John recently started off a lively discussion with his posting, "I think my driving instructor's a BNP supporter." It raised a fascinating point. To what extent do we feel comfortable with friends and acquaintances who express what we feel to be "dodgy" views? With age, I have tended to quietly grunt at such incidences, mumbling something which registers some question about their view, while not inflaming the situation.
Last night was a case in point. I gave a lift to a colleague, who I have known for many years. He started going on in what I thought was a silly way, about the races of people in Reading. Because we were driving down Oxford Road, one of Reading's most cosmopolitan areas, and my friend had drunk several pints too many of the Amber nectar, I let the remark pass. I simply observed that such an area as the Oxford road is not a place on which to base generalisations for a whole large town. I don't see why I should make enemies by getting "funny" with people the moment they share their innermost thoughts with me.
All this has reminded me of a splendid put-down by Maureen Lipman in a 2005 Guardian G2 article entitled: "David Irving isn't the only Holocaust denier. I met one of my own at a garden party in north London":
Not long ago, on a lawn in north London, I encountered my own denier. It was surreal. One minute I was talking to Katherine Whitehorn about love and loss and the next minute our hostess had engineered me towards the writer Howard Jacobson and a faded blonde of about my age. As I was introduced she was saying: "You Jews are always saying, 'next year in Jerusalem', but you never actually go, do you?"
I thought she was joking. "I've been several times," I said. Howard shot me a wink and said nothing. "Then I tend to come home. To England. Where I was born."
Her next attempt at badinage was: "But you must admit," she said with a smile, "the Jewish scriptures are totally violent and divisive, aren't they?" Howard winked again. He was documenting the evidence. I waited for the next remark. Sure enough, it was about Israel and that old chestnut the World Jewish Conspiracy.
Suddenly, I heard myself say: "May I ask you a personal question?" She raised an eyebrow. I took it to be consent. "Have you had your nose fixed?"
My dears, you could have heard a cheese-and-pickle sandwich drop on to a north London lawn. The minutes went past. The lady was in shock.
"Why ... would ... you ... I ... why would you ask ... nobody ever ... ever ... I mean, why, does it look as if ...?" Not another coherent sentence passed her lips. I never saw a woman in greater denial. I had gone a bridge too far. It felt good. I excused myself and left the party.
Isn't it interesting? Here was a virtual Rhine maiden, happy to malign an entire race, who crumpled at the mere mention of rhinoplasty. I found out from Howard later that she was a well-known racist, and a devoted supporter of Irving. I sent my hostess a note thanking her for the first party I have ever been to with a Holocaust denier on the lawn. "She's an old friend," came the reply. "We never talk about those things."