Do you remember learning to swim? I do. The swimming baths were in Thornton (where the Brontes were born), on the outskirts of Bradford, in Yorkshire.
Victorian, smallish, they’re probably knocked down now, or derelict.
Little, swing-door changing rooms ran around the perimeter. You changed into your cossie, left your clothes in your cubicle and were right there on the pool side.
Mr Whitely, who stood on the side, had a long wooden stick with a cup shaped thing on the end. You could grab it as you sank in a panic when ‘just relax and float on your back’ didn’t quite work.
It was cold, the water, and far too much of it ended up my nose.
When I told Anthro-man about the club I’d belonged to when I learnt to swim, his reaction was a bit like mine to that chlorinated cold water – a major snort and gulp, followed by choking noises.
Because I was a member … wait for it … of the Nig Nog club.
I never really understood why it was called that but now, thanks to Jeremy Clarkson, I do.
Jeremy Clarkson, for those of you who have never had the misfortune to watch Top Gear, is a TV presenter.
A man, obvs. Who loves cars.
And he’s not exactly right-on. Nowhere near as offensive as Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times, mind, but foot features in mouth rather often.
So you’d not expect me to like him loads, would you?
But I found myself standing up for him this morning over the weekend papers.
‘Go on then,’ I said, ‘ you find another word for it in eeny meeny miny. Or in [n-word] in the woodpile, for that matter.’
I guess I’ve never used that word since about 1965.
Not even when I want to describe the perfect shade of brown, when it comes, unbidden, to my head, but remains unspoken.
We all, as children, pick up terms and use them without knowing why or whence they arose. Naturally.
No-one around me used the n-word to refer to black (which we couldn’t say then) people – so I never connected the two.
And in some vague way as I grew older I thought that it was a reference to a murky river. The Niger, probably, in the French pronunciation.
After all my mum loved eau-de-nil and that was OK. (People, I thought it was eau-de- ‘Nile’.)
There were other insidious influences at work, too.
One of my favourite children’s books is sitting here beside me as I type. I lent it to a younger friend who also suffered a snort and choke as if on chlorinated water.
I wrapped it in brown cardboard so she needn’t risk being seen in the open with it.
‘Little Black Sambo.’
The book was originally published in 1899. My version was a reprint from 1959. With embellishments in biro. (Who, me?) (Did you see me?)
Meanwhile, in adult fiction, Agatha Christie, wrote, in 1939, of ‘Ten Little Nigger Boys’ – a murder set on ‘Nigger Island’ in Devon.
So why am I telling you all this?
Well, the rhyme about ‘ten little nigger boys’, the book about ‘Little Black Sambo’, the n-in the woodpile, the colour n-brown, eeny meeny mino mo catch a [n] by the toe are all there, in my head. Have been for more (OK, quite a bit more) than forty years.
Whatever happens, they are there forever.
When I get dementia I’ll no doubt chat about them to shocked young Nigerian nurses, all unknowing I’m being racist.
I might even ask for some of those white paper ring things they used to use for strengthening holes punched in paper to mend my golliwog’s eyes …
But back to the J Clarkson n-word episode.
I reckoned he was just reciting it and the word came instinctively – he didn’t do it on purpose.
And now I’ve watched the apology video. (He was abjectly, over the top-ly, sorry.)
The biog online says he was born in 1960. So, it’s possible he had the instinct ingrained, like me.
I’ll never know – and I don’t really care.
But while I wholeheartedly believe we shouldn’t call black people n-words, I was a little bit upset about the Nig Nog Club.
I never could work out why it should be called something that was racist.
So, thanks to J Clarkson, I looked it up online.
And – guess what? It was all totally innocent. Hooray!
First, there were Nig Nog clubs in the north east of England (with characters called Nig and Nog apparently) and then it spread to Bradford.
The local paper, the Telegraph and Argus, promoted Nig Nog clubs to encourage children to cycle and swim. Like me.
And to cap it all off nicely, the Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition:
‘A foolish person; a raw and unskilled recruit.’
What a relief. That’s little me.