A factory blew up last night.
Spring is sprung, and the canopy closed, again. The planes, last of the common trees to get their leaves, are more than halfway there, as are the limes. Most of the sycamores are in leaf as well – though not all (sycamores are much more variable than the others) and the horse chestnuts are in flower, candles everywhere. Lilacs bloomed last weekend and walking around South London you get whiffs of their beautiful smell from all sorts of gardens and alleyways.
But rewind briefly. Before that I’d popped into a pub and seen John the Buddhist at the bar talking to a tall white-haired bloke in a blue shirt. I half joined-in and eavesdropped, as you do. I couldn’t suss out his accent at first – very posh Irish? A rather unplaceable sort of northern English? I’d almost settled in my mind on a soft Anglo-South-African when I’d picked up enough conversation to work out that he was Australian but had been living here for twenty years. And he was a very angry man. Bitter and very drunk, an Australian ex-soldier on what I did not at that time realise was ANZAC day, which must have been an emotionally intense anniversary for him, alone amongst others who didn’t understand.
He is in his 60s and said he had been an NCO the Australian army for fifteen years, and then in the British Army. He said the had fought in Vietnam and had very unflattering views of the American army there. Apparently they were ruined for combat by all the niggers – his word – who were into nothing but drugs and Black Power. He made some offensive gestures and parody salutes. Apparently the US NCOs used to drink in the Australian mess, avoiding their own men, who were a greater danger to them than the enemy. According to him the sensible US officers deliberately got their platoons ambushed so that the VC would kill the “niggers”, which would increase the white soldiers chance of survival. And the Australian units were more effective because they were all white, as the Abos weren’t intelligent enough to operate weapons so they didn’t allow them to join up. And how black soldiers were useless and always beaten by whites and the the Rhodesians had the right idea with UDI with patrols of volunteers to keep them down.
No-one understands him, according to his own estimation, and no-one knows what it was like to have been in the Airborne (shouted, with a quick salute) He also thinks the modern world has gone to the dogs and made the usual moans about governments and taxes and various moral laxities. The one thing he wants from government is to cut Council Tax, which takes twenty quid a week off him to subsidise wasters and immigrants.
Meanwhile, just behind us, there were two younger blokes giving it large about being black Millwall supporters. “You think you’ve had it hard – try running away from three thousand white men at South Bermondsey Station – looking over the fence and yelling ‘Nigger Nigger’!” “Born and brought up in Greenwich, I’m more Millwall than you!” “Don’t diss the ‘Wall man!” Loud comments, aimed into the pub as a whole (and successfully irritating the landlady), about their troubles and successes at work, and how one of them got made redundant with six thousand quid to go. “Who’d have thought a black man could get hold of that much money in this white man’s country without stealing it?” And then hassling the barmaid: “You look like you need some vitamins in the morning. Try me, vitamins supplied and installed, free of charge.” It sounded a lot ruder the way he said it. Actually it sounded very rude the way he said it. He was marginally less offensive than the Australian, but a lot cleverer with words, and a lot funnier.
There was a white woman with them, and Australian says, quietly, “call me a racist if you like but I still can’t stand seeing a nigger with a white girl”. Like something from an old film. I’m praying that a fight doesn’t break out. All I managed to think of saying was something along the lines of “I’ve got no objection at all” to which the reply was “You may be a liberal but…” so I could do nothing but make the old crack “I’m not a liberal, I’m a socialist” and move further down the bar to try to talk to someone else. John, peaceable as always, talked about a neighbour of his years ago who married an Asian woman who was then rejected by her family, with threats of death, but they’ve been together for nearly thirty years and brought up a family of their own. But the answer to that was that Muslims are the Enemy Within and we should never have let them in in the first place.
I don’t know how I’d have reacted to the Australian ex-soldier (whose name I never found out) if the circumstances had been less public. Knowing my own distaste for confrontation (other than intellectual) and my love of arguing I suspect I might have wimped out of moral objections and tried to go military-historical on him, and mentioned conflicts in which black soldiers had fought effectively or beaten white soldiers – the Haitian Revolution, or the Zulus, or French African troops in the Great War, or Hissein Habre, or even pointed out that the Africans beat the white Rhodesians that he respects so much (though he’d have then been quite entitled to point out that it hasn’t turned out so well) or the US Army right now. But it would have been pointless I suspect, because he obviously wasn’t putting forward a theory about military history, he was just having a bitch.
I was glad when the Australian left. But not, for some reason, really cross with him. He seemed lonely, misunderstood, and angry. Would I have reacted to him differently had I known it was ANZAC day? (He never mentioned it) Would he have reacted to me differently had I known? (Should one memorise the national days of all countries before going to the pub?). Would I have wibbled on about Gallipoli as if I knew anything to compare to his twenty-one operational jumps? Would I have done what I do so often and trawled my experience and memory to find something that connects with the person I’m talking to?
And there wasn’t a fight. There probably was never going to be one, but most of the pub were glad when they all left. “Nigger” is not a word in common currency round here. I think I’ve heard it used more often in discussions about racism than in actual performance. I think I heard it more times last night than in the last twenty years. But the other black bloke had been three years in the army – he seemed to young to me, hardly more than a kid, but I suppose that’s actually normal – and that got some respect from the Ozzy, who was reserving his nastiest comments for us middle aged white men, keeping himself to ourselves. I did not feel good about that, but I felt less bad about it than I would have if there had been a blazing row.
And then a quiet pint and back home and standing in the garden with Abigail who was smoking a cigarette – it was a very warm night and I prefer her smoking outdoors rather than in the flat – talking about James Blish and John Clute and Diana Wynne Jones (I got mentioned in Language Log!) when a very Loud Noise echoed through the sky.
“What the fuck was that?”
“Thunder I guess. It looks like its going to rain heavily. I don’t really know of course, but last time I heard a big noise like that I said it wasn’t a bomb and it turned out to be a bomb after all. So I have no idea!”
We didn’t find out till this morning. It did rain, but it wasn’t thunder and it wasn’t a bomb, it was a factory or warehouse or goods yard. And it was right by the main line and there were no trains to London Bridge station this morning. That does odd things to Lewisham. If a couple of thousand people wandering around talking to their mobiles at 10am counts as “odd”. I got a 136 bus to New Cross, a 172 to Aldwych and A 188 up to college. Took about an hour and a half. For once my boss wasn’t cross with me for being late. Came back from Southwark Cathedral on the 21 and met four people I know from church on the bus or waiting for it. That never happens in central London, does it?