Curious and curiouser: Fela Kuti on stage at Glastonbury in 1984. Photo: master_xpo/Flickr
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For years, I wondered what Fela Kuti had really done to that man on stage

Suzanne Moore’s weekly column, Telling Tales. 

It is safe to say that when I saw some guys digging a grave outside the venue, even I twigged this was not to be the usual gig.

I’d had word that Fela Kuti was going to be doing something special. In a tiny club. The place was difficult to find, somewhere in a dark alley in Hampstead.

I had just been to see Fela in Brixton. It was a mighty thing. If you have 27 wives, as he did then, it’s already a lot of people on stage. If you have Tony Allen driving the machine it’s full-on freakpower.

While I was at the bar, Fela’s juju man had cut his own tongue out.

“God, what is he doing?”

“They’re Nigerian,” said the barman, as though this was to be expected. Another guy beckoned me over. He was with the band, he claimed, and he asked if I wanted to see more of this kind of thing. Obviously I gave him my number. It’s not an offer you get every day.

Then some dumb music journo dared to suggest in a review that the man had not actually cut his tongue out.

This irked Fela, to say the least. He did not like to be disrespected. This was a man who had changed his middle name from Ransome, which he said was a slave name, to Anikulapo, which means “he who carries death in his pouch”; who’d seen his mother thrown out of a window and killed by the military. Fela had delivered his mother’s coffin to the generals’ barracks in Lagos and written a song called “Coffin for Head of State”.

So the Black President did not take a bad review lightly.

To question the integrity of Professor Hindu, his spiritual guide, a man who knew all of the past and all of the future, was not a wise move. This was why I had come to see a demonstration of the Professor’s power.

“Would you like some mushrooms?” said my new friend. Why not? As if things were not strange enough. Fela held court at a table in the middle of the tiny club. Some poor guy had volunteered to be killed and resurrected.

What happened next was odd, lots of stupid card tricks and amateur magic with pocket watches. Then the volunteer was on stage, the Professor slit his throat, and he was carried outside and buried.

What disturbed me most were the card tricks. Why? And being in Belsize Park. It was so posh. We were told that the dead man would be raised up two days later and we could go back for that.

I’d seen enough, and for many years afterwards I wondered about it.

Thankfully, I ran into the legendary writer Vivien Goldman some years back. Not only had she been there, but she’d gone back to see the dead man raised. He’d jumped out of the grave in a suit all covered in earth and propositioned her. “Being buried alive makes you horny,” he exclaimed. That makes sense, when you think about it. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.