Showing posts with label Britons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Britons. Show all posts

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

No, thank you.

Because I am a goofball, I forgot to send in my electoral registration. Today, there was a wild panic, as the deadline charged down the track like a brakeless freight train. The only answer was a lot of downloading, scanning, filling in and emailing, all things that I am really, really bad at. Luckily, I have a kind friend who is organised, and she helped me with it.

‘I can’t thank you enough,’ I cried. ‘I may now take part in the democratic process. This is what Mrs Pankhurst chained herself to the railings for.’

My kind friend laughed, kindly.

I love Scotland. I fell in love with these hills as you might fall in love with a person, and moved five hundred miles north to live in them. I left my old life and my old friends behind in the south. I still miss the old friends sorely; it is the only sadness of this northern life. I wish for a Tardis, and wormholes. But the hills won.

When I cross the border to Scotland, after a trip to the south, I cry actual tears of homecoming. This place is home to me in a way which is stitched into the deepest reaches of my heart. I love the beauty, the people, the wild spaces. Those spaces amaze me still, they are so improbable in this small, crowded island nation.

I do have Scottish blood. ‘Quite a lot of Scottish blood,’ says my mother, staunchly, at breakfast. I also have Irish blood, English blood, and Welsh blood.

Sometimes I think nationality means nothing. It is a human construct, after all. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, and nations are often no more than random lines drawn on a map, or recent inventions, cobbled together out of territorial ambition, political compromise and contingency. Italy and Germany were only unified in the late 19th century; they are band-box new. Before that, an inhabitant of the duchy of Savoy was a foreigner to an inhabitant of the Kingdom of Sicily.

All that is intellectually true. It is not emotionally true. The feeling of culture and history and ancestry does mean something. Nationality may be intellectually indefensible, but it is viscerally meaningful.

In the year when the great sprinting mare, Black Caviar, came to Ascot, I went to the Royal Meeting for the first time in years. The place was teeming with Australians, many of whom had never been abroad before, who were following their mighty heroine. I made friends with many of them, at the pre-parade ring and in the stands. I took on, absurdly, the role of ambassador, apologising for the weather, making jokes about the oddness of the British way.

Late on the first afternoon, after spending much time laughing and joking with the great Aussie contingent, I found myself upsides a very British gentleman, one of those old racing types I remember from my childhood. We also laughed and joked, but in a very different way. I suddenly realised I had been very literal with the Australians, because we did not share a culture. With my old racing gent, we fell into the language of our own tribe, dry and ironic, reading between the lines, understanding cultural references without having to amplify. It was not that one was better and one was worse, it was just that with those different nationalities I spoke a different language, even though it was all English. The old gent and I knew each other, even though we had never been introduced in our lives.

I love Britishness, I can’t help it. I love the idiotic obsession with failure, the hatred of showing off, the pragmatism and stoicism, the instinctive saying of sorry when someone bumps into you in the street. I love the queuing and the tea and the understatement. I love the Queen, even though I could give you eight good arguments against a hereditary monarchy. I love the bosky hedgerows and the wild moors, the lakes and tors, the Norman churches and the stately piles. I love the hill farmers and the farriers and the dry-stone-wallers. I love the sucking of the teeth and the shaking of the head. I love that most Britons, when asked how they are, will not answer ‘marvellously well’, but just mutter ‘not too bad’.

I love my Scottish and Irish and Welsh and English blood. I don’t want to have to choose. I could mount a serious, empirical argument for the Union. I could draw on all that history I learnt. I could even break out a bit of economics and geo-politics. But my decision is entirely one of the heart. I want to remain an Ordinary Decent Briton. I do not want to have to carve a slice of myself off. Being British is stamped on my heart.

And that is why, with the utmost respect for those of opposing views, with quiet politeness and reserve, I shall be voting No, thank you.


2 Sept 1

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The education league tables are out. Everyone panics.

On the radio, a nice, intelligent, articulate man says: ‘I have worked with thirteen ministers of education and none of them has done much good.’ He is not making a party political point. He is making a why the children are not learning point. The international league tables are out and poor old Blighty languishes in the doldrums. The gnashing of teeth can be heard from three fields away.

The shadow education secretary was on the Today programme this morning, and all he could offer was his worry that teachers are not qualified enough. He had no explanation for why all the money and attention spent on education through the Labour years seemed to have so little effect. People got terribly cross with Tony Blair about many things, but I remember my real rage being that the children still could not read. I was one of those who was all fired up about New Labour. I believed Blair when he said education, education, education. I was ready to be delighted, and then the great leap forward never came.

The good news is that the rankings themselves are not completely reliable. Statisticians are casting doubts. Perhaps Britain is not doomed after all. But at the same time, there does not seem to be the shining city on the hill that one hoped might be built, full of bright-eyed pupils in shiny classrooms, their teachers gleaming with enthusiasm and devotion.

All governments of all political kidneys have had a crack at it. Neither the left nor the right has any stranglehold on cleverness or correctness. My excessively unfashionable opinion is that most politicians and ministers are people of goodwill who want the best for the next generation. They study excellent models elsewhere; they get advice from brilliant experts in the field. They do not go into Whitehall in the morning thinking bugger it, who cares whether the children can read?

If it is not as simple as hopeless politicos or failed ideologies, I wonder whether it might be a more profound cultural problem. Britain is sharply contradictory when it comes to education and cleverness. On one hand, it is rightly proud of having Oxford and Cambridge, two of the best universities in the world, setting gold standards since the middle ages. On the other hand, there is little an Ordinary Decent Briton hates more than someone who is too clever for their own good. There are rumblings about elitism, which has become a dirty word; newspapers regularly run pieces about how the country is run by Oxbridge elites, who, apparently by definition, can know nothing of the Real World.

When I was a little girl, I was a swot. Even at the age of nine, I was keenly aware that this would make me hated. I compensated by becoming a jester. If I could make the class laugh, then I would not be persecuted for all that prep I did. On a wider scale, the British have always been intensely suspicious of intellectuals. We are not like France, say the old guard, laughing scornfully. Very few national treasures are beloved for their academic brilliance. I suspect that Britain would much rather win the World Cup than a Nobel Prize in physics. Cleverness generally should be covered up, hedged about with self-deprecation, masked by jokes or eccentricity.

And there is a broader argument still, about different forms of intelligence. Thoughtful people rightly make the point that empathy and emotional intelligence and creativity are as important to the good life as knowing what Einstein said or when the Battle of Hastings was fought. When these annual league tables come out, and hares are set running all over the shop, someone always comes up with the hoary old chestnut about this entrepreneur dropping out of school, or that brilliant musician never passing an exam. And then the whole thing falls into a mess of he said she said and no useful conclusions are drawn.

I am not certain I have any useful conclusions myself. I wish that dear old Britain was not floundering below Liechtenstein and Estonia and Slovenia. I do think there are severe problems in education here, and I believe in education as an article of faith. Yet America, which has more Nobel laureates than the next ten countries put together, is in an even more lowly position, nine full places below us. This makes me wonder whether a single test can really rank entire nations in any satisfactory sense. Perhaps the criteria are too narrow; perhaps the whole idea of grading in such a way is reductive and misleading.

What about the other things which make life worth living, like songs and novels and manners and the countryside and a sense of humour? If there were a league table for bands or comedians, Britain would be surely higher than South Korea, which beats us hollow in maths and science. Even those of us who believe passionately in learning must admit that learning is not the only thing which counts.
On that awful Friday night in Glasgow, ordinary citizens ran into the scene of the helicopter crash, to help their fellow humans without thought for their own safety. A sense of community, which the doomier commentators say is now confined to a mythical golden age, still coheres. People are kind and generous and good in this country. I believe this to be true on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, but there are objective proofs. Britons are the second most generous people in the entire world, with 76% giving money to charity. That good news never made headlines, but it is a keen reminder that competence in maths is not the only mark of a good life or a civilised society.

I do not have a nice, neat final sentence for this. I have no definitive conclusion. I think the children must read. But I also suspect that perhaps the picture is less bleak than it is being painted. I am channelling Dad’s Army, and saying quietly to myself: ‘Don’t panic.’
Today’s pictures:

Too gloomy for the camera today. Here are some snaps from the archive:

3 Dec 1

This one looks as if I have put it into black and white. In fact, those were the actual colours that day:

3 Dec 2

3 Dec 3

3 Dec 7

Can you believe I wrote an entire blog post without mentioning Red the Mare? Goes against all muscle memory. She was glorious this morning, before the rain came, doing her dowager duchess canter up the hill. She was happy too, deep in one of her Zen calm moods, the ones which make me love her more than almost anything else:

3 Dec 9
3 Dec 11

Although I say Don’t Panic, I am of course in a small panic of my own. The panic is always that when I write a serious piece on a subject such as education, I may include a most uneducated grammatical error or typing mistake. And then people shall laugh and point. I squint at the text, desperately searching for howlers. I know I will have missed one. Ah well, I think – I must publish now and risk it for a biscuit.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The bells ring; or, in which I refuse to be a cynic.

The day escaped me. There was a lot of loveliness and a lot of rushing about. My beautiful mare had her back done by a brilliant woman. Red was at her sweetest, kindest and best, and it makes my heart sing that now she shall be free from tension and muscle strain.

I have no time for writing now, hardly time for thought. I am still finishing my day’s work and trying to write this blog at the same time. But I did have one thought. It is: I am singingly glad that the bells rang out, and there was a forty-one gun salute, and that the band of the Scots Guards played Congratulations for the royal baby.

I was oddly touched by a picture of happy people waiting outside a London hospital door, sheltering under practical British umbrellas, holding out banners of celebration. The sneerers will sneer, and the mockers will mock, but I think they reveal themselves as nothing more than snobs. They think they are being frightfully clever and egalitarian, wheeling out their republican complaints and their buckets of cold water. What they are really saying is – you, you idiot crowds, you sheep-like rejoicers, are less discerning, less clever, more easily gulled than we are. We, we sophisticates and intellects, see through the flim-flam, the absurdity, the paper-thin circus, to what really matters. You are just being fooled by bread and circuses.

I’m with the Ordinary Decent Britons on this one. I think it is enchanting to have a day of national delight. I’m all for collective celebration. A young prince is born; let the trumpets ring.

Of course it is an oddity to be born a princeling; of course it makes little rational sense. But it is stitched into the national tapestry; it has echoes of Shakespeare in it. It is a happy, gaudy, historical absurdity, and it brings joy in its wake, and I never, ever look the gift horse of joy in the mouth.

If you dissect anything too much, you can reduce it to flimsy. Cricket is nothing more than five long days with a bat and a ball, with rules no one can understand, with commentators saying ‘my dear old thing’, with silly mid-ons and leg before wicket. Yet it brings the same wild uprush of happiness.

A new life has arrived, and if he gets forty-one guns blasting off in Hyde Park instead of a bunch of petrol station carnations, I say hurrah for that. Sometimes I think being a cynic is a cop-out; it’s a defensive crouch, a cheap shot, a drawing back. Expressing uncomplicated enthusiasm is more of an emotional challenge, because it lays you open to mockery; balloons exist to be burst.

The bells are ringing now, as I write this last sentence. I smile as I hear them. Let them ring.


No energy left for proper pictures now. Just a very small selection:

This HorseBack mare is called Red. I love her. She worked her magic on a visitor this afternoon:

23 July 1 23-07-2013 14-16-11

Stanley the very Manly has a sodding big stick:

23 July 2 23-07-2013 15-46-43

And he’s off to find another one, EVEN BIGGER:

23 July 3 23-07-2013 15-48-02

The HorseBack foal:

23 July 4 22-07-2013 15-12-09

A delphinium:

23 July 5 22-07-2013 18-04-00

My own ridiculously beloved Red, never afraid to look goofy, even with her own excessively posh bloodlines:

23 July 6 20-07-2013 10-18-48

23 July 7 20-07-2013 10-20-45

If she were a human, she would be a princess, and I let off metaphorical 41 gun salutes for her in my head every day.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Going to extremes.

I try to do work, but my mind keeps going back to Woolwich. It shocks and horrifies in so many ways that the brain feels battered, trying to take it all in. It is, most of all, so un-British. A man ranting on a city street, his hands shining with blood, fanatical hatred in his eyes, his familiar London accent at odds with the extremist platitudes falling from his mouth is not what one expects, in this country.

We are not the nation of warm beer and cricket and maiden ladies cycling to church which John Major once nostalgically conjured up. I’m not sure Britain ever was that, even in the lost age to which Major was clearly harking. Blighty is, however, a battered old warrior, who has been round the block more than once. Extremes have not flourished here, in recent history.

It might have been a wild, untamed place, centuries ago, when the Marcher Lords went untrammelled and kings and their favourites were murdered in unspeakable ways. There were crazed extremes when the country divided into Roundhead and Cavalier. But when Europe was torn with internecine strife in the 19th century, Britain did not join that particular party. There was no 1815, no 1848; no barricades in the streets of London as there were in Paris or Vienna. (Admittedly, the British did protest for specific reasons: they rioted over the unjust Corn Laws, and marched for the Chartists. But these were movements of quite a different kidney.)

Later, in the twentieth century, when the Fascist and Communist movements roiled Europe and Russia, the equivalents of right and left here petered out into damp squibs. The Blackshirts could gain little purchase. The Communist Party of Great Britain was characterised through much of its history by squabbling and swerves in policy, before it finally disbanded.

In its recent history, Britain really does seem to exemplify the middling sort. In contemporary life, there is absolutely nothing to compare to the God, Gays and Guns wing of the Republican party in America. No member of the House of Lords would ever take to the floor to insist that the world was created six thousand years ago and that this should be taught in schools, as has been expressed by august senators. (This is not swishy one-upmanship; Blighty has other weaknesses to American strengths.)

There is, even now, in the sometimes intemperate age of the internet, a sense of restraint, pragmatism, stoicism. The best way to be beloved in Britain is not to be passionate about any cause (this is considered a little too much and dicing with dullness) but to be ironical and self-deprecating. Humorous self-deprecation may be the defining characteristic of ordinary decent Britons. Even in usual conversation, the centre holds; the Goldilocks principle applies. The classic British rejoinder to the polite question of How are you? is Not too bad, thank you.

So what happened yesterday had layers of ramifications to its shock. It was not just an horrific murder in itself; it was The Extreme, walking and talking on a London street. And then, out on the internet, other extremes began to join in. Send them all home (who? where?); time for Britain to grow a backbone; Enoch Powell was right. This last one made me genuinely puzzled. ‘But,’ I said to my mother, ‘the Tiber is clearly not foaming with blood.’ Some of the comments were so vile I do not have the heart to write them down here.

The English Defence League and their cohorts began to join in. There was a strong flavour of Take Our Country Back. From whom was not explicitly stated; the foreign, the other, the in any way different, I could only assume. The irony was that the killer who spoke to the camera was a Briton, born in Romford, whilst the incredibly brave woman who talked calmly to him, as he held his bloody knife, who tried to distract his attention away from vulnerable mothers and children, was not British at all. Are we supposed to send this extraordinary person back too?

Just as I began to despair, to believe that my reading of the British character was all wrong, that perhaps it was the nuts and lunatics and extremes who now held sway, the gentle voice of reason began to assert. People called for calm, begged not to meet hatred with hatred. One man who lived in the neighbourhood said he was just going to get on with his ordinary life, because that was the British way.

It is hard to remain reasonable in the face of such visceral horror. I suppose it is human, in some ways, to want to find a scapegoat, demonise The Other, identify a neat, convenient group to blame. But extrapolation is a dangerous and misleading game. One Muslim does not mean all Muslims. By this warped logic, one might as well say that since 93% of the prison population is male, all men are criminals.

There is also the almost congenital inability to process risk. When something like this happens, there is always a shout for hard-line tactics, the cry to ramp up the war on the terrorists. But in the cool halls of statistics, where fact lives, you are six times more likely to die in your bath than be killed by a fanatical fundamentalist. (Latest figures: annual deaths in bathtubs – 29; averaged annual deaths over the last ten years by terror attacks – 5. Those numbers are from England and Wales; there do not seem to be national figures.) Are we to insist that everyone take showers? That is before one even goes into the big numbers, the ones that run into annual thousands – road deaths, suicides, poisoning, falls.

I think the thing that makes me saddest is that in amidst all the noise, the central tragedy gets lost. There was a brave man who gave honourable service to his country who is no more. He will have family and friends and comrades who mourn him. The ragged shouting voices do not honour their grief or his passing, but merely try to hijack a human loss for their own, frightened purposes.


Just one picture today, of these Scottish hills, which always act as consolation for me when the inexplicable happens:

23 May 1 17-05-2013 10-36-18

Sunday, 5 August 2012

This happy breed

A really sweet thing has happened. The British nation appears to be happy.

Obviously, not every last Briton will be thrilled and overjoyed by the Olympics, and the bold brilliance of so many of the competitors from this little island nation. There will still be the grouches and the grumps, and hurrah for them, because if we suddenly turned into a land of Pollyannas it would be a bit creepy and Stepford-ish. But, to judge from the papers and the internet and the voices on the radio, the national mood is light. It has been heavy and filled with portent for a long time. Will the Euro go smash, and drag us down with it? Does anyone know what to do about the rogue bankers? Shall we ever see the return of growth? Now, the sun has come out, and benighted Britons are casting off their cares and allowing themselves a moment of heedless delight.

I don’t think it’s just the success of the athletes, although of course that is a source of admiration and pride. Anecdotal reports show that competitors of all nations are being taken to the battered old British heart. I think it is a more complicated cup of tea. It is that the world has come to Blighty, and we managed to put on a show. It is the lovely evidence that The Young People are not the Net-addicted, workshy idlers that some of the tabloids like to paint them. Their dedication and hard work are everywhere evident, from the track to the pool to the river. They are also all amazingly polite and modest in interview, giving credit to everyone but themselves, thanking the crowd, paying tribute to the people behind the scenes. Perhaps too it is the daily proofs that with determination and spirit and heart and industry, almost anything is possible. That alone is enough to lift the human heart.

There is an odd generosity about these games. Losers are cheered on; the crowds may be partisan, but they pay tribute to excellence under any flag. Strangers are smiling at each other in the street, striking up conversations on the tube, cheering in trains when a Team GB medal is announced.

The cherry on today’s cake came when Andy Murray showed all his fire and brilliance to win the gold medal at tennis. It’s not a game I know much about, but even I could see it was poetry in motion. He looked very young, and very happy, and the whole thing was absurdly moving, and I cried actual tears.

In a matter of days, the whole thing will be over, and we shall go back to normal, and find many things of which to complain. But for now, there is a whiff of joy and glory in the air, and there is something uncomplicated and lovely about that.


Some quick pictures from yesterday, when the sun was shining:

Red’s view:

5 Aug 7

5 Aug 8

5 Aug 9

Red the Mare:

5 Aug 10-001


5 Aug 10

Hill, swathed in early morning mist:

5 Aug 15

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Sunday Jubilee

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It was a really happy day.

Very early, I went up to see the mare. She raised her head, whinnied, and cantered from the farthest corner of the field, swirled to a halt in front of me, raising a dramatic cloud of dust, ducked her head, and whickered. She has never done that before. She usually waits, regally, as if she is the Queen herself, for me to come to her. I felt as if she had given me a huge present, and showered her with love and carrots, both of which she seemed to find eminently acceptable.

I did two thousand words.

Then I thought, bugger it, I’m supposed to be working all afternoon, but the Diamond Jubilee does not come along every day, so I went up to my mother and the Lovely Stepfather, and we watched some of the dear old BBC coverage. I have been so cut off from the world in my deadline fever, that the idea of a royal regatta existed only very faintly on the far edge of my consciousness. But oh, oh the boats. The whole Thames was filled with them, everything from dour old working Yorkshire coal boats (the captain of that was my favourite; ‘Here’s one for the North,’ he said, grinning all over his face) to Edwardian pleasure cruisers. There were proper Naval vessels and narrow boats and lovely Victorian rowing skiffs. There were Olympic rowers and, perhaps the thing that amazed me most of all, Venetian gondoliers.

‘Someone went and got VENETIANS,’ I yelled at my mother.

The Queen looked awfully happy, and the banks were lined with Ordinary Decent Britons, yelling and whooping and giving three cheers.

On paper, Republicanism makes perfect philosophical sense; the hereditary principle is, on the face of it, absurd. But on a day like today, it just feels a little bit snobbish and curmudgeonly. There were crowds of people, having a perfectly lovely time, in the gloomy summer weather, and I defy anyone to shake a reproving finger at that.

At four, vaguely aware that there was something going on on our village green (a very rare thing in Scotland; it was laid out on an English model by some old laird who had been brought up in the south) I wandered down with the Pigeon. And there was the village, dancing. They were doing a mass strip the willow, to much hilarity. Then there was three cheers for Her Majesty, and a rendition of God Save the Queen. It was oddly touching. Balmoral is not away, and half our shops have By Royal Appointment signs above their doors; here on Deeside the Royal Family feel like locals.

I loved the whole thing. The older I get, the more I appreciate a bit of good old British pomp. I even rather love the fact that, in London, it was raining. Sunshine would be far too vulgar and faintly European. We are bred to bad weather. On the radio, some onlookers were being interviewed. ‘Is the weather dampening your spirits?’ asked the presenter. ‘Oh, no,’ they said, and with marvellous non-sequitur, ‘You see, we are from Norfolk.’

Yesterday was my father’s birthday. It was the Derby. He adored the Derby. He always went, looking very smart in his shiny black top hat. I was fired with the excitement of the great race, and it did turn out to be a great race, where a new champion was born, and a nineteen-year-old Irish boy called Joseph O’Conner made history, riding his father’s horse Camelot to victory. No father and son combination has ever won the Derby in its 230 year history. I shouted my head off, and missed my own father so much I could hardly breathe.

In the morning, rather madly, I had told the mare the story of how her famous grandfather won the Derby. She listened politely. I wished, suddenly, violently, that my dad could have been there to see her, in all her aristocratic beauty, with her outrageous bloodlines. I cried for him, astonished at how acute and fresh the sorrow still can be, over a year after his death.

So, all human life has been here, in the last 36 hours. The memory of my dad, the sweetness of the living family, the joy of my horse, the best racing in the world, every kind of boat on the dirty old Thames, the village out in its pomp, the celebration of our own dear Queen. And I did over four thousand words, and am closing in on the end of the book. Not bad, really.


Today’s pictures.

The village green celebrating the Jubilee:

3 June 1

3 June 2

3 June 3

3 June 4

3 June 5

3 June 6

3 June 7

3 June 8 

My lovely Red, bowing her beautiful head:

3 June 13

The Pigeon in her special Jubilee lead:

3 June 10

3 June 11

3 June 12

She really does look rather queenly herself.

The hill, rather blurry today:

3 June 15

What I especially liked about the celebration today is that it was all so tremendously British. I’m not sure exactly why, and I’m not sure exactly why that gives me pleasure, but it does.

It was the best of British, and I wave my own little metaphorical flag.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

In which a small rant blows up out of the west

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Apologies for length. Also: possible overuse of the words 'reductive', and 'signifier'.


Ah, excellent. A new Twitter controversy blows up out of a calm blue sea. I am sitting at my desk, doing my work, when I have to look something up on the internet. (The life story of Mary Pickford, for various obscure reasons.) The fatal thing about having the internet on all the time is that it sings the siren song of displacement activity. I’ll just have a quick look at Twitter, I think.

Diane Abbott is trending. The trending thing is always rather alarming; one tends to think that someone has suffered a fatal accident. This time, it turns out that Abbott has written: ‘White people love playing divide and rule. We should not play their game.’

Wow, I think. That’s a little bit crazy tunes. What can she mean?

It seems she was having some kind of argument with a journalist about the nature of the black community. Now, people are hurling toys out of prams, and stamping outraged feet, and leaping onto high horses and galloping off in all directions. They are demanding that she resign. They are calling her a racist and a fool and worse.

I like Diane Abbott. This is because of my excessive fondness for This Week, in which she used to sit on the sofa and flirt with Michael Portillo, as they dished the dirt on the political news. They were one of the best punditry double acts in the business, informative and sharp and funny. There was a keen pleasure in watching the old leftie and the old rightie sparring and teasing.

I even like the fact that she is a flawed politician. She is not a cookie cutter, on-message automaton. She was brilliantly defiant about sending her son to a private school, at the very moment that Tony Blair was on his messianic drive for education, education, education. It was a high class of hypocrisy, and she did not mutter or shuffle or try and change the subject. She pretty much just said: yes? So what? She took the punches.

What interests me about this scandale du jour is not so much her, though. It is the wider ramifications of black and white. Only yesterday, I was puzzling over what Rick Santorum meant when he made a statement about not giving ‘black people’ other people’s money. (I still don’t quite understand what he was talking about, but the more I think about it, the more I think he must have meant the ‘other people’ were white people.) I’m slightly obsessed by Santorum now, he is so very odd, and since I wrote of him, I’ve been doing a bit more checking.

It turns out, he has form. He talks about ‘black people’ quite a lot, it’s a recurring trope with him. He once told a television interviewer that he was astonished that President Obama did not take a pro-life position; he said he thought that was extraordinary from ‘a black man’. Again, I was left shaking my head. One report on it drily remarked that abortion was quite high in the African-American population, as if that should explain what he meant. I still think he may be doing some kind of Edward Lear nonsense joke, possibly for a bet.

Now, Diane Abbott, a prominent black Briton, is talking about ‘white people’. Where they both lose me is in this use of white and black, not as simple observable fact, but as a signifier for something else.

I admit, I have never fully seen the importance of   pigmentation. I am not being Pollyanna-ish or disingenuous; it is one of the strands of human thought with which I struggle. Viscerally, I don’t understand why it marks and divides; I am with Martin Amis, who once wondered why anyone thought white was best. It’s so random, so ephemeral, so literally skin-deep. In evolutionary terms, it is only a blink of an eye ago that we were all black. Humans originated in Africa. In most societies, ancient pedigree is something to be boasted of. If oldest is best, then black should be the gold standard.

Pushing aside the bigotries and prejudices, if that is possible, what really bothers me about this black and white signifier idea is that it is not useful. It is so intellectually lazy. It tells one nothing. It does not illuminate or elucidate.

When Santorum says ‘black people’, what can that even mean? Black, in the United States, covers a rainbow of possibility. There are black people who have been in America since the dawn of slavery, descended from stolen Africans. There are black people of West Indian origin, and of South and Central American pedigree. These four groups alone have keen cultural differences.

There are newer immigrants, all shades of black and brown, coming from everywhere from Liberia to London, from New Delhi to New Guinea. To put them all in a box because they are not snowy white bleaches them of all meaning.

Interestingly, President Obama exemplifies this very thing; he is the walking embodiment of the reductiveness of the word black, when applied as an indicator of character or attitude, or a predictor of behaviour. His mother was white, and he was brought up by white grandparents. He was schooled in Hawaii; he spent some of his childhood in Indonesia, with an Indonesian stepfather. He went to Columbia and Harvard Law; he settled in Chicago. His father was a black Kenyan; his grandfather worked for white colonialists. Contemplate that fascinating and various background and early life, and then consider how all of it is denied and reduced when he is described as a ‘black man’.

It seems to me that the importance of his skin is an external, observed thing. It does not define him, or tell us anything much about him as a human, or a thinker, or a politician. What it did do, on that bright, frigid day in January when he was sworn in, was allow millions of non-white people to see someone who looked a little like them rise to the highest office in the land. In a country still scarred from segregation, where the back of the bus still burns in living memory, that was important. But to use black as a suggestion of how someone might think or act is reductive idiocy of the crassest order.

So too with Abbott. ‘White people’ means nothing. To which ‘white people’ is she referring? Do the ice white Norwegians adore divide and rule? Or is that the white Australians? Or the pale Danes?

Even if she were only talking of white Britons, massive cultural and ancestral differences still obtain. In terms of genetics, Britons are descended from Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Huguenots, Celts, Romans, and Jews of all varieties. In terms of geography, there are dividing lines all over the shop. The proud Scots and Welsh would not like to be lumped in with the inhabitants of Hampshire and Surrey. The Cornish are, as everyone knows, a law entirely to themselves. The Ulster Irish see the world a little differently from the East Anglians.

Forget the worn north-south divide, here in Scotland there is a passionate difference between the culture and dialect and outlook of those who live on the east coast and the west coast. When I go to the west, I am always struck by the amazing contrast to my part of the east. It’s there in the accent, the slang, the attitudes, the underlying assumptions, the jokes.

I hope I am not living up to Abbott’s idea of divide and rule. I see contrasts, but I also believe that humans are more alike than different. The fundamentals of human yearning, the desire to love and be loved, to live useful lives, to bring up happy children, are found pretty much everywhere. But the overlay of distinct cultural identities is something that has always fascinated me, and I find it illuminating that there is so much of that still in these tiny islands.

It is particularly interesting in this age, when one might think that the global village, restless internet, breaking down of national barriers could lead to a sort of homogeneity. Not a bit of it. Only a couple of weeks ago, I listened to an antic discussion on the wireless between people from Birmingham and people from Manchester. Those are two British cities only eighty miles apart; to hear the proud Brummies and Mancunians talk, you would think they came from two distant stars.

I could bash on about this for hours. It is one of my favourite subjects. I dream of going to Shetland, where people tell me that the accent and culture is more Nordic than Scottish. But the point of it all is that even on this small set of rocks in the North Sea, there is vivid proof that ‘white’ means absolutely nothing.

You could argue that what Abbott says was racist, and people who have never liked her are hurling that word about. What bothers me most about what she said is that it is both wrong and meaningless. It is a crashing instance of an intelligent person saying a stupid thing. When someone herds humans into groups on such a superficial criterion as skin colour, it is not just bigoted; it deprives any statement of interest, complexity, nuance, meaning, and thought. It takes all the glorious variety, paradox and subtlety which flesh is heir to, and boils it down to one vapid, hollow archetype, signifying nothing.


And now for the pictures of the day:

5 Dec 1 05-01-2012 11-12-13

5 Dec 2 05-01-2012 11-12-54

5 Dec 3 05-01-2012 11-13-04

5 Dec 5 05-01-2012 11-13-47

5 Dec 6 05-01-2012 11-14-31

5 Dec 6 05-01-2012 11-15-23

5 Dec 7 05-01-2012 11-15-31

The Pigeon is in black and white today, for symbolic reasons. (No, no, only joking. It's just because it makes her look pretty.):

5 Dec 10 04-01-2012 14-32-32

5 Dec 11 04-01-2012 14-32-27

And, two hills for the price of one:

5 Dec 15 05-01-2012 11-29-16

5 Dec 16 05-01-2012 11-29-25

Oh, and I meant to say: thank you so much for the kind comments of the last few days. Have hopelessly not been replying due to post-Christmas malaise, lingering vestiges of head cold, scrabbling attempts to get back to some useful work, and general hopelessness. You know I read and love them all.


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