Chapter 7 – The Interesting Times Curse
In 1966, in Cape Town, Robert Kennedy used the phrase, "May he live in interesting times." This quote is purported to be an ancient Chinese curse. Although there is no actual evidence that this is indeed Chinese, it is an interesting phrase.
Arguably, we are living in the most 'interesting' of times and today's blog tries to unpick it.
Manchester July 1993
Today I woke up in a cold sweat. It wasn't the usual anxiety dreams of my impending PhD viva-voce that had filled my night-time thoughts; today it was much more personal. Yesterday evening had been a good one. I had met up with the 'boys' [my university friends from my undergraduate days]. It was the usual conversation and revolved around reminiscing, politics and football. Some parts of the conversation I could intelligently contribute to and others I chipped in with limited knowledge and tried to appear intelligent. [At the time Fantasy Football was massive and all I heard at home were the stats from the papers. I seemed to absorb them and henceforth was called 'Statto'.] Anyway, I digress.
At one point in the evening the phrase, "Play the white man" was directed at me. This shocked me but as a people-pleaser I did not want to make a scene so I replied with, "Easy!" and the moment passed.
This phrase must have wounded me more than I thought: my anxiety dream du jour was us, at a pub, where I was being racially abused and none of my friends lifted a finger to help me.
This stayed with me for some considerable time.
Stockport September 1994
I went to the pub last night with one of my closest friends. She is also my landlady. Our drink was interrupted by a drunken old man. He was leering at her and then at me and then back at her. There was something upsetting him but quite what was unclear.
DM [staggering to our table]: 'ey! 'ey!
We both glance up and I give the man a wary smile.
DM: 'ey! You're a bit burnt to be a Jew
This was all he said as he staggered closer but his voice steadily increased in volume.
DM: 'EY! I'm talking to you! YOU'RE A BIT BURNT TO BE A JEW!
I couldn't make sense of this and neither could my friend but we assumed that his problem was my colour. By this time my friend, who has a volcanic temper, had reached the end of her tether.
MF: WILL YOU PLEASE FUCK OFF!
Suddenly, this buzzy Stockport pub was silent except for the crash of chairs behind me. These chairs had been occupied by a group of skinheads who were now looking balefully in our direction. Inwardly, I groaned; however, my friend's outburst had been effective and the drunkard moved on.
I don't really like scenes in public and I was both embarrassed and, if I'm honest, a bit scared. As a consequence, my friend and I decided to leave. I needed the loo so before we departed I visited the Gents. Mid-flow, I heard the door open behind me and I heard a Mancunian voice:
Had I not started, I probably would have when I saw who it was. Over my shoulder, I saw one of the skinheads whose chairs had crashed over. He looked at me with a serious stare and continued.
SH: I want to talk to you.
Having finished, I turned and walked [rather shakily] to the basin. As I washed my hands, I prepared for the onslaught to come…it didn't. Having waited for me to wash my hands, I turned to face this skinhead and to my surprise his hand was outstretched.
SH: I just wanted to say we're not all like that fucker.
I quickly dried my hands on my trousers [yes this was pre-shorts] and offered my hand in return. Tears welled up in my eyes but they weren't just the emotional tears of this act of pure humanity; they were also tears of shame. He had the good grace to turn away and start speaking again.
SH: I want you and your mate to have a drink with us.
I stammered my apology and he shrugged:
SH: But next time, I want you to have a drink with us.
TWW: That would make me very happy.
As it happened, we did re-visit that pub but I never saw them again.
12th September 2018
As I write this, travelling home from visiting a client, I reflect on the 41st anniversary of Steve Biko's death in police custody. A quote comes to mind,
"The revolutionary sees his task as liberation not only of the oppressed but also of the oppressor. Happiness can never truly exist in a state of tension."
We are all capable of pre-judging but isn't humanity the ability to change our minds?