Comedian David Baddiel recently commented that his last play had every line scrutinised to see whether it might offend or ‘trigger’ anyone on the grounds of race, gender or disability. Strangely, he wasn’t bothered at all and wants more policing of our language. Last February, his book, Jews Don’t Count, argued that antisemitic bias remains largely unpoliced and this week complained about a character in a play being named Hershel Fink. Apparently as Fink was rich and unpleasant that amounted to ‘Jewish stereotyping.’ The theatre immediately apologised and agreed to change the name, admitting that the mistake had been made due to ‘unconscious bias,’ a condition as yet unidentified by doctors and psychiatrists.
His attitude seemed was odd to me as I worked in newspapers where the subs who chopped and changed your work were the enemy. Nice ones would offer to ‘cut from the top rather than the bottom,’ so you might lose your great intro but keep your killer last line, either way any self-respecting writer hated them. They did their evil work, removing jokes and nuance, to fit everything needly onto the page. There are few subs left now as no one cares if howlers appear and advertising copy rules. Editors in publishing houses have also gone. Bastions of experience such as Diana Athill and Carmen Callil, are no longer needed as digital publishing shoves the writer straight in front of an audience. In 2005, poet Blake Morrison noted that, ‘When a book appears, the author must take the credit. But if editing disappears, as it seems to be doing, there’ll be no books worth taking the credit for.’
Writing now, whether books or drama, and even painting is more approved of as a collaborative effort, assisted by a collective of advisors making sure the end product displays enough respect for equality, diversity and inclusion, and if funding is involved, clearly demonstrates a commitment to the idea that racism is all pervasive, like a virus carried by every white British person. In place of grumpy old subs and boozy editors we have installed an army of thought police. This extends to words written by the art curators. The National Gallery’s Gauguin show, 2019, labelled every painting, misogynist, racist and colonialist, and even paedophile. ‘Is it time to stop looking at Gauguin altogether?’ was the first question visitors heard on the audio guide. His work now comes under that key woke term, ‘Problematic.’ Even jolly old Hogarth, at least according to an exhibition starting at Tate Britain, is suspect. ‘His social criticism served insidiously to sustain the status quo,’ argues the Tate. No longer the urban radical, ‘Hogarth’s freedom of opinion, his critical freedom, might seem to be something to defend,’ warns the Tate, but: ‘Enlightenment ideas were mainly produced by and benefiting white men. The concept of European superiority deepened, entrenching ideas about nation, personal identity and racial different, manifested in the horrors of transatlantic slavery.’
Suspect his critical freedom and Enlightenment values, nothing of the British past can be trusted is bellowed from the walls of the first room you enter and repeated throughout. His sketches of servants, previously admired for their tenderness represent, ‘The inequities of race and social status.’ He’s even guilty of choosing racist furniture. By a self- portrait in a mahogany chair, a captious caption reads: ‘Could the chair stand in for all those unnamed black people enabling the society that supports his creativity?’
That isn’t the first-time furniture has been accused of racism. In 2020, Cambridge University posted a lecture by Elaine Freedgood, a Professor of English specialising in ‘critical theory, Marxist, postcolonial and queer,’ on ‘Casual racism in Victorian literature.’ She encourages students to, ‘See colonialism and the slave trade in the mahogany furniture in Jane Eyre.’ Claiming her essay aimed ‘To take seriously the casual racism we so commonly encounter in Victorian novels.’ If you admire the work of our classic artists and writers, it’s made clear that you yourself are ‘problematic.’ No wonder Hogarth’s pug the aptly named Trump is sticking his tongue out. ‘Hogarth cancelled,’ as the FT review put it.
We maybe witnessing the death of Britain as a literary, theatrical culture. Reviewing a play in 1956, Kenneth Tynan commented joyously on language: ‘Out on a spree, ribald, dauntless, and spoiling for a fight.’ It’s good that he’s not alive to see the way it’s now shrinking, impoverished, policed and curtailed. In 1642 the Puritans closed all the theatres, worried about ‘frivolous lies and Catholic propaganda.’ They didn’t reopen until 1660 when the frivolous Charles II regained the throne. There followed a golden age of the most capricious, silly and satirical plays ever written. I can only hope that some of my friends and I will be around in eighteen years’ time to see if we, in post-woke recovery can regain the theatre, read novels and visit galleries again.