Thursday, 25 October 2012

Santa Smoker

A Canadian publisher is involved in a row about Father Christmas and smoking. According to The Daily Telegraph, the publisher removed a reference to Santa's pipe from the famous poem A Visit from St Nicholas, which begins: "Twas the night before Christmas". The publisher says "I don't think Santa should be smoking in the 21st century".

Santa is clearly in a bad way, it's obvious he is chain smoking his way around the world on the night before Christmas. Obviously they should add an extra verse, suggesting that smoking is bad for you:

Twas the night after Christmas, and told off by his spouse
In the rehab clinic, though he did grumble and grouse
The little old man, still madly puffing away
A nicotine addict, what would children say!

Other politically correct changes have taken place. And clearly some of them are quite justified. The Dam Busters' dog will be renamed for a new version of the classic war movie. A black Labrador was the mascot for RAF 617 squadron, and it was called "Nigger".

Stephen Fry is writing the film screen play and said: "no question in America that you could ever have a dog called the N-word". In the remake, the dog will be called "Digger" instead of "Nigger".

Another similar change came to Agatha Christie's novel "And Then There Were None", which was originally titled "Ten Little Niggers", published in 1939. In fact, even in 1940, the title in the USA, though not in Britain, was changed to the less offensive " Ten Little Indians". Less offensive, unless you were a Native American, of course, which is perhaps why it changed again to "And Then There Were None".

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in half and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Indian boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two Little Indian boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

Of course, Agatha Christie had come across the Nursery Rhyme, and it suggested to her the plot for a story in which everyone mysteriously came to this Island in Devon, and died one by one, in such a way that the police and reader had no idea who had done it, despite the fact that the list of suspects seemed to be diminishing. The Hollywood movie rather spoilt it by having the villain unmasked, and not able to complete their fiendish task.

It's debatable how racist Christie was, and you find people blogging on both sides. As far as the book goes, she was simply on the look out for a suitable plot device. Nursery rhymes were a particular favourite of hers for book titles, so that's not surprising. In the book, one character Lombard abandoned some men in Africa to die, and another character voices this remark "They were only natives". However, Lombard has been judged by the mysterious person who has brought them to the Island, and sentenced to death because of this; it is considered a crime.

Many of those people Poirot encounters mistrust him as that little foreigner, often those being the snobbish country house elite, but we are not to take that seriously, rather the reverse. It is their attitude to Poirot, whose side we are on, which is repellent, not admirable.

We must be careful not to judge Christie by her characters motivations and attitudes which quite a few of those do, or mistake irony where it occurs. The primary sources must surely be her autobiography, and the personal account "Come Tell Me How You Live", neither of which displays any racism.

As one commentator remarks on a book:

"Murder in Mesopotamia was published in 1936, a full 10 years after the disappearance.  On its surface, it is a classic Christie murder mystery but it is also one of her finest novels, with layers of cultural and historical commentary that transcend the narrow focus of her English village mysteries.  It is a delicately woven tale of the English upper middle class tourist abroad in the wonders of the Middle East and it has many shrewd things to say about imperialism and racism.  Christie was a woman who understood both these evils.  Her best writing reveals she rejected them in her heart, although by and large her irony is misunderstood and underestimated by her critics on this point." (1)

Incidentally, Johnny Speight had a similar problem on TV with the character of Alf Garnet in "Till Death Us Do Part", where the irony was lost on many people, unlike the terrible sledgehammer approach of "Love Thy Neighbour", one of the most dreadful TV series.

"The Black and White Minstrels" would be completely unacceptable today, and "Mind Your Language" where foreigners are stereotypes would probably not go down well. "Allo Allo" managed to get away with the very broadly drawn stereotypes, because we sympathise with Rene, a Frenchman, and the Englishmen are silly-ass stereotypes.

In the area of religion, "Onward Christian Soldiers" has been changed to "Onward Christian Pilgrims" as being rather too militaristic, although the following verse does say "Marching as to War", not marching to war. That's possibly a less forgivable change, especially as Paul's Letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament extols the reader to "put on the whole armour of God", including the "shield of faith" and the "sword of truth", so the metaphor is deep seated within the New Testament.

One verse of "All Things Bright and Beautiful" is usually dropped

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Now that's clearly a reference to the parable of the rich man and the beggar (as Maurice Frost points out in a letter in her defence), where the rich man has duties to serve the beggar, and goes to hell for failing to do so. Mrs Alexander and her audience would have had that in mind, but we've lost that contextual familiarity with the New Testament, and so it seems to be promoting the status quo and class divide.

As Arthur Wallace points out, it is too open to misconstruction, which perhaps is also the case with "Onward Christian Soldiers", which can be seen as overtly militaristic.

Political correctness is a difficult issue, and what seems acceptable in the past may seem less so in the present. I suspect though, that the present has its own prejudices, which are probably too close for us to see them closely. So while we may reconsider Santa smoking, we should perhaps also look to see what the fashionable and acceptable vices are today - those that we don't consider vices.


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