Homage to Heathrow: Saluting Caleb Femi’s ‘A Tale of Modern Britain’

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.
Martin Moodie

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A lovely story reaches The Moodie Blog from Heathrow Airport, which today unveiled a collaboration with spoken word artist Caleb Femi* (Young People’s Laureate for London) to launch his new poem A Tale of Modern Britain.

Femi’s piece celebrates Heathrow’s role as the gateway to the UK, welcoming and farewelling international visitors and returning Brits. Given that Heathrow has become my second home during my enthralling 16-year global sojourn with The Moodie Davitt Report, I took particular interest in this project.

“Imagine a terminal as a portal to a new version of yourself, a new light pouring over a new sunrise” – Caleb Femi

The poem, written and narrated by Femi, draws on his travel experiences, as well as capturing people and journeys taking place at Heathrow. The piece also explores what it means to be British through the lens of arrivals and departures at the country’s busiest airport.

What a fascinating subject, one that I explored in a 2013 Blog about Ninoy Aquino Airport in Manila.

It is estimated that between 9.5 million and 12.5 million Filipinos work or reside abroad, about 11% of the population – many of them classified as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). Collectively the money they remit home represents a staggering 13.5% of the country’s GDP.

I wrote: “Whenever I am at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, I realise why OFWs are so revered in the Philippines. It’s not just about their economic contribution, it’s also about humanity. One simply cannot be untouched by the alternating emotions of the Arrivals and Departure halls, respectively. Reunions. Farewells. Joy. Sadness. Humanity stripped bare.”

Those same emotions are seen time and again every minute of every hour of every day at Heathrow. Remember the opening voiceover in Love Actually read by Hugh Grant (in the unlikely role of the British Prime Minister)? “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinions starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends.

“When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people onboard were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

The same film’s closing scene, with its beautiful montage of meetings and greetings is equally powerful. It’s a lovely celebration of the concept of an airport as a crossroads of humanity that I have often written about in this Blog.


[Click on the YouTube icon to view the closing shots of Love Actually, shot at Heathrow Airport]

Caleb Femi’s short film (below) brings his words to life beautifully and powerfully. His narration frames various moments at Heathrow, including emotional reunions, excitement as people head off for new adventures, and behind-the-scenes footage from the airfield. These are blended alongside snapshots of life in and around Britain. The video can be viewed on Heathrow.com, on terminal screens across the airport and on the Heathrow Express.

For those who love airports – and they’re right up there with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in my affection – this is mandatory viewing. Even for those who don’t, it’s well worth a look for its unique take on a modern airport and a modern Britain.

A Tale of Modern Britain – By Caleb Femi

You arrive at the end of the horizon
standing at the tarmac mouth of home
lighter if you left it all behind – heavier if you brought all with you.
Come, before you step out into the open air
sit down here, in-between the brief pause
of children’s laughter and a tannoy announcement.
In the small kingdom of faces – some moving with
the grace of falling snow
others like laser beams bouncing off a disco ball.

Not too long ago you were at departures
when leaving was a sweet song bitter in the throat to sing.
Do you remember the faces who were leaving for work,
or for the spring holidays,
to say goodbye at a family funeral
or for the laughter of a hen do?
Those who were answering the call to adventure
with an open ticket in hand and in the other a phone
full of friends who will follow them each step of the way.

Now you’ve arrived at the other side of that adventure
in the warmness of home
shed the hue of ‘tourist’
you’re back in your endz now
one of the locals
you know the right trains to catch
know the best breakfast spot.

This country is not a place of good weather but of good people.
What do you want to know about the country? You might learn it here
in this marketplace of modern British culture.
Take a crash course in the local lingo
teach your ears the different accents
we don’t all sound like Downton Abbey
not all Northerners sound like Wayne Rooney
some of us man do get hot
we’re not all about tea and crumpets – well some of us are.

Imagine a terminal as a portal to a new version of yourself
a new light pouring over a new sunrise
remember that as you
depart at the start of the horizon
standing at the tarmac mouth of the world.

“Standing at the tarmac mouth of the world”

 

*About Caleb Femi

Caleb Femi is a 27-year-old spoken word poet and English teacher. He was born in Nigeria and moved to Peckham when he was seven years old. He is currently the first Young People’s Laureate for London and a judge in this year’s Premier League Writing Stars competition for schoolchildren across England and Wales.

Earlier this year, Caleb wrote and directed a short documentary called Heartbreak and Grime, which unpacks the effect grime had on a generation of London youth and dating culture.

A common theme in Femi’s poetry is his exploration of the past and past selves – dismantling them and building them back up to make some sense out of them. Peckham, where he grew up, makes so many appearances within his work it becomes a character itself. “Your hair smells like a Fela Kuti song”, he says in his poem Coconut Oil, “She was never sure whether I was talking to her or the town.”

“Not too long ago you were at departures, when leaving was a sweet song bitter in the throat to sing”

His devotion to his city led to his choice as the first Young People’s Laureate for London in 2016. Femi is currently fulfilling his year-long position in the role (up until March 2018), which aims to raise the profile of poetry in the city and engage young people. He’s also a member of interdisciplinary super-collective SXWKS (so named after the six weeks of summer holidays school kids get in the UK).

Caleb features in the Dazed 100 list of the next generation shaping youth culture, and has written and directed several short films commissioned by the BBC and Channel 4, whilst the Tate Modern, The Royal Society for Literature, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Guardian have commissioned his poems.

He is regularly invited to perform on high-profile stages including the Roundhouse mainstage, Barbican, British Library, Royal Festival Hall and Latitude Festival, and in 2015 won both the Roundhouse Poetry Slam and Genesis Poetry Slam.

“Come, before you step out into the open air sit down here, in-between the brief pause of children’s laughter and a tannoy announcement”

Next year, his focus will be working on his debut book alongside planning the follow-up to his Channel 4 short film debut ‘And The Knew Light’ about inner-city Londoners.

FOOTNOTE: In a related project, asking what ‘home’ means to British people, Heathrow Airport commissioned research asking 2,000 Brits about their views on Britain in the context of travelling. Here are the findings.

With a Royal engagement, a third royal baby on the way and a global obsession with TV show The Crown, the royal family are firmly front and centre of mind for the nation, Heathrow Airport said. The Queen, Harry, William and Kate are identified as our most-recognisable representatives. Beyond the royals, David and Victoria Beckham, Mo Farah and James Cordon all feature on the list of ‘18 for 2018’; the British stars voted as the best representatives of modern Britain*.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal engagement is the moment that summed up the last year for many (32%) Brits. Over one in four (26%) felt it was the spontaneous singing of ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ following the tragic Manchester attacks, while more than one in ten (14%) thought that the announcement of a female Doctor Who was the biggest moment for the nation last year.

DEPARTURES: GOODBYE BLIGHTY

Brits are thrill seekers at heart with over one in five (21%) saying one of their top reasons for jetting off is to seek out an adventure, while 19% crave exploration of unusual places. A further 20% say their main purpose for travel is to visit extended family, with one in 20 (5%) making journeys inspired by their family history.

TALLY HO-LIDAYS

London, the Queen and the football are what people most want to discuss with Brits when they travel overseas. One in three respondents stated they are asked whether they are from London, 32% are quizzed on which football team they support, and nearly one in five are asked if we have ever met the Queen.

ARRIVALS: WELCOME HOME

The welcoming view of our local pub on the journey back from the airport is the moment at which over one in five (22%) feel truly back in Britain. Buying a British newspaper (18%) and hearing different regional accents (17%) also feature high on the list of what makes Brits feel like they’ve arrived back home.

Caleb Femi said of the project: For many of life’s biggest milestones – from exciting departures to emotional reunions – Heathrow is the backdrop. The airport is a fascinating place to keep your finger on the pulse of modern Britain, as the people who travel through it says so much about the country and what we stand for. I’ve loved immersing myself in the stories of different travellers to piece together a portrait of the country in 2018.”

Heathrow Chief Executive John Holland-Kaye commented: “The UK is a culture that thrives on its connections with the rest of the world – for those leaving or returning home, as well as international visitors exploring the country for the first time. We hope that people really enjoy this ode to the UK as a celebration of Britain as a nation.”

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