THE English do not generally do fanaticism very well; and, even if you don’t agree with his standpoint, there is something charmingly quaint about Billy the hairdresser’s attempt at self-immolation in protest at racial policy in late-1960s Wolverhampton. He did not realise, he says, that setting light to himself would get so hot. “I’d better get out of here” was his final thought, as he leapt out of the flames to safety.
Billy’s foolhardy act came in response to a similar threat, made by one Sohan Singh Jolly, as part of The Turban Bus Dispute (Radio 4, Monday of last week); an episode in late-’60s industrial relations instigated by a Sikh bus driver, Tarsem Singh Sandhu, when he was refused permission to wear his turban to work.
In a week that marked the anniversary both of the Stephen Lawrence murder and of Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, it was particularly appropriate to be reminded of the complexities and nuances of Britain’s racial attitudes over the past half century.
Mr Sandhu is still alive and willing to speak about the events of 50 years ago; so naturally, in Sathnam Sanghera’s excellent documentary, he was again the central protagonist. But his testimony by no means fitted the template that we would expect from such a story. First, Mr Sandhu is happy to admit that he joined the bus company in Wolverhampton specifically to provoke the dispute; his father had just won a similar cause at Goodyear Tyres.
The cause did not engage the majority of Sikhs in the UK, but it did play well to the Punjabi community in India, and was supported by a Punjabi political party. And the final blow: Mr Sandhu proclaims himself a supporter of Enoch Powell, mainly because Powell was instrumental in getting permission for two of his cousins to move to Britain.
Will we be looking back in 50 years’ time at our own era and creating heroic stories of the struggle against the oppression of binary gender? There is certainly no lack of courageous individuals to populate the story. In Beyond Belief (Radio 4, Monday of last week), we heard from Kamalanandi, a “transmasculine” Buddhist, and a Christian, Philippa Whittaker, who has transitioned to a woman, about their struggles in both personal and institutional relationships.
Suffice to say, it is not easy, even if, as the resident academic, Dr Susannah Cornwall, argued, not all transgender people are as emotionally or psychological “vexed” as we might imagine.
There is a great deal to be said here about the gendered body and the liberated soul; and Whittaker was particularly interesting in this respect, expressing something like nostalgia for her former body.
Less helpful are arguments from biblical authority. It would be fair to assume that, were gender fluidity to be a significant phenomenon in the days of the Pentateuch, then it would, at the very least, have been frowned on.