Gary Raymond reflects on the debate around statues, and takes a look at when BBC’s Question Time virtually came to Wales this week.
It swells the heart with pride whenever BBC’s flagship politics debate/undignified gladiatorial maul programme turns its attention to Wales. In the Old Times, the circus used to physically come to town. The queues to sign up stretched around the block. Swivelled-eyed right wing nutjobs were instructed to join the “Melanie Phillips Line”, while the “Owen Jones Conga” was reserved for spotty leftists who smelled of tea tree oil. Fun times. There was a nifty little merch stall set up in the venue lobby, with gifts stretching the gamut from copies of Mao’s Little Red Book to great hunks of locally-sourced gammon. It was a festival of ideas. A carnival of the opinions. A cornucopia of ticked boxes.
Some have claimed in recent years that Question Time has lost its relevancy. I disagree. It has been, at its best, like watching a distilled live version of Twitter for fifty minutes every week. Question Time is less sweary, nobody backs up their arguments with links to websites, and I’ve yet to hear anybody threaten JK Rowling, but other than that, the two platforms are eerily similar. But during the pandemic Question Time seemed to have regained some of the level-headedness it had before it became an anteroom of social media rage. Perhaps it’s the fact the audiences were gone? Nevertheless, by the time the show came (almost) to Cardiff this week, the “idea” of the live audience had returned, quashing any speculation that Question Time will take the plunge and do without the baying crowd for good. You can almost hear the lips curl in the production suite. My god, this is boooooooooring. How is it even television unless some 60 year old pink-faced white dude is shouting TAKE BACK CONTROL at tiny Lisa Nandy, his spittle spraying into the ‘fro of the student nurse sitting patiently in front of him?
So, the middle ground, the “opening of non-essential shops” of the TV debate world, is to have a Celebrity Squares of public faces up on a large screen, offering a balanced array of feedback to the panellists’ socially distanced monologues. It’s a very unhappy half-way house. This also means that rather than send the circus to town, for now Question Time can simply send a ZOOM invitation. Fiona Bruce is inviting you to a Zoom meeting has a certain allure to it. Strange, then, that everyone looked so reluctant, so bored. QT’s strict adherence to the BBC rules of balance meant that in the past they would sometimes go as far as recruiting audience members from the far right outer-reaches of the Conservative Party in order to make sure Melanie Phillips got a few whoops when she slagged off Muslims, gays, and women. But this week, a week smack bang in the middle of what some might superficially refer to as the era of Black Lives Matter, the Question Time recruitment drive was unable to find a single black person for their virtual audience in a city with one of the oldest African-Caribbean communities in the UK. Perhaps it was because Melanie Phillips was unavailable to provide balance?
The panel was more diverse. Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services Vaughan Gething reminds us simply with his presence that the UK Government’s daily briefings have been as uniformly white as they’ve been shit. The other voice of reason on the panel came in the person of novelist Bernadine Evaristo, not forced here, thankfully, to share her chair with Margaret Atwood. Evaristo spoke beautifully and powerfully – just as she writes – about black history, about black experience, and about our racist Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The rest of the panel was classic QT. You had the UK Government minister with a connection to the “region”, a figure so indistinct you have to wonder how his tailor was able to take accurate measurements. Robert Buckland, a man so bland I forgot his name four times the moment the last syllable of it left Fiona Bruce’s mouth, is Welsh by accent, but has the strange appearance of a man created in a lab from the DNA of Mark Francois and a Pez dispenser. In a bold attempt at creating BBC balance, Fiona Bruce wore a hot pink suit so hot and so pink that it took some of the emphasis off the gradually reddening rose of Buckland’s cheeks. She’s all heart.
The other seats were carefully divvied up to what the BBC believes to be representations of schools of thought. QT loves its entrepreneurs, as if being able to hire savvy accountants makes you Bertrand Russell. Rocco Forte – not a porn star apparently – had the big collar and big tan of a man who fills out all his tax returns from the office on his yacht, and was just the latest in a long line of “business men” who pop up on debates just to show the world that “business men” are as thick as shit when it comes to anything outside the subject of making and keeping money. Liz Saville-Roberts represented the Party of Wales, Plaid Cymru, currently in the midst of no public scandal whatsoever for its leader’s use of slaving analogies to describe Wales’s historical and current relationship to England.
Wales’s most striking relationship to England at the moment, it’s worth pointing out, has been one of admiring inaction as we watched Bristolians across the Severn Estuary pull down a statue to mass murdering slave owner Edward Colston. By god, we want our slave owner memorials torn down too here in Wales. We’re just waiting for the right moment. Even the leader of Cardiff Council, Huw Thomas, wants slave owner statues taken down. By God! It just takes time. We have to write statements about it. Tweet about it. And even a basic understanding of engineering tells us it can take time to find the right kind of rope, then you need to find some burly blokes to give it a good tug. You can’t just do these things. There is a solemn process to bypassing the solemn processes that have got us nowhere so far. I guess black people will just have to live and work and pay taxes under the shadows of these statues for just a little while longer.
Robert Buckland, of course, (if that really is your name) believes history is complicated. He believes this because he is a white male Tory, without doubt the tribe that has proved itself time and time again the most capable of unpicking complicated issues. Racist Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Buckwheat went on to say when challenged about our racist Prime Minister’s racist journalism, is like any other racist journalist, in that he very much appreciates his mates going on national television to defend him and offer regrets. Much easier than our racist Prime Minister himself offering those regrets, or apologies, or resignations.
On the statue issue, the way that Robin Buckfast turned his searching intellectual weight to this matter reminded me of my school days. In our group of mates was a lad named Stuart. We all had a Stuart – you remember yours? Stuart was a bit of a laff, a good footballer, and he was tall so could buy booze without ID from the corner shop. Unfortunately, Stuart was also a mass murdering slave owner. But as we always used to say, Stuart may have been a mass murdering slave owner, but he was our mass murdering slave owner. And these things are complicated. So, he remained in our friendship group. I believe there was even a statue of him for a while, outside Bejams in Newport, until it was pulled down and thrown in the Usk by some people from Bristol.
Statues statues statues. It really is complicated. If Colston comes down for his crimes against humanity, why not Karl Marx for writing a book? Where will it end? You take down statues of people with dodgy life stories, and Britain will soon be woefully short of statues and where will that leave us? What even is a country without statues? On whose heads, I ask you, will students place traffic cones? Statues statues statues. It’s important Wales debates this, while we look across at Bristol, and ask what can we do about it? If Black Lives Matter has taught us white people anything it’s that we must talk more about things and not act with any sense of conviction or urgency.
So, I for one, am glad the nation is discussing the statues. Should they stay up? Should they be put in museums? Should they be dumped in the sea? Should they all be stashed in our racist Prime Minister’s sex dungeon to assist in moments of erectile consternation? Let’s discuss it over and over again. Talk talk talk. Similar to the feng shui debates, I would imagine, aboard the Titanic as it slipped beneath the waves.
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Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and is editor of Wales Arts Review.