Hang ’em high? Capital punishment v reasonable doubt

Reclaiming the golliwog for Black Pete

Image: Hangman's noose.The recent case of four men in India convicted of raping and murdering a young woman, which brought crowds to the street outside the courthouse baying for the death penalty, set me thinking…

When I was a child I had a golliwog, a much loved toy that lived in my bed along with Teddy and assorted other friends – yes alright, stop laughing, you there at the back. I was only five! Sadly, in the years following, the golliwog became mired with the racism tag: the very image of poor Golly amounted to a foul denigration of the darker skinned races, wailed the self-appointed watchdogs of morality.

And up to a point, they may have had a point; but it was based on misunderstanding. As a child it never crossed my mind that my much loved golliwog represented any sort of real person, black, white or indifferent. He was just an innocent soft toy, a child’s cuddly comfort when the world outside seemed dangerous and frightening: an example of one man’s meat being another man’s poison, I suppose.

But leaving aside the preposterous suggestion that I may never have grown out of that child-like state of naivety, as a young adult long after my beloved golliwog had retired to a comfortable shoe box in the wardrobe I still made no connection between my erstwhile toy and the idea of racism. The first inkling I had that my golliwog constituted an offensive representation of a black person, the first notion I had that loving my golliwog might somehow condemn me as a hideous racist, was when there was a hoo-hah over Robertsons Jam removing the traditional golliwog logo from their labels. I seem to recall there was also some to-do over Enid Blyton whose wonderful adventure stories for children were read to us in primary school by kindly Mrs Williams while we were allowed to rest our tired little heads on the desk for fifteen minutes half way through the afternoon (or maybe it was morning…). Does that still happen in schools these days?

Anyhow, whether or not we were subliminally taught racism by Enid Blyton, one way or another poor Golly, his reputation trashed, was thereafter never allowed to see the light of day. His delightful retirement residence in my wardrobe became a prison. That is, until now.

On BBC Radio 4 recently (Thinking Allowed, 31st July 2013) I heard a discussion that explained how the golliwog came to be, and it has nothing to do with racism.

Did you ever wonder as a child just how Santa, being such a stout fellow, managed to squeeze down the chimney to deliver your toys on Christmas eve? Did that not start you wondering… was the legend of Santa maybe just a tad suspect? Oh, the lies we tell our children! The Dutch must be past masters at it, for they had a way of getting round such childish logic.

It seems the golliwog came out of a Dutch Christmas tradition in which Black Pete was said to be Santa’s helper. Black Pete it was that climbed down the chimney to deliver the toys. And what do chimneys all have in common? Soot! No wonder Pete was black. He was never meant to be a representation of a black person, much less a deliberate racist slur, but he could hardly be other than black given his occupation: thin and black, with sticky-out spiky hair and staring eyes to boot. You try climbing down a sooty chimney: I bet you’d look like that too, even if you started out whiter than Ghandi’s freshly laundered Sunday-best loincloth.

Phew! Golliwog exonerated at last. If I were not all grown up I’d go dig out that box from the old wardrobe and restore Golly to his pride of place on my pillow at once.

It may be understandable that people distressed by the horrors of a dastardly crime would call for the death penalty in a case where guilt was not in doubt, but I’d say Golly’s story is a good example of why we don’t have capital punishment in the UK anymore: it’s just too awfully, perhaps mistakenly, final. How can you make amends if you discover you’ve made a terrible mistake of justice after you’ve hung the innocent party?

Source material there for some future novel, I think. Meanwhile, were you ever deprived of a favourite toy by some mistaken moral guardian? Why not tell us your tale of woe in the comments below. And if you can make a connection with any of my novels while you’re about it you’re a better blogger than I am, Gunga Din (although, come to think of it, reasonable doubt is a theme in the Just One Mistake trilogy…)

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