Thomas Sutcliffe: Fudge makes life sweeter for us all

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The Independent Online

We have a fudge crisis, it seems. Ruth Kelly and her cabinet colleagues can't fudge a deal which will allow faith schools to get away with discrimination against homosexuals, British Airways can't fudge their uniform requirements to accommodate the wounded piety of one of their check-in staff and Kirklees Council has decided that it can't fudge over Aishah Azmi's insistence that she wear a full veil, just in case one of her male colleagues passes by and catches sight of her immodestly exposed nose and lips.

In a variety of recent cases the sharp edges of abstract ideals have ground up against the unyielding geometry of rules and regulations - and the result is an unpleasant and apparently intractable friction. And though fudge often gets a bad press - as an evasion or compromise of non-negotiable principles - it's possible that we've lost sight of how it actually operates in the world - which is, more often than not, to bridge the gap between unforgiving theory and imperfect life.

Fudge - malleable and adaptable - is a kind of mastic, sealing up the misfit between codes of behaviour that have to be drafted for everyone and the almost immeasurable variety of local circumstances. We've all benefited from it - whether it's a shop assistant bending the rules about returned goods because you have a trustworthy face or an employer overlooking a duvet day. Fudging the rules is a way of saying that an immediate human relationship or need might take precedence over the conceptual interaction that gave rise to the rule in the first place. And in that respect it can allow a crucial bit of give when the rigidity of a rule or ideology pinches unhelpfully.

One thing is very important though - and that is the equal distribution of fudge. If I fudge for you, I expect you to fudge for me - and if this doesn't happen, I may be inclined to withdraw fudge altogether and insist on the letter of the law. That's what caused the fuss over the British Airways crucifix, surely. It wasn't that Nadia Eweida really believed she had a right to testify to the Risen Lord during her working day ("Did you pack your own bags Sir... and do you know Christ died for you?"). It was that she understandably felt aggrieved that uniform rules had been fudged for Muslim and Sikh colleagues while they weren't being fudged for her.

Conversely, in the case of Aishah Azmi's insistence on the full veil, it seems to me that she's refusing to fudge the nature of her daily encounters with her male colleagues. The implied insult to them (the veil says as much about the men outside it as the women it conceals) was far less important to her than the notional rigidity of a religious obligation. In fact, it turns out she isn't opposed to the idea of fudge, either - since she didn't wear the veil for the interview that got her the job, despite the fact that strange men were present. It's just that she keeps all her fudge for herself, something that is frequently the case with the holier-than-thou.

Indeed those most to blame for the breakdown of the fudge exchange system are religious zealots and dogmatists. They are, by their lights, perfectly entitled to withhold all fudge because they owe their ultimate loyalty, not to their neighbours and fellow citizens, but to God, who disapproves of fudge on principle. And it's hardly surprising, in the circumstances, that the rest of us - the moderately religious and the outright atheists - feel disinclined to share our fudge anymore. It's a pity, though, because it makes life sweeter.

Tasteless? It makes for dynamite TV

Last week the BBC let it be known that footage of Richard Hammond's near fatal crash might be included in a documentary, provided that the presenter himself gave clearance. Presumably they felt they had to add that courtesy - though it's not immediately obvious why they should have to seek his permission and it's hard to imagine that such delicacy would be extended to anyone without a BBC staff card. Footage of fatal crashes is a staple for news bulletins, on those rare occasions when it's available. If you do hanker to see the critical moment, though, I don't think you need to worry too much. Since Richard Hammond's television career outside Top Gear has been almost exclusively devoted to spectacular disintegration he's about as likely to withhold permission as the Pope would be to ban cameras from his Easter blessing.

* The town of Halle in Germany experienced a major security alert last week after a "flabby red, orange and green substance" was found by the roadside. Cordons were set up and the fire brigade called, and after an assessment lasting two hours it was finally established that the threat was an abandoned pudding: "We conducted a variety of tests and figured out it was jelly," said a spokesman. Naturally the justification for this preposterous scare was that of professional obligation. "The fire brigade always has to assume a worst-case scenario," someone said gravely, a familiar alibi for over-reaction in these can't-be-too-careful days. The only problem, of course, being that you can be too careful and that, if you always assume the worst-case scenario, daily life becomes unmanageable. Treating everything you encounter as potentially deadly isn't a way of defeating terrorism, it's a way of confirming to the terrorists that they're on the right track.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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