Skip to main content

What Do We Mean When We Say Sooty?

A member of the British Royal Family has been calling a British-Asian "friend" of his "Sooty" for years. Some suggest this is racist, others that "political correctness has gone too far". What does someone mean by calling a friend - however affectionately - such a name? Why the disquiet? I think it comes from what the act of using such words implies - a statement of difference - a difference which needn't be remarked upon, in the first place. However, and this is not a justification - I think the Princes are wrong to speak and act as they do - nicknames have always been problematic. They are, often, gently mocking, with the gentleness really mixed with aggression - "shorty", "Little John", "lefty" - and so on - all implying a noticed quality of differentiation, which the friend then chooses to take as the "name" of the person he befriends. This act of renaming is an imaginative imperialism - a taking over from the naming that the parents presumably first enacted, which, in itself, is a curious violence, but one we cannot do without (though some parents, as we know, use such offensive or silly names that the law has to change them). Who has the right to one's name? Only the person himself. To be called "Sooty" is maybe permitted, but with how much shame, even if secret? To refuse such a name is awkward - and, given the royal position - socially impossible. It is the assumption of effortless and natural enjoyment of total power over others that is offensive. It is hardly "politically correct" then, to question royalty's use of painful language - it is, more directly, political. Britain, still, needs to slowly but surely disentangle itself from such awkward relationships with the monarchy, and all the linguistic twists and turns it bestows. I am still perplexed that there is a Sir Hoy, and not a Dame Adlington, for instance. At the heart of these accusations of political correctness gone mad is always the idea that words don't mean what they say or sound like. The British sometimes mean by this humour, or irony - but note that humour, as Freud argued - can hide aggression - or simply be aggressive. Too often, humour is called black, or sick, as if that defends it from its base negativity. When racist language is used - or sexist - or ageist - a question does need to be posed - if it is all just fun and games - why do it? I recall a BBC interview last year with a famous novelist who bemoaned how "PC" meant he couldn't make villains "foreign anymore" - which was a shame, because making epithets about foreigners was such "fun". Some colonial fun and games have gone on too long. Time for the soot to be wiped away.


Popular posts from this blog

Review of the new Simple Minds album - Walk Between Worlds

Taste is a matter of opinion - or so goes one opinion. Aesthetics, a branch of pistols at dawn, is unlikely to become unruffled and resolved any time soon, and meantime it is possible to argue, in this post-post-modern age, an age of voter rage, that political opinion trumps taste anyway. We like what we say is art. And what we say is art is what likes us.

Simple Minds - the Scottish band founded around 1977 with the pale faces and beautiful cheekbones, and perfect indie hair cuts - comes from a time before that - from a Glasgow of poverty and working-class socialism, and religiosity, in a pre-Internet time when the heights of modernity were signalled by Kraftwerk, large synthesisers, and dancing like Bowie at 3 am in a Berlin club.

To say that early Simple Minds was mannered is like accusing Joyce of being experimental. Doh. The band sought to merge the icy innovations of German music with British and American pioneers of glam and proto-punk, like Iggy Pop; their heroes were contrived,…


Wheeler Light for 'Life Jacket'.

The runner-up is: Daniel Duffy - 'President Returns To New York For Brief First Visit'

Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Life Jacket

summer camp shirtsI couldn’t fit in then
are half my size nowI wanted to wear
smaller and smallerarticles of clothing
I shrunk to the sizethat disappeared

of an afterthoughtin a sinking ship body
too buoyant to sinktoo waterlogged for land
I becamea dot of sand


With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.