Somewhere in Europe
18th June 2021
Vignettes from a campus near you, taken from the novel Somewhere in Europe by PJ Vanston
Kevin Crump, newly appointed English lecturer, is in the library of Cambrian University.
“Ummm, yes, I was looking for a copy of The Great Gatsby, but…”
“Trigger warning!” snapped the young woman.
“Sorry?” said Crump, confused.
“Trigger warning,” she repeated, louder this time, as though he was deaf and/or stupid.
Crump was just about to ask what that meant when the librarian explained.
“It means the book is on the banned list because it contains racist, sexist, disablist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic or other material which goes against the university’s diversity and inclusion policy, and which may trigger students in a negative way.”
“But…it’s a classic novel. I did it for A-level,” wailed Crump.
“Recently?” said Arwen, looking at the old man before her.
“Well, no – over twenty years ago, but…”
“Times have changed – and for the better too. We now respect OC students…”
The fact that Crump hadn’t a clue what that meant was obvious to the wondrously ‘woke’ and correct Arwen.
“People of colour,” she explained, eye-rollingly, as if educating a backward child about the basics of potty training.
“Oh…” said Crump.
“Microaggressions, too, must be challenged and exposed.”
Crump knew that ‘microaggressions’ were those everyday slights which supposedly communicated hostility towards so-called ‘marginalised’ groups – anyone except straight white men, basically.
“We have progressive policies at universities now,” insisted Arwen Redmore.
‘Oh what, like the ‘progressive’ policy of banning books,’ thought Crump, but he said nothing.
Crump had heard about the new ‘snowflake’ culture at universities, the constant demand of such students for safe spaces, and the discouragement or outright banning of controversial opinions which may ‘trigger’ those over-sensitive souls who now bore the collective name ‘snowflakes’. This was a possibly derogatory or maybe tongue-in-cheek name created to describe their inflated sense of uniqueness, their unwarranted sense of entitlement, their over-emotional fragility and inability to deal with opposing opinions, and their woeful lack of resilience too.
But he had no idea that it had led to the actual banning of books. Surely, a good education meant being exposed to a whole range of views – a diversity of opinion – and if any novels or other books were somehow ‘offensive’ to people now, perhaps because they reflected the prejudices of the age in which they were written as surely as present-day literature usually does the same, then surely they shouldn’t be banned, but studied and discussed in an atmosphere of free and open debate?
Crump meets his head of department.
“Happy Diversity Day, by the way!” chirped Tanya Snuggs.
“Oh, is it? Well, yes…Happy…Diversity Day…” said Crump, who had no idea that very day was ‘Diversity Day’ or indeed, what it was supposed to be for.
“Yay!” squealed Tanya Snuggs.
“Yay,” echoed Crump, limply.
“I love diversity, don’t you?”
“Yes, well, it’s…very diverse…”
“Yay! Oh and remember, don’t forget the consent training today – y’know, the anti-rape course.”
“An email was sent to all new staff, Kevin…”
“Oh yes, sorry – I haven’t got a connection yet where I’m staying, so I can only go online when I’m here, and I just haven’t had a chance yet to check through emails.”
“Well, you better get a wiggle on,” giggled Tanya Snuggs.
“OK,” he said, “I’ll…get…a wiggle on…”
Crump wondered what other emails he’d missed – the ones that aimed to train him not to murder any students or throttle any irritating university managers maybe?
“It’s really very, very important training…”
“Oh yeah,” thought Kevin, “no doubt it’s seminal too, and without anti-rape training I’d just be raping rapingly away all over the raping place, just like all men, who are basically rapists who need to be trained out of their rapingly rapist instincts and intentions.”
‘If I could just add a caviar,” grinned Tanya Snuggs, “all lecturers who identify as male must attend anti-rape training, it’s like very important, what with #MeToo and #WhatsUp…”
“Isn’t it #TimesUp?” questioned Crump.
“Oh yeah, time’s up now – time flies, doesn’t it? Any probs, contact me or Karen Crisp, Joint Head of Department. She’s on period leave.”
“Period leave?” asked Crump – he’d never heard of that before.
“Yeah, women get up to five days paid leave when it’s our time of the month if we want it. It’s great to be working at such a progressive university, isn’t it?”
‘Bloody hell’, thought Crump. ‘Talk about period drama!’
Crump learns about the decolonised curriculum he’ll be teaching.
He’d heard about the censoring taking place to avoid ever causing offence or trauma or ‘triggering’ to the delicate cotton-wool kids of Generation Snowflake, to create ‘a culture of safety’ in this New Puritan Age. Upsetting the hyper-sensitive members of Generation Blub had to be avoided at all times – a culture of safety had to protect these vulnerable cry-babies from hurt and harm, just in case they were ‘triggered’ by being exposed to the real world, with all its messy violence and complex problems and pain.
Exam boards had removed ‘upsetting’ things from syllabuses to avoid causing students ‘undue distress’, such as studies on suicide from Psychology A-level curricula; books branded as being ‘offensive’ had been removed from libraries (though Crump was still awaiting a full list to be emailed to him) or, at the very least, came flagged with a ‘trigger warning’.
Even famous films and songs had been banned if the pc politburo decided they were racist, sexist, misogynistic, transphobic, Islamophobic or able to offend or trigger an audience in any way. Songs such as Delilah by local Welsh hero Tom Jones were banned on account of the alleged promotion of domestic violence; Baby it’s Cold Outside was cited as a pretty little ditty about date rape that thus had to be silenced forever; When a Man Loves a Woman was disgustingly transphobic and hetero-centric. Moreover, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was banned for the obvious offence it could cause amongst various assorted homunculi and midgets of the vertically-challenged community, and even Schindler’s List was banned on some campuses for promoting Zionism.
Somewhat absurdly, all works by the Bauhaus architect Gropius had been banned and removed from shelves, just in case his name triggered anyone who had ever been ‘groped’.
It was the silent surrender of hard-fought values like free speech, and one Crump could never agree with, though he said nothing. Fascism does tend to have a silencing effect on people, especially when they are made aware of the unfortunate consequences of honest and free debate.
The first sentence students should hear at a university, in Crump’s view, should be as follows: ‘Welcome to a liberal education where you will be exposed to many things which will anger, upset, offend, distress and infuriate you.”
But the dull thud of conformity drowned out any criticism, so censorship of books and topics because ‘they might cause some people offence’ was now rooted so deeply in universities, like some giant poisonous weed, that it overshadowed everything else that tried to breathe or live.
Crump spots new a mural in the history department.
It was a mural commemorating the First World War and showed soldiers following each other back from the front line – reminiscent of the famous painting ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent which Crump had seen on a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London some years earlier.
However, this scene was different. Gone was the all-male all-white parade of soldiers, their eyes blinded by mustard gas and bandaged, each with an arm on the man before them as they shuffled along, surrounded on all sides by other injured soldiers.
No, this mural was an ‘alternative history’ showing a line of injured soldiers, more than half of whom were female, with black and Asian troops amongst them too. Of course, soldiers of the British Empire fought in World War I and II, but they would be in separate battalions of, say the West Indian or various Indian regiments, often reflecting religious affiliation. They would not make up 20% of the Welsh Guards, for sure, and it was an incontrovertible fact that WWI troops were 100% male, with no female soldiers amongst them – though these days 3% of soldiers were women.
The mural he was looking at, open-mouthed, was a specious gender and colour-blind version of history cleansed of its truth, however un-diverse-ly male-dominated and white-skinned that reality actually was. It was a long egregious lie in paint, rather badly done too, and Crump wondered if students – and even staff – would now believe this is what a First World War battlefield actually looked like.
The mural had been commissioned after a visit to the university a couple of years previously by the TV historian Dr Winnie Sheard CBE, who had condemned the ‘hideously white male’ artworks and statues to be seen around The Town. As a consequence, the mural was commissioned and several statues of ‘Dead White Men’, such as those who had founded the many industrial works locally, making copper, iron, zinc and much else besides for the whole country and, indeed, the world, had been taken down and relegated to out-of-the-way positions in the less salubrious local parks, or else put into storage at the museum.
Moreover, the council had announced jointly with the university and museum authorities, that only statues of women and ethnic minorities would ever be erected in future, and that strenuous efforts would be made to remove as many paintings by white males from display as possible, and replaced with artwork by and of women and ‘people of colour’ – (but not the Teletubbies, presumably). This was true equality in action!
Crump returns to an old haunt: a pub he had once frequented.
Crump looked around the saloon. It hadn’t changed, except for one noticeable thing. He always remembered old black-and-white photos on the wall here – of Welsh miners, with helmets on their heads, exhaustion in their eyes and coal dust blackening their faces as they emerged from their anthracite burrows underground, blinking alive in the wide daylight for the photographer’s lens.
But now, they were gone. There were some replacements which showed industrial buildings, but there were yet more empty spaces on the walls, rectangular spaces framed by the otherwise nicotine-discoloured wallpaper – memories of a time when smoking was allowed and was almost compulsory in pubs.
Where were all the old photos of miners with faces blackened by coal dust, fresh from a shift at the pit?
Then, when Crump was on his way to the toilet, he saw a sign which explained all.
It stated that all photos of #blackface miners had been removed and destroyed throughout all public and private buildings in The Town, by order of the council, after a successful campaign by a ‘woke’ American #blacklivesmatter campaigner and Master’s degree student at Cambrian University called Rasheesh X+Y – or, at least, that was the name he’d given himself after ditching his ‘slave name’.
The pro-Palestinian Winterval ‘Christmas’ tree in the university grounds gets decorated.
It was now late November, so well on the way to Christmas – which the university insisted on referring to as ‘Winterval’ – and with it, a much-needed holiday.
There was a ‘Seasonal Tree’ decorated in the campus grounds – in reality a pine tree that was always there anyway, but with some lights stuck on it, and various decorations including, bizarrely, baubles featuring the faces of Palestinians killed by Israeli attacks on Gaza and some cardboard cut-outs of them too, which were now all looking rather sad and soggy in the rain.
November was ‘Israel Apartheid Month’ at Cambrian University, where awareness was raised to pro-Palestinian anti-Zionist heights as high as the Golan ones which were, as much promotional material declared, stolen by Israel together with the rest of its territory.
It was as he was going home that Crump saw a new notice had been pinned to the department wall informing staff and students that the building of ‘snowmen’ was forbidden, and that anyway, the correct word to use for these seasonal transphobic statues was now ‘snowpersons’.
“Snow joke,” smiled Crump at the gender-neutral command.
It was so reassuring that the university knew how to prioritise the crucial aspects of higher education, especially in the run-up to the ancient festival of ‘Winterval’.
No doubt university managers were concerned in case a transgender person saw a snowman and was triggered into ironic meltdown?
It is Slavery Awareness Week at Cambrian University.
The campus was in the middle of its earnest and worthy commemoration of ‘Slavery Awareness Week’, raising awareness for the plight of slaves of the present and the past, all of whom seemed to be black in posters and displays. Crump pondered the fact that every human civilisation had practised slavery since time immemorial, and, indeed, the Barbary pirates of north Africa had stolen an estimated one million white slaves from the European and, especially, British Isles coastline until the late 18th century.
But anyway, everyone’s awareness had been raised to such an extent that it was probably the stiffest, most erect, most vertical and proud raised awareness than ever there had been on that campus or any other. If they weren’t careful, they’d have someone’s eye out…
Students and staff – though only those identifying as ‘white’ or ‘Caucasian’ – had been encouraged to wear chains when attending university that week. Not real clinking clanging ‘Marley’s Ghost’ chains, of course – though some people did walk around campus with real lightweight metal chains round their necks – but symbolic ones, like monochrome Christmas paper chains coloured white, grey and black.
Crump was having none of it. He’d never owned a slave, traded slaves, or even profited from slavery via his family – unlike, he knew, a lot of the rich African and Arab students and staff at the university, who, not being of white European stock, were not expected to wear chains as the present ‘fake news’ history taught, learned and accepted by all was that only white Europeans had ever enslaved anyone.
Still, at least the university was making the effort to emphasise the scourge of modern-day slavery – often, Crump noted, perpetrated by East European gangmasters or Irish travellers, though out of respect for our diverse communities, that was never mentioned.
Several plays, new and old, were being staged at the theatre to mark ‘Slavery Awareness Week’. A new production of ‘Young Winston’, bizarrely starring a black man Churchill, all in the name of ‘colourblind casting’. In other theatrical productions, the casting was always deeply and accurately diverse too. Following the ‘Stay in your Lane’ campaign, only disabled actors now played disabled roles, gay actors, gay roles, and so on. It was a lovely theory, albeit slightly spoiled when an actress with cancer playing a woman dying of cancer died half-way through a play’s run.
Crump couldn’t help thinking that maybe actors could try actually acting maybe? As in, pretending to be someone they’re not? But that was obviously just ridiculous – not to mention racist, sexist, homophobic, disablist etcetera etcetera etcetera…
It was also now usual for trigger warnings to be given at theatre productions regarding content audiences may find ‘upsetting’. So, warnings about ‘racial slurs and reference to drugs’ or ‘some violence and sexual references which some may find offensive’, were standard. But these days, the advisory warnings were spoilers too, such as: ‘In the first half of the play, a man beats up a migrant worker’ and ‘In the second half, a man repeatedly places a hand on a woman’s knee, causing her discomfort.’ Never before had Crump been so pleased not to be a man of the theatre or a particular fan of the stage, no matter how ‘woke’ and ‘diverse’, ‘relevant’ and ‘immersive’ it was.
He was more a TV drama man, but increasingly less so these pc days. Most BBC drama seemed just a box-ticking exercise in social engineering, diversity and inclusion, with the main aim being attempted indoctrination, and not telling a good story. The clunky way these dramas crowbarred social issues into drama and were fast and loose with their rewriting of history, was laughable. What worried him was the thought that kids watching would think them all a true reflection of historical fact.
Crump attends a university ceremony.
Suddenly, a trumpet sounded. Crump and Dylan were sitting on a bench some way off, with a panoramic view of the podium where the ‘restitution’ ceremony was to take place.
For it had been decided that all relics and artefacts owned by Cambrian University were to be returned to the peoples they were bought or looted or half-inched from by the English (AKA the British) back in the day. First up, was a tribe from a South Sea Island in Polynesia, somewhere off the coast of New Zealand.
Suddenly, a group of a dozen or so semi-naked men in grass skirts and with bones through their noses and ears appeared and started their ‘Haka’ dance, much in the manner of the All Blacks rugby team. The Haka was a fierce display of a tribe’s unity, strength and pride, a loud call-and-response chant accompanied by violent moves, foot-stamping, body slapping and tongue protrusions.
Facing the tribesmen on the podium were the university’s senior management – the Vice-Chancellor Angharad Ap Merrick, Mike Mumpsimus and Parminder Zugzwang – but also three representatives of the Sir Arthur Evans Department of Archaeology and Anthropology – Professor Mary Hare, Dr Elgin Tooky and Dr Byron Spolasco, who, it had to be said, looked rather scared of the South Sea warriors noisily gurning gruesome faces at them. What made it worse, perhaps, was that – whether willingly or not – the management team all wore metal chains around their necks as a mark of respect for ‘Slavery Awareness Week’.
The international media there were loving it, with TV crews from a great many countries and, as per usual, the omnipresent form of Jason Hussein, BBC presenter of, well, everything…Of course, this sort of ceremony never happened in nations and places who were slaving centuries before the Brits: Spain, Portugal, the Arab world or the Far East – or, indeed, Africa itself.
“Did the British Empire ever trade any slaves in Polynesia?” wondered Crump out loud.
“They know how to drink majorly though., Saw ‘em all down town last night on the piss. They bought me an alcopop.”
“What, in their grass skirts and bones through their noses?”
“Nah, they told me they just wear all that for the tourists. All in jeans and T-shirts usually. Talk like Aussies or Kiwis too. Only use native lingo for their chanting ceremonies.”
“Like most people in Wales only speaking Welsh to sing the national anthem then,” thought Crump.
“They were moaning about the food with their host families – what they all really wanted to eat was wild pig, kindathing…”
“Hard to come by in South Wales, wild pigs.”
The Vice-Chancellor stepped forward as the Haka growled into an angry, tongue-poking silent tableau finale.
“Yes, no, indeed, absolutely,” said the bearded Angharad Ap Merrick in his/her deeply masculine voice. “We here today are ashamed of the English empire…”
“British,” tutted Crump under his breath, as he noticed the usual Welsh nationalists grinning in glee at that.
“…who raped and pillaged and stole your culture, your history, your artefacts and even, disgracefully, your shrunken heads…well, not your shrunken heads, obviously…because your heads are healthy and…exotic…native heads…and very beautifully…diverse…heads far…more so than the ugly white English colonial heads of those who enslaved you…”
The Welsh nationalists erupted in applause again.
“…but the shrunken heads of your ancestors, or…of the people they killed with the clubs, spears, weapons of various woods, which we also stole…and their holy bones, which we had no right to take, no, yes, indeed, absolutely…”
Ripples of applause. No jazz hands today…
Then the three student union representatives Olivia Octothorp, Aled Rantallion and Shelley Shunk, crawled forward onto the stage on their knees, dressed in rags and loin cloths – (borrowed from the theatre prop department) – and wearing real rattling and clanking chains, all whilst whipping themselves on their bare backs with what looked like real or replica cat o’ nine tails whips.
“So please forgive us, like, yeah…” they wailed in disunion as they beat themselves like mediaeval monks. Real tears rolled down their snowflaky-white privileged twenty-first century Western cheeks too, as they begged: “Forgive us the sin of slavery! Coz, it was, like, really bad and stuff, yeah?”
Crump winced at the infernal ‘upspeak’ of youngsters today, learned from Antipodean daytime TV soap operas.
He could see some of the South Sea Islanders smirking – as if they realised how absurd this all was. Their ancestors had never been taken as slaves. In fact, they’d enslaved – as well as butchered and head-shrunk – a fair number of men, women and children from enemy tribes for centuries. It said in their oral histories that their eighteenth and nineteenth century ancestors had been delighted to flog their old artefacts and shrunken heads to the ‘idiot long pig white men’ in return for guns, technology and modernity, instead of the mumbo-jumbo of the ‘old ways’…
Crump shares a beer with the South Sea Islanders.
The tribesmen in grass skirts with bones in their noses were soon back in jeans and T-shirts, and the weapons were all put away too.
Crump took the shrunken heads and bones out of the bag – everything he’d found in the skip.
“Coming back like a bad penny, mate. Fair dinkum!”
Crump blinked at the genuine Antipodean ‘upspeak’.
“So, you don’t want…your ancestors’ bones and…shrunken heads and…”
“Nah, mate – even if they are our fathers’ fathers – more likely, our ancestors were stoked to do ‘em in.”
“Heaps of warring tribes back in them days where we’re from,” said a tribesman.
“Skull this, mate,” said another, handing Crump his third can of beer of the morning.
“Listen, no-one ever asked us if we wanted any old bones. They just assumed we did, and sent an invite, all expenses paid, so…”
“A holiday’s a holiday, fair dinkum.”
“But don’t get us wrong, fella. We’re no bludgers – we work.”
“It’s hard yakka dancing for them fat camera-dangler tourists, mate.”
“Bloody grass skirts and bones in noses and tongue-poking. But that’s what they want…”
“So that’s what the buggers get!”
“We flogged most o’ the clubs and stuff to dealers…”
“Only kept some for sentimental reasons, like.”
“Spent the beans in the Bottle-O, got us well stoked.”
“But no bugger wanted the shrunky heads and bones.”
“Human remains can be…problematic…legally speaking,” said Crump, remembering a man who, bizarrely, found a 2000-year-old arm of an Egyptian mummy on a Welsh beach and ended up spending hours being questioned by police.
“Well, we don’t want ‘em, mate.”
“Strewth! No way are we putting them on the barbie!”
“So…what should I do with them all?” asked Crump.
The South Sea Islanders looked at each other and shrugged.
“Maybe put ‘em back where you found ‘em, mate?”
“What – chuck ‘em back in the skip?”
“They all carked it, years ago. Makes no difference to them.”
“Or give ‘em to a museum some place?”
“But we don’t want ‘em back, no way.”
All extracts are taken from Somewhere in Europe (2020) by PJ Vanston
Paperback ISBN 978-1-83859-308-7 (Matador) available online worldwide and to order from all bookstores £10.99 and via https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/contemporary/somewhere-in-europe/
Ebook available online via Amazon, Kobo etc. at £3.99.
The prequel novel Crump (2010) is also available as ebook and second-hand online via Amazon.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.