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