December 12 2005

In one ican of his anything goes monologues forty years ago, Lenny Bruce said most white women would leap over 25 Charles Laughtons to get to one Harry Belafonte.
This was proof, he claimed, that there was no such thing as racism.
If only life were that simple.
A decade earlier, a group of us kids who lived in Sidney Avenue, Silkmore Lane and round about were smothering ourselves in black greasepaint and winning first prize in the on-foot section of Stafford Pageant, as Cetewayo (correct) and his Africian warriors fresh from their victory over the British at Isandlhwana.
By the time we reached Stone Flats, the common where the parade ended, sweat had streaked through our make-up so that we looked more like Zebras than Zulus. It didn’t matter because we were having the time of our lives.
Such fun would be unthinkable today.
That sort of thing has gone the way of Robinson’s golliwog badges and the Black and White Minstrel Show.
And good riddance.
It was, I suppose, all part of the sort of institutionalised racism that Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, was accusing the media of last week.
It didn’t seem like that at the time and even now, it’s difficult to understand why anyone should take offence at such innocent goings on. But better safe than sorry.
Which, I guess, is why political correctness, despite its often self-defeating daftness, has to be a Good Thing. Even so, it’s not easy to cast out demons when you’ve grown up with them.
But newspapers, TV, radio, racist? Surely not. The very idea.
Well, all right, maybe just a tad, but aren’t we all still?
The other week I bought a newspaper because it came with a DVD of The Millionairess, the 1960 film comedy which starred Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers, doing his goodness-gracious-me Indian doctor routine that helped make him an international star. It’s dated, patronising, insulting and very funny, but why should that be any more acceptable than kids blacking up as Zulus?
When my phone inquiry is switched to someone in Calcutta whose perfect command of English is disguised by an accent so strong I lose every other word, frustration produces a rage in me that would make me a danger behind the wheel of a car. But I like to think that it’s because I’m a grumpy old man, not a racist.
It’s a fine line and sometimes its difficult to see.
Lenny Bruce had a point all those years ago and, though he was pilloried for it in the media, he knew how to make it.
Sir Ian Blair also knows how to make a point. He’s no stand-up satirist, but he must have anticipated the reaction his comments on the Soham murders would receive. If he didn’t, he shouldn’t be the country’s most senior policeman.
He has since apologised to the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman for suggesting that almost nobody could understand why the girls’ killings had become “the biggest story in Britain”.
It was a crass and insensitive thing to say. But without the furore he provoked, his claim about racism dictating news coverage would probably have sunk without trace. Instead, it’s a talking point. In the media at least.


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