…been trying to find this priceless article for ages – must have read it back in 2006 when it was published. I’d occasionally try looking for it in old issues of Cabinet where it would seem at home (btw, Cabinet are now offering all their out-of-print past issues as pdf downloads, and free with subscriptions which I’d highly recommend…)
Major-General Sir Hector McDonald (born 1853), the son of a crofter, enlisted with the Gordon Highlanders and worked his way up through the ranks, serving with distinction in the Afghan war and in India. He became known as “Fighting Mac” for his exploits at the Battle of Omdurman, was wounded in the second Boer war and later given command of the troops in Ceylon, where charges of homosexuality were brought against him. He shot himself in a Paris hotel in 1903, after reading about his impending court martial in the New York Times.
He’s also the guy on the Camp coffee bottle, the one sitting on a cushion outside a tent, with a Sikh servant standing by with a tray. Actually, they got rid of the tray decades ago, either because it seemed too servile or because it had a bottle of Camp Coffee on it, which presented a troublesome conundrum: how could the scene on the label possibly be depicted on the bottle in the scene? And what about the bottle on the label on the bottle in the scene? These are the sorts of questions that occupy the very stoned. No doubt there were letters of complaint from freaked-out consumers.
In any case, the Sikh guy was left standing there as if he didn’t know what to do with his free hand, which was clenched into an anxious little fist. Recently, allegedly in response to complaints from Asian shopkeepers, the label was amended further, so that the Sikh and the general now sit side by side, with a cup of coffee each. This change has been described by the Tory MSP David Davidson as “political correctness gone mad”. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, but it’s also apparent that Davidson needs to get out more. This is not even an example of political correctness gone slightly giddy. Perhaps if the servant were sitting in the general’s lap (and I think this is where we’re heading, albeit with excruciating slowness) it might be described as “historical accuracy gone frank”, but the story so far – Sikh brings disgusting coffee-and-chicory-flavoured beverage, stands around for 60 years, puts down tray, stands around for another 30 years before deciding to take a load off – is hardly characteristic of the ruthless revisionism normally employed by the PC brigade in order to torture Daily Mail readers. We’re talking about a few minor changes, introduced with exceeding caution over a very long period, to the label of a Victorian product that has improbably survived into the 21st century. Complaints about the label’s “racism” go back at least six years. The sitting Sikh has been on the shelves for months without anyone taking much notice. All labels change to suit the perceived tastes of customers; even the ones that seem to have stayed the same for generations have been subtly adjusted. Old-fashioned packaging makes consumers think of botulism, not of Empire. The original Camp label may be preferable to the sort of people who despise all forms of improvement – only they could still be drinking Camp coffee – but as far as I’m concerned the changes aren’t happening fast enough. At this rate I may not live to see the Sikh and McDonald’s first kiss. • The Guardian, Tuesday 12 September 2006 – Tim Dowling