Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: When freedom is not so sweet

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Many of us were at the beautiful radio theatre in BBC Broadcasting House to listen to this year’s first Reith lecture, delivered by the indomitable Burmese dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been imprisoned, confined to her home, threatened.

She never saw her children grow up here in England, and had to steel herself and endure the death from cancer of a beloved husband, Michael Aris (she couldn’t fly to be with him because the Burmese Junta would never have let her back in). The talk – pre-recorded secretly and smuggled out – was lucid, erudite and delivered with calm defiance. Then on screen, Daw Suu (as she is known), with a bunch of flowers in her hair, as always, answered questions from the audience, knowing that at any moment the men with guns could smash in and probably punish her again. Rarely have I seen so many grey suits looking pale and wiping tears. Cynicism cowered and was silenced. Such is the power of words and conviction.

It was one of the finest hours of Radio 4, now under its new controller, Gwyneth Williams, an unassuming yet highly creative broadcaster who instinctively understands the globalised present and future. And how much they out there, sometimes in the most wretched of nations, have to teach us. Recently, she commissioned some of Arabia’s finest writers and poets to share with us their hopes and fears as the region tries to grasp freedom and pays for this audacity with the blood of innocent women, men and children. At the end of the Reith lecture, an Iranian woman said to me almost bitterly: “See freedom, how important it is? Here in the West, they can’t see this because it is there, like a hamburger. Nothing to them.” It made me think. Do we even understand what they are fighting for?

Freedom means such different things in the West to the rest of the world that you wonder if the word can hold them all without disintegrating. Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist, and four of his associates were released from prison by the Chinese government following two months in captivity, after which they seem unnaturally disinclined to say anything – so, free but locked inside another, more effective prison. Hu Jia, an environmentalist, incarcerated for two years was also “freed” and may well also have lost the litheness of his tongue.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, whose only policy is to direct odium towards Muslims, was acquitted of incitement to racial hatred by an appeal court. Yippee! He is free again to barf over us Muslims. Such a priceless liberty that.

Daw Suu, brave Arab resisters, Ugandans fighting their corrupt government – all are prepared to die for the liberties we can’t be bovvered with. Our hypocritical government plays host to one tyrannical regime after another for economic reasons. And our people have other matters on their minds; the right to walk around in slut kit, or to pose kitless on Page 3 of the tabloids, or to kill themselves with limitless ciggies, drugs, drink, sweets and pizzas. Or to spend, spend, spend and screw around. Which is why our media ignored the substance of Daw Suu’s lecture and got their pants in a twist over which British DJ she listened to when under house arrest. Many among us despair and can only admire democrats in Egypt and Burma struggling for authentic democratic entitlements and against inequality and the habitual misuse of power by states. Do we really believe all these struggles have been won over here? Or are we too dull, idle and self-indulgent to mind any more? Pass me another hamburger...

The best of British is a blast from the past

Simon Gray’s play Butley, recently revived in the West End, shows time and death cannot diminish the effect of brilliant stage writing. The director and cast in this production have made a complicated play come alive and speak to new generations, generations for whom the Sixties and Seventies must feel as long ago as the Roman occupation. The story (which is largely, though not wholly, autobiographical) is about an academic who knows he has failed at everything and so uses his wit as a weapon and a sweetener to hang in there, destroying himself and the few who allow themselves to care about him. I knew men like him at Oxford – clever dissolutes, with half-torn, smelly jackets, breath smelling of intemperance, and dark, filthy offices, who didn’t care about students at all and even less about themselves. The versatile British actor Dominic West (much admired in the American series The Wire) got us laughing in the first half, then subtly shifted the mood in the second, so that although the lines were as funny, he was rushing towards the abyss and taking us with him. Remarkable. The best of British. And Mr West, be warned. This old bag thinks you are gorgeous and may just stalk you.

Don’t be fooled by the latest footwear fad

Sisters, can we stop and talk about the “nude shoe”? Shiny beige-to-cream high heels, popularised by the Middleton girls, have become the fashion must-have for aspirational women who want to be something they are not. First, if you have brown or black skin, these shoes are hardly “nude”. (It used to be that Band Aid was always pink and described as “natural” – as if all other skin tones were “unnatural”.) These shoes, the colour of nothing, turn the most perfectly pale legs into lifeless, sickly appendages – not good, even on golden goddesses. But there is this compulsion to join in, to get the latest fad, before it goes out of fashion, usually within three months. That in this post-feminist age women still follow the diktats of fashion fascists remains a sign of our weakness and foolishness. No man would be so gullible. I just bought red shoes. Deeply unfashionable. Just lovely and totally not nude.



y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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