Kate Fox: To my shame, I dropped my spoof rap about David Starkey

Journal columnist and performance poet Kate Fox on how we steer a course between being over-polite and over-offensive

John Owen David Starkey
David Starkey

This week, some comedians pulled out of “Vegfest”, the riveting sounding festival of veganism, because Ukip politicians were going to be speaking there too.

The festival then said that the event would no longer be a safe space for families with Ukip there and they were withdrawing their invitation to them.

Has being right wing become so offensive that people need to be protected from hearing it? Jeremy Clarkson has been dumped from “Top Gear”. Not ultimately for his controversial politically incorrect and right wing views, but for his right hook, but those views had led to calls for his sacking many times before.

This week I found myself challenged to confront some of those issues after being asked to do a short performance before David Starkey’s appearance at a literature festival. I didn’t think that I, as a left wing, feminist, was the obvious choice to warm up his 600-strong audience, but I liked the idea of the challenge.

I then found myself wondering if I would seem to be endorsing some of his views - most notably the time he said on “Newsnight” that some parts of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech were correct and that the London riots were caused by “white people becoming black”.

Stand up performers are supposed to acknowledge the “Now” in performance. Unlike an actor in Hamlet or a politician, they might say “Bless you” to an audience member who has just sneezed, point out the seventies decor, or reflect the fact that nothing they say is getting a laugh. The minute they seem to ignore the audience’s experience, the audience will stop trusting them.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to ignore the disconnect between my views and David Starkey’s - so thought that I could address it in my comedy and poems. I wanted to do it subtly in some ways, so included a poem talking about Yorkshire’s inhabitants being gathered from all over the world “like tea leaves from Poland to Pakistan”.

But once I read that he’d said that female writers “feminised” history by going on about Henry VIII’s wives and also that a “Jamaican patois has intruded into England” I was going to less subtly introduce my spoof rap about Henry VIII by saying that given what he’d said, it was probably his worst nightmare.

It was going to be my last poem and I knew that if the audience were with me by then, it would get a laugh. That’s one of the great strengths of comedy for me, it can allow people to show disagreement in a safe way.

Meanwhile some anti-racism campaigners had said they were going to protest outside the venue in York because they didn’t think his views should go unchallenged. He was actually going to be talking about York’s place in history - but they felt his previous views meant he should be on a platform with diverse speakers who might debate with him or have a more diverse point of view.

I agree with them really - though I suppose I often get to take the stage as a left wing, feminist, radical Northerner without anybody challenging me or ruffling my liberal audience’s feathers with their views on immigrants or the Falklands.

In the end the Chair of the event who was introducing me became very concerned that I might not be “polite” to David Starkey if I repeated his words on race before I did my spoof rap. To my shame, I gave in. I think I did embody a very different world-view to him but I didn’t challenge it directly.

Perhaps what we need more of is a radical openness and honesty about conflict. Spaces where we can go beyond talk of “politeness” or “offensiveness” but still allow audiences to express the hurtful or negative impact of others people’s words on them.

Perhaps Twitter is one such place. Ironically at the same moment as the event chair was worried that I’d be rude to David Starkey, the Twittersphere was erupting in fury at his “rudeness” in calling a historical novelist a “Ricardian loon” on a live Channel 4 debate about Richard III.

As ever, its all about balance. Though if Ukip ever wanted a poet in residence for their annual conference, I’m not their woman...

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