What links Boris Johnson to Kate Smith, America’s “songbird of the south” who served a similar role to the one Dame Vera Lynn played in this country during the Second World War, and sang some of the same songs too?
If you answered “the use of crude, racist language”, quick, fill in an entry form for the next season of the BBC’s Only Connect. Victoria Coren Mitchell wants you!
The reaction in the two nations the pair call or called (in the late Smith’s case) home could, however, scarcely be more different.
For those unfamiliar with the singer, her rendition of “God Bless America” was regularly used by baseball’s New York Yankees in the middle of the seventh inning. The Philadelphia Flyers, an ice hockey franchise, meanwhile had a statue of her erected outside the team’s home in the City of Brotherly Love, where she became something of a talisman.
The Flyers occasionally used the song in place of the Star Spangled Banner before games in the early 1970s, often must-win affairs. They went 101-36-5 when it aired, 3-1-0 when she sang it live. That’s some charm.
It’s only recently faded courtesy of the Yankees having been alerted by a fan to the ugly racist lyrics contained in a couple of the songs she recorded, which were apparently hiding in plain sight.
It has been argued that the intent of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was satirical, but it’s hard to detect any satire in Smith’s rendition (you can find it easily enough on YouTube). And what about “Pickaninny Heaven”?
“Little pickaninnies listen to the tale of a place I know … where great big watermelons grow”. Subtle it ain’t. Nasty it is.
As a result, the Yankees removed her version of “God Bless America”, that had been used since shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks, from its playlist. The Flyers followed suit, covering and then taking down the statue.
Which brings us to Johnson, and the link.
The man who would be king of the Tory party, and the prime minister of a diverse, multiracial country, echoed the second of those controversial songs in a 2002 Daily Telegraph column mocking the then prime minister Tony Blair’s globe trotting. He opined that Commonwealth countries were filled with “cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”.
“I feel sad that people have been offended by those words and I apologise for them,” he later said during a debate in the run-up to his successful bid to to become mayor of London, Britain’s most multiracial city. Cue exhortations to “move on”, which will surely be heard again.
But why should we move on when Johnson clearly hasn’t.
He has, in fact, indulged in repeated bouts of race baiting. There was his likening of Burka clad women to “letterboxes”. Or the fear of Turkish membership of the EU which the Leave campaign stoked, in which he played a prominent role. He even co-signed a letter to the former prime minister David Cameron that incorrectly warned of the “rapidly accelerating pace” of Turkey’s membership negotiations.
Then there was his description of former President Barack Obama as “half Kenyan”. And there’s more besides those.
The sincerity of the “apology” for the column needs to be seen in the context of the job he was seeking when he made it. The hard right of the Tory party goes down like a vat of tuna milkshake in multiracial London. Now Johnson courts that wing it’s very different. Witness his refusal to offer any contrition in the wake of the furore over the Burka column. A £275,000 soap box is a handy thing to have when you want to blow dog whistles to rev up your antediluvian army.
The most recent outing, in which he whined about about being “fed up” with suggestions that the opinions of young climate protesters in London “are more important than my own” was merely pathetic. Had you not seen the byline you could have been forgiven for thinking that it was a satire dreamt up by the good people at The Onion.
But nasty will follow sad as surely as night follows day.
Sports teams are, as a rule, conservative institutions. They rely on their fans’ tribalism to keep them buying tickets and merchandise, especially during the inevitable fallow spells they endure. As such, they tend to be deeply reluctant to change the traditions their supporters attach themselves to for fear of alienating them.
But faced with the reality of language in the songs Smith sang – and her appearance in a commercial prominently featuring a black “mammy” character – they rightly decided they had no choice but to act. They saw the problem with venerating someone associated with such imagery in modern America – even an America run by Donald Trump.
If such ugly language is enough to disqualify someone from singing at a baseball game or an ice hockey match, a residence in No 10 Downing Street ought to be completely out of the question.
Yet an increasingly desperate Tory party seems minded to plumb the Johnson depths. If it does, voters should reward it by knocking his premiership out of the park.