Fiery Words from FireCrest

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

How Pure Thou Art

Over the last week or more BBC4 aired various documentaries about the American folk-music revivals of the Forties and early Sixties. We were struck, as we were not at the time (we were very young), by the righteousness of so many of the singers. True, in the early Sixties there was much in the United States to be righteously indignant about for a decent young white American. Even the endless – both innumerable and long-winded – dirges against ‘war’ were forgivable among ones so young and insulated. This was, after all, before Vietnam began to bite.
But we’re not talking about decent feelings, so much as smug arrogance. Apart from the protest songs, there was a massive resurrection of the ballad tradition. Performing it, rows of earnest young singers, some wonderfully talented, glowed with their own revealed virtue. For the first time in history they’d discovered this astonishing music, much of it three or four centuries old at least, and Lord did it show. And there was Joan Baez, aged all of twenty, introducing Dylan’s recusant ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ by facetiously dedicating it to all the married people in the audience. “I guess I’m just anti-marriage,” she muttered finally, before commencing to trill. Nothing like getting the crowd on your side. On the whole this was a generation that preached harmony and tolerance while displaying a rare talent for conjuring enemies to loathe.
The worst of the lot was, and remains, that fatuous leftie Pete Seeger, who plainly despises the suburban classes  (‘Little Boxes’) – his greatest market. To this day he seems incapable of singing or even talking to anybody without peering down his nose at them. There is something powerfully repellent about Seeger and his air of incurable self-satisfaction, on stage or off, warbling in his reedy sanctimonious tones. This is, of course, the man who wanted to take an axe to the power cables when Dylan freaked out the folkies at Newport in 1965 with one of the greatest songs ever written. Wickedly – maybe with satanic commercial intent – Dylan was thrashing an electric guitar.
Seeger was, maybe still is (incredibly he’s still alive), a communist, and we all know that they’ve solved all the world’s problems. They know it better than anyone, of course. And plus ça change, though no one’s a communist these days.
We see from the public prints that Carol Thatcher, who through no fault of her own is the fruit of the loins of the Official Demon of the Age, is likely to get the sack from the BBC for uttering the word ‘golliwog’ in what’s generally deemed a private place. Jeremy Clarkson is getting flak for having called a Mr Gordon Brown, presently besmirching one of the great offices of the British state, a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’. (Which surely is merely a recital of facts.)
The uproar these idle remarks has generated almost matches in factitiousness the outcry that was generated when, at the height of a media frenzy about ‘knife crime’ a few months ago, some home-made-haloed souls got into a great taking because someone was selling a trainer called ‘Air Stab’. To their eternal discredit the retailer took the shoes off the market. We thought ‘Air Stab’ was merely redolent of an air guitar, as harmless an instrument as was ever invented. It actually meant ‘air stability’, apparently a reference to the ingenious design of the trainers’ soles. Nothing to do with bloody knives. But you can’t be too careful, can you.
It’s the carefulness that bothers, spreading like a fungus throughout the land. Now consider this:
“In a massive investment programme across the 1880s Jerzy… built Raifort and the railway there to house his peons. He imported coolies and dagoes and cockneys, and wops and spicks and niggers and kikes.”
When we read that in The Extraordinary Consequences of Señor Higgins’s Holiday in Estragon (an unusually fine novel published by FireCrest) we did raise an eyebrow. As we were meant to, for the author continues:
“He despised them all, with a cool egalitarianism that disgusted his father, but admired the muscle and energy and loyalty he extracted from them in return for cash. By the standards of the time, he paid them well, for he thought it madness to have a workforce that was starving and miserable. The company store in Raifort sold food, alcohol and women – these last also imported, for no local labour made itself available – at reasonable rates. There was even a pension scheme.”
Not only does that make clear the nature of Jerzy’s (un)enlightened self-interest, it plays tricks on our own presumptions. P.L. Frankson, the author, does this frequently throughout the book, to variously serious and highly entertaining effect. But the racism here is the character’s, not Frankson’s. It calls for only a smidgeon of subtlety to work this out, if a bit more to see how the technique is working.
Even so it’ll probably offend someone. Well, tough titty. But we suffer under a widespread presumption that ‘offensiveness’, like harrassment in the workplace, exists even if it is perceived only in the mind of the self-defining victim. Never mind if the “victim” is stupid, easily confused, politically motivated, attention-seeking, a pathological liar, slightly mad, or just hates the alleged perpetrator. It is now officially wicked to offend anyone (except Christians, the English, Mrs Thatcher, white men, and the overweight). That makes sinners of must of us, but it’s a neat way to divide and rule.
One wonders how long it will be before publishers even of fiction will habitually start to censor themselves lest they offend some, er, one-eyed Scottish idiot – for want of a better example – for fear of the consequences. We say ‘habitually’ because it’s already happened once that we know of, in the sad case of The Jewel of Medina (see the October archive). One could be depressed about this, as at any other irrational fear taking hold in the minds of the otherwise sane. Or perhaps it will encourage the already devious minds of novelists to find ways of saying exactly what they want but with greater cunning. This might do the art of the novel no harm at all. Whether publishers will recognize such books as art any more readily than they do now is another question.


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