I was impressed.
So there I am, minding my own business and checking out the paintings, when up walks Prince Michael of Kent; arguably, the most regal of the royals.
“It’s good to see a Rastafarian here this evening,” he says.
“I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Rastafarian.”
“I’m just a humble writer with a hairstyle that I like. I may have certain sympathies, and like Samson, my hair may symbolise my deeper roots and culture, but that’s as far as it goes, I’m afraid. In my eyes, even you could grow some dreadlocks.”
“Not with my hairline.”
“I never thought I’d still have hair at my age. But I’ve just been admiring these amazing paintings on your walls. It must be a great pleasure to wake up each morning and come down to see these in natural daylight.”
“You must be only about one of five people in this room who have taken any notice of the art.”
“I can’t think why.”
“Are you an artist?”
“Not in the sense that I paint or sketch, but I’m a great admirer of beauty in all of its forms.”
“My wife is a great admirer of art.”
“Is she here tonight?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, I’ve always thought her a very handsome woman.” Then just as I thought I’d said too much, I changed my tracks. “It’s funny, I’m currently writing a book based partly on my mother’s diaries, and it’s amazing just how much people of her generation knew about your family. I’m amazed because I know so little about the royal household.”
“How far have you got with your book?”
“Not as far as I’d like, but it’s coming along.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s going to be just great.”
“Can I put that as a quote from you on the back sleeve?”
“It’s nice talking to you,” he smiles. “Have a good evening.”
“And you, Prince Michael.”
He saunters off into the middle of the room where the Queen is surrounded by all and sundry, just as I decide that it’s about time for me to be heading home.
It remains one of the most iconic photographs in sporting history. Heads bowed, black-gloved fists raised aloft, on a sweltering hot night in Mexico City, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos propelled themselves into the history books.
The image still resonates with quiet dignity and a palpable rage that is almost shocking to behold, especially in these politically neutered times. We live in an
age of bland sporting automata, steeped in the language of PR, super-aware of their salaried roles as ambassadors of Nike, Adidas and Reebok, and afraid of saying or doing anything that might alienate their sponsors.
Contrast this with 1968, when sociologist Dr Harry Edwards declared the ‘revolt of the black athlete,’ and added the voice of America’s black sportsmen to the civil rights movement. Dr Edwards was the organiser of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), and the group’s founding statement proclaimed that:
“We must no longer allow this country to use a few so called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary…any black person who allows himself to be used in the above matter is a traitor because he allows racist whites the luxury of resting assured that those black people in the ghettos are there because that is where they want to be. So we ask why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?”
Smith and Carlos’ distinguished, impassioned protest was to be the defining moment of the OPHR, the ’68 Olympics and – for better or worse – of their lives. History will remember them as heroes and also as martyrs. They made a stand for what they believed in and earned immortality – but they also paid a heavy for price for what they did that night.
Tommie Smith was born in Clarksville, Texas in 1944, John Carlos a year later, in Harlem. Both were raised in poverty – Smith was one of 12 children, the son of a ‘dirt farmer,’ while Carlos lived in an apartment behind his father’s shoe store with his four brothers and sisters. Like many young black men, sport seemed to offer them the possibility of a better future, and their burgeoning athletic prowess won them scholarships to San Jose State College. It soon became clear that the two had the potential to become world-class athletes.
Smith went on to break records over 220 yards, 400 metres, and 440 yards, but his favoured distance was 200 metres, where his so-called ‘Tommie-Jet Gear’ allowed him to tap into a new burst of pace whilst travelling at high speed, leaving opponents trailing in his wake. However, in the Olympic trials, Carlos was to
defeat Smith over 200 metres in a world record time, setting up the prospect of an American one-two in the 1968 Games.
But Carlos and Smith had more on their minds than medals and records. At San Jose State, they became friendly with Dr Harry Edwards, who asked them, and all the other black athletes selected to represent the United States in the Mexico Olympics, to boycott the games, in order to bring the world’s attention to the injustices facing black America, and to expose how the U.S. used black athletes to project a lie of racial harmony at home and abroad.
The late 60s were a time of change and struggle – 1968 saw the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; anti-war protests coincided with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which saw the U.S. lurching towards ignominy and defeat; only 10 days before the games were due to begin, hundreds of students occupying the National University in Mexico City were slaughtered by Mexican Security forces. The atmosphere was ablaze with a revolutionary spirit that is hard to imagine ever emerging again, especially in a U.S. that seems to be docilely submitting to a right-wing hegemony left behind by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Co, after an ever so brief fling with the idea of change. While the proposed boycott did not occur, OPHR members decided to compete in Mexico and protest individually. Carlos, in particular, was by now a political firebrand who had been in support of a full boycott. But, as he stated many years later:
“…not everyone was down with that plan. A lot of the athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism. But even if you won the medal it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life? I’m not saying they didn’t have the right to follow their dreams, but to me the medal was nothing but the carrot on the stick”
However, he and Smith surely knew that their chance would come, as they renewed their rivalry on the track and made swift progress through to the 200m final, with Carlos establishing a new Olympic record during the preliminary rounds. In the final, Smith drew his least-favourite inside lane, and ran with a strained thigh muscle, yet still came through to win the Gold medal in a then world record time of 19.83 seconds, while Carlos finished in third to earn the Bronze medal. Carlos controversially went on to claim that he slowed down in the finishing straight in order to allow Smith to win as, “the Gold medal meant more to him.”
This was a comment typical of a relationship that was fractious at best. The two were always colleagues rather than friends, as many people have assumed. However, as they took to the podium, they were in perfect harmony, coordinated in an eloquent, planned protest that would send shockwaves around the sporting and political worlds, and which would reverberate throughout the rest of their lives.
Stepping up to receive his Gold medal, Smith wore a single black glove on his right hand which, when he raised it above his head, was to symbolise black power in America. Around his neck he wore a black scarf, representing black pride. Carlos wore a glove on his left hand to symbolise unity in black America, and around his neck he wore a beaded African necklace that he said was,“for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” Both stood shoeless in black socks, to represent the enduring, abject poverty of black America.
As the Stars and Stripes were raised high above the stadium in Mexico City, and the bombastic strains of the Star Spangled Banner blared out over the tannoy, Smith and Carlos raised their fists and lowered their heads, disassociating themselves from the nationalistic triumphalism of the moment and sending a message of rage and defiance to the world. A thousand flash bulbs popped, history was made, and the lives of John Carlos and Tommie Smith changed forever.
There is an interesting side-note in the creation of this eternal image, in the shape of the silver medallist, Australian sprinter Peter Norman. When studying the photograph, Norman seems to represent a bland, white-bread counterpoint to the two black athletes. Their outstretched arms seem to make them tower above him; they gaze mournfully downwards as he stares, obediently, straight ahead, cutting an almost gormless figure, seeming to personify all the self-absorbed myopia of the white sporting world. However, Norman too played a part in the protest. Opposed to his own country’s pro-white immigration policy, he grabbed an OPHR badge from the crowd, and wore it on the podium in an act of solidarity with the two Americans.
The fallout from Smith and Carlos’ protest was immediate and devastating. The International Olympic Committee demanded that the U.S Olympic Committee ban them from the games. The U.S. team refused, but the IOC threatened to ban the entire American team, forcing the USOC to climb down. Smith and Carlos were sent home in disgrace, to face the wrath of a media who were both bewildered and outraged by their gesture. As a 1967 U.S. News and World Report put it, athletics was one arena, “where Negroes have struck it rich” – that two black athletes had chosen this forum to protest was perceived as uppity ingratitude. The press showed no mercy. The athletes’ bowed heads were perceived as disrespectful towards the American flag, and the clenched fists mistakenly interpreted as in support of the feared Black Panthers. Yet, never afraid of contradicting themselves, other media outlets described their “Nazi-like salute,” with Chicago columnist Brent Musburger dubbing them “black – skinned Storm-troopers.” Time magazine ran a picture of the Olympic insignia, replacing the motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” with the words “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier.”
Carlos did little to placate a furious white America with his public comments: “We’re sort of show horses out there for the white people. They give us peanuts, pat us on the back and say, ‘Boy, you did fine’.”
Smith and Carlos found themselves ostracised, struggling to find work, and in receipt of regular death-threats. Smith was forced to attend night-classes when he returned to college, and had to battle to make ends meet: “A rock came through our front window into our living room, where we had the crib…it seemed like everybody hated me. I had no food. My baby was hungry. My wife had no dresses.”
Smith was able to borrow enough money to complete his education, and became a qualified teacher. He spent several years with the Cincinatti Bengals American football team, later moving on to Santa Monica College, where he remains as a social science and healthcare teacher, and coaches athletics.
The outspoken Carlos found life even more difficult, being forced to travel to find whatever work he could, spending time as a security guard, a gardener, a caretaker. His situation became so dire that he was forced to chop up his furniture for firewood to keep his family warm. The stress of life as an out-cast was too much for his wife, who committed suicide.
Years on, Smith and Carlos have been justly recognised as heroes, being inducted into the African American Ethnic Hall of Fame in 2003. But John Carlos still cannot rest: “I don’t feel embraced; I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer.” He is dismayed that his and Smith’s legacy seems to have been wasted by a generation of black athletes who have reaped the financial rewards of sporting success, but turned their back on their social and political obligations. He believes there is still a battle to be fought, and is contemptuous of those who believe that athletes should be seen and not heard:
“Those people should put all their millions of dollars together and make a factory that builds athlete-robots. Athletes are human-beings. We have feelings too. How can you ask someone to live in the world, to exist in the world, and not have something to say about injustice?”
While Smith seems to have found some peace, Carlos’ revolutionary spirit cannot come to terms with today’s insipid, apolitical, hyper-commodified world of sport. He paid a terrible price for his actions one hot night in Mexico City, but the image that was created there will live forever as a beautiful symbol of defiance. Forty-two years on it burns as fiercely as it ever did, still resonating with all the possibilities of the human spirit. But, for John Carlos, the fight goes on.
Baylor International Champions is an organisation based in High Wycombe in the United Kingdom who have teamed up with four media students from Orpington College to produce The TakeOff – a film that includes interviews from young people who relate their feelings about the game of cricket, what brought them to the sport and what inspires them to keep going at it in the face of funding cuts and the sell-off of school playing fields to make way for commercial property developments.
But BaylorIC haven’t let that stop them. Their film, The TakeOff, is taking off and will receive its first national airing on The Community Channel’s “Your Sport” programme on April 12th 2010 (See it on Sky 539, Virgin TV 233 or Freeview 87). The aim of the production spearheaded by Ingram Jones, a professional coach who calls on his extensive experiences of training sportsmen in Australia using explosive dynamic exercises as the key to his work with young people, is to encourage more children of primary school age to take part in sport, regardless of their ability or background.
“The dove image used on the cover of our video is symbolic of freedom,” he tells me. “We want all our young players to be able to experience that sense of flight and unbridled restraint reminiscent of my own youth, so that they may more fully enjoy learning and playing the great game of cricket.
In today’s digital world, too many kids are at risk of living an unhealthy lifestyle, and while others might be tempted to make poor choices, leading to a life of hardship or crime, we want to make a REAL difference at BaylorIC by providing sport and educational opportunities for our young people.”
Very noble sentiments. And in addition to coaching, BaylorIC also seek to encourage young cricketers to get involved with their local club and to continue their development as league players. They are visiting as many schools as possible in the UK to help set up cricket development programmes; “our hope is to benefit the local community by establishing strong club links with local cricket clubs and schools,” Ingram Jones said.
BaylorIC currently deliver cricket programmes in primary and secondary schools for both boys and girls. Coaches are fully recognised by the English Cricket Board (ECB) and have been appropriately checked by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) in an effort to relieve any undue worries parents or carers might have. There are also a range of coaching packages available and delivered specifically for schools, including curriculum time coaching, breakfast and lunch time coaching as well as after school clubs.
Primary school sessions are delivered in the form of Kwik Cricket–a high-speed version of the game aimed mainly at encouraging children to take part in the main sport–with all basic cricketing skills being taught; batting, bowling, and fielding. Secondary school sessions are delivered in the form Hard Ball Cricket–using the original leather stitched ball as opposed to a soft ball used for junior players–with basic through to advanced skills being learnt by groups of very appreciative youngsters who seem to delight in the game and being taught by an attentive coach.
“If you want to see a change, you’ve got to get up and do something about it sometimes,” Ingram said. “That’s why we made The Takeoff,” and with the London 2012 Olympic Games just around the corner his Baylor International Champions have a complimentary mission:
- To produce top class players in Cricket.
- To establish and administer after-school clubs/academies of excellence.
- To produce players with the self-confidence to be physically, mentally and emotionally ready for the challenges that await them in competitive sport.
- To providing professional coaches to young people in the local borough who would otherwise not get access to sport after school.
- To encourage young people to play sport at its highest level.
- To teach not only the discipline of this sport, but also the disciplines of how to be a champion in life.
Sounds good to me! Need more information?
We wish Mr Jones and the project every success.