Alexander Chancellor's Week

On Walton Street
Feb. 28 2002 2:21 PM

Alexander Chancellor's Week

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This is the first day this year I have actually liked London. The weather this morning was bright and spring-like, and I had an appointment with Maria, my dental hygienist, in South Kensington. I am always late for my appointments with Maria, disrupting her schedule. So the last time I went to see her, Mel, the office secretary, devised a plan by which I would put one time for my next appointment in my PalmPilot, and she would write a time a half an hour later in the office appointments diary, thus fooling me into arriving early. The ruse worked perfectly in one sense. I really did believe that the time in my PalmPilot was the true one. But I ruined the whole thing by being uncharacteristically punctual. So I had half an hour to kill before Maria was ready to see me. I went for a stroll along sunny Walton Street, which is a world apart from the grimy, crime-ridden streets of Hammersmith where I live and work. Its neat little terraced cottages, built originally for humble wage-earners but now probably worth about £1 million each, so ridiculous have house prices in London become, look snug and secure. Its shops studiously avoid selling any kind of human necessity, unless you count flavoured Italian risottos and loaves of organic bread as necessities. They offer instead Indian antiques, Florentine bath essences, exotic stationery, and everything for the child that already has everything. The street contains several shops selling children's things, which is surprising since the area seems much too precious and rarefied for children to live in. But these shops seem to cater only for children wanting opulent party clothes and expensive toys to give each other on their birthdays.

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I was looking in the window of one of these shops when my eye was caught by a golliwog lurking furtively among a group of dolls. My reaction was both one of nostalgia for this icon of my childhood and one of slight shock at seeing it on sale at all. I haven't checked, but I doubt if golliwogs are available any more in any of the popular toy shops or department stores, for the little black rag doll is now regarded as a symbol of racial insensitivity. Even James Robertson & Sons, which had used the golliwog on its jam labels for 91 years, succumbed to pressure last year when it announced it was replacing it with images of Roald Dahl characters. Well, I assume the company was doing this in response to pressure, for it denied it at the time. It said it was trying to appeal to "modern" families and that its research had shown that "the character is no longer well known". But the company had for decades been subjected to boycotts of its products by several organisations, including the former Greater London Council, on the grounds that its use of the golliwog was racist.

I used to wonder why the golliwog gave such offence. Black dolls are normal in black countries, and often these are made deliberately grotesque. And the golliwog, though a caricature, has usually been portrayed as amiable. In the children's books of his creator, Florence Kate Upton, he is unfailingly gallant and generous. And Upton herself once told an interviewer that "no-one believes in his good humour, his gentleness, his genuineness, more than his so-called creator". The problem seems to have been that Upton based the golliwog's appearance on a "black minstrel" doll that she had found lying around at home. And the black minstrels were white people who painted their faces black. So the golliwog was in effect a caricature of a caricature of white people mocking blacks, as triumphantly exemplified in the 20th century by Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. It can't really be disputed that painting a white face black and giving it thick red lips and white rings round its eyes is patronising to blacks, so the golliwog was doomed to fall from favour in the end. But it's a shame in a way that such a loveable character should have had to become a hate object when there aren't so many loveable characters around.

An article in last Sunday's Observer was about the "tyranny" of e-mails. It told the story of a Londoner who built up such a successful business selling olives on the Internet that he found himself getting at least 200 e-mails a day. Answering them depressed him so much that he sold the business and took a job in a financial services company. There he demanded a clause in his contract saying that he would not have to deal with more than 25 e-mails a day. "It was one of the best moves I ever made," he now says. I probably only get about a dozen e-mails a day, but even those I find a burden. How do people with hundreds of them cope? The answer, it is becoming clear, is that they have given up replying to them. This seems from my experience to be especially true of Americans, who tend to be busier than we are. Americans, who had become very bad at answering letters, became reformed characters at the start of the e-mail revolution, replying conscientiously to the messages you sent them. But it couldn't last. As the traffic swelled, it all became too much for them. I wonder if they actually even read e-mail any more.

Alexander Chancellor is a co-editor of Slate UK.

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