The Lure of the Strongman

Fans of sword and sorcery, though a more diverse lot than often assumed, tend to have one thing in common: at some point in their youth, Conan the Cimmerian, or someone like him, strode into their lives to crush his enemies, to steal jewels of great price, or even take the crown of some troubled land. That hero may have come by way of the Conan films with Arnold Schwarzenegger, or tabletop gaming, or most potently of all, through the muscular prose of Robert E. Howard and those who came after him.

The typical sword and sorcery fan found Conan in his his teenage years, that time of life when he had maximum ambition but little agency to do anything with it. He was constrained by the rule of parents and teachers, but often also by social marginalisation, isolation and bullying.

And whether that bullying took overt or more subtle forms – whichever way the hero came, his appeal lay in his individuality; something which the powerless, weak and oppressed could cling on to and identify with.

And this last point is crucial, as sword and sorcery is often discovered when a teenager’s isolation is at its most damaging. The experience is transformative – this sense of liberation, however vicarious, through the adventures of Conan and his kind. This comes not just through their vanquishing of their enemies, but their grabbing of power and wealth and their magnetic appeal to the opposite sex – all of which they often accomplish both despite and because of an outsider status in society.

At best, this fictional experience inspires the isolated teen in making a mark in the real world. As they grow up, the realisation sets in that there was never going to be some cathartic scene in which their bullies were put to the sword, and their abusive parents banned from the realm. They grasp that school violence is not justice but horror; that they can win no deep, lasting satisfaction from mere shows of physical strength, or from seeing other people brutally punished. The revenge fantasies and strong man heroes are left behind where they belong: in stories, where they can help explain us to ourselves, and to each other.

And having had this experience of needing a stronger figure to look to, a righter of wrongs such as we lacked when the injustices of real life took place, we gain perspective. It can be used to look at other areas of life, at the broader experience of searching for different kinds of heroes (or “heroes”), and the dark turns that search can take. Because of course this is not just about sword and sorcery. It’s not even just about fiction – because not everybody outgrows the desire for a strongman, an avatar on which to project their discontents.

Some people conflate the very real injustices they suffer in society – violence, wage theft, inflation, homelessness, pollution – with any increase of rights and justice for others. And so, in finding their enemy, they must likewise find a strongman to protect them. The stage of reflection, of putting our teenage heroes in their proper place, has not taken place, and arrested development instead informs the thought processes, in particular concerning how the world is, and should be, run.

In politics, the lure of the strongman takes the form of the desire for an authoritarian leader. His sword and his axe are legislation and the security forces, and his muscles are the members of the public who defend him and his misuse of those tools no matter what. And we can actually recognise the tropes that appeal in heroic fantasy being skilfully used by the political strongmen of our time. So Vladimir Putin flexes his muscles in topless photos that depict him as a rugged hero surviving in the Russian mountains. So Donald Trump boasted (“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…”) of his ability to grab women by their genitals.

Even in its most diluted, buffoon form, the strongman archetype compels, as British people know to our cost, having elected a leader whose appeal lies not in his competence but in his extremity: Boris Johnson, that pound shop Trump, need not be skilled in governance or diplomacy when he’s proved his leadership qualities by “getting Brexit done” (making the public poorer in the process); proved his virility by producing more children than we can count (or he will acknowledge); proved his strength by surviving an allegedly severe case of the same disease he refuses to protect the public from. Even in his very absurdity he shows he’s an individualist and an iconoclast: the trademark thatch of hair he musses before being photographed; the burbling incoherence, peppered with Greek and Latin.

Johnson is his own kind of political barbarian, yet he is not merely at the gate – he holds the highest office in the UK. The man who started his career as Prime Minister by illegally proroguing Parliament now has no intention of ending it. His government may be riddled with scandal and corruption, but his reaction has been to announce he’d like to stay on for the maximum term. Because for a strongman there is no defeat, only temporary setback and tactical retreat. A strongman has no concept of shame.

Like King Kull, who took his axe to the ancient laws of Valusia, Johnson placed his friends and cronies in his Cabinet, and uses them to smash any laws that he doesn’t like. And what if the human rights of minorities are eroded, and the poor get ever poorer – it’s no skin off his back.

Generally, the strongman likes his own people – there will be other, stronger strongmen he aspires to. So Johnson, and Theresa May before him, sought favour with Trump, and Trump cozied up to Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (another one with a hairstyle daring anyone to defy him). More recently, Johnson has made trips to Ukraine, when British soil became too heated, to meet its wartime president. Volodymyr Zelensky is unlikely strongman, having started out as a comic actor playing the role of the country’s president, but an undeniable one: he rose in prominence on the populist ticket, the Ukrainian version of “drain the swamp”, and since the start of the war he invariably appears in a green army shirt in a show both of strength and solidarity with the common fighting man.

When ordinary people are ground down by evil systems built and upheld by these strongmen, they are ever reluctant to rebel. They’ve bought into those images of strength and success, and imagine that the strongman is one of them, that he actually cares about them. Having invested so much in a hero, it’s unthinkable that that love might go unrequited. Not if other people can be blamed; not if another strongman can be pointed out: “Fear her instead, the evil sorceress” (and her emails).

To the strongman’s supporters, theirs is the road of righteousness. Their strongman’s enemy – therefore, their enemy – must be cast as a villain, and tarred with the very weakness they sought to escape as teens, whether that supposed weakness takes the form of age (Trump supporters mocking Biden, born only four years before their hero, for being old), disability or Otherness of whatever kind.

Of course, investing your emotions in a real-life strongman makes about as much sense as imagining that Conan, where he to appear in our midst, would see himself as one of us, or have any particular interest in our wellbeing. It’s like believing that he would not turn slowly in our homes, noting our valuables, our vulnerabilities, and start calculating how he might exploit us.

The Stories We Shouldn’t Keep Hearing

On 17 June 1994, when I was twelve and in form one, an ex-pupil with a grudge came to Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, Northern Ireland. He carried with him an improvised flamethrower, with which he attacked the sixth-form pupils who were sitting their A-Levels in the assembly hall. Six boys were hurt, three of them seriously enough to need skin grafts.

In the last years of the armed conflict known as the Troubles, naturally some of us thought it was a terrorist attack. And as many people observed at the time, it is a painful outcome of the Troubles that we had considerable medical expertise locally in treating burns injuries. Afterwards, the school community raised funds to buy the hospital a new skin grafting device.

Then as now, non-Troubles-related attempts at mass murder were rare in the UK. Two years later, the Dunblane Primary School massacre occurred, in which a former scout leader murdered sixteen children and their teacher, and injured fifteen other people. The standards of media behaviour in the 1990s were such that, when the Dunblane news broke, journalists turned up outside our school and harassed pupils going in for their thoughts on the events in Scotland.

The wider public response was one of horror. Both of these attacks, and the March 1994 knife attack at Hall Garth School in England, in which a twelve-year-old girl was murdered, were regarded as incomprehensible. The pupils at Hall Garth wrote to us all after it happened – then the one other school community in the UK who understood such a thing. Later, the Dunblane incident led to a ban on most private ownership of handguns in the UK, and in the longer term, increased surveillance and security became more standard in schools around the country.

When the Sullivan pupils were attacked, there was a fully operational British army base virtually next-door. The response from the Bomb Squad and emergency services was extremely fast. It says everything about Northern Ireland back then that, within a couple of days, the story was eclipsed in the news cycle by the subsequent Loughinisland massacre, in which six were murdered and five injured. Yet only now, watching the aftermath of yet another horror in America, does it fully settle for me just how many illegal weapons circulated in Northern Ireland back then, and how lethal the attack might have been had the attacker been obsessed not with fire, but with guns.

As it was, his victims suffered life-changing injuries, lifelong scarring. And the more we learned about the attacker and his motivations, the less sense it all made. In the days that followed, the details came through local gossip and news stories. Of course we turned out to know people who knew him – Holywood (and Northern Ireland at large) is like that.

He’d rented 18-certificate videos and then tutted to the video shop owner about their violence. His relationship with his family was typified by an arson attack at his brother’s home. He’d displayed a sticker calling Sullivan “the Skoda of the education system” – on his Skoda. The motive for the attack had been, he claimed, inadequate careers advice. To sum up, he was a man whose motives were incomprehensible even to himself, looking to lethally blame others for his problems.

I remember that a local newspaper at the time made a lot of hay with a mental health diagnosis the attacker might or might not have had, one I won’t further stigmatise by connecting it with his crimes. Reportedly, he’d had treatment, but that’s not some gotcha: an awful lot of us in Northern Ireland, have had, or lacked, mental health treatment. Damned out of his own mouth, not by his mental circuitry but his actions, unable to explain his behaviour or make sense of his plan, he got six life sentences, and died in prison three years later.

And I never ever thought, back then, that we would all become so familiar with boys and men (usually) like him; with seeing our entire social media timelines get into the psychological brace position when the first reports come out for what is always, somehow, the same story. I see that bracing in my American friends who’ve lost people to gun violence, or whose kids have to go to school the day after another atrocity. My friends here who’ve felt sectarian violence. My many friends with psychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions that will inevitably get thrown around online as the investigation proceeds, because it’s easier to scapegoat already marginalised people (who are more often victims than perpetrators of violence) than question the public’s access to weapons designed for war zones.

As guns and the politics of fear continue to damage another society, I think about how hard it was for us to get rid of our guns, here. How incomplete that work is. How incomplete peace is. How important it still is to try and build it. Most of all I hate that I’m seeing friends experience that repetitive dread and horror that we grew up with, that we know is not over so much as constantly, conscientiously and imperfectly held back by political process.

I’m old enough to remember that sick feeling of inevitability, the way we never went into town on a Friday, the adjustments and affordances ordinary families made in an unnatural situation, and whose equivalent American communities make now, as small children take part in active shooter drills. I want my friends there not to have to hope for the complicated relief of reading that the latest attacker is not of their ethnicity, their neurotype, their political persuasion. They are not about to witness a trial that debates whether people who share their diagnosis know right from wrong. Community stigma is a thing we know about over here too.

The situations of Northern Ireland, the UK and the USA are not identical, and it’s very important that, in laying these histories side by side, I don’t deny the white supremacist hold the gun lobby has on American powerbrokers. I draw parallels not because I would fatuously prescribe what worked, somewhat, here to a culture on the other side of the world, but because I remember when attacks on schools were rare, bizarre – not yet normalised or politicised. I remember being able to respond to ours as a horrifying one-off, something we didn’t have to fear would happen again. Because enough time has passed, because my classmates and I were unscathed, stories of school shootings don’t automatically bring it back, every time.

But sometimes, like this past week, I do think about it and it doesn’t let go – because I remember the time before this was routine.


On Ending Restrictions

So Northern Ireland just said fuck you to immunosuppressed and other high-risk people, because of course it did.

These protections that we’re now losing have made me feel safe enough to take calculated risks. While I have attempted eating out indoors exactly twice since 12th March 2020, both made me really uneasy because it was very obvious that it was a situation where there was more chance of infection. I have however gone into shops because proprietors didn’t allow them to get overly crowded, and taken the bus at quiet times.

At peak times, there were still too many people without face masks in the bus, with no enforcement. Now the protection that there was, the signal to the public that Covid is not over, has been severely weakened, and I’ll have to rely on the kindness of others to protect me. Last summer, a writing group for speculative fiction writers started in a pub literally! a stone’s throw away. It wasn’t safe enough for me to go.

The bottom line is: I cannot afford to get Covid. With my underlying conditions, it’s easy for me to get Covid, and getting Covid (even the ‘mild’ variant) would severely impact my health. Would be dangerous. Getting Long Covid, something most people don’t seem to think about, would mean having my already limited energy and functionality even further reduced.

It seems people like me are resented for even asking for the precautions that allow that extremely truncated level of normality. So often you hear people saying that we should just stay in, while that means we lose the stuff we do feel able to do.

And I hate being like this. I hate the feeling of wasting a very hard-won Crohn’s remission. I hate saying no to stuff all the time. I hate how impossible it is to make new friends and how hard it is to keep old friendships going. I hate seeing films and gigs coming up which I would love to go to, and knowing that a small enclosed venue with a lot of people is not a good place for me.

But here’s the thing: I’ve seen plenty of vaccinated, chronically ill friends get Covid, and I’ve seen some of them take months, even years to recover even a fraction of their former activity levels. And I am painfully aware that my medical team know me as that one patient who gets all the weird, edge case complications.

I’m the one who got that weird mystery illness months before Covid was a thing – and yes, you can bet I’ve been over the calendar a dozen times wondering about that; but if that was Covid then I would’ve had to have it several months earlier than the earliest documented case. That seems unlikely. Regardless of what it actually was – and they tested me for a lot of infectious diseases at the time – it caused untold disruption in our lives, as it came back over and over, caused five separate hospitalisations, resisted multiple courses of strong antibiotics, and finally forced an incredibly challenging and difficult change of treatment for my underlying condition.

That illness, whatever it was, was hell bent on lying dormant in my system. We still don’t know what the hell it was, and we don’t know how I finally beat it. We only know that every time we fed it TPN, it roared back into life. I recovered from the effects of transferring from TPN back to enteral feeding just in time for the first lockdown, and you’d better believe that shapes my bitterness about how much freedom I’ve lost.

And I’m not prepared to go through that again, and potentially much worse, with Long Covid or worse. I’m just not.

So, I don’t know what happens next for me. A lot of people in my position don’t. When I go for medical appointments, when I go into shops, when I eyeball the number of people on a bus before getting on, I am going to be watching for the number of masks. I am going to be watching how crowded things get. I am going to be watching the Covid numbers – if that’s even going to be meaningful any more, with the pressure from Westminster (and in this, as in other things, we must assume Northern Ireland will follow, as if with no mind of its own) to wind down testing.

That’s actually one of the scariest things about all this: if we reduce testing, we have no real way of quantifying the absolute risk around us, and to take that away from clinically vulnerable people forces us to make choices based on unknowns. So it’ll be my mental health and my need to be among other human beings, having a life, versus potentially spiralling infection rates. We’ve seen the latter happen over and over again, and we can’t pretend that’s not what happens when we get rid of protections.

I want to be wrong about this. I would love nothing more than to be wrong: for Covid to just fizzle out, for us all to be able to go out unmasked and hug each other with abandon, belting out the choruses at gigs with our friends – all stuff people think is worth any cost to individuals medically, and to the NHS as a functioning system. But what has been made clear to clinically vulnerable people over and over again is that many voters and politicians would sooner see us disappear from public life indefinitely than extend the protections that let us be included.


Was it worth it, Joanne?

We’re not trans, so we’ve been wondering whether it’s our place to speak up. But we have trans and NB friends, and we are all too aware of their stress, anger and fear. We ourselves are minorities (Angeline is disabled, Remco an immigrant in the UK) faced with discrimination in our own ways. We are all too conscious of “first they come for…” In a way, ‘they’ have already come for us, and if there is one thing we believe in, it’s that where minorities support each other they form a stronger, intersectional opposing voice and campaigning platform.

Not being trans certainly hasn’t stopped other people from speaking out, and hurting the trans community. One famous person whose voice has massively changed the discourse, influencing public opinion and government policy is JK Rowling. She got pilloried for it by angry and fearful people from the trans community and their allies, which in turn lead to a rallying around her of others, denouncing ‘cancel culture’. Bullying is bad, y’all! We must stay polite!

We don’t need to go into Rowling’s whole terf history, but want to just highlight this, from her infamous public letter:When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman (…) then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.

Her whole letter may speak of concern for trans people, acknowledge that they’re vulnerable, but there’s an overarching feeling of “but will somebody think of our children!” And this is the point where that all coalesces for her: “if you’re a trans woman, I don’t want you in a female bathroom.” Of course, there are plenty arguments to be made against this, but we’re very curious to hear her views on where trans women then should go when they’ve got to pee. Her logic dictates that trans women go to male bathrooms, and trans men go to the female restrooms. She can’t be expecting their bodily functions to cease, can she?

So, what then? There are many scenarios possible. You’ve got non-trans women and men who “don’t look female or manly enough,” and are now scrutinised. There are trans people who may not currently experience any issues, but will now feel unsafe. There are predators who have never felt the need to put on a dress to violate women, and will still not go through the effort of learning to walk on heels. Perhaps there is that one exception, and he’ll find pretty much the same as in the male bathrooms: stalls with closed doors, feet perhaps visible below the doors, and women washing their hands.

Nicole Maines and Brian Michael Smith (composite photo)

But let’s take two trans actors from the USA as an example; Nicole Maines and Brian Michael Smith. Let’s say Nicole is on a night out and needs to go to the toilet. As per Rowling’s Law, she goes to the male toilet. Here’s the thing though: JKR is so afraid of male abuse towards women in toilets, but the likelihood that Nicole will now face abuse, verbally or physically, is big. That same afternoon, Brian had been getting some early Christmas shopping in at Macy’s, and goes to the female toilet. Inside, a woman panics (so much in the news about predators violating female spaces!), grabs her phone and calls the cops.

Was it all worth it, Joanne?

White Man’s Burden

(Content warning: historical racism)

I’ve been thinking about whether to write this blog. Whether it’d just be to patch my own soul, or whether it could actually contribute something. While not denying the former, I do think that there’s something that can be learnt from it. Where we are now, the Western world needs to change. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of misunderastanding and a lot of mistrust. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. And if the horse starts kicking, what are you going to do then? The problem, as it were, is that the horse may well think that the water is poisoned.

Whenever you’ve got a movement like #metoo or #blm you’ll find two main antagonising groups. Firstly, you’ve got those who are ideologically against (male chauvinists, neo-nazis, whatnot), and then you’ve got the people who don’t have a firm opinion but are alarmed because (as we say in Dutch) “what the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat.” There are a lot of people in that second group.

When you look at society as a whole, you’ll still see a lot of segregation. Sure, formally everyone is equal and has the same rights, but socially the communities where people of different backgrounds, and skin colours, are living together are a minority. In the cities you’ve got ‘white’ and ‘black’ neighbourhoods, and in the countryside you’ll still have villages where there are non-white families.

Cartoon characters Sjors & Sjimmie in their first incarnation in the 1940s and their modern version.

When I grew up, and I’m in my mid-40s now, we had a village school with about 50 children, of whom 3 were non-white. They were adopted from Bangladesh and Indonesia if I remember correctly, by what we’d consider people from the ‘better middle class’. Aside from that, it was not until the Millennium, and the coming of an Asylum Seekers Centre, that the village saw a significant amount of non-white (and non-northern Dutch for that matter) faces…

Only a few welcomed them with open arms, while the majority started locking their bikes and back doors. “After all, you don’t know what kind of people you’ll get.” For the few years that the centre was near the village, the refugees were kept at arm’s length. Of course, the village’s actual waywards were indulged, and accommodated – as ‘missing stairs’ they may have been skipped over for generations, at least they were familiar missing stairs.

We had black people on television of course. The Cosby Show was unmissable, with the wholesome Huxtable family, minus daughter daughter Denise when actress Lisa Bonet became too scandalous. The A-Team came with Mr. T’s B.A. Baracus, who was the mercenary team’s strongman and occasional comic relief. Miami Vice had Rico Tubbs, conceived as “nobody’s Tonto”, though according to showrunner Michael Mann “that eroded a little bit.” I certainly don’t have any strong recollectons, other than pastel jackets with the sleeves bunched up.

Sitcom Zeg n’s Aaa, with GP John Wijntak (Kenneth Herdigein) of Surinam origin.

The comedy series about a GP practice Zeg n’s Aaa (Say Aah) became water cooler talk in 1988 when a black GP and the white surgeon’s (white) niece got involved. Actor Kenneth Herdigein was born in Suriname in 1959 and came to the Netherlands in the early ’70s. As a young actor he refused to play criminals or drug addicts, and wanted to be an example for the young men in De Bijlmer, the ‘projects’ of Amsterdam: “In Suriname I was an outsider because I was too light, but when I came to the Netherlands I was too dark.” Those boys in De Bijlmer were far away from me and my brothers in Ulrum, though.

Our library had a few boxes with records, but no rap or hiphop. What music there was for the youth was pretty much decided on by the vocal majority, which basically came down to Metal and Madonna. Her “Like a virgin, touched for the very first time,” got a pass, of course. I don’t know what we thought where she was touched – her heart? What we did know was that Prince was a little pervert. Michael Jackson was fine, as long as he still had some of his boyish charm.

Ah, and the library had books, of course, through which a young boy from the desolate coast got to know the world. Like the books he has at home, his own and the hand-me-downs from brothers and parents, it’s a collection of new books, old books, and new books with old stories. These would of course include such standbys as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Robinson Crusoe, a thankful ‘Man Friday’ rescued from savages, but also original Dutch fare. And there were black people in the Dutch books. Strangely enough, not from former colony Suriname but from Africa. Nor were there any people from our other ‘big’ colony Indonesia, come to think of. Perhaps another bit from our past we’d rather was kept buried.

A 1946 Suske en Wiske comic rife with stereotypes. Later reworked, but not improved.

One of the comics I borrowed time and time again from the library is a facsimile reprint of an early book from the Suske en Wiske series, De vliegende Aap (The Flying Ape). It’s set in Africa and formed my image of Africa for years to come. They’re crude caricatures who speak broken Dutch and come with a giant cooking pot to stew Europeans in. Our heroes don’t mince words: “That n* even starts to swing! He’s more civilised than I thought!” In the 1968 this comic was redrawn, but the crude stereotyping, with lips filling half the face, and the racist slurs remained. Only in the last decade or so was the text adjusted.

Retiring Sjors & Sjimmie artist Frans Piet literally handing over the pencil to incoming artist Jan Kruis. Two modern (for 1969) children say goodbye to their predecessors.

For decades a staple of Dutch comics Sjors & Sjimmie, about a white and a black boy. The white boy Sjors was ‘borrowed’ from an English comic in the 1930s; once adventuring in Africa he met the black boy Sjimmie. Sjimmie, drawn ‘as usual’ was not too clever, easily frightened and definitely the sidekick of bread-and-cheese grown Sjors. In 1969 the comic radically changed: “It was in the spirit of the times. I have taken the wildman Sjimmie and made him into a normal Surinam boy, like you’d meet on the street,” artist Jan Kruis said.

Bizarre: in the 1950s there had already been a restyling of the white boy, whose sailor’s uniform was seen as old-fashioned. In the middle of an adventure, the boy got a letter from his parents, calling him home. “Sjimmie very sad is. He now alone. What is Sjimmie without Sjors?” his friend frets. “Cheer up, Sjimmie, you’re not staying behind alone,” comes the reply, “you’ve got a new friend, the boy nextdoor. His name is Sjors too. Will you help me pack my suitcases?” It seems black friends are disposable, and transferrable. And a few panels later, Sjimmie seems happy enough alongside new-Sjors.

Disposable friends. Frans Piet’s Sjimmie had lost his curly hair (“too intricate to draw”) and also his ability to speak proper Dutch. With the loss of language, he’d also become less bright.

Another ‘fun fact’: Dutch filmmaker Henk van der Linden produced several films around the duo. Filming in the rural south, he often had difficulties finding a black boy, and several times a girl in blackface had to do, including his daughter: “Sjimmie was a fun type to play. I had to talk weirdly. That was in the script. My father had to stick to that. Nobody found it discriminatory at the time. Sjimmie was just a fun fellow, and whether he was black or white, we didn’t care about.”

Going through the children’s books and comics I read as a child is an onslaught of the same stereotype. People over a certain age, say 40, grew up with a huge amount of racism that was soaked into culture. This is true for The Netherlands, and I doubt it’s been much different for the UK or the US, and not everyone has had the opportunity, the impetus, or the will to address that.

Blackface in the late ’60s. The last Sjors & Sjimmie film was in colour in 1977, and blackface would no longer do: “because blue eyes would show up.”

I’ve been living in the UK for 15 years now, and working in an office where we regularly have young people starting who are fresh from The Netherlands. It’s almost a ritual that the first year they’re here, they get ‘the talk’: “Black Pete might be youth sentiment for you, it’s also a racist caricature.” A year later, they’ll likely give the talk themselves; it really is a lot worse when you look at it from the outside.

When I was 18, I moved away from the small village; first to the city of Zwolle, then to Amsterdam, where I lived for 8 years in De Bijlmer. Yes, ‘the projects’. During that time, I got ‘deprogrammed’ fairly well, but I’m thinking of all those people of my age who never left their villages, never left the white neighbourhoods, and genuinely can not see Black Pete as anything other than harmless fun for children. Cannot, or will not, as the price they’ll pay is too high, while they’ll get nothing back for it: why would they change their values for people they don’t know?

There does seem to be a disconnect between the ‘real’ black people we grew up with on television and those in our children’s books, but I think it reinforced something that I now see coming to the fore in the USA too. The black people in television shows and music, I think, were accepted as long as they conformed and didn’t rock the boat. This because from our books we had an idea of what black people really were underneath: impressionable, irresponsible and child-like at best, savages at worst.

Oki en Doki bij de <slurword>, still published in my childhood. The language was sanitised up a little bit by that time, but not the images.

And that’s what I think is what someone from the outlands, who doesn’t know black people, sees in the BLM protests. The question is not just how we give them a wider, more informed perspective: it’s how we make them want to see.

I’ve been thinking – were there no non-stereotype, neutral depictions of black people in the books I read a child? Yes, there was one book in the Pim, Frits en Ida series, which were read in school classes. I’ve looked it up; it’s part 8. I remember there’s a black boy temporarily in our heroes’ class, whose father is an ambassador. They set off on a school trip to the caves, and the four children get lost. They pretty much spend the rest of the book in pitch blackness…


The Eagle and the Fish

Culhwch shook his head. ‘They want a Christian King, Arthur.’
‘They’ll have Mordred next year,’ Arthur said.
‘Is he a Christian?’ Culhwch asked.
‘If he’s anything,’ I said.
‘But he’s not who they want,’ Culhwch said darkly.
‘Then who is?’ Arthur asked, intrigued at last by his cousin’s warnings.
Culhwch hesitated, then shrugged. ‘Lancelot.’
‘Lancelot!’ Arthur sounded amused. ‘Don’t they know he keeps his pagan temples open?’
‘They don’t know anything about him,’ Culhwch said, ‘but they don’t need to. They think of him the same way that people thought about you in the last years of Uther’s life. They think of him as their deliverer.’
‘Deliverer from what?’ I asked scornfully.
‘Us Pagans, of course,’ Culhwch said. ‘They insist Lancelot is the Christian King who’ll lead them all to heaven. And do you know why? Because of that sea eagle on his shield. It’s got a fish in its claws, remember? And the fish is a Christian symbol.’ He spat in disgust.
‘They don’t know anything about him,’ he said again, ‘but they see that fish and think it’s a sign from their God.’
‘A fish?’ Arthur plainly didn’t believe Culhwch.
‘A fish,’ Culhwch insisted.

– Bernard Cornwell, Enemy of God, 1996

The Eagle with the White Head

Naked xenophobia

This is where we see the naked xenophobia and insularity of the Tories on display.
Why give the 580 million number, other than to confuse people into thinking that So! Many! Foreigners! have come to the UK?

And – I am one of those people!

I’ve lived, loved and worked in Northern Ireland for over 15 years. This is my own country!

With migration throughout the ages from Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Normans, Jews, Huguenots, Indians, Africans and many others, the DNA make-up of the population of the UK is so diverse, that there really is no basis for the Tories’ “us” and “them” story. Link this to their disenfranchising of disabled people, poor people and others, and the message will be clear:


Chains of superstition

M.D. Teenstra, writer, traveller and folkorist, in the foreword of his “Booze Kunsten en Wetenschappen” book on superstitions from 1846: 

In the olden days the clergy and noblemen kept the poor tied to them by chains of superstition by demanding blind obedience to the father confessor and landowner; our history also teaches us that in church and state, people who sought out light and truth were denounced as sympathisers of the devil. 

They sought, just like the keepers of black slaves do nowadays, to suppress all scientific progress and knowledge, and dole out amongst the sighing working folk priestly miracles and knightly tales. 

Should nowadays a rich clay farmer lord it over us because he thinks his gleaming head is as fertile as his fields? Should such, often penny-pinching, farmers, often in the shape of burgomasters, council members rule us? 


 Then we would rather see a well-educated nobleman govern us. But what we really wish is, without considering birth, station, profession or religion, choose the best and most suitable people above others.

With elections coming up in the UK, which superstitions are doled out to sighing working folk? Examine who benefits from the fear of immigrants, tales of disabled people as frauds and shirkers, our neighbours in Europe as hostile nations. Then, choose the best and most suitable people above others!