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Home > Culture and Society

Pointless Change: The Only Constant

7 July 2006

Most right-thinking people do not fear change, but sometimes the sheer pointlessness of unnecessary change makes even the most progressive of us quietly transmogrify into Keith Waterhouse. (Although we do draw a line at criticising decimalisation, unless you're the kind of weirdo who gets a kick out of adding up in base 12.)

It's been a good week for pointless change. The suggested changes are essentially trivial and irrelevant, but it's still hard not to feel irked about them. First up is a suggested change to England's patron saint. St George is a bit passe, argues the Reverend Philip Chester, and should be replaced by St Alban, an idea he will be presenting to the synod of the Church of England. In some ways this isn't a bad idea. St George was probably made up, and if he did exist, it's possible he was a Roman general from the 4th Century who was put to death for his Christian beliefs. St Alban, by contrast, was real and a key figure in the birth of British Christianity. He too was martyred for his Christian beliefs, and the story of St Alban doesn't feature obvious bollocks like fighting a dragon.

However, there's a suggestion that St George is out of favour because he's warlike and offends Muslims. St George was the hero of English troops during the crusades, and an apparition of George is said to have appeared to the crusaders during the battle of Antioch in 1098. If this is the motivation for relegating George, then it's arse of the highest order. Like it or not, the crusades took place and lots of atrocities were perpetrated. But it was 1,000 years ago. If you're offended by the misdeeds of the crusaders, there surely aren't enough hours in the day to feel properly offended by every historical wrongdoing perpetrated by Christians.

It's also worth noting that there isn't any apparent evidence that Muslims *are* offended by St George. Most Muslims probably don't waste their time pondering a mythical figure from English folklore, nor do they bear a grudge over the crusades. Above all, the whole business of patron saints is about myth, legend and symbolism. Patron saints like George are largely made up (like Robin Hood), or at least fanciful interpretations of actual historical figures, as with Vlad the Impaler, or Wild Bill Hickok.

Saints are mostly about fiction, and St George is a pleasing fiction. Most people don't associate George with the pointless bloodletting that was the crusades, they see him as the archetypal brave, chivalrous knight, slaying a nasty dragon who's been terrorising peasants and eating their sheep and breathing fire all over the place. The most well-known version of the St George myth is that he saves a beautiful princess who is being sacrificed to a dragon. It's a little adventure story with a bit of romance thrown in. St George is about bravery and a can-do, get-stuck-in attitude, at least when it comes to the problem of dragons. OK, maybe we're not very rigorous about the verisimilitude of our myths, in this case amalgamating the St George myth with a bit of King Arthur and quite possibly a few Disney films, but so what?

And if you bother to look into the St George myth, it becomes apparent that St George is strangely inclusive. He's the patron saint of several countries and cities, including Georgia and Moscow, as well as the figurehead of a wide range of professions and organisations. He's even got a cameo in Islamic culture, as the figure of al-Khadr, a companion of Moses, who allegedly prayed near the Temple Mount.

All things considered, fiddling with our patron saint is utterly pointless. However, a small industry seems to have grown up around making pointless changes. Another recent example: the Women's Institute decided to drop the word 'housewife' from its vocabulary. Some members say the expression is 'outdated and derogatory' and are calling for the housewives' committee - which deals with cooking, flower arranging and gardening - to be renamed.

What pitifully low self-esteem some people must have. If your life consists of staying at home looking after, um, a house and kids, then housewife is a perfectly appropriate description. Being a housewife isn't trivial or demeaning, it's just an activity. It doesn't mean you have a mind made of fluff that can only deal with baking cakes and sewing, it just means you do housewife stuff. Nor does being a housewife mean you don't do other things. And in 2006, the number of women who would describe themselves as housewives is probably fairly small, given that most women have jobs. And in reality, the sort of people who *are* housewives are probably happy to be described as such, even go-getters who've temporarily chucked in their jobs as TV producers to get bored senseless by bringing up tiny humans who don't even know what a dolly cam is.

The final example of this week's pointless changes is that the (actually quite famous) Leonard Cheshire charity is thinking of changing its name because people don't know what it is. The charity works with disabled people around the world, but recently its managers decided that the name could be 'a barrier to achieving the organisation's goals'.

In reality, the Leonard Cheshire charity is amazingly unboring for a charity. It was founded by Leonard Cheshire VC, a war hero and RAF bomber commander. Cheshire was a bit of a card with a predilection for booze and the ladies. During his time at Bomber Command he developed the technique of making bombing raids more accurate by flying low over targets and dropping marker flares. In one incident he flew a Lancaster bomber over a factory in Limoges four times to warn French factory workers to get the fuck out of the building before it got bombed. After the war, he found himself spending an unfocused decade wondering what to do, then set up his charity after caring for a dying fellow airman at his home.

The decision to change the name came after staff were canvassed on whether the name should be 'relevant to younger people'. This is actually a bit of an insult to 'younger people'. If people, young or old, don't know what the Leonard Cheshire charity it, it's probably just because they've just not heard of it, not that they go: 'Leonard? Cheshire? God what a boring pair of words! I'm taking no further interest in that, whatever it is! Now if it was called 'Supernova' or 'Wow!' it would be a different matter, because those words are exciting!'

Considering that Cheshire was an object lesson in how to be brave, have fun and work out what to do with your life, changing the name of the charity is reverse logic. Some changes are valid, unquestionably. The Spastics Society became Scope, but there was a reason for this. Many people with cerebral palsy didn't like the term 'spastic', which is frankly a bit of an ugly word, and certainly had negative connotations - not least because it had become a term of playground abuse. Of course, Ian Dury tried to reclaim the term with 'Spasticus Autisticus', but it's probably fair to say that the majority view was that 'spastic' was a word that wouldn't be missed.

And in any case, the new names suggested for Leonard Cheshire truly are a horrific crop of witless trendy-speak. They are:

- Equability UK

- A-BL UK (standing for Ability Beyond Limitations)

- Disability UK

- eQual UK

Disability UK at least describes the work of Leonard Cheshire, but Leonard Cheshire is not the only disability charity in the UK. 'Equability' and the other ideas are just drivel - they could be just as easily be the names of IT firms or financial services companies.

So what are all these changes about? With St George, there's probably a bit of political correctness going on, but if so, it's a flawed idea. Relegating St George won't make a jot of difference to the Church of England, which is already mired in the problems of falling membership and international schism. It certainly won't have any effect on multi-culturalism or race relations. In the cases of housewives and Leonard Cheshire, it's the misguided belief that changing a name has some impact on reality. Does it? Whatever Leonard Cheshire becomes, it will still be a charity that helps disabled people and it will still do the same things it did, have the same offices, the same staff, the same budget and so on.

But the real motivator behind these changes isn't anything to do with political correctness or modernisation. It's about people wanting to be important, to look as though they're doing *something*, however irrelevant it may be. It's a sad indictment of the human race, and for once we don't feel terminally ashamed about holding the same views as Keith Waterhouse.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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