I’ve lived here, in this exclusive little inner-London conservation area, for about 15 years. My family has been here for 35 years, not long by local standards. For the past ten, I’ve been sharing the house with a black man, for the past seven, with our kid.
Since then, there have been one or two distressing incidents involving stupid local police officers. There’s a simmering tension between the majority private-school and local-state-school mums, as regular readers may know. But on the whole, the kids and everyone gets along. My partner’s and kid’s may be the only non-white faces at the summer party, or at annual carol singing, but the mainly young professionals who move in, as older, less-moneyed people sell at huge profit and move away, are generally open, tolerant people, and we do not feel unwelcome.
But the exceptions are brutal, and not actually about race, although that comes into play if deemed convenient. It’s about being the Right Sort. You see, he’s not only black, my partner, but he works with his hands. He has a white van, which is colourfully painted with his company logo. He parks it, naturally, when not at the workshop, in our lovely conservation area, which, as a resident, he has every right to do.
A Tory grandee type in his 60s with a well-groomed, 40-ish wife, relatively new residents I believe, just told me in the most unpleasant terms that the van, “blatant advertising” has “no right to be parked where it is. It’s always here, have you noticed? And what’s more, have you seen how scruffy it is? I’m quite sure he has never got a single job out of it.”
“That’s not why it’s parked there,” I said. “It’s parked there because the owner lives here.”
This failed to penetrate. “I’m taking it up with the council!” he declared. He stormed off, I hope to do just that, but more likely heading for the House of Lords bar.
I don’t think he has a leg to stand on, but it’s worrying nonetheless. He and my family are supposed to be neighbours, though that’s precisely the fact this snob couldn’t countenance. If he’s mainly bothered about his blocked basement window, which I really don’t believe, he could have tried asking us nicely.
When you live your life cushioned by liberal assumptions, whereby you assume everybody basically assumes all people equal, tradespeople and professionals doing equally valid work, and equally deserving of respect, irrespective of income (though it would be nice if that were more equal too), it’s a shock to run up against a manifest conviction to the contrary, even though you know in theory there’s a lot of it out there. I confess I’m spoilt by my lifestyle. At home and with my kid, the only real-live people I encounter on a regular basis are my extended family, my one or two friends, and my kid’s lovely teachers. Beyond that I choose my influences, which books to read, which emails and blogs to write and receive, who and what to listen to; and I choose, obviously, according to my preconceptions.
So when I’m confronted suddenly with someone who might have been Rupert Murdoch (though it wasn’t), accompanied by someone else who might have been his ex-wife Wendy Deng (though she wasn’t), but anyway, both obviously much wealthier than I am, I am astounded to find that their manners are a hundred times worse. Surely, some old-fashioned corner of me thinks, this cannot be, my evident superiors, if not elders, behaving so obviously badly? What happened to the gentlemanly-liberal assumptions of my parents?
It’s distressing. I’m still distressed. I hate this city as much as I love it, and here’s one more reason to start thinking about moving away.