Enough with New Year’s resolutions. They’re so, well, last year. Epiphanies are the new resolutions. Of course, you can’t break an epiphany, but one achieved can lead to a real change. It seems these days that world leaders and politicians are too often concerned with melodramatic manifestations, and therefore leaving the all-important commonplace adrift upon the waves of political apathy. But who better to experience epiphanies than the UK’s Tony Blair and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy? These are politicians who should be dealing with the ordinary but no less important matters of their citizens’ daily lives in the hope of achieving extraordinary realisations. And it would seem an epiphany is precisely what happened to Tony Blair. The second week of January got underway with the UK PM declaring that there were things he couldn’t do “sitting in Downing Street.” Was Blair swapping Downing Street for the road to Damascus?
This revelation comes in the form of a podcast made available via The Sun newspaper’s website (’PM Speaks to The Sun’, Simon Rothstein, 11 January 2006). Blair was not suggesting, however, that he would don some Castro-style combats and head down into the street. The Premier is, needless to say, far more London than that, and thus sports the home grown fashion designer Paul Smith. Respect.
Respect, indeed. The podcast came on the back of the launch of Blair’s new Respect Action Plan or Respect, for short. According to the Government website, the main aim of this new agenda “is about nurturing and where needed, enforcing a modern culture of respect, which the majority of people want.” You probably need a few minutes to recompose yourself two epiphanies in almost as many paragraphs is too much for anyone.
But to ensure mutual respect amongst the common people, Blair isn’t suggesting doing the dirty work of teaching us manners himself. His point being that he can’t do anything precisely because he is sitting in Downing Street. But he is urging his citizens to “shop someone who is causing a persistent nuisance, or making life hell.” So there you have it: a modern culture of respect obviously goes hand-in-hand with being an informant against the purveyors of dystopia. Or as The Sun put it: shop a yob (’Blair urges: Shop a yob’, George Pascoe-Watson, 11 January 2006). It would seem, then, that this motivating quip is by no means a new age of state-endorsed vigilantism, but rather a tabloid-fuelled Stasi vibe where “Sun readers who suffer blaring music at all hours, drug dens or persistent abuse from yobs are urged to compile dossiers of bad behaviour.” Presumably it’s the readers of other newspapers that are the offending party; those Wagner-listening patchouli-smelling Guardian-reading political evangelicals. Coming around here with their sandals and all. I tell you. Where is my notebook and pen?
This is surely a dream come true for the UK Neighbourhood Watch scheme; the Prime Minister giving 1980s voyeurism a 21st-century shake up. And if we consider the fact that Neighbourhood Watch UK is already the biggest voluntary organisation in the country, then it seems only a matter of time before Britain is pronounced the official curtain-twitchers’ heaven. Moreover, the term ‘to shop’, as in ‘to inform on someone’, stems from an archaic slang use of the noun ‘shop’, to refer to a gaol. This adds a whole new dimension to Napoleon’s comment that Britain is a nation of shopkeepers.
All of this cloak and dagger activity begs the question of whether one could ‘plead a Günter’. Günter Guillaume was, of course, the Stasi spy who famously infiltrated the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the ‘50s and eventually ended up as personal assistant to Willy Brandt, the then West German Chancellor. He was received as a hero back in the GDR.
But rather than stay at home peering through your netting, if you wish to be a proper yob shopper, you could try getting involved in some of the action. Invite a group of friends around for a party, turn your music up a notch, be a bit sarcastic to your neighbours just so as to ‘better compile your dossier’. Presumably, Blair would be the first to slap you on your back and pin a medal on your chest, before personally putting the offenders in a ‘sin bin’, a secure guarded zone reserved for the disrupting types. One word of advice, though: with Blair having backed the ban on hoodies and baseball caps imposed by Bluewater, Britain’s largest shopping centre no pun intended I’ve got a feeling cloaks and daggers would be pretty dimly viewed, as well.
The Respect campaign is part of the bigger anti-social behaviour crack down in the UK with ASBOs, or Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, being perhaps the most well-known instance of the agenda. These are civil orders which prevent a named person partaking in a particular activity. That person faces jail if they disobey.
But are these civil orders a success? The Daily Telegraph suggests that 2005 was ‘The Year of the ASBO’, though probably for the wrong reasons (Ed West, 18 December 2005). Although the idea was undoubtedly well-founded as an attempt to curb those areas of public nuisance that the police are often powerless to contain, what filters through to pub level are the oddball cases such as the 27-year-old woman who has been banned from answering her front door in her underwear, or the 50-year-old given an ASBO after attacking her brother with a stick of rhubarb. Almost seven years on since ASBOs were introduced, however, the biggest concerns remain vandalism, verbal abuse, and substance abuse.
In a recent BBC Newsnight Respect-launching special, where Blair was seemingly facing the public (i.e., a small group of people from Swindon), the PM appeared generally confused at the notion put forward by one of the studio audience that the paperwork for ASBOs could be bought off the internet and that certain youths saw being served an ASBO as a badge of honour. If you have a look at the UK version of eBay, what you will notice is that these are mostly joke ASBOs. But the parodies do say a lot about the status the real things hold in the general psyche: the punishment seen as perhaps the paper version of The Office‘s David Brent.
The thing is, Tony Blair is not just sitting in Downing Street. I’ve seen the pictures of him suited and booted with a power hose in hand, cleaning a wall of its graffiti (I’m not sure this is what Paul Smith imagined for his tailoring). Needless to say, this was another stunt to promote Respect but did anybody get the irony? Could it possibly be true that nobody made a link between Blair wielding his high pressure hose with Nicolas Sarkozy’s comments about cleaning out one of France’s notoriously poor estates with a Kärcher, a German make of, you’ve guessed it, the power hose?
Sarkoy image from ilestvraimentpartout.free.fr.
The French Secretary of State caused a scandal with these comments, but then he wasn’t talking about graffiti. This was tough talk from a French politician, something the French aren’t perhaps used to. It was provoked by the tragic death of Sidi Ahmed, an 11-year-old boy caught in what is believed to be the crossfire of gangland shootings in June 2005.
And then Sarkozy caused another kafuffle when he went on to say that he would rid the largely disenfranchised estates of the ‘racaille’. Both of these were probably fledgling attempts at soundbites, perhaps not quite yet a mastered tool in the hands of French politicians. And Sarko, as he is commonly referred to in France, wasn’t helped by the way much of the British and American media immediately translated this phrase to ‘scum’.
Though a translation that undoubtedly sold copy, it was a mistranslation, or at least an out of date one. But it was one used by The Sun amongst others, the newspaper defending Blair’s anti-yobbish stance (’Europe on the Edge’, Nick Parker, 8 November 2005). It’s not the anti-yob-behavior stance I’m concerned about, it’s something I’m sure we can relate to regardless of whether or not we think the means appropriate. I’m more concerned about the use of the word ‘yob’ and how that might be perceived in France. And as irony would have it, the only French reference I have found to the word ‘yob’ in the context of Respect is, as chance would have it, ‘racaille’.
To clear things up, ‘racaille’ translates as ‘rabble’ or ‘riffraff’, and ‘yob’ as ‘loubard’ (which one could translate back as ‘hooligan’). In an article entitled ‘Le langage ne dit plus rien’ (Language no longer says anything) published by France’s Libération, January 2006), Michel Erman writes that ‘racaille’ or ‘kaira’, the slang verlan version where syllables are reversed (‘verlan’ is itself ‘envers’, the French for ‘backwards’ reversed), is often used by the disaffected youths of the estates to refer to themselves. Indeed, ‘kaira’ is also now a popular urban clothing label. And for the linguistic enthusiasts amongst you, ‘yob’ itself is back slang for ‘boy’. It’s a small, loutish world.
This, however, never excuses a middle-aged man using the language of youth culture. The French, well, when are they going to get a bit of cop on? It would be like a British politician choosing an acronym like RAP for a new policy and then using a trendy form of greeting to refer to it. Hang on a minute
It’s time to put the power hoses down, Tony and Nicolas, no matter how great the temptation to picture yourselves as gun-slinging heroes who understand what it’s like to live on the edge. I know you can take aim with them and when you pull the trigger it’s all very phallic but it’s best to leave the macho New York Taxi Driver imagery to a Mohican-sporting sociopath who likes welding and talking to himself in the mirror. Besides which, soon spring will be upon us, there will be a water shortage and you’ll ban the use of hose-pipes. Mind you, a PM issued with an ASBO for breaking water-shortage regulation. Ah ha! Out with my notebook and pen, again.