Racism for Children By Jan Needle

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...
Guess what happened then? We did not have enough labour to process it. The famous Lancashire millgirl was finally overwhelmed by the amount she was required to spin and weave. So the call went out for labour. Who better to provide it than the inhabitants of our former colonies in the East? They were expert, they were willing. The only problem was that they were the wrong colour – both the nurses and the mill operatives. They also ate funny food, worshipped funny gods, wore funny clothes and, heaven save us all, "smelled funny."

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?


Lee said…
I've said that I wouldn't write any more about the furore, some of which I may have missed because the comments were deleted before evening (my time), but I'm glad that you're addressing some of the issues, and I hope others will have a lot to contribute.

I'm not quite sure criticising that no one had thought even to mention Charlie Hebdo here - obviously wrong in your case, Jan -- is the same as telling other writers what to write. Perhaps. Again, I'll let others take over.
Lee said…
While making my second pot of coffee this morning, I realised that there is something I'd like to add. Dissent--or as Jan puts it, telling other writers what they ought to write (or not write)--can lead to an open and frank discussion, or it can lead to suppression, public flogging, jail, even death. Consequences count.
julia jones said…
Yup - it's Friday tommorrow and that poor Saudi blogger will get his next 50 lashes after prayers. Oh yuck, we must continue to bear him in our hearts and sign every petition that comes our way. Jan - that's a great post and My Mate Shofiq is a great book, mainly because of its mix of anger and kindliness. It does feel historical now, though none the worse for that. Perhaps you should write the sequel for the next generation...?
Lydia Bennet said…
I've just been sharing the newest Amnesty petition on facebook Julia on that issue, if you've not seen it yet. Jan, perhaps the sequel is a good idea, or re-release it with editing to give young UKIPpers a picture of immigration as it was in the Windrush days and beyond.
Bill Kirton said…
I was about to begin this comment by saying what a pleasure it was to read your post, Jan, but realised the irony of such a remark. It was a pleasure to read something so well-written, devastatingly well argued and, yes, entertaining. On the other hand, its message is (justifiably) stark and relegates notions of pleasure to a penumbra in which love and hate seem indistinguishable from one another. Whichever viewpoint we take, we still find ourselves the 'Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère'.
julia jones said…
Thanks - have done. For how many more Fridays will we have to think of this poor man?
Susan Price said…
Great, thought provoking post, Jan.

I happen to agree with your Dad - about the animal-like behaviour and territorialism, anyway. (I don't think the British animal is any way superior to the human animal from anywhere else.)

But human beings have always committed brutal, senseless, stupid violence against each other - and whatever justification they give - Crusade, Jehade, 'he was asking for it' - it's territorialism at the bottom.

Whatever we do, or say, or don't do or don't say, there'll be another brutal, stupid, senseless act of violence along shortly, committed by one gang or another, with one of the usual, transparent excuses. It's what chimps do - especially when they pride themselves on being superior to chimps.
glitter noir said…
Masterful, Jan. This post has moved me to read another of your books.
Jan Needle said…
Just back from Kettering Hospital where my terminally ill pa in law was taken at 7am. We waited a full fourteen minutes for the emergency ambulance to reach this tiny rural broadband blackspot (this is borrowed time and signal - hope it lasts out this note) and may I just say all hail the NHS and the variety of medicos of all religions and nations who've been helping us so fantastically since a (Muslim) carer woke us up at 4am and set it all in progress. Terry is being ferried home later tonight because he wants to die at home, and they will come to aid us at the drop of a phone call. And who knows, some of them might even be racists...if they are, I'm sure they've got better excuses than Murdoch and Farage!
Kathleen Jones said…
A brilliant post Jan - so beautifully written. I lived in the Middle East for years as an expat, also in West Africa, being a stranger and sometimes an infidel in someone else's country. It was an experience that has marked me very deeply and coloured my whole attitude to the strangers who live in my own. We have a lot to give each other. I have many muslim friends - some of whom are writers, some of whom still live in countries where free speech is only a dream. I fear that the Charlie Hebdo massacre will only make things worse because so few people look at the bigger picture and at our own part in provoking terrorism.
Kathleen Jones said…
Just seen your comment Jan - so sorry about your father in law.
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan. that was about the most wonderful post I have read on even this blogspot of wonderful posts. You've driven straight to the heart of - I nearly said 'Darkness' but I'll content myself with 'the question' and nailed our own appalling hypocrisy. I too, Julia, have been reacting with Amnesty to the dreadful Saudi flogging but, let's face it, we Europeans and Americans have done things just as evil, in fact worse so we must always modify our justifiable outrage with a modicum of collective guilt. But it won't stop us trying to flog the Eurofighter to the sheikhs. Jan, very sorry about your father-in-law and our sympathies go to Viv.
Dennis Hamley said…
And Shofiq a generation on would be a very significant book.
Nick Green said…
Do we provoke terrorism, though? Provocation implies justification. Is provoked domestic violence justified?
Enid Richemont said…
Brilliant, Jan - the most thought-provoking post I've read on this site.
Jan Needle said…
nick, justification is surely the wrong word. provocation leads to reaction,, rightness or wrongness sadly often doesn't come into it. turning the other cheeks is a noble idea, but not necessarily a human/animal possibility
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
Nick, provocation and justification have an uneasy relationship, and even the law in many countries recognises this. Presumably all of us would agree that calling your partner an idiot doesn't justify a beating in return, but what if you find him raping your three-year-old? A violent reaction, though not necessarily a murderous one, would likely be deemed justified (certainly in my eyes). There are degrees of justification. For some people, beliefs are perhaps as sacred as their children. It's not always easy to decide what constitutes a proportionate response.

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