‘Let me tell you – let me tell you a story about racism,’ said Mr R.
We settled back, only too happy to have a distraction from third-year history.
Mr R had been something of a sportsman in his not-too-distant youth, and played for a county cricket club. One year they’d had a West Indian join them on secondment, or loan, or whatever it is that cricketers do, and Mr R, who was fond of giving people nicknames, had for some reason promptly christened him ‘Olive Oyl’.
There were three reactions to this from the other players. There were those who took umbrage at anyone being – not a direct quote – ‘matey with a black guy’. There were those who thought that the appellation was some kind of racist slight, and said so loudly. And there were the four who called him Olive Oyl.
The December after he left, four of us got Christmas cards from him. Guess which four?
I already knew what racism was, but this was my first introduction to that less serious but still pretty repellent phenomenon, liberal self-righteousness, which is egotism by another name.
That warning in mind, it’s nevertheless an uncomfortable truth that one doesn’t have to be a total Clarkson to engage in behaviour which falls short of the considerate and acceptable.
Quite a few times I’ve met someone of colour other than ‘white’ and been conscious of a mental half-step back, unsought and instinctive, the erection of – not a barrier, but certainly a low hurdle. Ungenerous, perhaps; prejudicial, almost certainly; racist…? Give me time to get to know the person, and the hurdle disappears, but that doesn’t stop it being there the next time. As for a trip on the Tube, it takes a half-day to acclimatise.
It’s a matter of conditioning, not politics. Were there any black or Asian kids at the primary schools I went to? Surely there must have been, even though we were pretty much in the back of beyond. There was certainly one Indian family living on the estate; my mother made friends with them, and I used to play at rare times, happily enough, with the son who was about my age. Never gave a thought to his colour.
Yet there’s no doubt that now and then, owing perhaps in some part to that lack of early exposure, and sometimes from pure insensitivity, I run into trouble. Like when I dropped by a friend’s flat, and finding he was out of milk, horrified his girlfriend with the suggestion of ‘nipping out to the Paki shop’. This was not long after Cornershop had had a big hit, so you’d be forgiven for thinking I might have taken note. To my friend’s huge amusement, the girlfriend took me to task in no unclear manner. Walls trembled. Balrogs ran for cover. Apparently, the fact that this was what everyone used to call it, that my use of the term had been totally unconscious, was no defence. The Black and White Minstrel Showhad been family viewing in the ‘70s, and we didn’t sit down to that any more, or hadn’t I noticed? Which I couldn’t contest. I defy anyone to watch it now without having to call for assistance in winching their jaw off the floor.
A few years later I was working alongside Iqbal, whose landladywas being ‘a fookin racist bitch.’ Whether it was problems with the lease or repairs I don’t recall, but there were three of them in the place and she would only speak to the white flatmate, not to Iqbaland not to Danial [sic]. ‘Oh yeah?’ said I, unthinking, and not paying full attention because Iqbal had begun to enter full-on rant mode. ‘Where’s he from, then?’ At which point Iqbal paused and gave me, sidelong, what can only be described as A Look. With something of an edge in his voice he said, ‘Well, he’s from the same place as me, South Yorkshire.’ Then he relented and went on, ‘But he’s British Asian.’ Fair play. Duly noted.
David Gemmell’s novels have been something of a guilty pleasure over the years, and I sat in on a talk he gave in 2001. It couldn’t have been a better evening: he was affable, articulate, funny, gracious, a terrific anecdotist, and it’s our loss that he’s no longer with us.
If you’ve ever read one of his books you’ll probably know that many of his leading characters, including the mighty Druss, were based on his stepdad, a man called Bill Woodford. Bill was a presence, a London hard man, a protector and an inspiration to young David, and a fixer for those people who could call on his help.
When Gemmell was 16, a fellow whomwe’ll call Bob came to Bill with a problem: he’d been abroad for six months, and some hippies had taken over his house and were refusing to move out. Bill considered this, and then turned his attention to David. ‘Time you got an education, son,’ he said.
They drove up in the middle of the night with a van full of guys. ‘Don’t mind about the door, Bob, do ya?’ said Bill laconically, as it went down. They made a big pile of the hippies’ stuff in the back garden and set it on fire. The hippies themselves went in the back of the van. Some miles later, having been properly chastised, they were let out in a field with a warning from Bill which would have put the fear into Visigoths. Gemmell acknowledged the brutality of this rough justice, and of his stepfather:‘This was in the middle of winter, remember. These guys were barefoot.’
Bill was also a thoroughgoing racist. There was no view he held about black and Asian people which would not have found favour with Alf Garnett. Yet he also had many friends who were black and Asian. One evening, Gemmell sat him down and went through all those friends, one by one, and asked who it was that exhibited behaviour which conformed to the stereotyped and racist opinions Bill held. ‘All the ones I don’t know,’ was Bill’s immediate and genuine reply.
Another time, going home at night, Bill came across a woman in the street who had been beaten and robbed. She was hurt, distraught, alone and without the means to get home. She was also black. Bill helped her up, comforted her, got her to the bus stop, gave her money, waited with her until the bus came, and saw her on. He did everything you’d hopea neighbour and a Good Samaritan would do. That was Bill.
In telling this,Gemmell made it clear hewasn’t trying to offer any kind of justification or mitigation for his stepdad; he was just fascinated by the contradictions in his character, between what he thought and how he acted. That fascination informs probably all of the heroes in his books, deeply flawed men who rise to some kind of nobility or redemption almost despite themselves, and sometimes unwillingly or unconsciously.
What’s the point to all this? I’m not sure there is one. It’s just a bunch of stories about racism, or being racist, which I find interesting because they show that it is not absolute in scope or degree or intensity or occasion, even within any given person. Though I suppose none of that makes it any less ugly.
I wanted to finish on a happier story, which I thought I’d read in Anthony Burgess’s autobiography, and can’t now find, about his local pub’s response to the demands from wartime Yanks that they impose a colour bar. They did: ‘Black GIs only’.
But I also recently heard that when my grandfather and his men were billeted in the American sector of Germany after the war, whoever was in charge put them with the black GIs to make a point. This, you Limey fucks, is where you stand in the grand scheme of things. The Brits didn’t make a fuss about it, and were secretly pleased: the black GIs were noted for being quieter, tidier and easier to get on with. The white Americans assumed this acquiescence meant the Brits were a walkover. My grandfather soon put them right in his cold and ruthless way. The details of his technique, I’m sorry to say, are lost to history.