Regional prejudices

A short trip down memory lane last night had me thinking about just how different the various regions of this country can be. And you don’t have to travel very far to discover that.

Over the years, I have been to almost every corner of The British Isles, and have certainly visited every one of the main cities. Outside of tourist-orientated holiday spots where everyone is falsely welcomed, the look and feel of different parts of the UK was very noticeable, at one time. Then there are the accents of course. We have great variety of those, but I have written about that previously.

During the 1970s, I had to travel around for my job. I was excited by this prospect, as it would take me to places I had only ever heard about, or seen on TV. It never really occurred to me that it would be that different. After all, I was a Londoner. I came from a city that was the melting pot of Britain, and had almost as many non-Londoners living in it, as genuine ‘locals’. I departed on my travels armed with twenty-one years of my own regional prejudices. The North was grimy and industrial. The West Country was all about farming, and people who spoke like they had never been outside their village. Liverpudlians were edgy and aggressive, and the Welsh hated everyone who wasn’t Welsh. As for East Anglia, (where I live now of course) it was just a flat land full of people who sounded like idiots, and never ventured anywhere.

I didn’t care. I was from London. The best city in the world, and the shining star of Britain, undoubtedly. I was lucky indeed, to be a cockney.

As you might imagine, I got a shock.

People outside London didn’t seem to like us Londoners. They mimicked my accent, (badly) and were often outwardly hostile. I was less than 100 miles north, and already hearing the oft-repeated insult, ‘Soft Southerner’. Hadn’t these people ever heard how hard the streets of London could be to live on? The gangs, the crime, the crowds. Soft? Me? Once I got a lot further up, I became an oddity to be giggled at. Girls in a Newcastle club asked me to say sentences in my harsh London accent, and fell about laughing when I did. They would seek out a friend, bring her to where I was standing, and ask “Say that again, Pet”. (That’s not a typo of my name, they call everyone ‘Pet’.) These people had (still have) a language that was a ‘version’ of English. Their local dialect and sayings required the assistance of a translator, and they had the audacity to laugh at me?

I headed west, to the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. At the time, before much recent regeneration, those cities were bleak and industrial indeed. Young men swaggered around on the streets, and glared aggressively at me in bars or clubs. I wasn’t even talking, they just seemed to know that I was ‘different’ before I spoke. On the way home from a long trip, I had to go to Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, which at the time was a coal-mining town. This was the ‘grimy and bleak’ I had imagined. Arriving in the rain, I stared at the sour-faced people, their faces devoid of joy or hope. I was only 141 miles away from London, yet felt I was in another country, at another period in history.

I was never so relieved to get home to what I saw as ‘normality’.

I had to travel again, many times. But I was forewarned, so forearmed, and I was a lot more careful about where I spent my free time. By 1979, I was no longer having to travel around other than for holidays, and as the old saying goes, I took my eye off the ball. In the late 1980s, I went to visit the parents of my then girlfriend. They lived in Yorkshire, a place I had mostly managed to avoid, short of the city of Leeds, and the coastal town of Scarborough. I had been there working with local men, who took me under their wing. This time, I was closer to the city of York, with a girlfriend who was originally from Northern Ireland, but had lived long enough in the county to sound local.

We went out to a pub in the town of Tadcaster, to meet some of her school-friends. I walked up to the bar to order some drinks, and as I said what we wanted, the barman turned and served someone else. When he had finished, I waved to him, and he came back. As I started to speak again, he smiled at me, and walked around to a different section of the bar. I was pretty angry by now, but aware that I was one Londoner in the equivalent of a one-horse town in bandit country. I walked back to the table, and explained to my girlfriend that he wouldn’t serve me. She went up to the bar, and spoke harshly to him. She was very feisty, and he was hardly prepared for her tirade. He served her the drinks, denying he had refused to serve me. He claimed he hadn’t noticed me waiting. We finished the drink, and decided to leave. There had to be a better pub than this, surely?

As we walked to the door, the barman said quite loudly, “F*****g Cockneys”.

For the last seven years, I have been living in the region that I had once written off as being flat, and full of idiots. There is less prejudice against me being a Londoner, but mainly because they are not really sure if I am. I have been asked where I come from more times than I can remember, and quite a few people have suggested that I might be Australian! It’s all very strange, even after such a long time. But there’s one thing I can be certain of.

I’m glad I didn’t move to Tadcaster.

Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

Racism and Bigotry

No idea why, but I woke up thinking about this today.

When I was young, I had never met a black person. I had seen them singing on TV, and by the age of 11, I owned many records recorded by black artists. Outside of some day trips to France, I had never been out of the UK, and my family circle did not include anyone who was not from a working-class, white English background. I took my lead from my parents, and believed what they told me, using the same terms they used, and holding the same opinions they did. I didn’t know any different. It was very common back then for black people to be called ‘Darkies’, though sometimes, the Yiddish/German name ‘Schwartzers’ would be used instead. Their well-dressed children would be admired, but referred to as ‘Piccaninnies’. There were few children of mixed race at the time, but those that were seen around the area would be known as ‘Half-Chats’. Until I was in my early teens, I had no idea that these terms were derogatory. In fact, I considered them to be affectionate, strange as that may seem now.

Then there were the people of Asian origin. Most Chinese people in London at the time seemed to only be involved in the restaurant trade, so unless we went for a Chinese meal, we never came into contact with them. They were always referred to as ‘Chinks’, sometimes as ‘Chinky-Chonks’. The Asiatic races were never separated by nation, either. There was no difference, as far as we were concerned, in someone from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, or any other Asian country. They were all happily known as ‘Chinks’.

This wasn’t just about people of a different appearance and colour though. Irish people were also looked down upon, and often mistrusted too. They were called ‘Micks’ and ‘Paddies’, and everyone believed that they were all ignorant and uneducated. Of course, I had never heard of James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, or many others at the time. People from the country districts far from London were called ‘carrot-crunchers’. They were also considered to be unintelligent, with indecipherable accents, and a bad taste in clothes. Scottish people were known as ‘Jocks’, and thought to be always drunk, and ready to fight anyone. Then there were the Welsh, known as ‘Taffs’, also considered to be little more than primitive sheep-herders or miners, with nothing in common with us at all.

Because of the area where we lived perhaps, there was no religious or racial bigotry towards Jewish people in my youth. They were admired for their business acumen, and the fact that they used to own many of the shops we used, especially for tailoring. They also lived in very clearly defined parts of the city, so you would rarely see a Jewish person unless you went to those districts. Despite our good relationship with those people, it was still considered to be perfectly acceptable to refer to them as ‘Yids’ though. Once again, I believed it to be an affectionate name, and would never have known it was insulting.

By the time I started secondary school at the age of 11, I had spent those formative years totally immersed in prejudice and bigotry. It was never violent or aggressive, and had no hatred attached. But it was no less tangible, and no less offensive to those on the receiving end. My attitude to other races and religions was already moulded, and my belief that I was somehow better than all of them was entrenched.

Luckily, I went to a mixed school. Not only mixed in terms of gender, but taking in a large catchment area around the boroughs immediately south of The Thames. Within days, I was mixing with children from Nigeria, The West Indies, and also India and Pakistan. Not that many of them mind you; they still stood out enough to be noticed, often pointed out, and sometimes ignored or avoided. There were kids from Irish backgrounds too, and one or two Chinese who came from Hong Kong, still a British colony at the time. There were some from Cyprus, of Greek origin. We called them ‘Bubbles’, from the rhyming slang ‘Bubble and Squeak’. Also Turkish Cypriots, feared as the children of men we thought of as gangsters. They were called ‘Johnnies’, from the WW1 nickname for Turkish soldiers, ‘Johnny Turk’.

No longer in that white working-class isolation, I soon got to know many of these other children. Despite some cultural and religious differences, I quickly realised that they were just like me. They supported local football teams, watched the same programmes on the television, and liked the same film stars as I did. They bought the same pop records, and mostly ate the same food. Like me, they wanted to do well at school, and many had firm expectations of jobs or careers to follow their schooldays. In most cases, they worked harder than the rest of us. They handed in their homework on time, and often studied in their own time too, when we would be playing out on our bikes. As my teens arrived, it started to dawn on me that I was not ‘better’ than any of them. In fact, I could learn a great deal by following their example.

Once I became friendly with some of them, I also discovered that those supposedly affectionate terms and names were considered to be insulting. Those things categorised them unfairly, held them back in ways I couldn’t even imagine, and affected their well-being in ways I could never understand, coming from the dominant race and class in that area. I started to feel guilty, to challenge my parents and their uninformed perceptions of people. Perhaps they were too old to change by then, but I was determined not to follow in their footsteps. I discovered something else too. You can change. You do not have to be a prisoner of your upbringing, or the attitudes of others.

I lived the rest of my life as free of bigotry as I could. Because I chose to.

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.