Once upon a time, there was an “acclaimed” writer, poet and teacher called Kate Clanchy who got herself into a bit of a pickle after using some very silly words in a book that no one had ever heard of. Across the length and breadth of the land, “controversial” Kate gained a reputation for being a wicked witch of wordsmithery after some very sensitive little people called “Wokies” found out that the erstwhile do-gooder had used some “racist” and “offensive” words and phrases in her memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me.
On one page or t’other there were “chocolate coloured” children, “unselfconsciously odd” autistic students and an “African Jonathan”. There was even a little Afghan boy with a “big nose and premature moustache”. Oh dear!
What had once seemed like a fairy-tale of triumph over diversity was now, as the tabloids like to call it, “a race war”. The Cinderella scribe, who had been magically transformed into a beautiful literary Princess, gracing every ball, book launch and HarperCollins summer party on offer, and even won the coveted Orwell Prize, but was now set to go back to being a shrivelled up, haggard, miserable old hack – just like the rest of us – after lots of horrid things started appearing on t’internet about how “racist” and “offensive” her book really was.
Kate soon featured in the Guardian, The Times and all over Fleet Street crying that she hadn’t really meant to offend anyone. After all, this was HER story about the time she taught little chocolate coloured children with big noses – all of which really happened and wasn’t made up, unlike her poetry. But the Wokies wouldn’t listen. They were so mean to Kate on Goodreads and Twitter that they made her apologise to anyone who’d listen, forcing a crisis of conscience that now made her want to rewrite her mean, mealy-mouthed and mendacious little “memoir” all over again.
The Wokeys were now chuffed that they’d cancelled conniving Kate, who in turn must’ve secretly been happy for all the wonderful free publicity she’d garnered and the fact that people now knew that her name was Kate Clanchy and not “Kate Clancy”, as in Tom. Finally, people who wore proper shoes and not socks with sandals were talking about her amazingly racist, offensive book. And they all lived happily ever after. The end. Sort of.
As easy as it is to mock Kate Clanchy (and believe you me, it’s really easy), I have some sympathy for her. But not much. Having won the 2020 Orwell Political Book Writing prize for Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me – pocketing three grand in the process – Ms Clanchy is no mug. She’s taught in state schools for more than 30 years, has published an anthology of children’s poetry and been awarded an MBE for services to literature.
Given her background, milieu and oeuvre, one would imagine that she had been thoroughly processed through the white liberal meat grinder on her way to Orwellian glory. While swigging on cheap wine and munching old cheese, the supposedly woketard, risk-averse longlist judges would surely have flagged up any “racism” once they’d come to Clanchy’s offering. Well, not necessarily.
Chair of Clanchy’s prize category was Stephanie Flanders, the BBC’s former economics editor, who was said to have quit the corporation in 2013 for a £400,000 annual salary as J.P. Morgan Asset Management’s chief market strategist for Britain and Europe. Flanders, who like Clanchy went to Oxford, doesn’t strike me as particularly woke; ditto fellow judge, Cambridge don, Telegraph and Spectator columnist Robert Tombs. But stick the label “Orwell” on anything and you’ve got what looks like an instant leftist world of wokery.
There’s an assumption, poor as it is, that in the United Kingdumb anything literary has become woke; or that liberals and the left are somehow uber-PC and thus immune from thoughts, words and deeds that can be viewed, through a subjective lens, as offensive. Well, they’re not. Much as the BBC is a hotbed of Marxism if you’re a reactionary, or a nest of government stooges and right-wing loons if you’re a socialist, British publishing is politically neither fish nor fowl: it’s the establishment, stupid. And “establishment” for the most part means middle-class, middle-aged, Oxbridge and white.
Proclaiming her win, the Orwell judges said, “In this book, a brilliantly honest writer tackles a subject that ties so many people up in knots – education and how it is inexorably dominated by class. Yet this is the very opposite of a worthy lecture: Clanchy’s reflections on teaching and the stories of her students are moving, funny, full of love and offer sparkling insights into modern British society.” Nowhere in this exultation is Clanchy described as a “brilliantly racist and offensive writer”. And why would she be?
I haven’t read much of Clanchy’s work; I certainly won’t be reading any more. Not because I take offence to the tone, style or content of her writing. Far from it. Her use of “chocolate-coloured skin” and “almond shaped eyes” strike me as mid-brow, provincial and unimaginative. But racist? I don’t think so. No doubt there are more zingers in Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me that might raise an eyebrow, but I shan’t be looking for them. Books have an amazing quality to keep whatever’s between the covers hidden from view, simply by, er, not reading them. Clever, eh?
If Clanchy wants to see the world through the eyes of a latter-day Enid Blyton, good luck to her. Now that readers, schools, libraries and the like know what she’s all about, they can exercise their right of non-engagement and ignore her and her work. Going out of your way to be offended is a fool’s errand, which makes Clanchy’s reaction to the opprobrium so tragic. Writers should be judged on the content of their narrative, not the colour of their prose. If a writer can’t have an opinion, a view, a vision or a voice that is unique to them and not signed off by some mung-bean-eating committee of yes persons, then they’re no writer at all.
Which leads me to what I find truly “offensive” about Ms Clanchy. Unless there’s some hidden financial win or career gain afoot, yielding to the mob looks craven, spineless and lacking in backbone – “qualities” one would dare not associate, ironically, with the recipient of an honour named after as fearless a writer as George Orwell. By kowtowing to the mob and taking the unprecedented step of rewriting her memoir, not to avoid a libel writ or correct factual errors (the only rational reasons for fundamentally changing one’s work), Clanchy has, I’m sad to say, defamed the noble craft of writing.
Writers generally put themselves through tremendous psychological, physiological and financial strain for our art. The average British writer earns little more than £10,000 a year from writing. This is the stuff of the gig economy and minimum wage hell. Many writers I know cling to the bottle or narcs just to get through the day simply because they can’t square a stellar intellect with a piss-poor pay packet. But that’s their choice. Many writers, as artists do, period, trade financial security for intellectual freedom and the opportunity to change the thoughts, feelings and, occasionally, actions of readers. This is a gift, this is magic, this is power. To sell out all of this is a cardinal sin and one that Ms Clancy, given her enviable success, should be ashamed of.
Words are the currency in which writers trade. And literature is a free market. To diminish the value of words is to diminish the value of any idea, observation, opinion, experience, hell, any goddamn piece of knowledge that can be put to paper. Those who assail Clanchy or Rowling or whoever this week’s cancelled writer is, are fools; but they are dangerous fools as they are growing in number.
While writers such as Philip Pullman and Amanda Craig have leapt to Clanchy’s defence, others, including Chimene Suleyman, Monisha Rajesh, Sunny Singh and Dara McAnulty, according to the Guardian, have taken up torches and pitchforks against her. But in the fog of this particular culture war, bravery is lost.
By doing a spectacular U-turn, Ms Clancy has marked herself out as the worst kind of writer there is: a coward. I’ve lost friends and family for my art. I’ve put my reputation, livelihood and my life on the line for it on many occasions, too. Others have gone to jail for their art. Some have died for it.
For many, the phoney “culture war” is a joke, a social media parlour game in which platitudes about “freedom of speech” are bandied about with little or no real cost to those concerned. As a writer, however, freedom of speech is my raison d’etre, as it should be Ms Clancy’s, which is why I implore her to redeem herself and not bow to the mob and tarnish her career but stand by the writer’s credo: publish and be damned.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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