When Trevor Phillips stood down as chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, he had served nine years. His period remains the longest of any UK equality commissioner. So when the confected outrage started over my Sun column about Everton footballer Ross Barkley I was not surprised to see a text pop up from Mr Phillips. I feared he would join the Liverpool bandwagon claiming I was a racist because I had compared the look in the eyes of Barkley with a gorilla. Actually I and every football fan I had ever met believed Barkley to be white. Unluckily for me, but luckily for my enemies in the north-west, that was not entirely true. It emerged that although Barkley looked white, his grandfather was half-Nigerian.
The reality is that had I known of his family tree I would never have made the comparison, but since I am a columnist and not a researcher on Who Do You Think You Are? I didn’t know, and have yet to meet anybody who did. Including the Sun sports editor. So, with hesitation, I read the text from Trevor Phillips expecting it to follow the line of such luminaries as Stan Collymore — presumably from a dogging site in Staffordshire — and Virtue Signaller of the Year, Gary Lineker. But no. This is what he said: ‘WTF? I have to confess I had no idea Barkley was a brother. Sad to see a great city wallowing in victim status. Unbelievable.’ A number of MPs shared his view, believing the reaction was comedic, with Andrew Mitchell, the ex-secretary of state for international development, texting: ‘On behalf of all gorillas I’d like to make a complaint.’ The Sun did not see the joke and suspended my column. The readers didn’t agree and opinion was running 100-1 in my favour, with some threatening a boycott if I didn’t return. Boycott? That would never work, would it?
When plunged into this kind of storm, deploying the ‘my best friend is black/gay/transgender’ option invites derision, but I thought the story of my will would be helpful. Predating Rossgate by a few weeks, I contacted the fundraising department of my old school, Alleyn’s in Dulwich, south-east London. If I left the school some money could they guarantee that 100 per cent of the scholarships would go to minority children? I had in mind African-Caribbean kids from the catchment area of Camberwell, Peckham and New Cross. They went away to check with the chairman of the governors and the head teacher. I was given the thumbs up and my lawyer is now drawing up the will. I tell this story because I am forced to, not because I want to. Another victory for Liverpool.
At a super lunch by food writer Rose Lloyd in her home in Tourrettes on the Côte d’Azur, talk turned to the very funny Alan Coren (father of Giles and Victoria), whose widow has kept on their holiday place in the village. A one-liner from Coren that always raised a smile at such events was: ‘My hero is the bloke who founded Sainsbury’s as it kept the riff-raff out of Waitrose.’
During the height of the Rossgate furore I texted Tony Gallagher, the bloody good editor of the Sun. He replied: ‘In church. Will be free in a few minutes.’ How times have changed. In my more louche period as editor of that fine organ, I would reply: ‘In brothel. Will be free in a few seconds.’
As the size of Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island still haunts me, I had always rejected the idea of visiting Auschwitz because I feared my tears would make the trip about me and not the victims. But thanks to persuasion from my longtime friend Richard Glynn, a former CEO of the bookies Ladbrokes, I spent most of Thursday at the camps an hour from Krakow in Poland. Nothing prepares you for Auschwitz. The stats are stark: 1.1 million victims, mainly Jewish, perhaps 230,000 of them children. If you didn’t die in the gas chamber, you would die in the field, because the SS gave prisoners so little food that they would lose weight and be gone in three months. My abiding memory was the shoes. The little shoes. The large shoes. The dust-covered shoes. Those victims were not forgotten. I had seen their shoes. Only 8 per cent of SS guards ever faced a court. Why? At the end of the day these mass murderers would return to their homes outside the camps to play with their children and cuddle their wives. Is this a German thing, or do we all have murder in our hearts? One other question: if it had been six million Christians, six million Muslims, six million Hindus or six million Sikhs murdered, would Holocaust Memorial Day be a bigger event? I fear so. Anti-Semitism is alive and well.