Friday, August 25, 2006

Barking in Essex

'What people don't often say about Germaine Greer is that she is barking mad. She is an idiot… She's mad, and her determination to be out of step leads her into batty positions. We just watch her, and wonder why.'

Salman Rushdie in The Telegraph 17/8/06

This has taken a while to gestate. I had to read The Whole Woman again to see if I’d missed the obvious. No, it’s just as calm, reasoned and meticulously evidenced as I remembered. It’s difficult for me to come to terms with the suggestion that the firebrand who demolished the usually erudite Norman Mailer in debate and dazzled a generation with her quick wit and awesome intelligence is actually an idiot. Occasionally on Newsnight Review she’d come up with a perspective that was odd even by Newsnight Review standards. They stopped asking her after a while. Maybe that should have alerted me.

In the course of re-reading The Whole Woman I noticed that it was dedicated to someone called Flo who ‘has been called mad by the very people who most need to know the things she tells them.’ Could it be possible that Greer courts accusations of madness precisely because she has calculated that being considered mad by the establishment legitimises you as a visionary? There has to be some explanation for her insane outburst about the proposed filming of Monica Ali’s book Brick Lane in the real Brick Lane in the East End of London.

Almost everything pertinent about that has already been said but just to illustrate how off the wall Greer’s point of view is, I’d like to make a couple of points. I live in the East End and I worked in Brick Lane for about three years. Has anybody else who’s written about this subject been there recently? It isn’t actually a province of Bangladesh. In fact it’s much less of a monoculture than it was even ten years ago with the arrival of fashion and non-Asian bars and restaurants. If you say to someone in the East End ‘I’m going down Brick Lane’, they’re just as likely to think you mean the Sunday market. That it’s the heart of the Bangladeshi community in Britain is currently its defining characteristic but it isn’t all that Brick Lane is.

Accepting without challenge the word of self-appointed community representatives with a clear agenda to promote their own business interests is beyond lazy. It could even be perceived as a form of racism. Has Greer such low expectations of the Brick Lane traders’ capacity to defend their position that she feels she has to patronise them by weighing in with her ill-considered and poorly informed perspective? Natasha Walter, writing in the Guardian, quoted Baroness Pola Uddin, long established voice of reason in the area and someone who does legitimately speak for the community as she was a local councillor before becoming a Labour peer. Baroness Uddin said, ‘This book should be treated like the fiction it is. Let's put our energy into challenging real injustices. It is unacceptable that we should be asking for a book to be banned.’ Quite.

Greer should have faced a much greater roasting than she did for wading into the murky waters of questioning someone’s right to determine their own ethnic identity. Ali is not allowed to write about Brick Lane because she doesn’t live there, she’s half white and her father worked in a university. By this definition is Hanif Kureishi not allowed to write about Pakistanis, Zadie Smith not allowed to have Afro-Caribbean characters? Should Conrad not have written about Africa, Forster not gone near India, Hemingway and Orwell stayed off the subject of Spain. Am I only allowed to write about my street? Should travel books be banned?

Rushdie’s right. Greer is mad, but maybe with deliberate method. If we all think she’s mad she can get away with saying outrageous things without fear of being challenged. We’ll all just think there she goes again, raving, barking Germaine. Meanwhile she’s sitting there in deepest Essex all smug and self-satisfied thinking she’s a misunderstood prophet. Someone should turn her into a religion. Then she'd really be beyond criticism.

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