Thursday, 3 November 2011

Room To Let. Not For You Though.

My first experience of what we nowadays refer to as racism was as a young boy of 11 years old. I was living with foster parents in South London. These particular foster parents also took in lodgers to supplement their income. The advertising method they employed to attract potential lodgers was a notice in the front window. Hastily scrawled, it was succinct, straight to the point:

                                                 ROOM TO LET
                                                 NO COLOURED
                                                 NO IRISH.

The no Irish part of the notice, had been crossed out, but was still quite plain for anyone to read.
Looking back on it today, I think that is a good indicator of my foster parents total lack of concern for anyone's feelings. The thought that Irish people might still be upset by the notice, never entered their minds. Or maybe it did enter their minds, and they were happy to cause offence. I don't know. I cannot comment on that aspect of their natures. Although she, the foster mother, was a wicked, vindictive person. I can vouch for that.

Herne Hill, South London, 1950's.
Eventually, when the sun had faded the sign so it was barely legible, another notice was put in the window. All reference to the Irish was removed this time. Oh you lucky Irish people! You now have the right to take up lodgings in this house. You are indeed honoured. However, if you are a black Irish person, then sorry, this dismal, boiled cabbage smelling, dirty, rundown hovel, will still not accept you. You will not enjoy the luxury of a filthy mattress on the floor, no matter how desperate you are for shelter.

It was commonplace, this bigotry, in the 1950's and 60's. I cannot recall the word racist being used, when I was a boy. Maybe because there was no call for the word. People used the words, nigger or coon, or wog, or any number of unpleasant derivatives when describing black people, and they used them without compunction. As I write them down here, I feel the wrongness of them. It is literally affecting my stomach. How must it feel to be a black person on the receiving end of such bile?

If I had been a saint in my time, I would be able to tell you I am without guilt in these matters. But alas I am not saintly. Racist remarks have been uttered by me on occasion. Racist thoughts have entered my mind.
It is difficult to change the way we were brought up to be. To change the way we think about things. Seeing things change around us can be difficult too, especially when it involves cultural changes. Changes to things we know and value. It is difficult, but I shall continue to do my best. I have no wish to be lumped in with the bigots who blighted my childhood.

At this stage, I was going to tell you about some of the black and Asian people who have influenced my life, but it has struck me that it would be, and sound, extremely patronising. So I will not do it. Except to tell you this; something my Mother told me. I would not be here, were it not for the fact, that when I was just a few months old, a black doctor saved my life.

I wonder how many doors he was turned away from?


  1. You're right about the prevalence of racism and racist thinking in the early part of our country in the 20th century. It is not as commonplace or overt now, but we're kidding ourselves if we think it's been conquered. It is indeed much, much better than it had been but we still had a long way to go. Good that you posted these comments of yours; reminds us of our national past.

  2. It is a shameful thing, bigotry. I remember hearing some of the words you said when I was a child. I grew up in a rural area where there were only a handful of very white nationalities and Native Americans, who were treated with much bigotry also. I remember when they began integrating schools in the South. There was a handful of very small children who were to go to a previously all-white school. It was all over the news at the time. AND GROWN-UPS WERE THROWING ROCKS AT THEM! My mind, the mind of a child, could not understand how a grown-up could do something like that to a little kid. Now 50 years later, I still don't understand.

  3. Glad most folks have change the way they look at others, but only most folks. Even in Malaysia, the racist thing is still there but in a quiet manner. I could still feel racist exist but folks just don't talk out loud about it. They knew it is wrong but can't help feeling that way. Oh my. Let's hope tomorrow will be a better day.

  4. I think I'm lucky that where I live most outward racism was stopped when I was very young. It's still around, but most people don't act that way out in the open anymore. I've still seen racism from and toward all different kinds of people. I'm glad I never had to witness the worst of it.

  5. It's nice to know that most people have let go of that way of thinking.

  6. Very good post John. My dad was a bit of a racist but as kids we laughed at his jokes. Now they disgust me. I'm glad that in one generation I have learned the difference.

  7. Ooooh, sorry I'm late. I'm catching up now and starting with your interesting and truthful post. Yes, I'm pleased that those days are behind us... maybe not quite in some areas but give it time. Those old foster parents of yours deserve to be horsewhipped. I've never been racist and oh boy was I glad when an Asian lady rushed across the road from her house to save my son from falling out of his pram.

  8. Love the new header, by the way.

  9. I believe that racist people are ignorant and heartless. Sadly though our upbringing, society, media and some experiences influence our thought processes. Thanks for sharing your insights to a real problem.

  10. Great post, John, although sad that societies everywhere have to grow through that (hopefully they do, but not always).

    Since we are a multi-racial family, I got nothing to add.

  11. Em fas pena aquest cavall amb els ulls tapats , pobret !
    Salutacions des de Catalunya . Anna