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Reginald D Hunter: “Old and middle-class people, if you scare them, they vote”

The comedian talks about race, Republicans and why stand-ups shouldn't be nice.

Should good comedy challenge the audience?
It can do many things. If anybody says that it "should" be this or that, that's the first step towards extremism. Some nights, I'm pissed about something political; some nights, I'm pissed about something personal. Some nights, I'm thrilled about something weird.

You're from Georgia but you've worked mostly in Britain. What is it like going back to the US?
Recently, I did a lot of the black comedy clubs in LA and New York and they have a whole different value system to white, middle-class audiences. They feel like, "I don't have much money and I spent my money coming to see you. The least you could do is wear some nice shoes." And they mean it.

Do Americans see you as quite anglicised?
No. They think I'm this odd, Jamaican-looking dude who sounds really well-educated. People are comfortable with recognisable types, so I had to give them a few minutes. I had to open by saying, "I'm told I'm weird-sounding but suffice to say I'm a bit of country, a bit of 'nigga' and a little bit of Europe."

And did that relax them?
Stand-up comedy is about breaking that wall of polite company - calling out the elephant in the room. The audience didn't come to see you be nice; they can do that themselves. They came to see you do something they can't do.

How do you gauge how far to go with that?
With comedy, you can talk about anything you like. The deftness lies in how you talk about it. If a joke moves you, then work backwards and find a way to say it to uptight people who want to hear it but don't have the nerve to admit it.

You tour nine months of the year. What is that like?
In the US, I have to pull back on a lot of subject matter. Because of talk-show culture, we're conditioned to talk a lot but we're conditioned not to talk about anything. It's one of the reasons why we haven't made any headway with race issues. We talk in soundbites. There's no discourse between races.

What do you think of the Republican Party's challengers to Barack Obama?
The Republicans are suffering the aftermath of being infiltrated by something that looked like them, sounded like them and had a lot of money but didn't share their core values. Genuine Republicans love a certain vision of America and, to that extent, they're patriots. But something came into their churches and screamed, "Praise the Lord! More jails! The Mexicans are coming!" and it scared them. It happens in this country, too. Old people and middle-class people - if you scare the shit out of them, they vote.

So, you're no fan of politicians.
The political process has become absurd: I can only reach the highest levels of office if I can prove I've never done anything wrong, never said anything wrong. There's an insistence on getting perfect people to represent us, even though we admit we're not perfect.

What was your first stand-up show like?
It was only as the MC announced me that I realised I didn't have any jokes. All I had was an attitude and an accent. By the time I got to the microphone, I'd come up with my first joke: "I'm in Britain because I've gone against everything my family wanted me to do. They keep trying to control me. So I keep doing the opposite . . . That's why I joined the Ku Klux Klan." It got a big enough laugh to carry me through.

Do you have a comedy philosophy?
I see comedy as an art form. If you approach it with head, heart and balls, you'll be OK.

That must be a problem for female comics.
Oh, I know some female comics with balls! One of the troubles is that women are socialised to want to be seen as nice. Also, women are more insistent on having a life, whereas men are more, "Fuck it, man, I'll just tell jokes."

How do you deal with hecklers?
The trick is trusting that you have an innate ability to handle assholes. Some people, you have to drop the hammer on them. For that moment, in the auditorium, you're their dad.

Was there a plan?
I trained as an actor but I didn't love it.

Do you love comedy?
Yes. It's my religion. I feel like I'm part of an order of travelling monks.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
Every night I'm alone in a hotel room, I'm remembering old gigs, jokes that fucked up.

Are we all doomed?
Systems are crashing all around the world - Islam, Christianity, even weather systems. I don't think seven billion people are too much for the earth, but it's too much for our social systems, and people haven't made the connection with the right to create a human being just because they're drunk and lonely.

Defining Moments

1969 Born in Albany, Georgia
1988 In court on shoplifting charges. His lawyer gets him acquitted, then hires him
1996 Travels to England to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
2002 Nominated for the Perrier Award
2005 Makes his television debut in Blackout, shown on Channel 4
2006 Wins Writers' Guild Award for Pride and Prejudice . . . and Niggas. Posters for the show are banned from the Tube

Reginald D Hunter is appearing at the HMV Apollo in Hammersmith, London, on 24 and 25 June. Tickets here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.