So.. bout two months ago, I spoke about writing an article for Tresspass magazine. The issue called 'What is Black' came out. And perhaps it was meant to be ironic or someone up there is taking the most visceral of pisses, but about 90 percent of the magazine and pieces written by the darker hued writers were illustrated with...chocolate!
Once again, I am thankful that I am multi skilled, I chose to illustrate and lay out my piece. This is what I wrote: ------------
I arrive early for a poetry event in Camden. Not much is going on save the rumour of music rising tiredly from instruments as musicians flex and test sound levels. I greet the guys, hi-five Ash the organiser, tell him I'll be back in five, want to pick up a penguin (I’m peckish), and sprint along the Camden high street, past McDonalds and into a Subway. Two pounds later, I munch a sandwich of grilled chicken, cheese, lettuce and jalapenos, finish in five minutes flat, bin the wrapping and consider returning to the venue, but the glare of a McDonalds calls to me. I step in, not to eat, but to make use of tables and chair in the well-lit area, to write something until the show begins.
I sit and sink into 'the zone'. Scratch that, try to find the bloody thing. A man walking towards me from the cash register, cradling a cup, hails me with a bristling 'You look like a fine gentleman, can I sit with you?' I am so jolted by the unusually formal greeting, I stammer...'of, of, course, yeah...' He sits down opposite, and in an instant, I am staring into the most brilliant blue eyes I have ever seen. Starting from the rim the iris is an azure/cobalt blue, which seems to fade to a light grey, then a semi-turquoise, with streaks of sky arrowing into the black holes of pupils, the florescent lights lie on them like flat diamonds. His face does not match his eyes. Nothing shines it. His pale white skin is dirty, partly unshaven and an unruly hay field of graying hair aggravates its way out of his skull, falls down the sides forming a loose frame.
He introduces himself as Ron. And asks where I am from.
I usually answer with 'Nunhead', and follow the baffled look with a 'it is a small place in South London, fringing Peckham'. Then I get the - 'No, where are you From FROM' question. A lot of my friends (if not all) who are of darker hues and are British will get pissed at this point, but I never do, as I am not British. I answer 'Ahh, I am Nigerian'. But Ron ignores this and just scowls after Nunhead, tells me he doesn't like crossing the river. I ask why. He stops moving for about four seconds, actually stops moving, sits completely still, stares into the distance, he is frozen. Then motion returns, he cheshire-cat smiles at me and says ' That's a dubious question!' He has a voice that crackles like fried gravel, it crunches out of him, much like his hair. I can just about understand what he says, and try to keep the conversation going. He is clearly in some stage of homelessness, his hands, filthy, are in stark contrast to the clean white table.
Why is it dubious? I ask, It is though, sure it is. Don't like Hackney, I lived there you know, Diane Abbot was the MP, saw her all the time back then. She's a black beautiful woman, little dolly bird. She has more bottle than you.
Okay. Where did that come from?
Diane Abbot? I ask, Did you know her?
He freezes at my question and stares into the distance again, stills again, moves after four moments and replies with a satisfied, 'That's a dubious question'...
At this point, I think he isn't... all here, perhaps a touch of dementia or something. The stares-into-distances are intelligent, as if looking at data on a computer screen, trying to process it, but the information is lost in translation.
He keeps talking about Diane Abbot, says that she was a fine woman back then, still lovely, she is not prejudiced, that he loves her, and she loves him, really. I ask how he knows this as he attempts a sip from his cup. He splutters uncomfortably at the liquid, slams the cup on the clean table, and says 'I can't drink that', opens the lid and it is a pint of tar-black coffee, steam chimneying out. I belly laugh in surprise and advise him to let it cool a bit. He winks, 'you have a point there',
then returns again to Abbot, - she has a son you know? Probably thirty years old, something like that. I ask him how he knows, 'Are you the father?' he does the unblinking distance thing again and 'dubious' answers me, clasping his hands. Then he asks about my religion. I ask about his, he replies 'Church of England', pauses for a second then finishes with 'or Jewish'.
when are you Christian or Jewish? depends on who buys the food.
And I laugh again, at the frankness, at the childish honesty. I imagine he's got nothing to lose in talking with me, as I have with him. A car's horn blasts outside, I look up to notice Ron and I are attracting attention from others in the room. Before I decide on what to do, Ron leans forward, whispers, 'can I ask you a question'? I am lean forward too, and reply,
sure, go for it. why do black people have a chip on the shoulder?
Again, I am jolted. Why would this question even be on HIS mind and why is it important enough to ask? I consider trying to cram a brief history lesson, anthropological theory, economic and geographic breakdown of the UK in a sentence, give up and pass the question back, 'why do you think Ron?' and he answers:
because they were treated badly in the past.
and I like him for it. Not because he has said anything in any way profound, but because in his little madness, he thought this through and came up with an answer with some shred of truth, of recognition in it. I ignore the others, carry on speaking with him. He asks me if I knew he was once an officer, I say no, and he is incredibly surprised at this! Says he left the army in the eighties, that the bravest soldiers he fought with were all...
'gays, all of them, they committed suicide though, couple of them drove off a cliff in a motorbike'
The conversations chugs on, his gravel voice steaming with sips from his pint of coffee. It goes to Sammy Davis Junior, 'greatest singer ever' Ron says, 'he'd go on stage with the rat pack and steal the show, but have to go back door to get a cup of tea' to Mike Tyson, 'greatest fighter ever, I would like to meet him, he'd probably buy me a cup of tea, I'd shake his hands, but he won't want to get in a ring with me. Why? cause I fight dirty'. All the while, I am scribbling furiously. His stream of sentences are punctuated with the mention of Diane Abbot, his 'dolly bird' having more bottle than anyone, and his blank stares into nothing.
When the conversation lulls naturally, I glance at my watch and realise we've been talking for twenty minutes, I tell Ron I have to leave and stand up as he thanks me for talking to him. He reaches out his now coffee-wet dirty hand - as dark as the inside of my palms, lets it falter in mid air, not sure if I will accept. Do I take it?
Course I do. Grasp it warmly, glance into those Atlantis eyes and sprint down Camden High Street with two things on my mind. One, the fastest route to a bathroom, I need to wash my hands. Two, Ron. I can't fathom what series of events shaped him, a homeless veteran. What does he see in the distance, what war was he involved in, what dreams of Diane Abbot have come from living on Camden's streets. And to be honest, I would not have cared, but the old boy charm, mixed with the shoulder chip thing endeared him to me. As I take the stage, I silently dedicate the performance to Ron, and regret not running back to ask him what he thought was black.