At twelve, my best friend was a white boy named David who lived across the road from us. He and I walked to school together, both worshipped Arsenal Football Club, went berry picking with his dad in summer, slept in each other’s house at weekends or pitched a tent in the back yard just for fun in stormy weather.
One day he became ‘an accidental Skinhead’ when the barber gave him a lopsided haircut. I didn’t laugh like the others when his white mate, Steve, said he looked like “a fucking plucked chicken.” David went back next day and had his head shaved. He never spoke to me again after Steve had his hair cropped too, although I lived on the same road in the same house and went to the same school for four more years. He developed Skinhead associations in steel-toed boots and drainpipe denims.
This was the normal pattern of racial division in South London, as we moved from the primary school innocence of multi-racial friendships, into a comprehensive education system reflecting the myriad concerns of a racist adult world. Consequently, the black boys tended to band together, as did the white lads, and the few Asians. There was a safety in numbers we felt.
Our particular band of boys shared the same interest in music and in the white girls who showed us favour. We also shared our teachers’ over-enthusiastic push for us to take up track and field sports. We suffered their “limited expectations” of our potential educational and vocational achievements. A point underlined by the over-representation of black students in the low ability “C” and “D” band classes. Of the approximately 160 black first year students at our school (40%), there were only three in “A” band classes (0.75%). At the start of term there had been just two.
My Primary School teacher had developed a notion that I was “educationally subnormal” (ESN) and in need of remedial classes (Special Ed.) The term “ESN” was then a popular label given to black children, particularly boys and those who were new to British schools. As low expectations lead to low achievements, this “self-fulfilling prophecy” may well have become fact had it not been for my mother’s tenacity, regular elocution lessons, and private one-to-one tuition from a band of strict Catholic nuns. Three weeks into school, and I am moved from the “C” to the “B” to the “A” band. One year later and a black girl joins our ranks. We are now four black pupils out of 90 “A” band students in our age group (4.4%).
We saw Hyacinth in classes only, but Marsid, Steven, and I, hung out both during and after school. Since Steven’s mum would not let him roam too far from ‘Snobs Ville’ where they lived, more often than not, we traded him for Andrew, the school’s champion sportsman and a “B” band student. Times had changed. It was 1979 and Margaret Thatcher had just become Britain’s first woman prime minister. We were now turning sixteen, gaining in confidence, and approaching manhood. Like the new prime minister, we too wanted to explore new territory, to experience things our parents had never dared consider. We were black but we were born here. There was nothing we felt we could not do in our own country. Then as the pulse of black “disco” and “dance” music began to permeate the club scene of Britain’s major cities, we found in its rhythm our raison d’être.
Zoom-Zooms nightclub was nowhere near where we lived. We had each travelled our various miles to get there, but since they played the best Jazz-Funk in a ten-mile radius of Lewisham Town Centre on a Monday night, all the “dance freaks” came out this way to party. We three knew that if we were lucky, we would get the last night-bus outside the club and straight to the safety of multi-racial Lewisham where we could bus, taxi or walk it home. We kissed our white girls goodnight, but Lady-luck it seemed was not on our side. We had to wait for a bus on a dark street in Eltham.
If you were black, sixteen, and travelling across London in 1979, you quickly learnt to sense where your face was not wanted. Eltham was such a place. It is today one of the few parts of South London where the traditional “British Bulldog Spirit” can still be seen in all its ferocity. Most black South Londoners “won’t set foot there”, but we did not know that then. So when the skinhead tapped me on the shoulder from behind, and I turned to face him, he broke my nose. His seven friends charged, howling, “Niggers! Get em!” We ran. We were in danger, outnumbered, they were swinging metal chains, and we ran. Even when we flagged a police car, and thought it would stop to protect us, we kept on running. Then while the officers inside gave us the finger sign for “Up-Yours!” we turned a corner and banged on a door.
A frail, frightened, woman cracked a peek from behind curtains and glass. Her fear was no match for our insistence. She grudgingly allowed us to call the police. She then made us wait outside, so as not to have my blood soak the red of her blood-red carpet. The police came too late, if they came at all, and that winter’s night changed all our lives for good. We never went back to Zoom-Zooms. I was never again in Eltham. Within weeks of the attack our little band of boys had dispersed with each member attaching himself to a different and separate section of the black political spectrum.
Fourteen years later, on the night of April 22, 1993, Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths on the streets of Eltham. He was an 18-year-old student with a very promising future. Everything to live for by all accounts. His death could have happened to any of us. It was patently clear to all that the attack was racially motivated, clear to everyone, except the police. None of the suspects – five well-known local criminals and racists – have ever been convicted. Then again, many of us expected no other outcome. Some have suggested that Stephen should have known better than to get off a bus in Eltham at night. I admit, I knew something Stephen did not know. Something he had yet to learn. For me, the lesson came at a similar bus stop in Eltham that night in 1979. Run! Damn it – run! Except Stephen did not run. Nor could he see that his life was in danger. He was not a boy of the streets.
As for us famous four school friends, Steven went to Oxford University like his mother had always demanded. He is now a top manager in Social Housing. Marsid recently turned forty-three and is Head of Marketing for one of London’s railway companies. Our Andrew turned to the preachings of Rastafari. He now works in Social Services, while me, I’m just your friendly freelance writer.