I got into a fistfight in a kebab shop in Northumberland.
I was up near the Scottish border working on a telly show that was shooting in the town of Alnwick (which is inexplicably pronounced Annick). Anlwick is conventionally described as a “charming little town”, but I hesitate to use this description as is not in the least bit expressive. It is hard to avoid. Towns such as Alnwick seem made to be described that way. The words picturesque, scenic and quaint also spring to mind without adding further nuance. “Well preserved medieval market town”? Perhaps.
But the truth is if I were to give a really accurate description of Alnwick based on my experience the words “hotbed of white supremacy” would almost certainly be included.
If you haven’t heard of Alnwick, you will almost certainly have seen its castle, which is used as a backdrop in the Harry Potter films, as well as other classics such as The Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court. Alnwick Castle is still the home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland and driving past one night we noticed the blue flickering light of a TV in a third-storey window in the east wing — presumably the Duke and Duchess were watching Snog Marry Avoid? along with the rest of England.
We wrapped up shooting in Alnwick on a Friday night, and most of the crew immediately headed back down south. For one reason or another, my colleague Greg and I had to stay an extra night. And of course, being Friday night we decided we may as well go out and see what the Charming Little Town of Alnwick has to offer in the way of nightlife. From that point on getting into a fight in a kebab shop was probably inevitable, but somehow we still didn’t see it coming — even when our local contributors suggested we head to a pub called the Hairy Lemon.
If it was binge drinking and ’80s disco we were after (which, let’s face it, we pretty much were) then the Hairy Lemon was certainly the place to be — helped by being the only place in town open after 11pm. It was at around this point of the evening things started getting racist.
One guy bought me a drink when I told him I was Australian and then proceeded to tell me how much he wanted to move there — a fairly cosmopolitan start and actually not an unusual event. According to a recent study there are currently 11 million Britons seriously considering moving to Australia.
I asked my new friend why he wanted to immigrate to a country he has never been to and his response was enlightening. “Well I don’t know much about it,” he said in the soft Northumbrian lilt, “but from what I do know, it’s pretty much just like England, before we let all the Pakis in.” I tried to explain that this was not entirely accurate, but it was difficult to know where to begin.
When the Hairy Lemon closed the most inebriated girls tottered home, supported by their mean-looking boyfriends. The rest of us went to the kebab shop — small, crowded, but good-natured. Then for no obvious reason a 15-year-old girl started screaming hysterically at the shopkeeper. “You f-cking Paki c-nt! Go home you stinky f-cking Paki c-nt!”
The shopkeeper seemed rather bemused by the whole thing, possibly because he was clearly of African extraction and had almost certainly never been to Pakistan. Greg stepped in and said quite reasonably: “Hang about love, you can’t say that.” And then the girl attacked Greg. She was clawing at his face, Greg was trying to defend himself, I got in between them, and the girl bit Greg’s arm and didn’t let go. Someone shouted at us to stop and the girl’s boyfriend threw a kebab at them.
Then things really got going. It was like one of those western bar brawls, only everyone was covered in garlic sauce. At one stage there were about 10 of us barricading the door shut from the inside while another group was trying to break it down and storm the building. If it hadn’t been so ridiculous it would have been terrifying.
Pretty soon the police showed up, order was restored and we all picked the chips and doner meat out of our hair. Nobody had been seriously hurt, except for Greg who had a bite mark in his arm like he had been attacked by some sort of rabid wobbegong. Charming little town, indeed.
Thankfully I haven’t seen much racial violence like that so far in Britain, but incidents of casual, inclusive bigotry like the man in the Hairy Lemon have been notably common. I’m actually writing this in central Hackney — which must be one of the more multicultural areas on the planet — but once you get out of the big cities you realise Britain is still very white and incredibly xenophobic.
And to be honest it can get pretty bad in the cities as well. Even the most liberal people I meet seem quite comfortable expressing alarm at the influx of Poles and often outright mistrust of “Arabs”. Given the reputation for racism that Australia holds in the UK Brits tend to find it strange when I pull them up on a minor racial slur or discriminatory position.
The recent violence against Indian students in Melbourne has received quite a lot of coverage in the British press. I even heard a program on Radio Four reporting on the Vindaloo Against Violence culinary protest.
Given what I have seen in the UK I find it alarming that, even here, Australia is earning a reputation for racist bashings. And Melbourne no less. I have been away from home while most of this violence has taken place and I find it very hard to reconcile with my feelings for Melbourne as a kind of multicultural utopia. Maybe I am being naïve. Maybe it takes an outsider to see what is really there. And maybe Melbourne really is as racist as the UK.
I hope not. If things are as bad at home as they seem to here then somewhere we really have gone wrong.
Living overseas and travelling overseas are two similar but actually completely different things. Your understanding of a place changes completely once you stay there, rent a place, find a job, make local friends. The series Gentlemen of Leisure — nope we’re not being sexist, simply referencing Norman Lindsay’s iconic Magic Pudding — is stories of Australians living overseas. Got a post you’d like to pen? Email [email protected]