Wednesday, December 11, 2013


TL;DR version: Jane says that this makes me look like she's married a former Blackshirt. I say that I wasn't that bad, and I grew up, eventually.

The death of Nelson Mandela last week got me looking back at what one might like to call my political awakenings. My story is no epic tale of struggle against oppression and injustice, more of one young man's struggle against being an appalling twat with dubious political views.

For example, in my teens, I held what can only be seen as furiously offensive right-wing views, going as far as voting for Margaret Thatcher at the first opportunity I got (worse, my MP at the time was John Redwood, so I was getting two for the price of one), and being chummy with one of the instructors at our Air Cadets who held rather forthright views about the situation in South Africa. 

As a journalist, Jon covered defence issues, and in particular South Africa's intervention in Angola, in which they essentially sent large quantities of exploding things to kill communists and people who rather disliked the apartheid regime. His colourful descriptions of air raids sent to kill "gooks" rather appealed to me, and fitted my world view at the time that military might was good, and people to the left of Margaret only had themselves to blame when the bombs started dropping.

I never said I was a pleasant person. I wore a combat jacket, all the time. I read The Sun and agreed with its plain-talking editorials (but was repressed enough to be embarrassed about looking at page three on public transport). I agreed with Norman Tebbit that all newspapers should be like the Daily Express. Yes, I was an utter lunatic. Incurable, too.

But on the bright side, I learned to hit a target the size of a gnat's left bollock at 300 yards with a target rifle, a skill I still have to this day. I can also identify any military aircraft, ship or vehicle when it's the size of said gnat's right bollock in the distance, a skill that I actually get paid to use on occasion.

When I was much younger than that - just after we had moved out of London - we used to drive down the M4, across the capital and out the other side on a regular basis to get to my grandad's house in Essex. On a bridge just short of the Chiswick flyover somebody had painted the words NO BOKS in paint five feet high.

The NO BOKS sign intrigued me. Nobody ever made the effort to paint over it, and I looked out for it every time we drove past, my mum's lead right foot to the floor, our Renault 12 just nudging light speed. One day, I just had to say something.

"They can't like school that much. They can't even spell NO BOOKS."

Mum tried to explain it to me in terms a seven year old can understand, by the intricacies of apartheid, sporting boycotts and the 1970 Springboks tour were rather too complex. But some people came over to play rugby, some other people didn't want them to play rugby, and they painted NO BOKS on the bridge. Stupid rugby. It was all lost on me before long - as we drove through the East End, GEORGE DAVIES IS INNOCENT was painted over just about everything.

"Mum? What did George Davies do?"

The South African struggle, then, was something that happened to people a long way away, for them I cared not. In my late teenage years, and in an effort to impress an unspeakably posh girl I knew at college and wanted to see with very few clothes on (preferably none at all if I'm going to be honest about it), I accompanied her on an organised coach trip up to London for a political demo outside South Africa House in London.

Oh, yes, I can hear you say - a political awakening at last. Yeah, about that. I was with the Young Conservatives, who were effectively going up there to Jail Nelson Mandela. As things took a turn for an ugly, I took a step to one side and struck up conversation with another combat jacket-clad nerk who was just as terrified as I was.

While not a Road to Damascus conversion, a leaflet pressed into my hands make me question for the first time that - perhaps - the Sainted Margaret might have actually been wrong about South African sanctions, and one or two other things I had held dear up to that time.

Also, Eleanor never spoke to me again, which might have pushed me back from the abyss.

There was no sudden change, no sudden desire to vote for Neil Kinnock or even consider a different political opinion. I still thought the miners' strike was the worst thing ever and I was into my twenties before I even noticed a slight drift to the centre, and I've voted for just about everybody between the end of the eighties to the present day. Because I have learned (and the political machine is yet to embrace the fact) that you are allowed to change your mind. And it helps if changing your mind makes you a better person rather than deciding to hate somebody.

What really changed me was getting a job. A year working at the Dole Office at the back end of the eighties, and being told by the ministry to fiddle the count figures so they'd look better in the papers really does concentrate a young mind toward human suffering and the callousness of the ruling classes.

It's a difficult thing to admit when your current job relies on you being neutral, so neutral I remain on many things. But it's hard to believe that the boy in the 1980s would support equal marriage; hate racism, sexism, homophobia, religious extremism, and discrimination in all its forms. My job gave me a world view, and my world view is that - all things told - it's far better to be kind to people than to blow them up. My knowledge of war, weapons, the mechanics of tactics and violence, the politics of extremism is encyclopaedic, but know that blowing people up is A Bad Thing.

You still have hate, but you need to aim it at injustice turn it into something useful. No, I'm not perfect. Never was, never will be. But as Mandela said: "I'm not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying". Also: "I once ate 27 doughnuts in one sitting."

Nobody ever checks quotes.


DJDarren said...

I understand what you're saying here, because I was much the same. It shames me to admit that I was once a Daily Mail reader who believed that Littlejohn should have been PM.

Obviously I was also a shuddering bellend.

Going to uni in my late 20s and ultimately traveling the world for the best part of a year helped to open my eyes, so now I'm a perfect human being with the Ultimate Empathy plugin, so it's all good.

Tell Dirty Desmond said...

Quote check

Lynchie from Aberdeen said...

All my life I've been reading about young lefties "growing up" to be rabid right wingnuts. Most of them seem to be newspaper and/or magazine columnists.

For once, it's good to hear of someone who headed the other way - or pasrt of it at least.

Keep the faith.

isolator42 said...

Refreshingly honest SD, thanks for sharing.

I was similar.
My middle class Tory upbringing led me (to my shame) to vote in the blue direction at my first GE. My only & woeful defence: I was still an impressionable teenager & voting in an area so rampantly Tory that my vote made no difference.

My discovery of girls also coincided with the liberalising of my political views, & possibly maturing to a point where common sense prevails.

I wish my job was able to furnish me with a world view as yours has, but the I.T. industry just isn't like that.
It has however, shown me that some of my childhood opinions, formed by listening to grown-ups in the 70s were horrifically bigotted & the grown-ups responsible should be utterly ashamed of themselves. As soon as I was old enough to know the difference, I was bloody mortified. I have learned that this is not unusual for someone who was a child in the UK in the 70s...

Anonymous said...

If you are in your twenties and not a socialist, you are heartless. If you are in your forties and are a socialist, you are brainless.

As an Asian female from a Matriarchal society, I've a different take on things.

We Mongoloids have three copies of our twenty-first and you Caucasoids and Negroids only have two!