The backdrop for me was a very exciting London of the Sixties, when you would wake up to the radio blaring uplifting, energetic and assured Beatles songs such as ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘All You Need is Love.’ These were interspersed with equally wonderful and energising hits from groups like the Monkees with ‘Daydream Believer’ and ‘I Am A Believer.’
It was a London struggling to find itself and hesitantly dipping its toes in the unfamiliar waters of what was then the birthing of a cosmopolitan, multi-racial society. The Windrush migrants had landed. The Asians and Africans were landing. Vietnam was raging and on TV. And so you had your other big hits, such as Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ or Marmalade’s ‘Reflections of My Life,’ which blasted more sombre, confusing and less energising tunes out of the radio, as though representing the other end of a less-assured spectrum.
Imagine being a child growing up in a sea of black faces and suddenly being uprooted and catapulted into a sea of white faces for reasons that were quite incomprehensible at the time. Children can be adaptive and resilient, so I somehow managed to gingerly meander my way through such uncharted territory with the instinctive aim to acclimatise.
School was fun and I loved it. I loved morning assembly and the songs we sang. As other cultures and religions were yet to assert themselves, England was then unapologetically Christian and was quite happy to instruct school children in some of the ways of the Bible. ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ was a favourite of mine as a child because it gave one hope that ultimately all would indeed become bright and beautiful in merry England. ‘When a Knight Won His Spurs’ which waxed – “…And let me set free with the sword of my youth, from the castle of darkness, the power of truth…” – was another favourite. It also reassured that, eventually, good would triumph over the not-so-good in my then youthful meanderings through life.
And I needed such assurances; since some experiences at the time were quite harrowing. My first school was Anson Primary in Willesden in north-west London and my first impressionable memory was my elder brother being sent home from school. And what was his ‘nefarious’ crime to warrant such punishment? One of the boys in my brother’s senior class found it impossible to desist from mercilessly harassing my older sister with racial slurs. This went on for some time. The staff at the time, of course, did naught about it. He would single her out on the playground and studiously assault her racially, often ending up with my sister in a flurry of tears, throughout the day. One day he assembled a group of kids to take turns to physically poke at my sister’s beleaguered head in an effort to confirm that her threaded hair strands were indeed comparable to train tracks. For my brother that was the last straw. His efforts to defend my sister from the boy’s train tracks-ascertaining mission ended up in a fight, hence his being sent home.
One does not require an unduly sophisticated mind to be able to imagine how such incidents can impact the young mind. Whether you liked it or not you were made to know, at some level, that you were different and that you didn’t really belong.
Much later, another memorable occurrence, which could have proved harrowing, was when I was at Hogarth Primary in Chiswick, London (incidentally Hugh Grant was there with me around the same time). I had a friend called Mark whose dad was headmaster of Acton High School. His dad would often pick me up to go over to Acton High to play. And that was when I would unwittingly provide some of the High School boys with the high point of their day. They would mount this wall and start their frenzied screaming at me, “Golliwog,” “black Sambo” and of course, the universal and not very nice ‘n’ word.
What strikes me with hindsight is that by that stage, even as a child, I was more amused than offended. Mark’s dad, the headmaster, would go livid, chase the boys away, screaming blue murder, apologise endlessly to me and then drown us in sweets, as probably what he perceived to be some form of compensation.
But overall there was a lot more fun and happiness than some of these harrowing incidents might suggest. So, the questions I would later ask myself include: how did I get to a point where direct racial attacks on me generated some sense of wry amusement rather than rendering me alarmed, angry and petrified? How was my very young mind able to process and view such decided unpleasantness with childlike equanimity? Was it not the kind of experiences that tend to generate destructive alienation and debilitating hostility towards society?
Our experiences in life and how we react to them are oftentimes unique. In this light I can think of a few answers, also in the form of questions. Was it a situation in which I had actually believed the underlying promises that songs such as - “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “When a Knight Won His Spurs” - made? Did such beliefs give me a backbone that made such assaults appear to me as mere water off a duck’s back? Or was I already a product of a tolerant, multicultural upbringing in which I was becoming sufficiently knowledgeable to understand that such attacks simply sprang from some people simply not knowing any better? Or was it an amalgamation of both?
At the tail end of it all, my conclusion is that growing up as a child exile in England was wonderfully beneficial. The good outweighed the not-so-good. I love that the experience made me into a tolerant person. I love that it makes me feel at ease everywhere and with everyone. I love that it gave me broad and embracing perspectives in life in a discerning manner. Above all, I love that it made me into a person who always wishes to help cure injustices and to come to the fundamental understanding that given the proper, nurturing circumstances, most people have huge reserves of goodness in them.
In my novel ‘The Day Of The Orphan,’ a privileged youngster, Saga, sets out with the help of friends and family to right so many wrongs at great risk to themselves and without any thought of material or personal gain. He was raised not to be a friend of injustice, intolerance, discrimination or any form of oppression. I developed this Saga character as a reflection of some of the good things I have tried to accomplish in my life and some of which I can attribute to growing up in England.
It is perspectives, as those instilled in me as a child growing up in England, which ultimately generate occurrences in society such as the amazing and absolutely glorious marriage of the wonderful Prince Harry to the resplendent Duchess of Sussex, Her Royal Highness Meghan Markle. What a sight and what a people to so loving and warmly embrace it all!
All I can say is, Long Live the British People and long live ALL People. And given the chance, I would re-grow up in England all over again. And for the record, I thoroughly enjoyed playing the black king in the Christmas Nativity plays at school.
~Dr. Nat Tanoh