13 June, 2011


The past is another country, they do things differently there

The wee linguistic controversy about the remake of the The Dambusters is back in the news. Though to judge from the linked Mail article, it's difficult to see what the fuss is about. I hadn't realized that the asterisk was now a recognized element of standard English orthography but, that being the case, I really don't understand why "N*gger", however that may be pronounced, reportedly the name of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson's dog, is even remotely offensive or "controversial".

Or do they actually mean "Nigger"?

Which is part of the problem, of course. The now mandatory precious linguistic pussy-footing makes effective discussion barely possible. It's just as well the Mail piece is in print rather than spoken. Can you imagine a recorded television discussion on taboo language?

— Of course you can't say bleep these days because it is considered unacceptably offensive. However, bleep, and even bleeping bleep bleep, are considered marginally acceptable in colloquial use among people of socioeconomic classes C2DE.

— I see. So, essentially, Professor Scumb, despite all your fine talk, you're just another racist bleep apologist.

— If that's how you feel, you bleep, you can go and bleep yourself, you bleeping bleep. And your bleeping sister.

It's a bit like playing the traditional game of Tweets and Superinjunctions but more frustrating.

Anyway, Longrider represents my views eloquently in his post on this little brouhaha, so I won't rehearse them here, save to retell my own anecdote about the original Dambusters fillum.

I first saw The Dambusters in 1958 or possibly '59. A chappie from some local RAF veteran's association turned up at my primary school and the lads* of Junior 4 were given a peptalk and a screening of the film. To be honest I don't specifically remember Guy Gibson's dog being called "Nigger". Which is very much the point. My ten-year-old sensibilities were not traumatized by repeated exposure to this terrible word; I scarcely even noticed it any more than had the dog's name and the derived operational codeword been "Fido".

At that time "Nigger" was a very common name for any all-black dog or cat. Indeed if all of the animal's fur was uniformly black — entirely devoid of any white socks, white chest patch or similar deviations — then it was damned nearly a statutory requirement to name the animal "Nigger". I was personally acquainted with several such beasties.

It is fair to acknowledge that historical drama may benefit from a bit of linguistic and cultural translation as a matter of practicality to make it "accessible" to a modern audience — you can't expect the audience to learn Middle English in order to follow your excruciatingly authentic production of The Canterbury Tales. But the petty squeamishness of "redacting" or bowdlerizing the name "Nigger" is of a different stripe. It sees historical events through the lens of current prejudices and mores and thus fails to understand them in context. Better to hand the project over to Disney and have done with it.

I attempted to leave a comment on Longrider's post, by the way, but his spam filter took exception to it. I don't have the patience to systematically second-guess the idiosyncracies of spam filters, so I will post it below instead:

Another commenter had opined:
It all seems slightly ironic considering that our forces were fighting Nazism doesn’t it.
to which I wanted to reply
Were they, though? I thought the Second War was about unfinished, largely territorial, business left over from the First, exacerbated by the effects of the Great Depression and the half-baked Versailles settlement. The retrospective idea that it was all an epic struggle fought by reluctant clean-cut lantern-jawed heroes to vanquish Nazi ideology is as much a projection of modern prejudices and wishful thinking onto history as the Nigger/Digger business.

As far as pandering to the Americans goes, why not go the whole hog and make Barnes Wallis a nutty prof from Noo Yoik and Guy Gibson a Texan maverick heading up a team of Dirty Dozen style renegades flying B-29s? You know it makes sense.

Oh, and just to let you know, I have reluctantly decided not to proceed with my plan to get myself a cat, an uncompromisingly all-black cat which would of course be named "Nigger", so that I could then legitimately stand on the front doorstep each evening and call the wee beastie home in a very loud voice.

Regrettably, in these barbarous and unenlightened times, I suspect my motives would be misunderstood — or possibly all too well understood — both by the public authorities and by the increasingly numerous local Nigerian population.

O tempora, o testiculi!

* Lads? Lest readers with feminist sensibilities become agitated at this point, I should explain that in those far-off days many schools were segregated by gender from the age of seven. The infants' department (ages 5 and 6) was co-educational, or mixed as they said then, but in junior school (7 - 11) boys and girls were educated separately. Now whether or not a Dambusters screening was also arranged for the Junior 4 girls in the "other" school in the name of equality, I cannot say. In 1958/59? Draw your own conclusions.

Edwin; if Prof Scumb needs a research assistant please put in a word for me- I do possess a decent History degree. Does the Prof. know that, as late as the 1960s, it was possible to buy knitting wool in hosiery/haberbashery outlets in a colour called 'nigger brown' ? Quite when this shocking term fell into disuse has never been established with any certainty. If however he were able to release adequate research funding in my direction I'd happily find out for him. The offhand use of such a term within living memory by the 'white British' knitting fraternity is surely evidence of the extent to which this ethnic group is prone to the excesses of genocidal racism- as I'm sure Yasmin Alibhai-Brown would agree.

As a parallel exercise I could also make a sensitive study, under Prof Scumb's guidance, of the minutes of editorial meetings held by the Beeb relating to the promotion, and eventual demise of, the 'Black & White Minstrel Show'. (Why should Dominic Sandbrook monopolise this rich vista of recent social history ?)

Popular culture up until at least 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' provides such a rich seam of potential evidence of indigenuous wickedness- and Prof Scumb I'm sure needs all the expert help he can get in revealing it to a wider audience. Modern day Brits must be reminded constantly of how far we have advanced since the dark days of the previous century !

My mother was a textile designer. Which is not as grand as it sounds, since much of her work consisted of backroom tasks like converting the efforts of fancy-pants know-it-all young tarts with design "qualifications" into patterns which could actually be printed by the rollers of a standard fabric printer (nominal 16-inch repeat if I recall correctly).

One of my childhood tasks, from age 11, was to go down into Manchester to purchase supplies of the gouache paint she used. I can't be 100% certain for the reason alluded to in the OP — namely that it was an everyday matter of no consequence — but I'm pretty sure one of the colours was Nigger Brown.

There was also Eau de Nil of course, a pale slightly iridescent green reminiscent of stagnant pondwater, which is presumably now considered an odious slur on the good folk of Egypt.

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