Pubs and football, a writer's raw material

I've been thinking of writing a play about Reggie, but when I get those thoughts I feel guilty. Whet

Met up with my brother Carl this week to check out a West Indian restaurant that we are booking for my mum's 80th birthday on 17 March (St Patrick's Day). Despite us both being diehard Londoners, with fierce cockney accents, we still got lost when we came out of Farringdon Station, which reminded me how enormous London is. On the way back, we stopped off in a pub for a drink, and ended chatting to a couple of old white men. My brother has always had a knack of making friends easily wherever he goes. I am less trusting of strangers - I always have been, I'm not quite sure why. Anyhow, I just sat back, let the writer in me take over and listened as Carl and these two old men chewed over Ken Livingstone, Mohamed Al Fayed, and footie.

Carl always loves to tell a story about what happened to me when I was in Wigan with an ex-girlfriend a few years back. We were drinking in a working men's club, and the guy behind the bar refused to serve me a pint of shandy. At first I thought it was some kind of racist thing as I was the only black person in the place, and he was looking at me like I had just burgled his house. But he went on to insist that a shandy was a "bloody girl's drink", and there was no way he was serving one to me in his bar. "Have a man's drink, you southern fairy," said his friends, as he force-fed me a pint of Guinness. I didn't think it was funny at the time, but my brother has a way of telling stories that had everyone in the pub in stitches, including myself. I keep telling him he should be a writer.

Things became a little uncomfortable when the conversation turned to immigration. The two old geezers, who until then had been charming and polite, mutated into a couple of ignorant old bigots, blaming everything on Muslims and Eastern Europeans, although they were very careful not to have a pop at us West Indians, at least not to our faces. It always depresses me when I hear the white working class becoming so stupid.

Whatever happened to . . . ?

There is a guy who lives in my neighbourhood called Reggie, a crackhead, always high, babbling to himself, asking for money. He went to the same school as my brother and always calls me Junior, which is what only my family and oldest friends call me. He looks worse whenever I see him. I know I shouldn't, but I always give him a quid or something. He used to be quite a football player in the Eighties, on the verge of signing for a big club, but something happened, I don't know what. I've been thinking of writing a play about him, but when I get those thoughts I always feel guilty. Whether we like it or not, we writers get our best ideas from the suffering of real people.

Game, match and set

I was chuffed to bits when both Man Utd and Chelsea were dumped out of the FA Cup, but I was even more pleased when my beloved QPR managed another win. Looks like we're safe from relegation. My mates laugh when I try to convince them that Rangers are the richest club in Britain thanks to Bernie Ecclestone and his wealthy Italian partners. We've bought our success, and I am not quite comfortable with that. I'd have preferred making do with what we've got and slowly climbing our way back up the league. The heroic way. Sadly, that is not the world we live in any more, if it ever was.

I've just moved in with my girlfriend, and I'm already making plans to replace her tiny telly with a 32-inch HD-ready flat-screen TV, so I can watch Premier League football. She hates it, but I say, "Love me, love my footie."

Which Democrat?

I am hesitant about supporting Obama, mostly because I know it's only because he is black. But whoever it is, him or Hillary, I hope to God they win the presidency. The world has become pretty complacent. We are still fighting illegal wars, Africa is still poor. I think we are due for a serious turning point. I know all politicians lie, and it probably won't make a blind bit of difference who wins in November, but it would be great, if only for a moment, to see history being made this year.

The RSC's production of "Days of Significance" by Roy Williams runs at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6, from 12-29 March

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.