A combination of tight financial conditions and hot summer weather led many people in Britain to holiday closer to home this year. The new prime minister David Cameron encouraged such a choice, and himself practised it by taking his family to Cornwall (and even extending it while he was there). Enjoy yourself, see the beauties of Britain’s countryside, help the economy at a difficult time, and meet the friendly locals - who could resist the offer?
The message reminded me of the first time I went to Wales, when I was 20. Until then, I had never ventured very far out of London. My companion was a friend from the Welsh industrial city of Swansea. We arrived in a small ex-mining village in Carmarthenshire, and soon decided to take a walk up one of the peaceful lanes in the area to enjoy the unpolluted air. The rare sight (for us urbanites) of stars twinkling in a pitch-dark sky was a delight. One moment, we were strolling, gazing and trying to recall the names of the constellations; the next, I found myself lying face down in a hedge and being scratched and pricked by its thorns.
My friend pulled me out and onto my feet. Behind her were some people of our own age who had evidently crept up behind us to deliver a special welcome - which now included repeatedly hurling an obscenity that climaxed with the words “... you black bastard”.
I was stunned by the suddenness and the aggressiveness of it all - even more because we had earlier met great politeness that gave only a hint of surprise at the presumably unfamiliar sight in the area of (as it happens) a brown boy and a white girl together. In that moment, the first thing to come out of my mouth was: “erm, I’m not black”. My friend, quicker to see the futility of such a response in the circumstances - and the dangers of the moment - dragged me back down the lane towards the village. The welcome-party stood and watched us retreat, howling like wolves.
The urban idyll
The sad fact is that random acts of everyday violence like this can happen almost anywhere - though are far more common in large urban centres such as London than in Britain’s less populated areas. In this case, more horrifying to me than the physical aggression was the racial abuse. I couldn’t understand why anyone, but especially young people, would want to say such things.
Yet I have also found that that Welsh village experience is not unique. So much so that, like wasp-bites or getting caught in the rain, I always expect a bit of discrimination in the countryside. A decade earlier, when I was 10, my family and I were returning home from a pick-your-own fruit-farm in Essex, east of London. My siblings and I were covered in strawberry-juice; my sister had even vomited from gorging herself. A car pulled up alongside ours. A man wielding a cricket-bat leant out of the passenger window and tried to hit our window. He screamed: “Pakis go home”. It was petrifying.
The British countryside is often described - in media coverage as well as tourist literature - with words like tranquil, charming, peaceful and genteel. True, it’s not hard to find evidence of real deprivations there, as in the legacy of that Carmarthenshire village’s mining past, which complicate the appearance of a “rural idyll”. But the routinely projected symbolism is of rolling hills, muddy boots, ripening fields, pebble beaches, fluffy sheep - and cosy integration. This enduring, appealing composite image, part of a landscape whose inhabitants may be assumed to be as monochrome as the sheep that also populate it, has little place for racism.
This “imagined village” exists alongside other visions, including of its urban counterparts, where bigotry, prejudice and narrow-mindedness more often feature. It is in cities and towns where arguments over racism seem to happen, and - from London’s Notting Hill (1958) and Brixton (1981), to northern England's Bradford and Oldham (2001) - where the accompanying tensions have been most acute and cathartic. The clash of ideas and interests, occasionally violent, has over two generations in important ways changed urban living for the better, including for those not directly involved.
The effects of this urban-led social transformation in which civil-rights movements have played a great role extend to rural areas too. But the rooted prejudices, little skirmishes and occasional indignities of life beyond the cities remain especially visible - such as the story of a gay couple denied a room at a bed-and-breakfast place in Berkshire, southern England. This may help to explain why many “blacks” and “pakis” hesitate about spending time in the British countryside.
The far country
Earlier this year I visited the Scottish highlands for the first time. I was captivated by the area’s beauty, of a sort I had thought might only be found on some exotic island a ten-hour flight away. As we checked into the guesthouse, the owner responded to my observation that she didn’t sound very Scottish by saying that indeed, she came originally from Leytonstone, in east London. I told her that I know Leytonstone quite well. “It’s not what it used to be, you know”, she replied. “We had to move out because it was going downhill”.
Leytonstone is a place where large numbers of British Asians, black and other ethnic-minority people now live. I wondered if my host holds them responsible for the district “going downhill”, and if she is part of the so-called “white flight” movement that is at least partly driven by the desire to avoid living with visible difference. I didn’t ask so can’t say. My weekend in the highlands was wonderful, free of thorny incident. But I kept thinking about what my host had said, and wondered how deep below the surface the prickles lay.
What I can say is that the only way to confront bigotry is to engage with it wherever it arises. I refuse to give up exploring this rather exotic island of ours because of the unwelcome I might get in some parts of it. I’m even planning a camping weekend in Norfolk, and hope to live to tell the tale.
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