Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Good Samaritan

One of the inexorable laws of writing non-fiction books is that, as soon as you’ve published, new information will turn up that you wished you’d known when you were writing.

A few years back, I wrote a book on the Biba stores and within days of it hitting the shelves, I was contacted by people who’d worked there and who had tales to tell. I even discovered that one of my best friends, the architect and thriller writer Brian Freeborn, had included a rather charming little elegy to Biba in his novel Ten Days, Mr Cain? (Secker & Warburg, 1977).

In the latter instance, I slipped the reference into a subsequent book, Welcome to Big Biba. But even so, it wasn’t until I later re-visited Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (Secker & Warburg, 1975) that I found another wonderful bit about the hero’s wife nipping up to London on a regular basis to spend a dirty weekend with her lover, occasions which she liked to call ‘Biba weekends’, since she’d always visit the shop when in town.

So I put that bit into my most recent book, Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s, since I figured it was unlikely I’d write a third book on Biba.

Now, however, I find something that should have been included in Crisis? What Crisis? And, in the absence of anywhere else, I thought I’d write about it here.

Towards the end of that book, I suggest that the principal political split in Britain at the end of the 1970s could be summarised by two interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

On the one side was Margaret Thatcher, who explained the moral of the tale to Brian Walden on Weekend World in her first major TV interview after her election as prime minister in 1979. ‘No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions,’ she remarked; ‘he had money as well.’

And, she said, this confirmed her vision of the society she wished to build, a society that eschewed the socialist obsession with egalitarianism. ‘If opportunity and talent is unequally distributed, then allowing people to exercise that talent and opportunity means more inequality, but it also means you drag up the poor people, because there are the resources to do so.’

On the other side of the political divide, there was the veteran left-winger Ian Mikardo who celebrated in his memoirs (Back-Bencher, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988) the frequently derided figure of the political activist, as opposed to the much vaunted silent majority.

These latter he characterized as: ‘the people who stay silent, who don’t utter a word of protest against the fruits of social injustice and deprivation; or against the system which hoards mountains of food in cold stores in rich countries whilst millions starve in the waste-lands; or against the erosion for company profit of the world’s natural resources, and the pollution of its air and its rivers and its oceans; or against the slide towards nuclear war and nuclear winter and nuclear holocaust.’

And, he concluded: ‘The Good Samaritan was an activist: those who passed by on the other side were members of the silent majority.’

(There was yet another interpretation of the Good Samaritan, this time from the one serious student of the New Testament in the House of Commons. Enoch Powell insisted that the story had to be understood in the historical context of those who heard it first, an audience who would have understood the racial relationship of the Jews and the Samaritans: ‘If the parable has a “moral”, it is that Jews and Samaritans should remember that they are not merely neighbours (literally) but kinsmen.’)

Having spent some time exploring this dispute over political interpretations of the teachings of Jesus, I was a little miffed today to find another reference in the popular fiction of the era. So I thought I’d mention it now.

I’ve been reading Anthony Price’s splendid Our Man in Camelot (Victor Gollancz, 1975), undoubtedly the best Cold War espionage thriller with Arthurian overtones I’ve ever read. And in it a CIA agent explains that ‘the moment of gratitude was also the most vulnerable one.’ In other words:

‘Remember what the Good Samaritan probably said to the guy as he rolled on the bandages: “Going down to Jericho, eh? Say, maybe you could give me an introduction to the Chamber of Commerce there?”’

Social networking – that’s the point of charity. Apparently.

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