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The Highway Rat: a preachy tale about eating in moderation that’s NOT in the Christmas spirit

The great heroes of children’s literature guzzle and gulp with pride. Enter The Highway Rat.

Every once in a while, literature provides us with a hero. A hero who dazzles, who exposes the hypocrisy of hierarchy, who inspires the small and downtrodden. A hero who burns bright as a thousand flames. Think brave cake-finisher Bruce Bogtrotter, The Very Brilliant and Very Hungry Caterpillar, fearless and intrepid Augustus Gloop, charming chicken and cider thief Fantastic Mr Fox, and Sid of not one, not two, but Six Dinners.

The great heroes of children’s literature guzzle and gulp with pride. Enter the Highway Rat, Julia Donaldson’s buck-toothed, rapier-wielding rodent, who made his way to BBC One this Christmas Day. The press releases were so promising. “The Highway Rat tells the tale of a ravenous rat who craves buns, biscuits and all sweet things,” the BBC declared. So far, so sold. The rat is now my idol.

The rat is clearly a stone cold bad bitch.

But it continues: “Tearing along the highway, he searches for sugary treats to steal… until his sweet tooth leads him to a sticky end.” If you’re getting a distinctly unpleasant whiff of moral superiority with base notes of food shaming and just a hint of fatphobia – well congrats to you on those noble, powerful nostrils of yours.

Yum yum yum, carrot sticks in ratty’s tum.

The Highway Rat is just the latest in a long and proud tradition of culinary rats, following in the footsteps of such illustrious gourmet rodents as Rizzo the Rat and Remy from Ratatouille. But the animated adaptation of Donaldson’s picture book (a parody of the Alfred Noyes poem “The Highwayman”) immediately presents the Highway Rat as a villain. First, by having him voiced by known Top Gear guest David Tennant. Secondly, by introducing him putting on a black cape and bandit’s mask while narrator Rob Brydon chants: “The Highway Rat was a baddie. The Highway Rat was a beast.”

Alright ratty you treat yourself to that pretty unicorn cupcake you deserve it lad.

Why is our rat so beastly? Simply put: “His life was one long feast.” He binges on baked goods and anything else he can get his little paws on, and he’s not ashamed in the slightest.  “Give me your pastries and puddings! Give me your chocolate and cake!” he exclaims. “Give me your buns and your biscuits! Give me your chocolate eclairs! [….] Give me your sweets and your lollies! Give me your toffees and chews!”

Who amongst us cannot relate? A reminder: The Highway Rat aired on Christmas Day at 4:45pm, the point in the day where you’ve eaten your way through mountains of roast dinner, a brandy-soaked wobbly pud, and are half-way through a nice big tin of Quality Street. When The Highway Rat aired, we were all The Highway Rat: which makes its grim message of anti-sugar propaganda and moralistic preaching of eating only in moderation all the more miserable. The Highway Rat is definitely NOT in the spirit of Christmas.

Deliciously Bunny sits atop a throne of lies.

The Highway Rat procures his dinners by stealing them from other woodland creatures, which, in fairness to the Highway haters, does seem rude. But there is surely a metaphor at work here. Glimpsing what looks like a sweet treat in their baskets, he is often disappointed to find vegetables lurking their instead. What seems to be piles of purple icing is actually a bunch of clovers, nice iced buns are in reality big ol’ nuts, spotted pink cupcakes turn out to be wild mushrooms. It’s a familiar disappointment for anyone who has fallen foul of health trend – stumbling upon 100 per cent raw cacao disguised as milk chocolate, spiralizer courgette posing as pasta. These bourgeois, paleo dieting, clean eating, forest foragers had it coming from the start.

Just say no to clover.

The Highway Rat’s sweet tooth is portrayed as a slippery slope that leads him down a dark spiral of crime: “With never a please or a thank you, / Thе Rat carried on in this way / Flies from a spider! Milk from a cat! / He once stole his own horse’s hay!” The narrator despises the Highway Rat’s now bulky form: “The creatures who travelled the highway / Grew thinner and thinner and thinner, / While the highway rat grew horribly fat / From eating up everyone’s dinner.”Selfish and evil (and, seemingly worst of all, fat): see where the simple enjoyment of cakes can lead you?!

A proud and handsome ratter.

Eventually, an evil duck sporting a witchy headscarf leads our antihero astray by luring him into a cave with the promise of “biscuits and buns a-plenty”, stealing his horse and all his food, and leaving him to die alone in the dark. The woodland creatures have their veggies back, and have a “feast”: “For now they could live in freedom, / Safe from the Highway Rat.”

The evil witch presents her Fake News.

The rat nearly starves to death before he escapes, and is reformed by the trauma. The narrator celebrates this “thinner and greyer and meeker Rat”, but for the audience he has been robbed of his many charms. He works in a cake shop, torturing himself by staring all day at cakes he will no longer permit himself to eat, nibbling the odd crumb from the floor or licking a stray bit of icing that makes it onto his fingers. It’s a gloomy portrait, a hollow shell of the once glorious rat. Relocated and reformed, he is unable to even refer to himself as The Rat of The Highway. Identityless, hungry, and now a worker chained to a nightmarish system of capitalism, the Highway Rat is a sad shadow of his former self.

A pathetic and obsequious rat imposter.

All this makes The Highway Rat at odds with the true meaning of Christmas, which everyone knows is: Eat, all ye hungry. Eat whatever the fuck you want, and as much as you humanly can. Even you, Tiny Tim. God bless us, every tum.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist