In 1970s, whilst growing up as a child in Brighton, I knew little of politics or conflict in the outside world. It was not that I was sheltered or without a thirst for learning. By the age of nine I could identify most of the flags in the world and could probably tell you where countries were as well as their Capitals. I had an insatiable desire to understand what lay beyond the borders of my existence. There were good reasons for this, and my experience of refugees and immigrants in Brighton was most of them.
A very good friend of mine, in fact thinking about it, two friends of mine are from Ghana. This former British colony on the west coast of Africa has always been a subject of fascination to me long before I met these folk. The reason for this was a mischievous little boy I made friends with whilst I was at school in 1976.
Fidel was Ghanaian, possibly a refugee, and we quickly became friends. But this friendship wasn’t greeted well in every quarter. It was once suggested to me, as a child, that ‘If you see the white in a black man’s eye you should run’. This term was probably a hang over from the deeper colonial days. Sadly I grew up with a deep suspicion, inherited, and not born of experience. My view of racism is that it is inherited or formed from isolated and traumatic experience. I once challenged a South African friend to tell me why he had such a poor attitude towards black people- had he had a traumatic experience at someone’s hand ? “Yes”, he told me, “I was held up at gunpoint”. My view is that is better to engage than judge. We then had a long conversation and his thinking seem to be altered. We are all shaped by our experiences in some way, and it takes a long time to offload them. Coming back to Fidel, he wasn’t around for long I seem to remember, but it set me on such a journey for knowledge beyond my sphere that I often recount it to others.
A couple of years later, whilst in Junior School, I made a new friend. He was born in Santiago and came to England when he was at a very young age. All I knew was that he was a refugee. Apart from that the details are sketchy, except that in later life, when remembering this time, I realised that the Pinochet regime was the most likely cause of us crossing paths. I know, like kids do, we went round each other’s houses for tea. I met his parents and would have asked them all about the country of Chile. It was learning, it was food for my inquisitive nature. Around the same time my Mum, a childminder by occupation, looked after a little baby called Manaz, the daughter of a Sudanese exile. And as I grow older so the stories keep coming- but it hasn’t made me a lifelong campaigner for the rights of refugees, despite being well versed in the work of the Refugee Council, and it hasn’t made me donate lots of money to organisations that support them. Possibly for the same reasons as many others.
When I first saw the image of the Syrian child laying lifeless on a Turkish beach this week I was genuinely shocked. But frustration would probably be a better word. There are many images coming out of Syria and other places that show the corpses of children. And they have been doing so for many years. But our news is our world. We rarely see them, unless we take an interest in international affairs. Even if we do, the feeling of helplessness that ensues, and complexities of the environment that those people inhabit, causes our minds to turn away to something far easier to digest. I completely understand this pattern of behaviour, If I didn’t I would be a hypocrite.
Despite having been a keen subscriber to the ideology that our village is our world, I often feel snug away from the upheavals and turmoil of existence in other places. Apart from a mild piece of outrage at an incident that might merit three minutes on the BBC news, or indeed a picture such as published this week, I don’t really think or react to them much. But I wish such injustice didn’t happen, naturally. I just find myself rapped up in dramas of my own- the changes to my local bus route for example, or the fact that I can’t afford a season ticket for the Albion this year. I doubt whether I am alone. Concern and sacrifice are rarely bedfellows.
My thoughts on the events of this week, the change in media rhetoric, the promise of action from our Government, are not as hopeful as those of others. This is because we live in a society that has a subtext of influence that comes from a micro group of its whole. Granted, I suspect this crisis will not disappear easily- certainly not for those who are being forced into action in its dealing. But the public view of these events afar will be influenced by the reporting of them- and I wonder how conciliatory those headlines will remain. Seeing some of the newspapers under right-wing ownership, and we know their views on migrants (I deliberately use that word, even though it is not the right term, as it is their word) this week has caused me confusion. This change in tone is to dramatic to be permanent, and my hope that this graphic and so heart rendering would bring about a new view of our responsibilities to the outer world may seem to have been realised, yet my doubts remain.
As a child I was excited by flags and the names of countries. I even learnt the population figures. But for me countries were just defined by lines on a map, not a lot different to all the county borders that I learnt around that time. I thought that travelling from one place to another was as simple as boarding a plane, a boat, or catching a bus. In my mind Chile was no further than Chichester, Ghana no further than Glynde. It was just a place that practicalities suggested that I wouldn’t visit until I was older. To me there was no such thing as a foreigner; there were people from the other side of the wardrobe that I just hadn’t met yet. There was no division of opinion, everyone was the same, some were clearly more fortunate than others- I learnt that at a young age. Such a view was probably similar to that of the small boy that we saw this week, and feel we know so well.
A crisis such as this will always be dealt with through the suspicious eyes of tribal affiliation, however sad we are to see its outworking. I remember seeing a very articulate Nigerian girl being interviewed in Italy after having been safely brought in from a dangerous Mediterranean vessel. A British interviewer asked her where she wanted to go. The answer was the UK, for an education, a job, and a better life. Not an unreasonable ambition- not to me anyway. She was then asked what she thought of the hostility that some folk in Britain felt towards her dream. “I don’t understand (it)” she replied. Well that’s it really, because the seven year old me didn’t understand it either, and I don’t now. Neither did that little boy laying dead on that beach in Turkey.
It’s easy for us all to share his gruesome end with a click and a comment of sorrow and horror.
So what will be his legacy ?
Nostalgia hasn’t had its day, and even the most mundane of places can become a home of many a special reflection. For me the Isle of Wight, as a child, was a place of magic, for it gave open season to all the simplest pleasures that growing up in 1970s afforded us.
Returning to the island, just for a short afternoon, gave platform to some of those cherished memories, even if the island afforded somewhat less appeal to me now.
I had put out a call to those this technological age attaches me to, and some very kind folk, who clearly have similar memories themselves, made some very helpful suggestions. I soon realised that my problem was that the restrictions on the usage of trains, and other considerations, meant that I eventually had little time to consider these well-meaning encouragements. But, rather than put the whole idea of visiting on the back burner and wait for more available time, I decided to head across the water for an afternoon in Shanklin, the epicentre of those 70s holidays, and re-trace some of my old steps.
I arrived in Portsmouth, that much maligned city, for the first time in many a year. It struck me how modern the harbour is-even drawing comparisons with my time spent in Sydney. The re-development has given the coastal area a cosmopolitan feel, and a general impression of real prospect.
Boarding the catamaran, I realised how many years ago the boat to the Island always seemed to be a longer journey than it was, but nowadays the crossing takes 20 minutes to reach the Ryde-Pier Head, striding the busy Solent with speed and ease.
The first thing I looked forward to was seeing the old underground train churning its way up the Pier to collect the new arrivals. Here nothing seems to have changed. The old seats and the wooden window frames provide the first indications of a place that cares little for its time-warped reputation. The journey to Shanklin taking 24 minutes, and offering little indication of an Island that wants to keep up with the Jones’s.
On arrival in Shanklin, I set out to re-trace some old steps. As I took a short walk to the old holiday house we used to rent a flat in, I wondered how the younger people on the Island saw their lot. The sense of the pace of life in the area does not make one feel at all engaging, everyone just seemed to be quietly doing their own thing, and there seemed to be a dearth of twenty to thirty somethings on my long walk through the town. A look at the Island demography suggests the it has a greater proportion of older residents (aged 65 plus) and fewer younger people (those aged 0-14 years) than anywhere else in England and Wales.
So, flushing in my comparative youth, I made my way and headed for the Old Village. Although I hadn’t been to the area since, I think, 1988, I instantly recognised some of the features. The old Methodist church we attended on Sundays, the winding High Street, and then eventually the Old Village itself that looks as if it has been fully extracted and re-produced in physical illustration from Hansel and Gretel-some of the cottages looking like novelty creations from Forfars.
Before I made my way down through the Chime, a somewhat over-hyped creation with exotic plant infusions added to a natural gorge and waterfall, I headed further on to the recreation ground we used to frequent in the evenings, for a pleasant journeys rest. This large area of green was beautifully vacant and felt as though it had been specially cordoned off for my visit. It didn’t seem any smaller than it did in my childhood, as places re-visited often do, and the warm afternoon left me comfortably alone with the philosophical thoughts that the daily grind leaves us such little time to entertain. After about half an hour, wanting a walk along the beach I headed towards the Chime.
Now as unkind as my previous analogy concerning the Chine may have sounded, I have known less appealing features, and the location is well maintained and provides a distracting alternative to the standard and quintessentially English promenade that waits below. Having taken a quick look at the gardens above, I paid the £4 due and took a stroll down the winding steps and through the pseudo-Amazonian creation below. There were few people on the walking trail, so once again Shanklin had unwittingly afforded me an elevated status.
Shanklin promenade could be a scene from many a provincial coastal settlement. I have little memories of days spent on the beach in the town, and there was nothing in sight that I recognised. I wondered whether this may have been because of the uneventful nature of the place, or perhaps my subsequent research that showed the pier, a once defining feature, was demolished over twenty years ago. The half mile or so walk was populated by an almost exclusively elderly clientele, most of which I assume were tourists, but in all consideration may have been locals too.
As I made my way back to the station I saw the town from my current perspective and humorously asserted in my thoughts that I was probably too young for the place. That said, being the seasoned rambler that I am, and having banished the happiness, and the disappointment, of nostalgia from my system, the thought of walking from one side of the Island to another gave much appeal. I sense I shall return soon-but Shanklin may have another long wait.