Not saying, just saying

I’ll get back to the poetry shortly. I just wanted to put down a memory that was stirred by the Anne Marie Morris furore. The evidence that the phrase is common currency in some circles – despite having been so thoroughly lost to the language more generally as to cause both offence and bafflement when Morris used it – is compelling and, frankly, odd. If people (some people) were using a word that’s now streng verboten in normal usage, but using it for the sake of a familiar and resonant idiom, that would be one thing. Using it for the sake of an idiom from the Old (American) South, and one that’s so unfamiliar that most people commenting aren’t entirely sure what it means or whether Moss was even using it correctly – well, it’s odd, and that’s the polite word for it.

A few people have taken to Twitter with memories of hearing an aged relative use the phrase forty years ago, to be met with pursed lips or worse from the speaker’s younger and more enlightened relations. I had a faint memory myself of hearing my mother use the phrase – or rather, quote someone else using it – in a context that made it quite clear that the point of using it was to say that word. But I couldn’t remember the details until just now, when the whole thing bubbled gloopily up to the surface. So here you go.

When my younger sister went to secondary school, my mother got a part-time job, working for the civil service. We lived near Croydon, so what that meant was working for the Home Office in Lunar House, where the immigration applications were processed. I was in Sixth Form at the time and was frequently at home when my mother came home in the early afternoon; I remember we used to have a cup of tea and share a Caramel bar. They had a huge backlog of applications at the time, and it seemed to be growing faster than they could bring it down. Still, they had a pretty good time of it, up there in Lunar House. One Christmas my mother let me come along to see the ‘cabaret’ they’d laid on for the staff party. One man dragged up as Tammy Wynette and led the room in a rousing chorus of “S B Y M” (sic; I never knew why he resorted to initials). Another dropped his trousers at one point to reveal Union Jack underpants. My mother said afterwards that he was the office racist – and an open member of the National Front – and the general thinking was that he probably wore them most days.

But if he was known as the office racist, that does suggest that he was the only one… well, maybe. I certainly remember my mother saying that the level of racism among the Immigration Officers who worked at ports and airports was much, much worse; predictably, Underpants Man was hoping to get transferred (promoted?) out of that office to an IO role. She herself genuinely couldn’t be doing with racism; it’d be silly to imagine that a middle-class White British woman of her generation “didn’t have a racist bone in her body”, as people like to say, but she’d certainly decided some time ago that racism was something she didn’t intend to indulge, in herself or others. This was when the NF were at their height, and when people were organising against them – RAR, the ANL; my mother was a member of Christians Against Racism And Fascism, who struck me as the nicest group of well-meaning Guardian-readers you could hope to meet. Their mailings always seemed to arrive torn and crumpled, all the same. Can’t be too careful, eh?

The other thing about my mother was that she tended to attract people who wanted someone to talk to. There was a rather posh young Black man in the office who confided in her quite regularly, although she was never quite sure how much he was confiding, or how much he knew he was confiding. He would often go for walks at night, just around and about, and sometimes he would meet another man and they’d have a nice chat; it was all very pleasant. One night he met a charming little man who bought him a drink and then gave him a watch. (He showed my mother the watch; it looked good.) We were convinced he was going to get beaten up or worse one of these nights, but happily he never did.

Then there was a very respectable but rather loud Black woman, who also latched on to my mother (perhaps the level of racism in the office was a bit higher than I thought) but who my mother didn’t take to. And this, in case you’ve been wondering, is where we get back to the point – for it was she who used the ‘woodpile’ phrase. As my mother told it, she dropped it – or dragged it – into conversation, quite deliberately and emphatically – “…that’s the N in the W!” (No mystery why I resorted to initials there.) It may even have been applied to herself, talking about some situation where she would stand out or where her presence would be a giveaway – “…and I’d be the N in the W!” Either way, she drove home the exclamation mark by giving her audience a hard stare – as if to say, “anyone offended? are you offended? I don’t know why, because I’m not offended!

It was alright in the 1970s, as they say. I remember this story because of my mother’s reaction when she retold it: disgust, for the most part, but tempered by a kind of grudging respect for the cost and complexity of the manoeuvre this woman had carried out. Not only was she pitching for acceptance by endorsing a prejudice that could – would – be turned against her; she was doing so by endorsing a collective denial that it existed or mattered, in the certain knowledge that the denial was a lie. That’s cold, and it’s low, and it’s desperate and sad – but you could also say it’s smart, and you could certainly say it’s self-denying. (Costly signalling, in short.)

Anyway: that was 1977 or 1978 – around 40 years ago, either way. And back then, in comfortable Tory-voting Croydon, the phrase “N in the W” had a distinct and easily-recognised function: it was what you said when you wanted to signal that you were a member of the group that agreed to deny that racism existed. That signal in turn served a definite purpose: it guaranteed that your racism wouldn’t be challenged and – more importantly – it let the rest of the group know that you wouldn’t challenge their racism.

So when Tories react to being caught using this phrase by denying outright that it’s in any way racist, or else by insisting that they didn’t mean to offend anyone, we shouldn’t really be surprised. That’s the point of using the phrase in the first place – to deny that racism is racism (look, it’s just a word!), or else to deny that it’s offensive (look, nobody’s upset!). Once one or both of those flags have been run up, we can relax; we know we’re among friends and we can speak freely. If you know what I mean.

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