When I wrote my novel 'My Mate Shofiq' all those years ago, the race relations problem seemed not too difficult to understand. We had invited many people into Britain from our former colonies, because we needed the labour.
When I was a young reporter, the Minister of Health came to the Royal Portsmouth hospital to explain why he was recruiting nurses from the West Indies. The young hopefuls were predominantly black, and he addressed them thus: "You are all wonderful. You are caring, hard-working people. Tell all your friends back home in the Caribbean that we want them here, we need them here. Our welcome will be unequivocal."
Loud applause, from everybody in the room, black and white. This is not a quiz, so I won't ask you to guess his name. It was Enoch Powell. The headline on my story read something like "Health Minister urges West Indians: 'come and save the NHS.'"
In they came, of course – why wouldn't they? – and duly saved our bacon. Similar experience when I moved to Manchester. In the past, we – Britain – had learned how to make cotton cloth from the Indians (whose country we had invaded), developed machinery to spin and weave the raw material at extraordinary speed and volume, then imported everything that they could grow, turned it into "textiles," and sold it to every country in the world, including theirs.
|What a tranquil world...|
My dad, by today's standards, was a raving racist. Strangely enough, among his closest friends were a Hasidic Jew with side locks, an African called Monty, and the Asian sweetshop owner who moved in next door to us. The three of them used to keep the rest of Fratton Road awake late into the night with their shouting matches about racial superiority. At the end of it, they finished their cups of sweet tea or glasses of “Brickwoods brilliant ales," shook hands, and went their separate ways. They were friends.
My father seemed to genuinely believe that, as English people, we were genuinely superior, and destined not to mix. Except that he disproved that apparent belief every day, in every way.
By the time I moved north, things had apparently hardened. The word Paki had been born and flourished, the tabloids and the Daily Mail had found an easy hook for hanging flesh-creep stories on, and Jim Callaghan had hit on the mind-blowingly simple answer to the Ugandan Asian problem. He'd cancelled their British passports! In the name of socialism, presumably.
When I argued with my father about all this, he had a simple answer. Human beings are animals, yes or no? All animals are territorial, yes or no? If you take a pregnant tiger from India to Africa, are her cubs born as lions, yes or no? He had nothing against lions, tigers, or indeed any other territorial animal. If a human being walks into a crocodile's personal swamp, has the human being any right to be surprised if he gets eaten?
Being something of a history freak, I hit on the idea of bringing up the French Revolution. Robespierre's Terror had exterminated, in the most savage and heartless fashion, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of French men and women. French men and women. No racism there, right? Get out of that one, Pa!
Never argue with a self-made scholar. He pointed out that territorial was the word that he had used, nothing more nor less. The tiger's stripes were a convenience, a marker. West Indian nurses were black, Pakistani spinners were brown. Robespierre’s storm troops wore red bonnets, and possibly no culottes. The hordes they hurried à la lanterne looked different, prayed different, ate different, and even smelled funny, if only because they washed.
"It was a revolution, idiot," he told me. "The rich had something that the poor thought they had a better right to. So they killed them for it. The territory."
"But they were savages," I bleated. I even quoted Arthur Bryant: ‘Robespierre, possessed one almost superhuman talent: a single-minded belief in himself and his opinions. He was ready to sacrifice everything: liberty, justice, decency, his friends and, if need be, humanity itself. For he believed himself to be the embodiment of the General Will. As the triumph of his ideals necessitated the triumph of France, to destroy her enemies and his own, no sacrifice could be too great and no means too cruel.’”
"Human beings,” said Dad. “Territorial. Live with it, child, it ain't going to change. Anyway, Paris is a cesspool, so what did it matter? It's full of bloody Frogs!"
Fast forward not much beyond 200 years. Another band of human beings, in symbolic uniforms but not red bonnets, and Kalashnikovs not lampposts as their leveller of choice, slaughter what we take to be innocents with the utmost savagery. The crime this time is to refuse to recognise that their God (like our God, according to the Bible), is an unforgiving God, a God who will not be mocked.
To most westerners, this seems bizarre, unutterably vile, a throwback to the Stone Ages, maybe beyond. Why shouldn't we mock and sexualise their beloved Prophet if we don't believe in him? What right do they have to be offended, France isn't even their country, for God's sake. If they don’t like it, let them go home.
But hang on, though. Their country, in this particular instance, was called Algeria, wasn’t it? And hang on again, didn't France invade and colonise Algeria? Didn't France slaughter untold thousands of them and torture men, women and children until the world was sick with shame? And until, for them, Algeria was uninhabitable? And weren’t they welcomed to practice any and every religion that they wanted to in France? In liberté, égalité and fraternité?
But that was then and this is now. Which begs the question: how long ago is then? If my memory serves me right, weren’t a couple of hundred Algerians murdered in the heart of Paris in a brief period of the 1960s? And weren’t the murderers finally proved to be the French police? And on a more bourgeois note, isn't it a fact that certain forms of blasphemy are still illegal even in our own tolerant and superior country? And that in parts of America, land of the free, the ‘theory’ of evolution is held to be the word of Satan?
If I was going to write My Mate Shofiq today it would have to be a very different book. But I would still take very great care that neither the racists nor the victims of such attitudes were necessarily villains. One of the policemen who died for the right of Charlie Hebdo to mock and slander Mohammed was himself a Muslim. One of the killers’ early captives was spared ‘because we don’t kill civilians.’ It takes a man as crass as Rupert Murdoch to tweet (and presumably believe) that all Muslims should be held responsible for the Paris slaughter.
The French Revolution, via Robespierre’s obscene terror weapon, brought about something wonderful in the end, and while last Sunday Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the protest march in Paris was a reassertion of the values of 1789, he didn’t say which ones, and he didn’t mention Robespierre. All that said, however, it seems unlikely that these gangs of brainwashed and deluded young murderers will achieve anything of much value at all.
But who knows, as I guess my old man would have said – don’t the crocodiles in the swamp have feelings too? Maybe hysteria, and its dissemination through the new media, is what we need to get a grip of most of all. Public figures who commit crimes (or indeed, misdemeanours) are pilloried, harried, and threatened with punishments up to and including death, while the massive crimes of governments and countries are mysteriously excused.
Racism is here to stay. Religion is here to stay. And most of all the atavistic need to protect one's own territory by any means, however desperate and appalling. I've been trying to get over the fact that human beings are territorial animals all my life. And if I have to be more circumspect, if I write about such things for young people ever again, then is that so bad a thing?
Long live satire! But beware of instant outrage, too.
PS. I’m stuck in the broadband desert of rural Leicestershire, so I wrote this before I got to see John Logan’s post and the furore it caused. It does seem pretty odd to me, though, to tell writers what they ought to write about. Isn’t that what the Taliban and IS do?
My Mate Shofiq: