My 30s found me living in London, south of the river in Blackheath, commuting to central London every day. I worked in major advertising agencies, which were everything their reputations suggest: glamorous, glossy, sexy, scheming. It was an interesting environment, where everyone it seemed had bought into a rather vicious consumerist fairytale: the people with the most aesthetically attractive façades and the most coin sat atop the totem pole, juggling their multiple toys, while beneath them everyone else frantically competed to shimmy up the pole to reach those heights.
What always struck me forcibly is that the ad-men (and women) charged with marketing the consumerist dream were themselves the most fervent dreamers.
My home, Blackheath, was an oasis of privilege in a sprawl of south-east London suburbs often described as “economically disadvantaged”. That’s a dry way of saying they were former dockland slums now filled with high-rise housing estates and terrace rows converted to Council housing. To Australian eyes, they were dismayingly dense and drear, not to mention dangerous. They were the antithesis of the Knightsbridge fantasy my colleagues and I inhabited.
There were things about South London (“Suff London”) that were, eventually, vivid enough to knock me out of my Ad-land stupor. The music, for one. South London was plastered with posters for pop acts, many of whom were local boys and girls rising to national (sometimes even international) success. Most of these performers were the children of black immigrants from British Commonwealth countries such as the West Indies and Nigeria.
I grew up in Adelaide, which in my circles was racially homogeneous, and even after I moved to Sydney and spent 10 years working in the rock music industry I had met remarkably few people from Africa, the Caribbean, South America or the Indian sub-continent. In the UK, in eight years in business development roles for high profile London ad agencies, networking at every relevant conference and seminar, I only ever worked with one black colleague, in any agency. Oh, I heard there were token hirings: one agency apparently had a black receptionist, a couple of media buying agencies had blokes on staff whose parents came from India. But thousands of people worked in London advertising in the 1990s, and I can tell you with certainty almost none were black.
South London forced me to recognise my own snobbery and racism: I was not comfortable in those early days around teenagers, especially, from the suburbs around Blackheath (Lewisham, Lee, Woolwich). They sat next to me during hour-long journeys on the iconic (and late lamented) X53 Routemaster bus, through the multiracial communities of Greenwich, Deptford, New Cross, Peckham, the Elephant and Castle and Southwark, then over Westminster Bridge to Trafalgar Square, and up Regent Street to Oxford Street. The X53 was an old-fashioned double-decker red bus; I always sat on the top deck, at the very front, left of the aisle. As I travelled I’d hear strands of the latest local girl-or-boy made good’s latest hit, wafting through open windows or from someone’s Walkman. Some of those songs remain my favourites: Seal singing ‘Crazy’, Gabrielle purring ‘Forget About The World’, Carlene Anderson’s extraordinary gospel rendition of Paul McCartney’s love ballad ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’.
One evening a very young boy, maybe only 16, sat down next to me. He was drunk, but gently drunk. He wasn’t obnoxious. He did want to talk. I did not want to engage, and I justified that by pointing out, loudly, that he was drunk; and besides, I was twice his age. He responded that I didn’t want to talk with a black boy, wondering out loud, in the words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I got off at the next stop (which, as it happened, was my stop), and spent the next ten minutes in self-righteous mutterings.
Another time, two young men in geometric-print zoot suits approached me on the bus. The older boy – maybe 20? – explained in French-accented patois that his friend needed practice in talking to girls, and asked, courteously, was it OK if they sat with me? It was OK. We talked the whole way to Trafalgar Square. Or, mostly the older boy and I talked, while the younger boy smiled shyly. When we reached the terminus he beamed at me. They said, “Thank you!”, and alighted in graceful, dazzling fast motion, not wanting to embarrass me with the possibility they might cling.
An older woman I sat next to sighed and offered me a share of her boiled sweets. A younger woman got up and changed seats when I ate my way stolidly through a bag of chocolates, intense dour focus, one chocolate after another.
Things happened. My brilliant career in blue-chip advertising went belly-up. I took a job as a staff supervisor at Greenwich’s Millennium Dome, now known as the O2. I was responsible for managing and mentoring a team of teenage high-school drop-outs of all ethnicities and faiths, the common factor being that they were long-term unemployed. (Our team also included people who were long-term unemployed due to mental illness, addiction, de-skilling or age.)
It was a steep learning curve. I still remember brightly asking one boy, “So, what religion are you, Muhammad?” Not my finest moment.
I came to love my team. I remember a delegation protesting that the Dome’s uniform required them to wear Doc Marten boots, an iconic British brand but strongly associated with right-wing racist skinheads. “How can we wear Doc Martens?” my team demanded. “These are the boots skinheads use to kicks our heads in!”
I remember my friend Evelyn flaring up in fury when an older man in our team, whom she’d clashed with, referred to an interpersonal issue within the team as being “the nigger in the wood-pile”. I recall Evelyn explaining to me that she was one of three sisters, all of whom were relatively light-skinned, a skin-tone known in Jamaica as “purdy” (“pretty”), whereas her own ebony skin tone meant she would always be considered within her ethnic group as less attractive. I recall Evelyn’s friend Leethie crying because her skin was so light-toned that most people just assumed she was white, which to her was a denial of her family affiliation: her parents and siblings were darker-skinned.
I learnt it’s poor etiquette to ask a Caribbean what their heritage is (everyone is so genetically mixed). I learnt Nigerians looks down on West Indians and don’t want their kids to date them (the girls they see as sluts, the boys as drug dealers). I learnt that no, a good Bangla Deshi Muslim girl does not attend the neighbourhood Hindu festival of lights, not even just to enjoy the spectacle.
An irrepressible boy named Chris pointed out that he and his friends had made it through the lengthy hiring process precisely because they were lively and bright and yet once on board were chastised by management who wanted them complacent. I remember him embracing me as he announced to all around, “Some of our managers are racist. But not you Elly. You’re not racist at all!” That gave me pause for thought. I tried to mentor Chris. It hurt when they sacked him.
In the year or so prior to returning to Australia I was fortunate enough to be able to travel in North Africa, India and elsewhere (Russia, China), where my learning curve continued. But I think the moment when it all fell in place for me was one afternoon on the X53 bus. South-east London was such a racial hodge-podge, with so many inter-racial couples, and on this occasion I remember looking around the bus and marvelling at how many young mothers were standing (the bus was crowded) with mixed race babies on their hips. I noted how many of these young girls were white, and in a moment of clarity I had the thought: “If I had a mixed race baby, racial prejudice and discrimination would not just be an abstract issue for me. It would not be simply something labelled ‘Not good (but not my problem)’. If I were the mother of a mixed race child, I would fight like a tigress, at every opportunity, to challenge the racism that limits opportunities for people of colour”.
The truth is I haven’t been that tigress. But I’m thankful I’ve lived in environments where I’ve been confronted by social injustice I could feel viscerally – almost, but not quite, as if for those moments I understood how it feels to be excluded.
There’s a postscript. On my one visit back to London, 18 months after returning to my native Australia, I stayed with Evelyn and her baby daughter. I remember coming out of the shower, wrapped in a small towel, joining ‘Velyn and her daughter in their living room. I remember when she saw me the baby’s eyes lit up: so big! so wet! so white! She reached out and touched me, stroked my skin. Then she looked up at me and she laughed.