Did I cock up over the Marcus Rashford mural?

Øn Wednesday of the week before last I filed one of my supposedly funny “columns” for last Sunday’s 观察者. I wanted to write a personal pastiche of feel-good op-eds about England’s near victory in the Euros and reference how Boris Johnson government’s calculated culture war tried to draw the squad into its sights, as surely as it had Enid Blyton, a picture of the Queen in a room where a dozen or so postgraduates have a kettle and Horrible Histories.

I found a photo online said to be of the vandalised Marcus Rashford mural, taken before it was covered up by locals because of reports it was racist. The seventh word of the eight-word screed looked to me like the word “black”, although it was partially obscured by the right testicle of an ejaculating penis and testicles combination that had been sprayed over the word, presumably by the same sloppy artist. In these volatile times there is a need for absolute clarity!

在周五, after the piece had gone to print, 这 监护人 reported that Greater Manchester police had declared that the ejaculating penis and swearwords were “not believed to be of a racist nature”. The word I had read as “black” was presumably something else and I would need to change the article for its online edition. I enlarged the photo of the penis and testicles. Then I sent my enlarged testicles and penis to friends. Some insisted the obscured word was “black”; others couldn’t say what it was. My wife said it was “sock”, part of the phrase “shite in a sock”, but she had assumed I was showing her a section of a mural of me that had been vandalised, for some reason. I don’t know who she thinks I am or why I have never mentioned this mural. Perhaps the word I had read as “black” was “sock” after all? It suddenly looked as if the curves of the sac of the testicle had sort of filled in the gaps in the letter “s” and made it look like a “b”, while an “l” has been suggested by hastily sprayed sprigs of pubic hair.

Then I caught myself and realised I was doing two very strange things. First of all, I had magnified a drawing of an ejaculating penis and some testicles, and some swear words, and had been poring over them for an hour or so, and all in an attempt to smash racism. There was a decorator in the kitchen. What if he came in and saw what I was doing? How would I explain that this was part of my work and that I was a professional writer, not just someone who enlarged drawings of penises and testicles and sat staring at them all day on a screen while only wearing pants and a T-shirt? Would he recognise what I was doing as a form of “work”?

The second strange thing was more bewildering and more telling. For a moment, I realised that I was trying to make the word, whatever it was, look plausibly like the word “black” in my mind’s eye, so that the column I had already filed would make sense. I was every rightwing commentator’s idea of the liberal comedian, looking for evidence of prejudice where there was in fact only an ejaculating penis and some swear words and testicles. For a moment, I wanted that little corner of Manchester to be a worse place than it was, so that my joke would work better. But yes, although the word could be “black” it could also be “sock”. Or even “bag”. I amended the online edition of the column to allow for doubt, which made it weirdly funnier, relieved that on Sunday I was going to camp in a dense woodland for a week, beyond the reach of the internet, so I would have no idea what social media made of my confusion.

There was one small consolation. I am trying to rewrite the half of my rescheduled tour that is about the culture war. Even the liberal standup comedian satirist is essentially a clown, and clown theory dictates they must be a tragic figure. The tragedy of the late Jeremy Hardy was that the world would never match up to his socialist hopes, however forensically he documented its failings. I seek humiliating personal experiences that will undercut my dogmatic certainty, searching for the clown, and here was a great one – the tale of a liberal satirist who saw the word “black” in the word “sock” because of his own agenda, but more specifically because a drawing of some scrotal skin and some pubic hair had made the “s” look like a “b”. It was Ciceronian in its comedic combination of the delicate and the indelicate.

I told my wife I reckoned I could get a half-hour routine out of my mistake. She said she thought I make these “mistakes” deliberately, to create confusion and irritation, which then feed into standup bits. My son said that I pretend not to understand things because I like seeing frustrated people over-explaining themselves. I concede that while his observation is true, I don’t think I deliberately self-sabotage my own life in order to generate standup routines. Or do I? I just don’t know any more.

Before I put the tent in the car and filed this column I made one final check on last Sunday morning’s news. New evidence suggested the word I thought was “black” was neither “sock” nor “bag” but “bucket”. 同时, another mural of black English footballers, this time in County Durham, had been daubed with graffiti that was reported as bring racist and not obscured by cartoon genitalia. The graffiti I had written about might not have been racist, but some I hadn’t written about apparently was. Swings and roundabouts. I thought of Samuel Beckett: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops.”

Rescheduled 2022 dates of Stewart’s 2020 tour are now on sale

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