Back in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher dominated British politics. She was something of a Marmite character, you either loved or hated her (for the record, I loathed her and was delighted when she fell out of power). But she was mistress of the sound bites, and this was one of them
“You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”
In Mrs Thatcher’s parlance, this was a reference to sticking to her principles regardless of how unpopular her policies might have been or how difficult the implementation. Opposition to Mrs Thatcher’s brand of Conservatism was fierce, but she trampled though all of it. She was set on her course and come hell or high water would carry it through.
At one level, I can admire such determination and single mindedness. For good or ill, the world can be changed by people who are committed, unwavering, absolutely convinced of their ideals. Nelson Mandela would be an example, Adolf Hitler another. It’s not always a good thing to ignore dissenting voices and press on regardless. Enlightened leadership takes account of other perspectives, seeks to create consensus, and carries the majority with it.
And sometimes, an idea, a set of principles, is just plain wrong. Better, surely, to be alive to such a possibility and ready to change tack if needed. At what point does courage and conviction degenerate into the rigid, self-obsessed thinking of the ignorant despot?
So much for the big stage. The same principles work at the level or ordinary folk, too. How often do we hear of families struggling to accommodate differing religious or political views, younger people at odds with the generation before and neither ready to shift, to compromise, to do a U turn even?
I’ve never been a fan of elevating an idea, a belief or a principle to such a status that I would sacrifice my key relationships for it, but many do. I’m no expert, not given to dishing out unwanted advice, but it seems to me that a little flexibility, tolerance and compassion can go a long way. If you love people, and want them to be happy, surely that trumps everything else.
Chameleon is one of my favourite books I’ve ever written, not least because of the sub-plots running through it. In Chameleon, I did my share of subtle tub-thumping, introducing themes of political and religious intolerance. The late and not-especially-lamented Margaret Thatcher’s policies feature, and the legacy of division that remains to this day as a result of her attack on mining communities in Britain. Also, though, I try to bang a drum for religious tolerance. At its heart Chameleon is the tale of a Muslim married to a Roman Catholic, and this couple’s determination to bring up their children to embrace both worlds and be the best of each.
Here’s an excerpt that gives a flavour of what I hoped to get across.
“Are you sleeping with my daughter?” The older man’s question took him by surprise, but Ethan knew better than to lie to him.
“I am, yes.”
Said eyed him narrowly, though without hostility. “I see. Will you be sleeping with her tonight?”
“I hope to, yes.” There was, of course, always the slim chance that she might even now back out.
“Yet you are planning to leave our country tomorrow. Will you be returning to Morocco?”
“I have business in London in the coming days. I may return. I had no plans to initially, but now, who knows?” Ethan was more than a little surprised to hear himself say this. He had not realised himself that he was contemplating coming back. But there it was. How interesting.
“Fleur has not had good experiences always, I am sure you will know this…?”
Ethan nodded. “She told me she was married, and that her husband is now dead.”
Said shook his head gravely. “Yes, a terrible business. Not Youssef’s death, you understand. That was not terrible. It was long overdue in my view. I have no sympathy for the dog. He hurt my precious girl. I might have killed him myself at one time.”
Ethan pondered that and considered the possibility that Said was warning him of the potential consequences if he were similarly careless with Fleur’s well-being. He had no intention at all of harming her, at least, not in the manner that her father meant. As for emotional hurt, she had known from the outset that his was a flying visit at best. He fully appreciated that emotions could assert themselves to derail even the best-laid plans, but he would be careful not to create expectations where he should not.
“I understand he was a violent man. Please be assured, Said, that I am not.” Ethan could deliver a decent whipping, fully consensual, of course, but he would never raise his hand to any woman in anger, and he was not a bully. He could and would, make Fleur scream, but he knew she would thank him for it afterwards. Meanwhile, it was by now clear to him that Said was not about to play the paternal moral card, though he was clearly seeking reassurance. Ethan was happy to provide it. “Fleur is safe with me, Mr Mansouri.”
Said nodded. “I believe that. It is clear to me that she holds you in high regard. Is that the right phrase? You will appreciate English is not my natural tongue.”
“I take your meaning, even so.”
“Fleur is old enough to make her own choices now. She is wiser than once she was. I want her to be happy. I want this for all my children.”
Ethan nodded. They seemed to be at an understanding. “Yours is an unusual family, if I may say so, Said.”
The older man nodded. “I imagine it is. We have found a way to get along well enough together, though.”
“Indeed. Fleur tells me she was brought up to be both Muslim and Christian. I had not thought that possible.”
Said’s smile wryly. “I suspect it may not be. I would never ask any of my family to choose. We all find God by our own route, whatever name we call Him by. In truth, I fear my Fleur is a godless creature, despite her mother’s most fervent efforts. My daughter’s immortal soul remains a work in progress for Yvette, I think. For myself, I trust that she may find whatever she is seeking, be that God or some other source of fulfilment. We all need to have meaning in our lives. Would you not agree?”
Ethan did agree and said so. He couldn’t help thinking that if his own father had possessed the tolerance, wisdom and vision of Said Mansouri, and the ability to let go of old hurts, his own community in south Yorkshire might have been the richer for it.
“I think that perhaps you need to be returning to your hotel. Not that I am not enjoying your company, of course. It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance this evening and I sincerely hope that we may meet again, perhaps when you are able to remain with us for longer…?”
Said’s meaning was clear. Ethan smiled, inclining his head slowly. “You are right. I should be going. And yes, I hope we do have an opportunity to meet again. Thank you for your hospitality this evening, and please pass on my thanks to your lovely wife.”“Of course. I will telephone for a taxi for you.”
“There’s no need…”
“I would not hear of anything else. It will just take a few minutes. Please, have some more mint tea while I make the call.” Said pulled his mobile phone from his pocket. Ethan reached for the teapot.
Chameleon, by Ashe Barker. Available from Amazon