Up Your Banners
Coronet, London, 1972
This, if he ever finds it, is for Mister David Susskind
dedication: This, if he ever finds it, is for Mister David Susskind
The blurb on the back:
'Goodbye, Rabbit!' The hell of a slogan, that one!
'Handled with enormous wit and good humour ... a heart-warming book as well as funny one.' - Sunday Times
Well, you've read the sleeve-notes, you get the picture. It's a comedy based on the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. And it earns the approval of the Sunday Times, so you know there's going to be a catch. (Don't believe the Harold Evans myth - his 'paper is praised to the skies nowadays, but it was still an establishment rag.)
The problem is that the politics aren't balanced. On one side we have the pig-headed and intransigent white Principal of a predominantly black school, whose own son disagrees with his stance; on the other, we have virtually the entire student body, together with most of the faculty, the parents and various outside agitators. Both sides are equally worthy of ridicule, of course, in what purports to be an even-handed rejection of extremism, no matter where it comes from. But as you'll have noticed, it doesn't compute: one white man is wrong, the rest of white society is okay - one black woman responds on a personal level, the rest of black society is too busy rioting in the streets. Extremism is a matter of individual transgression for one group and institutional disgruntlement on the other. Frankly, the only people who'd regard that as balance are the kind who talk about political correctness having gone mad.
You might also care to examine that cover. The white man, you'll notice, is outnumbered, encircled. The black hands are angrily grasping the placard, committed and uncompromising, while the white hands are expressing the desire to return to reason, to dialogue and negotiation. The message is clear: confrontation is a bad thing, and black people are very confrontational, but at least we know what side we're on.
This is all something of an exaggeration - there's a very dodgy racist cop, for example - but frankly it's not much of one. This book is not really 'heart-warming' at all.
It is, however, very readable. Donald E Westlake is a phenomenally prolific writer and he can do this stuff with consummate ease. And it's undoubtedly authentic in articulating a right-wing political take on the period.
ARTISTIC MERIT: 2/5
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