What follows is an extract from my novel Archive Fragments.
There were great tensions in society back then; tensions that people do’t remember now. They talk about class and ethnicity as if they were new phenomena. But I lived in a country that tolerated Jews in a leery, cautious way. It had been nominally Christian and definitely white for over a thousand years. Some schools were still tied to churches – I even went to one when I was a junior. Many bad things happened there, but that is for another time.
Secondary school there was’t a single black face in the place. This might seem strange now, but then it was’t. Our government invited people who were citizens of the old empire to come and work, to come and do the low-paid jobs that they could’t find people for. They were easy to spot, they were mostly descended from former slaves, they had black skin, and non-UK accents. The unions quietly forgot their internationalist leanings and started to stoke up racism against the threat of lower-paid workers damaging differences in pay. I remember a lot of gibberish about differentials in the news at the time, with my child’s mind, and now look back to see this racist agenda. Of course, scratch and Englishman and you find a racist, because Englishness is defined in terms of who ca’t join the exclusive club. I do’t care if that statement annoys you, sorry.
So, it was a little odd when a black child appeared in our school. He was the only one and did’t have a good time of it. Most of us were’t against him, most of us did’t have an opinion, but of course, a large school with several hundred kids in a year and fifty or so teachers had its fair share of dickheads, ignoramuses and out and out bullies.
There was a class distinction between the teachers. There were the arts types, the elite who had gone to a proper university before the blurring of institutions that has happened since, physical education teachers who did a bit and were mostly psychotic ruffians, and the failed engineers who taught technical drawing and metal- or woodwork. This last bunch were old-school and had probably been teenagers at the end of the War.
I have an abiding memory of this poor child standing on one of the woodwork benches, where a bald bastard of a teacher and a slightly older army veteran type were abusing him and using words that you never hear any more. This offended me deeply but I sinned by not taking a stand and getting someone in authority to confront them, if anyone in authority had the balls, which I doubt.
The kid only lasted about a week and I never saw him again. I hope he survived and wish I had been able to do something for him. I’m not sure I even spoke to him; the bullies would have gone for me as well if I had. This shames me.
The next school year it was announced that the bald bastard had died of a heart attack over the summer. I remember the headmaster looking sad, and we were all supposed to be a little sorry. I was glad, it felt like justice, but the older teacher who had egged him on was still there. Of course, he had a family and there was a whole complex web of lives and relationships around him and it was sad, like it always is when someone dies young. But I was’t sorry because the thing that defined him for me was that child standing on the bench, bravely holding back his tears.
Now I am an adult I will not tolerate racism or bullying, and I will not be quiet about it either. So hard luck if you stand someone on a table and abuse them – I wo’t be sad or sorry when you leave and I will make sure you do…