The train came into Chertsey station. My journey had been in three parts: first from Exeter St David’s, where there was standing room only; then from Reading to Virginia Water, crowded because Paddington is shut so travellers from the Westcountry had to change to get to Waterloo; the last was a short chug from Virginia Water to Chertsey.
When I stepped off the carriage, the first thing I noticed, to my irritation that part of my barbour zip had landed on the platform tarmac. When I looked up, a group of youths were haranguing the ticket collector. He told them to calm down and back off; instead one of them spat at him, kicked him and called him a paki bastard before they all ran off.
I had given token support to the ticket collector, saying sorry about that and promising to act as a witness. But I had done hardly anything to help him on the spot, other than murmuring ‘oi stop it’ and gesturing to get my phone out to photograph the attacker.
Angered, at them and at myself, I left the station and walked along Guildford Street, cursing this awful country where this sort of behaviour is becoming more common. I had finished Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit on the train and I like to return library books as early as possible after I finish them. Chance would have it that the youths, with their white faces and hoodies, were gathered together in the entrance to the closed library, a squat 1960s structure that sits fifty yards from the road, partly hidden by black railings and leafless bushes. The tall blond one recognized me and shouted ‘Fuck you!’ as I went past. That did it.
I turned into the library precinct, marched along the diagonal path to the portico, walked past the group, put the book into the returns box, turned to the group and said ‘Proud of yourselves?’
‘Proud of kicking, spitting and racially abusing the ticket collector just now?’
‘He attacked a boy yesterday…’
‘My grandfather fought right through World War II,’ said I in full non sequitur.
‘Good for him,’
‘You do not use racially abusive language!’
‘He’s mentally ill,’ said tall dark hair about blond.
‘He’s mentally ill,’ said blond about tall dark hair.
‘And as far as I am concerned you are the lowest of the low’ and I got out my phone to photograph them.
I followed. Blond turned round and punched me in the face, hitting my left cheek. Tall dark hair then thumped the back of my head hard and they all ran off.
Meanwhile, a middle-aged librarian, with glasses and purple Surrey County Council lanyard, appeared. I asked him to ring the police: ‘I don’t think that would help’ he said coldly, ‘But I can be a witness’ he added with a shrug.
Two girls from the group wandered up to me. I am afraid I shouted at them and told them to get new friends when they asked me if I was all right.
I needed to be inside somewhere. I stormed up Guildford Street, finding the Travellodge’s doors would not open; the estate agents with people inside was shut; the Sue Ryder charity shop was open but the volunteer was too near the door by some shelves with a customer and told me to mind the shelves. I snapped that obviously shelves were far more important than someone who’s just been attacked. (I went and said sorry later.)
The newsagent’s was open and the man let me stand in his shop and call the police (I needed to be reminded what the number was: 101). I partly expected to be told that I’d been bloody stupid and had provoked an attack on myself. But I wasn’t.
A lot of people on Facebook and elsewhere have been most kind in talking about my bravery. Truth be told, though, I didn’t feel ‘brave’ at the time (who does?): I just felt very, very angry and aware that I’d be even angrier if I didn’t give them a piece of my mind. This was just the same anger I feel about pavement cyclists, the sort of anger that doesn’t fill me with pride.
Yes, I did confront them when I didn’t need to. Well done me. But I am privileged. I am a white, straight male. Most white, straight males in the UK can expect never to be punched in face by a racist; to be punched in the face by a racist, a white, straight male needs to put his face in the firing line. For ethnic minorities it is different. You expect somehow to be racially abused at some stage. You take with you that knowledge, or indeed foreknowledge. I have never as an adult been abused for having reddish hair or being left-handed.
As a historian I am horrified for two reasons: first, how the hell can I be one if I cannot recall an incident like that, or at least what the perpetrators were wearing? Yes I know the insight it gives me about memory and trauma; I am just jealous of people with better recall. More generally, I am appalled that people born probably in the twenty-first century are ready to be racist: it is nearly forty-nine years since Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, which is over a half a lifetime. The British Empire is a memory for a few but history for many. So why do people need to use racist language? I am no Pangloss and I don’t believe in the perfectibility of humanity but this does bug me.