Black sheep no more

AS I walked into the newsagent's, I heard two blokes talking about one of the day's headline stories.“They should shoot them all,” said one man, to which the other replied with a sage nod of the head.

AS I walked into the newsagent's, I heard two blokes talking about one of the day's headline stories.

“They should shoot them all,” said one man, to which the other replied with a sage nod of the head.

So what outrage had provoked this slightly-less-than-liberal reaction?

The sectarian bombings of Hindu temples or Muslim mosques?

The Iranian nuclear developers, or the Americans who wish to stop them, while signing nuclear agreements of their own with India?

Perhaps the football cheats who feign injury, then moan about referees punishing their own offences?

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No - the targets of the chinwaggers' wrath were the staff of an Oxfordshire nursery.

Their crime? The sin of teaching children to sing a rhyme beginning “Baa-baa rainbow sheep”.

Frankly, I'm not sure who is sillier - the narrow-minded paper-pushers who come up with these “politically correct” re-writes, or the narrow-minded newspaper-pushers who decide they are front page news.

Actually, I dislike the term “politically correct” for a number of reasons.

For one thing, it suggests a form of politically motivated censorship, which is not a direction any sane and safe society should take.

At the same time, it's a phrase used almost exclusively as a term of abuse, usually aimed at people who are honestly trying to reduce rudeness and prejudice.

The trouble is, those honest attempts are often so far off the mark that they become counter-productive. As in the case of baa-baa rainbow sheep.

So let's make that case clear.

Some sheep are black. They are never, as far as I'm aware, rainbow-patterned. To suggest they might be is silly.

About as silly as it would be to suggest that any person is literally black - or that I am genuinely white. Unless, in either case, we are very poorly indeed.

What's more, the traditional rhyme “Baa-baa black sheep” has remained virtually unchanged for at least 250 years, and probably has its origin in a wool tax of 1275.

Now, I'm not going to say that traditions should never be changed - as supporters of hunting do, for example.

Britain had a long tradition of hanging and disembowelling the politically incorrect.

It was also once traditional to deport to Australia and other godforsaken wastelands those found guilty of stealing sheep, black or otherwise.

These traditions have been abandoned for good reasons.

But there is no good reason for abandoning a cheery old nursery rhyme merely because it has become fashionable to describe some people as black.

Black sheep have nothing whatever to do with racism, or indeed matters of human race at all.

Any more than do blackboards, blackbirds, black magic or the black market.

To make such a connection, whether for reasons of “political correctness” or any other reason, is ignorant and silly.

And, dare I say it, just a little racist.

A more serious, and important, aspect of what you might call linguistic cleansing is examined in a new book, Unspeak, by Steven Poole. This considers how quite subtle changes in language can be used to change people's attitudes.

How and why, for example, did refugees become asylum-seekers? They are the same people, but one term considers them as victims needing help, the other as strangers making demands.

I don't know who first made that uncharitable shift in public usage, and therefore public opinion.

But I strongly suspect the same mean-minded media folk who put “Baa-baa rainbow sheep” on the newsstands this week.

Oh well, that's blown my chances of a job on the Daily Mail.

WHO said rock'n'roll was a young person's game?

Last week it was Neil Diamond producing supposedly his best album at the age of 65.

This week it's Dave Gilmour, formerly of Pink Floyd, whose new release has grabbed the spotlight. Meanwhile Van Morrison and former Steely Dan member Donald Fagen have also earned good reviews.

All these chaps had their most memorable musical moments in the early-to-mid 1970s. Perhaps we can expect a new punk explosion to blow them all away again soon.

By which I mean something genuinely new, not another round of revival tours for the survivors of the Pistols, Clash and Throbbing Gristle.

And not those currently successful American “New Wave” retro acts Green Day, Good Charlotte, Blink 182 etc either. Charming as they are in their nostalgia-inducing way.

Now, when's Bob Dylan got a new record coming out?

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