Of course I’m not a racist. I’m terribly politically correct and tolerant of all religions unless they are knocking on my door trying to convert me. In general I’m more of an across the board sociopath, finding people in general an irritant, especially on masse, on public transport, or both at the same time.
So it was as a doubly disgruntled traveller that I found myself sitting opposite an elderly woman at a coffee concession in a Railway Station waiting for a severely late train. Though immersed in my book and wearing an expression of thunderous annoyance, the silver haired octogenarian who resembled the little old Lady in the Adventures of Babar, nonetheless decided to converse with me. ‘Are you going far?’ she asked the side of my scowling face. Remembering my manners, I smiled with all the sincerity of Hitler kissing children at a Nazi fundraiser, and replied that I was going away for the weekend. The conversational floodgates opened. She was going to the country; to visit her husband’s grave; to inspect her property. She was Lady Somebody - one of the Somebodies of Somewhere eponymous, remote and suitably palatial. She was a grandmother; she was eighty; she was having dinner somewhere splendid with the friend who was meeting her from the train; she was a reader of The Oldie from which she quoted ‘after seventy, every penny saved is a penny wasted’.
Within five minutes, I was charmed. I had given up on Alain de Botton’s ‘Consolation’s of Philosophy’ (which are in any case few and far between when waiting for a train) and found myself deeply enjoying one of those intensely personal exchanges which you can often strike up with a complete stranger. What a sweet old thing she is, I thought as I heard all about her husband, her life and her son who was a human rights campaigner – well, until we discussed the day’s headlines.
‘Did did you see in the papers how they are complaining about there being no black faces in the orchestras. I think it’s disgusting. I mean, re-a-ll-y,’ she said pronouncing it in four syllables, ‘but it’s too much. If black people want to be in the orchestra who’s stopping them? Now they’re going to take over the whole musical world. It’s like us going to Saudi Arabia and complaining that there are no white faces in the…’ her voice trailed off as she struggled to find a Saudi establishment from which white faces might reasonably be excluded..’em - in the Government,’ she finished, quivering with indignation. ‘You have brown faces everywhere these days, I mean, we don’t say why are there no white people in sport or in – what do you call it – rap music.’ The switched on hip hop granny nodded for emphasis, as I squirmed, looking around to see if anyone else was listening to this walk on the wild side of political incorrectness. A man rushed off a train and walked up to us to ask if he could leave his suitcase with us for a second. Of course, said her Ladyship, eyes a-twinkling.
‘I don’t suppose there’s a bomb in it – he looks much too normal. Though I must admit I do worry these days. I’m not afraid of blacks individually, but all together they terrify me. All these Asians, and the way they’re trying to infiltrate the government. It’s disgusting. T hey should go back to their own country. Why aren’t these Asian millionaires helping their own people instead of trying to influence our Prime Minister?’
I coughed, looking longingly back at Alain de Botton wondering if he offered consolation after all. What is the correct response when someone starts making sweepingly random, racist remarks? Should I challenge her? Should I hotly disagree?
‘I think you might be overstating the case here,’ I began, thinking that she must make her son, the human rights activist, very proud. I started to talk about equal opportunities and disenfranchisement, but she was having none of it.
‘I especially don’t like seeing a bunch of young Arabic men standing together on the street. I think they might be going to blow me up.’
Okay, enough. This far and no further. ‘Well, since I’m married to an Arab I can’t say I share your feelings. You can’t make assumptions about people because of the way they look or the colour of their skin.’
‘Mmm, so you’re married to an A-rab are you’ she said giving me another long look, presumably to check I didn’t have terrorist tattooed on my forehead. She shrugged
in the fashion of someone who has discovered that all her children have head lice that have to be dealt with. “Oh well, I dare say he’s a nice A-rab. Are you a Muslim?’
‘No,’ I replied to her extreme satisfaction. “Good, she nodded in approval. She asked what he did. I told her he was an academic and attached to an Oxford College. “We had a very dear friend at Oxford – your husband might know him. Houdini was his name. He was Lebanese but he’s dead now.’ ‘I think you might mean Hourani,’ I ventured thinking of a very distinguished Lebanese professor from St Antony’s College who we both knew well.
Houdini, Hourani, it was the same person. I was redeemed once again into normal society but this only served to set her off on yet another diatribe about blacks and Asians and Britain not being white enough, under which I slumped, cowardly, while my stomach began to tie itself in knots of embarrassed awkwardness. What does the handbook for social etiquette say in such situations? Do I call her Ladyship a hopeless bigot, tell her that I simply don’t agree with her views and find them insulting? Do I tell her I can’t sit and listen to this before walking off indignantly? Or do I let my bred-in-the bone respect for my elders, and my not-so-latent albeit misguided, good manners, weld me to my seat in an uncomfortable fake grimace of a smile? I took the easy way out. I pretended that my train had arrived and left. Hurriedly.