07 January 2005

About me 2 (end)

Southall in the late sixties wasn't a complete bed of roses. The full-on racist attacks were still a decade away, but there were various glaring cultural differences that stood out a mile and either caused amusement or needed careful handling.

We soon found out that the children were terrified of dogs, only ever having come across vicious wild ones I suppose, and were totally gobsmacked to see us stroke the head of our soppy old black Labrador, Alice, or lean down to let her kiss us. This was a real ice breaker, mum promising children that Alice wouldn't bite, whilst the dog sat silent but hopeful, waiting to make a new friend.

Most of the boys of that generation grew up to own the largest, soppiest, friendliest alsatians you could imagine, albeit kept on outsized choke chains which were never needed; the mere image and kudos of controlling a 'vicious beast' (even one which in reality would at worst lick a burglar to death) was still considerable, in their eyes, but that's jumping ahead.

The idea of external house decor was a new experience, as proud owners of houses painstakingly painted the entire frontage with colours to their liking, for example cerise pink brickwork and white on all the grouting. The bright colours were only available in gloss paint and gloss painted brickwork was quite a statement in itself.

The only real down side, apart from outside opinion, was that some of the more elderly gentlemen felt that the streets of London, if not paved with gold, were paved with prostitutes. Look at it this way; you come from a country were no decent single woman is ever seen outdoors un-chaperoned and is under no circumstances seen anywhere on the streets once dusk has fallen and well, wow, for a brief moment anyone with a taste for a bit on the side must have thought they had died and gone to heaven. It was rather embarrassing, walking home from Girl Guides in Uniform, with friends (we learned never to travel alone), only to have our concentration broken by a loud belch or a stilted 'Ello', from an asian pensioner who then proceeded to wink or make the universal sign for "How much?".

I soon learned that looking horrified and staring down at my feet in 'shame' got me a profuse apology; the poor old sod was almost as shocked and upset as me, at the thought that he had behaved inappropriately toward a 'good girl'. The shame wasn't really there, I was confident of my ability to run, the streets were well lit and the gentleman was always old, but I somehow knew they understood that as the proper behaviour of the sort of girl 'that didn't'. I often got a sideways glance at lots of head shaking and backward shuffling, with palms up and a look of absolute mortification. Those that knew a few stilted words of English ( and the older generation are always the last to learn) would do their best to repeatedly say sorry, although it sounded more like Sari and took a while to work out. This makes it sound like constant harassment, but it wasn't, you would only meet one or maybe two of them at most on the weekly walk home from the Church Hall, and then only half the year, when it was dark by 7 pm. It also reduced as time went on and the two societies began to understand each other.

On the other hand, girls that responded with a mouthful of abuse were just as likely to have a large walking stick waved at them and what must have been an equal torrent of disgust. I never did understand that, I thought perhaps it was outrage that a female should express any sort of aggressive opinion, but looking back now, it may have been that the 'gentleman' may have thought he had just been rather insultingly turned down for business by the sort of girl that wasn't supposed to be choosy.

I knew one boy who ran home in scout uniform with a nastily bruised stomach, kicked in the gut for refusing the offer of £5 for a particular service, but by then the racism was beginning to surface and as the offender happened to be a different colour to his near victim it was dealt with very quietly, the only change apparent to my young eyes being that from then on the boy in question always had a lift home from Scouts. That's sad and wrong, but understandable in a tinder box; too many on either side wanted an excuse to condemn an entire race. A couple of years later when a friend from church was beaten up by another 'friend' from the same youth group, kicked in the head when he was down so that the whole pupil of his eye was black for a fortnight, again it was dealt with privately through the church and between the families because one was white and one was asian, and by this time going out on a Monday meant you likely as not had to walk round dried blood puddles on corners outside pubs.

Apart from the infamous Southall race riots which happened when I was eighteen, I never actually witnessed any violence in the town. The race riots don't count. The leaders of the churches and mosques etc all got together and held a peace march but the violence that killed Blair Peach, a teacher who came by coach as part of the Anti Nazi league to face down a bunch of National Front supporters who had advertised they would be marching through Southall, was part and parcel of a clash between two outside forces with the Police stuck in the middle and cannot be taken as comment on the residents.

For the record I have no personal knowledge or opinion of how well or badly the police handled the job. I only know that the ordinary Southall people stayed indoors and if only the NF had turned up alone, without resistance, they would have marched down empty streets to no great effect at all, watched by enough police to make sure it was only a march. By memory, word got out about the ANL coming too, so I wouldn't be remotely surprised if both sides were gathering numbers and tooling up for a bundle ahead of the day. I had to go to Ealing for some reason in the early evening, I already travelled there to grammar school and had friends and the beginnings of a social life. I lived at the opposite end of Southall to the march, which was scheduled to be over a couple of hours before then and because I went directly to the station by bus, mum reluctantly let me go. Unfortunately the train was packed with college types, excitable girls with rampant hair and hippy skirts, all travelling home from, as they saw it, this important social turning point. However well meaning they were, they boiled down to left wing do-gooders who did more harm than good, but neither of us knew that at the time and I had a very uncomfortable journey under the disapproving and suspicious glares, once I had been obliged to admit that I hadn't been at the march at all, but indoors watching telly.

Just for information the violence I did witness was not technically in Southall at all, but on the other side of the Grand Union Canal in a residential area known as Heston. Blood was drawn between two young Sikhs, on a small bus stop down a quiet road, with much posturing, threats of revenge and reinforcements etc, because one had called the other 'a Paki'.

By the late eighties, two stops down the same bus route a shelter was regularly being used in broad daylight by young lads who would get cozy and then skin up joints, with a lazy glare at people who might actually want to catch a bus which described at once total indifference and a supreme confidence that they had every right to be 'about their business'.

Growing up in Southall? Those were the good old days.

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