Story Time: Squirreled Away
Well over a year ago I noted that a senior lecturer in sociology (what else?) had alleged on the BBC radio programme Thinking Aloud that the station’s Gardener’s Question Time was “riddled with racist overtones”. It was, said Dr Ben Pitcher, full of “racial meanings”, and all those references to soil purity and non-native species were promoting nationalist and fascist beliefs.
Dr Pitcher believes the programme was connected with the crisis in white identity in multicultural Britain. Apparently people are ashamed to be overtly racist so they conceal their perverted ideas behind all this gardening talk.
I wondered how this head-banger had ever secured a senior lecturing post at a British University, felt glad that I lived in Ireland rather than Britain, then forgot about this ridiculous affair.
Some months previously I had congratulated The Salisbury Review, one of my favourite publications, on the consistently high quality of its articles. In a gracious acknowledgement they asked me to circulate some of their articles in the hope of gaining more subscribers. Fairly recently they published this splendid satire on British current affairs programmes in general and Dr Pitcher in particular. It’s by Christopher Hart, lead theatre critic and book reviewer for the Sunday Times.
Dr Gary Glubb scanned his article one last time and then pasted it into his email and pressed send. And it was with warm satisfaction that he read it again the next day in the newspaper; indeed, in Britain’s most progressively misanthropic of newspapers, imbued not with a jovial relish for what man is, but an earnest faith in what he yet might be – given a little prodding here and there.
Only two days’ later, thanks to the article, he was on the panel of the BBC’s most combative and exhilarating current affairs programme, being grilled by the eminent host and rather enjoying it. If this was what it meant to be a media don, it could rather appeal to him.
‘Are you seriously suggesting, Dr Glubb, that even our gardening programmes are riddled with, as you call it, “poisonous, unconscious racist terminology, based on a primitive terror of the alien and the Other”?’
‘Yes I am.’ His voice sounded crisp, confident in his own ears. ‘Gardening discourse is filled with terms like native species, alien invaders, and more worrying still, a constant urging to root out and eliminate those which are non-native. Because they are taking over, pushing out the native species – which for some unspecified reason, are valued more highly.’
‘They’re more local ones,’ said Ted.
‘Ted?’ said the host.
Ted gathered himself. Dr Glubb waited patiently. Ted was some so-called wildlife expert from some racist backwater in Lincolnshire or somewhere. The other members of the panel were a fat, alcoholic, supposedly funny right-wing columnist called Roy Licker, brought on in the interests of balance, and Mercy Ogumboh, the large, beaming, much-loved Labour MP for Tottenham. It was true that in a recent interview she had appeared to be unable to say who the Foreign Secretary was, and there was some business to do with a missing £100,000 grant in her constituency; but nevertheless she was much loved.
‘The local ones,’ said Ted, ‘are what the bees like. I mean, they like Himalayan balsam too, but that’s an invader, I spent all summer clearing it out of our river. But that’s not racist, I got nothing against Himalayans as such.’
‘What do you mean by Himalayans?’ snapped Dr Glubb. ‘Tibetans, Indians, Nepalese –there are dozens of different ethnic groups who live in the Himalayas, yet you lump them all together in one single, amorphous mass of ‘foreigners,’ in a way that is itself, frankly, more than a little racist.’
‘I didn’t mean that,’ muttered Ted, but he was drowned out by applause for Dr Glubb’s salient point from the live audience. The audience for this programme was generally pretty sound.
Mercy Ogumboh applauded as well and glared at Ted.
Ted began to sweat profusely. His mate Jim had said it was a mistake to go on telly. ‘You might as well stick a skewer up your arse and roast yourself, Ted,’ he’d said.
‘So,’ said the host –David Fairtrade –‘how should we be talking about these so-called alien species? And what should we be doing about them?’
‘Welcome them with open arms,’ slurred Roy Licker. ‘Give ’em council housing and free medical treatment, same as all the others.’
The audience gasped.
Mercy Ogumboh folded her arms. ‘That is disgosting.’
‘Yes, Roy,’ said David, leaping gallantly to her defence, ‘satire by all means, but let’s not be offensive.’
‘Talking of which,’ said Dr Glubb, reaching for a piece of paper –this was his masterstroke, he was sure –‘here is a quote from a column Roy Licker wrote only two weeks ago.’
‘Don’t remember it,’ said Roy. ‘Ancient history.’
Dr Glubb read, ‘They’re noisy, colourful, aggressive, they upset the neighbours, breed like mad and they drive out the natives. I’d take a shotgun to them and wipe out the lot. Yes, I’m talking about the menace of the African parakeets that have now taken up residence in London’s elegant Kensington Gardens. Now how’s that for racism?’
‘That is rather shocking,’ said David Fairtrade.
‘But they’re parakeets,’ said Ted. ‘You can’t be racist about parakeets. Only about people.’
‘It’s ironic,’ said Roy Licker, belching softly.
‘Irony,’ said Dr Glubb, ‘is the mask the English always put on when expressing the most unacceptable opinions or making the crudest generalisations. This is far too serious a subject for irony. This is about people’s lives –and deaths.’
‘And parakeets’, said Ted. ‘Deaths, I mean.’
He really was a bumpkin. What was he even doing on this panel? Sometimes, thought Dr Glubb, the BBC’s policy of inclusiveness went too far.
Mercy Ogumboh said, ‘And what about the black squirrels?’
‘You mean the melanistic squirrels?’ said David Fairtrade.
‘I mean the black ones. They are shooting them now. Saying they are not native. It makes my blood run cold.’
‘Just to be clear,’ said David, ‘these are grey squirrels that have mutated, for reasons we don’t quite understand, and now appear very dark, even black. And those who want to re-establish red squirrels have started to cull them, along with the greys.’
‘It is racism,’ said Mercy Ogumboh, ‘pure and simple. Just like the slave trade.’
The audience applauded loudly.
‘Dr Glubb –a final word from you?’
Be pithy, he thought. Be memorable. ‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘This moral panic about black squirrels, and this barbaric extermination policy, is akin to our stigmatising of black teenagers. As if they were all muggers or something.’
‘I’ve been mugged by squirrels,’ slurred Roy Licker.
But David was wrapping it up, thanking the panel members, and the show was over.
The producer told Dr Glubb that he had been brilliant.
‘Between you and I,’ she said, ‘you were the best one on it.’
Dr Glubb glowed.
He was still glowing when he got out of the BBC car at the end of his one-way street and set off walking the
last fifty yards to his flat.
He was just walking under the last plane tree, fishing for his door keys, when a six-foot squirrel stepped out from behind it and blocked his path. Its eyes gleamed yellow, but other than that it was a pure and glossy black from top to toe.
It was such a realistic costume that he couldn’t help but laugh. ‘Wow,’ he said, ‘now that’s pretty good. You gave me quite a start. What joker’s behind this?’
‘No talkin’, bruv. Just hand it over. I want your cash, your iPod and your trainers.’
The chap in the squirrel costume spoke a perfect street-London patois. It was very funny.
‘These trainers?’ said Dr Glubb cheerfully. ‘Are you quite sure?’
The squirrel glanced down at Dr Glubb’s cheap old plimsolls. As his eyes moved they caught the sodium streetlight on their lenses, those big yellow eyes, and the eminent sociologist had to admit, the whole thing really was extraordinarily realistic. And when the squirrel spoke, somehow the muscles in his throat actually moved, and his jaws, and he could see flecks of saliva in the corners of its mouth. The huge incisors too were bright and wet.
‘OK, forget the trainers,’ said the squirrel. ‘Just hand the rest over.’
‘I have to say,’ said Dr Glubb, ‘this outfit must have cost you a fortune. Where did you get it? Is this an art thing? Are we being filmed?’
For a moment, something like amusement flickered in the squirrel’s eyes. ‘Not the first time someone’s thought this was a costume,’ he said. ‘Now hand me all your shit or there’s gonna be grief.’
And he stepped nearer.
Glossy black, over six feet tall, and those incisors, as long as carving knives –for a moment, despite himself, Dr Glubb felt a ridiculous shiver of fear. He could even smell the animal –the man, rather –something musky and woody and rank all at once. Like a forest floor in autumn, after rain. What was going on?
‘Last chance, bruv,’ said the squirrel, glancing rapidly around to make sure they were still alone. ‘I got places to go. Cash and iPod, now.’
‘Now just a minute,’ said Dr Glubb, ‘you’re not seriously suggesting –’
Someone was coming. Skipping, it sounded like. Dr Glubb glanced back, and saw to his amazement another huge black squirrel, turning to race across the darkened street and then straight up the trunk of a London plane tree.
He began to shake, and he bowed his head as if in defeat or supplication. The squirrel in front of him rose up to his full height, towering over the quailing grublike figure, and then he opened his jaws and closed them upon the learned head of Dr Gordon Glubb of the Sociology Department of the University of Brent. The eminent sociologist’s skull popped and crumbled into dusty fragments like the shell of a rotten hazelnut.