Where I come from, folks don’t tend to have family crests. We’re content to have a state flower (magnolia) and a state bird (mockingbird), and my aunts Libba, Nita and Fanny spent many idle hours poking round the Cooper family tree, but no crest was ever engraved on the ice buckets that cooled the drinks that lubricated these sessions.
When I married an English-man, those aunts were so pleased you’d have thought I’d won the Nobel Prize. Only one thing troubled my Aunt Libba. ‘What’s Carla’s silver pattern?’ She couldn’t believe that I could be united in holy matrimony without a silver pattern. I tried to soothe her by explaining that there was heaps of silver in the Carlisle family and most of it was engraved with the family crest: two griffins, creatures unknown in the Mississippi Delta. On larger pieces such as sugar bowls and sauce boats, beneath the twin griffins, the family motto Humilitate appeared, a trait also unknown in Delta households.
Mind you, if she’d hankered after a family crest, my Cooper grandmother could have come up with a good one. She wouldn’t have bothered with legendary creatures such as griffins. She’d have chosen the ‘farmer’s friend’: the kingsnake. Mild-mannered, gentle and curious, a good king-snake will kill more rats than a tribe of barn cats. Slow movers, kingsnakes aren’t poisonous. They succeed by being thoughtful and patient, skills they use when they kill a rattlesnake by slowly squeezing the life out of him. We were brought up to honour and respect kingsnakes. It doesn’t sound as good, but a much more apt title for a book set in the South would have been ‘To Kill a Kingsnake’, because killing the farmer’s friend really is a sin.
As for a motto, it would be my grandmother’s 11th Commandment: ‘Take your time and get it right.’ She applied this admonition to everything from writing thank-you letters to cleaning out the hen house. Doing a job well outweighed doing a job fast, a religion she endeavoured to drill into the hard heads of her flighty granddaughters.
And now I hear my grandmother’s voice coming out of my mouth. I hear myself saying ‘whoa, hold your horses’ as I listen to Michael Gove justifying ‘parent power’ and transforming schools into so-called academies, independent but publicly financed, with a vote in just five days. I mutter ‘slow down’ as I read about the steamroller aimed at the NHS, handing as much as £80 billion of the health budget to GPs who, let’s be honest, are trained healers, not accountants.
One reason I long for this coalition government to work is that for 13 years, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown whipped through legislation like scalded dogs. John F. Burns, London bureau chief of The New York Times puts it better: Labour ‘expanded the state’s power at a pace never seen outside of wartime, turning Britain into one of the most heavily taxed, tightly regulated countries in the developed world, with government accounting for about half the work force and half of the economy’.
But the only way they’ll succeed is by slowing down. Slow down and remember that we’ll be paying for years for the mistakes made in the stupidity of haste: billions spent on futile identity-card projects and wasteful IT projects. Slow down and remember that our children will live with the repercussions of the war in Iraq long after we’re gone, a war raced into by MPs who spent more time debating the ban of fox-hunting than they did the invasion of Iraq.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want the troops in Afghanistan to come home, to see the NHS reformed and our schools improved. With any luck, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are here for the next five years. I’m here to tell them: take your time, damnit, and get it right.