Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Straight Outta Chipping Norton

I do enjoy a good newspaper juxtaposition, not least because it isn't always clear whether it's the product of unconscious affinity or subversive editorial humour. Page 5 of today's Guardian carried two stories: one revealing that And Then There Were None, in which various invitees to a mysterious island gathering are serially bumped off, has been voted Agatha Christie's most popular whodunnit; and another revealing Anthony Horowitz's chagrin that his assessment of Idris Elba as "too street" for the potential role of the first black James Bond has caused offence. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the American writer whose newly-published book, Between the World and Me, suggests he is currently in a pessimistic and sensitive place, called-out the Brit thus: "Just be honest and say ‘James Bond’s being white is important to me’ and be done with it ... Elba is ‘too street’ in much the same way that Obama was ‘too foreign,’ and King was ‘too communist". Horowitz insisted on his anti-racist credentials by claiming that he simply preferred the "suave" Adrian Lester for the role. In other words: I'm not racist, I just don't like the rough boys.

Christie's tale was originally published as Ten Little Niggers in the UK in 1939, reflecting the "... and then there were none" rhyme used as a framing device for the plot. The title was changed for the US publication in 1940, an alteration often attributed to the word "nigger" being deemed offensive in America, though this was surely as much about the class connotations for the target audience of white, middle-class readers - i.e. a belief that the term was common and lacking decorum - rather than any incipient sense of interracial solidarity. The US stage adaptation of 1946 would use the title Ten Little Indians, which was also employed for the 1965 film version, at which point the N-word would certainly have been inflammatory. The Native American protests would not start to bite until the 70s, with the last publication of the alternate title being in 1986. The last English-language version to employ the original title was published in the UK in 1977 (oh, how we laughed). NWA's debut album, Straight Outta Compton, which popularised the modern recuperation of "nigga", would be released in 1988. Coincidentally, their group-biopic of the same name came out last week.

What was notable about the Guardian article was that it didn't refer to the significance of the title of Christie's book at all. There's a weird parallel here with Straight Outta Compton. Peter Bradshaw's review of the film briefly acknowledged the group's full title, and their adoption of a "retail-friendly contraction", but the separate assessment of the film's historical accuracy didn't. While it highlighted the group's misogyny (which the film appears to structurally reflect by having no substantial female characters) and antagonistic relationship with the police, it skipped the role of race in NWA's rise and the provocative nature of their name. Equally absent is the "performative capitalism" of gangsta rap - the glorification of abuse and waste that can be read as either an ironic criticism of American society and mores, or as the recuperation of an older conservative social form, modelled equally on the popular culture image of the Italian Mafia and the sexual politics of Blues and Soul, by the growing black middle-class.

Over the years, Christie's work has been repeatedly edited to remove the most objectionable racist and antisemitic phrases, though plenty of casual offence remains, not least because Christie's technique required her to echo contemporary prejudices rather than challenge the reader: women just want husbands, gypsies are malign, foreigners (Belgians excepted) are untrustworthy, and homosexuals are unreliable. Given that her milieu is one of reactionary snobbery and the fetishisation of property, and that she started writing in the 1920s, it would be a surprise if it were otherwise. Though she toned these prejudices down after the Second World War (she would keep writing until 1973), one thing that didn't change with the times was her attitude towards the lower orders, which ran the gamut from patronising to contemptuous. Her only stab at ventriloquising a working class character, in Endless Night in 1967, ends by revealing that the narrator is a money-obsessed homicidal maniac (even this plot-twist is a case of "aping one's betters", as it echoes the earlier and more celebrated The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

The Guardian's sensitivity to racism, and its assertive championing of gender equality, are good in and of themselves, but this scrupulousness serves to highlight the paper's tone-deafness when it comes to class. This is a wider failing that affects the increasingly segregated  private-school and Oxbridge-educated media and professional elite, rather than the speciality of one newspaper, which - in fairness - they are only too happy to deplore (while not lifting a finger to do anything about - they have to think of the children). A fascinating insight into this, and how it appears to non-Brits, has been provided by the emails recently released by Hillary Clinton. One, from Sidney Blumenthal (a former aide of Bill Clinton), describes Nick Clegg during the coalition as having: "inbred arrogance (from no less a privileged background than Cameron, though seeming less snobbish because he went to Westminster instead of Eton)". Blumenthal is no less of an elitist, but it is significant how much explanatory emphasis he places on Clegg's schooling.

I think it still surprises many Brits to discover just how off-kilter the international understanding of our country is. The gap between image and reality is probably the same for all countries, but the specific direction it takes - where that image sits relative to reality - is perhaps more significant. This in't just a chronological failure to get beyond the Beatles or Maggie Thatcher, nor is it simple ignorance - e.g. the belief that the Queen has a say in government policy, or confusion over which state Northern Ireland is a part of. Rather it is a superficial knowledge, which is both accurate and incomplete, that manages to be insightful because it isn't mediated by our native consoling myths and unstated assumptions. In other words, the common image of the UK as a toff-run bastion of privilege and anachronistic tradition is a case of the emperor's new clothes. While we convince ourselves that declining social mobility is a live issue, rather than the consequence of a battle that ended 30 years ago, and point to poly-dropout Jeremy Corbyn as evidence that all is not lost, the rest of the world sees a state in the hands of a social elite that would not be out of place in a prewar Agatha Christie story.


  1. I think you've hit the nail on the nead here.

    The Idris Elba/Bond issue reminds me in a way of the 'controversy' when the makers of Midsomer Murders tried to defend the lack of ethnic diversity on the programme by suggesting that it would not reflect rural life if black people were on the show. Given that Bond and Midsomer make very few concessions to reality, it does still demonstrate the dominance of upper/middle-class conceptions of 'Britishness' rather than any out-and-out racism, though it is still a Britishness that has a problem accepting minorities of any kind except socio-economic ones.

  2. Straight out of Asgard. The Guardian also touches on Elba as Norse God in this article about Heathcliffe. Makes Horowitz's remarks seem wilfully unguarded given the fuss that time.

  3. Herbie Kills Children3 September 2015 at 17:27

    The reason you wouldn't want a working class James Bond is that it is unlikely you would get one in real life!

    This cuts to an issue, should art reflect reality or try to reflect what you would like reality to be.

    If it is the latter I would like to see no James Bond!

    If we then say, yes but art should allow for black people to have the same opportunities as white people etc, then you are in danger of turning art into a diversity project. where this overrides the actual content. But I guess this could give art some actual living power. i just think the issue needs looking at from all sides.

    1. The point I was trying to make is that since Bond is totally unrealistic (and was even during the Cold War) you could quite easily get a black man to play the part, because it would hardly require you to suspend disbelief. The reason you wouldn't want a black (or working class) Bond (unless you're a hard core racist) is if you subscribe to an essentially upper/middle class myth about how Britain was and should be, or some kind of nostalgist for Empire.

      Personally I could easily do without James Bond.