I’m pretty dull, as far as one might commonly measure such a thing. I spent most of my early to mid 20s getting pissed with variously abominable consequences. I dread to think what I’d have been like if I’d done drugs. Now my hangovers come with a cold and generally leave me unfit to do anything apart from watch TV and eat for a period of 24 hours. It’s lucky that I really like TV and eating, but not so much that I’m inclined to impose a sick day from life (as uneventful as mine is) upon myself with any great frequency. It’s pathetically typical that I will limit myself to a couple of pints before going home to settle into bed with a hot chocolate and Newsnight. On Thursdays I like to be home in time for This Week, even though a substantial part of me hates that show really hard. As I sit down to edit and continue writing this very post, several weeks after writing the previous sentence, This Week is pleasantly irritating me in the background. I’m also just getting over a day long cold induced by two pints and a bottle of lager.
My regular gigging companion on the other hand is an accomplished and largely unfazed piss artist. So when I’m home on a Friday night, doing any number of dull, bookish or geeky things (assuming I’ve already watched Coronation Street which is not dull but bloody brilliant) Sarah will usually be drunk already, like so many people with one of those social lives that everyone informs the internet of, vaguely and often sans context. If we share snippets of our lives for everyone to see, with too little information to paint a full picture but just enough to arouse curiosity, then we might look forward to being asked for further details. Always leave them wanting more. A philosophy I militate against in the writing of this blog. I seldom post but when I do it’s more than enough.
(As an aside, I’ve taken to writing my own private gig diary. Because this clearly isn’t going to work. When I have something interesting to say I’ll post something here.)
On those occasions on which she’s not found anyone else to be drunk with, she has sometimes called me as, I can only assume, a last resort. It takes considerable effort on my part to recommit myself to going out when I’d rather just not move at all, so I must have been feeling modestly peppy on the particular Friday night in question. She was in a traditional, real ale pub on the site of the now redeveloped industrial quarter just outside the city centre. I’d never actually been before but I managed to find it after a little bit of wandering. It was really busy at the bar so I looked for Sarah before I got myself a pint and found her sat at bench in the beer garden with a bloke she was chatting to. I surmised that he was someone she’d struck up a conversation with as opposed to someone she knew. He was slightly short and slightly stocky and in his 40s. It’s surprising how many presumptions you attach to someone upon first meeting them, but as well as his accent telling me he was of working class stock I also thought he probably worked in a trade. He reminded me of most of the men I knew growing up. Maybe he was a gas fitter, or an electrician perhaps.
I can’t remember what they were talking about at that stage, but it wasn’t anything I felt like I could join in with after brief introductions. I’m pretty rubbish at small talk. I really don’t have much to say about most things, besides a few specific interests I can get geeky about, my brain tents to kick into gear when discussing big pretentious ideas. I sat and listened for a couple of minutes, giving the bar time to quiet down, when another bloke sat down opposite me. He was a big guy, tall and broad with a proud gut and thickset features. Aside from a completely shaven head, he sort of looked like Big Daddy. The British wrestler, Shirley Crabtree, that is, not any of the other Big Daddies.
We greeted each other as two people who didn’t really have anything to say about what what our friends were saying to each other and I went and got my pint. When I came back the conversation had moved on to dog ownership. Apart from family pets, I’ve never owned a dog, and from his continued silence I got the impression that Big Daddy hadn’t either. I shouldn’t call him Big Daddy really. I’ll call him Shirley instead. I’ll dub the other guy Mel.
Mel and Sarah were talking about dog owners who don’t know how to handle dogs. They mentioned with irritation those owners who preciously pick their tiny little dogs up when a bigger dog bounds across to them for a closer inspection. Typically the inspection consists of little more than a good anus sniffing, but sometimes it can escalate. Sometimes an anus sniffing will leave certain dogs unable to restrain themselves. Of course, this described me. Not the anus sniffing but the picking up of a tiny dog to shield them from the possible advances of a bigger dog. When the look on your dog’s face is the universally interpretable facial expression for ‘oooooooh shit’, I think it’s okay to save them. I’d feel negligent if I didn’t. The one time I didn’t do this the larger dog started sexually assaulting my tiny little dog. As when we put dogs down when their quality of life is so poor that letting them live would be cruel, yet don’t allow humans that same courtesy, there’s an similar double standard when it comes to sexual assault. Why should dogs be allowed to get away with it? I must note that prosecution levels are so low that most humans get away with it too. But we don’t expect that they should. Apparently when you have a small dog you’re supposed to just let it happen. You’re supposed to watch. And then what? Take your little dog home and leave it whimpering next to a garden sprinkler until it feels clean again? How could you look it in the eye? And anyway, why would a really big dog want to bone a really little dog at all? It’s practically paedophilia. Sort of. All these dog owners walking their paedo-pooches, letting them loose to have their sordid way with our little furry babies. Though perhaps that’s prejudicial. Small dogs aren’t children, they’re adult dogs, just a smaller subspecies. Perhaps it’s like asking why a fully grown human would want to bone a homo floresiensis, the 3ft tall ‘hobbit’ hominid. If they were consenting adults warm for one another’s form, who would I be to judge? But with the dog situation it’s more like a homo sapiens running up to a hobbit and getting all Premiership footballer on it. So if you’re a dog owner and you have a problem with me preventing the sexual assault of my tiny dog by your big dog, then fuck you. Would you rather watch while your big dog tries to get its big dog penis inside my little dog’s tiny dog vagina? You sick fuck. Keep your rapist on a leash.
They talked about dog owning and dog walking for ages. It was the dullest thing ever and I was wishing I’d stayed at home. Gradually though, the conversation expanded to other topics. It turned out that both Mel and Shirley taught in a college. In a previous job Sarah had supplied equipment to schools, so there was some common ground there. I can talk about education, throw in a couple of opinions. Shirley got more involved in the conversation and I started to quite like him. He had a dry, cheeky sense of humour. They talked about some of their experience of teaching. They both taught more vocational topics, I can’t remember specifically what. Perhaps electronics or design technology. Shirley wasn’t fond of paperwork or box-ticking exercises. He liked to teach his own way, keep his lesson plans in his head and cultivate an affable rapport with his students. Sarah mentioned that we knew each other through doing comedy together, and comparisons were made between performing in front of those two different audiences.
Somehow they got on to a story about a cultural exchange of some kind. A group of foreign students visited the school for a short time and they explained how they both wanted to take them on a trip somewhere but only Mel got to go. Mel explained how much he enjoyed making the most of their visit and took them for a nice day out. Then they mentioned that they worked with a Chinese teacher for some time also. They described what he was like, how they took him under their wing. Mel went into more detail, doing impressions of his accent. Perhaps in an effort to counter any impression we might have got that he was being borderline racist in doing so, he emphasised how much he liked the Chinese teacher, and how he used to be in on the joke when they called him ‘teacher-san!’ and got him to say it back to him. Mr Miyagi was Japanese, sure, but why let that get in the way of ethnic hilarity.
I can’t remember the exact path the conversation took, but pre-emptive denials of racism inevitably led to a discussion about immigration. I was not surprised that Sarah, sustaining her negative levels of sobriety, would be agitated by the impression Mel was giving of himself. It may have been her who took the conversation in that direction, curious to see what lay behind Mel’s self-conscious but increasingly dubious attitude towards race. Mel was also inebriated more than Sheila and I, who were cautious to weigh in. We exchanged helpless glances now and then, knowing it was getting a bit dodgy. We both tried to offer light-hearted interjections here and there, Mel was expressing tabloid views about ‘too many immigrants coming in’. It was turning into a debate between the left and right wings of our little party. I tend to prefer gently diplomatic discourse with complete strangers. Sarah, as she will confess, tends to get angry when her political beliefs (and, you might argue, basic sense of human decency) are perturbed. It’s not that I was unperturbed or am apathetic. I felt both a desire to not stagger into an unpleasant confrontation, and subsequently a curiosity to understand.
The conversation wasn’t going away. Sarah was challenging his views and he was reasserting them. I briefly played devil’s advocate by admitting that I was of the opinion that immigration was poorly managed, increasing so rapidly after the opening up of EU borders that some public services in certain parts of the country were stretched beyond capacity for a time. But my own concerns about immigration are less about numbers and more about how immigrants are integrated into British society, and how we can better ensure social cohesion. Population is certainly a concern but if we can incentivize vast swathes of Daily Mail reading, Tory-voting middle England to emigrate to Australia or Spain (or any other country where they can export their way of life to expatriate enclaves, ensure their financial security, not have to learn another language or understand another culture) and replace them with people from all corners of the globe, then all the better. Mel’s concerns were motivated less by fear of that within than by fear of that without. That without white skin, you might say, though that would perhaps be inaccurate. Specifically, he was fearful of Muslims.
This is what we began to realise as he gradually became more frank about his views. To begin with he was relatively apprehensive. He thought he could state his position on immigration, namely stopping any more Muslims from coming into the country, without being too specific. But as I’ve stated, he was rather drunk, so over a matter of minutes he changed his position from saying that he didn’t vote BNP to saying he would vote BNP if there was a candidate in his constituency. Sarah and Mel had gone from bonding over their thoughts on dog ownership to tense disagreement, to the point where both were raising their voices. Not in outright anger, but in incredulity, frustration and defensiveness.
Even at this point there was still a sense that Mel was just a misguided right-wing tabloid reading tit who would reconsider his views if they were properly challenged. I thought that he might, if Sarah were to let him, feign open-mindedness for a less confrontational Friday night down the pub. I was sober though so my judgement was inversely compromised. The more Sarah, and then both Shirley and I, questioned his opinions the more extreme they seemed to become. Even though Shirley seemed a lovely chap, I had been unsure as to whether he was on the same page as his friend from work. But he would be as taken aback by Mel’s views as we were.
As it became clear that Mel held the same views on immigration as any proud BNP voter would, his defensiveness turned into a refusal to be shamed. Sarah put it to him that what he was saying was plain old racism. He denied that in a sense, but not by refuting the accusation. Instead he alluded to all the people he knew that held the same views as him. Again, he was modestly guarded at first. He said he had friends who went on marches. He didn’t go on them himself, but he knew those who did, was friends with them and told us there were lots of them. When he revealed that these friends were members of the EDL, Sarah, Shirley and I were a little speechless. It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise given everything he’d been saying, but to realise we were having a drink with someone closely affiliated with, if not a member of that band of far-right, openly racist hooligans, was mildly stunning.
We looked to each other, not knowing what to say. Mel filled the silence. As he talked he stood up from the bench and walked around to the end of it. We looked up in bemusement as he loudly proclaimed how many of them there were. They were a silent majority, he said. We might not have thought there were many of them but there were. There were lots and lots of them. And they weren’t giving up and we had better believe that they weren’t going away. We would see how many when they voted at the election. It was almost as if he were delivering his own drunk, clumsy rendition of a speech he’d seen someone else make. “We’re going to take our country back, just you wait and see!” he declared. “Anyway, I must go for a wee.”
He went into the pub and we sat in perplexed silence for a moment until I said “well, this evening got a bit weird!” Sarah was in a state of genuine disbelief. Shirley was perplexed that his workmate was espousing such views. I wondered if Shirley was actually aware of Mel’s views to some extent, but simply didn’t care enough to challenge him on them. When you consider though that they both worked in a college, it’s unsurprising that Mel would want to keep his affiliation with racist groups to himself.
Now that Mel had all but admitted his membership of the EDL, I found that I wasn’t particularly angered or outraged by him. I found his views offensive, of course. Hateful, wrong and incredibly misguided. But this was racism filtered through propaganda. This was racism strained through a cause. A manipulative, spurious, illusory cause fabricated to satisfy the agendas of truly vile men. I found it hard to be angry with Mel because it was clear these ideas were not his own. He seemed more like a pitiable victim of brain washing to me. His inherent, pathetically childish, Jim Davidson-like fascination with racial stereotypes, in which he derived great delight from getting a Chinese man to call him ‘teacher-san’, served as an fine starting point. But the distortions of reality, which he presented to us to argue the case that Muslims were a morally bankrupt people out to destroy Western civilisation, were contrived in the imaginations of more devious men to be disseminated to unthinking dupes like Mel.
I wanted to try and understand the thought processes that allowed him to buy all the bullshit he’d been fed. It’s not just condescending to say he was a bit of a thicko, it’s too easy, just like it’s unhelpfully simplistic to conclude he was just a racist. But I struggle to find any more compelling explanation than a combination of the two: he was a bit of a racist and bit thick.
I remember reading that a study into BNP voters found that many were doing alright for themselves. The image conjured up is of the young male with a shaven head, marginalised by society, suffering intergenerational unemployment, unwanted in a post-industrial economy; this disenfranchisement providing fertile soil for sowing fears and growing hatred. But some research has found to the contrary that many are people with decent jobs and mortgages doing alright for themselves. Who exactly is coming over here and taking their jobs if they’re still affording new cars and holidays abroad? Perhaps it makes sense though. Those who feel they have more to lose may be easier to scare.
Mel seemed to fit this description. He didn’t seem that angry, or give any impression that he’d been hard done by in life and wanted to blame someone. So when he returned from his post-rant piss, I tried to direct at him questions that might elucidate me as to why he held the views he held. What was his problem with Muslims?
Sarah, however, seemed just as curious, only drunker and shoutier in expressing it. It might have been difficult to interrupt her forthright interrogatives but it was also just fun watching her rip into him. They were essentially just shouting at each other. It wasn’t aggressive, just alcoholically impassioned. She was attacking him on the general notion of his opinions. I wanted to hear him explain the specifics, and I would have an opportunity to do so when the shouting attracted the attention of a spectator. For much of the exchange a man on a bench near us, drinking alone, had been listening in. He started to join in and echoed sentiments generally supportive of Mel’s. Some of what was being discussed was the usual ‘coming over here taking our jobs’ stuff and our spectator wanted to tell his story of having worked in the steel industry and how those jobs weren’t there any more. I didn’t catch how this was the fault of Muslim immigrants. His contribution coaxed Sarah away to shout at him for a while. Shirley asked me if she’d be okay. I had a feeling that if the exchange were to escalate aggressively it wouldn’t be Sarah we’d have to worry about. ‘She’ll be reight,’ I said.
With her fight taken elsewhere, I asked Mel what his problem with Muslims was. He initially tried to convince me of their growth in number. Not being able to recall statistics or refute undoubtedly flawed forecasts of population growth, I thought it best not to engage him on this. What he had failed to account for is that, not being a racist myself, I didn’t care how many Muslims there were or was going to be in Britain. He seemed to be trying to argue his case to me as he would to someone who already thought Muslims=bad. Racists don’t do non-racists the courtesy of not being racist for the sake of argument, so I didn’t see why I should either. Thus my response was largely ‘so what?’
This threw him a little but he kept trying. He explained that there are ‘mosques everywhere’. So? They’re just places of worship, like churches. There are churches everywhere too. ‘Not reight big ones though’. I told him about a large evangelical mega-church down the road. ‘They’re not the same though, they don’t stick out.’ They’re not as pretty, I admitted. But they’re just buildings. There are massive gyms and huge call centres too, what’s all the worry about a building? ‘They’ll turn Britain into a religious state’, he told me. I reminded him that we were already the only Western democracy with theocracy at the heart of our parliamentary process. Bishops get to vote on the laws passed in this country by virtue of the fact they’re bishops. Didn’t he think it was better to worry about religious influence in government that was actually happening now than religious influence that might or might not happen one day? ‘But Muslims would make us live under sharia law’. There’s already a Jewish court that acts with the legal authority of the crown. They resolve matters between Jewish people who choose to have certain disputes mediated by a religious body. They have for years. Did he not want to stop that before worrying about sharia courts that don’t even have any legal legitimacy and don’t look like acquiring it any time soon?
It went on like this. Essentially it boiled down to him saying ‘MUSLIMS! BOOGA BOOGA!’ and me saying ‘eh’. While his arguments weren’t compelling me, I didn’t feel that I was persuading him to reconsider his views either. I might have undermined his arguments but it didn’t faze him. Rigorous logic was not the the source of his opinion. It was fear and hate with bogus explanations slapped on, as if a tin of alphabet spaghetti were poured on a pile of manure. Anyone who can read it must have shit for brains.
He kept trying defend his cause though, kept repeating the basic notion that Muslims will definitely take over in time to start chopping off our children’s hands with Qur’ans. Shirley shared my complete lack of concern for the Muslim peril, but Mel was convinced that we should definitely be scared because Britain was going to be an Islamofascist dictatorship within 20 years. You only had to do the sums. Mo’ Muslims, mo’ problems.
By this point Sarah and the heckling spectator were essentially shouting directly into each other’s faces. Sarah seemed to have had enough of the stupid man, but I think he had had more than enough of her because he left the pub. I didn’t really catch much of what he’d been saying to her, but something about his demeanour made me feel like Mel was a nicer bloke relatively speaking. His exit provided a brief intermission in the debate. Mel went to the toilet again and I sat in the heckler’s vacated seat and conferred with my drunken debate team-mate. We concluded that this was a bit of a weird night and that bloke she’d been arguing was just a dick.
We moved inside thereafter, with Mel and Sarah keen to continue where they left off. Shirley and I felt like referees, hovering about the ring, ready to step in and remind them that we wanted a nice clean fight and no low blows. The first such intervention was to stop them from ruining an unsuspecting couple’s evening when they plonked themselves down at their table. I found a free table and got Sarah and Mel to stand back up and follow me. The couple looked relieved and Shirley gave me an approving nod.
When we settled at the free table, at a safe distance from normal people having normal nights out with friends as opposed to arguments with racist strangers, mine and Shirley’s supervisory oversight began to wane. We told them to be nice but then we just let them get on with it. Shirley was a lovely and interesting bloke who seemed to have a joy for life. He had a passion for teaching but disdain for teaching to the test. He felt there was all too often a disconnect between the theoretic, bureaucratic demands on teachers and the reality of reaching and inspiring the young minds of real people in the classroom. As a young man himself he had gone to Ukraine to work, and he’d even written a book about his experiences. We had a fascinating conversation and warmed to each other.
Meanwhile things between Sarah and Mel continued to heat up in the other sense. Shirley interrupted them, suggesting they calm down. Sarah said they were getting along fine, gave Mel a hug to prove peaceful relations, and continued shouting at him. Mel had expressed disdain for Unite Against Fascism, saying they were the real problem. Sarah had friends who campaigned for UAF, and naturally took offence at this. Shirley suggested he and Sarah go for a smoke. I gave him an approving nod.
From things I’d heard said I wondered if Mel’s championing of Islamophobia was more to do with some sort of camaraderie he had with other people like him. He’d professed his atheism, but the football hooliganism from which the EDL was born has a religious nature to it. Football fans will often say football is their religion, and academics say there is truth to that assertion: the ritual; the garb; the chants for hymns; a spiritual belief in ascension despite all evidence to the contrary. If football is a religion, rife with sectarianism, then hooligans are its religious extremists and the EDL are Britain’s very own secular fanatics warning the end is nigh lest we banish the heathen hordes. They are Albion’s army on their mindless crusade; away game after away game minus the game. The absence of reason behind their hatred mirrors that of jihadists. It’s all the same irrational hate. Besides, I suppose, the hundreds of thousands of Muslims that have been killed by the British government’s foreign policy, which might be a reasonable reason for them to be angry. It’s certainly a reasonable reason for reasonable people to be angry.
But what could I say to Mel? He was slurring racially now, and perhaps he hurled racist slurs on his weekend jollies. I wasn’t going to change his mind, certainly not in the state it was in. I was a little tipsy by this point myself. I pressed him for better reasons. Not the United Kaliphate of Great Britain and Northern Ireland twenty years from now, what was it that British Muslims had actually done that could possibly warrant such sentiments? What was the problem? What was his beef with Muslims? I was bewildered when he said his problem was beef.
Specifically halal meat. Because it’s cruel to animals to slaughter them in the way halal requires. He couldn’t actually explain in detail what was cruel about it, he just knew it was crueller than the normal way. I didn’t know the specific method of slaughter at the time myself either. Apparently one swift cut to the neck through the veins and arteries is required so that the animal bleeds to death and as much blood as possible drains from the body. This is as opposed to the standard methods, the most typical of which is an electric shock to the head to render the animal instantly unconscious. Another is gassing them. Another is a captive bolt gun to the back of the head. Another is a bullet to the head. It’s difficult to say that the halal method isn’t a tiny bit crueller. The animal will have more time, perhaps a matter of seconds, perhaps up to two minutes, to experience the blood draining from its neck until it loses consciousness. It can’t be a pleasant experience, even if it does only last a few seconds. Incidentally the same requirement exists for kosher meat, but he didn’t mention that. Jews are so yesterday’s peril.
Still, I was thoroughly persuaded by this argument. It was at that moment when I agreed we should round up all the Jews and Muslims and put them all on a plane back to Israel and Islam.
Just kidding! Halol! I think there’s probably some middle ground between ensuring that animals on British shores are mass murdered nicely so we can feast guilt-free on meat that never knew what hit it, and demonizing billions of people for carrying out a ritualistic practice embedded in their culture for thousands of years. The kind of practice that we used to do for no good reason in particular until as recently as the 1930s.
I had set about trying to get answers out of Mel hoping I might understand his motivation as an Islamophobe and I found it hard to believe that any of the reasons he’d given were genuinely motivating factors for him. He sounded more like a conspiracy theorist than a hateful bigot. Somewhere deep down he wanted to believe and so was willing to be compelled by the uncompelling. Unlike a conspiracy theorist however his belief in bunkum legitimised something far more dangerous than trawling moon landing videos on YouTube. It was conspiracy in theory but racism in practice. Racism was the beginnings, racism was the ends, but propaganda was the means. To be racist he needed to believe he wasn’t being racist.
He’d expressed some frustration with the ‘three main political parties’, and said a vote for the BNP was a protest vote. For my part I tried to tell him his anger was misplaced and suggested he consider left-wing options if he just wanted to protest by ballot. But from the purely anecdotal example of this chance meeting alone I don’t know how much mileage there is in engaging in dialogue with politicised racists. Anyone convinced by such arguments isn’t going to have their mind changed even if those arguments are defeated. They want to be racists and any old excuse will do. Changing that is a matter of reaching into people’s hearts. Many take hate to their grave.
As we were discussing his voting intentions Mel received a phone call. His wife was picking him and Shirley up from the pub and she was calling to say she was waiting outside. She had pulled up not long after Sarah and Shirley had gone for a smoke. Sarah had been telling Shirley what she thought of Mel. So when Mel told his wife that he’d be out in a minute she told him in no uncertain terms to leave immediately because some woman outside the pub calling him a racist. Mel said ‘oh, yeah, I’m coming now.’ He wasn’t concerned that he’d been called a racist, but he was clearly alarmed that his wife wasn’t best pleased about it. She had shouted out of the car at Sarah: ‘that’s my husband you’re calling a racist twat!’
Mel and I shook hands and said our farewells. I told him again to reconsider his vote and he rushed outside to mitigate his bollocking. Sarah returned and informed me of being overheard by Mel’s other half and I described the look on his face and his hasty exit. For a racist twat he was an affable chap. That’s what troubles me still about our odd encounter.