In our Northern Line carriage last night somebody was petting a drunk homeless man and when he woke up and started being cheeky the ice was broken and the people in the carriage began to talk. We established that the homeless man was from Chelsea and bloke next to me was from Basildon, so were his family, there were three of us from Bedford, and Matt from East London. I talked to the Basildon dad, Matt talked to the Basildon daughter. Matt’s conversation got as far as “Where do you live?” Matt: “Barkingside”. Daughter (hearing ‘Barking’): “Oh, you must be the only white person there”. Matt then allowed the conversation to peter out (later he said it was because he was a man and he was worried things would turn nasty – it was midnight on Saturday and we’d all been drinking).
In my conversation, Basildon dad started by lamenting that London was not for Londoners any more, that Londoners were pushed away into the suburbs and even further out, and that people on every nightclub door in London were Polish. I thought he might be a racist of the variety that doesn’t discriminate between brown and pink foreigners – UKIP supporter, possibly. We were talking nicely, nodding and smiling, I was very sympathetic about housing and job situation, he was saying awful things very pleasantly. He was qualifying what he said all the time “Maybe I’m too old”, “Maybe I’m too English” to communicate that he was a thoughtful man – but his main thrust was that although Englishmen and foreigners might live side by side they would never understand each other and never properly mix. I said that might be true – and even by tacit mutual agreement – for first generation immigrants, but their children and grandchildren would have plenty in common if they shared interests, concerns and experiences – went to the same schools and universities, watched the same telly, used the same services, worked in the same organisations. He wasn’t convinced so I told him that my grandparents and great grandparents were from Eastern Europe and now I was as English as him. He sat back and shook his head impatiently – not sure whether it was that he thought I was wrong or that I was exempt from his analysis. He told me his son couldn’t find work because of the Poles and Indians, and used the phrase ‘nicking our jobs’. I asked him what he thought the role of employers was, or governments, and he recognised immediately where I was going because he was very shrewd. Then I can’t remember what made him start to shake his head sorrowfully and say that I was calling him a racist. I said that that had not been my intention but that was it – we arrived at Bank. When I looked back he was too and we exchanged a smile. Nothing I said had touched him and vice versa.
Well, you hear this kind of stuff a lot but I still don’t know what to make of it – under what circumstances does it turn into violence and expulsions? How do you recognise when it is imminently dangerous? Racism is a complicated thing, racists are not motivated by the same feelings. There was a gripping documentary on disgust from the Frontiers series on Radio 4 last Boxing Day (21:00) about the link between physiological feelings of disgust and moral revulsion – Susan Beth Miller is a leading researcher into this. Somebody from National Front might have a big streak of savage, visceral disgust running through their racism, whereas a UKIP supporter, a political antisemite? I don’t know. I wish I did. Then I’d know whether to talk or walk.
The family had gone to see Athlete – never liked them.