Thursday, July 30th, 2009

I have a horrible feeling some of my long-held northern prejudices are about to come pouring out…

When I was a kid certain names were regarded as either posh, weird or funny. Some names go in and out of fashion with the generations, but some just remain posh, weird or funny. My grandma was called Emma – a name I found odd and old-fashioned when I was young; now it is a beautiful and common (in the best sense of the word) name and our lovely daughter-in-law bears it. Emily, James, Katie, etc are other examples.

But today, while we were looking around Hawkshead (near Coniston in the Lake District of northern England…), we overheard a father setting his family up for a photo. He addressed his sons by name: Casper, Felix and Max.

Now, without wanting to give offence to anyone with those names, they all smack of ‘south’ and ‘posh’ and ‘public school’ to me. So do names like ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Rupert’. Am I the only one to find this sort of nominal dislocation (!) funny?

I have never come across anyone called ‘Casper’. When I was a teenager we had a mongrel dog and my mum decided to call it Casper. He was a nightmare and uncontrollable – until we had his bits removed by the vet. Then he became promiscuous in a bisexual sort of way – even trying to mate with esteemed visitors like the Baptist Minister and attempting to breed with trees in the local park. I can’t get this association out of my mind.

But, if you think I am being picky, you should have tried being a blond, blue-eyed lad in Liverpool in the 1970s with the name ‘Nicholas’. I used to get called ‘copper bum’ as a variation on ‘knickerless’ or ‘nickel arse’. And you wonder where I got my hang-ups from…

That aside, I also saw the street name in Hawkshead that had been changed at some point. I liked the social history wrapped up in the original name and regret that they changed it to the name of a wussy poet – even if he did go to school in the village.

Hawkshead street name


It was encouraging to watch the news last night and see that the BBC has been (officially) readmitted to Zimbabwe after several years of (official) absence. I will be in Zimbabwe from Monday 3 – 10 August (i.e. next week) and will be interested to see how deep the apparent renewed optimism goes.

Welcome to ZimbabweWhen I was last there I got stitched up by the government-run media. I had taken a group of 20 people from the Croydon Episcopal Area of the Diocese of Southwark in 2007 and in our second week we were invited to a meeting with the since-retired Governor of the Midlands Province, Cephas Msipa. He was a nice man and was very warm and welcoming to us. I asked if he would mind if we took a few photographs and he said he had no problem with that – as we would have no problem with his people taking a few photos, too.

The ‘few photos’ turned out to be a television crew and a national newspaper journalist (among others). Taken by surprise by this, I tried to make sure that every time the camera was focused on us my arms were crossed, my eyes were down and my head was shaking – all to ensure that I couldn’t be edited in a way that showed me supporting or agreeing with the anti-British propaganda that we would undoubtedly be fed. At the end of a polite-but-frank, useful and substantial exchange of views the Governor brought proceedings to an end, apologising that we had strayed into politics and away from ‘welcome’. And that was when the fun started.

The national journalist (although I did not know at that point that this is who he was) attacked me with accusations of British neo-colonialism, etc – the usual stuff. I countered firmly, but politely. He then went on to accuse the British media of deliberately misrepresenting Zimbabwe for their own political ends and that really annoyed me. I suggested that banning the BBC and other western media organs from Zimbabwe did not help their cause, raised speculation about what they were trying to hide and betrayed great insecurity. However, I then added: “Anyone who deals with the media gets misrepresented or misquoted – even in the UK; but you can deal with it in a democracy by countering or complaining and getting it put right. Zimbabwe can’t ban the BBC and then complain when they get at second or third hand what they feel to be misrepresentation! You can’t have it both ways…” This was followed by  alonger informal conversation after the meeting finished.

The next morning the front page headline of the Herald proclaimed: ‘Clergyman condemns UK media lies’, reporting that I had led a group of 20 clergy [sic] to Zimbabwe on a fact-finding mission [sic] and saw no evidence of problems – putting it all down to media lies by a politically motivated British media. I protested directly to the Governor (who had given me his mobile phone number – probably in anticipation of such an event) who got a TV report re-edited and then withdrawn and apologised to me for what he also recognised as deliberate fabrication and misrepresentation of both the meeting we had had and the comments I had made.

However, this didn’t stop the story getting repeated around the world. One amazingly brazen magazine in the UK, New African, even published what purported to be first-hand interview with me in which I reinforced what the Herald had published. I had never heard of New African, had not been approached by them and they refused to print my letter challenging the article – in fact, they never even responded.

I still get what can only be described as ‘hate mail’ on the basis of what I was reported to have said. I followed up this trip with an article in the Church Times (which I cannot now find), but it was also mentioned in an article in the Church Times while we were still out there in Zimbabwe. I understand that the journalist who wrote this later committed suicide, but I have no idea of the circumstances.

I will be back there next week and looking for signs of change. This beautiful country with its wonderful people deserves better than it has experienced during the last years. I hope to find genuine grounds for renewed optimism – but without restoration of the rule of law and a genuinely free media, such optimism will be mere wishful thinking.