Past imperfect

"Before the screening, I made bold to ask the audience not to refrain from laughter. They were nice enough to obey my incitement"

Some nice people invited me the other day to come to the House of Commons where they were showing “An Early Life”, the first episode of The Glittering Prizes, my 1976 BBC TV mini-series about growing up in the 1950s. It was projected to tee off a discussion of today’s anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The screening was in Committee Room 14, to which we gained access as if Guy Fawkes was still rampant. 

I had not seen Waris Hussein, the director, since the series finished shooting. I had known, by inspection as philosophers used to say, that Waris was of Indian origin. So what? I never wondered about his religious persuasion. Such things belonged to the past; and, alas, to the future. Half of the episodes in my series did indeed feature a Jewish anti-hero — memorably played by Tom Conti — but it made no case for Judaism, only for that old British virtue, a kind of lazy tolerance. Byron deplored what he called “enthusy-musy”, and so did I, and do I. 

The company was elderly and eminently well-intentioned. We sat on rows of immutable benches facing each other, while the drama was projected on a short wall. Some cricked their necks to the left, some to the right. Before the screening, I made bold to ask the audience not to refrain from laughter. They were nice enough to obey my incitement, not least when Conti’s roommate produced a crucifix (he was a Roman Catholic) and asked whether he might “stick this up”; to which my alter ego replied, “Stick it up by all means.”

Would today’s censorious rulers of the BBC’s level playground ever let such a line go through? And what of the undergraduate character (no students at Cambridge in them days) who boasted that his first woman was “a black lady in Mogadishu, East Africa” (verb sap from one of my nationally serviced contemporaries)? “Best thing I ever had that left change out of a pound.”  

At question time, I sat next to a woman from Yemen, to whom I apologised for my antique want of respect. She smiled indulgently; worse things were happening where she had come from. The company had been convoked to discuss what were taken to be twin menaces today, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. I was wary of saying that the two things were not common symptoms of some singular psychic disorder, at least until one contentious member of the audience let it be known that “Gaza” was the great outrage of the day. I had to ask why he chose to pass over the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria, not to mention the Central African Republic. I then felt unecumenical enough to suggest that today’s anti-Semitism, in the Labour Party, was the consequence not of recurrent Jewish iniquity but of a political plan to make sure that millions of Muslims, nice or not so nice, were recruited to the flag being waved by Messrs Corbyn and Milne. I was given a cup of tea (no biscuit) on the House of Lords terrace, and the Lord Bird, an interesting man, walked me to the entrance to the labyrinthine Westminster Tube. Waris and I plan to meet again.

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