As a skive from real work today I was booked into a diversity training course. We didn’t have diversity when I was at school. Or rather we did, but we didn’t know about it.
There were precisely two black children at my school, out of 1300 pupils. There was one black child at primary. Also at primary there were two sisters, called Miriam and Rebecca who had very sallow skin and dark hair and like their parents, kept themselves very much to themselves in rooms sectioned off from a friend’s grandmother’s terraced house. I went there just once. It was mid-afternoon and the window curtains were part drawn, as if they were hiding from something.
Looking back, I don’t think I was particularly stupid not to realise that of course they were. The war they’d fled from back then wasn’t even as long ago as the Miner’s Strike is now. It also explained why my school was full of kids called things like Geno Petrillo, Chris Kozlowski and Bozenka Kalinka. The airfield up the road where we rode our FS1E mopeds was a refugee camp for Poles just after the war ended. Geno’s dad almost certainly came to live in Wiltshire, like the Difazio family who had motorbike shops, like the ice-cream van man, because there was also a massive PoW camp for Italians nearby.
I say ‘almost certainly’ because I don’t know. Because it was never talked about and we never asked. I found a paperback at a jumble sale once, about a Polish Spitfire squadron and no adults felt like telling me any more than that there was one. And that was it. We had a Polish deli that was nothing like anything I expected from films about New York. That was our integration. Don’t ask. Don’t tell. It’s nothing to do with you where anyone came from, Bennett. You came from Stratford-on-Avon, not Wiltshire. You, Joyce, came from London. Whitmarsh, Kent. Anyone else wants to play where are you from? I didn’t hear you. Right. Let’s get on. Mr Bertillon, le duanier, est arivee encore. Aven une sange.
Notwithstanding my impeccable diversity credentials, I managed to balls it up anyway.
My breakout session was supposed to be in a place called the Stour Room, named after the Suffolk river. I’m not feeling too great after lots of late, late nights (no, sorry, not going into any details there) and an epic dose of hayfever that obviously assumed I was doing O-Levels so it could totally mess my life up instead of just having a go at the past week.
I wasn’t sure where the Stour Room was so I asked the first person I could find. She happened to be black but that had nothing to do with what happened next. Her accent was pure Essex.
Me: Excuse me, do you know where the Stour Room is?
Woman: The which, sorry?
Me: The Stour Room.
I’ve got hayfever and I can’t hear properly, so I can’t really hear how loud my voice is or what it sounds like.
Woman: Oh! The Stower Room!
Me: Yes, the Stour Room.
Woman: You say Star!
Me: Well no, but I’m not from Suffolk.
Woman: I say Stower. I am.
Woman: I say Stower, because I’m common.
I couldn’t really see where all this was going. I wasn’t feeling great. I’ve had ringing in my left ear for four day now. All I wanted to do was find the room I was supposed to be in, not ask her out or anything. So it wasn’t really my fault what happend next.
Me: No, it’s not that.
You can’t take words back. I almost added “I mean, I didn’t mean that’s what makes you… I mean, I’m sure you’re not….. oh look, hares mating outside the window” I wanted to try that last one because then I could have run away and hidden, rather than inevitably being paired with the poor woman in team building exercises for the rest of the afternoon.
However you were, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to call you common. You did start it though. And I’ve not been well. Sorry. No, really.
P.S. I just tried to post this on Reddit, under Diversity. But apparently I’m not allowed to. Maybe I’m not diverse enough, or something.