Those who read Greyhares will know that, when out in public, I am an inveterate chatterer. The content of my chat varies, covering anything from idle chit-chat, to serious debate, to the infamous imparting of unsolicited advice. To these more traditional categories, I have just added a fourth – the ‘avuncular chat’. Here, the purpose is simply to give a warm message of support. This new category was developed as part of a campaign I launched last month. I am hoping that others will soon join me.
Some weeks ago, Tina, a good friend and neighbour, told us how she had recently helped to comfort a young mother who was abused as she stood by her pram in a bus. A middle-aged man, having heard her speaking with her child, shouted aggressively “You’re a foreigner. We don’t want foreigners here”. The woman was visibly shaken, indeed tearful and, in response, Tina went over and gave her a warm hug and said aloud, as though addressing the whole bus “You are very welcome here”. For all concerned the attack was clearly most disquieting.
Attacks like this are not new to the UK, but I had understood that the types of racism that occurred during the last century were over. I believed that, over time, we had become an integrated nation where respect and multiculturalism were so much part of society that public abuse was rare.
Assuming I was right, then the position has seriously deteriorated since the Brexit referendum. Everyday, we learn how adults and children with foreign sounding names or foreign accents, are targets for abuse, with threats and name-calling rife. As the French ambassador to the UK pointed out in an article in the French daily Le Monde, even French people living in the UK are feeling vulnerable and unwelcome. Moreover, she added, the abuse suffered by her kith and kin was nothing compared to that faced by people from Poland or Romania.
What’s to be done? My thinking was as follows – just as abuse hurts people, surely hearing that they are welcome fortifies them. While Tina’s response was laudable, my plan was to be more proactive. Rather than respond to abuse once it has occurred, why not offer support to would-be targets beforehand. It seems likely that giving such support in a calm atmosphere prior to any attack would be more effective than giving it when the abuse is underway.
So this is how my campaign works. If, by chance, I find myself with people who are likely to be identified as targets, so those with accents suggesting they are recently from abroad, I would first ask questions to confirm my impression as to their backgrounds and, if they are not from the UK, tell them how I value their being here, thank them for coming, and tell them how, as far as I am concerned, they are most welcome.
But is there any chance that words alone could help? Is there any way they could compensate for, or offset the effect of, the abuse to come? And, is there a danger that my words would be seen as patronising or glib? Despite some forebodings, I feel confident that carefully chosen words will work. As a wordsmith, I see words as so fundamental to our everyday lives that, if they are deemed important, notice will be taken and relief afforded. After all, if words weren’t effective why would we have such telling adages as “The pen is mightier than the sword” and “One kind word can change someone’s entire day”.
My campaign is three weeks old and I have now spoken with twenty one people, approached by dint of their being either near-neighbours on a bus or train, sitting at an adjacent table in a cafe, or serving me in a restaurant or shop. Amongst them, seven have hailed from France, eight from Italy, three Poland, one Romania, one Albania and one, embarrassingly, from Manchester. With the Mancunian I did a quick re-take and changed the subject. Amongst the others one looked bemused, another disinterested, fifteen thanked me warmly, two very warmly and one, a Pole, was so delighted and grateful that I thought she would burst into tears.
During one of my conversations in a cafe, I noticed a man, possibly Italian, sitting at a table opposite looking on intently. It transpired that he was actually British and was very suspicious. I explained what I was up to and asked him if would join me in my campaign. He paid his bill, packed up his things and, as he was leaving, shouted from the other side of the cafe, “Yes! Your idea has got legs. Count me in”.
That now makes two campaigners; perhaps some Greyhares readers will join the movement too.
Cartoon: Xenophobic World Map, ©John Atkinson, Wrong Hands