Joseph Conrad – Very un PC

Niranjana (BrownPaper) wrote a post recently about books that ‘suck’, in retrospect and Biggles books are apparently in that category. Now I’ve never read a Biggles book as I was brought up in that era where girls were kept away from anything really exciting and supposedly ‘boyish’. I know that we have at least one Biggles book in the house which was my husband’s but as usual I can’t find it.


However, in my searching I did discover this one by Joseph Conrad which as you can see has what we now think of as a shocking title. This is one of the many books which we’ve inherited from dead relatives. It’s a sad fact that we’ve had to do at least four house clearances within our families – parents, grandparents and even a great aunt who had no children, so we’ve accumulated a lot of old books over the years.

My husband’s grandad was the Conrad fan and I’m sure that ‘the n word’ was one which he would never have used as he was a well educated church minister. The book was first published in 1897 but that isn’t really much of an excuse. I know that John Buchan wrote ‘the n word’ occasionally, but it was always put in the mouth of an ill-educated rough kind of character, who obviously didn’t know any better.

Anyway, on the bright side, I like to think and hope that things have improved since those days. In Scotland this is Black History Month which is an annual celebration which aims at bringing the various cultures of Scotland together.

To Kill a Mockingbird and stuff.

Judith at Reader in the Wilderness has been blogging about To Kill a Mockingbird recently, and then, as often happens, she discovered that this is a special year for it, the 50th anniversary of its publication. As it is one of my favourite books I thought I would write a wee bit about it.

I first read the book in the summer of 1971, I had just turned 12 and I was in Germany, Bavaria actually, visiting my pen-pal Jutta for the first time. Her English was not great and my German was nearly non-existent then and I was there on my own so it was quite a difficult, lonely visit.

Thankfully, an American had visited the village the year before and had left their copy of To Kill a Mockingbird behind, so I was given it to read. I absolutely loved it although it was so unfair and I hated what happened to Tom, but it is the only book which I have ever got to the end of and started reading again almost immediately.

It’s not only against racism, but about intolerance of anyone who is different. So when Scout begins to mock Walter a dinner guest, the housekeeper Calpurnia gives her a row for it. If people want syrup on their meat and vegetables, it doesn’t make them any less of a person. My mum would have skelped me into the next week if I had behaved like Scout. Boo, the neighbourhood ‘bogey man’ turns out to be the life saver and a good soul, a victim of a tormented childhood. As was Mayella, life wasn’t all wine and roses just because you were white.

The book is a lesson on how to behave towards people who are different from yourself. Treat everyone as you yourself would wish to be treated.

Some years later I saw the film starring Gregory Peck. The whole thing was so well cast, even the kids were great. Then it was a set book in high school, so it was a shock to me to find out that it isn’t taught in Alabama, apparently the excuse is that as it is the only book which Harper Lee wrote, there is no body of work to study. In my opinion To Kill a Mockingbird has more than enough in it to be getting on with.

Growing up in a small town in the west of Scotland in the 60s meant that I personally had no experience of racism, everybody in the town was white. The big problem there is religion with the Roman Catholic church insisting that they be given money to run their own schools instead of using the normal state schools like everybody else, meaning that there is religious segregation, which is not a good thing.

However, during World War 2 my dad was in the Merchant Navy and he had spent 6 months in New York when the ship he was on needed to have work done on it. It must have been between 1939 and 42, before America was in the war and dad had a very enjoyable time there, especially in Harlem because there were lots of street musicians and dancers, which he loved.

So when he was in a diner with one of his shipmates, they were surprised to be asked to leave. The problem was that they had chosen to eat in a diner which was for black people only. They hadn’t noticed that everybody else was black and apparently some of the regulars were upset by their inadvertent intrusion.

When dad told me that story I was just a wee girl and I thought how terrible it must have been for my really mild-mannered dad to be chucked out of somewhere, but they completely understood and after all it was nothing to the way black people were being treated routinely.

Racism caught up with me though when we moved to England in the late 70s and as a Scot I was not exactly welcomed with open arms. My husband worked for a Malaysian company and was treated as very much a second class citizen compared with the Malaysian workers.

On the other hand, as a Scot, when you go abroad you are in danger of being hugged in the street by complete strangers if they realise that you are Scottish. It happens in France, Norway and Holland, something to do with Scottish soldiers at the end of WW2 I believe. It’s a bit of a shock the first time it happens to you.

So racism and bigotry come in all shapes and sizes and there are laws now to help fight against such evils. In Britain it is common to be tormented by idiots if you happen to be a redhead and there is no law against that. So you go through school being picked on and judged because of the colour of your hair and there are even advertising campaigns in which the so called ‘ginger’ person is ridiculed.

Although I was never a Michael Jackson fan, I did agree completely with him when he said: “I’m not going to spend my life being a colour.” Yes, I’ve got red hair or as my mum called it, strawberry blonde.

What a long meander – back to the book – Judith is going to be buying herself a special edition of it which has been published to celebrate the anniversary.

A few years ago I treated myself to the Folio Books edition, their books are always beautiful and come with nice slip covers too.

If there is anyone who hasn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird – do yourself a favour and read it or even just watch the film.

Sorry, I know I was supposed to be writing just a wee bit but I got sort of taken over somehow.