Is this seat free? For you, sir? Certainly, sir.

Posted on January 21, 2020


Being permanently connected to world events is both a blessing and a curse. Time was – and younger readers will just have to bear with me on this – that finding about the news when abroad was a case of sneakily looking at day-old British newspaper headlines before being chased off by an irate shop owner who knew you had no intention of purchasing anything. Not so now: sins, misdemeanours and boorishness gallop across the globe as quickly as those responsible can spew out their bile.

So it came to pass that I read about the behaviour of Laurence Fox, a name that I have to confess had so far failed to imprint itself on my consciousness in any way. I did so in a place that knows a thing or two about racism. South Africa.

I am lucky enough to have visited the country twice and I make no claim to have seen much beyond the normal tourist bubble. There seems to be a determination from most white people I encounter to address the wrongs of the past, but a short drive through any area – urban or rural – soon reveals the bleak poverty and deprivation that characterises the lives of many black people. It remains a society where opportunity and prosperity are firmly influenced by race.

Laurence Fox objects to the idea that he is privileged and advantaged purely by dint of what he is: male, white, educated and financially comfortable. He is unable to see how, in our very own version of a lovely rainbow nation, this actually puts him at something of a disadvantage when speaking with conviction of what it means to be the victim of racism. Like all the pale, satisfied men about whom I write so often in this blog, he just can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Pale, satisfied white boys, I hear you say? Surely that’s me, isn’t it? Yes – up to a point. And so now I’ll give you a little bit of ‘what I done on my holidays’. Bear with me; there is a purpose.

I’ve spent the last few days in Port Elizabeth. It’s a fairly dreary port town but has some wonderful beaches. Skirting these beaches are plush hotels along with pleasant cafes and restaurants. Hoteliers warn their (almost exclusively white) guests to be cautious but not paranoid when venturing out, even in this relaxed holiday area. There is, indeed, plenty of low-level begging and hassling going on and there was a knifepoint robbery of two tourists during the daytime last week. All the same, it’s not the Wild West.

This morning, my last in South Africa, I walked along the windswept promenade as a storm swept in. There was no obvious shelter, but across the road was one of the swanky hotels. And here, Laurence Fox, is what that innate privilege – the privilege of the white male – means. In I stroll, slightly damp and bedraggled, to be greeted warmly by the doorman (‘You really can’t tell them apart,’ he must tell his mates) and settle happily into an armchair by the bay window and watch the storm pass. I think I can say with confidence that this was not an option open to many other, black, people caught in the rain. Nobody asked me if I was a resident or implied that I ought to buy a drink. I obviously belonged there. Yes – obviously.

For some reason, Fox and his like fail to employ even the scrag-end of imagination required to contemplate what life might be like for people who aren’t like themselves. On a professional level, that seems to me to be something of a disadvantage for someone who calls himself an actor. But then a quick squint at his track record may help to reveal how he reached such eminence – well, in his own head at least.

The step up the ladder of Harrow School saw him progress to RADA – the most eminent of drama schools – despite expulsion from school for poor behaviour. Laurence, I’m not sure if this comes as news to you, but for most kids, expulsion from school puts whacking great obstacles in their way. Maybe being part of an established theatre family – who could afford to send you to one of the most expensive schools in the land – helped you along a bit? Or am I just being churlish? Prejudiced, even? Or maybe you got there entirely under your own steam and with your own inborn talent and drive? You think so, eh?

Unsurprisingly, Laurence has now turned his bilious ire toward those over-precious woke people who see offence everywhere. There will, no doubt, be the usual army of professional, self-advancing controversialists who will line up behind him to defend common-sense and condemn the whining snowflakery that his comments have prompted. One might just wonder what sort of world view brings such people together.

Maybe that would be the view from the armchair in the bay window of a posh hotel where you can sit unchallenged and wonder what on earth there could be to complain about in this best of all possible worlds.

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