WILL SELF’s serial eavesdropping leads him to consider the reality of bigotry in Britain
“English…? What’re you talkin’ ’bout, man – you try coming into Heathrow and saying to guy at passport control that you’re English – he’s gonna be laughing inside… I mean to say, you never see a Chinese guy called Tony, do you..? Anyway, man looks at your passport what does he see? Say your name’s Frank Beckford – he knows the truth: he know you went to school with a hundred other damn Beckfords… He knows it a slave name, brought home from the plantation… So I say, man, what kind of black are you – you black British, or maybe you black Arab like some are white Arab…”
“Actually, I’m Somali…”
Yes, I’m ear-wigging again – but then, that’s the writer’s job: Eavesdropping on behalf of the Fourth Estate. And I’m in Kennington Park again, sitting in the flower garden catching the last few autumnal rays, while behind me workmen remove the hideousness that was Friends Fest. The men I’m listening to are as various as their discourse would suggest – but it’s a diversity that’s never really captured well, I think, from the perspective of the majority. Moreover, I doubt most Border Force employees are really that well up on Jamaican nomenclature; put bluntly: There are many shades of blackness – both in terms of pigmentation, and cultural identity.
I well remember Stuart, who runs the watch repair stall in Brixton market, telling me what the true hammer blow to this venerable institution had been – the one that allowed gentrification to begin, bringing in its train the ghastly hipsters who now ply their moustache wax and craft beers where once plantains and cow’s feet were piled high: “It was when they knocked down the car park,” he said. “See, the older African Caribbean people used to drive in from Upper Norwood, Shirley, other points south, in order to do their shopping – but now it’s gone, they can’t be bothered anymore.”
On long looping walks through the south London suburbs, I’ve seen this exodus from Brixton at close quarters: Upper Norwood in particular is now a relatively affluent black suburb – in a way, mirroring the affluent white ones of Highgate and Hampstead on the northern side of London. I remember eating at a Harvester there a few years ago, and being the only white person in the gaff. Of course, by no means all of these diners were of African Caribbean descent – my youngest, who went to a majority black school in Tulse Hill, told me that his classmates had quite spirited arguments, pitting Nigerians against Ghanaians, and everyone against Zimbabweans.
Anyway, I suspect the black Harvester is an image that lurks in the bigoted unconscious of many a Brexiteer – suggesting that not only has his (or her) green and pleasant land been overrun by aliens, but even chain restaurants marketing themselves using this redundant self-conception have been as well. Recall, I kicked off my own little media-shit-show in March, on the BBC’s Politics Live, by suggesting to the deputy chairman of the European Research Group that while not all Brexiteers were racists, most racists almost certainly voted to leave the European Union. Yes, yes: I know they claim their concerns are purely to do with democracy and accountability, but it was the dog-whistle-racism regarding Turkey’s possible EU membership what won it for them, everyone knows that.
At Brunel University, where I teach, we have a majority BAME student body, and great diversity. I once asked a class I was teaching Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to, who they thought were the most discriminated against minority in Britain today, and the overwhelming response was: “Muslims”. Which, if true, would be a relief for people with dark skin – because to invert what the man in Kennington Park was saying, you can, of course, have black Muslims, white Muslims, even, I dare say (given it’s a proselytising faith), pastel-coloured ones. However, I fear that while there may be a great diversity of hatreds between peoples, allowing for all sorts of nasty little listicles, the truth is that all bigotry wells up from the same miserable and septic sump.
Still, different people may experience different bigotries. Some years ago, walking from my hotel room in the Loop towards the African American ‘burbs on Chicago’s North Side, I was struck by quite how many hand-lettered signs there were in shop windows reading “N-Word Not Tolerated Here” – and this was the community that nurtured Barack Obama’s political career. The détournement of this hateful term by African Americans themselves indicates quite how hideous the racism they’ve experienced for generations has been, and the lengths they’ve had to go to in order to free themselves from it. Yesterday afternoon, I was on the Tube, eavesdropping on another group of men; in this case some African American tourists who had – seemingly by chance – struck up a conversation with a black English guy. I wasn’t paying that much attention – but there was a sudden lull, during which the English guy said, very seriously: “We don’t use that word much here at all.” I knew what word he meant – you do, too. Long may it remain the case.