Let’s NOT do the Time Warp Again – cause the 1970s sucked if you were a ‘Paki’ in London. And I should know, because I was.
This about to get deeply personal. So much so that I’m not even sure I should publish this, and might well delete it shortly.
People that know me today, particularly here in Dubai, probably perceive me as a bit of a loud, extroverted and confident character. But this is far from the truth.
Within I’m the same shy, nervous, timid and somewhat traumatised 11-year old that I was when we first moved to the Middle East in 1979. This was after my father got a job in Saudi Arabia which, in retrospect, probably came as something of a relief, considering the Race Riot era of the early 1980s was literally about to kick-off in the UK.
I was born in 1968 and grew up in Islington, London, in the 70s. The far-right whites-only National Front party was born a year before me and by the mid-70s was at the height of its popularity. Its foot soldiers were the overtly intimidating Skinheads with their close-cropped or shaven heads, Dr Martins boots, braces and Harrington Jackets. The conjoined capital letters ‘NF’ were graffitied and scrawled everywhere as I recall it.
At the time Islington, in particularly where I lived halfway between Old Street and Barbican, was mostly a white area. I was one of, if not the only, Asian in my school. I was dark skinned, skinny, goofy and gawky. Plus I had a weird name that no one could pronounce. I was, in fact, perfect pick-on material.
Not a day would go by without at least one ‘Go Home Paki’ remark thrown in my direction, or some goons wobbling their heads and loudly mimicking ‘bud bud ding ding’. For my age I was perhaps more aware and perceptive than most of what was occurring around me.
Consequently I didn’t go out to play much, didn’t make many friends, and remained socially awkward – undoubtedly much to the dismay of my parents who had emigrated to the UK, working hard and making huge sacrifices in order to seek a better life and future for their kids.
I preferred the company of books and of course, the Telly, where I got to know Sid James and the Carry On team, Morcambe and Wise, John Noakes and Shep the dog. But even on TV and in my favourite shows themselves, casual racism and prejudice could be a rampant norm and seemingly quite acceptable – witness ‘Mind Your Language’ and ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’, although I tend to remember both these shows with fondness and forgive them for appearing to make fun of racist stereotypes rather than actually being racist themselves.
But what I’m getting at is that the undertones of intolerance – whether implied, suggested or just through the accurate use of the then-normal vernacular including throw-away lines such as ‘going down the pakis for a newspaper’ (particularly jarring when spoken by lead character in hit TV show) saturated the sphere of my daily existence.
And whilst you got used to it, even accepting it as the natural fabric of the world you lived in, you never quite got over it. The us-and-them philosophy was thus cultivated from the start. And being inherently someone who didn’t seek nor desire confrontation and conflict, this did not sit well with me at all.
What I realise now, is that if it was that obvious, apparent and cruelly influential to a young child, what did my parents and particularly my father have to endure just to establish himself and get by in this strange new country?
I remember verbal abuse and even assaults on the street – a traffic cone once being hurled at us so deftly that it managed to strike each of us apart from my younger sister in her stroller. Imagine attacking a family just out walking minding their own business. It’s not like we stood out. I’ve never worn a ‘Shalwar Kameez’, even my mother wore trousers at the time, and my dad was always a suit-and-tie sort of guy well into his retirement. He was also a highly educated engineer and very well spoken.
As a kid who looks upon his father as a superhero, it’s not nice to witness insults and fowl language being hurled at your idol only for him to dutifully ignore it and move on. I realise now of course that being out with a family, what else could he have done? The abusers might be armed with knives and knuckle-dusters he only with intelligence, logic and tremendous will-power. I would do the same.
It didn’t stop on the streets. Abuse came to our front door in other forms – can you imagine how frightening that might be for a young family cowering indoors hoping the bobbies would turn up before someone stuffed excrement or a lighted rag through the letter box? (Hence mail-catcher boxes). My father eventually put a steel frame around the inside of the front door’s window and a solid bar across the lower part to prevent it being kicked in as we’d heard of that happening to others.
All of this just for being the wrong colour, with the wrong religion and the wrong names? ‘Paki go home’ didn’t even make any sense to us, as my siblings and I were all born in London and knew no other home. Even today, I regard London as my home city, and maintain a deep affection and high regard for it.
Indeed my father, despite everything, despite getting an opportunity to work and live in the Middle East, despite being able to pick anywhere in the world to live out his remaining life, chose eventually to return to the country whose ordered systems, values and way of life he admired and appreciated so much. He is buried in the UK. He became a Brit, lived a Brit and died a Brit only twice visiting Pakistan after he had left it for good in the 60s.
And like him, when I think of ‘my country’ I think of no place other than Britain. And I’m deeply distressed and saddened by the re-emergence of race-hate in the UK today. I really hoped and believed that in the last 30 years we had seen such incredible progress culminating in, only a few weeks ago, Sadiq Khan (who really is not much different to me) being made Mayor of what I still believe to be the greatest city on Earth – London.
Yet all it took was a bigot hijacking a campaign that should have been about economic logic and turning it into a modern crusade against all foreigners, unleashing a new wave of racists emboldened and seemingly given a mandate to spew their vile small-mindedness forth.
To an extent, whilst I can never condone or comprehend such loathsome behaviour and attitude, I can see how it has come about. Unbelievably bad leadership.
Not just in terms of the terrible miss-management of the campaigning around Brexit which unfortunately gave a legitimised platform to the Enoch Powells of today, but also in the severe austerity measures that have been in place in the UK during the current government’s reign.
When people are doing well – or at least perceive that they are – they can happily afford to be gracious and magnanimous to one and all. But when people are under pressure, when they’re struggling, when times are tough, when the future seems hopeless, then their frustrations and helplessness at the very least needs an outlet and a target to lash out at – regardless of whether it’s a legitimate one or not. And ‘foreigners’ are always an easy target.
But dumbed-down Britain of today seems to have forgotten its own not too distant history and the fact that its glory was built upon the fortunes of the foreign as it foisted its flag on so much of the globe and drew the richness of its present-day culture from the rest of the world.
Nonetheless a modern-day multicultural and cosmopolitan Britain has been an example to the world as a truly international all-encompassing nation that was so confident in itself and its identity, that it could evolve ahead of other nations as an example of fairness, equality and justice for all. It repaid its debt to the world, by leading it into a more enlightened 21st Century.
Living again in the UK through much of the 1990s and early 2000s it was a joy to witness a country that had appeared to have come to terms with its new mixed-race maturity and in fact revelled and rejoiced in the colourful depths of deeply enriching multiculturalism. As a long-time Star Trek fan who wanted to believe in show-creator Roddenberry’s future vision of an ideal society bereft of prejudices, I was very proud of my country.
Until this week.
All the horrific reports of racial abuse and hate incidents that are coming out of the UK, and has even been experienced by friends of mine, has reminded me of that awful period in my childhood which I had long tried to forget and dismiss, and perhaps naively and too eagerly thought was now ancient history. Sadly not so.
This new surge in race hate is happening to people who’ve never experienced real racism like I have, and it could beget a new generation traumatised about their identity. What disturbs me even more is that last time things had to get a lot worse before they started to get better – racial violence and riots were the catalyst that eventually brought about a more enlightened change of attitude.
What Britain really needs right now is strong and inspiring leadership to nip this nonsense in the bud immediately and bring the discussion back to the real matter at hand – how to make Britain Great again outside of the EU, now that that decision – for good or for bad – has been taken.
Ah, strong leadership, where do you find that then, hey? Certainly not in the halls of Parliament at the moment that’s for sure.
My heart bleeds with sorrow and anguish at these unfolding events. I implore and beseech everyone and anyone to work together to right this beautiful ship, steady it back on its path of world sociological leadership, regain the helm before irreparable and long-lasting damage is done. The ‘Great’ in Britain comes from within us. Let’s please step back from the brink and dig out that greatness and once again bring it to the fore. Let not the small-minded minority extinguish the fortitude of famed British decency and firm sense of rightness.
Let’s please everyone Keep Calm and Be The Best Of British – not the worst.