An Alphabet Of My Life: X


dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries.
“the resurgence of racism and xenophobia”

I was introduced to this from a very early age. I didn’t know the word until I was in my teens though.

The area I was brought up in was predominantly a white working-class part of London. In my youth, many of the local older men had travelled abroad during the war, but few of the women had ventured outside of Britain. Attitudes to foreigners were ingrained. Almost everyone hated the French, dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. That had been updated by the French surrender at the start of WW2, and the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis.

The Japanese were detested because of atrocities in WW2, and their treatment of allied prisoners. (My uncle had been a POW captured by the Japanese.) Italians were considered to be cowardly, and not worth thinking about. As for the Germans, well they had started the war and bombed London and other cities, so were still hated with a vengeance in the 1950s.

Nobody I knew spoke a foreign language, and the only black or oriental people I ever saw were sailors from ships in the nearby docks. Foreigners were described as ‘Wogs’, Wops’, ‘Darkies’, ‘Chinks’, ‘Yellow Men’, even ‘Cannibals’. Much of this was purely descriptive, and rarely spoken with any outright malice. It mostly derived from ignorance, lack of interaction with outsiders, and the old jingoistic love of ‘Empire’.

At junior school, there were no foreign-born pupils, and no black or mixed race ones either. The only Jewish boy was the son of the barber in the local High Street. We were sometimes jealous of him, as he was excused morning assembly on religious grounds.

But Jewish people were also unpopular. They were considered to be money-grabbing, unfair businessmen, and not really welcome in that part of London. They were routinely referred to as ‘Kikes’, or ‘Yids’, and I knew some older men who would not use Mr Cohen’s Barber Shop because he was Jewish. Catholics were rare, and almost all from Irish families. Though there was a famous Catholic school nearby that many girls went to, where they were taught by nuns. The attitude to Catholics was that they were all Irish, the men were drunks who did menial labour, and that they had too many children.

Once there was an influx of West Indian immigrants in the late 1950s and 1960s, there were still very few living in our area. I went to a senior school with 1,500 pupils, and we had two West Indian pupils and one African pupil. As I grew into my teens, I still had little or no contact with anyone who was not white and working class, though I had been on trips to France by then. Once we moved away to the suburbs, the only foreigners in that affluent area were the Indian family who owned a local Indian restaurant.

Times changed, and not for the better. Race riots in West London, the rise of neo-Nazi political groups like the National Front, and overt racism reared its ugly head in many parts of Britain. I was working by then, and married not long after. We were not racist. We embraced the new cultures, the tasty food, the shops that stayed open late. We developed an interest in foreign countries, and travelled to them. We worked alongside collagues from many countries, of many races, and didn’t think twice about it.

Xenophobia has not gone away, far from it. But most of us did not inherit the attitudes of our parents, I am happy to say.

Friendly Racism

We live in a world where racism is being addressed and challenged like never before. Black Lives Matter, debates on slavery and removal of statues, equal opportunities in education, job discrimination, positive discrimination by having quotas of non-whites in TV advertising and films, as well as in some industries.

And much more, even extending to the censorship and banning of some books.

Then we saw the now-famous Oscar ceremony ‘slap’. Two black men having a dispute in front of a mainly white audience, seen by a worldwide television audience of tens of millions, with some 17 million watching in America alone. That dispute, which started over a joke made in bad taste, ended in violence. Arguments have bandied back and forth since about it being a bad example to others. Maybe Will Smith should have his Oscar taken away, maybe not. I have no firm opinion either way, but I do know that if it had not been a popular millionaire actor delivering that slap, the chances are the offender would have been arrested, whatever his/her colour.

That got me thinking about my past, in working-class London in the 1950s and 1960s.

Until I went to secondary school in 1963 at the age of 11, I didn’t know any black people. I had never spoken to one, nor socialised with any. There were some around the dockside area where we lived: mostly sailors from the ships in port, national servicemen on leave, or workmen fixing up the bomb-damaged houses. But only a few.

My dad had served in India during WW2. He had a high opinion of Sikhs, who he spoke of with respect as ‘brave fighters’. He also loved to listen to black singers and musicians, like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, and Count Basie.

Yet he called black people ‘Spades’ or ‘Schvartzers’ in everyday conversation. My mum, who was a very kind lady, referred to black babies as ‘cute piccanninies’. And she meant that as a compliment. People of mixed race -also a rarity where we lived- were referred to as a ‘half-chat’, or ‘Chalky’. When considering the need to sound polite, my parents upgraded this term to ‘Half-caste’, a saying my dad had picked up during his time in India.

I was too young to know any different. And even if I had been old enough to challenge all this as racist, I am sure they would have been shocked. They both considered themselves to be completely tolerant to all races.

Other races were not spared. Anyone from SE Asia, Japan, or China, was called a ‘chink’, or ‘chinky’.
(Even Prince Philip, as recently as 2017, referred to Chinese people as ‘slitty-eyed’. )

When many Indian-owned restaurants and corner shops began to appear on the streets of Britain, my mum referred to them as ‘Pakkies’, even if the owner was from India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, or Uganda and had no connection with Pakistan whatsoever.

But my mum would have been mortified to ever have been called racist. She was a member of The Labour Party all her life, and described herself as a Socialist. Yet when she was older, she would think nothing of saying something like “That bus driver was very nice, considering he was an African”. She had smiled at the man, and made what she regarded to be a compliment in his hearing. She was friendly to him, and thanked him as she got off the bus. In her way of thinking, she couldn’t have been anything like a racist.

When more African families moved into Peckham, the part of London where she lived, she became annoyed at the way the shops were changing. They began to sell things like Yams and Plantain, Salt Fish, and ‘exotic fruit’. The world she knew was changing fast, and she could no longer find what she needed in the shops she had once known well. She telephoned me, asking me to drive over and take her a couple of miles to a large supermarket.

“I can’t get what I need in Peckham anymore. All they sell now is foreign muck, and I can’t bear to even smell it or look at it. And all those fat-arsed black women are so big, I can hardly walk down the pavement with me shopping trolly”.

Meanwhile, my own experience couldn’t have been more different. I had met black pupils at secondary school, and become close friends with one West Indian girl in my class. When I left school and started work, I made a new group of friends, including one mixed race guy with an afro the size of a small country. Then I joined the Ambulance Service and had a crewmate who was originally from Barbados. I worked with him for almost eight years, met his family and friends, and enjoyed learning about West Indian food and culture. My next door neighbours in Wimbledon were a young couple from India who were delightful as neighbours and as friends.

Then my mum became old and infirm. She needed the services of home carers, all of whom in that area were foreign, and predominantly black. One of those was Vilma, a West Indian lady who went on from being a carer to becoming a real family friend. When mum needed that care increased, she became increasingly frustrated with not being able to understand the accents of the carers, and begrudged having to be undressed and washed by them too. She finally asked me to speak to Vilma, and ask her to become the only carer, paid for by us.

I remember saying to my mum, “But Vilma is black too, mum. And she has an accent”. My mum just shook her head and replied. “But she’s a good one, I like her”.

‘Friendly racism’ is what I call that.

When You Just Don’t Get It

You know how when you can do something, you just don’t understand why someone else can’t?

I once worked with a woman who failed her driving test no less than eight times. She had paid for over one hundred lessons, and finally gave up trying after her eighth fail. The rest of us could all drive, and were amazed at her inability to be able to do something that was second nature to us. I asked her why, and she said “I just don’t get it. It doesn’t sink in. They show me one week and I do it, but the next time I have forgotten what I have to do, or it feels different”.

I don’t know how to swim. People find that amazing. All my life, people have told me, “It’s so easy to swim. I could teach you in minutes”. My first wife was a champion swimmer, and she tried to teach me to swim on numerous occasions. But whether it was being uncomfortable in the water, or lack of coordination, I just didn’t get it. It never felt right, and I didn’t seem to move the same way in water as everyone else.

During my working life, I frequently met adults who could not read and write. I was surprised, to say the least. Did they not go to school? How were they allowed to progress into adulthood without some extra tuition? One evening, I asked an illiterate man in the back of my ambulance how that could happen. He shrugged. “The taught me, they showed me, but I just didn’t get it. It didn’t sink in”.

So I have learned a fact of life, over the past fifty-odd years. Just because someone thinks something is easy to learn, that doesn’t mean it is.

You all know what I am talking about, I’m sure.

Inaccurate presumptions

I live in one of the most Conservative counties in England. Both politically, and in attitude and approach, Norfolk is a place where the old reactionary values still exist in abundance. With two exceptions, every constituency has a Conservative member of parliament. In those two exceptions, Liberal Democrats are sitting, and, as they are part of a coalition with the Tories, the present government has a clean sweep here. This is not unusual, in a place where the economy is based on farming and agriculture, and many still work on the land. Ownership of massive estates is still common, and with little industry in the county, rural employment is the most available source of income, for those seeking work.

With the majority of the population living in small market towns, and clusters of villages around them, little has changed over the years. Despite the more recent arrival of workers from the E.U. countries, much of life goes on as it has done for decades. Families know each other, work in the same places, and develop and foster the same attitudes and opinions. There is a large military presence in the county also, and this is not only traditional, but remains a source of employment as well. Many of the local people rarely travel outside the county, and almost never visit bigger cities, such as Nottingham, Birmingham, or London. Outside of Norwich, interaction with other races and cultures is rare, save for the popular Indian, and Chinese restaurants, of course.

Of course, there are many living here now, like myself, who are not from this county originally. Those are still in a minority; and even those from urban areas, or other parts of the U.K., like Scotland, have mostly been here long enough to assimilate into the way of life here. So, despite an accent that is not a Norfolk one, the expressions, opinions, and conclusions, are more or less the same. Most people that you meet, tell a similar story. They live here to escape the rat-race. They would not want to live in a big city. They do not like, or welcome, change to their way of life. They do not want to get to know foreigners, learn about other cultures, or adopt the ways of city folk. Things are good here, simply because they have not changed. People know their place, and feel safer with that knowledge. Land ownership, usually on a massive scale, must be a good thing, as it provides employment. The Conservatives will maintain the status quo, limit immigration, come down harder on criminals, and support the Police and the Armed Services, so they stick with them. They make assumptions and presumptions, on a scale I have rarely witnessed.

Most of the people that I meet, are racist by admission, to differing degrees. Big cities equal too many black people, too many Muslims, so they don’t want to live there. Norwich has too many people of other colours, so it is going downhill. At least there are no black people in this area, except some of the servicemen; they are OK of course, as they are risking their lives in Afghanistan, and probably wouldn’t settle down here, anyway. Norfolk is a white county. It is owned by white people, run by white people, and populated, in the vast majority, by white people. It should be the county motto; ‘Norfolk, home of the W.A.S.P’. This is true of most of England of course, it is just very noticeable here. But those white people have to be the right sort. No loony lefties, tree-huggers, hippies, or deviants please. They would not fit in, during Sunday lunch at the pub, drinks at the golf club, or chatting outside the Co-op. It doesn’t really matter if your sister is also the mother of your child, or your uncle was a bit too close to you when you were young; these things happen in the country, after all. Though God forbid you should vote Labour, be Jewish, or have a dark skin that is not a result of a recent holiday in the Canaries.

Despite the above, I am not complaining. I moved here, and chose to live in this environment. I had reasons; a desire for peace and quiet, lower house prices, negligible crime rate. They would argue that all this is a legacy of traditional values, and Conservatism. I would not agree, of course. I no longer challenge and argue points with strangers, or casual acquaintances. After a life spent in debate, and political intensity, I am worn out with it all. However, what I do find offensive, is to be included. I am white, a 60 year old man, with an English accent, and I suppose I look fairly normal, and reasonably boring. I have no piercings or tattoos, and do not wear a badge with a red star on it. I recently worked for the Police in London, and I have to concede that this is perceived (and rightly so) to be a conservative organisation. So, with this presentation to the locals in Norfolk, it is presumed  that I have the same thought processes as them, as well as the same values, the same politics and opinions, and the same attitudes and prejudices.

It is just that, a presumption, and a very inaccurate one.