The Racism of the Short Distance Driver

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of filming.  I am beginning to like filming rather than finding it a slightly unnerving experience, and am looking forward to a further four weeks of filming leading up to Christmas.  It’s great to have work.  What I’m not looking forward to is four weeks of being driven to and from work.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am aware this is a major perk of the business.  It’s also a necessity from a production company’s point of view – they know where their performers are, they know exactly when they were picked up, they know what time they are going to arrive, they aren’t held at the whim of the vagaries of public transport, filming isn’t going to be held up because the Northern line was being a bumhead.  And being driven to and from set is a major perk – I don’t want to get on the tube at 5am, but getting picked up at 5am isn’t so bad.  I am however very bad at small talk.  Especially at 5am.  But I’m too much my mother’s daughter to ignore the driver completely.  In the mornings it’s a bit easier.  I get in, I do a polite “how are you? How is the traffic? You must be tired, you have to get up so early…” then I say, “Sorry I have to learn these lines, I hope you don’t mind.” I then put in my headphones, put a script on my lap and promptly fall asleep.  In the evening, it’s a bit harder.  I do the polite “how are you? How is the traffic?  Have you been working long? Gosh that’s a long day… yes we’ve had a long day.”  Then I say, “Sorry, I’ve got to learn these lines for the morning, I hope you don’t mind”, put in my headphones, put a script on my lap and fall asleep.

But sometimes, I feel this isn’t enough, or I get a particularly chatty driver and they want to talk and I never get to the “Sorry, I’ve got…” bit because they are talking, talking, talking.  At me.  When I’m tired.  And the main topic of conversation always, and I mean ALWAYS, ends up having a racist slant to it.  And I’m too tired to deal with that.  And often too cowardly if I’m honest.

Let’s take last week.  I was picked up after a really long day by a Nigerian driver.  I say this because he was at great pains to point out to me that he wasn’t from London, he only came here between May and October to drive his cab and then he went home to Nigeria where it was warm.  He still thought of Nigeria as home, though he’d been living on and off in London for 23 years.  He loved Nigeria, but wasn’t so keen on London.  I like it, I said.  I don’t, he said.  And then we drove through Stamford Hill.  For those who don’t know London, Stamford Hill is an area where a lot of Hassidic Jews live.  It’s close to where I live and I like it because you can get really good challah there on a Friday. And then he said, “Ugh, look at all these Jews.  They don’t work you know, they just live on welfare.”

“Really?” I said, “I don’t think that’s true.”

“It is, they are lazy, the Jews, they don’t work, especially these ones, because your government lets them not work.”

“OK, again I don’t think that’s true,” I said.

“It is, you don’t know, but it is.  They are lazy, these Jews are lazy, and how do they have all the money?  The Jews have all the money but they don’t work.  How is that?”

“I’d say it’s impossible,” I said, “and it’s a shame you think that.”  I then stopped listening and responding to him.  He put on Heart FM.

It was pretty shocking, casual racism.  And all the more dispiriting to me because the night before I’d had another driver.  A white, Irish driver.  I point out that he was Irish because he was at great pains to let me know that he was Irish, that he didn’t live in London, he didn’t like London, he wasn’t from England, oh and did he mention he hated London?  He lived in Manchester and was working down here for the duration of the shoot.  And he hated it.  He HATES London.  I like it, I said.  I don’t, he said.  At first the conversation was all about how much the dole was in London.  I have very little real idea.  I think it’s about £70.  I have never signed on.  I nearly did once in 1999, but walking into the Job Centre in Orpington made me die inside and I walked out immediately without filling in any of the paperwork.  And eventually got a job sticking up posters. Which also made me die inside, but at least there were nice cafes to sit in while doing it.  He then told me how much money you can make on the dole in Ireland.  It sounded like a hell of a lot.  I thought about moving to Ireland and living on the dole.

Then he started on London.  Which was insensitive.  This is my home.  I love London, I absolutely love it.  I wouldn’t really want to live in any other city in Britain.   Nothing wrong with those cities but this is my home and it pretty much always has been and I thrive on this place.  And having someone tell you where you live is shit isn’t very nice.  Still I’m used to it.  A lot of people don’t like London.  It’s too busy, it’s too noisy, it’s so unfriendly, etc etc.  He had a different reason though, as we drove through Hackney.  “It’s all these coloureds, walking around as if they own the place.”

It sort of took my breath away.  “They do own the place,” I said.   He huffed a bit and then said, “Why do you like it here then?”  I talked about the art, the culture, the sights.  He said, “So you just like the tourist stuff?”  No, I said.  I like everything.  It’s hard to say what you like – it’s easier to say what you hate.  But I like that there are all kinds of people, all kinds of cultures, living with each other.  “Yeah, there’s definitely all kinds of people,” Mick said (that was his name, I’m not being casually racist against the Irish, my sister-in-law is Irish, some of my best friends are Irish, OK?) but he said it in a really disparaging way.  I stopped listening to him, and he put on LBC, which was sort of worse.

I wish I’d not been so tired.  I wish I’d taken him up on it and said don’t be such a racist.  I wish I’d told him this:

Last week my fella and I went up to Alexandra Palace for a walk.  We walked through Priory Park with kids of all colours playing together on the basketball court, while “yummy mummies” ran with their prams doing some kind of baby exercise thing.  We walked up to the Palace, and saw through a window some kind of Sikh ceremony.  We looked in, the door opened, I was waiting to be admonished, when the guy said, “Come in, join in, have a look.”  We did.  I don’t know what the ceremony was, but it seemed to be four couples having some kind of blessing.  My ignorance (and lack of attention in GCSE RE) means I don’t know if it was a joint wedding, or what, but it was great, and there was a live band, and everyone was smiling, and there were priests up on a dias doing things with smoke and what looked like petals, and as we left five minutes later, the guy who’d let us in said, “Thank you for coming” as if we were proper guests. Then we walked round the back to the boating lake where there were families on pedalos, Indian, white, Chinese, and some ridiculous hungover hipsters eating ice-cream on a bench.  Then it started raining, so we ran to take shelter in the ice-rink bit, where there were some teenagers moaning about not being picked up, speaking in that weird North London patois which is a mixture of all sorts of accents and affectations, and they were standing next to some Polish bikers who had come for the motorbike show in the main arena.  We walked back down the hill and through the farmers’ market with the chattering middle classes all trying to buy the last steak for £37.  And we walked back home, via the Broadway, so we could see if there was any challah in Gail’s to go with our fridge dinner.  And what was most amazing about this was that it wasn’t amazing.  It wasn’t remarkable.  It wasn’t odd.  Neither of us noticed or made comment on it.  We live in a city where difference is the norm.  Where less than half the population is considered “White British”, compared to a country where “White British” makes up 87.1% of the population.  That’s why I love London.  I’m not saying there aren’t problems and I’m not saying racism isn’t rife.  All I’m saying is, I’m glad I live here, with the Jews and “coloureds” and the hipsters and the loud mums, and I’d rather live here than in Mick’s world, which is full of hate and misunderstanding.  And I’d rather not be able to articulate exactly what I love than to be so sure of what it is I hate.  So I’m writing a list of things I love, so that in the next four weeks, when someone says something they hate I will counter with things that are great and that make life better.  And that for me includes the melting pot I bubble in.

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