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Come with me to Santa’s grotto to discover the state we’re in

Rod Liddle offers a festive tour of the world at Christmas 2008: irrational fear, ignorance, stupidity, vexatious litigation, a foolish longing to abolish ‘risk’, and Christmas parties that, we are warned, have ‘absolutely nothing to do with Jesus’

15 December 2008

12:00 AM

15 December 2008

12:00 AM

Rod Liddle offers a festive tour of the world at Christmas 2008: irrational fear, ignorance, stupidity, vexatious litigation, a foolish longing to abolish ‘risk’, and Christmas parties that, we are warned, have ‘absolutely nothing to do with Jesus’

In Santa’s grotto at a top London department store, Santa in his big white friendly beard sits on a bench — and there is a large ‘X’ marked on the bench a couple of feet away where the child is firmly directed to sit, allowing a wide corridor of clear and unsullied air between the child and the potential kiddie-fiddler from the North Pole, with his red cheeks, strange reindeer and unaccountable affection for children. Santa is not allowed to touch the child. The child is not allowed to touch Santa. Happy Christmas, war is over. This is where we are now.

My three-year-old daughter was taken to see a different Santa recently, a more rural Santa, who had set up base on some farm complex which at other times of the year sold bourgeois organic produce to people who have got the hell out of London recently. It was brilliant, she said, when she got back, before begging to watch Wonder Pets on TV. My wife took her. They walked through bales of hay illuminated by sparkling fairy lights and there was Santa, sitting on his sleigh, presents by his feet. My daughter clambered up on to the sleigh, stumbled a little and was caught by Santa, got spoken to, was given her present, and left very happy indeed. She’ll have good memories of the day, I would guess — but what stuck in my wife’s mind was the look on Santa’s face: that will stay with her for some time. When my daughter stumbled, clambering on to the sleigh, Santa reached out and grabbed hold of her — an instinctive reaction, something we all might do. You don’t want to see a child fall, do you? But it was the look on Santa’s face when he realised what he’d done that chilled to the marrow: a look, according to my wife, of pure, blind panic and fright. ‘I’m really, really, sorry for touching her,’ he mumbled. ‘I didn’t mean to. I thought she might fall.’ This is where we are now.

A couple of years back, in the tropical Australian town of Cairns, another Santa was sacked from his grotto in a department store for having said ‘Ho, ho, ho’ to the children waiting before him. According to the store, he should have said ‘Ha, ha, ha’ — but he was a Bad Santa, he forgot — or was of an independent frame of mind. ‘Ho, ho, ho’ might be perceived as being derogatory to women, it was strongly argued. A ‘ho’ is American black vernacular for a prostitute, or at least a woman of loose morals, so you can’t say it any more. I don’t think there are any black American women in Cairns, but Santa was sacked nonetheless. Ha, ha, ha. This is where we are now.

The Santa Claus in a department store in Louisville, Kentucky was sacked because the children kept pointing out that he had extremely large breasts. This is because he was a she, one formidable lady called Marta Brown. But the breasts were not what the kids expected on Santa Claus, not when viewed in tandem with the traditional beard and stuff — so they took the piss. Marta was consequently sacked by the department store — but good news, she is suing the firm for $67,000 through the state commission on human rights, for injured feelings and sexual discrimination. This is where we are now.

In my lovely old home town of Guisborough, in Cleveland, they used to have Santa on a sleigh riding through the part-cobbled old market high street, dispensing sweets to the kids. It was just a Christmas thing, you know? Not any more. The insurance monkeys and the health and safety monkeys got together and decided that it would cost £20,000 in future to safeguard and insure such an event. So of course it was stopped. This is where we are, etc.

A Santa Claus working at Selfridges department store in London was sacked this year for having invited an elderly woman to sit on his lap. I do not know what the elderly woman was doing in the queue for the grotto — but, of course, it is her right to queue up to meet Santa and get a present, just as it is your right and my right, the rights of all people of whatever creed, colour, class or age. But you shouldn’t have to put up with an outrage like being invited to sit on Santa’s lap, so Santa was sacked. A statement from Selfridges read: ‘We do not promote or proactively seek lap-sitting.’ Read that quote again and try to imagine the sort of person who wrote it: ‘Promote or proactively seek lap-sitting’.

In the north of England a boy was not allowed to attend his school’s Christmas party because his parents had insisted, ever since he joined the school, that he should not be required to attend lessons in Religious Education. The school presumably thought that they were being scrupulous in abiding by the wishes of the parents — but apparently not. The boy’s mum, a Ms Dawn Riddell, was incandescent at the ‘cruelty’ inflicted upon her poor son. Christmas parties, she said, have got ‘absolutely nothing to do with Jesus’. I think that’s one of my favourite quotes of this year or any year. And that’s where we are now, too.

Those Santa-based examples above, drawn from the liberal, developed, democratic world, do not contain absolutely everything which annoys people about how we are now, but they cover a fair few bases. Utter stupidity and ignorance, an irrational and institutionalised fear of paedophiles, an institutionalised but perfectly rational fear of litigation, vexatious litigation, the triumph of health and safety legislation over everything (allied to a fear of vexatious litigation), the notion of equal rights taken to absurd conclusions, the ability of an individual to become enraged when an imagined right has been infracted, corporate and local council obeisance to a PC agenda with which no sane person would concur, and so on. It has become a cliché, every Christmas, to point out this sort of thing — so much so that it has its clichéd corollary in the liberal press, its equally steadfast mirror image, that none of it is true. But it is true, colloquially and in fact; even though my examples above might be dismissed as singularities by those who, for reasons I do not quite understand, wish to deny how things are. There was a piece in the Guardian recently by a chap called Dave Hill who set out to knock down the story that Oxford had recently, in a fit of PC-mania, decided not to have a Christmas festival this year but instead ‘winter lights’. And it became evident as you read his piece that though he wished to knock the story down, it was perfectly true, at which point Dave began instead to justify how seasonal celebrations change over the years and that ‘winter lights’, therefore, were fine and dandy. All a bit like Freud’s example of the man who borrows his neighbour’s bucket and returns it broken, and when challenged says: ‘I never borrowed your bucket. It was broken when I borrowed it. It wasn’t broken when I gave it back.’

I don’t know why the Left is quite so defensive about this stuff, only that it feels it has to be, to its public detriment. There is no ideological left-wing reason why we should assume that all men over the age of 30 are potential paedophiles, for example — unless it is a hangover from the old feminist notion that all men over the age of 30 (or indeed younger) are potential rapists. Or that big business, through a terror of losing money, should impose insulting restrictions upon the rest of us. Or that personal injury lawyers are in the vanguard of the socialist revolution. The problem, of course, is that while the Right has won most of the foreign policy and economic arguments these past 25 years, the Left has
absolute hegemony in social services, council departments (regardless of what party they are run by) and the education system — so if the Left worries about this stuff, we all feel the consequences.

But it is our fear of paedophilia, or fear of litigation provoked by the intimation of paedophilia (which is, when it comes down to it, much the same thing), that is the most corrosive and damaging. One of the most telling and important political contributions of 2008 came from an old semi-reformed radical Marxist, Frank Furedi, now a professor of sociology, who delivered an attack upon the strange and ambivalent manner in which we view children these days. There was all the stuff the leftist writers would have you believe never happens — can’t take photographs at a child’s Nativity play, need humiliating criminal record bureau checks if you’re going to run a kids’ football team, can’t touch a child for fear of being hauled before the courts or accosted. All the sorts of stuff which resulted (when followed through) this year in a woman in Southampton being apprehended by security guards because she took a photograph of an entirely empty open-air swimming pool. ‘We cannot organise the world around the default position that we are all paedophiles,’ Furedi lamented in a magazine interview. He talked, too, about the other side of the coin, the control which children seem to have over parents these days. Furedi called it ‘reverse socialisation’, the kids being told to tell their parents to eat healthier food, or recycle their rubbish properly, or not to smoke in the home. And much of it can be dragged back to what Furedi called the ‘pre-political authority’ of parents disciplining, or failing to discipline, their kids. They do not have an idea any more of right or wrong, he suggested.

Well, indeed; but whose fault is that? Place it alongside all the stuff I mentioned above and it would seem to be the logical consequence of an agenda driven by the liberal middle-class Left over the past 30 years, in which the common denominator is the yearning for an artificial world which is entirely risk-free. Certainly there must be no risk to life or limb, even if that risk is vanishingly small. No risk, either, that anyone could possibly be offended by anything, no matter how barking mad you would have to be to take offence. No risk that anyone’s sensibilities (religious or otherwise) might be offended, no matter how thin their skins may have become over the years. It is an aspiration towards a pretend world, a confection every bit as make-believe as Santa’s grotto.

Still, have a good Christmas now. And remember: it’s got ‘absolutely nothing to do with Jesus’.

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