This Topic Is Dangerous
If you can shut out the world you can keep your prejudices intact.
Thinking about my memoir ‘Paperboy’ there was a topic I meant to cover and did not include. It relates to the use of language and explains why any book or film depicting the past will always be wrong.
It goes without saying that there was no such thing as political correctness in the post-war years; the concept would have been anathema. Actors blacked up and caricatured other races because most of us had never seen or met any kind of foreign person. It was the 1950s.
When I was a child language was forthright, bluntly descriptive and very static, probably simpler than it is now. There were far fewer words in circulation. My mother would say ‘cripple’ or ‘spastic’ because the idea of anyone taking offence was absurd. There was no attachment of horror to such terms. Is ‘differently abled’ any more inclusive?
There was simply no structure for thinking about such things. Signs of the war were still around – men with missing arms, eyes and legs. A few euphemisms were used to spare feelings; ‘chest problems’ referred to pleuritic lungs and bronchial damage. ‘Twice round the daffodils’ referred to bronchial healing. If, during convalescence, you could make it to the flowerbeds and back you were on the mend. Some men were ‘simple’, others were suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and ‘lived on their nerves’ or ‘didn’t go out much’. ‘Don’t mention the war’ was a seriously intended admonishment that carried risks.
To sound like a racist was not necessarily to be one. My father’s cheerful bandying about of words which now horrify us did not extend to his personal friendships with black, gay or Asian people, which were lifelong. I never heard the N word used anywhere, but ‘the Hun’, ‘Eyeties’ (from the letters IT so hardly offensive) and ‘Spics’ (derogatory) were commonly heard. ‘Frogs’ is still in acceptable use, probably because the French still refer to us as ‘les rosbifs’. Explaining our relationship with the French has taken several volumes.
When I think about it now the term ‘Wogs’ obviously descends from ‘golliwog’, but it became a peculiarly amorphous term that seemed to cover anyone culturally different. ‘Wogs begin at Calais’ was the accepted phrase of the era. I was probably called a ‘poof’ a few times but really can’t remember, and it’s not something that bothered me. Being gay is not visibly marked out except on RuPaul shows, where it becomes as colourful and sexless as tropical fish.
Far more disturbing were those who embraced black friends and then condescended to them insultingly. Carol Thatcher always called her best friend, a renowned tennis champion, ‘Sooty’, and incredibly he didn’t turn around and punch her in the face.
Women were called ‘Mum’, ‘dear,’ ‘darling’, ‘sweetheart’ and ‘my love’ by the grocers serving them. Yet the epithets of the past were in retrospect softer because they carried less venom than those of today. The insults of internet trolls are a thousand times crueller, more disgusting, bizarre and violent.
Recent Panorama and World In Action episodes unearthed on YouTube reveal a far more nuanced and articulate reaction to race, poverty and women’s rights in the 1960s than I’d imagined. In one, a group of women discuss what to do about two black children who had smashed windows, and decide among themselves that the first thing is to take race out of the equation. That was in 1967.
Of course, none of this represents the voices of those affected. What would they have had to say about the use of such language? I am only going by my personal experience as a very observant little white boy growing up in a London suburb. There were no black children; our neighbours were an ordinary mix of working class and middle class families.
I remember seeing people of colour for the first time – mostly bus conductors – and not really thinking anything of it. The pre-conditions for racism did not exist within me. The only prejudice we had in our household came from my mother, who was quite anti-semitic and voiced a common post-war opinion of the times, that ‘the Jewish people had tragically brought their fate upon themselves by being greedy’.
So what changed? The new fast-money affluence of the Thatcher years drove wedges into society that had never been there. Much genuine prejudice arrived with the wealth divide that appeared in the UK, and those who were left behind began to resent those who had just arrived.
Should we rewrite the past completely? Colourblind cast it, bowdlerise its language, provide only positive role models? Charles Wood attempted to duplicate the language of the times in his script for ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and it’s like listening to a foreign language. The writer of ‘Taboo’ came up with a very different solution, replacing words with shocking modern idioms. Hearing the head of the British East India Company swear like a navvy perfectly captured this linguistic differences of class.
Since the pandemic, fear of difference is back. My husband was at dinner in Somerset sitting next to a woman who asked him ‘Wharfrm?’, which he was able to translate as ‘Where are you from?’ (Like all posh people she sounded as if she had too many teeth). When he replied, ‘London,’ she turned her chair away from him. If you can shut out the world you can keep your prejudices intact. Some things never change.