Talking of Keith, when did we prudes lose our sense of humour?

Welsh language demo outside an Iceland store in north Wales, 2018

A retired career-teacher, Bernard Trafford got used to jokes against his profession, and to harsher words, too. But if it’s OK to knock teachers, why (he asks) do other interest groups claim some special status that forbids cracks at their expense?

WHEN DID OUR SULKING SOCIETY develop its current prissy intolerance and eagerness to be offended? What gave rise to the prevalence of a pitiful, Puritanical prudery that permits no poking of fun, no pricking of pretensions?

Is it a recent change, brought on by Brexit and nurtured by the Millennials’ mean-spirited social media? Or did it always lurk along the edges of our awkward coalition of kingdoms, waiting to pounce at the slightest sight of weakness?

I ask out of despair at the storm in a teacup that has cost my good friend Keith Hann his career. Keith, top PR man and longstanding columnist for Newcastle’s regional daily The Journal and, until his dismissal last week, a senior executive at Iceland Foods. For those who missed the story which  made national headlines, Voice editor David Banks has set out the salient facts HERE.

It is an all-too-common story these days, yet the playing-field (a popular metaphor nowadays) is far from level. It appears to me that some people are seen as fair game for groundless criticism, while others claim protected status and squeal with outrage when questioned or, heaven forfend, mocked.

Take the teacher, questioned today on TV about the planned reopening of English schools on March 8. She was asked about the  aggrieved parent who blamed her for their son’s failure to make progress with online education during lockdown.

She shrugged off the criticism; I imagine she’s used to it by now. For the last couple of decades that kind of ‘blame game’ has been commonplace. A child’s failure or refusal to learn or behave must be the fault of either teacher or school. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? I should know, having run schools in various places from 1990 until 2018.

Ever since the late 1980s, when politicians decided to take an interest in education, teachers have been regularly hammered for their alleged ‘leftie leanings’, unconscionably long holidays, their general laziness and inability to work miracles with all 30 or more kids in the classroom. . . indeed, whatever’s the right-wing media’s latest moan of the month.

Only weeks ago, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson urged parents unhappy with their kids’ distanced teaching to complain to Ofsted, the inspectorate which itself routinely does all it can to invite such criticism. Not surprisingly, the second-oldest profession has learned to roll with it.

Still, since lockdown forced parents to take on a chunk of the job as home educators on top of their own occupations and anxieties, teachers have begun to achieve a degree of respect from those previously so quick to complain. Polish your halo, Sir or Miss, and enjoy the moment: I doubt it will last. It’ll soon be back to the jokes and the banter in the pub: ‘You on holiday again?’ ‘No, it’s Saturday night.’ Even teachers are allowed out on a Saturday.

While I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of teacher-bashing, other fields, by contrast, seem to preserve and even encourage a dour intolerance or unwillingness to brook any criticism or merest breath of disagreement.  In the case of my friend and fellow columnist Keith Hann, always funniest when at his grumpiest, it took it took the humourless horde seven years to unearth a newspaper column on the then-impending Scottish independence referendum in which he drew a parallel with the way in which the Welsh can be similarly hostile to English tourists on whose cash so many depend for a living.

Unwisely, perhaps, he followed that with a crack about the impenetrable and unpronounceable characteristics of the Welsh language. And last week that piece of writing – caustic, funny and entirely related to a seven-year-old pre-referendum discussion –  was dredged up from the recesses of The Journal’s online archive, whereupon the solids hit the air-conditioning.

Iceland is headquartered in Wales; it had little choice but to disown Keith, to apologise and pledge its loyalty to the Principality.

There are plenty of historical reasons for England to suffer the distrust, even dislike, of other parts of the UK. But what happened to Keith is symptomatic of a deep ill in the UK. It’s not ‘woke’ and it’s not ‘cancel culture’; to apply such labels would dignify what is no more than the Puritanical prudery, prissy intolerance and eagerness to be offended of which I wrote at the outset.

In the last week my colleague Keith has been hounded, trolled, had excrement stuffed through his letterbox (no, I don’t understand it, either), and lost his job. And for what?

If this is really our brave new world of disintegrating, Brexit-ed, sovereign Britain, I want none of it. Fortunately, we’re generally better than that.

Except when we aren’t.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.