Fear and loathing in England

I don’t know how to put this – I’ll just have to blurt it out.

I have an instinctive reaction to certain people. A reaction that is nothing to do with my head, everything to do with the environment in which I grew up.

Once, long ago, I would have called these people Pakistanis, but in reality many of them are from India or Bangladesh.

And the reaction?

I hold my breath.

There, I said it. I hold my breath.

Well, I don’t actually hold my breath any more, but the impulse still lurks beneath the surface. I still notice it, have to suppress it.

And it saddens me, because I know it means I see these people as different, still, after all this time.

I grew up in two northern mill towns – Blackburn in Lancashire, Bradford in Yorkshire.

The mills drew immigrants from far and wide. From places suffering war, Communist oppression, or poverty. From parts of the Empire where people had British passports.

The textile industry (cotton in Lancashire, wool in Yorkshire) was actually declining, but with the introduction of twenty-four hour working labour was in short supply because women weren’t allowed to do night shifts.

I don’t remember much about industrial Blackburn. We lived near a park, down the road from the school where my father taught – his stepmother lived in the ‘Mill Hill’ district, but I rarely visited.

Bradford was different. I’ve recounted elsewhere my fondness for the first place we lived when we moved there, the excitement of walking past the greatest mill in the city on my way to school.

There my class was full of girls and boys from Polish, Czechoslovakian and Ukrainian origin – but no-one from Pakistan or India.

I grew up in an all white context in a city that was becoming more Asian every year. And where there was fear.

Ignorance and fear.

Fear of the unknown.

Fear of turbans, of curries, of unemployment. But also, fear of disease.

My parents grew up in a world without a National Health Service and antibiotics. The NHS changed their world – that of all British citizens – for the better in 1948. But all their lives they were careful in a way you are if you’ve had to pay for your care and, more importantly, there’s no penicillin. Where an innocent scratch, infected, could kill you.

So we’d scrub at our grazed knees, bathe them with Dettol diluted in water. Slurp cough medicine and inhale Vick’s vapour rub.

Health was a big concern in everyone’s life.

So, now, bring in the immigrants.

Bring in the smallpox.

Bring in the TB.

Beginning to get the idea?

In 1962, before we’d arrived, there was a smallpox outbreak in Bradford. The innocent carrier of this terrifying disease was a child recently arrived from Pakistan. By the time it was confirmed that it was smallpox, doctors and nurses were potential risks and confined to their hospitals, which were closed. Even the convalescent hospital (those were the days) was closed.

More than 280,000 people were vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the isolation hospital – yes, there were such things – was staffed and extra beds added.

It was contained.

But the TB was not contained.

I had no idea what TB was, just knew that you didn’t want to breathe near anyone who had it. Which is why, when our school caretaker was carted off to – yes, the isolation hospital – we used to dare each other to run in and out of the cellar where he’d stoked the boiler for our heating.

I checked up on the TB situation in Bradford in the 1960s. Sure enough, it was worst among the Asian population.

So, everyone worried.

We had smallpox inoculations, polio jabs, BCGs. We were vaccinated against whooping cough and diphtheria. But not everyone was – and anyway, there were other things. Even when I was little (not that long ago) houses were still put into quarantine if a child had scarlet fever, or the one concerned sent to that famous isolation hospital.

The isolation hospital.

And I knew where it was.

I knew that people in there had the dreaded TB. Might have smallpox for all I knew.

Every time we drove past it I held my breath for as long as I possibly could.

And when I began to see Asians in the street… well, it’s logical, isn’t it? To a child.

So here I am, a liberal middle class white person with absolutely no intention to be racist – yet I have an instinctive impulse to hold my breath every time I see an Asian.

And all because of fear.

So why am I fessing up now?

Well, what is the British government doing now? Exploiting fear.

Sending out texts to tell people they’re not wanted here.

Go home you sponging, thieving, home-hogging, benefit scrounging, immigrant. Illegal probably. Go on, go home.

Civil war?


Abject poverty?

So what, you’re used to it. Go on, get back where you belong.

And it’s popular. Heaven help us, it’s popular.

What happened to human beings?

I could understand it if we were all getting smallpox, or if immigrants really were benefit scroungers. But that’s not what the statistics say. Then, who the hell cares about the facts when they need a scapegoat? That’s why one of the whitest constituencies in the country elected a BNP man to the European parliament. The shame of it. The place where I live. Where poverty is real, but still relative.

And so. People whose lives are so much harder, poorer, shorter than ours scrimp and save and scrounge and cram into unsafe boats, leaving their homes in Africa, only to arrive in a Europe that doesn’t want them – or to die in the sea before they even get here.

What was that, Mister Scrooge?

Ah, yes.

‘If they would rather die,’ he said, ‘they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.

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6 Responses to Fear and loathing in England

  1. Thel says:

    Wow, Lou you put it out there! It brought back memories. My mother had TB as a young teenager and spent a year in a sanatorium in the 1920s. She received no visits from her Mom, Dad or five sisters. The fear was so great. It was there that she became an avid reader and learned to play bridge with other patients. Her favorite books were Heidi and The Secret Garden.

    I imagine that she and her family felt like outcasts.

    The term “tuberculosis” was never spoken in my family as it pertained to my mother’s previous illness. Her diagnosis was kept a secret from my brother and me until shortly before her death.

    Fear and shame. –Thel


    • Golly, Thel. I think I would have got on with your mum. I adored Heidi – I remember reading about the ‘soft white bread’ her grandfather craved – no idea at that age that our bread was soft and white too! And the Secret Garden – oh, I loved it, and the Little Princess by the same author even more so. But I am really touched to read what you say about your mum. A year in isolation – like What Katy Did but worse. I was moved when I read some reports of children who had been in Bradford’s isolation hospital – care but no hugs as one of them put it. Their parents could see them through a window and hand over comics and so on but not touch them or talk to them. It’s a bit like the immminent threat of nuclear annihilation in the 60s and 70s – if you didn’t live through the worst of it how can you convey what it was like? Anyway, I’m blathering. Thanks again for commenting. Anthro man says your mum made great crab cakes too, by the way. Lou xxx


  2. John Kemp says:

    Hello Mary. When I was still working in Malawi, I became friendly with a group of young Peace Corps workers. One day, late in the afternoon, i was driving up the hill into the little town of Zomba (6 shops and 2 streets), then the capital, and there were crowds walking or cycling along the roadside at the end of the working day. Just in front there was someone on a little motorbike, just another of the crowd, tootling up the hill, but as I passed him I realised he wasn’t just another black Malawian, he was Willie Savage, one of the PC. It was like the change as you rotate a kaleidoscope, one minute he was just another black Malawian along the roadside, next, in a flash he wasn’t, he was black, but he was one of us, a really nice guy.


    • Yes, exactly! In fact, very like my post about the lip pencil of invisibility – we don’t do it on purpose, it just happens. Maybe our brains have to do it – categorise as likely or less likely to know us individuals – in order to stop us going into frenzies of madness individually checking out each and every person we see – but then, the old lady invisibility thing works with old ladies not seeing other old ladies too…. a very interesting avenue to pursue if uncomfortable.


  3. charliebritten says:

    Thank you for your honesty. I also grew up in the 1960s in a city where Asians gravitated and I understand exactly how you instinctively feel, how you know it’s wrong, and the battle that goes on inside you. But you know the people who help me overcome these feelings are the waiters at my local takeaway, my Bengali colleague and other individuals who I have to know and respect on a personal basis.


    • I’m surprised how many people have NOT been shocked at this – and glad for my own selfish sake… I am sure if I knew lots of Asian people it would wear down my instinctive reactions but at the moment I am living in one of the whitest places I have ever lived. Interesting, though, that I spend a lot of time in Africa with black Africans and usually when I get to the airport on the way honme I find myself looking at white folk as if they are mutants (well, we are). Perhaps I should visit India! Thanks for reading Charlie.


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