Print

Dame Joan has a battle on her hands

For the nation’s ever-growing band of shockaholics, there have been some satisfying moments of outrage over the past few days. Bill Oddie shocked viewers by including a footage of a dead squirrel on a nature programme. The head of BBC news scandalously appeared on screen while not wearing a Remembrance Day poppy. The broadcaster Edward Stourton stunned the nation by referring to the late Queen Mother as “a ghastly old bigot”.

Stourton had himself been scandalised back in 1992 when, during a dinner, the nation’s favourite grandmother had casually referred to “Huns, wops and dagos”. In his new book on political correctness, It’s a PC World, Stourton reveals, a touch priggishly, how he reacted. “I am afraid I froze… I thought what she said was nasty and ugly.”

These are difficult times in the books market and no could blame an author for hitching a publicity piggy-back ride on a bit of royal tittle-tattle. As it happens, Stourton’s account accidentally makes a point which is more relevant to his theme than any well-documented prejudice of the Queen Mother.

There is one adjective which still falls outside the ever-increasing dictionary of politically unacceptable terms and it is the one used by Stourton to add a bit of swing and comedy to what he was writing. It would have been unthinkable for him to refer a ghastly black, or fat, or female, or gay bigot but a ghastly old bigot offends no one. “Old” is a sort of mild swearword, a qualifier of humorous contempt which will make the writer and the majority of readers feel secure in their middle age or youth.

The appointment this week of a pensioner tsar to look into this kind of problem is well overdue, and the choice of Dame Joan Bakewell a good one. Just as some actors play old parts even when they are young (Clive Dunn was 48 when he appeared as Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army), Joan Bakewell can play young even at the age of 75.

Dame Joan is right to have placed the emphasis on practical matters in her first pronouncements in her new role. Doubtless it would be a good idea for airline cabin crew to help older passengers lift hand luggage into overhead compartments. There probably should be an increase in public lavatories.

But trickier, more important matters of policy lie ahead. The first is to convince the government that, if it is genuine in its desire to help the old, it should remove the threat to thousands of post offices by renewing the Royal Mail’s contract for the Post Office Card Account. Four million people, mostly the old and many of them in rural districts, use the card to withdraw pension and other benefits. If, as is rumoured, the contact is about to be given to PayPoint, which supplies garages and convenience stores, then a source of practical help – and in many places, a focus of community life – will be lost.

With that problem resolved, Joan Bakewell might turn to the culture as a whole and address the problem of British gerontophobia. In this country, the old are less part of family life, more generally isolated, than in most civilised societies. They are not taken seriously. If Trevor Phillips is right to say that British Obama is unthinkable, so is a British McCain. Remember the hounding of Menzies Campbell.

It would be an honourable development in the history of political correctness if the ghastly bigotry which so horrifies Edward Stourton was to include his own casual passing sneer at a person’s age.