Saturday, March 08, 2008

The State We're In

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
William Blake

I've had a bit of a thing about William Blake ever since one of my English lecturers pointed out that Jerusalem is in fact a rebel song and wondered what the good ladies of the WI (this was pre the days when they barracked Tony Blair you understand) would have made of it if they'd really understood what he was on about.

I mention Blake now, because a) I think the above poem has huge relevance to the state of our nation (to my mind it's in pretty poor health) and b) I also see him as someone who embodies the spirit of what I think most right thinking liberals would value in our native Isles.

We live in very strange times. Where once (as per my previous post) it was taken for granted that the British values of freedom of speech, liberty and fair play and the ability to stand up for the underdog were a Good Thing, now it almost de rigeur for such values to be sneered at as having no place in multi cultural Britain. Mulit cultural Britain. The very phrase makes my toes curl (I much prefer Hanif Kureishi's cheery assumption on Front Page the other night that he is English). I also hate political correctness with a passion - to me it is the antithesis of free thought. Any right minded person would detest racism in all its forms, but redressing the balance by loading it in favour of people because of their race, sex or creed is just wrong in my view. I came to this conclusion twenty years ago, when working on a playscheme for kids with learning disabilties (or in those non pc days, mentally handicapped children). I made a complaint against a co worker because I saw her threaten an autistic kid with a shoe, and was accused of racism because the worker in question was black. No matter that the kid involved was also black, this was 1980s Bernie Grant Haringay, and the fact that I, a white woman, had the temerity to complain about a black woman, automatically made me racist. I couldn't have given a fig for her colour. I did, however, care that a vulnerable child was potentially at risk.

I have thought long and hard about writing this post. In fact, I have been thinking about it for nearly a year, which makes me realise how far we have let the notion of freedom of speech be eroded. We are not quite in an Orwellian world of a doublespeak, but we are not I think, far from it. Because for a middle class, middle aged white woman to write about issues of race without feeling anxious she is going to get a charge of racism levelled against her (which is what so far, has stopped me writing this post), suggests to me that to paraphrase my hero Ray Davies, it's a crazy shook up mixed up world. So shook up and crazy, in fact, that I frequently think we are living through the Looking Glass, as common sense on so many issues seems to have gone out of the window. There are so many nutty things reported in recent years I scarcely know where to begin, but one story that has really stopped me in my tracks, and made me think it is time to stand up and be counted, is something that happened to a local shopkeeper recently.

The chap in question is a wonderful example of how a newsagent can be at the heart of his community. He is vocal on local issues, supporting recent campaigns to save our hospital, and prevent Tesco's building a superstore in an inappropriate location. His shop is also a focal point for discussion and dissemination of local information. But more then that he provides us all with a huge laugh on a daily basis by writing up banner headlines every day based on the news of the day, given his own particular twist. No one is safe from his witty ripostes, and he takes regular pops at the government, the media, Islamic fundamentalists and more recently the Archbishop of Canterbury. I'm not terribly good at remembering jokes, but his funniest diatribe was about Gordon Brown becoming a suicide bomber for Hezbollah, and ended along the lines that they were all a bunch of Hammasses.

It's all very harmless, and extremely funny.

Not apparently, though, to Surrey Police. On Valentine's Day I passed my friend's shop and he had posted up a hilarious piece about the Archibishop of Canterbury's ridiculous opinings on sharia law. My friend took it one stage further and suggested that people should get discounts for Valentine's Day stonings. It was, as all his "news" items are, a joke. A passerby came in and took offence. The aforementioned passerby was aggressive and rude to my friend's wife, and also totally missed the point and thought my friend really was calling for the introduction of sharia law. He stormed into the local shopping centre and demanded that security guys come in and remove the offending posters. Getting no joy there he went to our helpful boys in blue.

In an ideal world (or perhaps, better then that, if we could revert for five minutes to Gene Hunt's world) the boys in blue would have treated this with ridicule it deserves. However, thanks to the powers given them by our busybodying government, stupid targets which mean it's easy to bully local shopkeepers, and( if local rumour is to be believed) an over zealous new police commissioner who wants to make a name for herself (not sure if the last is true), our local boys in blue covered themselves in glory by not only removing all the offending posters, but threatening my friend with prosecution under the incitement to religious hatred laws.

The police have been to see my friend five times in a period of twelve days about this very important matter. They have yet to respond to his calls for their help when twelve year old boys from a local school are abusing his wife when she won't let them read porn mags.

Although our local paper reports that the police are planning no further action in this matter they have yet to bother to tell my friend and his wife. Which is nice of them.

So inundated have national papers been by my friend's customers who have been outraged on his behalf, you may well be reading his story in next week's papers. He understandably is a bit anxious about putting himself in the public spotlight like this, but I think his story is important because it tells us something vital about the fragility of free speech in this country, and also the nonsense of so much politically correct thinking.

You might think as I live in a leafy Surrey market town the chap who has caused all this offence is a your typical middle Englander, white bigoted card carrying member of UKIP, but not a bit of it. My friend is a British Asian, and as such should be the sort of person who ought to be being held up as a prime example of how integration can and should work in this country, not being subjected to this low level bullying. He is big enough (and outrageously funny enough) to be able to take all sorts of flak thrown at him, and the flak he throws out at others is harmless and funny and not at all offensive (unless you are the sort of sad person who takes offence at anything).

In these strange times in which we live, my friend's humorous approach to often difficult subjects should be applauded not berated.

Whether Blake's vision of Jerusalem being built in England's green and pleasant land was ever a realistic one I don't know. But I do know that what my friend has just been through is an unedifying example of just how small minded and intolerant our nation is becoming. If we are ever to build Jerusalem here, I think it's time for the silent majority to make their voice heard.

In the meantime, if you feel as outraged by this story as I do, please spare five minutes to write to the Commissioner for Surrey Police to let them know. It seems to me it is too damned easy in this looking glass world for the minority to bully the silent majority. And I reckon it's about time the silent majority started standing up for itselfa bit more...


Anonymous said...


I agree with a lot of this. Don't think people should be threatened with arrest of obvious jokes. Don't think it should be beyond the pale to challenge bad practice (as you did & I well remember) because of their colour.

But with one proviso. There are still huge inequalities in the workplace, on race and also on gender lines. Something has to be done to shift that. Even in my beloved public sector, I have twice known really able black colleagues be passed over for promotion. And now I have been promoted to a more senior position, I cannot find a single black face on my floor, this despite a really diverse mix on my front line team. (And of course you get two rungs more senior than me, and there are no female heads of service and in the whole council, only one Directorate head is female, though for once the Chief Exec is a woman). And if it is like this in an enlightened (& nameless! local authority) I hate to think what is like in the business world.

My solution to this is not to promote people on the basis of sex or race. But to create an environment where people who want promotion are given opportuntities to develop the skills they may not have developed because of inbuilt biases in the education system. And to create an environment where it is possible for both women and men to juggle busy jobs and family lives (the only way to make sure more women to get to the top). Not exactly positive discrimination, more ensuring the playing field is levelled to give everyone an equal chance.

It's crap what happened to your mate though. Will try and write to Surrey Police

Mad Twin

Jane Henry said...

Yeah, my business isn't exactly bristling with ethnic minorities (though that is getting better) - but on the other hand, Spouse is the ONLY white male at his practice. Asian families in a lot of cases still see medicine/dentistry as a good career whereas they don't necessarily encourage their children to go into something as poorly paid as publishing. So that can bite both ways. I think a slightly different story is probably played out in the black community - as it is probably more likely there that people would regard my industry as being out of reach.

Ho hum. Rome wasn't built in a day....I do think it is improving though.

Political Umpire said...

Any form of well meaning social intervention by the state is open to abuse by not so well meaning individuals, and one finds them in all walks of life. Thus the social welfare safety net is abused by bludgers, the feminist movement of the 70s onwards had its share of nutcases who wanted men, or certain parts of them, banned, those concerned about abusive terms such as 'wog' and 'nigger' have taken things so far that one feels at times the whole language is being eviscerated (our continental friends tend to laugh at this - imagine trying to make French gender neutral ...), and of course some abusive incompetents play the race card if anyone complains. It doesn't mean one can abandon the whole idea, but on the other hand it doesn't mean that the attempts to redress inequality etc should be abandoned in toto just because some idiots try and take advantage of it.

The separate and partly related problem is what has become of the police - target obssessed, stifled by PC, etc.

Am doing a post which has some common themes, and will link here to (and steal all your ideas and pass them off as my own ...)

Jane Henry said...

Steal away PU.... I think you'll probably make a better fist of writing it then me anyway!!

Jane Henry said...

Steal away PU.... I think you'll probably make a better fist of writing it then me anyway!!

Political Umpire said...

Have posted. And stolen. And linked

granny p said...

B'Jesus! What else to say. (Maybe that'll put the evangelicals on..can they rout out the police too?

Jane Henry said...

Granny P, quite... Spouse did suggest we bought our friend an orange jumpsuit. Knowing him he'd probably wear it too...