This piece is from February 2009, when Carol (daughter of Margaret) Thatcher was in the news for calling black tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a gollywog and Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand were in the news for leaving messages on actor Andrew Sachs’s answerphone informing him that Mr Brand had slept with his grand-daughter.
Cocking a gummy ear to the 7.25 sports round-up on the Today programme this morning, I found myself being informed that David Beckham still had great respect for the Galaxy. Even in my semi-somnolent state, I was struck by the open-hearted generosity of this. I also couldn’t help thinking how typical it was of a man who, in recent years, has had to take some pretty unjustifiable stick nearly everywhere he’s gone. And how much it contrasted with Craig Bellamy’s recent assertion that he has complete and utter contempt for the Crab Nebula. Obviously it soon became clear that Beckham had been referring merely to his current employers LA Galaxy, whom he didn’t wish to upset even as he hankered after a return to proper football with AC Milan or one of the big Spanish clubs – Racing Santander, perhaps, or Prancing Bilbao – but that’s not really the point.
The point is that Beckham – or David, as I like to think of him – can do very little wrong in my eyes for one simple reason. He is, like me, a Leytonstone boy. We might, for all I know, have shared the same games teacher (I mean pedagogically, not sexually), might even have played with the very same balls (ditto). And, just as Boris Johnson felt unable to say no when his Old Etonian chum Darius Guppy requested help with having a News of the World journalist beaten up (“It was all a bit of a joke. It was – just Darry.”), I reckon us products of the Waltham Forest secondary school system have to look out for each other. If it works for Eton, then it can work for Leyton High School. Which is, in turn, one reason I refrained from criticising my fellow LHS alumnus Jonathan Ross over the Andrew Sachs affair.
The other reason I refrained, of course, is that I don’t think cold-calling is actually a crime – if it was, Kitchens Direct wouldn’t persist in phoning me every day at 5 p.m. And nothing Ross said was factually inaccurate, so we’re not talking slander – it was just an easily deletable message on an answerphone. Oh, all right, it was more than one message, but – again, m’lud, I cite the case of Kitchens Direct vs The London Phone Book. Sadly, the tabloids decided to get outraged on Mr Sachs’s behalf, and took it upon themselves to remind him persistently of the awful fact that his grand-daughter is a bit of an exhibitionist who once had sex with Russell Brand, which does seem a little cruel, even for the News of the World. Beneath the contrived indignation, though, their only actual arguments seemed to be that (a) Andrew Sachs is getting on a bit and (b) the F-word, even when used to mean what it actually means, is “offensive”. To which the only sensible retorts are (a) stop patronising him, as frankly that’s far more insulting than anything Jonathan Ross did – Mr Sachs is only in his seventies and seems perfectly compos mentis – and (b) don’t be offended.
I’ve never quite understood why people get offended, or even what it really means. Lots of people say and do things I disagree with or find distasteful, but that’s because they’re not me. If I’m in the mood, and perhaps some sort of reinforced perspex box, I might tell them I don’t share their opinions and try to explain why, but it wouldn’t cross my mind to get offended, largely because I’ve no idea what it would involve. Would I need to splutter? Turn red? I really don’t know. For most people, being offended seems to involve writing to the BBC or the newspapers or walking through the streets with a flaming torch, but that seems a bit of a weird way of carrying on. The thing is, if no one got offended – and it’s a choice, you don’t have to do it – nothing could be offensive. And the world would be a much happier place. Whenever, for example, I hear Christians getting worked up about those atheist buses (you know, the ones with the posters telling us there’s probably no god), and claiming that they’re “offensive”, I just want to say no they’re not – they’re simply expressing an opinion you don’t agree with. You lot do that the whole time – look at all those posters for the Alpha Course that have been littering our public transport for years – but it doesn’t offend me, because I choose not to take offence. You could do that too. Then we could go on a picnic and have buns.
The other point, of course, is that Ross apologised. Unlike Carol Thatcher, who refuses to accept that she did anything wrong in referring to the black tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as a gollywog; it was, she says, “a joke”. (Non-UK readers might like to take a deep breath and read that again, because this really has happened, in 2009 – and, yes, we are talking about the daughter of our former prime minister.) Well, Carol, I don’t think it’s really your call, to be honest. If black people – people who’ve almost certainly had direct experience of being called (golly)wog and other much worse things – say that it’s insulting, then I really think that you – a middle-class white woman – just have to take their word for it, apologise, and promise to be more thoughtful in future. And let’s not get distracted by etymology and literary history – all that matters is what connotations the word has NOW. I don’t think you’re racist, Carol, any more than I think that Prince Harry is racist for referring to an army colleague as “our little Paki friend” (this also has really happened), or that his father is racist for calling the solitary Asian member of his polo club Sooty (yup, this too). I just think it’s desperately sad that, in 2009, some people still live in such otherworldly bubbles that they genuinely can’t understand what they’ve done wrong.
Back at Leyton High School, intake was split roughly thus: 25% were kids of South Asian origin (Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and expellees from Idi Amin’s Uganda), 25% West Indian, and the rest “White”. And, all these years later, it still makes my stomach lurch to think of all the playground “jokes” about Pakis being dirty and smelling of curry and about how you’d catch “Paki Fever” if you touched them (they were all “Paki”, whether they were from Dhaka or Delhi, Karachi or Kampala); or of the Sikh maths teacher who had “Leader of the Paks” scrawled across his door for everyone to read; or of the Black vs White football match we organised amongst ourselves on the frozen playing field when the games staff loitered too long over coffee and fags in their cosy cubbyhole (and the Black vs White fights organised by others outside the school on summer evenings); or of the day when Nigel, the small, sweet-natured West Indian kid I used to sit next to in French, suddenly burst into the classroom brandishing an iron bar because he’d finally had enough of people calling him names like… gollywog. You probably didn’t come across any of this stuff at St Paul’s Girls’ School, did you Carol?
All that was years ago, of course, and I thought we’d moved on. And, by and large, we have, because of that wonderful thing (no irony) called (though only by its detractors) Political Correctness – you know, the social manifestation of those changes in the lawbook which gave women the right to vote, stopped homosexuals being gaoled for falling in love, and punished landlords who refused to rent rooms to darkies. It’s also because of PC that I knew it was wrong to make a joke about Victoria when I mentioned David Beckham having to take some pretty, unjustifiable stick everywhere he goes, and so didn’t.
Although that’s not actually true, of course, as the whole point is that it’s fine to laugh at someone for something they’ve done, just not for something they can’t help. Laugh at them for having a stupid haircut, by all means, but not for having stupid hair, because they’ve probably being crying themselves to sleep every night over that ever since they hit puberty. It’s a cruel world. And we don’t need people like Carol Thatcher and her “PC-gone-mad” mob making it crueller.