Life Lessons from the Mixed-Up Chameleon

‘How small I am, how slow, how weak. I wish I could be big and white, like a polar bear. And the chameleon’s wish came true. But was it happy? No…’

Do you remember reading The Hungry Caterpillar as a child? Eric Carle, the author, wrote another book around the same time called The Mixed-Up Chameleon. It’s about a chameleon that becomes dissatisfied with its own skin and so mimics the animals it sees, until it has transformed into something monstrous. The moral was clear: be true to yourself. For some reason it stuck in my mind far more vividly than the ever-popular Caterpillar, and for good reason: I don’t think there’s a children’s book out there that would have been a better beginning for me.

Adaptability is, in my honest opinion, the greatest asset in the human arsenal. It is, in a way, the most human of traits. We thrive because we can adapt. The trouble with trying to adapt is that at some point you have to put on the brakes and remain true to yourself, or run the risk of being many things and none: a mixed-up chameleon in the flesh. I sometimes wonder whether I am one of those who did not heed the warning signs and simply forgot to brake.

Before I even get into tackling this subject, I know straight off the bat that I am not the most qualified person to write about this. I’m mixed-race, but not enough physically for it to have had a significant impact on my growing-up (we’ll leave the mental impact out for now). In many respects, and despite my best efforts, I am a picture-perfect Englishman. There are people from whom this article would make so much more sense, to whom it would ring more true. And that’s exactly why I’m writing about it: because I’m not the man for the job – and, as a result of that, because I am.

As we grow up, we mould ourselves around the things around us, just like the chameleon: the people we associate with, the expressions we use, the music we listen to. We absorb these aspects of our surroundings along the way in a never-ending process, some voluntarily, some involuntarily, and these little changes can affect our lives in the subtlest ways. In years gone by, when the world was smaller, the number of directions life could take you in were, perhaps, more limited than they are today. YouTube can take you to downtown Los Angeles. Spotify can take you to Mali. Everything is just a click away these days, and so the possibilities for discovery are far more accessible than they once were.

And so we go on absorbing. But herein lies the problem: when does one stop? Is it a subconscious action? Or is there a point when we ought to work on what we are rather than search for the self elsewhere?

Growing up, I always felt that some people were ‘more complete’ than I was. Fellow classmates who had firm opinions of their own, or skills they had mastered. Friends who spoke in complete sentences that made sense, an eloquence I could only hope to achieve with a pen or keyboard. These were people who just seemed to have it all together, to be happy with where they were and confident in what they did. I don’t think I ever was. I wanted to be complete, like them. I even went through the motions if and when I could, but I always felt like a fish out of water. I was a romantic in a cynical age; a funkster in a decade when acoustic was King; an Afrophiliac in a white boy’s body.

So much of what I liked or wanted to be was not what I was on the outside. It made me hate what I was for years, and I fuelled that hate by reading into the worst of my race’s actions. For a long time I was obsessed with the brutalities of the Raj, the inhumanity of the American genocide and the barbarism of the West. It taught me a great deal about the world, but none of it did any wonders for my attitude towards my kin.

In one of life’s beautiful ironies, it was actually a fictional Imperialist – Allan Quatermain – who saved me from my condition, at a point in my life when my will was at an all-time low. He may not be the ideal balanced man by twenty-first century standards, but there was something about his acceptance of his lot that spoke to me, and brought me back from the brink of misanthropy.

Even so, I am still something of a mixed-up chameleon. I can be, but I am not. I suppose that’s natural for a mimic – or, perhaps, a linguist. And of all of the factors that mix me up, the strongest by far is music.

As the child of two music teachers, I admit I find it impossible to imagine a world without music. I was exposed from a very early age – before birth, if you listen to my mother – to all kinds of music. I got the full range of classical music from my father, and the most eclectic mix you could imagine from my mother, up to and including klezmer, jazz, gypsy jazz, disco, punk, broadway classics, film soundtracks, zulu chant and flamenco. As a result, my musical upbringing was incredibly mixed-up. I could have gone down any particular route – except perhaps acoustic-guitar-and-voice, which nobody in my family really went in for – and yet, despite my classical training (or perhaps because of it) I grew tired of that very Western world and threw myself headlong into ‘black music’; the blacker, the better.

It probably wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that my taste in music and its subsequent effect on my identity has had a massive impact on my attitudes to talking about race, either. How else do I explain my willingness to discuss the one subject guaranteed to make most of my countrymen blanch?

Where am I going with this? We had solo auditions this afternoon for a few new numbers in our repertoire and – after the usual fit of nerves – it dawned on me that I was, once again, fighting for something that wasn’t me. I suppose my problem is that musically, as with so many other aspects of my life, I have made myself something of a Frankenstein. I have tried to be so many different things over the last twenty years and, in complete honesty, a great many of them I am simply not: I could go on and on about how much I dig the tune, but James Brown’s Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) was, quite simply, not written for a white middle-class English boy. And it sure ain’t easy singing about the ghetto when you were born and raised in a quiet country village.

My mother’s gift to me in diversity may not have helped my case much. I worship the things that I am not. And whilst I go through the motions, others around me have grown up singing the ‘right’ music for their world. I rebelled, and here I stand, somewhere in the middle, neither here nor there. The fact remains that I am out of place, and it is entirely of my own doing.

‘Just then, a fly flew by. The chameleon was very hungry, but the chameleon was very mixed up. It was a little of this and a little of that. “I wish I could be myself”. The chameleon’s wish came true – and it caught the fly.’

So in choosing to favour diversity over working on what I do best, I have become something of a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. A good mimic, but not the best at what I do. Versatility has its drawbacks, it must be said. But, given the chance, I would not trade my position for all the world. I may not be the master of the art, but I love the art to death. Funk music gives me a beat I just can’t shake. Michael Jackson makes me feel alive, African voices lift me to the heavens and flamenco stirs me into a passion I can’t explain. Who gives a damn if I’m white? Music transcends that. It’s how I feel on the inside that really matters.

If catching the fly is the key to getting the job done, I’m still a long way off. But if it symbolises happiness, then I’m better off a mixed-up chameleon. BB x

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