Friday 2 October 2020

Diverse communities, and lifelong 'mateship'

To mark National Inclusion Week 2020, I thought I would do something. To be honest, I was reticent, and might have titled this post 'feel the awkwardness, but do it anyway' especially as a white, middle-aged, middle-class hetero bloke. On reflection, I don't think I need to feel this way. I'm going to describe a bit of my background, before focusing on some of the most significant lifelong friendships I've gravitated towards, and incidents that define who I am in the deepest possible way. The recurring theme is one resonating with the Australian concept of 'mateship'. 

Please, don't place me on a pedestal! 

I'm of Austrian-Hungarian descent, first generation British. My father was a refugee who escaped the Hungarian civil war in the 1950s. My mother, a true cosmopolitan, moved here in the early 1960s. Myth has it they met outside the Polish deli in Ealing Broadway and my dad persuaded her to bunk off college for the afternoon... I grew up in the leafy suburbs in 1970s-post-Enoch Powell London. Our neighbours and 'friends' were always quick to point out our foreign heritage; to be honest, sometimes you might have felt it was the 1870s. For me, a lot of name-calling, any excuse to be preyed on, at school and in the scouts. On hot summers when my skin was suitably tanned, I even got called the P-word! I since Anglicised the pronounciation of my surname. 

My primary school was predominantly white, we had a bus of kids from Southall join us every day. One day, my teacher had the bright idea to do a multi-cultural event. I got roped in, without consultation. I had to write a page about who I was and what my background was. People who know me know I have little problem writing a proverbial 'War and Peace', but this was the most awkward thing I'd ever done. 'Hi, I'm Robert, I'm different from you...' Especially when a lot of kids' older brothers were active members of the highly-toxic National Front. It blew over, but subsequently I went as far away for high school as I could, down to Southall in fact! 

The Indian connection

When I was very young, I did not know what it meant to be of one nationality or another. I often played with Ranjit round the corner. 'Ranjeeee!' I would shriek on arrival as was typical went you went round your mate's houses - no phones or even doorbells were necessary. In the early days, we did the usual boys things like ride bikes and climb walls. A bit older and we both got into electronics and built amplifiers and things. Ranj built an entire PA system c/w bass bins that I used to borrow (think Brixton sound systems in the height of Reggae). He got into DJing and I into rock music, but we would occasionally jam - I would blast my guitar over the electronic music of the day, generally annoying all the neighbours with the racket. 

A few years later, William C, 20 years our senior, from Northern India - we met in the pub, Will befriended our gang; we shared good times and drinking. Also a sharing of new experiences - us getting him into heavy metal, him getting us properly into Indian food, Krishnamurti, the art of discussion and enquiry. I visited his extended family in India - unbeknown to me, he told them to 'treat me as family'. Will was, in every respect, an uncle or older brother. 

Balvinder J is my sister's best friend, godparents to each other's kids. This friendship spans the decades, so much so that we are considered family and can call Bal's fairly conservative parents 'Mamaji' and 'Papaji'. Bal taught me to cook Indian properly, completing my education in this respect! 

The theatrical connection

Many of you will know about my musical exploits. I'll relay one story from my time in my first apartment, recently moved into with my new wife. Neighbours Robin and Des were a couple, into bikes, 60s and 70s rock. Des sang in a local pub band. We would often meet their friend Alex, owner of a local hair salon, and guitarist of some acclaim. Alex liked to dress up at the weekends. We must have looked a sight - me young lad in my 20s with long hair and a pint, Alex c. 55 in a little frock, longish silver hair, red sparkly high-heels and a G&T, huddled in a corner. You would never in a million years guess we were intensely discussing Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Marshall amplifiers and the merits of different types of guitar strings. Good times, good mates. It just was. 

The allotment connection

My parents always had an allotment at the back. When I was young, the allotment society was run by a bunch of cliquey cretins who disliked the idea of foreigners having an allotment, and disliked the idea of foreigners living near them full stop.

Fast-forward to now, Bal J is now the allotment treasurer, a first generation Indian Jacob M is plot manager and it is truly the most open and multi-cultural environment you can imagine! We've got English, Welsh, Austro-Hungarian (of course), Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Guayanan, Polish, Latvian, Serbian and probably more. Everyone shares their surplus - people do this on allotments anyway. We have a jolly knees up a couple of times a year. In my view, the society is a beacon in the community, and all the local counsellors and local MP visit frequently.