I got an email from a listener on Friday, which I thought I’d share with you.
I’m a long-time listener of your show via the internet here in Ireland. As an Englishman living here I’ve become increasingly concerned at some aspects of the anti-English coverage of Brexit, most notably in the so-called paper of record the Irish Times. Hardly a day has gone by since the Referendum result when the paper hasn’t carried warnings of doom and gloom about Brexit. Portraying it entirely as the result of racist English people/swivel-eyed loons/white van man etc harking back to the Empire is a common theme. This following piece today though really has taken my breath away. It’s by the paper’s London editor Denis Staunton and describes his outrage at being called mate by a London cabbie.
It can’t be that bad, I thought. So I click on the link and read the following…
“We were at the bottom of St James’s when the cab jolted and hissed to a halt, as a black SUV stopped in front, right in the middle of the street. A side door slid open and Prince Harry stepped out, wearing the same blue suit he announced his engagement in and with a close protection officer by his side as he bounded across to the pavement.
“Was that Prince Harry?” the driver said.
I told him it was.
“Did he just get out of an Uber?”
I said it seemed unlikely.
“Prince Harry. In a bleeding Uber,” he said.
To pass the Knowledge, a series of tests to qualify them for a licence, London cabbies must memorise 20,000 landmarks, 25,000 streets and 320 routes. And just three topics of conversation: Uber, cycle lanes and Brexit.
Once they alight on one of these subjects, the wisest course is to stop listening, look out the window and sink deep into your own thoughts. I had almost forgotten about the driver altogether when I noticed that he was calling me “mate”.
I felt the blood rushing up through my chest and into my head as my eyes flashed and stung. Mate. It’s not the insolence or the cheerless familiarity of it, so much as the hint of laddish menace. It’s the sound of getting taken down a peg or two, of home truths being delivered, it’s the bouncer on the door, the hooligan on the terrace, it’s a pint glass smashing in the street at midnight. It’s the Black and Tans burning down Cork. He was calling me ‘mate’. I felt the blood rush up through my chest.”
And so it goes on.
I’ve never met Mr Staunton and I have no idea how long he has lived in London for, but however long it has been, he doesn’t seem to have learnt that cabbies call everyone ‘mate’. It’s a sign of friendliness, not some sort weird bigotry. The patronising condescension in this article towards people who do an honest day’s work (but clearly aren’t clever enough to write for the Irish Times, obvs.) is palpable. It’s the sort of language which if I, as an Englishmen, were to write Dublin cabbies, I’d be drummed out of Ireland for. And deservedly so.
As my listener from County Cork wrote in his email…
“This is risible and dangerous nonsense by a national newspaper designed to do nothing else but stir up hostility towards the English amongst its readers.”
England and Ireland have a chequered history. Our relations today are probably better at any time in our history. London welcomes tens of thousands of young Irish people each year and very welcome they are too. And we will continue to welcome them after Brexit, despite the best attempts of people like Denis Staunton who like to play into old, chauvenistic stereotypes about what we English are really like.
Words have consequences. Newspaper columns have consequences. It’s so easy to write a sneering column about other nationalities. Let’s face it, enough British columnists have done it about the Irish over the years. But two wrongs don’t make a right. If I were a London black cab driver I’d be incredibly insulted by the tone of this column, and rightly so. Anti Irish sentiment in this country has largely disappeared – at least, I hope it has. Mr Staunton may have another point of view.
Irish politics fascinates me at the moment. They’ve got a new, young Taoiseach in Leo Varadkar (I’m publishing a biography of him in July by two young Irish journalists, Philip Ryan and Niall O’Connor – details HERE and how they navigate Brexit is going to be interesting to watch. I think Brexit is actually going to prove an opportunity for our two countries to become even closer than we have become over the last two decades. But articles like Mr Staunton’s do not help in that process. Do they?