Originally published in Rare Rising Stars 2015 and a version was delivered as part of a speech to mark the launch of the Diane Abbott (MP) Foundation
My brother, James, and I were born a decade apart, separated by the threshold of a passing millennia: the difference – measured in #1 records – between Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I do) I do it for you’, and Shaggy’s ‘Angel’1. So, times have changed, yes: James was not brought up on Barney, and his first words weren’t a strange collage of Bronxite, Middlesbrough and big purple Americanised dinosaur sounds; Lizo was still on Newsround and, by the time James was born, Halifax’s Howard was just coming up. Imagine.
We’re different, and difference is good. We approach(ed) school differently, too. James is comfortably reserved, yet for years he has been told to “speak up” in class, where a certain noticed (but not too noticed) presence is synonymous with an engaged student – someone who lets you know they’re working hard, finishing first and raising their hands almost as much as Mr Motivator compelled you to at 7am on a weekday in ‘96. I am this student. I let the teacher know; I had to. Thanks to age and the emergent vocabulary of experience, I realise that this has been an attempt to distract a missing sense of my own integrity. Simply: I needed to be told that I was the best at making a papier-mâché self-portrait. These implorations do not come from nowhere. We wait for, and half expect, things to erupt from ordinariness, these are often the only things that sate our increasingly impatient, 140-character attention. With attention comes opportunity2.
But appearances deceive. Praise can be a false idol. Lauryn Hill recorded her second album, “Unplugged”, when James was 27 days old. Between songs, Lauryn says to her small audience: “Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need, and I’ve just retired from the fantasy part”. She encourages us to be honest about the things we do. Yes, speak of imperfection! It’s okay that achievement may feel as though you’re caught in a spin cycle encapsulated by Jay Z’s adage: on to the next one. Anxiety and a perennial fear of slowing down are normal. Doubt flourishes in these inevitable gaps. Yet, James is already doing something I could not: accepting himself, and making his own decisions outside of modal verbs, outside of the pressures that force sentences to begin with “should do” or “ought to”. But, beyond the modal, what is worth focusing on? Let’s start by looking up:
The Northern Hemisphere
The Solar system
The Milky Way
Alas, the sky, the night sky. Stars, in the astrophysical sense of the word, vary: radius, mass, lifespan, metallicity and luminosity. While they exist, they’re held together under their own gravity (read: (anthropomorphically) integrity). The fundamental laws of nature are simple; complexity is emergent. These clouds of hydrogen and helium contain the same stuff as much of the rest of the universe. So what is it about the space between the stars (and our Stars) that escapes our gaze? We see it, our vision is full of it, but it is – at best – a static and blank canvass; at worst – nothing(ness). This is an oversight, one sadly symptomatic of our relation to achievement and purpose. The shape of spacetime is the changeable fabric of the universe – “changeable”, crucially, as this blankness is teeming with movement, mystery and the composition of life, as we understand it. Indeed, as Brian Cox would insist you remember: “empty space is never empty but a fizzing, shifting soup of all possible quantum fields”. This is you, too:
“You are something the whole universe is doing, in the same way that a wave is something the whole ocean is doing” – Alan Watts, philosopher.
Pointing to the stars pushes us to comparison: us and them, ants and infinity, ordinary and extraordinary. How far do you recognise the feeling of constant complicity in something you feel paralysed to change? Recently, many have felt moved to their feet or to their retweet buttons by world events. This is good; it matters. Mattering is hard, not least because there will always be those who seem to matter more in an age of comparison. And it’s certainly easy to compare as we curate our eternal selves: #nofilter that picture as you’re endorsed on LinkedIn, liked on Facebook, favourited on Twitter and reblogged on Tumblr. The means, however, may seem inversely proportional to the gritty struggle with fulfilment. Perhaps this is what Kanye meant in his 2003, “All Falls Down” record – for individuals who are both highest up, and even […] in a Benz.
Comparison is sometimes a dangerous tendency. We are all made from the same things: in both the sense Maya Angelou conveyed (via Terrance) that ‘I am a human being and nothing human can be alien to me’ – in its rousing as well as, perhaps, darker inflections – as well as biologically, too, in that all living things on the planet share the same basic biochemistry stretching back to LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor).
Reading this book through the lens of commonality means appreciating the lightning while acknowledging the storm. It means not feeling incapacitated by the stories in the pages before this one, but conscious that, as Angie Stone makes clear: You got ya wallstreet brotha, ya blue collar brotha / Your down for whatever chillin on the corner brotha / A talented brotha, and to every one of y’all behind bars / You know that Angie loves ya. And that’s okay. I’ve learnt from James that, outside of comparison, the stars aren’t beyond us; we are all cut from a universal fabric. Embracing this commonality, we are earth shaking. So – though I appreciate how many of you, with good reason, may take this literally – we all just need to find our (sense of) Common. You are enough and you matter.
1 I now understand why my brother is embarrassed when I pick him up from school.
2 I’m sure we all know somebody who stumbled over, sadly missing out on the benefits of this subtlety – of course, you were such good friends in year eight…