BLOG Nigel Jarrett


Calling a Manual Earth-lifting Device a Spade

Writers who are prepared to be pushed around don’t deserve the name. If they wish to support the Communists on Monday, the Tories on Wednesday, and the Lib Dems at the weekend, it should be up to them. Ditto Sharia Law in multi-denominational societies and bullfighting. Possibly looking ridiculous, or not, is their prerogative. Once they start bowing to pressure, the freedom necessary for them to observe, consider, and write about anything they choose – the definition of what a writer should be – is eroded. So, political correctness landed on their desks like a bludgeon. PC is what happens when others dictate unofficially what can and cannot (or should and should not) be said.

Writers do succumb to avoid ostracism by a literary circle incapable of understanding complexity. Some have told me that, since the Brexit issue, they’ve been worried by the way Leave supporters among them have been cast as reactionary and Remainers (like me, as it happens) as progressive. EU membership is one of those subjects that comes along now and again to test the writer’s shibboleths. Overnight the writing community, hitherto bound by literary interests and scarcely troubled by the need to engage actively in politics, was reminded that the focus of its zeitgeist is unspokenly left-of-centre and buoyed almost entirely on cursorily examined assumptions. If you espoused Brexit you were immediately cast as a regressive and all your writing pored over for evidence that had previously been missed; worse, you were sidelined or ex-communicated. Of course, those doing the poring and side-lining considered themselves superior. How could it be otherwise? To demean others is to raise one’s own moral stature.

Few of the Remainer scribes for whom Leave writers were, ipso facto, to be downgraded, had any idea that there was a respectable and long-standing objection to EU membership or that, embarrassingly for them, it had its provenance in their own region of political sympathies. Had they forgotten about Tony Benn? Perhaps they didn’t realise it because, as writers, they were suspicious of politicians, as all writers should be, and in having to concentrate on an issue that was political rather than vaguely reformist or liberal, they were out of their depth. In this country and its English-speaking confrères, the Left-leaning of most writers is often indicated by the marginalisation of those such as Roy Campbell, Henry Williamson, Wyndham Lewis, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, CHSisson, and AN Wilson (his admirers call him Andrew Wilson), to name a few at random across the generations, who do not pass muster morally or politically. No LoC writers are so shunned; the Soviet Union first embraced and then spurned Alan Sillitoe, a working-class writer who wrote what he liked.

It’s a view that was blown to pieces (or impossibly compounded, depending on one’s position) by John Carey in his 1992 book The Intellectuals and the Masses. Carey showed how untouchable literary icons such as DH Lawrence, HG Wells, and Virginia Woolf, alongside lesser figures such as George Gissing, were alt-Right or worse in regarding the plebeian hordes as uneducable and an eyesore. Wells, in particular, took a pasting, as it was easy to suggest that the shape of things to come was inimical and of an offensive philosophic hue. ‘I hate common humanity,’ Wells wrote, ‘This oafish crowd which tramples the ground whence my cloud-capped pinnacles might rise.’ Eliot’s anti-Semitism, oft disputed, has not led to his work’s removal from university syllabuses, though the question mark that began hovering over him as it did over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, will not go away. Students who wanted the Rhodes statue removed because it ‘celebrated’ the legacy of imperialism lost the day, though the lapidary old boy remains steel-caged against those who would deface him.

For its detractors, the removal of the Rhodes statue would have been a victory for PC. The point about political incorrectness is that it gives offence, either directly to the people described or, by stages removed, towards historical victims of prejudice. It’s one of the reasons why using the term ‘handicapped’ to describe the physically or neurologically challenged, and ‘coloured’ to describe non-Caucasians are now antérieur, the former because it’s considered clodhopperly, the latter because of the term’s association with apartheid. Work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd had to apologise this year after referring to Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott as ‘coloured’. Whatever one thought of Rudd the person or the politician, no-one believed she was driven by malice; but it was considered a further insult to a woman who receives racial insults daily on social media. The problem is that loaded terms are ever-shifting. Rudd simply hadn’t kept up. ‘Negro’ had became ‘coloured’ which had become ‘black’ which had become ‘person of colour’. How many know that ‘Afro-American’ to describe American ‘people of colour’ is now passé, having ceded to ‘African American’? Maybe ‘people of colour’ is on the way out. Terminology is still fluid; get it wrong and the semantic police will be on your tail, especially if you are a writer.

Only flippant scribes or worse would choose not to consider the way that language or subject-matter can give offence. At the same time, if they’re worth anything at all, their right to offend has to be affirmed otherwise they might decide to avoid the controversial or decline to describe another writer’s book as ‘a travesty’ or ‘an insult to the intelligence’. Assuming they were being honest, anything less would be an evasion of the truth, or what they believe is the truth. Political correctness is often euphemistic, as when embattled governments describe the avoidable or accidental killing of civilians in war as ‘collateral damage’. Plain-speaking and plain words are always to be preferred; fearlessness, too, when confronted by dictatorship of all kinds.

Nigel Jarrett won the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts Prize. He’s had a novel, a poetry collection, and two collections of stories published. He is represented in the Library of Wales’ anthology of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Welsh short fiction.


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