Blooming History: Is Godfrey’s Bongo-Bongo land beyond the pale?

Summer has gone, and will soon be nothing but a distant memory.  With the passing of summer, the festivities and festivals which inhabit this all but too brief season disappear with it.  Great musical gatherings like Glastonbury, Electric Picnic and the Reading festivals, as well as those other gatherings such as the ever popular Edinburgh Fringe.  Now fully entering autumn we are confronted with an altogether different series of gatherings, party political conferences.

This past weekend a gathering has taken place of a group of politicians that some have labelled ‘the Lunatic Fringe’ for the first major conference of the UKIP political party.  Judging by my twitter feed many watched with great interest as senior party member and MEP Godfrey Bloom went on the attack, not with an armful of policies on how to take down the European Parliament, but with a conference programme to the crown of Channel 4 News journalist Michael Crick for reasons which still remain unclear, something to do with racism, pot and kettles.

It was not Bloom’s first public gaffe of the conference (the other has been well documented).  Indeed it was the latest in a series of public announcements which have added credence to the ‘Lunatic Fringe’ tag.  However, the last two came in quick succession and can be seen as proof that Mr Bloom has yet to hear the wise phrase that a closed mouth gathers no foot.  This led to party leader Nigel Farage, a man who is not unknown to suffer from the same foot and mouth issues as Mr Bloom, to withdraw the party whip from his colleague and to deem his behaviour at the conference as “beyond the pale”.

Here is where I come in.  Farage’s condemnation of Bloom in such terms made me wonder how many people actually stop to question how turns of phrase actually come about.  If one looks at the meaning of “beyond the pale” in today’s terms, it is given as ‘unacceptable: outside the agreed standards of decency.’ Fair enough, we should all strive towards decency, not many would argue against that.  The aspect of Farage’s statement that has not been called into question pertains to the original standards of decency that the pale was deemed to uphold, where was the pale, and what indecent, unacceptable wretches operated beyond it?

The noun ‘pale’ in this instance means a stake or pointed piece of wood, and relates to the paling fence which marked the separation boundary of a settlement from the outside world.  Throughout history there have been a number of notable ‘Pales’, Catherine the Great’s Settlement Pale restricted trade between Jews and native Russians, with Jews living ‘beyond the pale’.  Several centuries before this the English Pale in Ireland was established, and is the genesis for the phrase in question. A section of Ireland which was under direct control of the English government in the late Middle Ages, and which separated the civilised English from the barbaric Gael.

Given that one of Godfrey Bloom’s more recent much-criticised outbursts was the now infamous ‘Bongo-Bongo Land’ speech in relation to British Government aid to Third World African countries, one can draw a comparison to this and the origins of the phrase “beyond the pale”.  In essence they are both a disparagement of a community or race deemed to be of an inferior standing than those making the statement.  The only thing separating them are the centuries of use which has seen one slip now seamlessly into the common discourse of much of the English speaking world.  In fact as I began writing this it cropped up in a conversation between host Andrew Marr and the leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Milliband on the former’s Sunday morning politics programme.

As a person who was always interested in history and particularly the history of the island I have inhabited for most of my life, this phrase irked me ever-so-slightly as a young man.  How a phrase of such inequality and xenophobic origins could be used in such a blasé fashion in everyday life preyed on my mind, and made me wonder why no one was as irked as I was?  Even though, as my surname may suggest that my history is of planter stock to Ireland I continued to be faintly offended when I heard it to illustrate reprehensible behaviour in various circles.  Could all of these people be discounting or dismissing the centuries of native Gaelic poetry and monastic scholarship on a whim? Of course not, it is used in such a flippant manner that the vast majority of those using it have never thought twice about the story behind the phrase. Nevertheless, there is an old adage in Ireland that ‘phrases make history here’, well according to the British Ambassador in Dublin during the Second World War Sir John Maffey anyway. It is safe to say that on this history-obsessed island it is likely someone will mentally bookmark a seemingly innocent phrase such as this for future reference.

My ersatz anger had a short shelf life when I decided that judging by the people who tended to use the phrase that I would probably be better off separated from them by a large fence in any case.  My ‘beyond the pale’ experience has periodically led me to query what other tasteless phrases have wormed their way into the public discourse over the ages.  Only this week there has been a debate which has reached the doors of the UK Parliament regarding the derogatory term of ‘Yid’ being used as a chant during Tottenham Hotspur football games.  This debate is quite impassioned and ongoing.  The phrase ‘Hip-hip hooray’ seems an innocuous word which one wouldn’t think twice about using with ones children. Yet the first part of this phrase was once an anti-Semitic chant used in central Europe in the early part of the 19th century when gangs roamed Jewish ghettos targeting their inhabitants.

There are countless other examples throughout history which we use daily without a second thought, which leads one to question which expressions will form part our discourse in future generations? In the future will it ever be acceptable to slip in ‘Bongo-Bongo’ into a casual exchange between friends, or when interviewing a current or future Prime Minister?  If so, will it be accredited to the correct person, or will its origins be completely forgotten? Will Godfrey Bloom’s legacy be that he will be solely remembered for introducing a questionable phrase into the language which will be used by generations to come? If so, hopefully there will be no hardy hip-hip hooray for him.

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