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.


  1. I still squirm with discomfort when I remember that back in 1960 (I was then 5), my father acquired a dog which had been given a name by its previous owner, which is unbelievable by modern standards. It was a jet black spaniel - called "nigger".

    If you ever watch the old black and white movie The Dambusters you will see that Wing Commander Guy Gibson owned a similarly named black labrador.

    Such naming never even raised an eyebrow at that time.

  2. Huw that's if you watch Dambusters on DVD, watch it like I did on channel 4 in the afternoon recently and you'll find they've excised mention of the dogs name. I find this sort of sordid compromise the worst of both worlds: show the film as it was or don't show it.

  3. "if it weren't so ready to draw attention to the apparent shortcomings of earlier generations" - yep, I think there's been a tendency in the media to do that in recent years...the sub-text being that: "we've never had it so good now" - there's almost a sneery, smug sense of superiority when looking back - it was part and parcel of that whole aspirational culture that arrrived along with Thatcher and has remained in her wake until recently. Social migration, 'foodies' - blech! Dunno about you, but I lived thru the 70s and really enjoyed them. Long live The New Austerity! lol

  4. Thanks for the comment, BLTP. Last time I saw the film it still had the dog's name included, and it grated horribly every time. The n-word is a strange beast, as used by the black characters in The Wire it seems to be used to mean anything from 'bloke' to a dismissive and contemptuous reference. Out of the mouth of a white person it can now only ever be a term of abuse.

  5. Yes, Huw, but that "You Can Call Us That If You’re One Too" approach (which is also taken with "queer" and "Paki", among other terms) can lead to some quite bizarre thinking. The other week on The Guardian's Jewish podcast (oh, yes, there is one) the panellists were discussing at some length why the new West End revival of Oliver makes them feel so uncomfortable. The upshot seemed to be that the portrayal of Fagin – which they hadn't yet seen, of course – was unavoidably going to be anti-Semitic because the actor playing him (Rowan Atkinson) isn't Jewish himself.

  6. Coren's Idi Amin bulletins came alive when read on LP by John Bird. "Would de minister o' health, currently believed to be hurtlin' towards Tanzania in a green Ford Escort nicked from de ministry car park, pull over and stand by the vehicle to await further instructions. Otherwise his grandmother will be taken seriously ill."