Monday, October 25, 2004

chanting rude calypsos

“I lived in Cornwall once - Falmouth, to be exact - working as a gardener at a local golf course. That was 40 years ago. I was metropolitan to the bone, from Port of Spain to London. I had been in Cornwall mere hours when my in-laws took me to the Old Quay Church for a communion service on a Sunday morning. It was a tiny church where the Gunn family worshipped. I was introduced to Pa Gunn, who spoke enthusiastically. I stared blankly. I managed only a dim smile. I could not understand a single word he was saying. As far as I was concerned, he came from Planet Zarg. Mothers would send their children to stroke my arm for luck; grown-ups rubbed my face to see if the black would come off. Months later, all that ceased as I eased into the local environs.”, Darcus Howe.

*

Trevor Phillips seems to get it wrong all the time. It wasn’t long ago, in the Mail on Sunday, that he wrote

“I strongly support the establishment of church-controlled schools. The old-fashioned discipline of Caribbean teachers, uniforms, detention, tough lessons and, yes, even the possibility of corporal punishment ... could stop many a criminal career before it begins.”

Nor indeed long since he was telling Benjamin Zephaniah to ‘grow up and join the real world’ after he refused an OBE (order of the British Empire, how dare they even suggest it!?!), or endorsing US style boot-camps to help races mix, even suggesting that it is time for Britain to desist with ‘multiculturism’ altogether (how?).

Last week, ever flexible, he claimed that something called ‘passive apartheid’ was operating in Britain’s countryside communities. But, as David Green over on his Civitas blog, writes,

"The only proof of this hostility was that, when you go in a local village shop, the shopkeeper tends to be a bit suspicious. Humphrys pointed out [on the Today programme, where Phillips made his claim] that people were suspicious of him when he went back to Wales, the land of his birth. In other words, they were not hostile so much as wary of strangers. But that did not satisfy Phillips, who was intent on inventing racism where none exists."

Darcus Howe has never been too keen on Trevor Phillips, fingering him immediately as an ‘establishment man’, albeit one with “a deep instinctive hostility to racial discrimination and prejudice”, and commenting that, with his love of colonial schooling, “He will have to find sadists and train them to violently subjugate West Indian youth”. Picking up on the countryside racism allegation, Howe is on predictably entertaining form in the New Statesman this week. The quote at the top of the post is his.

“Racism”, he goes on to say, “is always motivated by material concerns; competition for jobs, homes, school places and other social benefits. Rural Britain is not a target for the racial issue”.

So what prompted Phillips’ remarks? Well, Darcus thinks it’s political. “The Hunting Bill is before the House of Lords, and the metropolitan middle classes and the rural population are at daggers drawn. His intervention smears the countryside in order to demean rural folk's cause”. Perhaps.

In the Guardian today, John Lanchester has plenty more to say on the ever-apparent rural/urban divide. He writes

“In France … rural life is so quiet and so boring that there has been, for generations, a consistent pattern of internal migration from the country to the town. This is the general pattern across the developed world: people go to live in cities because they have better lives there. Not in Britain, though. For 2002, the last year in which there were accurate figures, a net 115,400 people moved out of urban environments into the countryside. In other words, every year a city slightly bigger then Exeter disappears, and reappears wearing green wellies and complaining about the bypass.”

So if the countryside is so much better than the town, why do the Countryside Alliance and their like do so much bleating??? Lanchaster, who as a child moved from Hong Kong to the Norfolk countryside (culture shock? I think so), finds an old school friend and puts this to him. Countryfolk do nothing but complain. His friend replies,

"Of course they do. People feel culturally invisible, they feel no one cares about them and no one knows anything about their lives. They feel modern Britain sees them as irrelevant. That's what they're really complaining about”.

It’s unfortunate that so many country folk have chosen fox hunting as the yardstick by which to measure their losses, because it is the one issue upon which they will get – and deserve – no sympathy. But I’m reminded of Alan Partridge talking down Chris Morris’s farmer. “We’ve all seen the big eared boys on farms”. Is it just a class thing? A Labour thing? Phillips often seems like more the Labour politician than the head of the CRE.

Impatient for progress and impatient of toffs, we just have no sympathy for the fact that they can’t get along with the world as it is changing. Lanchester writes:

“It seems to me that people in the English countryside are trapped between the immovable conservatism of our patterns of land use, and the irresistible changes brought by population pressure. You can, on reflection, see why they are prone to complaint. But when they mourn the loss of a sense of community, they are asking us to mourn something which died a long time ago if, indeed, it ever existed.”

And yet Phillips claims that the community is alive and well, well enough to repel the black invader, at least.

The truth is that we don’t understand one another. You, and I, and Darcus and Trevor and John Lanchaster and Eminem and Tony Blair and Tony Martin. What is the country? What is the city? What is a community, and what is exclusion? The world isn’t coherent enough.

*

“My own feelings about the English countryside were shaped by the contrast between them and the Far East, where I grew up. We moved to rural Norfolk from Hong Kong, which at that point was the most crowded city in the world. Compared to that, Norfolk was a paradise of space and light and fresh air. Our house was near the Broads, and I would go out in a canoe to explore the network of dykes and rivers almost every day. There was a kingfisher who lived near where I hid the canoe, and the electric-blue shock of his underbelly, so startling among the greens and greys of the reeds, was, every time I saw it, the high point of my day. As a city boy, I had not known that any natural phenomenon could be the high point of a day”, John Lanchester.

Me, I love the idea of Darcus Howe rolling up in my sleepy Cornish village, the sole black man hoving into view around the corner; we stop and stare. I recall him, during his brilliant ‘Slave Nation’ show describing his horror at meeting three beautiful young woman, all of whom believed that “Sex Education is Child Abuse”. My daughters are not virgins, he tells them. At least, “they don’t look like virgins to me”. There are no bible readings round at Darcus’s house, no censored books. “Just the sound of rude calypos, and perhaps… the smell of the herb”. Pity the poor folk of Falmouth who had to deal with Darcus when he was a young man – they mustn’t have know what hit them; I see this a TV show, and fabulously entertaining; Slave Nation meets Wife Swap meets the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Let’s see if that breaks down a few of those rural / urban barriers.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

genius post

Tim Rutherford-Johnson said...

There was a very good piece in the Times recently interviewing Britain's only black farmer, who made a number of similar points to David Green. The simple fact is that the countryside is made up of small communities. Anyone new is immediately recognisable and invites - usually friendly - curiosity. That's not racism, that's humanity.

Mike said...

Did you hear the Darcus / Joan Rivers argument on R4 yesterday?