The school I went to was pretty traditional. Corporal punishment was part of the disciplinary code, involving slippers, gym shoes or the cane, depending on who was administering it. Latin was compulsory to the age of 12, at which time you could opt to add Greek to your timetable, or drop classics and study astronomy, computer science, geology and something called "Applied Science", taking two of them to O level (there's nothing more traditional in this country than science and engineering). Walking on the cricket First 11 pitch was utterly taboo to the point where bonking on it by moonlight was a coveted rite of passage for the more sexually accomplished sixth formers and their girlfriends. We wore tweed suits during the winter terms, prefects were called Praeposters, Latin grace was said at mealtimes.
And the Head of the History Department took a special lesson, unannounced, for every class when they reached the age of fourteen. A whole 45 minute "period" was set aside for this. He walked in, asked us to sit, opened the book he was carrying, told us this was a true story, and began to read.
By the end of the first minute, the silence from the class was absolute. The teacher read to us the story of a 14 year old, a lad our age (this was a single-sex school), in one of the southern states of the USA. This black boy had been thrown in jail on some trumped up charge and one night the Ku Klux Klan came for him. They took him from the cell, unhindered by the police, and drove him out to some woods. There they stripped him naked and used heavy wire to bind his testicles to a bitumen-soaked log. They handed him a knife and set fire to the log; he could burn alive, or castrate himself to get free.
Then the teacher closed the book, stood, and left the classroom. He said nothing else, there was no attempt to discuss the reading, no redundant moralising, he just left us with something like half an hour of the period remaining.
I don't think any of us had really thought about racism before that. There were more children than usual, at that time, from non-white backgrounds in our school and some were in every class that was read to. For the class I was in, the teacher's departure was followed by silence. We looked at each other, not wanting to make eye contact. The Indian lad in the class who was one of the Chaps was suddenly, and briefly, more isolated than he had probably ever been, and less so than - I believe - any other treatment of the subject could have accomplished. I don't think I ever had the privilege of a more effective lesson. By the end of the half hour we were left to fill, an extraordinarily well-behaved half hour for 14 year olds left alone, we were chatting away in groups and the biggest group had formed round the Indian lad. He was slightly embarrassed but not in a bad way - this was just a spontaneous wish on the part of his classmates to show what I can only call solidarity.
I think we were so well behaved, during that half hour, because it was obvious that the school had as an institution felt this important enough to break the normal timetable; the teacher had read in a quiet voice but with barely-suppressed anger, he was probably the instigator of the tradition. We had been trusted on several levels: trusted to be able to understand this without any elaboration by an adult, trusted to be left alone afterwards. Only one boy sat on his own during this half hour. His mother was a local organiser for the National Front and we knew he sympathised with her opinions.
Charlie Brooker was born around the same time this lesson took place, but nothing had changed by the time he was at school:
[The Headmaster] spoke with eerie, measured anger. He’d fought in the second world war, he told us. Our village had a memorial commemorating friends of his who had died. Many were relatives of ours. These villagers gave their lives fighting a regime that looked down on anyone “different”, that tried to blame others for any problem they could find; a bullying, racist regime called “the Nazis”. Millions of people had died thanks to their bigotry and prejudice. And he told us that anyone who picked on anyone else because they were “different’ wasn’t merely insulting the object of their derision, but insulting the headmaster himself, and his dead friends, and our dead relatives, the ones on the war memorial. And if he heard of anyone - anyone - using racist language again, they’d immediately get the slipper.The mainstream left and right recently came together to support the cause of the Gurkhas, while the BNP has recently been belittling a hero who won the Victoria Cross serving in our armed forces, because the man is not white.
There's no doubt that there has been prejudice in this country, but most of it has been thoughtless rather than malicious. The malevolence of the British National Party and of other race fetishists stands opposed to the long-standing, quiet traditions of this country. As the new campaign points out, there's nothing British about the BNP.