The problem with the ‘P’ word was clear in 1969

Published Dhaka Tribune 20 November 2021

In disturbing testimony to a House of Commons select committee this week, the cricketer Azeem Rafiq laid bare the racist abuse and bullying which he had to endure from officials and fellow teammates while playing for Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

Disturbing because it was all so recent — Rafiq only turned 30 this year. His whistleblowing, combined with the resignation of the former club chair, Roger Hutton, in protest at the club covering up investigations into racist behaviour, has encouraged others to come forward.

Amidst all their allegations is the constant use at the club of the offensive four letter “P” word, directed at players of South Asian heritage. Offensive not least because the word is part of the phrase “Paki-bashing,” historically used by racists to describe attacks against any brown-skinned person. Yet in 2021, the club was content to dismiss objections to the use of the “P” word and to label it as banter. 

The presence of a culture of racism is no surprise to observers of Yorkshire cricket, long infamous for its insularity, but its depth, persistence, and seeming revival, is shocking. 

In the 1990s, I attended a Yorkshire cricket match in Sheffield at the since demolished Don Valley athletics stadium. As I recall, it was one of Sachin Tendulkar’s earliest matches as the county’s first ever overseas player in an entertaining floodlit Yorkshire v Rest of the World match.

Despite being witnessed by over 15,000 people — records are hard to find, so I can’t confirm if it was an early 20/20 game — but there was certainly a sense in the crowd that the county was looking forward to a better future. Yet here the club is nearly 30 years later.

However preposterous the excuses made by or on behalf of the club, the fact remains the racist remarks have been made in 2021, long after the nature of the “P” word was widely understood.

To illustrate just how preposterous, consider how, over 50 years ago, during what most people today would label less politically correct times, the Beatles were sensitive enough to bury an early version of their 1969 song “Get Back.” The context is simple enough. Paul McCartney first wrote it as a satirical response to the infamously racist “Rivers of Blood” speech given by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell in 1968, which got him sacked from the shadow cabinet.

As in 1969, the song today is mostly famous for its catchy chorus and inconsequential lyrics, referencing a yearning to get back to the band’s rock n’ roll roots, rather than an attack on Powell’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

The lyrical changes in part show an awareness that even though the band did not use the offensive four-letter word, they realized the song’s satirical intent would go unnoticed by racists, due to the attention-grabber of the original opening line: “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs.”

Remarkably despite the endless hours of “new” content released by the Beatles — see for instance the media blitz for the release of Peter Jackson’s edit of Michael Lindsay Hogg‘s documentary of the Get Back/Let it Be sessions in early 1969, the “No Pakistanis” session has stayed out (as originally intended) and barely been discussed in interviews ever since. 

It is only a small footnote in the band’s history, but I think it is still an interesting one. I have duly scoured the companion book of transcripts from the 1969 sessions released ahead of Jackson’s film, and in that at least the early lyric does not even qualify for a footnote. 

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Given the amount of superior material and dozens of hours of recordings (including bugged canteen conversations) made by Lindsay Hogg, this is easy to explain but a disappointment to historians.

By no means does the book overlook the band’s wish to mock the anti-immigration politician as it fully transcribes conversations around the “Commonwealth Song” session which starts with McCartney singing, “Dirty Enoch Powell said to the immigrants, immigrants you better get back to your commonwealth homes,” before falling into a parodic litany of Commonwealth place names. Nor does it leave out earnest conversations among the band about racism and the recently assassinated Martin Luther King.

An introductory essay by the writer Hanif Kureishi notes that though their backgrounds seemed “provincial,” in their tastes and friendships there was always something appealingly cosmopolitan about the band. 

Neither Kureishi nor the book’s younger essayist, Guardian commentator John Harris, mentions Powell. In this, they appear to follow the lead of McCartney’s new, even more expansive, book in which he recounts to poet Paul Muldoon the writing of 154 songs he has penned since 1956.

One possible reason for not reopening discussion of the satirical origins of the title “Get Back” now is that it would lead to questions on the time in 1976 that long-term Beatle friend Eric Clapton infamously gave a drunken “Enoch was right” rant on stage, which led directly to the creation of Rock Against Racism. Why comment if you don’t have to?

Under the entry for “Get Back,” McCartney simply reflects on the final, successful version of the song. Exactly as decided in 1969. It is not that the band never risked causing controversy; like any good musicians they often did. 

Indeed, amidst the furore caused in the US by John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comment in 1966, the media missed the fact that during the same set of interviews in London, McCartney used the “N” word whilst criticizing the mistreatment of Black people in America.

Just to be clear, this article is only referencing the Beatles in 1969 to make a point about people in positions of authority at Yorkshire CCC in 2021. Senior and young players alike, typically well heeled, sometimes expensively educated, over many years turned a blind eye to the “P” word being used with impunity and the bullying of non-white colleagues. They and the wider sport clearly have much to reform.

Back in 1969, the Beatles did not use the four letter “P” word, but still quickly ditched the original satirical lyric of “Get Back,” in part to avoid being misinterpreted by racists who did like using the word.

It is nice sometimes to get it right the first time. Without being asked. Without causing a fuss. Without ever creating the need for an apology.            

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