Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 01 Sep 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Silly tweedy decency

I spent a huge amount of my childhood surrounded by fiction from the fifties. All of my dad’s and uncle’s books ended up on my shelves and as an only child who already spent as much time as possible in his own head, the spines and covers were just too tempting. Courtesy of authors who had probably long  since been gathered to rest I ended up in a frankly bizarre world that bore only a very tenuous relationship to my own.

Before I start clambering into my rubbish boat and punting off down memory river, I need to say that it probably only bore a passing relationship with the fifties. Police ineptitude was at an almost legendary pitch, with Timothy Evans clumsily fitted up and hung for living with Christie and Derek Bentley legally murdered for being, oddly enough, in the company of a murderer. What we now know of paedophilia suggests it was extensively under-reported and as far as rights for women and minorities go, it was a very different age.

For all that, there are some elements of this, sturdy shoe wearing, doughty and terrible sensible past that gave me cause to think. For instance, in one of Alan Stranks’ comic book PC 49 adventures that originally ran in The Eagle, the titular hero, a police constable, sees that two young boys on his beat are being lured into a life of crime by two spivs and observes ‘The twins have come by easy money – and easy money is no good to anyone.’ Something in my young, appallingly Thatcherite brain shifted. PC 49 was proved right and something seemed amiss.

As my reading got more ambitious, the moral lessons got more uncomfortable. In one of the later Biggles books, the character goes to rescue his former nemesis, von Stalhein, from a gulag behind the Iron Curtain. While I know that Biggles is a fairly disastrous archetype of the colonial mindset that stubbornly refused to read the writing on the wall and die, that he would honour his former foe by trying to rescue him seemed, well, decent, I suppose. And the more I looked around me, in the hectic capitalist bubble of the eighties, the less I could see decency.

The PC 49 story was in a book of reprinted Eagle cartoons I managed to pester my parents into buying for me and included not just the cartoons but also some of the original letters pages and sundry other bits and pieces. One of the items that caught my attention was a recurring panel called ‘Mug of the Week.’ As far as I knew, a mug was someone who had been made to look stupid, but in the parlance of the fifties, it was a term used by the underworld, supposedly, to denote a person who was straight and incorruptible.

Each of the people nominated in ‘Mug of the Week’ was chosen precisely because they were good people and because the Eagle wanted its readers to read all about them. There was the young lad who had cared for his seriously ill family, alone, while he put himself through school. There was the one who had bravely chased down robbers and been stabbed. The list went on. They were all Eagle readers, but they were all hugely brave and were rightly being celebrated for showing that word again – decency. In fact, that word runs right through those stories.

The final example I’m going to burden you with was a strip called ‘Black Bob’ that was about an unusually clever collie and his master, who was a shepherd. For all that Viz have parodied this, and for all that I find it guiltily funny, there’s more to Black Bob than meets the eye. This isn’t a story about a famous detective or even someone with a lot of money. It’s about a poor, ordinary bloke who, yet again, shows decency and determination in a bizarrely exciting life.

I suppose the point of these stories was that these were generally ordinary people, with the arguable exception of Biggles, for whom I’d have willingly died, in extraordinary situations and yet who displayed values that everyone could relate to. PC 49 had a single strip of medal ribbons, which would have been from the Second World War, on his tunic. The point was understated and subtle, but well made all the same. These were brave people who, like Mug of the Week, weren’t afraid to risk ridicule and derision to do the decent thing. It hadn’t made Black Bob’s owner rich, but that wasn’t the point. He had integrity and that was what counted.

This world of bygone, tweedy decency ended up being the moral locus around which my world has pivoted. My parents can’t have known, when I was up there in my room, poring over my books, that I was drawing moral lessons from them, and I doubt I knew either, but although I grew up as an awful little Tory, I ended up being an awful little Tory whose values were curiously at odds with the ‘get rich quick’ ethos of his time and, by the time I was eighteen, I had the wit to realise that the Tories weren’t where my conscience was leading me.

No surprise, then, that I’ve ended up being a reluctantly, but not very tweedily decent adult. I went to a university where I was surrounded by illegal pharmaceuticals of every stripe and ended up not taking any, because I knew that any money I paid for them would go into the pockets of people like the spivs in PC 49, but significantly worse. I pick up my litter, try and help people that I might not always like and generally try and behave properly, for all that I have anger pulling at my sleeve and a wholly imaginary audience of hipsters mocking me.

Growing older with these values is not easy, if only because you see them being flouted and mocked at every turn. But they were there when I came to realise that the Army work I was doing, writing copy to recruit soldiers for two disastrously misbegotten and questionably legal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was morally wrong. They were there when I realised that the lies about Jean Charles de Menezes were just that – lies. And it’s been there many times since.

It’s there now. Something in my head tells me that I should be more successful, earning more money and doing whatever else. My writing career has stalled and, being charitable, is lying on the back of its notional cage with its legs in the air. I do a minimum wage job, on occasion, because I really, really need the money, and because I can fit it around the writing work that I do get. Plus, I’m still mentally ill, which isn’t necessarily ideal or conducive to turning up promptly and doing what it is expected of you. For all that, the work I do doesn’t make me morally shudder, I’ve qualified as a Street Pastor and I am, to all intents and purposes, trying to be a decent human being.

Were I to have children, and every inch of me hopes I do, they’d probably think I was arsingly dull and sensible, and view me with the kind of bafflement and casual disdain that people seem to reserve for teachers of advanced years that they think aren’t aware their pupils are laughing at them. If life, though, is about being truly who you are and living it out, then this is me. Cut me and I bleed dusty old books, with forgotten heroes who, above all else, held out to people the idea that decency was bravery, was dignity and, above all, was its own reward.

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