Friday, 20 August 2010


There is no time in my life when I have been without a close friend whose pigmentation differs from mine. At school, in the Army and through my working and retirement life, some of my best friends have been coloured and I would certainly let my children marry one. I had a coloured
uncle and much preferred him to my aunt, his wife. My first wife and our children were mostly Jewish. My father didn't mind what you were, so long as you weren't a Catholic. It ran in the family. My uncle was furious when I introduced his daughter to a friend who was Catholic. A chum, who is a Catholic priest, has to hide his occupation in the Middle East.

My Cambodian sister-in-law is a charmer and has two delightful and brainy sons. Our neighbour is coloured and her two girls are the best mannered and most delightful children I know. My problem is that after a lifetime I suddenly do not know how to describe them. I am white; they are black. But I must not say so. I value them for their qualities and I hope their judgement of me is not based on my lack of colour. I wouldn't mind having friends who are candy striped yet, here I am, victim of a verbal colour bar. It is puzzling. Negro is a corruption of the Latin word for black; black people call each other "niggers" in "The Wire". It would be impolite for me to do so. "Black" in my youth was the favoured nomenclature and gave no offence. Reading the Sunday papers last week, I found that it is no longer acceptable nor, surpringly, is "coloured".

In Liverpol in the Fifties where the argot owed much to American slang, coloured people were called, shockingly but without offence, "Spades". The Spade Clubs were amongst the scariest shebeens. I was in one once when an African the size of the St George's Hall loomed over me and demanded to know whether I believed in the colour bar. "Certainly not," I told him. He gestured towards the door and said: "We do. P...... OFF."

Much store was set by repartee, which in those days by the River Mersey took little account of sensibilities. Queuing for the last tram from Lime Street, the conductress ordered us, "F.... off. The tram is full." A voice from the front of the queue cried out against her obscene language. "I am a Rabbi," he informed her. She was unmoved. "I don't care if you are f....... Popeye. The f...... tram is still full."

In polite society it is considred bad form to stare at people who are in some way different. An RAF chum if mine doing flying training in New York told me that such behaviour attracts cries of "rubber neck" or merely" rubber". On the subway he had been transfixed by a baby so fat it was spherical. "Rubber," spat out the mother, incensed. "Thank God," said my chum, "I thought it was real."

Fortunately I am too short-sighted to stare, even to see; and colour is never part of my conversation. But it does worry me that I haven't an acceptable word to define pigmentation. As to acceptance of differently coloured people, that means nothing to anyone who, like me, lived happily for thirty years in Wales and only left when BBC Wales "sacked" me for being English; only marginally less welcome in the North than South Walians. Conversely, I knew the editor of a South Wales evening paper who offered me a column but refused to employ any Welshman from the North. Mancunians are not immediately welcomed in parts of Liverpool. A Lancastrian in Yorkshire is not universally admired.

The truth is that we are all tribal. Knowing this, it should not worry me that a section of the Muslim population want Bradford to be reclassified as a Caliphate where Sharia law will prevail. It does. It is a betrayal of hospitality, a tradition as old as the tribe. I would go further. A culture which rules that its daughters must marry unknown men at the behest of their fathers is abhorrent. Girls who have been educated in Western standards and, however limited, have enjoyed the relaxed lifestyle of their British peers are sent back to the Indian continent to live in perpetual servitude. Britain
has abandoned the death penalty as inhuman. At the very least, every member of the families which are involved in passing the death sentence for domestic crime should be deported.

A minority, we are told, support these practices. Certainly it is minority who are lost to terrorism. Unfortunately the law abiding majority are held to blame. A new superbug is discovered. It might have come from anywhere. It comes from India. More grist to the anti-Muslim mob. Perhaps it isn't surprising there has been a slow response to calls for help for the victims of the Pakistni floods.

My own family strives to understand the ways of the East. Auntie Jeannie was the widow of my Uncle Tommy, a Scottish Nationalist so incandescent that, ten years after his death, his wife was still afraid to visit England. Her son-in-law, Jackie, who looked after the boats of the Emir of Kuwait, invited Auntie Jeannie to visit.

"It's no in England, is it?" she inquired fearfully.

In the event, she had a great time, including supper with the Emir in his palace. She was not impressed.

"Does he aye get his dinner on tin plates?" she asked Jackie.

"They're no tin," whispered Jackie, "they're real gold."

"Maks nae difference," said my Auntie Jeannie. "Puir man, ye cannae keep food hot on tin plates."

The day she got home, she went to an Edinburgh market and bought the Emir a six-piece china dinner service.
Alas, we have lost the charming letter of thanks the Emir sent.

And finally ...
Media empire Time Warner owner of Warner Bros and CNN has become the latest New York tenant to fall victim to bedbugs. A plague of the blood-sucking menaces has hit Manhattan, affecting high-profile companies such as Abercombie and Fitch. Headline writers have duly dubbed it Abercrombie & Itch. The Guardian, P15