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18 December 2014

Food fights, Jeremy Thorpe’s liberal invitation, and the fate of black characters in Hollywood

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

By Peter Wilby

Jack Monroe, the Guardian’s affordable food columnist, proposes that “Labour MPs . . . Conservative peers . . . the government and the Church” should “put all our political and ideological differences to one side” and work together to reduce the poverty that causes people to go to food banks. That was exactly what the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK, funded by the Church of England, set out to do. Alas, hunger is about as ideological an issue as you can get. The inquiry’s report, Feeding Britain, demonstrates that.

The left believes that poor people need money. The right believes that they need more middle-class do-gooders fussing over them, teaching them how to cook properly, where to find fresh food, when to get up in the mornings and how to avoid debt. Roughly half of Feeding Britain is devoted to the latter – and that, unsurprisingly, was what the Tory peer and inquiry member Lady Jenkin tried to highlight when she said the poor didn’t know how to cook – and half to the money issue. But the recommendations on money are phrased to avoid upsetting the Tory members of the inquiry. The government is not told to increase the national minimum wage but “to continue to pursue policies which seek to raise” it. Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions is not told to abandon its punitive regime against the poor but to go about it more gently and humanely.

The three Tories on the inquiry are all relatively moderate. If you want another view, turn to the Daily Mail, where Robin Aitken, co-founder of the Oxford Food Bank and prominent Tory campaigner against the BBC’s “leftist” bias, argues that food banks do not “disgrace” Britain. On the contrary, they “demonstrate that our society is still humane and conscience-driven” and aware of “collective moral responsibility”. We should therefore “celebrate” them. There speaks the authentic voice of Thatcherite Toryism. Far from deploying state resources to eradicate poverty and inequality, we should welcome renewed opportunities for the well-off to exercise, like Mrs Pardiggle in Dickens’s Bleak House, their “rapacious benevolence”.

Best served cold

A government-appointed task force chaired by Richard Lloyd, executive director of  Which?, rightly proposes that companies should be heavily fined and board directors held personally responsible for persistent cold calling. But do others share my dilemma about how to respond to such calls that, I find, still come frequently despite our using the telephone preference service?

The people who ring are usually young. They are probably desperate for money. Should you be polite and brief so that they can move on to customers who are more likely to trigger the commission they need to pay rent or feed a baby? Or should you tease the callers and string them along for a while, thus leaving them less time to bother the elderly and vulnerable who may be fooled into buying something they don’t want? Or should you just express your true feelings, which are to shout and swear at the intrusion into your privacy?

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No doubt Robin Aitken would wish us to “celebrate” a cold call if it requires us to examine our moral responsibilities so profoundly.

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Milking the issue

When we spent Christmas with my parents in the 1970s, a band of male handbell ringers would visit the house, raising money for charity. During one annual performance, my wife breastfed our younger son, not least because his wails of hunger threatened to drown out the bells. My mother (born 1911) told me later that her sister (born 1892) had started muttering about how my wife “should cover herself up”. Though hardly in the forefront of either feminism or the permissive society, my mother thought this rather pathetic and hilariously funny. 

Perhaps she would be unsurprised that, in 2014, Claridge’s Hotel (founded 1812) requires a breastfeeding mother to cover herself with a large napkin but I am sure she would be astonished that Nigel Farage (born 1964) apparently approves.

Race to survival

Interstellar, which my wife and I saw at a West End cinema, had a spaceship crew that included one black man, played by an English actor from a Ghanaian family. Judging from past Hollywood movies, we expected him to fall off the spaceship first. He didn’t. He survived, after a crew mate drowned on the first planet they visited, almost to the film’s final scenes, although he was dispatched in typically emphatic fashion by an exploding bomb. What do the violent ends that Hollywood allots to black characters say about the American psyche? And has Hollywood ever made a film in which the whites all come to grief, leaving a black person to survive after a heroic battle against overwhelming odds?

A Liberal invitation

I had only one encounter with the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, who has died aged 85. It was during one of the 1974 general election campaigns when the Liberals hired a fleet of helicopters to convey Thorpe and attendant hacks, including me, around the West Country. After one stop, I stood chatting to a colleague from another newspaper, a young man of pleasing appearance, or at least more pleasing than mine. Suddenly we spotted Thorpe, to whom neither of us had previously spoken, striding purposefully towards us. Or, rather, towards my colleague, to whom he addressed an invitation for lunch at his home near the next stop. After my colleague assented, Thorpe nodded at me and, in a begrudging way, murmured, “And, er, you, if you, er, like.”

As we waited at the next stop, we saw Thorpe in a deep, animated conversation with his wife, punctuated by glances in our direction. Finally, looking embarrassed, he trudged over to us and muttered, “Sorry, can’t come to lunch.” Looking directly at my colleague, he added, “She won’t have it.”