Mar 2004 Journal

previous article:70 Years a Brit

Corrections, please!

I am constantly amazed at the 'porkies' uttered by interviewees that go unchallenged by their interlocutors - both in newspapers and on the airwaves. Such untruths either serve a dramatic effect or obfuscate political reality. A good example of the former is the assertion by the director of Liverpool's Walker Gallery that wartime internees (a) risked being shot if they tried to escape, and (b) were prone to commit suicide (see also Interface, p.8).

Political obfuscation is an absolute growth industry nowadays, as proven by three recent examples. Oona King, MP for Tower Hamlets, has equated Gaza City with the Warsaw Ghetto (the comparison is so mind boggling that I abstain from comment). In a similar vein - and with only slightly less grandiose hyperbole - John le Carré has compared himself to Viktor Klemperer on Radio Four. The thinking behind this audacious, as well as hysterically overdramatised, trope is that, just as the great diarist of the Final Solution, who, marooned in Dresden, waited for the 'real Germans' to come back, so Carré is waiting for the real - i.e. peace-loving - Americans to come back. Last, but not least, the Rastafarian poet Benjamin Zephaniah publicly rejected the OBE on offer, saying the very expression 'British Empire' reminded him of slavery. He informed the press: 'I get angry when I hear that word "empire". It reminds me of thousands of years of brutality - it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.' Correction, please! The British Empire lasted not thousands of years, but exactly 350 - from 1600 to 1950! Moreover, the British did not introduce slavery to Africa, where it had been widely practised by warrior tribes (and Arabs) since time immemorial.

Englishmen, from the Elizabethan sea-dog Hawkins onwards, certainly did expand the abominate slave trade, and grew rich on it. But the British government was also the very first to abolish it, employing the Royal Navy to force other European powers to follow suit.

Today the British Empire lives on as the Commonwealth, within which the UK plays a hugely positive role - as evidenced by settling the murderous civil war in Sierra Leone and opposing Mugabe's enslavement of Zimbabwe.

Zephania also said he rejected the proffered OBE because he disapproved of the war on Iraq. In other words, he does not object to empires in principle: after all, Saddam saw himself as a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar, Emperor of Babylon, with Kuwait as his first conquest. This logical mismatch in the poet's mind is compounded by another. As a Rastafarian, Zephania pays obeisance to the departed shade of Ras Tafari, alias the Negus (Emperor of Abyssinia) Haile Selassie, alias Lion of Judah. If the Islamists - and even secular Arab nationalists like Assad - ever defeated the Jewish state, they would expunge ancient place-names like Jerusalem, Israel and Judah from the map.

In fact, Rastafarianism clashes with Islam not only because of its deification of the 'Lion of Judah'. Its whole laid-back - not to say drug-fuelled - lifestyle is sharply at odds with the strictly regimented and rule-bound Muslim way of life.

Readers may think I am focusing overmuch on the illogicality of a minor figure among opinion formers. However, Zephania is a 'bard of the people' in the same way as the Notting Hill Carnival is a People's Festival. As such, he could be a positive force. Instead, he blatantly distorts the historical record and simply rants, hurling anathemas and shaking his dreadlocks at such venerable Aunt Sallies as the Honours system and the personage he quaintly dubs 'Mrs Queen'.

So - no more 'porkies' please! We are kosher, or, if you prefer, halal.
Richard Grunberger

previous article:70 Years a Brit