A QUICK UPDATE to last week’s tale of the Chief Whip who made what the BBC describe as “rude remarks” to police officers: he resigned. But even then he managed to be extremely annoying – if not, in fact, rude – because at the precise moment he quit the scene, we were all hooked to the unfolding drama of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who was on a train to London and had found himself, unaccountably, in the cheap seats. Georgie doesn’t really do cheap seats – and who, with any experience of travelling on a British train on a crowded Friday afternoon, would, if they had the choice? So he removed himself to the posh part. But he didn’t want to pay up! Cue live-tweeting from carriages of enraged travellers and a capital full of journalists thinking – thanks, mate: I was hoping to knock off early and go to the pub, and now I’ve got to go to Euston station to meet the Chancellor’s train so that I can write a colour piece about a lot of journalists going to Euston station to meet the Chancellor’s train. Cheers. (Except me: I live within a mile of the destination station and I looked out of the window and thought: it’s raining. Hard. I don’t think so.)
Anyway, clearly George sent the Chief Whip a text, or got his valet to do it, which said something like: OI. BIG TROUBLE HERE. BIT OF A FAUX PAS IN FRONT OF THE MASSES. YOU’RE ON THE WAY OUT ANYWAY, CAN YOU DO IT NOW?
To which I imagine the Chief Whip replied:
YOU OWE ME BIGTIME, DICKFACE.
But let us leave Andrew Mitchell reaching for a sheaf of exquisitely thick paper and his Mont Blanc pen and scribbling the words, “Dear David…”. Let us consider instead the upsetting case of the Christian guest-house owners who, this week, were found to have broken equality laws when they would not allow a gay couple to occupy a double room in their bed & breakfast. Their stance is clear; their beliefs cannot accommodate the everyday reality of two men (in this case) having a relationship with one another beneath their roof. But the law is equally clear in the matter of discrimination, and the civil case brought by the two men succeeded by virtue of the fact that they were not treated in the same manner as an unmarried, heterosexual couple. “Equality laws,” said the establishment’s owner in response to the judgement, “have gone too far when they start to intrude into a family home.”
I was born in a guest-house; or, rather, at the end of breakfast one morning, my mother took off her apron, got into a taxi and asked it to take her to the nearest maternity ward. But I am, nonetheless, a child of the hospitality industry. And while I didn’t grow up in that seaside B&B – we moved on when I was a little girl, and various other permutations of hotel and restaurant work came and went – and didn’t, therefore, grow up with the constant traffic of unfamiliar visitors, I know a rat when I smell it.
Viz: you don’t open a B&B/guest-house/small hotel if your idea of a “family home” is quite so inflexible. If you see it as “a castle,” as the leader of the British National Party so charmingly put it, introducing into the mix that ancient saw about the primacy of an Englishman’s home, it is perhaps best not to invite anyone else into it, never mind charge them for the privilege of not being allowed to sleep with one another. Indeed, if you have such exceptionally clear views on the role of divine judgement in the matter of human relationships, then you are probably better off limiting the people who cross your threshold to people who are, well, exactly like you.
My own parents did not need the leisure industry to teach them basic lessons of humanity; treating each person in the same way as the next seemed to come pretty naturally to them. But it probably did affect them in some regard; I think their notions of hospitality went beyond good business practice and assumed a greater ethical dimension. Lest this sound like I think my mum and dad transformed the making of a cup of tea into a moral act, I should say that I mean only that it would never have occurred to them that the fact of ownership granted them some kind of authority. They were not burdened with religious convictions that impinged on their working lives, although my mother had an understated Christian faith; one that led her more forcefully towards the rejection of bigotry than the policing of other’s sexual lives.
But the castle fantasy – the stronghold that protects you, and which you can rely on to repel everything that threatens you – is an ingrained one. The BNP’s Nick Griffin chose his imagery very deliberately; of course he did. And just as he defended the rights of the guest-house owners to defend their castle, he called upon his supporters to “say No to heterophobia” by demonstrating outside the home of the gay couple, the address of which he duly posted on the internet. All castles are not, apparently, equal, and some require visits from a “British Justice Team.” Has anyone ever heard a more sinister term for a bunch of idiot thugs?
Of course, for castle/home read England; I doubt anyone was fooled into thinking that Griffin gave two hoots about this specific case. But perhaps the image itself is losing power. It is natural enough, and not especially harmful, to regard your home as somewhere that affords you shelter and in which you might find conviviality and affection; that belief doesn’t automatically lead to insularity and intolerance. But is that what people think about when they think about their houses and their apartments? Or do they feel anxiety that their home is owned by a bank with an uncertain future, heated by energy that cost more than it did last week and less than it will do next and reliant on their continuing ability to cling on to their income. Sure, that’s a fairly extreme way of expressing the abiding reality that it’s hard work to keep a roof over your head and food on the table; but it’s always good to know what you’re actually up against. And whatever it is, it’s really, really unlikely to be the sexual orientation of other people.