Sunday, January 4, 2009
On ciggies, race and toilet humour…
I have been reading Simon Gray’s final memoirs, written just before he died in 2008, called, appropriately The Last Cigarette and the last in The Smoking Diaries series. It’s a bitter sweet, funny and dark affair. A sort of extended blog, a stream of consciousness which includes many a vitriolic diatribe against people, events and the forces of the state. It’s unusual in that he was a very liberal grumpy old man and so his targets sit relatively comfily within my own sights. He sometimes homes in on prey which also makes an old socialist like myself uneasy. Particularly when it comes to language and what has become socially unacceptable. For example, some deputy police chief from the London Met stated recently that it was unacceptable to use a sentence that contained both the words, Islam and terrorist. Gray gave a whole list of paradoxical sentences to show the idiocy of this, the best being the policeman’s very own!
“It is unacceptable to use a sentence that contains the words Islam and terrorist.”
Language is a slippery old beast and, as Derrida pointed out, has a habit of leaking meanings that the author desperately tries to curtail. As anyone who has attempted to create a survey questionnaire will know, unambiguous questions and statements are very hard to come by. If a statement is shifted into a new cultural context, then further complications arise. As was discovered by my partner, who, when in London, was talking to some social worker or other and mentioned half-caste friends of hers (she being quarter-caste but seemingly white). She was duly reprimanded for being non pc, whereupon she snapped back that she had every right to use the term since in Ghana it was part of the fabric of language. Ignorant professionals in the UK should research cultural contexts a bit more and pontificate a bit less. On the other hand, a woman once came to her door in England, asking to speak to her mother, ‘the mulatto’. Now this term, being derived from the slave trade is deeply offensive. In Ghana, as in many parts of the world, there is a consciousness of skin colour which defies western attempts to deem what may or may not be acceptable. C. L. R. James, in ”The Black Jacobins” on Haitian culture, suggests that at the time of writing, there were a hundred and forty descriptors covering variations in skin pigmentation, currently in use. So far, in Accra I haven’t felt discrimination against my white skin, at all. But then it is not white-white but a subtle bronzed sallowness that probably originates from my being born in India. I’d call it beech, myself….
One or two other bits and pieces that have caught my eye over the last few days. A programme on Ghana TV this morning, advertising ‘style’ showed a happy family around a table and on chairs, all of which were, apparently, modish. On the table there was an array of matched china but, right in the middle there was a small black plastic bag containing something bought for their meal. This ubiquitous bag, which is used to sell everything, except goods in the classier mall shops, has a somewhat amusing, if macabre name here, “head in a bag”.
Meanwhile, the election is finally over after the protracted run off for the Presidency. Ghana is the oldest democracy in Africa and has done its citizens proud. As I write there has been no insurrection. The conservatives are out after eight years and the socialists are in, and the latter are making exactly the right noises about integrated, inclusive government. The new President spoke gravely and well. There will be no victimisation of those who supported the last incumbents. Let us hope not. One amusing incident in this otherwise serious and uplifting set of events, was the ‘vacuous’ question posed by a studio anchor woman to her roving reporter who was at the count in an outlying small town. “There must be a lot of people, media, political and so on there. Have they enough conveniences to cope? He stared back into the camera but could not remain straight faced. “Around here, there is a lot of bush,” he responded, cracking up, “But I am not checking on the coming and going.”