I went for a walk today. First, down to the Post Office where the owner helped me with my parcel, checking the post code which he was worried was not correct. He’s a Muslim, a first generation immigrant judging by his voice – not that that made any difference. When I left the Post Office I decided to go home by a roundabout route in order to get a bit of exercise. As I passed a gate I got a huge hello and grin from the chap standing there having a smoke. He was black and had spectacular dreadlocks almost down to his waist – not that that made any difference.
I went on my way, passing a lollipop man who was greeting parents and children as they passed with a beaming smile. He was white – not that it made any difference. On I went on this chilly afternoon, up past the hospital and met a “walking bus”: two young women and about ten children holding hands with each other and chattering away nineteen to the dozen, making their way home from school. Some of those children had white skins and some of them had brown skins, not that it made any difference – it certainly didn’t to them. I carried on, past the bike shop with the white owner, circling through the park past the swarms of students from our highly successful 6th form college in their mixed ethnic groups gossiping with the energy that young people have in abundance. Not that it made any difference either. When I walk around the town centre I hear voices in many accents and languages. I have heard most of them all my life. The Scots, Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews and Basques were already here before I was born. So too were the Eastern Europeans, fleeing first the Nazis and then the Communists. There are Latvian clubs, Ukrainian clubs , Polish clubs, Estonian clubs and so on all over the region. After the “Captive Nations” Europeans came people from the West Indies and then people from the Indian sub-continent and Africa. The new voices around my home town are Chinese; we have a thriving University which has a good number of Chinese students, and those of a new wave of Eastern European people.
Not that any of THAT matters. I taught for thirty-eight years in the area, mostly at a comprehensive, and taught children from all these backgrounds, and also from Africa, from Palestine, from Sri Lanka, from Greece and from Russia. They were all, well, children. They were, of course, mostly lovely. My colleagues were white, brown, Christian, agnostic, Muslim, French, Spanish, Caribbean. Not that any of that made any difference. I spent my last five years of work at one of the highest achieving schools in the country where some of the pupils had doctors or surgeons as parents, some taxi-drivers, some accountants, some shop-keepers and some academics and so on. Nearly forty percent of the pupils were Muslim or of Asian descent – and none of that, none of it, made any difference. When I was about twelve I had an experience that did make a difference. On a visit to my grandfather’s house one day, being left alone whilst everyone else went to walk the dogs I explored my grandfather’s library. Looking through his books I discovered a photographic record of what the Allies found in the extermination camps in 1945. There was a horrid fascination that kept me turning the pages looking at one nightmare after another. I felt sick and yet I couldn’t stop looking: gallows, ovens and shower-rooms that weren’t. One image stays with me: a giant yard full of what appeared, at first sight, to be neat stacks of firewood. Except it wasn’t wood that was so neatly piled. I couldn’t tell my parents why I was so upset when they returned from their walk, I felt that I had been looking at something obscene and shameful, and I had. So here’s the thing: I was taught at junior school that white people were naturally better than every one else, that there were such things as human races and you could judge people by which religion they held to. It was all a lie. None of it, none of this nationalistic, xenophobic nonsense that engulfs us today is true.
And it is why I am so angry about the results of the Referendum; that a project that was explicitly set up to ensure that the horrors of the past could never be repeated because we would be bound together at first economically and then through shared cultural experiences, a project that in those terms at least was an enormous success, that all this should be thrown away under the influences of those very forces it set out to destroy, is heart-breaking. I say shame, shame on all those unprincipled politicians and media men who encouraged this Pandora’s box to be opened. Let us hope that a butterfly of hope was released too.
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