Blood In the River
In the River
Nick Nakorn 2005, portrait by Jo
Nick Nakorn 2005, portrait by Jo Jones
Nick Nakorn’s personal account of his experiences of racism and identity.
1. Early experiences
I remember a moving, shimmering,
green and yellow pattern against a blue background, the scents of cut grass and
creosote, the gentle crunch of footsteps on gravel, birdsong, the creak of hot
corrugated iron and the warm breeze on my cheeks; gradually, the moving image
came into focus and I saw that I was looking at the sky through a laburnum tree
in blossom. The memory was, for the first few years of my life, purely
abstract; colour, shape, noise, smell. But, by the time I was four or five, I
knew that the memory was of the time my eyes first focused, the time when I
first knew that I was an entity in my own right, that there was a difference
between me and those things that were not me. I knew exactly where the world
was created for me that day. I was in my pram, I was outside the front of my
mother’s cottage in
It’s hard to know exactly when I was first aware that I wasn’t white. All I knew was that all my family were white and I was supposed to be too. Memories of my early childhood were once only occupied by the faces of those I loved and the sounds and smells of the places they inhabited. But, as I grew older, other memories surfaced. It was if I had been living a double life.
My sister, Jenny, and I lived with our mother, Valerie, and her parents, Alf and Elsie. The house and cottage, Meadowbank, were on the outskirts of Wickham Bishops, a small village a few miles from Maldon where I was born. The village was small and spread out; it had farms, a village hall, a shop and a church. And it had it’s own rural railway station a few minutes walk from the house. In those days the regular service was still steam powered and the train’s whistle was as ordinary then as a diesel’s klaxon is now. And while it is our earliest memories that form the basis of our self-identity, it is only with age that we can see that what is not remembered is also of great significance. In modern storybooks for young children, trains are often depicted as steam trains. Toddlers learning to talk can point to a picture of an ancient locomotive and say ‘train’ as if they are likely to encounter one at a modern station. Likewise, the identities we adopt in childhood that can haunt and enable us in later life are often based upon a romantic fiction of who we are as much as they are based upon factual circumstances.
My own identity
anomalies started to become apparent at an early age. For years I thought my
grandparents were my parents and assumed my mother was the elder of two
sisters. My mother called her mother Mummy and I called my grandmother Memmy
and called my grandfather Daddum. I called my mother Mama but had no idea that
any of these names had any relational significance until I was six when I said
to my mother “Mama, Memmy’s our mother isn’t she?” My mother, in astonishment and with some
amusement, explained who was who and how the names had come about. I also
started asking questions about my father who had been, up to that point, not so
much an irrelevance in my life, but a non-existent concept. I had thought that
father and grandfather were interchangeable terms of endearment for the main
male and that all other familial males were uncles. But, by the time I was
eight, I thought I had a handle on who I was. Life
seemed good. And, even though conversation about my father was usually quickly
steered to another subject, I had gleaned that he was a good dancer, an
excellent driver, had kept chickens and was from
In 1964, Daddum (grandfather Alf) sold some of his business assets,
including Meadowbank, and bought a Victorian gothic mansion in
1957, my first birthday: left
to right: Father (Pat), Grandmother (Elsie), Mother (Valerie) holding
me aged 1, Grandfather (Alf) holding my sister (Jenny) aged 2 1/2. I
was not to meet my father again for 45 years. Photographer
Essex 1957, my first birthday: left to right: Father (Pat), Grandmother (Elsie), Mother (Valerie) holding me aged 1, Grandfather (Alf) holding my sister (Jenny) aged 2 1/2. I was not to meet my father again for 45 years. Photographer unknown.
Alf, the two boyhood friends, had married two sisters, Elsie and Vera. The
sisters’ brother, Ernest, was Alf Whybrow’s business partner. Alf and Ernie
almost fell out over business differences and one such event shows just how
entrenched were the family’s views on race. A friend of my grandfather’s was
another small businessman called Jack Cohen. He had a grocery business and
needed to expand. Sometime after 1945, Jack and my grandfather had the idea of
combining their businesses. My grandfather’s business, Castle Sports, had
around fifteen shops in and around North London and
eleven years old when the ripples from Enoch Powell’s
Even at eleven, old habits die hard. By June I had turned twelve and felt that, a year away from rampant teenagerdom, I was already worldly. But it was not as easy as I had imagined to cast off my negatively perceived caste and I slipped right back into it as a default mode. My strategy, such as it was, born out of the necessity to survive more than anything, was to remain an honorary white when situations became tricky and to start to assert my identity when it felt safe, which wasn’t very often. At the start of the autumn term, the effects of the Powell speech were already evident. The taunts had become more frequent and more aggressive. In English classes, I was chosen to read a passage aloud from a Biggles book; my memory is one of both deep embarrassment, fear and resentment that I should have to read out lines containing the phrases ‘black peril’, ‘slitty-eyed devils’ and ‘foreign hordes’. Thenceforth, I was nicknamed Yellow Peril or Yellow. The name-calling started as a taunt but I mostly managed to avoid confrontation by simply adopting the names as part of my identity, even introducing myself to other children as Yellow Peril. It was humiliating but it was better than an escalation of the beatings and thefts that I had to put up with, on and off, for the duration of my entire education.
school I attended from aged 8 to aged 13 was
One of the first Scripture lessons involved our teacher, Mr. Leakey, asking us each our religion. As each boy in turn was asked and gave his answer, it occurred to me that I had no idea what religion I was. Indeed, at morning prayers I really had no idea what the Headmaster was talking about. None of my family attended church and I had not been christened. When it was my turn to answer, I replied, “I don’t know, Sir.” Mr. Leaky told me not to be ridiculous and said, “Well, if you don’t have any preference, you must be Church of England.” And I was entered as a Church of England Christian in the school records. When it was the turn of another boy sitting further down the row, He said, “Sir, I’m Jewish” and Mr. Leaky dismissed him from the class and told him to go and sit in the School Library till break time. Following this weird introduction to scripture, in which only Christianity was studied, there followed a test of ten questions about the Bible. My score was very low and, after the test, Mr. Leaky aggressively criticized me in front of the class saying, “…with a score like this you have no right to call yourself a Christian!”. I replied that I did not call myself a Christian and, as a punishment for that remark, I was told to “..go to the Library and sit with the Jew-boy..” The Jewish boy asked me if I was a Jew too and was not surprisingly a little disappointed when I said that I didn’t believe in any religion. Later in the day, I was indoctrinated by my classmates about the meanness and cruelty of Jews and, knowing no better, I did, for a while, think that the word Jew did not describe a religion but a negative attitude of mind. Luckily the Jewish boy put me right about that a few days later.
my identity positively wasn’t easy. The members of my nuclear, and extended,
family were racist; my mother less so by commission but her objections to the
rest of the family’s comments were infrequent. When
friends and family visited over Christmas or on other occasions, the jokes
around the dinner table were often of a racist nature. Wogs, coons, natives,
japs, yids, spiks, niggers, blackies, pakis, chinks, frogs and krauts peppered
the conversation. In the
school, the general opinion that the best Britons were the English and that the
worst foreigners were the “Japs”, closely followed by “The Krauts” prevailed as
a given set of values. One boy, who I thought would become a friend, delighted
in torturing small animals and insects in front of me on the basis that I ought
to enjoy it as the Japs loved torture. He later bullied me when I made my
opinions known. The hatred of the Japanese wasn’t surprising given that some of
the kids at school had fathers who had been prisoners in Japanese POW camps.
But, while a personal story can inform one’s prejudice, it might also lead one
to greater study. The Second World War had certainly entrenched imperial values
but, perhaps, it would have been useful if the teachers had made an effort to
explain that the British railway projects in
I was a good runner and, though I regularly won or came second in the 800 yards race, I was not allowed in the team for “reasons of morale”. This came about because I did not show sufficient partisanship in sports or anything else. Even today I remain positively neutral when it come to the outcome of sporting events, and I think my early lack of a firm identity helped me to put equity and fairness above such feelings as patriotism or the arbitrary support of one team in a fair contest. But while my running could have become a means of proving myself or being accepted, I desperately wanted to be accepted for who I was, regardless of what I might achieve on behalf of a society I found upsetting and bemusing. For me it was not a contradiction in terms to do my best in a running race whilst being neutral about the eventual outcome. No one expects a writer to measure success by how many other writers don’t get published (though some do, I’m sure) yet, in sport, though one is told that taking part is more important than winning, the actions of those who support teams display the opposite behaviour. The expectations of my non-white status, that I should excel in sport and that I should want to win, were at odds with my real interests; art and science. But all subjects but art were left to flounder, and, in retrospect, may have been made to flounder by the collective efforts of my family, teachers and classmates. A chain of events that I have only recently started to understand illustrates the point.
Now, Mr. Beech was overweight and had difficulty walking but he had been, in his youth, a works racing driver for the French sport scar manufacturer DeLage. Mr. Beech, who missed his previously dashing life-style and didn’t want to be out-done by a wealthy nine-year old, tried to catch Luke out on points of fact about Rileys. Luke had an encyclopaedic knowledge of his cars and all Mr. Beech’s questions were answered. Fuming and shaking with rage, Mr. Beech called Luke a liar. Luke lost his temper and called Mr. Beech a fucker. Not a good move in 1964. Mr. Beech threw the hard, wooden board rubber and it hit Luke on the forehead with a resounding crack and Luke went down like a falling tree. Later that day, when Luke had been sent home and branded a liar by Mr. Beech and the rest of the class, Mr. Beech was ‘taking’ the run around the hill. Being unable to run, Mr. Beech would stand halfway around the course and chastise those he didn’t like. I started the run somewhere at the front and expected to finish near the front. But after the first mile I had the most excruciating pain in my chest. By the time I reached Mr. Beech I was in such agony I could hardly walk. I knew the pain was of a different order from ‘stitch’ and so, staggering up to Mr. Beech, I told him of my plight. Not only did he not believe me, he mentioned that, unlike Luke, who being English should know better, it was not in my nature to tell the truth. Mr. Beech continued that I, of all people, should realise that I was not prone to injuries and that I was making a typical fuss over nothing. It was stitch, he said, and it was typical that it would be me that complained. The only way I was not to be branded a liar, Mr. Beech continued, was to finish the run. So I staggered on in tremendous pain. But what made the matter even worse was that other runners, complaining of a sore leg muscle or a blister, were, while my conversation was going on, told by Mr. Beech that they were excused the rest of the run.
When reaching the school, I sat and waited outside the Headmaster’s office hoping to be able to ask for a Doctor to be called or be sent home. But Mr. Beech turned up and said that he had spoken to the headmaster and any mention of the incident would be treated as gross misconduct and I would be expelled from the school.
As I have indicated, Mr. Beech was an unpleasant man, and many boys were mistreated by him. But this was just the start of what became a regular chastisement over my non-whiteness by many other teachers. As I was leaving the corridor leading to the Head’s office, the Head himself, Mr. Day, breezed past and, laughing, said, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson Chulepa..” Now my middle name, then, was Chulapat and might be pronounced pretty much as it is written phonetically in English. My mother explained it was short for Chulapatpong (I changed it two years ago to Chulapatnabongse after a discussion with my father). Mr. Day, however, pronounced the name as if it were French.
was picked up from school, I told my mother about the events of the day and to
my amazement she completely agreed with Mr. Beech and with Mr. Day. All I can
guess is that some telephone calls had taken place and that she thought it
easier to go with the flow rather than fight for justice for me. The following
week, most of the teachers and some of the boys called me Chulepa as if
it was French expletive – so, clearly, the Headmaster and Mr. Beech were
complicit in the teasing. My mother, having told me some years earlier how to
pronounce my name, changed her mind and adopted the Chulepa
pronunciation too. “Thai,” she said, “is very like French.” As I later found
out, Thai is nothing whatsoever like French or any other European language. But
what of my illness? Though I was in tremendous pain for weeks after the run and
experienced repeats of the illness, I did not find out for sure what it was
until around thirty years later when, at
painful lungs, shortness of breath and the threat of expulsion hanging over me
if I mentioned again the running incident, I developed an eating disorder and
would vomit every day after lunch. My weight, already low, diminished and I
don’t know to this day if the eating disorder was psychological or a result of
an untreated, almost continually semi-collapsed lung. I was told that my
sickness was due to eating coffee beans when I was very small (I remember
eating them, but not any lasting ill effects), I was told it was because I was
of a nervous disposition, I was told it was because I was genetically prone to
a lack of gumption. The remedy was to put me on a course of the drug
Phenobarbital. I took the drug daily until I left Wolborough Hill at age 13. I
went from being at the top of my class to the bottom and only gained entry to
my next school on an art scholarship. Academically I was told I was useless.
Any thoughts I had at the time that these events had come about because of my
race were denied by my family and teachers while, in the same breath, they
would suggest that life for me was unfair because of my genetic make-up. School
life was a constant stream of taunts against a background of constant and
relentless racist opinion. Meanwhile, I loved my parents, including my
stepfather, and I loved my grandparents. I loved, too, all the
2. Teen Years
Though I have painted a bleak picture of my childhood in respect of my identity (and how that identity was not acknowledged positively by school or family), I was not without friends. Though even some of my closest friends at the time would feel free to vent their own racism in my presence, they very rarely aimed it at me personally. And my grandfather’s money conferred upon the family a certain status that I was unashamedly hoping to exploit. Perhaps money, and the life that it could buy, could habilitate me where my colour could not. As a teenager, I absorbed myself in an eclectic mix of political writing and left-leaning and Beat counter-culture; yet I also adopted the mannerisms, and sometimes the opinions, of the very society I had inwardly rejected and had rejected me. I was constantly arguing for ideas of peace and democracy but I would also sometimes adopt the prevailing attitudes just to avoid confrontation and, I think now, to avoid facing up to the fact that I didn’t actually like the people I most loved.
The Enoch Powell issue was a case in point. Some of my left-of-centre friends would feel perfectly at ease denouncing Powell as a racist in the same way that they denounced Norman Tebbit years later over his ‘Cricket Test’ remarks. But both Powell and Tebbit’s attitudes to race were attitudes that my family held too. And I knew my family as only a child who is loved knows a family. And here is the extraordinary realisation that has shaped my attitudes to so many issues over the years; it is that people’s opinions, however abhorrent they may be, do not prevent them from being loving and generous people in other areas of their lives. This is not a difficult idea to grasp intellectually, nor is it a concept that is not widely held, but for me, and those who have had similar experiences, such knowledge is not just an idea, a concept or a perception, it is almost a way of being. To live with people, all one’s life, who are demonstrably loving, kind and generous and who also view one’s own race with, at best a paternal indulgence and at worst a racial hatred of the most venomous kind, enables one to experience the paradoxical nature of human frailty and loyalty to an intensity that is seldom experienced by most people in times of peace.
My grandfather, I think, understood this aspect of my life as he was as perceptive about other people’s inner thoughts as he was lacking in intellectual rigour about his own thoughts. Furthermore, his own opinions about race were, he realised, the prevailing opinions that I would encounter as I grew up. But the Powell question still drove a wedge between me and my family that was never resolved. The Powell speech had been made in April 1968. I was 11 and about to be 12 in June. That summer I spent a hot Saturday afternoon watching television with Daddum. After the sports programmes and the early evening news, there was a programme about the Powell speech and many of Powell’s supporters were talking about wanting to introduce a policy of voluntary repatriation for immigrants and, if that was deemed insufficient, a policy of compulsory repatriation. In those days, “immigrants” was a euphemism for non-white people in the same way that “ethnics” is now. The Powell supporters, including Powell himself, were asked by the interviewer to define “immigrant” and the answer Powell gave was (I paraphrase from memory in Powell’s style) “..those people resident in this country whose origins are not of British extraction or, in cases of the progeny of mixed marriages, those who are fifty percent of British extraction or less than fifty percent of British extraction.” My grandfather and I sat silently watching for a few minutes, both of us feeling very uncomfortable; I because I disagreed so strongly, and my Grandfather because he agreed so strongly. I then said,
does that mean I will have to live in
“No, you don’t have to worry, you’re English! Don’t ever worry about that, Chappy, I’ll make sure you’re alright.”
As much as I wanted to, I simply didn’t believe such protection was even in his gift. For a 12 year old, that was not an easy anomaly to accept. The affectionate “Chappy”, used by my grandfather, was often reserved for difficult moments and was sometimes accompanied by a return to the Woolwich accent and a cheeky-chappy grin rather like that of the entertainer Bruce Forsyth. And that was, in a way, how my grandfather was viewed by us all: a charming, entertaining, successful and decent man. The darker side of his character, that I was later to discover, was certainly kept hidden from me and my sister and, possibly, other members of the immediate and extended family.
Wolborough Hill 1966: I
was a pirate in a school play. All the boys were in pancake make-up to
darken them to make them look more like ‘untrustworthy’ ruffians. I was not
offered any make-up as it was deemed I was dark enough already. Photograph
by Nicholas Horne Ltd. of Totnes.
Wolborough Hill 1966: I was a pirate in a school play. All the boys were in pancake make-up to darken them to make them look more like ‘untrustworthy’ ruffians. I was not offered any make-up as it was deemed I was dark enough already. Photograph by Nicholas Horne Ltd. of Totnes.
year later, as I attempted to prepare myself, at 13, to leave Wolborough Hill
School and get through my exams in a haze of barbiturates, chronic chest pain
and daily vomiting, I was not at all confidant about my future, my identity or
my place in the world. At no time did I experience the confidence that I had
felt as a baby as the Laburnum tree in
more emotional baggage than I care to remember, but with an optimistic outlook,
I scraped through my common entrance exams and found a place at
I was treated well and kindly by the teachers, for the most part, and things did not get off to a bad start. In fact, the novelty and the opportunities the school offered were in some ways overwhelmingly positive. I made friends and a senior boy was appointed as my mentor. These mentors were known as foster fathers and my foster father was a sixth-form boy called Anthony Appiah. Kwame Anthony Appiah is now a distinguished philosopher. But then he was just a mixed-race boy at a British private school trying to make his way in the world. He was not the first mixed race person I had ever met, but he was the only mixed race person I had met who was in a position of authority. He was extraordinarily kind and helpful. And, to my amazement, there were other non-white boys who were also doing well and were liked by their peers of all colours, Dean Omar and William Quashi, both, I think, African or part African, spring to mind. They were both kind and, I realised later, looked out for me behind the scenes as they and Anthony did for many other boys of colour or of mixed race. It was both a shock and a revelation. But I was also overwhelmed by the confidence displayed by the non-white students: a confidence that I lacked completely.
it was because Anthony, Dean and William knew who they were. Perhaps it was
because they had solidarity with each other as fellow Africans. There were a
few other children who, like me, might be called Oriental. I noticed, too, how
many of the students from Islamic or Arabic countries were, like me, sometimes
lacking in confidence. Essie Ghani was from, I think,
In my favour, though, was an acquired taste for being an outsider. I was prone to be bookish and creative. But I was also somewhat manic in my approach to life. Coming off the Barbiturates meant I had developed erratic sleep patterns and would stay up all night only to be in a haze the next day. I was drawn, too, to the drug culture that was becoming the hip thing in private schools all over the country. Kids with more money than sense just had to smoke tobacco (I’m a tobacco addict till this day) and just had to smoke marijuana, try LSD and mescaline and reject non-hip virtues like responsibility and hard work. As a former habitual user of class B drugs, I was already well on my way to fitting right in with Bryanston’s drug culture. My tutor, the kind and thoughtful Dennis McWilliam, was often at a loss to understand how I could seem so optimistic and buoyant one day and so hopelessly depressed the next. How I could be acutely observant and write good essays one week and be incapable of producing a coherent piece of work the next.
Set against the positive social aspects of drug taking; a circle of friends, a place in the freakier culture of the school and a certain notoriety, was the hatred we, the druggy freaks, received from the Cadets. The Cadets was a set of boys who had joined the quasi-military club that the school ran for boys who thought they might be interested in joining the military, or who had families from a military background. Strangely, this group of boys were also linked into another set of boys who were seemingly more interested in the arts and/or sports. As my group of friends were mostly, but not exclusively, artists, I started to meet and become friends with students who were on the fringes of various groups but not quite ‘in’ any of them. Some of them turned out to be particularly unpleasant characters and were, I later discovered, instrumental in making my life at Bryanston unbearable. It seems odd, now, to think how a young man from a privileged background could describe life at a top British private school as unbearable. It was not a life of poverty, nor was it a life spent in a war zone. But I was already very shaky about my identity and about my worth as a person. I had been threatened with expulsion from my previous school and expulsion from the country, metaphorically and, in my own mind, perhaps literally, by Enoch Powell’s followers. Indeed, I was not even confidant that my own family regarded me as acceptable.
Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech turned out to be somewhat prophetic. Though I was aware of the sentiments expressed by racists, reports in the media and my own experiences did not prepare me for what was to happen before my days at Bryanston were to come to an end. I did not expect there to be blood in the river and I did not expect it to be mine.
It is impossible to have anything other than a subjective view of the events I will now attempt to explain. And I would love to know where the truth lies. Truth is never easy to ascertain. Truth as a philosophical concept it is flawed and approximations of truth, which is all one can ever hope for, even in science, are themselves modelled by individuals and cultures, by conflicting evidence and by inexplicable coincidences. However, the following is an honest attempt to show how institutional and personal racism can add fuel to an already heated situation.
As I was an art scholar, two teachers took a special interest in me and helped me enormously. They were Mr. Renwick and Mr. Potter, known as Don to all who knew him. Don taught sculpture and ceramics while Mr. Renwick taught painting, drawing and graphics. At Wolborough Hill I had found an escape from the life of the school in the art room. At Bryanston I found the same escape in the sculptorium. Don was a charismatic teacher who had been Eric Gill’s apprentice, was a friend of Henry Moore, Freud, Bacon and others. He had taught many students who went on to produce work of international acclaim. Born in 1902, Don was a year younger than my grandfather and I was used to feeling at home with that generation. Don’s attitude to life was extraordinarily robust and his spark was mirrored by his longevity. He was nearly seventy when he taught me and continued to teach full time into his eighties, part-time into his nineties and died only two years ago in 2004 aged 102. Don was the only adult I could talk to without feeling perpetually on my guard. He asked little of me, shared his rolling tobacco, showed me how to carve and would comment, with what seemed like uncanny accuracy and brevity, on my mood. If I came into the sculptorium having been upset he would, before I had said anything, immediately say something like, “the world is full of shits” or “find solace in work and beer, work and beer” or “truth is like a carving in stone before the carving is done” and “school is a waste of time, when you’re old enough to fuck you can teach yourself anything”. Of course, he had a huge number of such sayings that did not require any special insight on his part, but he did seem to have a knack of knowing what would be appropriate.
Don treated people as he found them. I did not once notice the slightest trace of condescension in his attitude towards me. He also taught as much by example as by tuition which allowed him time to make his own work while teaching. We got along very well and on hot weekends I would sometimes call at his house for a cold beer. Now, the arts ‘establishment’ in England then, as it is now, was as much about who you knew as it was about talent and I was lucky enough to know Don. I was not convinced that I had the potential that he thought I had so he entered some of my work into some open competitions. When I won a prize I was elated and, being hugely excited that I might actually be good at something, started telling all my friends. As a result of Don promoting me as a success with his colleagues, I was asked to design a set for the school play, much to the disgust of the Drama Society who would not vote me in. It’s worth here explaining how all the school clubs and societies worked. Like so many areas of middle-class English life, success is rewarded with more success and failure is rewarded with more failure. If you wanted to learn how to play tennis, then you had to pass a test set by the tennis club. In other words, you could only get tuition if you could already play reasonably well. The Music Society likewise gave one access to music tuition and one had to pass an audition to get in. Needless to say, there were always exceptions. And the exceptions were often driven by simple nepotism; one had to be friends with whoever was in charge of the club or society. Teachers would oversee the clubs but pupils were on the committees. In a culture dominated by wealthy, middle class, young English males, I think it must have needed tremendous confidence for people like Anthony Appiah to become so respected. I had none of Anthony’s confidence and used to make up for it with a certain foolish bravado that I will come to later.
Sayer, my English teacher, was overseeing the Drama Society and it was through
Don’s influence that
breeds success and confidence breeds confidence. But
while I was beginning to have a degree of success at school, I had no
confidence whatsoever in myself as a person. When word got around that I was to
design the set for the play, the spitting began. It was not members of the
Drama Society committee who started spitting at me but people who were on the
fringes of that group. I think I was tolerated up to a point while I was just
another ‘freak’ who hung out with the other drug-taking freaks. But the
sculpture prize (for a national competition and thus not even within the
confines of the school) and the set design opportunity seemed to tip the
balance somehow; made me less, rather than more, acceptable. After the spitting
came the name-calling. The famine in
But I didn’t pull out, and the trouble didn’t stop. My belongings were stolen. I was often told who had stolen them and sometimes the thieves themselves would tell me. Sometimes friends of friends, who knew the thieves, managed to get some of my things back for me. But many items were stolen and not recovered, including my art materials, school books, school work, drawing pens, records, clothing and my watch. If I managed to replace the items for the following term, then the following term the same people stole them again. Pocket money that I had earned in the holidays doing odd jobs for my grandfather was sometimes spent replacing stolen items. And, after a while, it didn’t seem to be about the Drama Society or the sculpture prize, it was about a group of boys, on the fringes of various other groups, taking it upon themselves to torment me. And I had absolutely no idea how to put a stop to it. I had never been in a fight in my life, knew nothing about fighting and had only been on the receiving end of violence. So I did not have the confidence to fight them. I did not have the confidence to report them to the teachers and, anyway, I was frightened of being branded a sneak and a coward. And I was most definitely a coward. I was frightened by violence; as much by what I imagined I might do to others, given the chance, as much as what they might do to me.
The school was set in beautiful grounds. Many of the routes between places that one had to be, or wished to be, were through wooded areas and hedged walks; places where one could easily be ambushed. It was also easy to be caught when going to the toilet or taking a shower. I was attacked about once a week in term-time for two years from 1971 to 1973, that’s around 70 attacks. A small number of the attacks were violent but all were relentlessly aggressive and involved some form of physical assault. I only ever suffered small cuts or bruises or humiliation and the violence was not, for the most part, particularly serious. Strangely, I found my dignity in not fighting back, never once making an attempt to defend myself; thinking mostly of Ghandi and the hippy freak mantras of peace and love. But years of intermittent, chronic pain had taught me how to keep on getting up, how to keep on going. The gang at one point became so confident that they used to attack me in quite public places and small crowds of kids would gather to see what happened. After one such incident I received a small cheer from the onlookers as I calmly got up after a brick had been thrown hard, at very close range, at my head. I just stood there as members of the gang came up to me one by one and spat in my face, I remained calm as their spit mixed with brick dust and a small welling of blood in my hair. I walked away as if nothing had happened and, once out of sight, I collapsed into the undergrowth.
But in many other respects, I did not keep my equilibrium. I smoked as much as I could, slept as little as I could, cut as many classes as possible and, worst of all, I stopped washing. I was terrified of removing my clothes and often slept in them; I rarely changed my clothes (often they had, in any case, been stolen) and washed very, very infrequently. I was also terrified of being attacked in the bathroom and the shower. I started to stink. It was so bad that my best friends would not want to sit near me. It was so bad that I didn’t even like to be near me. It was so bad that the lice in my hair would fall onto my drawing paper. But I took a perverse pleasure in it. It was as if I was saying” Fuck You!” to all of my tormentors. There were times when teachers ordered me to have bath and threatened to check up on me while I was in the bath to make sure I actually washed properly. I actually preferred that they did – at least I wouldn’t be attacked or have my clothes stolen if a teacher was present.
My grandfather was paying for the privilege of me attending one of the most expensive private schools in the country and I was living like a tramp. But who could I confide in? Close friends knew some of the facts but I was very worried that, if I told them what was happening, then, through the grapevine, the gang would hear about it and things might get worse. So I only admitted to what was witnessed by my friends, which wasn’t much. I have to thank the people who stood by me, who made my life so much better than it could have been: Peter Burmby, Charlie Lambe, Robin Venables, Tim Nelson, Mark Davies, Mary Bremner (one of the first 6th form girls to attend when the school became co-ed in 1973), Simon Matthews, Adrian Matthews, Richard Whitely, Paul Kelly, Jeremy Maltby, and others were sympathetic and, in some instances, instrumental in helping me through some difficult times.
By the time I was 15 I had, if not accepted my plight, come to terms with having to put up with it. Eventually I managed to tell the teachers what had been going on: this came about through another creative opportunity; a competition to design an adventure playground for primary school children. It was, think, the spring term of 1972. Winter weather and dark afternoons had not yet been shaken off by the hot summer that was to come. I won the competition and had to meet with one of the teachers to discuss how the design would be transferred into three dimensions. I was convinced there would be some reason why I would be unable to accept the commission and had been worrying about it all through the previous week. I couldn’t face going to classes, and so, rather than add to my already huge list of punishments for missing classes, I broke into the electrical cabinet of the classroom block and stole the fuse holders from the fuse box. In those days, many buildings still used ceramic fuse holders in which fuse wire was stretched as required. Without the fuse holders, the whole block was inoperative. The following day, the theft was announced in morning assembly and, because for some reason the school was unable to source replacements at short notice (perhaps that type of fuse box was no longer manufactured), an appeal was launched for the thief to come forward.
Wracked with guilt, I had no option but to own up. As it happened, the teacher I had to see was the teacher who was also in charge of the playground project. He had a reputation for being incisive and for being a bit of a disciplinarian. But, as it turned out, he couldn’t have been nicer and, amazingly, I was not punished. His sympathetic and understanding attitude let loose a flood of emotions and I poured out my heart to him, explaining as much as I felt I could about my predicament. Not only did my confession about the theft, and about my shameful position as a weak and downtrodden victim, make me feel much better about myself and about my situation, it gave me a little added confidence. The following summer, the adventure playground was built and an article appeared in the local paper about it. I was delighted. It was my first taste of being rewarded at school without any feeing of being patronised or threatened, that I had felt for years. I wish I could remember the name of the teacher who showed me such kindness.
There were two distinct areas of my life that changed as a result of Mr….’s kind and perceptive response to my state of mind. The first was practical and much needed; the bullying stopped. Even though it was made clear by some of the Cadets’ ringleaders that my life would be made worse than it had been before, I noticed that the gang avoided me as much as I used to avoid them. Secondly, I became more confident and was able to start treating myself as if I mattered. I started washing more often and changed my clothes more frequently. But I also adopted a kind of bravado that didn’t really suit my underlying character. A good friend, Robin Venables, had also had a troubled childhood and we embarked on a series of stupid but invigorating rule violations. Robin could have implicated me in our exploits but he was the type of person not to get his friends into trouble and I will always be thankful to him for his supportive friendship. Robin was intellectually one of the most able people I have ever met. No concept seemed difficult for him to grasp and his memory was outstanding. But Robin had been over weight for most of his early life and his intellect was hidden by his poor opinion of himself and his slow Staffordshire drawl that made him, in many people’s eyes, seem dim-witted.
Now you might think that I have blamed all my childhood woes, and subsequent depression, on the fact that I am mixed race and that the childhood I inhabited was bounded by a predominantly racist society. Racism was, in my view, a strong contributory factor but I also realise that many children are bullied for all sorts of other reasons too. Robin had been bullied when younger for being overweight and for being seemingly slow when, in fact, he was as sharp a mind as you were likely to meet. As he grew older, and taller, there were few people who would bully him to his face as he was an imposing figure. But, like me, he had problems with authority and with trust. His academic record was patchy in as much as he would excel in any exam he bothered to take (he would speed-read books, never revise, do as little work as possible and score 90% in most subjects and sometimes 100% in Maths and Chemistry). Robin also loved explosions and we hatched a plan to blow up the school’s shooting range. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. These days, where explosions define the territory of terrorism, the idea seems outrageous. But we were both convinced that the Cadets, with their love of guns, their bullying, their ability to pick upon anyone who didn’t look and sound like them and their astonishing arrogance, deserved to have their favourite place destroyed.
For a couple of nights running we broke into the chemistry labs and stole the ingredients we needed; Robin going along the shelves saying “..that one! That one!” while I stashed the bottles into a bag. A few days later, Robin had packed an old coffee tin with his mixture, had made a length of fuse out of string soaked in another preparation and had bound the whole thing with a dozen reels of Selotape. Late at night, Robin, Tim and I went to the firing range and buried the device in the sand that was piled against the wall of the shooting range. Robin lit the fuse and we all ran for cover. Nothing happened. Tim and I went back to where the bomb had been buried to find Robin re-lighting a very, very short fuse.
The explosion was loud enough to wake the school. Lights went on all over the main building some 200M away. A shower of sand and leaves fell around us as Tim and I dived for cover once again. When we dared to look, Robin was nowhere to be seen. When a party of people could be heard running from the school we both fled in the direction of the dormitory only to almost collide with Robin who was running in the opposite direction.
“We thought you had been blown up!” we said only half jokingly. Robin, with a soot-blackened face and with his curly hair full of debris, looking more like a cartoon character than a boy who has narrowly escaped death, said,
“ eee, but it were a right good bang weren’t it?”
And, with that, we ran back to our respective dormitories. The aftermath, which left a small but, to us, significant hole in the shooting range wall and an enquiry by the school that, as far as I remember, went nowhere, was to be more significant than I had expected. The Cadets were furious.
the same time as the adventure playground was being built and that Robin and I
were planning the explosion, Don had entered one of my small sculptures in
another competition. This one, however, was much more serious. The Henry Moore
Apprentice Prize was one of the most prestigious and sought after prizes in
sculpture. The winner was to be apprenticed to Henry Moore at his studio in
Hertfordshire. The shortlist from around the country contained two names, both
from Bryanston. How much of that was coincidence and how much of it was
nepotism due to Don’s connection, I will never know. But being at the top of
the list was, for me, an impossible dream come true. Don told me that 2nd
on the list was Rick Borrie, now a well-known sculptor in
It was like a repeat performance of the previous year. Through friends of the Cadets who knew friends of friends of mine, I was warned off. Let Rick have the Apprenticeship or there would be trouble. Rick, who used to hang out with people I knew, never seemed to look as if he knew of the threat and I don’t recall any animosity from him at all. We weren’t friends but, as far as I was concerned, we weren’t enemies either. However, inspite of my newfound bravado, I felt completely unable to act positively and simply told Don I didn’t want to take up the prize. Don’s reaction was to insist that I accepted and he gave me a further two weeks to come to a decision. For the next few weeks, the threats, taunts and assaults were quite intensive and it ended with a shooting.
Images of The King and I was
released as a motion picture in 1956, the year I was born. The film is
based on the diary of Anna Leonowens who taught English at King Mongut’s
The King and I was
released as a motion picture in 1956, the year I was born. The film is
based on the diary of Anna Leonowens who taught English at King Mongut’s
The Bridge on the
River Kwai was released in 1957. During the second World War, the Thai
Government was co-operative with the Imperial Japanese agenda in the
building of the Burma Railway, But the context of the film lacked two
salient points: firstly, the Thai bureaucracy and much of the population
also supported the resistance movement (In my family there was a secret
meeting to see who might be best placed in the resistance and who might be
a believable collaborator) – thus helping to safeguard Thai independence
after the war and, secondly, while 13,000 prisoners of war and 100,000
conscripted labourers from Burma and elsewhere died of neglect and disease
under the Thais and Japanese, it was nowhere mentioned that the British
presided over 1,000,000 deaths to achieve their imperial aims by disrupting
Indian independence at around the same time. The perceived brutality of the
oriental races was thus outdone by the British themselves, not to mention
the occidental outrages of the holocaust.
The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957. During the second World War, the Thai Government was co-operative with the Imperial Japanese agenda in the building of the Burma Railway, But the context of the film lacked two salient points: firstly, the Thai bureaucracy and much of the population also supported the resistance movement (In my family there was a secret meeting to see who might be best placed in the resistance and who might be a believable collaborator) – thus helping to safeguard Thai independence after the war and, secondly, while 13,000 prisoners of war and 100,000 conscripted labourers from Burma and elsewhere died of neglect and disease under the Thais and Japanese, it was nowhere mentioned that the British presided over 1,000,000 deaths to achieve their imperial aims by disrupting Indian independence at around the same time. The perceived brutality of the oriental races was thus outdone by the British themselves, not to mention the occidental outrages of the holocaust.
The Cadets had access to small-bore rifles for use at the firing range. And some of the boys also owned their own weapons. One summer’s afternoon, Tim Nelson and I had gone for a swim in the river beneath a steep wooded ridge called The Hangings. It was a beautifully calm day. The river was slow and deep where we swam and such times were a much needed sensual pleasure. But as Tim and I swam and chatted, members of the Cadets were gathering above us in The Hangings.
I remember swimming down-river, the late sun still dappled the water. We swam through the shadows of overhanging trees, cows on the far bank stood motionless in the heat and the quiet sound of my arms through the water was almost the loudest thing I could hear. Tim was swimming quietly and more confidently behind me. There was the sound of fish breaking the surface to catch insects; their ripples making expanding concentric circles and interference patters across the flat calm. Tim was first to get out of the water and he was drying himself on the bank when it happened. At first I thought the surface of the water was being broken by some large fish, but the sound of the bullets hitting the water was accompanied by the crack of small arms from the path at the top of The Hangings about 50 metres from we stood and about 10 metres above us. The splashes were to my right and in front of me, between me and the riverbank as I turned toward it. Tim, pulling up his trousers, shouted “They’re shooting at us!” and looked in the direction of where The Cadets had positioned themselves. I scrambled out of the river and, grabbing a towel, joined Tim as he ran towards our assailants to get a better look. Seeing us, and seeing that we were close enough to recognise some of them, The Cadets ran off along The Hangings path, through the woods and towards the main school buildings about half a mile away. Tim and I immediately gave up any pretence of a chase. As Tim turned back he noticed that the right side of my face was bloodstained. I put my hand to my face but couldn’t find anything wrong. On further inspection, Tim found a small hole in my right ear with a crescent-shaped flap of skin hanging out of it. The river water was never particularly warm and I hadn’t felt a thing. The small calibre bullet, a point 22 (I later found some casings on the ground on the upper path) had gone right through the back of my ear and had done almost no damage at all.
The ear healed completely and didn’t even leave a scar. Something I greatly regret as it is almost as if the event never happened. But I have carried scars of a different kind since my childhood and the events leading up to the shooting incident opened wounds that were to fester for many years. Whether or not the shooting was in retaliation for Robin and me attempting to blow up the shooting range, or whether it was in some way connected to The Cadets’ concepts of preventing the likes of me from pursuing my career as an artist, I will never know. But it was more by luck than judgment that Robin did not kill himself in our bid to frustrate The Cadets and it was more luck than Judgement that the small bullet missed anything vital – Tim and I both could have been killed. Looking back on the events after 35 years is a strange experience. It has taken me 35 years to understand the dynamics of how victims become aggressors, how victims are, to a degree, selected for their weakness and how differences such as race, can have a profound impact on how the weak are often convinced of their weakness from an early age.
3. The Reluctant Student
After the shooting, the bullying stopped completely. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps the members of the Cadets had been frightened by their own measures as Robin, Tim and I had been by ours. But, in any event, the Autumn Term seemed to be a new start. And there was too, at the beginning of the Spring Term, a reason to want to wash more frequently. In 1973, the school became co-ed. About twelve girls arrived to start the 6th form A-level course. Mary Bremner, known to all as Mog, was a gentle person with a sharp and incisive mind, she had a smile like Janis Joplin’s and wore small, wire-framed, tinted octagonal glasses. I was far too shy to admit it, but I thought about her constantly. And she seemed to like many of the freaky dope smoking creative people that I liked. There were several occasions when I realised that Mog liked me too but I was utterly ashamed of my body, was still, in all probability, a fairly smelly individual and I’m sure that I was not remotely ready for anything other than friendship. In Mog I found, too, the thoughtful and less aggressive side of humanity that I was used to.
Though I have painted a stark picture of my family, I have not yet mentioned my sister Jenny in any detail or the influence that women have had on my life. My mother was not a particularly maternal woman, in the traditional sense, but I have no doubt that she loved both her children very genuinely. My grandmother, who was very maternal towards her own child and her grandchildren, was not defined much by her anti-Semitism when judged by the qualities of the internal dynamics of her family. Indeed, apart from her occasional outbursts, she rarely mentioned such things when children were present. And my sister, Jenny, has always had a self-deprecating, quiet and unconfrontational approach to life. All three women were, in their own different ways, much gentler than the male world I had inhabited at my schools. My grandfather too was gentle and patient with children and I don’t remember him ever losing his temper with my sister or me. Such an observation on my part might lead one to assume that my stereotyping of gender is, more or less, a similar process to the racial stereo typing I have linked to my childhood experiences. In one respect that is true in that the creation of gender, like the creation of race, has a long history to which we are all complicit to one degree or another. In other words, the functional differences between one sex and another and one race and another, by which I mean the concrete mechanical differences, are overlaid with powerful social distinctions that do not have an independent reality. However, such similarities between gender stereotyping and race stereotyping go only some of the way towards explaining how individuals experience the different worlds of race, gender and sexuality that we all have to navigate. My own fear of male social forms and groups is, in large part, due to feelings of rejection as virtually all white boyhood fictions and realities were, in the 1950s and 60s dominated by white heroes, metaphorically and literally. But there is also the fact that traditional femininity, as represented by my grandmother, mother and sister, was the prevailing hegemony in which I was brought up. The extent to which the male world threatened my equilibrium due to it’s maleness and due to its whiteness – as created societal forces rather than mechanical differences – is thus something I will return to a great deal.
daughter, Lindsey, has remarked on the different ways mixed-race children are
treated in her school. The gender biases evident now, in 2006, are not
dissimilar to those I noticed 35 years ago. My daughter is now about the same
age as I was in 1973. As then, mixed race girls who are half white and half
Asian or oriental, are thought of as ‘hot’. In 2006, they are treated as a
special case; foreign enough to add some exoticism and white enough to be
accessible culturally and (in the minds of many boys) sexually. Lindsey has
noticed that there are wholly Asian girls at her school who are hardly ever
remarked upon by white boys either positively or negatively. It is as if they
don’t exist. When my and Jenny’s characters were being formed by the world
around us, the European, white, Caucasian attitudes to Orientals were ones of
extremes. The British, French, Dutch and other European empires and the Cult of
Orientalism, in the way in which Edward Said explains it in his book,
Orientalism, had produced a defining set of values for Europeans that did not
represent the reality of the cultures being studied but a relative fiction that
fitted the socio-political requirements of the empires themselves. Today, in
2006, we see similar traits in the way in which many people in the
Mention Thailand to many people - and I do, often in response to questions about my ethnicity and often in advance of questions that are inevitable – and the replies are extraordinarily Victorian. Here are a few typical examples that I can remember from the past few years:
· “You have to remember that Thai’s aren’t like us so you can’t expect the same level of conversation.”
· “They have such amazing skin”
· “I expect they really go for you out there, all those little beauties”
· “You could live out there and make a fortune”
· “Thailand, mmm, I expect you know some good recipes”
· “The Tsunami was terrible, a lot of tourists lost everything”
· “Buddhists living rough on the streets don’t suffer because they are enlightened and are happy, I know, because I’ve met the Dalai Lama”
· “You have to admit that Thai men don’t treat their women all that well”
· “Weren’t you lonely spending a month there?”
· “I’ve never thought of you as mixed race, I don’t think of you as anything other than white”
The overall impression one gets from being on the receiving end of these comments on an almost daily basis is not, however, only one of being surrounded by racists but also of being surrounded by fictional characters. In other words, the white, male value system that is perfectly capable of exercising it’s intellectual and emotional and practical capacities in the context of self exploration and self expression becomes incapable of ordinary observation when it comes to the expression of opinion and action concerning women and other races. The positions of non-white men and non-white women within white society and as seen from a distance are not, therefore simply analogous with the positions of white men and white women within white society.
For mixed race girls and boys, growing up in a white society, there are further complexities and differences between how girls and boys are treated and how they self-identify. My sister, Jenny, has often explained how she was not aware of much racism in her childhood and has had few if any racist attacks in adulthood. At home, the differences between how Jenny and I were treated were marked. My mother’s liberal and libertarian side would surface occasionally after reading books and articles by writers such as Betty Friedan, and Germaine Greer but her growing conservatism (she became a convinced Thatcherite, later in life) also made her prone to extolling the virtues of traditional femininity. I think too that my mother’s early life – somewhat of a proto-“it”-girl - had made her wary of too much libertarianism for her daughter. Occasionally my mother would tell me about the wild parties of her youth based in and around a social set that included Clement Freud (a British Liberal, critic and general celebrity), Tony Soper an Ornithologist and Jon Bonner, a farmer and archaeologist. At one time all three were locally and nationally known and represented a glamorous and exciting social opening. It has occurred to me that my mother’s love affair and marriage to my father was perhaps a youthful tilt at her conservative roots and he may have been somewhat of a trophy husband to impress her well-travelled friends. Her attitude to my sister’s upbringing was protective and conservative while her attitude to my upbringing was to be liberal to the point of almost being uncaring. However, I don’t suggest that there was an absence of love, merely a kind of diffidence – as if being “motherly” was too much of a break with her wilder past and too old fashioned to sit easily with her more conservative, but still libertarian, in the atomistic sense, future. My sister was therefore sent to a convent from the age of 10 to 16 and to a finishing school from 16 to 18. Her maternally appointed mission, supported greatly by all the rest of the family, was to be pretty, marriageable and demure.
In practice, the gender differences had been fostered at home in nearly every respect. Jenny was not encouraged to enter into discussions, decisions or physical play. Jenny was reminded often that she must look pretty and ladylike. By the same token, I was reminded often to be Gentlemanly, but also to be rebellious, to ask questions and, something I didn’t take to at all, be more aggressive. I was encouraged to enquiry while Jenny was encouraged to acceptance. I was encouraged to join in while Jenny was encouraged to observe. I was encouraged to explore while Jenny was encouraged to timidity. Though we were treated in very different ways, the outcome for both of us had one thing in common; the world did not react to us in the way that our mother had planned. Jenny did not receive a stream of marriage proposals from the “right type” and I did not become an English Gentleman or dynamic entrepreneur. In other respects, I think we did respond to our upbringing in as much as the essential and overriding value system was to make us into honorary white people within a culture that was predominantly Orientalist in outlook; we both behaved as if we were playing our allotted roles but we both became incapable of either competing with our contemporaries, or of going our own way with confidence, and I believe that such an outcome was almost inevitable.
time I went to
was a child, Bovey Tracey, was a large village on its way to becoming a small
town. Its attitudes were very rural, very English and very white. There were
four non-white residents that I knew of: an Indian Doctor who worked elsewhere
but who would occasionally wave when I passed her house, a mixed race (English
and African-American) knife and saw sharpener who was the result of a liaison
between a local woman and an American GI stationed at Indio when it was
requisitioned during the War and Jenny and me. Non-white faces were a curiosity
and I don’t remember any overt racism directed at me personally in the village
at all. But, as the village grew and new suburbs sprouted here and there, the
atmosphere began to change. Returning from boarding school, I didn’t look much
like I had as a child and people I hadn’t seen for a year or so showed a
hostility that was unlike them until recognition set in. New locals, by which I mean those who had moved into the area from cities,
mostly to retire, looked on me with suspicion in the pub. Tony and Monica – who
looked upon everyone with suspicion until they knew them – were the proprietors
“..we don’t want your sort in here..” Tony said to him,
“..when you’ve lived here as long as Nick, then you can make your point..”
housing boom in the mid-seventies, which has continued in
“In 2002 the
government allowed another two hundred thousand people into the country, plus
several thousand asylum seekers, many of whom are simply economic migrants
living in our country illegally. This adds considerably to our problems,
increasing social tensions and depriving poor third world countries of their
brightest and best. We cannot sustain this increase which compares with a city
the size of
the strongest UKIP area is one that has hardly been affected by immigration and
the vast proportion of economic migrants into Devon has been white people from
other parts of
1973, just 5 years after the Powell speech, with the
Torquay College of Art and Design, life went by uneventfully. But it was a
highly emotional time. The Vietnam War was still raging inspite of attempts at
ending it through the Paris Peace process. Watergate was brewing and Margaret
Thatcher was Minister for Education. For
my generation, the Vietnam War was part of the global background. It had
started the year after I was born and regular news reports from
I have tried hard, in this piece, to separate what I know now from what I knew as a child and as a young adult. In conversations with my mother, which typically involved me asking long and complicated questions and she trying hard to change the subject, did not do much to demystify my father’s place in her life and only served to add conjecture to his place in my life. But, as far as I can remember, this is what I knew at 17:
My father was from an aristocratic Thai family that
were distant cousins of the Thai Royal Family, related by marriage. As a young
man he had been prone to fits of rage and once threatened my mother with a
knife. He was charming and unreliable, he was able yet unfocused. He and my
mother had met while they were both studying at a technical college in
As well as the Vietnam War, there were other world events that made me even less happy with my position as an honorary white boy.
In the British House of Commons
the Trade and Industry Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Expenditure
proposes an inquiry “To investigate how far wages and conditions of employment
of African workers employed by British companies in
History of South Africa Website
In 1973, a wave of strikes by black workers was unsettling governments around the world who were worried about the possibility of rising (slave) labour costs of their South African Investments.
The British government publishes in Trade and Industry, guidelines for
British companies operating in
History of South Africa Website
Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 was often reported and referred to in British
media and the unrest of the early 1970’s prompted several retrospectives on
radio and television. Grandfather hated
unions and was not willing or able to think that black people had any rights as
employees at all, thinking they were “..like children
who need a firm but fair hand..” His admiration of non-unionised
free-collective bargaining in the
With my sister away, Ed, my mother and me fell into an evening routine that was good for conversation. I noticed that my mother’s views tended to become more liberal and less right wing in the face of Ed’s expression of his love of empire, hatred of the Irish and general colonial attitude. It was as if her opinions, subsumed by her father then modified by her second husband were again going into rebel mode. As a result their relationship seemed to suffer and I think Ed blamed me somewhat for that. I also recognised that one’s own true beliefs are often held in check in a bid not to upset others and then become more extreme in response to being held back – much like my own apologist’s attitude to Powell.
and I also spent more time together in conversation. But we tended to avoid
politics and talked more about his early life and his plans for the future. He
had had several heart attacks and was convalescing at home. He was very
concerned that Ed should not benefit financially if he should die. It’s worth
now explaining the dynamics that existed at
You might have had the impression that Ed and I didn’t get along but that was very far from the truth. In many respects he was extremely kind and thoughtful and was, I think, doing his best to make amends for a previously disastrous marriage to his first wife and for his distant relationship with his son, also called Nick, who would visit from time to time. Ed was a good father figure in many ways; he tried to teach me the value of being stoical, tough, logical, hard working and decisive. I was, at that time, none of those things. We also both had a passion for cars and motor racing. He had a dog, a Staffordshire Bull-Terrier called Brutus, and evening walks were always of interest. Ed was an engineer and a talented designer. He could draw beautifully, had a very genuine sense about what constituted good design and was open to many other arts such as music and literature. So we always had a number of non-contentious topics to pursue. But, like my mother, he was not particularly tactile as a father and so both parents seemed somewhat distant to me. But even if the feuds between family members made any feeling of belonging difficult, I did not feel unloved or un-cared-for, it was more a feeling of not being appreciated, not being taken seriously, not belonging and not being encouraged to feel I had a place in the world. Naturally, one can’t choose one’s family and there are plenty of people who suffer from a sense of not belonging. For me, though, there was not one institution, not one member of my family and not one personal friend who was able to offer support, advice or comfort concerning my problems with my position as a non-white person in a very white world. Indeed, even to this day, if I bring up this subject with old friends, they say that they have never thought of me as not being white or as suffering from prejudice. I always take the comment in good heart but, equally, feel uneasy that people can know me so well without realising how my situation could often make life much more difficult than it otherwise would have been.
My early days as a student were, then, hampered by a tremendous feeling of otherness, of not belonging, of not being acceptable and of not being allowed to express myself in my own way. My work at Torquay College of Art was unremarkable, derivative and heartless. Not because I had no talent, but because my heart wasn’t in it. I was a reluctant student. I found authority figures, however well meaning and kind, difficult to deal with and felt hugely rebellious but could not find a place within myself to allow any independence of action that meant anything to me. The bravado that had emerged at Bryanston had only one focus and that was not particularly constructive; driving very fast at every conceivable opportunity.
many boys, I was mad about cars from an early age. It was rumoured (but turned
out to be untrue) that my Thai family was related to Prince Bira, the only
notable grand prix driver of his era to come from
the opinion that women and black people were terrible drivers and, to this day,
opportunities in motor racing for non-white people are limited to work behind
the scenes. So even though I was encouraged by Ed, on a personal level, I was
also aware that the encouragement was at odds with his general opinion that the
English in particular and white people in general, were the best drivers. Even
the Japanese giants of the global motor industry have had few non-Caucasian
drivers in International motor racing. In my teens I had attempted to enter
motor racing through karting and, though Ed was very supportive in that regard,
the conversations in the race paddock were so soaked in racist and sexist
‘humour’ that I lacked the confidence to continue. My mother’s worry about
safety, though completely understandable on her part, was the final straw for
me in that endeavour. One of the ways in which both racism and sexism (and any
other prejudice for that matter) works is to produce feelings of failure, in
the victims, that are not able to be overcome by expectations of success. I
have never thought that I have failed because of my colour, but I have often
felt that I have not attempted to succeed because of my expectation that my
success would not be allowed and that I did not have the wherewithal to
overcome those hurdles. Under-representation of women and minorities in all
sorts of areas of life is thus, in my view, not only due institutional biases
but also to biases residing in the victims themselves. For white people in
Growing up in the atmosphere I have described produced an acute sense of isolation that did not abate as I grew older and it is something I still feel to this day; seeing all around me people that seemed to belong, while I was being treated as a curiosity, reinforced feelings of apartness and difference that often led to the most surreal conversations. For not only does difference produce a great inquisitiveness in others, it has the effect of others not being able to hear what one says; so strong is their idea of one’s difference that information to the contrary doesn’t sink in. Most non-white people are used to the question “where are you from?” It is a natural question and does not, in itself, come across as a racist remark if asked in a genuine and friendly manner. But 30 years ago, many people were astounded if one replied in Standard English. On a regular basis, I used to have this conversation (often interspersed with other usual pleasantries) when meeting someone new:
Stranger: “Where are you from?”
Stranger: “No, where are you really from?”
Me: “Well, my father
Stranger: (after a pause) “Your English is very good!”
Me: “Thank you, but I have lived here all my life, so it’s not surprising.”
Stranger: (another pause) “Still, it is very good…”
Me: “Thanks again, but I was born here, so…”
Stranger: “Yes, but English is quite a difficult language if.. you know..”
Me: “So, where are you from?”
Me: (trying to make light of the situation, with humour) “Your English is very good too.”
Stranger: “Are you taking the piss?” (walks off)
These days, such conversations are very rare as people have become used to hearing non-white people speak in Standard English. Naturally, over the years I have tried to explain my situation as gently and as politely as possible but after countless attempts, I don’t remember a version of my response that did not lead to some measure of confusion or hostility. Such conversations, and many others like them concerning my racial characteristics and my identity, have had a profound effect on my ability to trust my own sense of self; when one’s intellect becomes a source of amazement or disbelief in the eyes of others, and when doubt is expressed by large numbers of people (in my youth, the majority of people but now around 25%), about the clarity of one’s thought processes, the use of one’s language and the trustworthiness of one’s intentions, then it is no wonder that one’s confidence as a person is hugely diminished.
On many occasions, perhaps more now than in my youth, I find myself seeing the world as a Kafka-esque dream. In many situations individuals and institutions react very badly to a non-white person displaying intelligence. Often such individuals and institutions are, it seems to me, setting out to ensure that contributions made by non-white people are subsumed, appropriated or belittled. I think I could have coped over the years if those closest to me had not been, often, the worst offenders. That there was no one else to turn to, to compare notes with, to seek advice from or to simply provide emotional support, made life very difficult.
In the feature film “Far From
Heaven”, set in 1957, a middle-aged black man, Raymond, takes a white woman,
Cathy, to his local bar on the black side of town so that she can experience
what it is like to be the “only one in the room”. Previously, he had caused a
stir as the only black man in an art gallery on the white side of town. Being
Nick Nakorn, 9 June to 20 July