Long read, 17,000 words.
I wrote Blood in the River 15 years ago in 2005 and published it on my old website where it stayed. While I have linked to it from this site in previous pieces, I thought it time to post it here now my old site is no longer in use. I’ve only edited some of typos I’ve noticed and have changed the subtitle. I’ve also changed some of the positions of the images and edited some of the captions.
At the time of writing in 2005, some serious racist incidents were still fresh in my mind and I was emotionally unable to deal with them then. I have since included them in a piece called Yellow Peril in which some of the themes here are revisited and outlined.
A personal account of my experiences of racism and identity.
- Early experiences
I remember a moving, shimmering, green and yellow pattern against a blue background, the scents of cut grass and creosote, the gentle crunch of footsteps on gravel, birdsong, the creak of hot corrugated iron and the warm breeze on my cheeks; gradually, the moving image came into focus and I saw that I was looking at the sky through a laburnum tree in blossom. The memory was, for the first few years of my life, purely abstract; colour, shape, noise, smell. But, by the time I was four or five, I knew that the memory was of the time my eyes first focused, the time when I first knew that I was an entity in my own right, that there was a difference between me and those things that were not me. I knew exactly where the world was created for me that day. I was in my pram, I was outside the front of my mother’s cottage in Essex, next to the black-stained garage doors, it was early summer, I was a few days old, it was June 1956 and it was the happiest moment of my early life.
It’s hard to know exactly when I was first aware that I wasn’t white. All I knew was that all my family were white and I was supposed to be too. Memories of my early childhood were once only occupied by the faces of those I loved and the sounds and smells of the places they inhabited. But, as I grew older, other memories surfaced. It was if I had been living a double life.
My sister, Jenny, and I lived with our mother, Valerie, and her parents, Alf and Elsie. The house and cottage, Meadowbank, were on the outskirts of Wickham Bishops, a small village a few miles from Maldon where I was born. The village was small and spread out; it had farms, a village hall, a shop and a church. And it had its own rural railway station a few minutes walk from the house. In those days the regular service was still steam powered and the train’s whistle was as ordinary then as a diesel’s klaxon is now. And while it is our earliest memories that form the basis of our self-identity, it is only with age that we can see that what is not remembered is also of great significance. In modern storybooks for young children, trains are often depicted as steam trains. Toddlers learning to talk can point to a picture of an ancient locomotive and say ‘train’ as if they are likely to encounter one at a modern station. Likewise, the identities we adopt in childhood that can haunt and enable us in later life are often based upon a romantic fiction of who we are as much as they are based upon factual circumstances.
My own identity anomalies started to become apparent at an early age. For years I thought my grandparents were my parents and assumed my mother was the elder of two sisters. My mother called her mother Mummy and I called my grandmother Memmy and called my grandfather Daddum. I called my mother Mama but had no idea that any of these names had any relational significance until I was six when I said to my mother “Mama, Memmy’s our mother isn’t she?” My mother, in astonishment and with some amusement, explained who was who and how the names had come about. I also started asking questions about my father who had been, up to that point, not so much an irrelevance in my life, but a non-existent concept. I had thought that father and grandfather were interchangeable terms of endearment for the main male and that all other familial males were uncles. But, by the time I was eight, I thought I had a handle on who I was. Life seemed good. And, even though conversation about my father was usually quickly steered to another subject, I had gleaned that he was a good dancer, an excellent driver, had kept chickens and was from Thailand. All but my mother sometimes referred to him as a WOG. I was told that WOG stood for Westernised Oriental Gentleman and that the term was an endearment. I accepted the explanation as only a child would and did not remember feeling insulted when called all number of things by my classmates in primary school; I did not know then that wog, yellow, jap, foreigner, coon and spic (I have often been mistaken for an Italian) were terms of abuse, but I did sense that I was often singled out for harsher or unfair treatment by my teachers and my peers. I developed a sense of inferiority quite early in life even though I did not then understand the meaning and context of my unfair treatment.
In 1964, Daddum (grandfather Alf) sold some of his business assets, including Meadowbank, and bought a Victorian gothic mansion in Devon. The house at Indio was enormous; in 1850 Count Bentinck had set it on a hill overlooking the village of Bovey Tracey. Four generations of my English family lived there, variously and together, from 1964 to 1997. Daddum’s father was a boiler stoker from relatively humble East London stock. My grandfather had made good through starting a bicycle repair business that had become a chain of shops called Castle Sports, and a small property business called Meadowbank Estates. We were proud of his achievements and, when the sun shone, summers at Indio were idyllic. With the care and attention that the new middle classes lavished on every detail, the house was restored with a team of builders working there permanently for nearly three years. And the same makeover had been given to our accents and the way we dressed. Alfred Edward Whybrow, looked and sounded like a retired country gentleman and he would only let his accent revert to it’s Woolwich roots when in the company of his best friend and brother-in-law, also called Alf, Alf Martin.
Alf and Alf, the two boyhood friends, had married two sisters, Elsie and Vera. The sisters’ brother, Ernest, was Alf Whybrow’s business partner. Alf and Ernie almost fell out over business differences and one such event shows just how entrenched were the family’s views on race. A friend of my grandfather’s was another small businessman called Jack Cohen. He had a grocery business and needed to expand. Sometime after 1945, Jack and my grandfather had the idea of combining their businesses. My grandfather’s business, Castle Sports, had around fifteen shops in and around North London and South Essex; the Cohen’s business was in the same area and of a similar size. Castle Sports was a bike shop that had expanded into electrical appliances, records and hardware and the Cohen business was basically food and groceries. Jack and Alf thought they could sell all their products under one brand and double the size of both businesses. The business was to be called Whyco; Whybrow and Cohen. But my grandmother and her family would not tolerate the plan. On hearing about it my grandmother said “You are not going into business with that Jew!” So Jack and Alf parted company. Whyco didn’t happen and Jack Cohen made a success of Tesco without the help of my grandfather.
I was eleven years old when the ripples from Enoch Powell’s Birmingham speech in 1968 reached the ears of my family in Devon. By the middle of that summer, there was little else in the way of political debate amongst members of my family and, as I was later to discover, in the rest of the country too. My grandfather, a long-time Powell supporter, was the head of the family; his financial success, generous spirit, sense of humour and loving nature made him a popular figure wherever he went. With our mysterious father absent, my grandfather was the most influential male in our household for my sister and me, and we loved him. But 1968 was the year I became politicised. It was the year I started to question my identity more fully, it was the year I realised that the racism that I had, by then, begun to recognise at school, wasn’t isolated, wasn’t simply a matter of my peers not liking me; it was political, it was personal, and it hurt. It was also the year I stopped, in my own mind at least, being just an honorary white boy.
Even at eleven, old habits die hard. By June I had turned twelve and felt that, a year away from rampant teenagerdom, I was already worldly. But it was not as easy as I had imagined to cast off my negatively perceived caste and I slipped right back into it as a default mode. My strategy, such as it was, born out of the necessity to survive more than anything, was to remain an honorary white when situations became tricky and to start to assert my identity when it felt safe, which wasn’t very often. At the start of the autumn term, the effects of the Powell speech were already evident. The taunts had become more frequent and more aggressive. In English classes, I was chosen to read a passage aloud from a Biggles book; my memory is one of both deep embarrassment, fear and resentment that I should have to read out lines containing the phrases ‘black peril’, ‘slitty-eyed devils’ and ‘foreign hordes’. Thenceforth, I was nicknamed Yellow Peril or Yellow. The name-calling started as a taunt but I mostly managed to avoid confrontation by simply adopting the names as part of my identity, even introducing myself to other children as Yellow Peril. It was humiliating but it was better than an escalation of the beatings and thefts that I had to put up with, on and off, for the duration of my entire education.
The school I attended from aged 8 to aged 13 was Wolborough Hill School in Newton Abbot in Devon. Like many of the private boys schools of the period, the children, their parents and the teachers were largely Conservative, misty eyed about lost empire, patriotic and, often, racist. That is not to say that there were not many teachers and pupils who were kind and decent; there were. But the overall culture was most definitely one that revered the idea that Britain should be ‘Great’ as it was in the days before the Second World War. It is, of course, impossible to know for sure which actions and comments by teachers at Wolborough Hill were racist and which were simply unkind or unpleasant. It is the nature of racism that it can be enacted without the perpetrators saying anything specific against one’s race. There is also the additional problem of the odd-one-out being overly sensitive to comments and taunts that are not meant to hurt to the extent that they do; one can hardly expect children, in 1960s Britain, to be particularly aware, or understanding, of difference. But the reading of Biggles was the least of it.
One of the first Scripture lessons involved our teacher, Mr. Leakey, asking us each our religion. As each boy in turn was asked and gave his answer, it occurred to me that I had no idea what religion I was. Indeed, at morning prayers I really had no idea what the Headmaster was talking about. None of my family attended church and I had not been christened. When it was my turn to answer, I replied, “I don’t know, Sir.” Mr. Leaky told me not to be ridiculous and said, “Well, if you don’t have any preference, you must be Church of England.” And I was entered as a Church of England Christian in the school records. When it was the turn of another boy sitting further down the row, He said, “Sir, I’m Jewish” and Mr. Leaky dismissed him from the class and told him to go and sit in the School Library till break time. Following this weird introduction to scripture, in which only Christianity was studied, there followed a test of ten questions about the Bible. My score was very low and, after the test, Mr. Leaky aggressively criticized me in front of the class saying, “…with a score like this you have no right to call yourself a Christian!”. I replied that I did not call myself a Christian and, as a punishment for that remark, I was told to “..go to the Library and sit with the Jew-boy..” The Jewish boy asked me if I was a Jew too and was not surprisingly a little disappointed when I said that I didn’t believe in any religion. Later in the day, I was indoctrinated by my classmates about the meanness and cruelty of Jews and, knowing no better, I did, for a while, think that the word Jew did not describe a religion but a negative attitude of mind. Luckily the Jewish boy put me right about that a few days later.
Asserting my identity positively wasn’t easy. The members of my nuclear, and extended, family were racist; my mother less so by commission but her objections to the rest of the family’s comments were infrequent. When friends and family visited over Christmas or on other occasions, the jokes around the dinner table were often of a racist nature. Wogs, coons, natives, japs, yids, spiks, niggers, blackies, pakis, chinks, frogs and krauts peppered the conversation. In the Essex days, my mother’s attitude to life was decidedly liberal, libertarian and creative. By the time we had settled in Devon, she started dating one of her old childhood friends who later became my stepfather. And, in line with his thinking, my mother stopped voting Liberal, started voting Conservative and would only counter racist remarks when it came to making fun of the Irish. Ed, my stepfather, seemed to think that there was a hierarchy of races. Yet his views that black people lacked intelligence, that the Irish were dishonest and that Jews were out for what they could get, were not applied in some circumstances. Ed’s friend Ebon, a black African, only visited the house once and I often wondered if Ed might have fostered such a friendship to annoy my grandparents; it was only in Ebon’s company that Ed’s racism against black Africans seemed to abate. My parents also had some Jewish friends and at least the racist remarks from my mother and Ed would tail off for a few days after their friends had visited, even if the remarks increased from my Grandparents.
At school, the general opinion that the best Britons were the English and that the worst foreigners were the “Japs”, closely followed by “The Krauts” prevailed as a given set of values. One boy, who I thought would become a friend, delighted in torturing small animals and insects in front of me on the basis that I ought to enjoy it as the Japs loved torture. He later bullied me when I made my opinions known. The hatred of the Japanese wasn’t surprising given that some of the kids at school had fathers who had been prisoners in Japanese POW camps. But, while a personal story can inform one’s prejudice, it might also lead one to greater study. The Second World War had certainly entrenched imperial values but, perhaps, it would have been useful if the teachers had made an effort to explain that the British railway projects in India, taking place at the same time as the Japanese Burma railway project, resulted in around 1,000,000 deaths. The brutality of the Japanese regime was as nothing compared to the British in India. However, such comparisons were never made and, besides, I was one of only three non-white pupils and I’m not at all sure that it was in the financial or political interests of the school to display anything other than the Empire line.
I was a good runner and, though I regularly won or came second in the 800 yards race, I was not allowed in the team for “reasons of morale”. This came about because I did not show sufficient partisanship in sports or anything else. Even today I remain positively neutral when it come to the outcome of sporting events, and I think my early lack of a firm identity helped me to put equity and fairness above such feelings as patriotism or the arbitrary support of one team in a fair contest. But while my running could have become a means of proving myself or being accepted, I desperately wanted to be accepted for who I was, regardless of what I might achieve on behalf of a society I found upsetting and bemusing. For me it was not a contradiction in terms to do my best in a running race whilst being neutral about the eventual outcome. No one expects a writer to measure success by how many other writers don’t get published (though some do, I’m sure) yet, in sport, though one is told that taking part is more important than winning, the actions of those who support teams display the opposite behaviour. The expectations of my non-white status, that I should excel in sport and that I should want to win, were at odds with my real interests; art and science. But all subjects but art were left to flounder, and, in retrospect, may have been made to flounder by the collective efforts of my family, teachers and classmates. A chain of events that I have only recently started to understand illustrates the point.
Wolborough Hill School was built on top of a steep, round hill on the edges of Newton Abbot. Running around the Hill was part of the sporting week as training for cross-country running. In my first year, aged 8 to 9, I performed very well in these runs. I was also top or second from top in Maths, Physics, English, Art, Geography and Physics. I was useless at French. I was dropped from the football team for not cheering loudly when goals were scored. The French teacher, Mr. Beech, was known as a bully and all of us suffered under his regime – one boy, Luke Rainy, was actually knocked unconscious on two occasions by Mr. Beech who was a crack shot with a wooden black board wiper. Luke’s crime was that he was shy and quiet though also moody and prone to highly charged outbursts. He came from a well-to-do background and had been left, at an early age, a collection of vintage Riley sport scars. Luke spent his holidays restoring, maintaining and driving his cars (on private roads) and spent most of the term-time thinking about them. Mr. Beech once asked Luke what he was thinking about when he failed to answer a question in a French lesson. Luke replied (honestly as it turned out though he was not believed), that he was thinking about his Rileys.
Now, Mr. Beech was overweight and had difficulty walking but he had been, in his youth, a works racing driver for the French sport scar manufacturer DeLage. Mr. Beech, who missed his previously dashing life-style and didn’t want to be out-done by a wealthy nine-year old, tried to catch Luke out on points of fact about Rileys. Luke had an encyclopaedic knowledge of his cars and all Mr. Beech’s questions were answered. Fuming and shaking with rage, Mr. Beech called Luke a liar. Luke lost his temper and called Mr. Beech a fucker. Not a good move in 1964. Mr. Beech threw the hard, wooden board rubber and it hit Luke on the forehead with a resounding crack and Luke went down like a falling tree. Later that day, when Luke had been sent home and branded a liar by Mr. Beech and the rest of the class, Mr. Beech was ‘taking’ the run around the hill. Being unable to run, Mr. Beech would stand halfway around the course and chastise those he didn’t like. I started the run somewhere at the front and expected to finish near the front. But after the first mile I had the most excruciating pain in my chest. By the time I reached Mr. Beech I was in such agony I could hardly walk. I knew the pain was of a different order from ‘stitch’ and so, staggering up to Mr. Beech, I told him of my plight. Not only did he not believe me, he mentioned that, unlike Luke, who being English should know better, it was not in my nature to tell the truth. Mr. Beech continued that I, of all people, should realise that I was not prone to injuries and that I was making a typical fuss over nothing. It was stitch, he said, and it was typical that it would be me that complained. The only way I was not to be branded a liar, Mr. Beech continued, was to finish the run. So I staggered on in tremendous pain. But what made the matter even worse was that other runners, complaining of a sore leg muscle or a blister, were, while my conversation was going on, told by Mr. Beech that they were excused the rest of the run.
When reaching the school, I sat and waited outside the Headmaster’s office hoping to be able to ask for a Doctor to be called or be sent home. But Mr. Beech turned up and said that he had spoken to the headmaster and any mention of the incident would be treated as gross misconduct and I would be expelled from the school.
As I have indicated, Mr. Beech was an unpleasant man, and many boys were mistreated by him. But this was just the start of what became a regular chastisement over my non-whiteness by many other teachers. As I was leaving the corridor leading to the Head’s office, the Head himself, Mr. Day, breezed past and, laughing, said, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson Chulepa..” Now my middle name, then, was Chulapat and might be pronounced pretty much as it is written phonetically in English. My mother explained it was short for Chulapatpong (I changed it two years ago to Chulapatnabongse after a discussion with my father). Mr. Day, however, pronounced the name as if it were French.
When I was picked up from school, I told my mother about the events of the day and to my amazement she completely agreed with Mr. Beech and with Mr. Day. All I can guess is that some telephone calls had taken place and that she thought it easier to go with the flow rather than fight for justice for me. The following week, most of the teachers and some of the boys called me Chulepa as if it was French expletive – so, clearly, the Headmaster and Mr. Beech were complicit in the teasing. My mother, having told me some years earlier how to pronounce my name, changed her mind and adopted the Chulepa pronunciation too. “Thai,” she said, “is very like French.” As I later found out, Thai is nothing whatsoever like French or any other European language. But what of my illness? Though I was in tremendous pain for weeks after the run and experienced repeats of the illness, I did not find out for sure what it was until around thirty years later when, at Harefield Chest Hospital, I underwent an operation to fix a number of more serious lung collapses. The surgeon remarked that I must have been putting up with a great deal of pain in my childhood considering the age and type of scarring on my lungs. The ancient scars had not shown up on X-rays, but the surgeon had the lung in his hands prior to re-fitting it, and so, at last, I had proof.
With painful lungs, shortness of breath and the threat of expulsion hanging over me if I mentioned again the running incident, I developed an eating disorder and would vomit every day after lunch. My weight, already low, diminished and I don’t know to this day if the eating disorder was psychological or a result of an untreated, almost continually semi-collapsed lung. I was told that my sickness was due to eating coffee beans when I was very small (I remember eating them, but not any lasting ill effects), I was told it was because I was of a nervous disposition, I was told it was because I was genetically prone to a lack of gumption. The remedy was to put me on a course of the drug Phenobarbital. I took the drug daily until I left Wolborough Hill at age 13. I went from being at the top of my class to the bottom and only gained entry to my next school on an art scholarship. Academically I was told I was useless. Any thoughts I had at the time that these events had come about because of my race were denied by my family and teachers while, in the same breath, they would suggest that life for me was unfair because of my genetic make-up. School life was a constant stream of taunts against a background of constant and relentless racist opinion. Meanwhile, I loved my parents, including my stepfather, and I loved my grandparents. I loved, too, all the Essex cousins. But the only way to remain vaguely sane was to be the honorary white boy in a sea of white supremacist beliefs.
- Teen Years
Though I have painted a bleak picture of my childhood in respect of my identity (and how that identity was not acknowledged positively by school or family), I was not without friends. Though even some of my closest friends at the time would feel free to vent their own racism in my presence, they very rarely aimed it at me personally. And my grandfather’s money conferred upon the family a certain status that I was unashamedly hoping to exploit. Perhaps money, and the life that it could buy, could rehabilitate me where my colour could not. As a teenager, I absorbed myself in an eclectic mix of political writing and left-leaning and Beat counter-culture; yet I also adopted the mannerisms, and sometimes the opinions, of the very society I had inwardly rejected and had rejected me. I was constantly arguing for ideas of peace and democracy but I would also sometimes adopt the prevailing attitudes just to avoid confrontation and, I think now, to avoid facing up to the fact that I didn’t actually like the people I most loved.
The Enoch Powell issue was a case in point. Some of my left-of-centre friends would feel perfectly at ease denouncing Powell as a racist in the same way that they denounced Norman Tebbit years later over his ‘Cricket Test’ remarks. But both Powell and Tebbit’s attitudes to race were attitudes that my family held too. And I knew my family as only a child who is loved knows a family. And here is the extraordinary realisation that has shaped my attitudes to so many issues over the years; it is that people’s opinions, however abhorrent they may be, do not prevent them from being loving and generous people in other areas of their lives. This is not a difficult idea to grasp intellectually, nor is it a concept that is not widely held, but for me, and those who have had similar experiences, such knowledge is not just an idea, a concept or a perception, it is almost a way of being. To live with people, all one’s life, who are demonstrably loving, kind and generous and who also view one’s own race with, at best a paternal indulgence and at worst a racial hatred of the most venomous kind, enables one to experience the paradoxical nature of human frailty and loyalty to an intensity that is seldom experienced by most people in times of peace.
My grandfather, I think, understood this aspect of my life as he was as perceptive about other people’s inner thoughts as he was lacking in intellectual rigour about his own thoughts. Furthermore, his own opinions about race were, he realised, the prevailing opinions that I would encounter as I grew up. But the Powell question still drove a wedge between me and my family that was never resolved. The Powell speech had been made in April 1968. I was 11 and about to be 12 in June. That summer I spent a hot Saturday afternoon watching television with Daddum. After the sports programmes and the early evening news, there was a programme about the Powell speech and many of Powell’s supporters were talking about wanting to introduce a policy of voluntary repatriation for immigrants and, if that was deemed insufficient, a policy of compulsory repatriation. In those days, “immigrants” was a euphemism for non-white people in the same way that “ethnics” is now. The Powell supporters, including Powell himself, were asked by the interviewer to define “immigrant” and the answer Powell gave was (I paraphrase from memory in Powell’s style) “..those people resident in this country whose origins are not of British extraction or, in cases of the progeny of mixed marriages, those who are fifty percent of British extraction or less than fifty percent of British extraction.” My grandfather and I sat silently watching for a few minutes, both of us feeling very uncomfortable; I because I disagreed so strongly, and my Grandfather because he agreed so strongly. I then said,
“Daddum, does that mean I will have to live in Thailand if Mr. Powell gets into power?” Without hesitation, my grandfather replied with a smile,
“No, you don’t have to worry, you’re English! Don’t ever worry about that, Chappy, I’ll make sure you’re alright.”
As much as I wanted to, I simply didn’t believe such protection was even in his gift. For a 12 year old, that was not an easy anomaly to accept. The affectionate “Chappy”, used by my grandfather, was often reserved for difficult moments and was sometimes accompanied by a return to the Woolwich accent and a cheeky-chappy grin rather like that of the entertainer Bruce Forsyth. And that was, in a way, how my grandfather was viewed by us all: a charming, entertaining, successful and decent man. The darker side of his character, that I was later to discover, was certainly kept hidden from me and my sister and, possibly, other members of the immediate and extended family.
So, a year later, as I attempted to prepare myself, at 13, to leave Wolborough Hill School and get through my exams in a haze of barbiturates, chronic chest pain and daily vomiting, I was not at all confident about my future, my identity or my place in the world. At no time did I experience the confidence that I had felt as a baby as the Laburnum tree in Essex came into focus against a bright blue sky. In conversations with friends, who generally supported Powell though, as I have said, my left of centre friends condemned him, I found myself saying that Powell was not a racist as one has to distinguish between those who think some races are “inferior” and that such “inferior” races should be treated badly and, on the other hand, those who think some races “inferior” but, through Christian charity, think such “inferior” people should be treated kindly. I think I had to believe that my family were in the latter category if I was to continue to be able to live with them. So I found it impossible to condemn Powell as my intellect and emotions demanded. Later in life I found myself warming to Norman Tebbit’s strange defence of himself over the ‘cricket test’ remarks. The Tebbits, coincidentally, used to live near Ashburton, not far from Bovey Tracey, and Norman was a popular local figure admired by both of my parents who had probably met him a few times through their Conservative contacts and friends. It was not the opinions I warmed to, certainly not the racism, it was the familiarity of expression and accent; the slightly nasal, Estuarine twang beneath the middle-class veneer that identified my English tribe.
With more emotional baggage than I care to remember, but with an optimistic outlook, I scraped through my common entrance exams and found a place at Bryanston School in Dorset. I had a miserable 37% average grade but an Art Scholarship made up for it. The art room at Wolborough was pretty much the only place I could exist, and do well, without some comment about “..some people not knowing their place..” as teachers and family used to remark about the politics of the day. But Bryanston was a boarding school and there were several aspects of this that I could not cope with; being away from home and familiar places, being away from family, being in a very male society (in those days Bryanston was an all boys school), and having to cope with a regime that was not what I had expected from a school that was reported, at that time, to be similar to the libertarian schools of Summerhill and Dartington Hall.
I was treated well and kindly by the teachers, for the most part, and things did not get off to a bad start. In fact, the novelty and the opportunities the school offered were in some ways overwhelmingly positive. I made friends and a senior boy was appointed as my mentor. These mentors were known as foster fathers and my foster father was a sixth-form boy called Anthony Appiah. Kwame Anthony Appiah is now a distinguished philosopher. But then he was just a mixed-race boy at a British private school trying to make his way in the world. He was not the first mixed race person I had ever met, but he was the only mixed race person I had met who was in a position of authority. He was extraordinarily kind and helpful. And, to my amazement, there were other non-white boys who were also doing well and were liked by their peers of all colours, Dean Omar and William Quashi, both, I think, African or part African, spring to mind. They were both kind and, I realised later, looked out for me behind the scenes as they and Anthony did for many other boys of colour or of mixed race. It was both a shock and a revelation. But I was also overwhelmed by the confidence displayed by the non-white students: a confidence that I lacked completely.
Perhaps it was because Anthony, Dean and William knew who they were. Perhaps it was because they had solidarity with each other as fellow Africans. There were a few other children who, like me, might be called Oriental. I noticed, too, how many of the students from Islamic or Arabic countries were, like me, sometimes lacking in confidence. Essie Ghani was from, I think, Iran and he was often a withdrawn figure who seemed, like me, to lack a sense of belonging. I was starting to discover what ‘like me’ meant to a predominantly white society. It seemed to me then that the African boys were considered totemic in respect of the school’s and pupils’ civil rights leanings but, as far as I could tell, the non-African mixed-race boys were lumped into some other, more amorphous, box.
In my favour, though, was an acquired taste for being an outsider. I was prone to be bookish and creative. But I was also somewhat manic in my approach to life. Coming off the Barbiturates meant I had developed erratic sleep patterns and would stay up all night only to be in a haze the next day. I was drawn, too, to the drug culture that was becoming the hip thing in private schools all over the country. Kids with more money than sense just had to smoke tobacco (I’m a tobacco addict till this day) and just had to smoke marijuana, try LSD and mescaline and reject non-hip virtues like responsibility and hard work. As a former habitual user of class B drugs, I was already well on my way to fitting right in with Bryanston’s drug culture. My tutor, the kind and thoughtful Dennis McWilliam, was often at a loss to understand how I could seem so optimistic and buoyant one day and so hopelessly depressed the next. How I could be acutely observant and write good essays one week and be incapable of producing a coherent piece of work the next.
Set against the positive social aspects of drug taking; a circle of friends, a place in the freakier culture of the school and a certain notoriety, was the hatred we, the druggy freaks, received from the Cadets. The Cadets was a set of boys who had joined the quasi-military club that the school ran for boys who thought they might be interested in joining the military, or who had families from a military background. Strangely, this group of boys were also linked into another set of boys who were seemingly more interested in the arts and/or sports. As my group of friends were mostly, but not exclusively, artists, I started to meet and become friends with students who were on the fringes of various groups but not quite ‘in’ any of them. Some of them turned out to be particularly unpleasant characters and were, I later discovered, instrumental in making my life at Bryanston unbearable. It seems odd, now, to think how a young man from a privileged background could describe life at a top British private school as unbearable. It was not a life of poverty, nor was it a life spent in a war zone. But I was already very shaky about my identity and about my worth as a person. I had been threatened with expulsion from my previous school and expulsion from the country, metaphorically and, in my own mind, perhaps literally, by Enoch Powell’s followers. Indeed, I was not even confidant that my own family regarded me as acceptable.
Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech turned out to be somewhat prophetic. Though I was aware of the sentiments expressed by racists, reports in the media and my own experiences did not prepare me for what was to happen before my days at Bryanston were to come to an end. I did not expect there to be blood in the river and I did not expect it to be mine.
It is impossible to have anything other than a subjective view of the events I will now attempt to explain. And I would love to know where the truth lies. Truth is never easy to ascertain. Truth as a philosophical concept it is flawed and approximations of truth, which is all one can ever hope for, even in science, are themselves modelled by individuals and cultures, by conflicting evidence and by inexplicable coincidences. However, the following is an honest attempt to show how institutional and personal racism can add fuel to an already heated situation.
As I was an art scholar, two teachers took a special interest in me and helped me enormously. They were Mr. Renwick and Mr. Potter, known as Don to all who knew him. Don taught sculpture and ceramics while Mr. Renwick taught painting, drawing and graphics. At Wolborough Hill I had found an escape from the life of the school in the art room. At Bryanston I found the same escape in the sculptorium. Don was a charismatic teacher who had been Eric Gill’s apprentice, was a friend of Henry Moore, Freud, Bacon and others. He had taught many students who went on to produce work of international acclaim. Born in 1902, Don was a year younger than my grandfather and I was used to feeling at home with that generation. Don’s attitude to life was extraordinarily robust and his spark was mirrored by his longevity. He was nearly seventy when he taught me and continued to teach full time into his eighties, part-time into his nineties and died only two years ago in 2004 aged 102. Don was the only adult I could talk to without feeling perpetually on my guard. He asked little of me, shared his rolling tobacco, showed me how to carve and would comment, with what seemed like uncanny accuracy and brevity, on my mood. If I came into the sculptorium having been upset he would, before I had said anything, immediately say something like, “the world is full of shits” or “find solace in work and beer, work and beer” or “truth is like a carving in stone before the carving is done” and “school is a waste of time, when you’re old enough to fuck you can teach yourself anything”. Of course, he had a huge number of such sayings that did not require any special insight on his part, but he did seem to have a knack of knowing what would be appropriate.
Don treated people as he found them. I did not once notice the slightest trace of condescension in his attitude towards me. He also taught as much by example as by tuition which allowed him time to make his own work while teaching. We got along very well and on hot weekends I would sometimes call at his house for a cold beer. Now, the arts ‘establishment’ in England then, as it is now, was as much about who you knew as it was about talent and I was lucky enough to know Don. I was not convinced that I had the potential that he thought I had so he entered some of my work into some open competitions. When I won a prize I was elated and, being hugely excited that I might actually be good at something, started telling all my friends. As a result of Don promoting me as a success with his colleagues, I was asked to design a set for the school play, much to the disgust of the Drama Society who would not vote me in. It’s worth here explaining how all the school clubs and societies worked. Like so many areas of middle-class English life, success is rewarded with more success and failure is rewarded with more failure. If you wanted to learn how to play tennis, then you had to pass a test set by the tennis club. In other words, you could only get tuition if you could already play reasonably well. The Music Society likewise gave one access to music tuition and one had to pass an audition to get in. Needless to say, there were always exceptions. And the exceptions were often driven by simple nepotism; one had to be friends with whoever was in charge of the club or society. Teachers would oversee the clubs but pupils were on the committees. In a culture dominated by wealthy, middle class, young English males, I think it must have needed tremendous confidence for people like Anthony Appiah to become so respected. I had none of Anthony’s confidence and used to make up for it with a certain foolish bravado that I will come to later.
Gary Sayer, my English teacher, was overseeing the Drama Society and it was through Don’s influence that Gary invited me to do some designs for Love’s Labours Lost. Though the Society didn’t want to accept the designs, Gary insisted and they were accepted. The committee was upset. One reason was that the committee members were all part of a group of friends who were used to certain people being in charge of the designs. Moreover, that group of friends all knew each other reasonably well outside school through their parents’ connections with the arts generally and the Royal Court Theatre in London in particular. You have to remember that these committees were run by children who thought they were adults and behaved as if they were already running the Royal Court Theatre; they did not see themselves as kids running a school drama society. The last thing they wanted was an uninvited interloper, and, to be fair to them, the democratic rights of their Society were over-ridden in order to let someone in that they didn’t like. As it happens, some of them did end up running theatres and other Arts institutions in London and elsewhere.
Success breeds success and confidence breeds confidence. But while I was beginning to have a degree of success at school, I had no confidence whatsoever in myself as a person. When word got around that I was to design the set for the play, the spitting began. It was not members of the Drama Society committee who started spitting at me but people who were on the fringes of that group. I think I was tolerated up to a point while I was just another ‘freak’ who hung out with the other drug-taking freaks. But the sculpture prize (for a national competition and thus not even within the confines of the school) and the set design opportunity seemed to tip the balance somehow; made me less, rather than more, acceptable. After the spitting came the name-calling. The famine in Biafra had been raging for several years and I was a thin boy. So one of the names that was called out was ‘Biafra’, another was the all too familiar ‘Yellow’ and then followed as many insults and names as you can count, relentlessly, day after day, week after week. It seemed as if my golden opportunity in education was over before it had started. And the connection between the taunting and the Drama Society was not in my imagination either. Kids who new both my tormentors and the members of the Drama Society actually told me that all I had to do was to pull out of the production and the spitting and name-calling would stop.
But I didn’t pull out, and the trouble didn’t stop. My belongings were stolen. I was often told who had stolen them and sometimes the thieves themselves would tell me. Sometimes friends of friends, who knew the thieves, managed to get some of my things back for me. But many items were stolen and not recovered, including my art materials, school books, school work, drawing pens, records, clothing and my watch. If I managed to replace the items for the following term, then the following term the same people stole them again. Pocket money that I had earned in the holidays doing odd jobs for my grandfather was sometimes spent replacing stolen items. And, after a while, it didn’t seem to be about the Drama Society or the sculpture prize, it was about a group of boys, on the fringes of various other groups, taking it upon themselves to torment me. And I had absolutely no idea how to put a stop to it. I had never been in a fight in my life, knew nothing about fighting and had only been on the receiving end of violence. So I did not have the confidence to fight them. I did not have the confidence to report them to the teachers and, anyway, I was frightened of being branded a sneak and a coward. And I was most definitely a coward. I was frightened by violence; as much by what I imagined I might do to others, given the chance, as much as what they might do to me.
The school was set in beautiful grounds. Many of the routes between places that one had to be, or wished to be, were through wooded areas and hedged walks; places where one could easily be ambushed. It was also easy to be caught when going to the toilet or taking a shower. I was attacked about once a week in term-time for two years from 1971 to 1973, that’s around 70 attacks. A small number of the attacks were violent but all were relentlessly aggressive and involved some form of physical assault. I only ever suffered small cuts or bruises or humiliation and the violence was not, for the most part, particularly serious. Strangely, I found my dignity in not fighting back, never once making an attempt to defend myself; thinking mostly of Gandhi and the hippy freak mantras of peace and love. But years of intermittent, chronic pain had taught me how to keep on getting up, how to keep on going. The gang at one point became so confident that they used to attack me in quite public places and small crowds of kids would gather to see what happened. After one such incident I received a small cheer from the onlookers as I calmly got up after a brick had been thrown hard, at very close range, at my head. I just stood there as members of the gang came up to me one by one and spat in my face, I remained calm as their spit mixed with brick dust and a small welling of blood in my hair. I walked away as if nothing had happened and, once out of sight, I collapsed into the undergrowth.
But in many other respects, I did not keep my equilibrium. I smoked as much as I could, slept as little as I could, cut as many classes as possible and, worst of all, I stopped washing. I was terrified of removing my clothes and often slept in them; I rarely changed my clothes (often they had, in any case, been stolen) and washed very, very infrequently. I was also terrified of being attacked in the bathroom and the shower. I started to stink. It was so bad that my best friends would not want to sit near me. It was so bad that I didn’t even like to be near me. It was so bad that the lice in my hair would fall onto my drawing paper. But I took a perverse pleasure in it. It was as if I was saying” Fuck You!” to all of my tormentors. There were times when teachers ordered me to have bath and threatened to check up on me while I was in the bath to make sure I actually washed properly. I actually preferred that they did – at least I wouldn’t be attacked or have my clothes stolen if a teacher was present.
My grandfather was paying for the privilege of me attending one of the most expensive private schools in the country and I was living like a tramp. But who could I confide in? Close friends knew some of the facts but I was very worried that, if I told them what was happening, then, through the grapevine, the gang would hear about it and things might get worse. So I only admitted to what was witnessed by my friends, which wasn’t much. I have to thank the people who stood by me, who made my life so much better than it could have been: Peter Burmby, Charlie Lambe, Robin Venables, Tim Nelson, Mark Davies, Mary Bremner (one of the first 6th form girls to attend when the school became co-ed in 1973), Simon Matthews, Adrian Matthews, Richard Whitely, Paul Kelly, Jeremy Maltby, and others were sympathetic and, in some instances, instrumental in helping me through some difficult times.
By the time I was 15 I had, if not accepted my plight, come to terms with having to put up with it. Eventually I managed to tell the teachers what had been going on: this came about through another creative opportunity; a competition to design an adventure playground for primary school children. It was, think, the spring term of 1972. Winter weather and dark afternoons had not yet been shaken off by the hot summer that was to come. I won the competition and had to meet with one of the teachers to discuss how the design would be transferred into three dimensions. I was convinced there would be some reason why I would be unable to accept the commission and had been worrying about it all through the previous week. I couldn’t face going to classes, and so, rather than add to my already huge list of punishments for missing classes, I broke into the electrical cabinet of the classroom block and stole the fuse holders from the fuse box. In those days, many buildings still used ceramic fuse holders in which fuse wire was stretched as required. Without the fuse holders, the whole block was inoperative. The following day, the theft was announced in morning assembly and, because for some reason the school was unable to source replacements at short notice (perhaps that type of fuse box was no longer manufactured), an appeal was launched for the thief to come forward.
Wracked with guilt, I had no option but to own up. As it happened, the teacher I had to see was the teacher who was also in charge of the playground project. He had a reputation for being incisive and for being a bit of a disciplinarian. But, as it turned out, he couldn’t have been nicer and, amazingly, I was not punished. His sympathetic and understanding attitude let loose a flood of emotions and I poured out my heart to him, explaining as much as I felt I could about my predicament. Not only did my confession about the theft, and about my shameful position as a weak and downtrodden victim, make me feel much better about myself and about my situation, it gave me a little added confidence. The following summer, the adventure playground was built and an article appeared in the local paper about it. I was delighted. It was my first taste of being rewarded at school without any feeing of being patronised or threatened, that I had felt for years. I wish I could remember the name of the teacher who showed me such kindness.
There were two distinct areas of my life that changed as a result of Mr….’s kind and perceptive response to my state of mind. The first was practical and much needed; the bullying stopped. Even though it was made clear by some of the Cadets’ ringleaders that my life would be made worse than it had been before, I noticed that the gang avoided me as much as I used to avoid them. Secondly, I became more confident and was able to start treating myself as if I mattered. I started washing more often and changed my clothes more frequently. But I also adopted a kind of bravado that didn’t really suit my underlying character. A good friend, Robin Venables, had also had a troubled childhood and we embarked on a series of stupid but invigorating rule violations. Robin could have implicated me in our exploits but he was the type of person not to get his friends into trouble and I will always be thankful to him for his supportive friendship. Robin was intellectually one of the most able people I have ever met. No concept seemed difficult for him to grasp and his memory was outstanding. But Robin had been over weight for most of his early life and his intellect was hidden by his poor opinion of himself and his slow Staffordshire drawl that made him, in many people’s eyes, seem dim-witted.
Now you might think that I have blamed all my childhood woes, and subsequent depression, on the fact that I am mixed race and that the childhood I inhabited was bounded by a predominantly racist society. Racism was, in my view, a strong contributory factor but I also realise that many children are bullied for all sorts of other reasons too. Robin had been bullied when younger for being overweight and for being seemingly slow when, in fact, he was as sharp a mind as you were likely to meet. As he grew older, and taller, there were few people who would bully him to his face as he was an imposing figure. But, like me, he had problems with authority and with trust. His academic record was patchy in as much as he would excel in any exam he bothered to take (he would speed-read books, never revise, do as little work as possible and score 90% in most subjects and sometimes 100% in Maths and Chemistry). Robin also loved explosions and we hatched a plan to blow up the school’s shooting range. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. These days, where explosions define the territory of terrorism, the idea seems outrageous. But we were both convinced that the Cadets, with their love of guns, their bullying, their ability to pick upon anyone who didn’t look and sound like them and their astonishing arrogance, deserved to have their favourite place destroyed.
For a couple of nights running we broke into the chemistry labs and stole the ingredients we needed; Robin going along the shelves saying “..that one! That one!” while I stashed the bottles into a bag. A few days later, Robin had packed an old coffee tin with his mixture, had made a length of fuse out of string soaked in another preparation and had bound the whole thing with a dozen reels of Sellotape. Late at night, Robin, Tim and I went to the firing range and buried the device in the sand that was piled against the wall of the shooting range. Robin lit the fuse and we all ran for cover. Nothing happened. Tim and I went back to where the bomb had been buried to find Robin re-lighting a very, very short fuse.
The explosion was loud enough to wake the school. Lights went on all over the main building some 200M away. A shower of sand and leaves fell around us as Tim and I dived for cover once again. When we dared to look, Robin was nowhere to be seen. When a party of people could be heard running from the school we both fled in the direction of the dormitory only to almost collide with Robin who was running in the opposite direction.
“We thought you had been blown up!” we said only half jokingly. Robin, with a soot-blackened face and with his curly hair full of debris, looking more like a cartoon character than a boy who has narrowly escaped death, said,
“ eee, but it were a right good bang weren’t it?”
And, with that, we ran back to our respective dormitories. The aftermath, which left a small but, to us, significant hole in the shooting range wall and an enquiry by the school that, as far as I remember, went nowhere, was to be more significant than I had expected. The Cadets were furious.
About the same time as the adventure playground was being built and that Robin and I were planning the explosion, Don had entered one of my small sculptures in another competition. This one, however, was much more serious. The Henry Moore Apprentice Prize was one of the most prestigious and sought after prizes in sculpture. The winner was to be apprenticed to Henry Moore at his studio in Hertfordshire. The shortlist from around the country contained two names, both from Bryanston. How much of that was coincidence and how much of it was nepotism due to Don’s connection, I will never know. But being at the top of the list was, for me, an impossible dream come true. Don told me that 2nd on the list was Rick Borrie, now a well-known sculptor in Cornwall. If I was not to take up the apprenticeship, I was to let Don know so that Rick could accept the offer. My immediate reaction was to accept but, for some reason known only to me, a mixture of fear, lack of confidence and shameful undeservedness, I asked to be given a few days to think about it.
It was like a repeat performance of the previous year. Through friends of the Cadets who knew friends of friends of mine, I was warned off. Let Rick have the Apprenticeship or there would be trouble. Rick, who used to hang out with people I knew, never seemed to look as if he knew of the threat and I don’t recall any animosity from him at all. We weren’t friends but, as far as I was concerned, we weren’t enemies either. However, in spite of my newfound bravado, I felt completely unable to act positively and simply told Don I didn’t want to take up the prize. Don’s reaction was to insist that I accepted and he gave me a further two weeks to come to a decision. For the next few weeks, the threats, taunts and assaults were quite intensive and it ended with a shooting.
The Cadets had access to small-bore rifles for use at the firing range. And some of the boys also owned their own weapons. One summer’s afternoon, Tim Nelson and I had gone for a swim in the river beneath a steep wooded ridge called The Hangings. It was a beautifully calm day. The river was slow and deep where we swam and such times were a much needed sensual pleasure. But as Tim and I swam and chatted, members of the Cadets were gathering above us in The Hangings.
I remember swimming down-river, the late sun still dappled the water. We swam through the shadows of overhanging trees, cows on the far bank stood motionless in the heat and the quiet sound of my arms through the water was almost the loudest thing I could hear. Tim was swimming quietly and more confidently behind me. There was the sound of fish breaking the surface to catch insects; their ripples making expanding concentric circles and interference patters across the flat calm. Tim was first to get out of the water and he was drying himself on the bank when it happened. At first I thought the surface of the water was being broken by some large fish, but the sound of the bullets hitting the water was accompanied by the crack of small arms from the path at the top of The Hangings about 50 metres from we stood and about 10 metres above us. The splashes were to my right and in front of me, between me and the riverbank as I turned toward it. Tim, pulling up his trousers, shouted “They’re shooting at us!” and looked in the direction of where The Cadets had positioned themselves. I scrambled out of the river and, grabbing a towel, joined Tim as he ran towards our assailants to get a better look. Seeing us, and seeing that we were close enough to recognise some of them, The Cadets ran off along The Hangings path, through the woods and towards the main school buildings about half a mile away. Tim and I immediately gave up any pretence of a chase. As Tim turned back he noticed that the right side of my face was bloodstained. I put my hand to my face but couldn’t find anything wrong. On further inspection, Tim found a small hole in my right ear with a crescent-shaped flap of skin hanging out of it. The river water was never particularly warm and I hadn’t felt a thing. The small calibre bullet, a point 22 (I later found some casings on the ground on the upper path) had gone right through the back of my ear and had done almost no damage at all.
The ear healed completely and didn’t even leave a scar. Something I greatly regret as it is almost as if the event never happened. But I have carried scars of a different kind since my childhood and the events leading up to the shooting incident opened wounds that were to fester for many years. Whether or not the shooting was in retaliation for Robin and me attempting to blow up the shooting range, or whether it was in some way connected to The Cadets’ concepts of preventing the likes of me from pursuing my career as an artist, I will never know. But it was more by luck than judgement that Robin did not kill himself in our bid to frustrate The Cadets and it was more luck than Judgement that the small bullet missed anything vital – Tim and I both could have been killed. Looking back on the events after 35 years is a strange experience. It has taken me 35 years to understand the dynamics of how victims become aggressors, how victims are, to a degree, selected for their weakness and how differences such as race, can have a profound impact on how the weak are often convinced of their weakness from an early age.
- The Reluctant Student
After the shooting, the bullying stopped completely. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps the members of the Cadets had been frightened by their own measures as Robin, Tim and I had been by ours. But, in any event, the Autumn Term seemed to be a new start. And there was too, at the beginning of the Spring Term, a reason to want to wash more frequently. In 1973, the school became co-ed. About twelve girls arrived to start the 6th form A-level course. Mary Bremner, known to all as Mog, was a gentle person with a sharp and incisive mind, she had a smile like Janis Joplin’s and wore small, wire-framed, tinted octagonal glasses. I was far too shy to admit it, but I thought about her constantly. And she seemed to like many of the freaky dope smoking creative people that I liked. There were several occasions when I realised that Mog liked me too but I was utterly ashamed of my body, was still, in all probability, a fairly smelly individual and I’m sure that I was not remotely ready for anything other than friendship. In Mog I found, too, the thoughtful and less aggressive side of humanity that I was used to.
Though I have painted a stark picture of my family, I have not yet mentioned my sister Jenny in any detail or the influence that women have had on my life. My mother was not a particularly maternal woman, in the traditional sense, but I have no doubt that she loved both her children very genuinely. My grandmother, who was very maternal towards her own child and her grandchildren, was not defined much by her anti-Semitism when judged by the qualities of the internal dynamics of her family. Indeed, apart from her occasional outbursts, she rarely mentioned such things when children were present. And my sister, Jenny, has always had a self-deprecating, quiet and non-confrontational approach to life. All three women were, in their own different ways, much gentler than the male world I had inhabited at my schools. My grandfather too was gentle and patient with children and I don’t remember him ever losing his temper with my sister or me. Such an observation on my part might lead one to assume that my stereotyping of gender is, more or less, a similar process to the racial stereo typing I have linked to my childhood experiences. In one respect that is true in that the creation of gender, like the creation of race, has a long history to which we are all complicit to one degree or another. In other words, the functional differences between one sex and another and one race and another, by which I mean the concrete mechanical differences, are overlaid with powerful social distinctions that do not have an independent reality. However, such similarities between gender stereotyping and race stereotyping go only some of the way towards explaining how individuals experience the different worlds of race, gender and sexuality that we all have to navigate. My own fear of male social forms and groups is, in large part, due to feelings of rejection as virtually all white boyhood fictions and realities were, in the 1950s and 60s, dominated by white heroes, metaphorically and literally. But there is also the fact that traditional femininity, as represented by my grandmother, mother and sister, was the prevailing hegemony in which I was brought up. The extent to which the male world threatened my equilibrium due to it’s maleness and due to its whiteness – as created societal forces rather than mechanical differences – is thus something I will return to a great deal.
My own daughter, Lindsey, has remarked on the different ways mixed-race children are treated in her school. The gender biases evident now, in 2006, are not dissimilar to those I noticed 35 years ago. My daughter is now about the same age as I was in 1973. As then, mixed race girls who are half white and half Asian or oriental, are thought of as ‘hot’. In 2006, they are treated as a special case; foreign enough to add some exoticism and white enough to be accessible culturally and (in the minds of many boys) sexually. Lindsey has noticed that there are wholly Asian girls at her school who are hardly ever remarked upon by white boys either positively or negatively. It is as if they don’t exist. When my and Jenny’s characters were being formed by the world around us, the European, white, Caucasian attitudes to Orientals were ones of extremes. The British, French, Dutch and other European empires and the Cult of Orientalism, in the way in which Edward Said explains it in his book, Orientalism, had produced a defining set of values for Europeans that did not represent the reality of the cultures being studied but a relative fiction that fitted the socio-political requirements of the empires themselves. Today, in 2006, we see similar traits in the way in which many people in the United States and in the UK are misunderstanding Islam. Tourism is, too, another branch of our Imperial past and it is amazing how some seasoned travellers behave in a decidedly colonial way.
Mention Thailand to many people – and I do, often in response to questions about my ethnicity and often in advance of questions that are inevitable – and the replies are extraordinarily Victorian. Here are a few typical examples that I can remember from the past few years:
- “Thailand! Wow! Thai women are really beautiful, is your sister married?”
- “You have to remember that Thai’s aren’t like us so you can’t expect the same level of conversation.”
- “They have such amazing skin”
- “I expect they really go for you out there, all those little beauties”
- “You could live out there and make a fortune”
- “Thailand, mmm, I expect you know some good recipes”
- “The Tsunami was terrible, a lot of tourists lost everything”
- “Buddhists living rough on the streets don’t suffer because they are enlightened and are happy, I know, because I’ve met the Dalai Lama”
- “You have to admit that Thai men don’t treat their women all that well”
- “Weren’t you lonely spending a month there?”
- “I’ve never thought of you as mixed race, I don’t think of you as anything other than white”
The overall impression one gets from being on the receiving end of these comments on an almost daily basis is not, however, only one of being surrounded by racists but also of being surrounded by fictional characters. In other words, the white, male value system that is perfectly capable of exercising its intellectual and emotional and practical capacities in the context of self exploration and self expression becomes incapable of ordinary observation when it comes to the expression of opinion and action concerning women and other races. The positions of non-white men and non-white women within white society and as seen from a distance are not, therefore, simply analogous with the positions of white men and white women within white society.
For mixed race girls and boys, growing up in a white society, there are further complexities and differences between how girls and boys are treated and how they self-identify. My sister, Jenny, has often explained how she was not aware of much racism in her childhood and has had few if any racist attacks in adulthood. At home, the differences between how Jenny and I were treated were marked. My mother’s liberal and libertarian side would surface occasionally after reading books and articles by writers such as Betty Friedan, and Germaine Greer but her growing conservatism (she became a convinced Thatcherite, later in life) also made her prone to extolling the virtues of traditional femininity. I think too that my mother’s early life – somewhat of a proto-“it”-girl – had made her wary of too much libertarianism for her daughter. Occasionally my mother would tell me about the wild parties of her youth based in and around a social set that included Clement Freud (a British Liberal, critic and general celebrity), Tony Soper an Ornithologist and Jon Bonner, a farmer and archaeologist. At one time all three were locally and nationally known and represented a glamorous and exciting social opening. It has occurred to me that my mother’s love affair and marriage to my father was perhaps a youthful tilt at her conservative roots and he may have been somewhat of a trophy husband to impress her well-travelled friends. Her attitude to my sister’s upbringing was protective and conservative while her attitude to my upbringing was to be liberal to the point of almost being uncaring. However, I don’t suggest that there was an absence of love, merely a kind of diffidence – as if being “motherly” was too much of a break with her wilder past and too old fashioned to sit easily with her more conservative, but still libertarian, in the atomistic sense, future. My sister was therefore sent to a convent from the age of 10 to 16 and to a finishing school from 16 to 18. Her maternally appointed mission, supported greatly by all the rest of the family, was to be pretty, marriageable and demure.
In practice, the gender differences had been fostered at home in nearly every respect. Jenny was not encouraged to enter into discussions, decisions or physical play. Jenny was reminded often that she must look pretty and ladylike. By the same token, I was reminded often to be Gentlemanly, but also to be rebellious, to ask questions and, something I didn’t take to at all, be more aggressive. I was encouraged to enquiry while Jenny was encouraged to acceptance. I was encouraged to join in while Jenny was encouraged to observe. I was encouraged to explore while Jenny was encouraged to timidity. Though we were treated in very different ways, the outcome for both of us had one thing in common; the world did not react to us in the way that our mother had planned. Jenny did not receive a stream of marriage proposals from the “right type” and I did not become an English Gentleman or dynamic entrepreneur. In other respects, I think we did respond to our upbringing in as much as the essential and overriding value system was to make us into honorary white people within a culture that was predominantly Orientalist in outlook; we both behaved as if we were playing our allotted roles but we both became incapable of either competing with our contemporaries, or of going our own way with confidence, and I believe that such an outcome was almost inevitable.
By the time I went to Art College in 1973, Jenny was already established in London with a job as a production assistant for BBC Radio Drama; courageously shaking off her protective shackles to make her way in the world. I spent my foundation year at Torquay and so was living at home for a whole year – something I hadn’t done for 4 years. With my sister away and with my grandparents spending more and more time at home I had a chance to observe a few changes in family life and to begin to notice some changes in Bovey Tracey too.
When I was a child, Bovey Tracey, was a large village on its way to becoming a small town. Its attitudes were very rural, very English and very white. There were four non-white residents that I knew of: an Indian Doctor who worked elsewhere but who would occasionally wave when I passed her house, a mixed race (English and African-American) knife and saw sharpener who was the result of a liaison between a local woman and an American G.I. stationed at Indio when it was requisitioned during the War and Jenny and me. Non-white faces were a curiosity and I don’t remember any overt racism directed at me personally in the village at all. But, as the village grew and new suburbs sprouted here and there, the atmosphere began to change. Returning from boarding school, I didn’t look much like I had as a child and people I hadn’t seen for a year or so showed a hostility that was unlike them until recognition set in. New locals, by which I mean those who had moved into the area from cities, mostly to retire, looked on me with suspicion in the pub. Tony and Monica – who looked upon everyone with suspicion until they knew them – were the proprietors of the King of Prussia. They were supportive when a new local suggested that
“..we don’t want your sort in here..”
Tony said to him, “..when you’ve lived here as long as Nick, then you can make your point..”
The housing boom in the mid-seventies, which has continued in Devon till this day, was to house a moneyed and mostly retired population from elsewhere. Many of those people had moved to escape what they perceived as the urban problems of immigration and a blossoming multiculturalism. Politically conservative locals who had been established in the area for many years were becoming more inclined to vote Liberal while the newer arrivals were Conservative (like my family) or further to the right. This trend has continued and it is no surprise that now, in 2006, the local MEP is the Leader of the UK Independence Party. The supporters of UKIP believe that:
“In 2002 the government allowed another two hundred thousand people into the country, plus several thousand asylum seekers, many of whom are simply economic migrants living in our country illegally. This adds considerably to our problems, increasing social tensions and depriving poor third world countries of their brightest and best. We cannot sustain this increase which compares with a city the size of Cambridge coming into Britain every six months, or two million people over the next ten years.”2006 UKIP website
Interestingly, the strongest UKIP area is one that has hardly been affected by immigration and the vast proportion of economic migrants into Devon has been white people from other parts ofBritain. The perception, not helped by UKIP one jot, is that race, illegality and social tension are automatically causally linked; as if it is in the nature of non-white people to be illegal and to cause tension. The language used by UKIP is not unlike that used by Powell or the BNP. These days, political parties are very careful not to print anything that might sound overtly racist but the juxtaposition of concepts in the above paragraph suggests a veiled racist agenda; immigrants and asylum seekers are not only thought of as illegal, but also the brightest and best of 3rdworld countries. It is as if the best one can say about an immigrant is also the worst one can say.
In 1973, just 5 years after the Powell speech, with the Devon countryside becoming more red-necked due to the influx of people escaping the cities, life for non-white residents took a turn for the worse. A very small number of mixed-race people, sometimes from wholly white resident extended families, became an easy target; we had been a welcomed curiosity but were rapidly turning into the emblems of what had gone wrong with British values. The 2001 census shows that Devon has a non-white population of 1%. The “other mixed-race” category, to which I belong, in statistical terms, is about 0.1% of the population. That was in 2001. In 1973 and earlier, it is likely that the figure was even lower. So with less than 1 in 1000 people looking like me and Jenny, it is no wonder that we fell so easily into the roles set for us by our parents, family, peers and society at large.
At Torquay College of Art and Design, life went by uneventfully. But it was a highly emotional time. The Vietnam War was still raging in spite of attempts at ending it through the Paris Peace process. Watergate was brewing and Margaret Thatcher was Minister for Education. For my generation, the Vietnam War was part of the global background. It had started the year after I was born and regular news reports from South East Asia were unprecedented in their coverage. Unlike today’s more sanitised film reports of, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, the brutality of the Vietnam War was reported for an audience that had seen the Second World War first hand. What struck me very forcefully was that the Vietnamese boys looked like me. In my teens, I had heard a great deal about Vietnam and yet my classmates and teachers rarely wished to discuss it. I had often looked up Thailand on the map and so I knew that my Thai father, whoever and wherever he was, might be involved. I started asking more questions.
I have tried hard, in this piece, to separate what I know now from what I knew as a child and as a young adult. In conversations with my mother, which typically involved me asking long and complicated questions and she trying hard to change the subject, did not do much to demystify my father’s place in her life and only served to add conjecture to his place in my life. But, as far as I can remember, this is what I knew at 17:
My father was from an aristocratic Thai family that were distant cousins of the Thai Royal Family, related by marriage. As a young man he had been prone to fits of rage and once threatened my mother with a knife. He was charming and unreliable, he was able yet unfocused. He and my mother had met while they were both studying at a technical college in North London. He was becoming an Engineer while she was studying draughting. They met in 1954 and he left in 1957. In England my father had been a chicken farmer. But the most interesting fact was that my mother considered him to be a great dancer, a great driver, very elegant and extremely good-looking. Sometimes she would say that he was hopeless when it came to anything of any substance and I took that to mean that she thought him not very bright. This was a characteristic that my stepfather, Ed, was particularly keen to agree with. I also was told that they both thought it was better for the children, me and Jenny, not to have any contact when they separated. I asked why they had separated and was told that the family situation in Thailand was very traditional and that, as a daughter-in-law, she would be ruled over domestically by her mother-in-law; that was something my mother said she couldn’t tolerate. In fact, as I found out later in life, the matriarchal system amongst the Thai middle classes is sometimes as she has described. At 17, I didn’t know what to make of it. I asked if we could visit one day and was told that it would be dangerous for me in Thailand as I might be conscripted – up until the age of 40. This last point I was to use as an excuse not to make any attempts to go to Thailand for many, many years. I still have no idea if it was true and I think the emotional aspects of having to deal with a new family were more significant than I was able to admit.
As well as the Vietnam War, there were other world events that made me even less happy with my position as an honorary white boy.
In the British House of Commons the Trade and Industry Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Expenditure proposes an inquiry “To investigate how far wages and conditions of employment of African workers employed by British companies in South Africa represent a factor affecting investment prospects, export performance, and the reputation abroad of British industry”. The proposal is accepted. History of South Africa Website
In 1973, a wave of strikes by black workers was unsettling governments around the world who were worried about the possibility of rising (slave) labour costs of their South African Investments.
The British government publishes in Trade and Industry, guidelines for British companies operating in South Africa. History of South Africa Website
The Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 was often reported and referred to in British media and the unrest of the early 1970’s prompted several retrospectives on radio and television. Grandfather hated unions and was not willing or able to think that black people had any rights as employees at all, thinking they were “..like children who need a firm but fair hand..” His admiration of non-unionised free-collective bargaining in the UK did not extend to black people anywhere. The early 70s also saw violence in Northern Ireland escalate, proving to my stepfather and others in the family that Britain had a right to continue its colonial enterprises there and elsewhere.
With my sister away, Ed, my mother and me fell into an evening routine that was good for conversation. I noticed that my mother’s views tended to become more liberal and less right wing in the face of Ed’s expression of his love of empire, hatred of the Irish and general colonial attitude. It was as if her opinions, subsumed by her father then modified by her second husband were again going into rebel mode. As a result their relationship seemed to suffer and I think Ed blamed me somewhat for that. I also recognised that one’s own true beliefs are often held in check in a bid not to upset others and then become more extreme in response to being held back – much like my own apologist’s attitude to Powell.
Daddum and I also spent more time together in conversation. But we tended to avoid politics and talked more about his early life and his plans for the future. He had had several heart attacks and was convalescing at home. He was very concerned that Ed should not benefit financially if he should die. It’s worth now explaining the dynamics that existed at Indio during this time.
Because Indio was a very large house, it was able to accommodate my grandparents, my parents, Ed’s mother, Edna, me and who ever else was at home, with room to spare. The house had 12 bedrooms and numerous reception rooms. I once noted in the 1990’s that my modest 2 bedroomed terraced house in Watford, where I lived at the time, would fit in its entirety into the main hall at Indio, such was the volume of space. Ed and my grandfather did not get on, Elsie, my grandmother, used to be best friends with Ed’s mother Edna but they fell out at some point. My mother, Valerie, was trying to be the good daughter and the good wife and finding it very difficult. On top of that, there were tensions between Ed and my mother’s extended family of Essex cousins – they disliked Ed for reasons that were not apparent at the time. My grandfather, Alf (Daddum), clearly didn’t like Ed at all but hid it well from Jenny and me. For my part, I genuinely loved them all. But I was often asked to act as a go-between to make peace between the factions over different issues.
You might have had the impression that Ed and I didn’t get along but that was very far from the truth. In many respects he was extremely kind and thoughtful and was, I think, doing his best to make amends for a previously disastrous marriage to his first wife and for his distant relationship with his son, also called Nick, who would visit from time to time. Ed was a good father figure in many ways; he tried to teach me the value of being stoical, tough, logical, hard working and decisive. I was, at that time, none of those things. We also both had a passion for cars and motor racing. He had a dog, a Staffordshire Bull-Terrier called Brutus, and evening walks were always of interest. Ed was an engineer and a talented designer. He could draw beautifully, had a very genuine sense about what constituted good design and was open to many other arts such as music and literature. So we always had a number of non-contentious topics to pursue. But, like my mother, he was not particularly tactile as a father and so both parents seemed somewhat distant to me. But even if the feuds between family members made any feeling of belonging difficult, I did not feel unloved or un-cared-for, it was more a feeling of not being appreciated, not being taken seriously, not belonging and not being encouraged to feel I had a place in the world. Naturally, one can’t choose one’s family and there are plenty of people who suffer from a sense of not belonging. For me, though, there was not one institution, not one member of my family and not one personal friend who was able to offer support, advice or comfort concerning my problems with my position as a non-white person in a very white world. Indeed, even to this day, if I bring up this subject with old friends, they say that they have never thought of me as not being white or as suffering from prejudice. I always take the comment in good heart but, equally, feel uneasy that people can know me so well without realising how my situation could often make life much more difficult than it otherwise would have been.
My early days as a student were, then, hampered by a tremendous feeling of otherness, of not belonging, of not being acceptable and of not being allowed to express myself in my own way. My work at Torquay College of Art was unremarkable, derivative and heartless. Not because I had no talent, but because my heart wasn’t in it. I was a reluctant student. I found authority figures, however well meaning and kind, difficult to deal with and felt hugely rebellious but could not find a place within myself to allow any independence of action that meant anything to me. The bravado that had emerged at Bryanston had only one focus and that was not particularly constructive; driving very fast at every conceivable opportunity.
Like many boys, I was mad about cars from an early age. It was rumoured (but turned out to be untrue) that my Thai family was related to Prince Bira, the only notable grand-prix driver of his era to come from South East Asia. Bira drove for the ERA team in the 1930’s and, like me, had an interest in sculpture. Had I known that he was living in England for much of his life I would certainly have got in touch. But, before the days of the internet, it wasn’t always easy to find people and make contact with such people without an introduction. But knowing that he existed, even if not related, was certainly influential in my determination to become a fast driver. Naturally, I was often stopped by the police for driving too fast but what surprised me more was being stopped just as frequently when driving slowly.
Ed had the opinion that women and black people were terrible drivers and, to this day, opportunities in motor racing for non-white people are limited to work behind the scenes. So even though I was encouraged by Ed, on a personal level, I was also aware that the encouragement was at odds with his general opinion that the English in particular and white people in general, were the best drivers. Even the Japanese giants of the global motor industry have had few non-Caucasian drivers in International motor racing. In my teens I had attempted to enter motor racing through karting and, though Ed was very supportive in that regard, the conversations in the race paddock were so soaked in racist and sexist ‘humour’ that I lacked the confidence to continue.
My mother’s worry about safety, though completely understandable on her part, was the final straw for me in that endeavour. One of the ways in which both racism and sexism (and any other prejudice for that matter) works is to produce feelings of failure, in the victims, that are not able to be overcome by expectations of success. I have never thought that I have failed because of my colour, but I have often felt that I have not attempted to succeed because of my expectation that my success would not be allowed and that I did not have the wherewithal to overcome those hurdles.
Under-representation of women and minorities in all sorts of areas of life is thus, in my view, not only due institutional biases but also to biases residing in the victims themselves. For white people in Britain, such feelings can also come about through poverty, disability and any number of other problems. But the support networks for mixed race people are few and far between and those that exist for specific non-white groups are sometimes as separatist in their attitudes as mainstream institutions. In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, I was not aware of any support organisations at all. Families, places of worship, communities, schools and places of work are the traditional institutions that provide individuals with support and a sense of belonging. For many mixed race people, such institutions become part of the problem.
Growing up in the atmosphere I have described produced an acute sense of isolation that did not abate as I grew older and it is something I still feel to this day; seeing all around me people that seemed to belong, while I was being treated as a curiosity, reinforced feelings of apartness and difference that often led to the most surreal conversations. For not only does difference produce a great inquisitiveness in others, it has the effect of others not being able to hear what one says; so strong is their idea of one’s difference that information to the contrary doesn’t sink in. Most non-white people are used to the question “where are you from?” It is a natural question and does not, in itself, come across as a racist remark if asked in a genuine and friendly manner. But 30 years ago, many people were astounded if one replied in Standard English. On a regular basis, I used to have this conversation (often interspersed with other usual pleasantries) when meeting someone new:
Stranger: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Essex, near Maldon.”
Stranger: “No, where are you really from?”
Me: “Well, my father was from Thailand and my mother is English, but I really am from Essex.”
Stranger: (after a pause) “Your English is very good!”
Me: “Thank you, but I have lived here all my life, so it’s not surprising.”
Stranger: (another pause) “Still, it is very good…”
Me: “Thanks again, but I was born here, so…”
Stranger: “Yes, but English is quite a difficult language if..you know..”
Me:“So, where are you from?”
Stranger: “London, that’s not far from Essex, have you been there?”
Me: (trying to make light of the situation, with humour) “Your English is very good too.”
Stranger: “Are you taking the piss?” (walks off)
These days, such conversations are very rare as people have become used to hearing non-white people speak in Standard English. Naturally, over the years I have tried to explain my situation as gently and as politely as possible but after countless attempts, I don’t remember a version of my response that did not lead to some measure of confusion or hostility. Such conversations, and many others like them concerning my racial characteristics and my identity, have had a profound effect on my ability to trust my own sense of self; when one’s intellect becomes a source of amazement or disbelief in the eyes of others, and when doubt is expressed by large numbers of people (in my youth, the majority of people but now around 25%), about the clarity of one’s thought processes, the use of one’s language and the trustworthiness of one’s intentions, then it is no wonder that one’s confidence as a person is hugely diminished.
On many occasions, perhaps more now than in my youth, I find myself seeing the world as a Kafka-esque dream. In many situations individuals and institutions react very badly to a non-white person displaying intelligence. Often such individuals and institutions are, it seems to me, setting out to ensure that contributions made by non-white people are subsumed, appropriated or belittled. I think I could have coped over the years if those closest to me had not been, often, the worst offenders. That there was no one else to turn to, to compare notes with, to seek advice from or to simply provide emotional support, made life very difficult.
In the feature film “Far From Heaven”, set in 1957, a middle-aged black man, Raymond, takes a white woman, Cathy, to his local bar on the black side of town so that she can experience what it is like to be the “only one in the room”. Previously, he had caused a stir as the only black man in an art gallery on the white side of town. Being mixed-race in England in the two decades that followed, where there was no mixed-race side of town and, as far as I knew then, no Anglo-Thai people in the UK at all, was a very lonely experience. Wherever I went, I was the only one in the room. The certainty of identity that I had felt in my pram, when the shimmering light became a clear image, has been reversed over the years. As I write this, I am recovering from another bout of depression. This afternoon I was practising my keyboard so quietly that I could still hear the birds chirping gently outside. In the flat above me, my neighbour, who has told me I’m responsible for other peoples’ noise in the flats as well as my own, was shouting at me from above and was banging something heavy on the concrete floor in protest. Now I have no idea if this man is crazy or if he just hates quiet piano music. But I can’t help thinking that he just doesn’t like the fact of my existence. Intellectually, I realise that my assumption has absolutely no evidence to back it up. Emotionally, it’s a different story and though I immediately resolved to go upstairs and have a quiet conversation with my neighbour, I didn’t. I stopped playing piano.
Nick Nakorn, 9 June to 20 July (2005)
The companion piece to this: Yellow Peril