Half golliwogs and other UK linguistic news

« previous post | next post »

It has now become clearer that Carol Thatcher, the broadcasting personality at the center of the Gollygate scandal, was indeed talking in racist terms. It seems (see this story in The Guardian) that she not only called Congolese-French tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a golliwog (Americans often don't know this word, but it refers to a traditional style of stereotyped black-faced rag doll), and did so more than once, but also called him a "half-golliwog" and a "golliwog frog". These previously unreported details are crucial. They make it clear that it was not some innocent comment regarding visual resemblance to a children's toy. "Half-golliwog" makes it clear that she really was using "golliwog" for "person of (predominantly) negroid racial type". That's the only plausible way to make "half-golliwog" interpretable. She was referring to his mixed race, and defining him by it. That truly is racist talk. She'd call my son Calvin a half-golliwog given one more half glass of white wine.

Sadly, the British people as a whole aren't coming out of this looking very good. Messages to the BBC backing the discontinuing of Thatcher's role in The One Show number about 135 so far (a tiny number given the viewing figures). But the number of complaints attacking them for axing her have gone way over 3,000. For every person writing in to support the action against Thatcher, more than twenty people back her to the hilt. (Or appear to. Quite a lot of it is probably organized BBC-bashing by conservatives who want to strip the BBC of its license-fee income. They lash out at the BBC's management no matter what it does.)

Meanwhile, in The Daily Mail the right-wing incendiary-bomb columnist Melanie Phillips rapidly issued a wild, over-the-top rant about jobs being snatched away by the thought police for mere innocent private chat. "Does that mean therefore that any BBC employee who makes an injudicious remark to a group of colleagues anywhere in the building — in the newsroom, in the lift, in the loo even — can expect to find themselves snitched upon to the BBC commissariat and have their employment summarily terminated forthwith?", she asks rhetorically. (No, I suspect, is the answer. But loud prattle of an overtly racist nature while drinking wine on BBC premises during working hours in front of a number of semi-strangers was apparently judged beyond the pale. You'd think conservatives would want to see some standards of behavior enforced on people who are paid out of the BBC's governmentally enforced license fee income, wouldn't you?)

There are now rumors about a big article by Thatcher in the Mail On Sunday this weekend (though that would involve a judgment call on her part: she does want to do more freelance work for the BBC, and by attacking the corporation too fiercely she might be burning her bridges).

But hey, this is developing into a downer. Let's take stock of some of the UK-related linguistic good news this weekend:

  • British film actor Christian Bale has sincerely apologized for instructing his director of photography during work time last year to fucking keep the fuck out of his fucking sight line and not fucking walk around the fucking set during a fucking shot if he didn't want his fucking ass kicked, and then demanding to know what fucking part of this he didn't fucking understand. (You see, Bale was distracted while he was working, and felt impelled to remonstrate with his valued crew member for a full four minutes. Look it up on YouTube. It's not quite as hilarious as people say, so I can't be bothered to link to it.) The apology is to all of us; star and photography director are friends again now.

  • British TV personality Jeremy Clarkson has apologized for calling the prime minister Gordon Brown "a one-eyed Scottish idiot". (You see, Mr Brown lost the sight of one eye in a rugby football accident when he was young, and was born in Scotland. Clarkson is not in fact — I'm glad you asked — an expert in ocular surgery or clinical psychology; he hosts a program about driving fast cars. How he had strayed so far from his remit is not clear to me.) He says that on reflection, he apologizes for what he said about Mr Brown's appearance and ethnicity, but still says he's an idiot. Two out of three isn't bad.

  • Caroline Petrie, the nurse who was suspended for offering a prayer for a patient's health, has been allowed to return to work. (You see, in the USA, where religion is strictly excluded from government, there is government approval of faith-based health and social services; but in the UK, where religion is firmly established as a part of the governmental structure and the Queen is the head of the Church of England as well as the Head of State, you are not allowed to bring your theistic mumblings into a state-funded hospital workplace. I know it's confusing, but I don't make the rules; I just try to report the linguistic news of the week.)

So don't tell me there's no good news on the linguistic scene!

And also don't ask me why comments on this post are closed. I've mentioned British racism, Margaret Thatcher's daughter, the negro race, tennis, Congo, France, the BBC, politics, Melanie Phillips, the Daily Mail, Christian Bale, the f-bomb, Gordon Brown, idiocy, Scotland, rugby football, cars, faith-based health care, Queen Elizabeth, and the Church of England. It would be troll city down there if I opened comments. It would be an act of sheer madness. Just look at some of the off-topic rudeness and dogmatism in the comments on the earlier post. I'd rather eat a live Madagascan hissing cockroach than see a hundred comments on the above. I'd rather have a glass of white wine with Carol Thatcher.

[There's no escape from cyberspace, of course, and I'm now getting hostile email from the would-be comments trolls. One thing that I notice is that some people write as if the U.S. constitution gave people the right to permanent employment with the BBC. (The British constitution certainly can't: first, it isn't written down, and second, there are absolutely no guaranteed free speech rights in the UK.) To get continued work on a BBC TV program, it's not enough merely to avoid being arrested. You have to be personable, interesting, watchable . . . and yes, you have to respect whatever the BBC management thinks is a reasonable standard of behavior on the premises. Nobody is putting Carol Thatcher in prison for thinking that calling a young Congolese-French sportsman a "half-golliwog" in front of colleagues is funny. But the BBC has absolutely no duty to hand further freelance assignments to a woman if her own program producers think she has become an embarrassment. —GKP]

Comments are closed.