Ben and the Race Relations Act

Sunday’s episode of Inspector George Gently – I watch period police dramas, I can handle it, I could give up any time – said nothing new but still much that was worth saying about race relations in Britain in the 1960s. The most telling point for me was that the BBC news, immediately after, was read by a black man.

I don’t believe this country is yet an interracial paradise. I do think it’s doing much better than it was in 1960-whatnot.

I had a sheltered upbringing and I know it. I spent 10 years in private, boarding school education, where the skin colour was not 100% white but the exceptions tended to be people like the future King of Swaziland – not really representative of the streets of Brixton. I found Constable Savage funny for its absurdity more than its satire. I suppose my personal wake-up call to the tensions out there, that I had so far either blithely ignored or been happily sheltered from, was the riots of the early 1980s. I have to admit that when I read some of the aired grievances of the rioters, unlike my mostly Tory colleagues, I didn’t find them that unreasonable. I’d riot if the police could, and did, stop and question me every ten paces for being suspiciously white.

I freely admit to using a particular word to describe black people, quite routinely. It was in my everyday vocabulary. And yet. I can honestly say there was no intended malice, and when I learnt how offensive the word was, I stopped. And even then I could tell the difference between casually saying of a man of African ancestry that “he’s a $WORD_THAT_ONLY_SAMUEL_L_JACKSON_IS_ALLOWED_TO_USE”, purely for descriptive purposes, and sneering that “he’s a …” with the clear implication that the one word was all you needed to know about the individual. I could tell the difference between unintentional and deliberate offence, and I was offended by those who chose the latter.

I even remember being branded as a “$THAT_WORD-lover”, believe it or not. We lived in Bangladesh when I was aged 12-14. It was a pretty comfortable, privileged existence and it did not make me an authority on the problems of the Third World or give me any searing insights into race relations – but it gave me marginally more than many of my contemporaries had. And so, in one quite heated discussion – can’t remember what, or why, or when – that was the soubriquet I acquired. One boy even went to far as to write on my homework – shortly before it was due to be handed in – “Jeapes for $LA_LA_LA_CAN’T_HEAR-YOUs”. I tipp-exed it out. The teacher scraped the tipp-ex off to expose the message, and wrote in the margin, “don’t be childish, or, choose your friends with more care.”

The irony is that the boy in question was probably the most liberal of us all in other regards. He was proud that his barrister father only ever defended, never prosecuted, and was vehemently opposed to the death penalty.

I was never quite sure what to make of the historical rebranding of, say, Agatha Christie’s Ten Little $DUM_DE_DUMs or the name of Guy Gibson’s dog in The Dambusters, but China Miéville at a convention a few years ago put it well enough for me to come off the fence. Roughly, paraphrased: which is better, to preserve the historical purity of the original text, or to do what we can to remove that word from the ammunition of race hate? If one less kid gets called that word in the playground then by all means call the dog Trigger or Digger or whatever. If you really have to, mention the fact of the original usage in a footnote, and leave it there.

I’ve no idea where I’m going with this, so here’s Constable Savage again, to finish with.