This Topic Is Dangerous

Great Britain

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.


30 comments on “This Topic Is Dangerous”

  1. Roger says:

    As a cripple – someone who has been crippled – I don’t think I’m “differently abled”. I’m un-abled. or disabled.

    A lot of offence comes from intent. I used to know an elderly cockney who cheerfully spoke of “Jewboys” and “ni..ers”. He was rather amused when he learned that “Ni..ers don’t like being called ni..ers.” and adapted his speech – or tried to – when he was with them. At the same time, he had enormous admiration for the educational ambition of jews and had been a shop steward who insisted that black employees should have exactly the same rights to promotion and training and be treated identically to their white colleagues – against the opposition of many white workers.
    Two obvious candidates for writers who tried to “tell it like it was” are George Macdonald Fraser and George Shipway. It’s interesting that they did so through first-person narrators.

  2. Brooke says:

    Peter is a hunk–the Somerset woman who turned her chair away is visually impaired and probably a Spanish Hapsburg descendent.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Words have consequences, whatever their intention and however smugly wrapped in legal protection. You may have the legal right or ‘freedom’ to infect yourself with COVID-19. You do not have the right to infect others.

  4. Des Burkinshaw says:

    Have you ever read the estimable Kenan Malik’s book, From Fatwah to Jihad? A deeply personal account of growing up a Muslim in Satanic Verses-era Bradford. But then he goes on to discuss multiculturalism vs institutional multiculturalism and really opened my eyes to the mistakes all sides made.

  5. Rich says:

    I spent years in a school primarily for physically disabled children and children with slightly more complex issues – e.g kids who could walk around unaided, but needed supervision due to behaviour risky to themselves or others. To me the special needs label didn’t really address any of the issues/problems/solutions. More crucial was understanding how to communicate with and help each other.

    I am technically a spastic. As a child growing up, spastic was a term of abuse used by some kids and teenagers that I would meet outside of school. I’d like to say that it didn’t bother me, but I didn’t know how to deal with the hostility that seemed to be present in such encounters. Interestingly, I did find it ridiculous that ‘The Spastics Society’ changed it’s name to SCOPE. In that, it was a charity with a clear identity specifically for people with cerebral palsy. This has morphed into something which is about all kinds of disability. That’s ok, but help and support for people like me is scarce. Cerebral Palsy is briefly mentioned on the website, but you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s something from the dim and distant past.

  6. Keith says:

    I grew up in the North West of England, and most of the doctors and dentists were arriving from Pakistan and the West Indies in the early 70’s. My father often used the word ‘darkie’… more out of ignorance than being insulting. At the time we didn’t actually know what to call these ‘new arrivals’. At school we had a young Indian boy in class, he was so polite and kind, everyone wanted to be his friend…
    What gets me now is that some of these so-called ‘rappers’ (music I really hate), use the N-word regularly. Do they expect us ‘white folk’ to sing along with them?
    As you probably know in the Netherlands we have been celebrating ‘Black Peter’ since the mid-18th century. Sadly times change and if it hurts some people then we should just stop all this blacking-up and respect their wishes. There has been a lot of ‘fuss’ made out of all this, especially from the ‘populists’ among us, who consider it a part of Dutch culture, and that it’s just a ‘kinderfeest’ (Children’s Party). But who wants their kids to grow up watching this nonsense nowadays? I for one definitely do not.

  7. Keith says:

    Sorry, that should have read the mid 19th century…..

  8. Helen+Martin says:

    Perhaps someone can tell me what was so innately offensive about this memory I told colleagues. I was 10 before I ever saw a black person and it was a girl from another school who was part of a library reading group. She awed me because she was tall and slim and of a beautiful brown colour. I could hardly take my eyes off her, but what I really wanted was to touch that beautiful skin. When I said this to the colleagues there were gasps of horror and I was told to keep my racism to myself. It was the first “person of colour” I’d ever seen and it was what I felt. Why did they react like that? I’ve seen incidents in films where North American First Nations people do the same, actually touch the blond hair when they first meet it.

  9. Helen+Martin says:

    On the other hand, I had to act as the sample when a kindergarten teacher needed to prove to a Chinese boy that people could have blue eyes. Interesting that there wasn’t one in her class or any class near by and in my library I was the only one.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin Would that the innocence of childhood not turn into encultured prejudice or racism. It is learned behaviour; no one is born a bigot.

  11. SteveB says:

    The behaviour pattern is innate; it‘s the manifestation which comes from the environment

  12. SteveB says:

    And on a more fun note, I just got my despatch note for London Bridge… from Amazon 🙂

  13. joel says:

    my rule of thumb has been that i can use “derogatory” words if i can identify with them. ie, queer, cracker, blue eyed devil, trailer trash, fag, etc…when i use them, it takes the power out of other peoples rude use of them toward me. by the same token, i don’t use words that i know cause harm to others. if they use them to each other, that is none of my business. i have had a black friend call me “my n***a”, apropos of nothing. although it made us both laugh in the moment, it is not a word that i would ever use. i know that people use words out of ignorance, but once they are aware of the damage it causes and if they refuse to change (“but i don’t mean it like that!”), then they are racist/prejudice/etc. changing my vocabulary is about respecting the person i am speaking to/about, it has nothing to do with political correctness. kindness and respect is about wanting to treat others the way i want to be treated. one of my favourite bloggers, andrew gurza, identifies himself as a queer crip (he also has cerebral palsy), and that totally describes him to a T.

  14. Gary says:

    Your story resonated with me. My niece is pale with very blonde hair. When she and her mother went to Vietnam a couple of years ago the local people would regularly want their pictures taken with her even at times grabbing her to do so (she was 8 at the time). Although my neice got tired of the attention very quickly it clearly was a product of people seeing someone so completely different to themselves and being fascinated.
    Sounds like your colleagues have decided that any story which involves someone of a different colour being seen as “other” is inherently racist (it’s not – circumstances make all the difference) and wouldn’t take into account your age and experience at the time.

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @SteveB While I agree that we tend to be born with an innate predisposition to avoid ambiguity — and are wired to make false-positive assumptions rather than to make false-negative assumptions for self-preservation — studies done with the blind show that their views on race can be traced to childhood experiences with sighted caretakers who passed along their own attitudes. In fact, what surprised the researchers was how deliberately and dramatically family and friends of the blind drew racial boundaries in an effort to teach them about the world. They literally (and figuratively, for that matter) didn’t ‘see’ difference until told there was.

  16. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Joel Exactly. Intent is irrelevant. Is the word, phrase or idea hurtful is what matters. There is a school of thought that says by avoiding using the n-word, for example, we continue to imbue it with power. This tends to be a talking point of White academicians but not exclusively, strangely enough. It is also beside the point. Would regularly and continuously using it somehow mitigate the sting to a great many people of color ? I think not.

  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    Since this is a literary blog, it probably makes sense to raise the always controversial issue of whether an author’s personality, politics and ethics are, or should be, relevant to our appreciation of their work — and particularly their work in fiction?

    Should VS Naipaul’s misogyny and racism be forgiven? John Steinbeck apparently was a womanizer and sadist — Ezra Pound a fascist — and Wodehouse, in addition to having Bertie Wooster utter racial slurs, put him in blackface. There were also those broadcasts from Berlin during WWII. Then, of course, Emily Brontë. She was ‘difficult.’ There are dozens more cases in point. So,what standards, if any, do we apply? Or, do we simply ignore authors’ lives and stick with their work ?

  18. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Helen/Martin- it seems you were showing curiosity about the “different”, not “racism”. Our two oldest sons were small, white-blond-haired young rascals in the early’70s when we lived in Japan. They attracted interest everywhere, as they were so different. The most common reaction was to touch their hair, or even rub it gently, for “good luck”. Although it seemed unusual to us, it was done from curiosity, not racism.

  19. John Howard says:

    Stu-I-Am.. Stick with their work of course. From my perspective the whole of Admins’ post is about these words and how their meaning has changed and shifted. Words are just words after all. It is the intent of the user that is the corrosive element here. In these days of societal extremes it is the intent of the user of the words that should be questioned. And questioned hard. As for John Steinbeck, P.G. Wodehouse et all, bring them on. Bertie Wooster in blackface is simply a reflection of the times the book was written in not an endorsement of behaviour that should be followed down the decades.
    Stay safe..

  20. Jo W says:

    Hello, your story reminded me of being a thirteen year old and in hospital. Having a questioning mind and a leg held together with those old fashioned big black stitches,it made me wonder if there were different coloured threads for people with different skins. Those were the days of the West Indian nurses and orderlies and I thought that they might not see the stitches and wouldn’t it be better if there was a contrast?
    I asked the Sister what I thought was a perfectly reasonable question and was told that I shouldn’t be saying things like that! It took me a few years to realise that she thought I was being racist,when all I was suffering from was curiousity.

  21. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    This morning I read Arrangement in Black and White by Dorothy Parker – a study in how to be racist at the same time as attempting to prove that you aren’t.
    Horribly offensive in many ways. Educational in others.
    I’m not sure that it’s possible to square that circle.

  22. Stu-I-Am says:

    Just as in law where ignorance of it is no defense, so it is with racism, which is the point of the Dorothy Parker short story. Parker, btw, was a lifelong advocate for social justice and left her entire estate to Martin Luther King, Jr. There is certainly a distinction to be made between innocence or simple curiosity — illustrated in a number of comments here — and ignorance, willful or otherwise. And yes, epithets of all stripes are too readily tossed around in these emotionally raw times. The problem comes with passive acceptance or conversely, turning what could be a valuable ‘teaching moment’ into a reprimand. But far more insidious and dangerous than mere words is racism masquerading as public policy or political strategy in the guise of solicitous populism.

  23. Helen+Martin says:

    When a deplorable situation has been identified there is a tendency by people in power to make strong declarations of support. “Be assured that we are with (insert name of suffering group) and will do our utmost to rectify the situation.” Even more, call a seminar on the subject with representatives of the group(s) and over several days talk it all out (Mr. Trudeau, I’m looking at you) but finally do nothing. Just talking about a problem doesn’t change anything. How do we change attitudes, other than in our own homes?

  24. Jan says:

    Is it really possible to shut out the world do you think?

  25. Roger says:

    The problem is, what can Trudeau do about it except try to shame people, Helen Martin? Attitudes have changed over time. The effect does percolate out (is this the right metaphor?) over time.

  26. SteveB says:

    Well I just finished „London Bridge“
    Has anyone else read it yet?

  27. Jo W says:

    Steve B
    Noooooo, my copy still hasn’t arrived! So,no spoilers !!

  28. Helen+Martin says:

    We can open our minds to accept the complexity of the world. Shaming those who live in the midst of this complexity but insist on blocking out people who differ in some way is perhaps all we can do and trust that the “percolation” will happen sooner rather than later.

  29. John+Griffin says:

    I grew up in a racist adoptive (and dysfunctional) household, yet my ‘mother’ saw no contradiction in racist terms while working happily alongside Gujarati workmates. My ‘father’ saw action in WW2, carried the scars, and referred to Arabs, Italians, black anythings and Indians in racist terms. I became deeply uncomfortable by 14, yet such terms until recent times were in common use, and still can be heard in predominantly white pubs if you people watch and listen.
    No spoilers please for LBIFD as I’m doing series re-reading and have only just got to OAL.

  30. Bruce+Rockwood says:

    I wish the postage from the U.K. for books wasn’t so high , have to wait till the American edition of London Bridge in December.
    Language usage changes with the times and demographics. But with climate change we’ll all be flooded or burned out regardless. I do think a little mild editing would save a lot of classic kids books, e.g. E. Nesbit or Hugh Lofting’s illustrations in some of Doctor Dolittle.

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