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Monday, December 29, 2008

Don't judge your father by the standards of today

I've been reading Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks, an anthology of the work of Alan Coren. It's been put together by his children Giles and Victoria. In the foreword they worry about whether to include anything from their father's most successful work, "The Collected Bulletins Of Idi Amin". These "letters" ran in Punch in the early 70s when Amin, the first Third World bogeyman to present himself as a rich subject for comedy, was all over the papers. Coren portrayed Amin as a ludicrous monster, part Sanders of The River and part crooked businessman. In retrospect that was about the size of it. However, the time has long passed when you can have a white man putting the words "dis", "dat", "dose" and "upsetting de popperlace" in the mouth of a black man, not even one we all agree was A Bad Lot. Giles and Victoria spend a lot of time discussing the rights and wrongs of this. They know what a major part of their father's work it was. The collected edition of the Amin letters sold a million copies and probably paid for the Coren children's education. It was very funny then. It goes without saying that the broadness of its humour would not pass through today's narrow gate.

Edwardian thriller writer John Buchan rarely cracked jokes but because he had some of his characters say unflattering things about Jews, last night's BBC documentary John Buchan: Master Of Suspense had to spend five minutes deciding whether it was still OK to like his books. This is the kind of agonising that increasingly besets the business of looking back even a couple of generations. It's as if contemporary chroniclers are gazing at the recent past from the shores of a Utopia on which they've recently arrived, finding it impossible to believe that recent generations had laboured in such darkness. Can it be that our own kith and kin used to think like that? Well, people did think that like that. My own mother once described the colour of a coat as "nigger brown". She would have been horrified if you had told her this could be construed as a racial epithet. I noted this at the time but wasn't shocked for thirty years. I'm not shocked now but I do raise an eyebrow and it makes me wonder what elements of contemporary speech and manners will be equally incendiary in the future.

But for now I wish people would just relax. The kind of attitudes exemplified by Coren's 1973 humour or Buchan's 1918 thrillers don't speak of bad people any more than today's desperate avoidance of anything that could be construed as racism or any other ism is the sign of good ones. I wouldn't find the unchallenged liberalism of today's conventional wisdom quite so irritating if it weren't so ready to draw attention to the apparent shortcomings of earlier generations, people who lived in a less comfy world than ours has been. Up till now.