Sunday, 11 February 2007

NEVER A WOG!

Ruminating on old friends now passed on - an inevitable occupation at my age - the current total unacceptability of verbally expressed racism reminds me of the funniest letter I ever received. It came from a college friend, older than me, who had served as an NCO in the Eighth Army during WW2 and whilst doing so had formed a low opinion of the inhabitants of North Africa, to whom he habitually referred - as was then the patronising British fashion - as "Wogs" [= wily oriental gentlemen].

Once, after he had held forth at somewhat too great length on this subject, I wrote to him tongue-in-cheek, gently reminding him that one of my grandfathers hailed from what is now the Lebanon, and that therefore I was, at least partly, a Wog. To this he replied with total solemnity: "I had not forgotten your antecedents, but I can assure you that I have always thought of you as a friend, and never as a Wog." His obliviousness to the implications of his remark struck me as so hilarious that I laughed until I cried. I decided that if I ever wrote my autobiography I would call it Never a Wog.

Despite his oddities of sometimes extreme opinion, which often caused considerable amusement because of the vehemence with which he expressed himself, this lifelong friend was one of the kindest people I have known, and was always ready to lend a helping hand to anyone in trouble. Such are the vagaries of human nature.

18 comments:

lavenderblue said...

Wonderful !
Enjoyed that, thank you !

ben trovato said...

According to Wikipedia, "Most dictionaries say 'wog' either possibly or likely derives from the generic term golliwog after the Golliwogg, a "grotesque" blackface minstrel doll-character from a children's book published in 1895. Various facetious explanations include the claim that it originated from acronyms for "Western/Westernized/Wily/Worthy Oriental/Orientated Gentleman" or variants thereof, or for "Workers of Government", "Wards of Government" or "Warden on Guard", used to refer to early immigrants into the United Kingdom. Such attempts to explain the word's origin are generally considered apocryphal and examples of backronyms.

lavenderblue said...

Ben, I have a Golliwog !
A knitted one.
Dates back to Great Aunt Pleasance I believe.
I do remember her having a 'Blackamoor' - is that the right word /spelling ? in her parlour.....

trousers said...

One thing which I find difficult with Spike Milligan's writings, with particular to his military memoirs, is his use of such terms - collectively they were "wogs", yet in his accounts of his interactions with individuals (again during his time in North Africa) he often speaks of them with great respect, tenderness and humanity. The disappointing thing is that he too just does not seem willing or able to see the glaring contradiction.

trousers said...

sorry, that should of course read "with particular reference"

anticant said...

There was much less sensitivity to Political Correctness in those days. Terms such as "wog" and even "nigger" were widely used as unselfconscious descriptions, without any insulting or denigrating intention.

I'm not saying that we should still do this, or that some consciousness-raising wasn't necessary, but I do think that the current mealy-mouthed PC fad of frowning upon, or even legislating sgainst, people saying what they honestly think, even when they don't know any better than to be uncouth, has gone much too far. You don't change people's views by censoring their freedom of speech.

Szwagier said...

There was me so busy with real life I hadn't realised you'd disappeared and returned, anticant. A regular Cheshire cat.

Sticking with the Alice in Wonderland theme, and the point of the thread, it's all down to the Humpty Dumpty argument again, isn't it. Certain sequences of sounds are only offensive because someone chooses to take offence at them.

I never had a particular problem with Milligan talking about wogs, or krauts, or whatever. Although if you really want to take him to task, I'd suggest there was more venom in the word 'kraut' than 'wog'.

Every grouping thinks, to some extent at least, that it's superior to every other, so it's unsurprising that language should reflect that.

I was about to start a rant at this point, but I'm not sure if that's against the rules now, so I'll save it.

zola said...

Anybody know where "Raghead" came from?
I used to drink a a pub named THE NAGS HEAD but that may have nothing to do with it.
Spent too long at sea I did.

lavenderblue said...

An ethnic slur used against Arabs,Muslims and Indian Sikhs.Also - Ragtop and Towel Head.

zola said...

sounds a bit like me cloth cap to me

trousers said...

I take your points, Szwag and Anticant - but (as regards Milligan specifically) it remains something I'm personally uncomfortable with.

Szwagier said...

What about Elvis Costello and his "white nigger" lyric? Is that uncomfortable? And if not why not/ I'm quite curious.

On the topic of Milligan, I have a video of "Best of Q" and, boy, is that uncomfortable viewing. Spike all blacked up and talking in a 'funny' accent...

trousers said...

The Costello thing isn't uncomfortable for me because it's not something I choose to listen to so it doesn't have any impact on me. Plus I haven't read into the context whether it might be used in an ironic way for example.

I grew up watching and reading Spike Milligan and came back to his military memoirs last year: for me aspects of what he writes has the same effect on me as what you mention about the Q sketches. I don't think it's just about the language, hence I think your earlier point is fair enough. And I emphasise the personal aspect of it - it may well say far more about me than about Milligan: in many respects it might be like listening to a certain song you treasured when you were much younger. When you listen to it again after years and years you hear (in this case) what you perceive as the flaws and weaknesses and it undermines it, its never quite the same again.

Let me know if this makes ANY sense.

anticant said...

Milligan was a PROFESSIONAL COMIC for heaven's sake. Why do you take him so seriously? He said, and wrote, what he thought would make people laugh. Times and sensibilities change. The communication is the message received. Many things that were perfectly acceptable 20 or 30 years ago would be frowned on today, while much that passes for humour now would have appalled your parents and grandparents.

trousers said...

But he was much more than a professional comic. A musician, a painter, a writer, involved with the Manic Depression Fellowship - I've read a lot about his experiences with depression. Plenty there for me to have had a lot of respect for him, which may be why what I've mentioned in the thread has the effect that it does.

But = I don't take it as seriously as it might sound. I've found the above to be thought provoking, I hope that's not a problem, hence my comments. It doesn't exactly keep me awake at night - very little does, more's the pity.

anticant said...

If we lost sleep over all the things there are to be worried about, we'd never sleep at all!

zola said...

Lets walk backwards for Christmas across the Irish Sea.

trousers said...

Indeed.