Feb 7 2012: Robertson’s Golly Jumpers Knitting Pattern (James Robertson and Sons Preserves, 1970s)
Whenever someone uses the words ‘political correctness’ in a sentence, I’ve found it useful to mentally substitute that formulation with the words ‘good manners’ instead, as the two things are pretty much synonymous and doing this reveals the true nature of most statements in which those much maligned words appear: “it’s good manners gone mad!”; “good manners are an unacceptable imposition on my freedom of speech”; “MP pledges to free employers from their responsibility to show good manners when conducting business”, and so on. It’s surprising how few sentences featuring the phrase ‘political correctness’ this formula doesn’t fit, in fact. The next step for the exposed anti-PC speaker is usually to suggest that the levels of everyday prejudice in existence before ‘political correctness’ came along were grossly exaggerated by that nebulous entity, ‘the Left’, who as we all know, have ‘no sense of humour’ and don’t appreciate that even where there might have been the occasional racist joke, or bit of rough stuff directed at gays, that wasn’t the normal thing, just a few bad apples in an otherwise tolerant and easy-going barrel.
Yet it’s precisely the innocence and lack of malice in the image above that suggests otherwise. James Robertson’s Golly logo was never meant to hurt anyone, so far as I’m aware, nor was the knitting pattern produced by them as a bit of a marketing tie-in sometime during the later 1970s or early 1980s considered likely to offend: the company was (and still is) in the business of selling marmalade, not crusading against integration, after all, though the arguments against the image and its continued use in the British context are aired in detail at the US Slavery website, culminating in Gerry German’s comments in The Voice, saying: “I find it appalling that any organisation in this day and age can produce anything which would commemorate the Golliwog. It is an offensive caricature of Black people.” Although withdrawn in some countries, notably the US, the Golly still adorns Robertson’s produce in the UK.
But the fact that this photograph now looks utterly alien to most viewers in 2012 – like a parody of itself – shows how much attitudes have shifted and manners have improved, and not just when it comes to issues of race, but in terms of levels of acceptance for mere petty difference of all kinds: anyone over 35 will doubtless recall the high chances of being set upon after closing time in many UK towns just for looking a bit odd, or wearing the wrong kind of shirt, never mind anything else. And while it is still possible to draw on these stereotypes and images – as artists like Chris Ofili, Harold Offeh and Kara Walker often have – or acknowledge a history that is sometimes more complex than it superficially seems (as Nick Tosches’ book about the American ‘blackface’ minstrel singer Emmett Miller, Where Dead Voices Gather, certainly did) perhaps we should still be grateful that the Golly is no longer considered a suitable subject for an all-the-family set of matching knitwear, as it clearly was when the pattern seen here was first published.