Generic Racism

An interesting argument appears to have sprung up over the lack of black people in Midsommer Murders, which as far as I can tell is an excellent object lesson in not waving complicated concepts around without the technical skill to get the words right.

Producer Brian True-May told Radio Times ‘We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved, because it wouldn’t be the English village with them,’ trusted everyone to take careful note of the wording, and described his show as the ‘last bastion of Englishness’ on television. Evidently, people didn’t look at the words as much as they might have, because his comments are now generating all manner of entertaining huffiness, particularly from Omar Khan, and this guy who slightly undermines his comments by getting the name of the series’ lead character wrong. (In the interests of fairness, however, here is a much better reasoned examination of the interview from Hannah Pool).

Indeed, there was a rather stupid man on Today this morning – who disappointingly turned out to be Ash Atalla, the man who produced IT Crowd and Man Stroke Woman, and of whom I previously had a relatively high opinion – who was under the impression that 1) True-May was being horribly offensive to everyone, but that 2) it didn’t matter, because only old people like that show anyway, and that doesn’t matter because 3) they hate change, but soon they’ll all die.

Which misses the point so spectacularly that I suspected he must have been trolling, before I realised he was just being a patronising buffoon: “It’s aimed at a much older audience than me” was one of the gems in there. (Since this is coming from a man in his late thirties, I choose to retaliate by invoking the right of the twenty-something and describe him as a silly old fart who doesn’t understand what young people like.)

The point isn’t that ‘old people like Midsommer, and of course they don’t like to see black people, because they’re all racists who will die soon,’ but that the people in Midsommer don’t live (or die horribly) in a world with minorities in it. Personally, I would have thought that Midsommer’s unerring talent to rack up three dead bodies in the first half hour was a pretty good clue that it’s all made up, but apparently it isn’t quite good enough.

This bugs me because it implies there are a large number of people who seem happier to complain about the racism in a TV show than to understand the context in which the TV show is working. This is not a helpful way to argue anything; go down that road and you end up calling Saint Augustine an evil mysoginistic bastard because he claimed that a female foetus got its soul later than a male one, and also he never said that all women should have unfettered access to family planning provision. (Certainly he did claim the former, and it’s true he never said the latter, but we’re talking about a man from more than 1,600 years ago, and we’re determined to use that against him rather than taking the time to judge him in his own context).

I do think it should be noted then, that as far as I know True-May is not a loathesome racist scumbag, but a simple harmless chump who fails to treat words like the loaded weapons they are. He doesn’t mean – and did not say – an English village, but the English Village.

An English village = A village in England.

The English Village = The Rough Outline of a Village You Can See In Your Head When Told Someone You’ve Never Met Lives in An English Village.

And, more importantly,

The English Village ≠ An English village.

In a similar way, the term ‘Chinese Medicine’ is not used to conjure up the image of An Zhen Hospital. Instead it is used to conjures up the image of a friendly man sticking needles into your back so that your headache will go away. You could refer to one of the world’s leading lung transplant centres when you talk about wanting some ‘Chinese Medicine’, and you could use the phrase ‘the English Village’ to discuss the price of beer in the pub in Biddenden, but it’s not the first thing to which the signifier directs you. (Note that it is not a racist act to hear the term “Chinese Medicine” and think of the meaning ‘Old man with needles,’ although if you deliberately thought him into a Limehouse Opium Den, wearing a nehru silk jacket, and grinning wickedly as he stroked his Fu Manchu mustache, then it would probably become a racist act.)

We’re not talking of a given village, but of the idea of a village, the hazy concept that started to form a little after someone built one hut opposite another hut, but before Tesco arrived to buldoze all the cows and open a new store to compliment their out-of-town hypermarket.

That being the case, it’s not surprising that The English Village is exclusively white. For one thing, many actual villages are exclusively white, (because metropolitan areas naturally change their makeup faster than the sticks, and have more housing and more opportunities that encourage migrants to gravitate towards them), and for another The English Village is already a solidly established mental image.

It’ll vary from person to person, based on what villages they’ve spent their time near, but imagine an English Village. I need you to imagine it, because I want you to play a minor role in my upcoming stage adaptation of A Murder Is Announced, and I want you to get a feel for the role of the shocked householder discussing the advertisment with your neighbour as you stand in the garden.

(Not a big role, sure, but you come on right after the curtain rises, and it’s how we learn that an anonymous person rang the local paper and placed a classified ad to announce that a murder will happen later today, so it’s important we set the tone for the audience).

I believe that the majority of people, will find themselves imagining The English Village at this point. It might be very close to their village, if they live in one, but there’ll be elements drafted in from elsewhere to fill the gaps.

It’s probably got one bank, in solid yellow stone. Similar stone, albeit more roughly-hewn, makes up the drystone walls that hold back the blooming lilac trees in the perfectly tended gardens of the thatch cottages down Old Mill Road. A postman has leant his bicycle against a tree, down that way, and in the opposite direction are the two pubs, one of which fronts directly onto the Village Green, and lies directly opposite the stout square walls of the churchyard. The small local school will have been built around 1870, but it’s once garish red-tile roof has aged well, and almost compliments the new row of houses thrown up when the village expanded in the late 80s. There’s a 50% chance there will be a small river, with a narrow stone bridge over it, opposite the phone box, and there’s probably one greengrocer, a small independent newsagents, and a post office. These days there is unlikely to be a railway station, but before it was converted to a private dwelling under the Beeching Axe (which the older inhabitants still resent) it was the one you’ll recognise from Christmas cards, with a big green steam engine puffing away behind the red-faced carol singers on platform 2. And you don’t imagine more than three cars as your brain walks around it, because there isn’t a place for them in the picture, except perhaps outside the pub, and a small delivery van by the grocer’s.

That’s The English Village. It isn’t any one English village (although when I fill in all the pictures in description I can identify sources from at least five different villages I’ve known.) It’s a hybrid, pieced together to fit the genre of an Agatha Christie country-house murder, and for that reason, it’s bound by the limitations of its genre. In that sense, True-May’s right: about the only place for an ethnic face in the conceptual makeup of The English Village is during the 1920s and 30s, and she is the plump cook who works for the Ffinches up at the Big House.

Fiction just works like that. People write stories and we morph the framework to fit the words before us, until the picture looks right in our head. Brian True-May has a harder job than that, because he’s trying to put the picture into everyone’s head. And, because our brains automatically hide the joins from us, nobody really noticed everyone was white until he said so (although it probably helps that Midsommer is quite South Oxfordshire-y, which by 2001 data is 98% White British).

The English Village doesn’t have a monopoly here: I think Philip Marlowe encountered the occasional black man (never in a major role, of course) but 1920s California was a different setting (and even then, I don’t think he ever saw any Latinos or Orientals, though strictly speaking the mean streets should have been bursting with ’em). In the same way, Midsommer is not a fictional county where you will see Asians running shops, because all of the shops are built out of the same fabric as they used in the backdrop for St. Mary Mead, and that means Master Green the Grocer’s Son is getting ready to be the seventh generation of his family to keep his thumb on the scales.

The flip side of this is that whilst Midsommer Murders could just about be transported to Newport, it could never be transported to Hadley, or anywhere based on it. But, then, it couldn’t be transported to Miami, either, or to the ruins of Berlin in 1945. Stories are set somewhere, and you can’t just pull them out of their context and hope they’ll make sense. So Hard Times is never going to work if you decided to set it in Machynlleth, because it requires a grinding industrial hell, not an airy hippy town. Life on Mars wouldn’t work in a Midsommer setting, either, because whilst they’re both detective shows, they’re different kinds of detective shows. Swap Morse and Rebus’ beats, and they’d be left picking their teeth out of the gutter on the Royal Mile. Or copping off with the woman who did it before going home to listen to classic 70s rock albums over a takeaway from the Cowley Road. It wouldn’t work, and it’s not meant to.

It’s not wrong to present a story in it’s own setting, nor to be honest about what that setting is in the event that people haven’t noticed. What that means is that whilst there’s no reason that a character in Midsommer shouldn’t be from an ethinic minority, it isn’t necessary for the story to sit right. It can be done, and people wouldn’t notice if there were a black or asian character in their contemporary village murder-fest, but their presence or absence doesn’t affect the nature of the story or the setting (unless someone decides to do an episode centred on a racist killing, which would be far too gritty for the general ethos of the show), and in fiction it’s the story and the setting that are important. In that situation, it’s entirely reasonable that there hasn’t been such a character, because one doesn’t expect to see people from the ethnic minorities in The English Village. In an actual English village, sure, but not in the ethereal concept of one. One doesn’t expect to see jobless and impoverished Algerian nationals scraping by on the streets of Paris The City of Light, either, but there are plenty of them living in the suburbs of the real Paris, the one they keep in France, out of sight of the Hollywood cameramen.

The thing about genre concepts is we all carry them with us. It bugs me when people forget that, because it seems to be such an essential part of storytelling that it isn’t fair to ignore it when it suits you. And people are ignoring it when it suits them: if they’d really been bothered that the fictional death-raddled villages of Midsommer were unrepresentative of Britain as a whole, they’d have pointed out that there weren’t any black characters at some point in the past fourteen years, instead of waiting for the producer to tell them so, and then loudly condemning him for being out of touch with what Britain really looks like.

It’s OK that we didn’t notice, guys. We’re people, and we pattern match, and we see what we expect to see. ‘s the magic of fiction (and, as it happens, the magic of magic, too). It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, and it doesn’t mean he’s a bad person. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should take your guilt out on him so that we can all see how very not racist you are.

Anyway, he’s the closest we’ve got to a celebrity round here, and he’s offered to give a speech to open the Jumble Sale in the Village Hall this Thursday, so leave him alone and help me put up this bunting, will you?

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  1. On March 16, 2011 Ruth says:

    I can’t say I ever noticed. I will now, though, when they inevitably introduce a major character who isn’t white…