A week ago I had a well-paid if sometimes tedious job, and a sideline trying to make people smile on Twitter. Then the second very much got in the way of the first.
It had never occurred to me that I ought to include the standard words ‘All views entirely my own’ in my Twitter biography. It seemed a waste of precious characters when this was surely bleeding obvious, not least because my employer was by no means exempt from being treated as the butt of my attempted humour.
With hindsight, this proved a very expensive mistake.
Shortly before lunch on Sunday, 14 February – when I was, unusually, stone cold sober – my eye was caught by a tweet from the controversialist Julia Hartley-Brewer, expressing a low opinion of the neighbours who had reported TV personality Amanda Holden to the police for paying a visit to her distressed elderly parents in Cornwall.
I ‘liked’ this – and then, fatefully, I retweeted it, noting that such attitudes to visitors were by no means confined to Cornwall and should be borne in mind when considering summer holiday bookings. I referred to the ‘UK’s Celtic fringe’ because, as a border dweller, I have been particularly conscious of the ‘English go home’ hostility that has become pervasive during the pandemic – though, to be fair, one could probably say the same of most coastal and rural areas in England, too. Covid has bred a most unattractive insularity, combined with a willingness to report trivial perceived breaches of the almost wartime travel and recreation guidelines to the authorities.
My tweet produced an almost immediate kickback demanding to know whether this represented Iceland Foods’ view of their Scottish and Welsh customers. I replied that of course it didn’t – but then, as it was my son’s ninth birthday as well as Valentine’s Day, I decided that I would be much better employed celebrating than in spending my time arguing on Twitter, so I deleted the tweets (something I had never done before) and moved on.
On Monday morning I was confronted with a dossier prepared by a website called Nation.Cymru, seeking to prove that I was a lifelong anti-Welsh bigot. It cited some recent tweets making disobliging references to my daily journey to Deeside Industrial Park (never likely to be a top draw for tourists) and, rather more seriously for me as it turned out, dug out what were intended to be some humorous comments I had made in a 2014 Newcastle Journal column about the Welsh language – an aside in a piece that was actually about the then current Scottish independence referendum.
I wrote this weekly column for the best part of a decade, dispensing knockabout fun in the style of a very poor man’s Rod Liddle, and making jokes at the expense of a pretty comprehensive range of people and places – though chiefly to the detriment of myself. I had archived the columns in a personal blog that ended in 2015 and which I had not looked at for almost as long. Nor had anyone else, to judge by the visitor tracker, but interest now shot up as people trawled through this and another personal blog, mainly about my disastrous love life, looking for things that they could claim to be offended by.
By Tuesday I was pretty fully occupied blocking and muting personal abuse from those expressing their determination to have me prosecuted for racism, to push excrement through my letterbox, and in one case to seek me out and kill me.
By Wednesday my employer, besieged by furious callers and social media posts, felt that it could no longer continue our long association.
Now, I recognise that my humour is not to everyone’s taste. I am an elderly (66), white, middle class, Oxbridge-educated, libertarian Geordie who grew up with the comedy of Hancock, Round The Horne, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, Monty Python, Morecambe & Wise, and – yes – Benny Hill and Bernard Manning. There are plenty of things I still find funny that would never make it onto terrestrial TV at all these days, even with a long prior apology and trigger warning.
Yet there were no limits to what my father found funny – including war, illness and death – and I cherish that inheritance. I don’t see why increasing swathes of life have to be cordoned off as unsuitable material for jokes because someone might be offended by them.
I constantly see and read things that I personally find offensive. I think it is reasonable to expect a right of reply, but I would never demand that anyone to be forced to stop saying these things to spare my feelings.
The ‘cancel culture’ that is sadly becoming the norm in the UK is plain wrong. No one should be deprived of their livelihood, and potentially driven to take their life, by making a joke that others do not find funny.
For the record, I have spent many enjoyable holidays in Wales, in locations ranging from the heart of Snowdonia to Abersoch, Gower, Tremadog and Ynyshir. One of the highlights of my life was a day spent learning to drive a steam locomotive on the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway. Ironically, the green sweatshirt that I am wearing in the Facebook profile picture that was splashed across the national press last week is blazoned with the arms of another Welsh railway it was bought to support, the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland.
In the course of the last week I have learned that many Welsh people – including some owners of hospitality businesses – share my view that growing overt hostility to visitors poses a threat to their tourist economy (though they have by and large been careful not to make their feelings public).
I am not convinced that this is necessarily an altogether bad thing – I have never been a fan of mass travel, and have not boarded an aeroplane or left the UK myself since 2009. Nor do I have any plans to do so. Self-mockery of my own narrow horizons was a recurrent theme of my tweets, aimed more at myself than at the places I did not care to visit.
Perhaps the post-pandemic world will be one where we are all permanently scared to leave home, and think, shop and travel much more locally.
This will be a poorer world – culturally as well as economically – but such could well be the inevitable consequence of climate change as well as new strains of pandemic disease.
I just hope that, as the last humans are expiring of plague or about to be consumed by fire, there will be at least one person left trying very hard to see and share the funny side.