After the state of Arizona injected 55-year old convicted murderer Joseph R. Wood III with an untested 2-drug execution cocktail (hydromorphone, an opioid painkiller that suppresses respiration, and a sedative called midazolam), it took him nearly two hours to die. He also “gasped and snorted” over 600 times before expiring. These things should not have happened.
Wood was convicted in 1989 of murdering an estranged girlfriend and her father. Wood, Dennis McGuire of Ohio, and Clayton Lockett of Oklahoma men whose executions were also disturbingly and recently botched, were the sort of criminals that a reliable, reasonable, sometimes-exacting, but theoretically humane justice system are intended to process and punish. All three executions used a sedative called midazolam, a sedative that doctors know little about when applied in large doses.
President Obama has said he will review how states use the death penalty. But he is likely to run into stiff opposition from departments of corrections that will resist the imposition of federal authority. As has been well-documented, a number of state legislatures have also passed or considered legislation to keep secret their execution protocols. That veil of secrecy would also cover the sources of their drugs.
Several years ago, I compiled a massive tranche of reporting on the dwindling market for lethal injection drugs. Some of this material pertains directly to the state of Arizona. The story I traced takes us back to the night of October 26, 2010, when the state of Arizona initiated the execution of Jeffrey Landrigan. Per protocol, the 50-year old native of Oklahoma was injected with the three ingredients of the widely used execution “cocktail”: sodium thiopental, a fast-acting barbiturate used to induce anesthesia; pancuronium bromide, a paralytic; and potassium chloride, which triggers cardiac arrest, killing the inmate. Considered a more humane approach to execution, the three-drug process is intended to render the inmate completely vegetative and impervious to pain by the time the actual killing stroke is applied.
The case against Landrigan was strong. Police discovered his footprint in the home of Chester Dean Dyer, a 42-year old man who had been found stabbed and strangled to death with a wire. Investigators arrested Landrigan, accusing him of murdering Dyer after the victim made an unwelcome sexual advance. Dyer’s was not Landrigan’s first murder: in 1982, he stabbed a childhood friend to death, was found guilty of first-degree murder, and received a life sentence. But the conviction was overturned, and pled down to a second-degree charge with a twenty-year prison term. But Landrigan escaped in 1989, and fled to Arizona.
At his trial, Landrigan initially claimed that he had beaten Dyer, but that someone else had murdered him. Still, he told the judge, “If you want to give me the death penalty bring it on, I’m ready’; the judge obliged.
Not all the relevant facts surfaced at the trial. Nine later after his sentencing, Landrigan revealed to a neuropsychologist that his mother abused drugs and alcohol while pregnant with him, and gave him up for adoption soon after his birth. His biological father, too, wound up on death row in Arkansas, where he died of natural causes in 2005. But thanks to shoddy, court-appointed representation, those details never surfaced at his trial.
But the Arizona Federal Public Defender’s Office, which took on Landrigan’s case in 2010, was determined to mount a far more formidable challenge against his execution. In September 2010, the Arizona Department of Corrections rejected a request from Landrigan’s attorneys for more information about the source of the drugs to be used to kill their client. In response, his attorneys asked the Arizona Supreme Court to order the Department of Corrections to disclose the information.
In oral arguments before the court, Arizona’s attorney general revealed that the drugs were not made by Hospira—at the time, the sole domestic manufacturer of sodium thiopental— suggesting that the thiopental was foreign, and potentially unregistered with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If so, it could be in violation of federal standards for safe human use.
Arizona’s failure to provide information about the drugs, Landrigan’s attorneys alleged, violated his Fourteenth Amendment-guaranteed rights to due process. They also alleged that the state’s use of a batch of potentially unapproved, unsafe sodium thiopental demonstrated “deliberate indifference” to the possibility that it might subject Landrigan to cruel and unusual punishment. If so, that would violate his Eighth Amendment rights.
Five days prior to his death, Landrigan’s attorneys filed a civil rights complaint with the US District Court of the District of Arizona, challenging the source of the thiopental to be used in the lethal injection. In response, Judge Roslyn Silver agreed to issue a temporary stay, ruling that Landrigan’s attorneys had not received enough information about the nature and origin of the drugs to be used. Her ruling was affirmed/upheld by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.
But in a 5-4 decision handed down on October 26, the US Supreme Court overruled the lower courts, finding that “there is no evidence in the record to suggest that the drug obtained from a foreign source is unsafe” and that “[t]here was no showing that the drug was unlawfully obtained, nor was there an offer of proof to that effect.”
Landrigan ate a final meal of steak, fried okra, French fries, strawberry ice cream, and washed it down with a Dr. Pepper. After thanking his family and friends for attending his execution, his final words were “Boomer Sooner,” a popular University of Oklahoma cheer. At 10:26 p.m. on October 26, 2010, Landrigan was pronounced dead by the state of Arizona.
In late March 2011, the ACLU of Northern California obtained a trove of documents confirming that Landrigan had been executed using imported drugs. The documents showed that Arizona had made two foreign purchases from a UK-based supplier called Dream Pharma: one for all three ingredients of its execution cocktail, including thiopental, and an additional one for thiopental.
Why states have resorted to unapproved foreign drugs for their lethal injections has everything to do with simple supply and demand. Diminishing supplies of drugs used for lethal injections have pushed states to turn to unapproved overseas sources over the past several years, even as federal courts seek to curb their access to these unapproved products. To stave off the shortfall, Nebraska, California, Arizona, Kentucky, and others have turned to a questionable source: foreign drug distributors from overseas.
America’s lethal injection drug-supply gap dates back to late 2010, when the Illinois-based Hospira, announced that it was experiencing “raw-material supplier issues” in the production of thiopental. At the time, the company did not offer a more comprehensive explanation for its abrupt decision. But the Associated Press obtained a letter from the Kentucky governor’s office, explaining that Hospira had lost its supplier of one of thiopental’s key ingredients. Hospira, the only stateside producer of thiopental, said it would have no new batches available until January 2011.
To fix its supply problem, the company planned to transfer production to a plant in Italy, but was rebuffed by the Italian government, which—like much of Europe, including the UK, Germany, and Denmark—opposes capital punishment, and threatened to block export of the drug for use in capital punishment.
“Italy’s intent is that we control the product all the way to the ultimate end user to prevent use in capital punishment,” Hospira said in a statement. “[W]e could not prevent the drug from being diverted” and could not “take the risk that we will be held liable by the Italian authorities if the product is diverted for use in capital punishment.” As a result, Hospira chose to stop producing thiopental altogether.
With a lethal injection crisis looming, the federal government sprang to action. In June of 2011, then-US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke asked former German health minister Philipp Rosler to help fill the widening thiopental gap. As Der Spiegel reported several years ago, Rosler declined the request, and instructed German pharmaceutical companies to not sell the drug to the United States.
Ultimately, the company decided it didn’t need the headache. As Fordham law professor Deborah Denno explained to me, profits on sales of sodium thiopental were low for Hospira. Its manufacturing problems and the increasingly negative, execution-related spotlight cast on sodium thiopental likely forced its hand. “Sodium thiopental was a very small part of their business…so I don’t think it was worth it for them.
The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) began to feel the pinch in September of 2010, when it announced that it did not have enough thiopental to conduct a scheduled execution. Fortunately, an Indian telemarketer named Chris Harris came calling, twice. In December 2010, Harris brokered a sale of thiopental made by the Mumbai-based Kayem Pharmaceuticals to the NDCS. According to documents obtained by Jerry Soucie, an attorney with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, the purchase was for 500 grams, at a cost of ,065.15.
But the deal with Harris—a “guy with a cell phone and the gift of gab,” Soucie says—ended inauspiciously. Because thiopental is classified as a class III controlled substance, Nebraska could not obtain it without first receiving a valid DEA license. Under the Controlled Substance Act, any entity that handles a controlled substance must register with the agency. That registration must specify how the importer plans to use the drug, as well as the location where the activity is to be carried out. According to documents obtained by Soucie, the NDCS did apply for the necessary importation license.
Kayem CEO Navneet Verma also told Soucie that Kayem was not registered with the DEA or FDA as a foreign pharmaceutical manufacturer or distributor. Soucie also learned from Verma about Kayem’s director of sales and marketing for US operations: a man named Wayne “Tony” Atwater, the owner of a Maine-based concrete-pouring company. Soucie discovered that Kayem’s US address was, fact, a mail forwarding service called Mostly Mail, located in a shopping mall in Las Vegas. Even though the NDCS did not yet possess the proper importation license, the FDA ultimately struck a deal with the NDCS allowing it to retain the Kayem shipment, as long as it agreed not to use it for lethal injections.
In a statement attached to the released shipment, the FDA said that it “does not review or approved[sic] products for the purpose of lethal injection [and that it] has not reviewed the products…to determine their identify, safety, effectiveness, purity or any other characteristics.” But the agency also wrote that the release did not “preclude action should the product later be found violative”—stating, in other words, that it would let the state have the drugs, but would not vouch for them.
Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning, meanwhile, was incensed. “We’re a sovereign state. You don’t need to come in and treat us like, you know, we’re Joe’s Pharmacy, hiding out in some ramshackle house out in the country. I mean, this is the state of Nebraska, doing this the right way,” an indignant Bruning vented to a local radio station on July 22, 2011.
“Why is it that…I had to go ask permission for anything that the State of Nebraska does, according to the State of Nebraska’s laws?…This isn’t being purchased for somebody’s backyard barbecue…We’re a sovereign. We don’t report to [the DEA]. The whole idea that I have to even deal with them at all bothers me. I’m working on behalf of the people of Nebraska doing a job that I was asked to do by the people of this state.”
Casting aside its poor luck, Nebraska went back to the well, finally obtaining a DEA importer license and purchasing another shipment of thiopental through Harris in November 2011. On November 3, 2011, the NDCS announced the purchase of 485 grams of thiopental for ,411. This time, Harris obtained his supply from a Swiss company called NAARI AG (Harris and Atwater had a brutal falling out with Kayem).
Bruning wasted no time getting back to business: on the day of the purchase, he filed a motion requesting an execution date for Michael Ryan, one of Soucie’s clients. But the Nebraska purchase was news to NAARI CEO Pritihi Kochhar. Not long after the NDCS announced that it was locked and loaded, Kochhar wrote to the Nebraska supreme court, explaining that his company had been duped by Harris. Harris was “not authorised [sic] to sell the product to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services or to anyone else in the USA,” Kochhar wrote.
According to Kochhar, NAARI had supplied Harris with thiopental in order to get it registered in Zambia, where the company hoped to eventually market the drug. But Harris instead sold it to Nebraska—at markup of roughly 142 percent. Kochhar requested that the NDCS return “the thiopental which was wrongfully diverted by Mr. Harris.” Harris, meanwhile, claimed he had delivered the thiopental to Zambia as promised, but that an interlocutor had sent it to the United States. Though the FDA ordered Nebraska to return the thiopental to NAARI in response to Kochhar’s recall, the state refused.
Closer to home, the London-based pharmaceutical wholesaler and distributor Dream Pharma has sold drugs to be used for lethal injection to Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee, according to the ACLU. On July 15, 2010, the Georgia Department of Corrections disclosed in a letter (addressed to a recipient whose named is redacted) that it was having trouble locating thiopental in the United States. It had already begun its search: just one day earlier, the department’s procurement director had written to a supplier (this name is also redacted) to inquire about purchasing thiopental. A representative of the suppliers responded, saying he was “more than happy to assist” by selling £91.88 pounds worth of thiopental. “We can dispatch the parcel by [REDACTED]. Which ever you prefer,” he wrote.
The supplier also knew its shipment could be obstructed. “[REDACTED] is the cheapest option, but they are very stringent with US customs, this is not to say the other carriers are any easier. . . . If for some reason, you could not release the product from US customs, we would not return the product back to the UK. We would ask for the destruction of the product.”
According to federal court documents and news stories published at the time, Georgia’s supplier was Dream Pharma. But the FDA promptly detained the shipment on July 15, alleging that it was misbranded. Then, in August, it released it to the state.
The story repeated itself one month later in Arkansas, this time with the FDA saying the thiopental was unapproved. But Arkansas appealed that decision, arguing that the drug was necessary for lethal injections, and the agency promptly released the shipment. The FDA also released a Dream shipment the day after it arrived in Arizona in September and another in Tennessee in October.
In other cases, states have helped each other fill their supply gaps, with drugs procured from abroad. But the DEA has been on the case. On February 10, 2011, the Kentucky Department of Corrections placed an order for 18 grams of thiopental (enough for three executions) with Correct Health, a Georgia-based company that provides health care services to correctional facilities.
Four days later, Correct Health FedExed the shipment to Kentucky. The sodium thiopental from Correct Health was manufactured by an Austrian company called Sondoz GmbH, and distributed by a UK-based distributor called Link Pharmaceuticals Limited, renamed Archimedes Pharma UK Limited in 2006.
According to a memo detailing the purchase, Kentucky did not know the source of the drug, or whether it was FDA-approved at the time of the purchase. It also did not know if the manufacturer was based overseas, nor—by its own admission—did it seek answers to these questions. To date, Kentucky has “no documentation that would reflect where Correct Health purchased their supply of sodium thiopental,” according to Kentucky department of corrections public information officer Todd Henson.
But the DEA quickly swept in. On March 24, Martin Redd, a supervisor with the agency’s Louisville district office, emailed his superiors to inform them that he would be heading to the Kentucky State Penitentiary to take custody of the drugs. One week later, the Kentucky department of corrections issued a statement announcing the release of its sodium thiopental for the DEA to “use as evidence in a case in another jurisdiction.” Because the department did not know when or if the drugs would be returned, it planned to continue searching for a new supply. In addition to the Kentucky seizure, the DEA also took thiopental supplies from Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee in the spring of 2011.
The DEA declined to comment on the circumstances of these seizures. But it appears to have gone after questionable drug shipments more aggressively than the FDA. “In our view, the DEA has been much more diligent in fulfilling its statutory responsibility,” Brad Berenson says.
Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, points out that these states’ willingness to enter into seemingly ill-advised, fly-by-night business deals with unapproved suppliers may strike some as bizarre. “Who do we know in the drug world that could get us some sodium thiopental?” he joked. “There’s this little place in Great Britain that has some, or some place in India. Okay, let’s get it here! FedEx it at night, we’ll get it here tomorrow.”
Why have states clung to thiopental? A resistance to change despite the presence of viable alternatives like pentobarbital. Even this alterative, though, grew less viable after its chief manufacturer, a Denmark-based company called Lunbeck, announced it would block sales of the drug to the US for lethal injections last July.
“They have used sodium thiopental for over 1,000 executions in the United States. They know that when you start changing drugs, that there might be unexpected results or adverse allergic reactions. . . with sodium thiopental, they at least had a track record.
The responsibility for keeping unapproved drugs out of the country is split between the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The FDA’s chief domestic function is to review and approve new drugs for sale. But under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), it also has the authority to regulate the production and distribution of drugs, and to block drug shipments that are “misbranded” or unapproved by the FDA. A drug is deemed misbranded if it is “manufactured, prepared, propagated, compounded, or processed in an establishment” not registered with the FDA, not properly listed with the FDA, or if its packaging is not properly labeled. It is also illegal to introduce a drug into interstate commerce that has not been previously reviewed and approved by the FDA.
For an entity to import controlled substances—defined as buying them directly off the international market—it must file a form with the DEA at least 15 days in advance of the scheduled importation, and notify the agency once it receives the drug. Successful registration with the DEA allows them to possess, manufacture, distribute, or dispense controlled substances.
Both the FDA and the DEA, then, play key roles in policing imports. But the FDA has assumed something of a hands-off approach. Since 1985, the agency has exercised its “enforcement discretion,” declining to review substances whose uses fall outside the public health realm, including lethal injection. That decision not to decide has opened up a vacuum, granting states a certain measure of freedom to obtain their drugs from potentially dubious sources.
And states as politically and ideologically diverse as Texas and California have run with that freedom, failing to divulge the full details of their lethal injection procedures. In response, defense attorneys for death row inmates around the country like Jeffrey Landrigan have challenged corrections departments, filing repeated public information requests and lawsuits seeking details on the source of their execution drugs, and how they plan to administer them.
While some attorneys appeal lethal injection protocols as a means of buying time for their clients and delaying executions, others view these challenges as salvos in the broader battle to end capital punishment altogether. But in either case, the information compiled by attorneys in recent years has shed new light on the mechanics of lethal injection in the United States.
The veil of secrecy began to fall with Morales v. Tilton, a lethal injection case that came before the District Court for the Northern District of California in 2006. In the case, attorneys for death row inmate Michael Morales were challenging California’s use of corrections officers, rather than medical technicians, to administer lethal injections. Such untrained hands, they alleged, could make mistakes that would subject inmates to cruel and unusual punishment.
Judge Jeremy Fogel’s review of past death row cases seemed to affirm that suspicion. He found that in six of California’s eleven previous lethal injections, the “inmates’ breathing may not have ceased as expected,” convincing him to rule that the state’s lethal injection procedure violated the Eighth Amendment. The key implication: that a state’s execution methods—both the drugs used and how they are administered—must pass the Eighth Amendment smell test. While the federal government cannot micromanage the state-by-state details of capital punishment procedure, it can weigh in on anomalous, alarming results, Fogel ruled. Since Morales, similar litigation has surfaced in Missouri and Arizona.
In addition to its role in reviewing and approving new drugs for sale, the FDA also has a separate responsibility to screen imported drugs at the border. “It doesn’t matter what your purpose is in screening the drug,” Berenson says. “If that drug is unapproved—is not legal to import—you cannot import it. Period.” How the drug will be used and by who becomes is irrelevant.
The agency’s position to decline to review products used for lethal injection dates back to the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Heckler v. Chaney . In the case, attorneys for convicted murderer Larry Chaney and over two-dozen fellow death row inmates sued the FDA, in an effort to block the use of lethal-injection drugs until the agency had ruled on whether the drugs in use were safe for humans.
In the majority opinion ruling in favor of Chaney, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that “an agency’s decision not to prosecute or enforce. . .is a decision generally committed to an agency’s absolute discretion.” By not ruling on a “drug that produces a 100 percent death rate,” the FDA exercised its power of discretion, legal scholar Garrett Epps wrote in The American Prospect several years ago.
Brad Berenson says that Heckler had a relatively narrow implication, and did not mean that the FDA cannot choose whether or not to follow the law as set forth by Congress. “It’s very particular to the exercise of certain kinds of enforcement discretion, where the statutory regime makes it clear that the agency has got the ability to decide whether or not to pursue a particular investigation or case,” he explains.
But the FDA also wants to preserve and project a certain image. “This is a federal agency designed to protect the health of the citizens,” Richard Dieter says. “The death penalty is not at all where they felt they should be. That was their position in 1985, and that was their position even recently.”
As recently, in fact, as January 2011, when the FDA put out a statement explaining its position on releasing shipments of imported thiopental. Issued in response to an inquiry from the Wall Street Journal, the statement suggested that it would defer to “law enforcement in the use of substances for lethal injection.” But it also reiterated that “[r]eviewing substances imported or used for the purpose for state-authorized lethal injection clearly falls outside of FDA’s explicit public health role.”
“It’s like telling doctors they have to monitor lethal injections. [FDA officials] don’t want to be part of it if they can help it,” Dieter says.
The FDA’s refusal to inject itself into the broader debate over capital punishment came to a head in March 2011, when a group of death row inmates in Tennessee, Arizona, and California, sued the FDA and Department of Health and Human Services in an effort to block the use of foreign-produced thiopental in lethal injections. They argued that the FDA had violated provisions of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by allowing misbranded thiopental to enter the country.
As their attorney Brad Berenson explained to me, the basis of the plaintiffs’ suit was simple: there is no legitimate reason for the FDA to allow states to import unapproved drugs. Berenson also says that the FDA let the drugs into the country despite a long, contentious history of blocking states from importing prescription drugs from Canada (Vermont v. Leavitt). The FDA, in contrast, held that drugs used for this purpose were not their concern, and that states were choosing to use them for such purposes at their own risk. In July of 2013, a federal appeals court ruled that the FDA had, indeed failed in its responsibility to block misbranded and unapproved imported drugs.
For defense attorneys, procedural reform of lethal injection is not the sole objective. Their motive in challenging death sentences—leveling objections over procedure or tainted evidence—is often to delay, in hopes of ultimately convincing a judge to throw out a death sentence. Challenging the execution protocol itself, the type of drug to be used, or its source, becomes the logical, final roadblock.
But prosecutors “want to be able to trump that, and to have the drugs and not be stopped by drug companies or by defense attorneys,” Richard Dieter told me. “Both sides are trying to upset the other, either with a motion, a new twist on the law, or. . . using all the powers that they have.”
It seemed time to unearth all that material. The growing catastrophe surrounding execution in America may be reaching something of an inflection point, and it felt silly to continue sitting on it. I’ll leave you with this sobering graf from the keeper of the American conscience, Amy Davidson:
[Wood] lost, but the manner of his death suggests, at the very least, that there needs to be more transparency about the means of execution. . . . It has become hard for states to get what they need to kill people; companies don’t really want to go into the business, or if they do they don’t want to advertise it. That is not tenable, when we are all being asked to be complicit in a death. Or perhaps it is a reminder that we might choose not to be.
Working in TV can be like striding through treacle. Specifically, writing for TV. So why do we do it? Specifically, why do I do it?
At the end of February last year, I hosted what we in the hosting trade haughtily call a “corporate”. It was an in-house event for the Shine Group, Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company, which has acquired a number of other production companies in the UK, including Kudos, Dragonfly and Princess, and operates Shine satellites “out of” France, Spain, Germany, Australia and the States. (They approached me after seeing me host a screening and Q&A at the Edinburgh TV Festival for the thriller Hunted where a miscalculation meant that I didn’t get a chair and had to host it standing up. One job leads to another.)
The Shine gig proved an exhilarating day; smoothly run at their end, and with a good, attentive audience of media buyers from around the world, who were able to see exclusive previews (or “premieres”) of three high-priority new shows: murder mystery Broadchurch, zombie fable In The Flesh and the sitcom Vicious. My job was to frame each screening and conduct a Q&A with “key talent” afterwards. In preparation, I was able to screen the first episodes of the two dramas privately, and in the case of In The Flesh, shooting scripts, which is quite a privilege, and a thrill if you’re a) a fan of TV drama, and b) a scriptwriter. Vicious was still in production at the time, but it was, again, quite an insight to see shooting scripts by the American writer Gary Janetti (alumnus of Will & Grace and Family Guy).
As a writer, it’s always meeting writers that thrills me the most. Why wouldn’t it? I’ve also hosted Q&As for Bafta, the BFI and Edinburgh with the likes of the writers and showrunners of Lost; Graham Linehan about The IT Crowd; creators of Outnumbered and Drop The Dead Donkey Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin; The Job Lot’s Claire Downes and Ian Jarvis; aforementioned Hunted and X-Files scribe Frank Spotnitz; the great Stephen Moffat; the great Victoria Wood; and James Corden and Matt Baynton about The Wrong Mans - all illuminating about the process.
Part of my job as Shine’s host was to oil the wheels, hand out nibbles and ensure all went smoothly and to time onstage (we had a lot to get through in one day). (The nibbles bit was a joke.) To aid that process, I had preliminary phone conversations with the “key talent” in the days preceding the event, including the producer of In The Flesh, the producer and writer of Vicious, and the writer of Broadchurch, the now-famous Chris Chibnall. (He’ll have been known to Doctor Who and Torchwood fans already, and I’d admired his single 2011 drama United and said so on my blog, which he’d read, so we had common cause.) On the day, I also met Dominic Mitchell, who was making his TV debut with In The Flesh, which made it all the more impressive.
That’s the other thing about hosting. As host, you see the shows first, and then find yourself watching them again on the day (often with a craned neck), which is unusual, but two viewings close together really tests a piece of television. Both Broadchurch and In The Flesh passed that unrealistic test. I’m not going to say that I knew both would be honoured by Bafta just over a year later. But I knew they were good.
So, let’s flash forward to Sunday evening. I’m sitting at home, watching the Bafta TV awards on telly. (For the first time, I actually sat on the jury for one of the award categories this year, Best International Programme, but you get a bottle of champagne for doing that and not, as I’d hoped, a ticket to the ceremony; when you judge the Sonys, you get a seat on the night, albeit at a table at the back, but still.) The hat-trick for Broadchurch – best drama, best actress, best supporting actor – was not a surprise; it was the cherry on the cake of an awards season ripe with accolade for Chris’s show – a Kudos production and a kudos-magnet – which had become an actual “phenomenon”. The best miniseries award for In The Flesh (bet they’re glad they were only commissioned to make three episodes now!) was more of a surprise, but a pleasant one, albeit cruelly cut from the two-hour TV broadcast. Vicious was also nominated – Frances De La Tour – so of the three shows I helped in my own small way to premiere last February, all had been given the Bafta nod.
In the interim, I befriended Chris Chibnall. We got on well when we met at the Shine bash, he kindly contributed a piece I wrote for the Guardian about “showrunning” and we have run into each other socially a couple of times since, notably at the Radio Times awards, where he introduced me to more “key talent” from the show, as you can see. They were collecting their framed Radio Times covers that night. More prizes. It’s nice to be there at the start of it, and nice to be there at the end of it, even if it is in a peripheral role. You should be thankful to get to be in the orbit of talented folk, and only become blase after you’re dead.
The reason I tell this labyrinthine tale is that it belies the notion that TV takes ages. It can do, and it does. But once a show’s green-lit and in production, it can move very quickly, not least because broadcasters have slots to fill and there’s very little wriggle room once the date is set. Broadchurch debuted on ITV a day after Mayday on BBC1 last March – that’s two whodunits set in small English towns, both produced by Kudos, although Mayday ran over five consecutive nights.
I gather that Kudos had done their damnedest to convince the rival broadcasters to put a bit of breathing space between the two mysteries but history tells us that neither would budge. As a result, Mayday fell between the cracks a bit, despite being written by the talented husband-and-wife team behind the phenomenal Ripper Street. How many times do you read an interview with a writer, or writers, who say they’ve been developing the drama that’s about to be shown on telly for years?
A TV writer of some note reminded me, sagely, that actors can potentially do between five and ten jobs a year, directors between three and five, while production companies often have several on the go at once, while writers might only get one job a year, or even every two years, unless they are in such demand the are able to overlap, which must only apply to the very highest echelon. This is a fair point to remember. As I have found, you can also spend months, even years, “in development” (and thus on a very reduced fee in comparison to a full commission), only to fall at the final fence, while other hired talent – to generalise – only start work once a project is green-lit and the hours are contracted.
I love TV. I love watching it, and I love working in it. As a job, even a living, it’s a privilege, and, for the most part, a pleasure. But as a writer, you need superhuman patience and, in tandem, ridiculous faith in your own ability, a faith that is knocked on a regular basis, no matter what level you’re writing at. The clearly talented Chris Lunt, whose first originated on-air commission was ITV’s recent Prey, has been writing pilots, bibles and treatments for years if you read his CV – he’s effectively been in development since 2008. This invisible work improves your craft. And that which does not kill you makes your stronger.
I’m also lucky enough to work as a script editor, which also helps hones my licks as a writer, or should do in theory, but it’s always easier to cut someone else’s work than your own. (I’m script editing series two of the comedy Drifters for E4 right now, and it’s bracing to be hands-on with scripts at any level.) As previously stated, I’m in development with my first drama since leaving EastEnders in 2002, and I can only dream of that green light. I spent a lot of last year writing a long, detailed treatment for a drama that sort of went cold after two broadcasters turned their noses up at it. Not a single penny changed hands, although it involved a number of pleasant meetings with a nice, well-known actor who also has a production company and we’ve bonded, so none of it was for nothing. And that’s the job.
Going back to the end of February last year. None of us knew that Broadchurch was going to become a phenomenon – pretty much credited with saving television! – but you could sense it was bloody good. Likewise In The Flesh. It’s pleasing to me, and reassuring, that both could go from premiere to Bafta in just over a year. You wonder if Prey, series two of Line Of Duty and Happy Valley will repeat the trick in the 2015 Baftas. I’ll be rooting for Lunt out of developmental solidarity!
The business moves as if striding through treacle and we who are footsoldiers have no choice but to struggle in step behind it. But when it all comes together, it’s sweet.
A few weeks ago, I sat on a panel for the 32nd Intercultural Communication Conference at Texas Southern University. The subject for this year’s conference was the effects of Black music on Black life. I argued that contemporary Black music inaccurately reflects the Black experience in America. A large majority of modern Black music (read: Hip-Hop & B) features the same theme of ostentatious wealth and gauche misogyny, to the point where a slight deviation can be lauded as something other than a softer version of the same theme.
Questlove, of the (world famous) Roots, in his third installment of his six-part weekly series of essays, takes the theory of Hip-Hop as cultural drag and takes it a step further, arguing that the concept of Black cool has lost its luster in the current of Hip-Hop in the 21st century:
These days, the vast majority of hip-hop artists follow a script because they’re trying to succeed in a game whose rules are clear. To paraphrase Barthes: American hip-hop is usually based on imitation, and it is meant to produce artists who are users of the existing tradition, not creators. And because of that, black culture in general — which has defaulted into hip-hop — is no longer perceived as an interesting vanguard, as a source of potential disruption or a challenge to the dominant. It might be worth watching if nothing else is on, but you don’t need to keep an eye on it. And that leads to a more distressing question, not rhetorical this time: Once you don’t have a cool factor any longer — when cool gets decoupled from African-American culture — what happens to the way that black people are seen?
During my panel, I justified my theory by noting that Hip-Hop has become the primary lens by which other races view African-Americans. And while I don’t buy the “rap is bringing down the race” philosophy, nor do I believe we should leave the responsibility of full racial acceptance at the feet of Hip-Hop, it must be acknowledged that the genre, and as a result, the culture, has lost a chunk of its innovation. The fact that a new rapper is comfortable enough to wear this should serve as proof that Hip-Hop is on follower status right now.
Ultimately, it comes back to theme. If Hip-Hop throwing money down from the top at your competitors (rappers nowadays come into the game rich; very rarely do new rappers expose the vulnerability of being broke and “doing it for the love”), then what place is there for alternatives? And if no alternatives exist, how long until the wealth bubble bursts?
These days, increasingly, black cool is a Ponzi scheme that revolves around a couple of people, disingenuously at best. Everyone pays tribute to those tip-top hip-hop stars, but their cachet comes from their celebrity, and their predictable devotion to it. Do they embody black cool in the traditional sense? I don’t think they can. I don’t think any of us can. The cultural landscape now is about winning, not taking the extra beat to think your way around a problem. Today’s hip-hop stars may be the Federal Reserve of black cultural cachet, but these days they’re just printing money whose value has long ago diminished. And that’s not cool.
To whom it may concern,
Thanks for taking the time to read this letter!
I assure you, at least in terms of breaking up the monotony that is hiring a new employee, it’s the best decision you’ve made today.
I’m sure you’ve received dozens like it, promising exciting job-applicable traits like “Team-Player!” and “Hard-Working” and “Dedicated” and “Passionate!” I’m sure all of them have various examples of such traits like “That one time I saved a several hundred thousand dollar deal from falling through the cracks just because I spell-checked every word in a 200-page memo (showcasing their dedication, attention-to-detail, meticulousness, potential brilliance)” or “That other time I was involved in landing an account that you may know of by the name of HUGE TECH COMPANY (demonstrating their perseverance, persuasion, competitiveness).” I’m sure they are well-spoken individuals, promising longevity, increased revenue, innovative ground-breaking ideas, extensive connections and above all, a personality like a glowing ember, able to light up a room and provide optimistic warmth to even the darkest of situations and workplaces.
And with such prospective candidacy, how could you possibly decide between any of us? We’re like a litter of adorable puppies begging for attention, pleading you take us all. What an incredibly difficult decision you have before you. I for one certainly do not envy your position!
And so by now I’m sure you’re wondering. Say Meg, enough about your competition. Tell me. What is it ABOUT YOU that sets you apart from all these inherently perfect corporate robotic life forms? What makes you so much more stellar in the planetarium that is our email inbox of shining super-star future employees? Why should I keep reading this letter?
Well. I’m glad you asked! Because I’ve thought awhile about my answer. And it doesn’t lie in experience. It doesn’t lie in a laundry list of personality traits, or accomplishments. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose I am the runt of the potential employment litter-box. My mark on the world is chalk-status, in that it’s visible but slightly uncertain, brush up against it and I often feel I’m just a smudge of foggy possibility. There’s never been the word manager, or senior, or executive in front of my name. I don’t have 4-5, 6-8, 10-12 years experience. I’ve never been in charge of any multi-million dollar accounts, I don’t have a masters degree, I haven’t saved any living thing from a burning building and I speak exactly one language.
So by this point I’m sure you’re thinking alright, wise gal. Wrap up the reverse psychological babble. We have a lot of people who can do all of these things waiting in the ranks. Applicant number 6 can speak 4 languages and regularly saves newborn kittens from trees. You’re out of your league here sweetheart.
And maybe I am. If it comes down to what I’ve done so far in terms of creative accomplishment, I suppose I don’t have too much to bring to the interviewing table. And that is always the struggle I suppose. The battle between what I have already done and what I could do if given the right opportunity.
And so I sign off with my one shining accolade. Potential. That is what I offer. The promise that despite my rather short resume, my youth, my inexperience, my lack of prestigious titles and lengthy accomplishments, I am untapped talent and endless capability. And I say that with absolute confidence. Without flowery statements or grandiose declarations.
Very simply, I believe in myself. And I think you should too.
But maybe that’s not you. Maybe that’s not today. Maybe this is merely as I say above, a chance to break up the tediousness in another 9-5 Monday morning. Maybe potential isn’t enough here. Maybe you need more. And that’s ok. Because someday, sometime, someone will read this and believe it. Believe me.
And then, at that point, I’ll go down to the great chalk board of life, grab a sharpie and write my name in big black permanent ink.
And that will be merely the beginning.
But in between now and then, thank you once again for taking your time to review my application and I wish you the best of luck in your search for your next great employee. May they really be all that they promise they are.
In the morning I awoke to the train clumsily arriving in Denver with the blood orange sun rising in the east. Most of the night was spent alternating between sleeping across the seat I commandeered next to mine or sitting upright, lazy boy style. Neither of those strategies were too effective. On a bus ride to New York City some years ago I arrived at a stop in Philadelphia in the same sedated state and I still can’t decide if I can say I’ve been there or not. Denver looks tyrannically boring. I had read it is best to get a seat in the observation car upon departure from the “Queen City.” Apparently everyone else read this as the car was packed full of geriatrics. A tour guide soon grabbed the mic to narrate our journey and it became apparent he planned to rant for some time. He informed us the train depot was beside the Rockies stadium and that the team should get their act together. My little league baseball team was the Rockies; maybe I can gather the team again and we can go out there.
As I’ve reset my watch, I realize this not a journey through space, but time. I am engaged in time travel. If the USS Enterprise faces one contorted and contracted plane of time as it enters light speed, the California Zephyr faces the same plane as a vast sheet of stretched spandex. Those that will inevitably invent and use the methods of time travel in the future will age at a slower rate than those stuck on earth, monogamous with time. When they return home, they will be much younger and perhaps many of their friends will then be gone. On this train the opposite is true. You age quicker while your friends retain their youth longer. There is especially strong evidence of this all around me. It’s my belief all the seniors now on the train simply boarded it before me and have lost their exuberant youth somewhere between the east coast and Chicago. I will soon be this age. The train will disappear into the oblivion of the Rockies when I am to report to administration cart to receive my AARP card and establish my will.
The eastern pass of the Rockies shortly follows Denver on the rail. We climb along on switchbacks and occasionally the mountain has been sliced as if it were only an apple. The dark tan and green mixture of pasture and evergreen that sits atop these crosscuts are a stark contrast to the burnt orange color of the rock below, as if you bit into a granny apple only to find an orange’s flesh. Everything looks flammable. It is no wonder there are so many fires in Colorado. This yearly burn must send the land through constant cycles of rejuvenation. The houses on the other hand are of course lost. I have heard State Farm and some other insurance companies have filed a class action lawsuit against nature for insurance fraud, but alas no court will take their case. They are hopeful the upcoming years will bring justice.
We pass through the heart of the Rockies, approaching its Western slope.
Native American’s used to fling arrows at passing caravans, or so I’ve seen in countless westerns and paintings. It seems the Indians have been replaced by white water rafters, and the arrows by bare asses. All day we were mooned as we followed the Colorado River. This caused me to become deeply ashamed. Every one of those in the observation car was raucously amused, but I grew grim. I am the mooner, not the moonee. For the past two years I have paddled the South Branch of the Potomac with friends at their long running fishing camp in the highlands of West Virginia. Each Saturday morning we load the canoes with as much domestic beer as they will bear and drift eight miles down river. Along the rivers banks runs a train tourists take to spot bald eagles in the area demarcated as a bird sanctuary. It’s a tradition to moon these amateur ornithologists. To be on the other end of this exchange is a deep betrayal of my identity.
On to the desert.
On afternoon I decided it was time to explore a different part of Havana that I had yet to see, Centro Habana or Central Havana. I’d see enough of beautiful Old Havana and thought it was time to see the real Havana that has been untouched. Central Havana is the most densely populated part of town and unlike Old Havana, nothing has been restored.
I hailed a coco-taxi (a three-wheeled scooter) right from my hotel in Vedado and enjoyed a fun ride down the Malecón to my first destination in Central Havana, a special place called El Callejón de Hamel (Hamel’s Alley). I was in for quite a wonderful surprise!
I paid my fare which was much cheaper than a traditional taxi and wondered why I hadn’t tried a coco taxi earlier. It certainly was a fun way to see Havana! The neighborhood was dramatically different from the other parts of Havana I’d seen. Much more rustic, rundown with buildings in various states of disrepair. Yet it also felt more Cuban. More like the real thing.
In Central Havana, homes and buildings are not being restored like they are in Old Havana and nearby my hotel in Vedado. Instead, buildings are decaying, weathered and falling apart. Sidewalks are filled with huge gaps and the streets could use a good repaving. Yet, the people are all the same. Smiling. Resolute. Frustrated. Resigned. Just like other nicer parts of Havana, Cubans sit outside on doorsteps chatting with neighbors and playing the guitar.
I had heard that Hamel’s Alley (El Callejón de Hamel) was a treasure for photographers. Tucked away between two streets Calle Aramburu and Calle Hospital on Hamel this two block area is a phenomenal Afro-Cuban community art project. Created in 1990 by self-taught Afro-Cuban painter and sculptor, Salvador Gonzales Escalona, Hamel’s Ally is an impressive example of how a simple idea can transform a rundown place into a creative explosion of color, culture and art.
The moment I stepped out of the coco cab and set foot into this magical place, I was entranced. Entire four-story buildings are painted in a burst of color and designs reaching all the way to the sky. Whimsical sculptures are made out of recycled antiques into works of art. Inspiring quotes and saying are painted into the walls.
As soon as I walked through the gate I was met by a licensed guide who for a few dollars gave me a tour of the place, pointing out the best works of art. For some reason, I had the entire place to myself, a rarity per my guide. If it had been a Sunday afternoon, Hamel’s Alley would have been jammed packed with locals and tourists alike listening to live Rumba music and dancing.
Besides the murals, there are interesting sculptures made out of antiques and other recycled objects such as bathtubs, typewriters and even old cars. Nothing goes to waste in Hamel’s Alley. There is also a learning area for children in the community to take their try at creating art.
I couldn’t get enough of this place but felt it was time to move on with my exploring of Centro Habana. I only had another hour until I had to go on our next people to people visit. We were having cocktails at our hotel with Cuban university students.
“Moon of my Stars”… “Mother of Dragons”… Call this smoldering dinosaur kale burger what you will, just don’t call it weak. Smokey morsels of crisped shiitake “bacon,” crown a regal beet gratin, smothered in Red Dragon cheese on top of a crunchy, berberre-rubbed kale patty, heirloom tomato, and slathering of sumac aioli. Dracarys! (Translation: “Fuck raw horse heart!”)
serious h/t to J. Kenji Lopez for the mushroom bacon
I took part in a discussion with a few Twitter users the other day in which we spoke about the appropriation of the term “depressing” in the title of a webchat about the effects of fourth wave feminism. This conversation took many meandering paths and we were pretty unanimous in our opprobrium of medicalised terms to discuss everyday experiences. We spoke, at length, about the myriad ways in which we, as women with disabilities, are erased from the discourse of mainstream feminism. On the one hand my instinct is to ignore the word “depressing” as something which has become deeply assimilated into our everyday conversations, but on the other I am aware of the hypocrisy of ignoring such terms whilst feeling offend by the use of other medical terms such as “schizophrenic” or “retarded” as adjectives for negative terminology.
My life has been full of a variety of tragic strands which, if sewn together, would make a large shroud. I have written about them on several occasions: my experiences as a person with disabilities, my fight against anorexia, my life as a survivor of rape, my battle against post-natal depression & my general feeling of being ostracised by the world because of my disability. Those who read my blog will be familiar with my life. But what I wanted to write about is my particular experience with depression and why I take issue with it being co-opted as a term to describe non-medical annoyance or frustration and why non-disabled feminists need to make more careful choices regarding the words they use.
I entered psychiatric inpatient care on a Sunday, much like any other, in July. There was nothing particularly special about that weekend, neither for the rest of the world nor for myself. It was by random chance that I had decided that that weekend would be my last. On the Friday I took a large dose of Valium, nothing happened, other than a long sleep and lost memories, and so on Sunday I decided I would give it a harder push and took an overdose of Baclofen, my muscle relaxant. I didn’t even get very far into this second overdose, due to the restrictions on my liberty (due to being a wheelchair user largely confined to bed), before the ambulance and police were called and so, before I could cause myself significant harm I was carted off to hospital. I don’t remember much of what happened next. But somewhere along the lines my indignation about my right to die led to me receiving a ticket to a psychiatric hospital.
When you first arrive for check in one of the first things they do is give you a physical medical, it was at that moment that a hidden truth was discovered: I hadn’t eaten in quite some time. I had fallen from a size 16 to a size 6 and the jutting ribs and sagging skin made alarm bells ring in the on call doctor’s head. It was from that moment on that the ins and outs of my body became public property. Scale reading after painful scale reading was meticulously recorded by the medical staff and weekly review meetings centred on whether they had convinced me to eat yet.
Every day a menu card was brought to me in my room and every day I would have to explain to another member of my medical team that “I don’t eat”. There is a painting by Max Ernst called Europe After the Rain, in it sits dozens of references to eyeballs watching the painter, signifying the paranoia during WWII. This painting perfectly exemplified the sensation of being watched which I experienced. In reality, my medical team were solely invested in keeping me alive but in the mind set I inhabited for that time they were the enemy who sought my destruction. All food was poison to me, a rotten carcass with detrivores spilling out of its remains.
Nurses, doctors were only seen on a weekly basis, tried to talk me out of my depression and desire to end my life. I was presented with classes in clay making, presented with dogs to pat, given sedating medications on my request, and even sent on long-spiralling guilt trips about my responsibilities to my children. Alas nothing would shift my desire to end my life. I was placed upon a course of drugs which I flouted by refusing some medications and, at other times, sneaking large amounts of laxative into my bedroom. My thirst for self-extinction was unquenchable.
I had no desire to do anything, and death occupied most of my thoughts. Indeed, the feeling of disconnection caused by starvation gave me cause for hope. No one could connect with me, because I inhabited a different plane: they were in the land of the living whilst I was somewhere nearer to death. Eventually the only thing which, ironically, sent me from my self-destructive course was the death of one of the most important people of my life. Though her death didn’t make me eat, it did stop me from being in a place of continual overdose. A desire to protect those I loved somehow caused a paradigm shift that I doubt I will ever truly understand.
When I think back to this time and compare it with my feelings about feminism the latter seems entirely ridiculous. How can something so desperate and soul destroying be used as a synonym for what equates to upsetting? That said, feminism does, quite literally depress me, specifically because of the way in which it makes women with mental illness and disabilities feel alienated and erased. The repeated instances of feminists using lazy and bungled ableist language need to end. Having a disability is already isolating, and presents women with more complex oppressions, feminists need to make a conscious effort to be more aware of these issues and seek to support their sisters. Perhaps the question of whether feminism is depressing wasn’t so silly after all.
There always has been one unsolvable problem for any follower of a sports franchise. Bad coaches can get fired. If a player — say a talented, if unmanageable young left-handed pitcher — becomes too much of a headache in the clubhouse, with his gluttony and his drunkenness and his predilection for being discovered in brothels as dawn breaks on game day, your team can release him, trade him, or sell him for big money that it allegedly can use to mount a stage musical. I mean, really — no matter how good the player — as fans, you’ll be relieved. After all, what possible long-term damage could unloading that clubhouse cancer really cause?
But there is one problem that never can be solved. This is because what is a problem for you might not be a problem for the good old boy network of plutocrats that actually own the games into which you pour your devotion and your money. And, even if you decide to stop spending the latter to satisfy the former, it may not really matter. The odds are that, through the largesse of television and the legerdemain of modern accounting, you can’t solve it that way, either. There never has been anything you can do about a bad owner. That one is out of your hands.
Which is where we find ourselves today in the case of Donald Sterling, the alleged racist slumlord owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was an alleged racist slumlord, and a confirmed terrible owner, for three decades before audio surfaced of a conversation that was reportedly between him and a woman named V. Stiviano, who appears to have James O’Keefe’d him. (Is there more? Of course there is.)
The league is investigating the audio, but by now, half the world has already weighed in, including the coach of his team, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, LeBron James, and the president of the United States. All of them agree — as does any advanced carbon-based life form — that if the recording is authentic, the comments show that Sterling is undeniably racist, undeniably revolting, and undeniably rooted in the mind of a man who would have to yield his moral pride of place to algae. There have been a number of calls for the league to strip Sterling of his franchise. This, I confess, makes me more than a little nervous. Taking someone’s assets because of what they think and say, no matter how grotesque it is, sets off all kinds of alarm bells in my First Amendment conscience. The league certainly is within its rights to suspend him, for as long as it wants to suspend him. There were also calls for the Clippers players to make some kind of public statement. Before Sunday’s Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors, they did just that, when they removed their shooting shirts at center court and turned their red warm-ups inside out.
The point is that all of what we’ve discovered about Donald Sterling over the past three days has been an open secret for as long as he’s owned the Clippers. He has a track record as a conspicuous bag of dirt, dating back at least to 1996, when he was sued by a former employee for sexual harassment, and that was only the first of several legal battles. He’s been sued at least twice for housing discrimination. He was sued by Elgin Baylor for employment discrimination, during which Baylor claimed that Sterling said he wanted “poor black boys from the South” playing for a “white head coach,” an allegation that seems to be even more believable today, given what’s emerged over the weekend.
The audio tape of Sterling’s alleged comments comes at a time when the country is also riveted by the sociological musings of Cliven Bundy. With much of the chattering class being shocked — shocked! — that there is racism going on here, here comes Donald Sterling with some thoughts of his own. Not only is he an incompetent public bigot, he has godawful timing.
That said, let us look beyond recent events and point out that the NBA has tolerated this guy for years, despite the fact that, even if he had been Francis of Assisi, he still has been the worst owner in the modern history of professional sports. Nobody else is close. Since 1981, when he bought the team, Sterling’s Clippers have compiled not merely the worst winning percentage in the NBA, but the worst winning percentage in all four major American sports, and that includes several teams that didn’t even exist when Sterling first graced the Association with his presence. It allowed him to run this franchise into the ground a number of times. It allowed him to hang Baylor, one of the league’s founding superstars, out to dry. And it allowed him to reap the benefits now that his team is the only one in Los Angeles that is in the NBA playoffs.
In fact, not only can it be said that the NBA tolerated this clown, it can be argued that the league actively empowered him. After all, the sainted David Stern was a lot harder on rap music and on clothing than he ever was on Sterling.
“The dress code is, to me, a continuation of things,” Stern told the Boston Globe in 2005. “It’s a small thing that contributes to a sense of professionalism.”
By the way, not long after Stern said this, the Department of Justice was preparing to sue Sterling in federal court for refusing to rent to minority tenants. But that, of course, had nothing to do with the NBA’s “sense of professionalism.” Stern also intervened to scuttle the trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers, which resulted in Paul winding up in Sterling’s employ so that, this weekend, as president of the National Basketball Players Association, Paul would find himself denouncing racist prattle that allegedly came from the guy who signs his checks. Donald Sterling is the Caliban of the NBA’s golden age, and the league has known it for decades, and has done precious little about it. And that is why a bad owner is the worst thing that can happen to a fan.
The closest parallel is said to be the case of Marge Schott, the extraordinary loon who once owned the Cincinnati Reds. Schott was notoriously cheap, but her real problems came in 1992, when her employees claimed she referred to two of her best players as “million-dollar n—–s,” that she talked about “sneaky goddamn Jews,” and that she kept some Nazi memorabilia around the house. That November, in an attempt to explain herself, Schott said she had been kidding about her African American players. Four years later, after having been suspended once, she opined that Adolf Hitler had had some good ideas at the beginning, but had gone too far. She also mocked Asian Americans, and she called players who wore earrings “fruits.” If diversity training had a chronic ward, Marge Schott would have been an inmate for life. Eventually, with her limited partners threatening an uprising, she sold her majority share in the team.
Schott was far from the only racist who ever owned a team. Calvin Griffith moved the Washington Senators all the way to Minneapolis in search of a white fan base. George Marshall, the original owner of the Washington Redskins, was an outright bigot, and Daniel Snyder, the team’s current owner, clinging as he is to a racist nickname, must be spending every morning these days lighting candles beneath Sterling’s picture, out of gratitude for grabbing the spotlight away from him.
But the person who can best be said to be Sterling’s most direct ancestor in bad ownership is a person nearly forgotten except by those who remember the days when the NBA was one small step from the ash heap of history. His name was Ted Stepien, and he owned the Cleveland Cavaliers. For almost 20 years, the mere mention of his name was enough to give any NBA owner a severe case of the vapors. He is the person whom NBA owners use to scare their children into staying in bed at night. Go to sleep, or Ted Stepien will trade you to Milwaukee for a pound of Usinger’s sausage and half a case of Blatz.
The parallels are almost cosmic. A guy who got rich in the advertising game, Stepien bought the Cavs in 1980 and immediately went to work bungling his way into history. He fired a play-by-play guy for being critical. He moved his team’s games from one radio station to another because he didn’t like how a talk-show host criticized him. He hired Bill Musselman not once, but twice. In the 1981-82 season, he fired three coaches and hired four. Going for instant gratification, he squandered the high draft picks that were a result of his terrible ownership, including one that became James Worthy. In fact, Stepien’s personnel moves were so preposterous that the NBA changed its rules to make it nearly impossible for a team to trade first-round draft picks in consecutive years. The Stepien Rule is his lasting contribution to the league’s history.
Not only was Stepien’s record as an owner the equal of Sterling’s, but, as Cliven Bundy put it, Stepien also had a “thought” about race that he was more than happy to share. At one point, Stepien argued that the NBA should always make sure that 50 percent of its players were white, because white people preferred to watch white people play. To be fair to history, it was Stern, then the league’s general counsel, who finessed the deal through which Stepien sold the Cavaliers to the Gund brothers. But that was a long time ago, and why the league hasn’t been more forceful about prying the Clippers loose from Sterling is a question that new commissioner Adam Silver thus far has been unable or unwilling to answer.
The NBA has a lot to answer for in the career of Donald Sterling. I like what the Clippers did Sunday. It was a statement. I just hope the league doesn’t fine them for violating the dress code. That, after all, is serious business.
More on Donald Sterling:
You know for a fact that no one knows Biryani like you do. No one loves biryani like you do. No one misses biryani like you do.
You don’t get anything in your neighbourhood that even remotely resembles biryani. Here in Kolkata, when you were in the mood for some subtlety in your Biryani you’d walk down to Aminia. For a full bodied taste, you’d stroll down to Aliya/ Shiraz/ Arsalan. For a plate of sumputous lip smacking biryani in general, with a large chunk of aaloo and one whole dim seddho (boiled egg) you used to step out of that car/ bus/ auto/ taxi anywhere in Kolkata. And just in case you were one of those adventurous ones, you walked frequently down that dingy lane off CIT road Puddopukur for the heavenly beef biryani at Qayum’s. You have never tasted better Biryani. Anywhere. In the World.
Where you drowned your sorrows. Where you made friends. Where you graduated out of childhood. You grieved over lost love/ first break up over pints of beer or pegs of rum or whatever your choice of poison was. You passionately debated Nihilism and Existentialism in the musty corridor of the Olypub, cigarette in hand, after having actively helped the well done beef steak to its rightful destination (to your tummy that is).
You’re not decided whether he is the hero or the villain of the Kolkata roads. Not yet. He might have flatly refused to take you to the most convenient of locations. He might have dropped you right at your doorstep at 4 AM when you were too drunk from that binge session at Park Street to give him directions (he remembers you from the last ride you took in his cab). He has argued with you over topics ranging from the fare chart, politics, sports to the sanskaars of the present generation. He was the silent witness of your first drag of smoke and watchful guard during that first quick kiss.
It’s not Puchka. It’s Phuchka. That’s what you have tried to explain in vain to your colleagues and friends there. This deep fried thin skinned hollow flourball with a filling of mashed potato with spices, dipped in tamarind water is a foodie’s delight and a dietician’s nightmare. They do not mash the potato like they do it here in Kolkata. The flour is not as crisp with memories and the water is not as tangy with love.
If you are a boy, 15th August was more about that day long football tournament than anything else. Or that annual school football match. You woke up sharp at six to rush to the maidan for your weekly muddy joust of football. Football was your first love.
The Norwesters they call it. But you always thought that the English word lacked the punch for once. Kaalboishakhi in all its glory is what made you aware of all the emotions that homo sapiens are capable of experiencing. And that smell of the moist earth. That always kind of meant that the final exams were over. Those Kaalboishakhi evenings made you wonder what if you were a kite or what if you could fly, directionless, like that yellow leaf. Those were evenings that made you rhyme your first verse.
The tea stall. It was always less about the tea and more about the adda. The clay bhaanr that carefully kept the searing heat from travelling to your fingertips while you sipped the boiling hot tea. The kaku with the sokaler kagoj. Or the Sandho Ajkal. The transistor radio blaring out live commentaries of the Mohunbagan-East Bengal football match or the cricket world cup.
The Geriatric Jethu
The para’r jethu, (who claims to have accomplished wondrous deeds when his hair was still black and he was a foot and a half taller). He lectured you on everything from bankimchandra to bishnu puran. He’s the Windows 98 version of Wikipedia. If you were a girl, he has cast disapproving glances at you when you tried that skirt out for the first time. If you were a boy, he probably has advised you to drive the ball with your head down and steady.
When the biological clock of Kolkata worked upside down. When the city stayed awake throughout the night, keeping you company, while you pandal hopped first with parents and then with friends. And Maddox Square was its very own DOS version of facebook, where the classmate from school/ college suddenly looked hot/ handsome.
Your Home. Where you reached late, night after night. Where they cared whether you ate before sleeping. Your mom and the way she blew warm air on her aanchol to give you a quick warm compress every time you poked your eye. Your dad and all those times when he got you that ice cream or that comic book or that toy you so wanted or scolded you and didn’t. Your brother who played pranks on you or was your partner in crime. Dadu or Dida for the umpteen times they saved your ass. For that chhad or that one small window that let the sky dance on your maths notebooks on those pleasant afternoons.