Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 3
Thursday, 8th Mar 2012
Christchurch Primary was a mixed school where I passed from laddish indifference to girls, through to the first stirrings that these curious beings might actually serve some purpose beyond ‘kiss chase’. A predominately white, Church of England establishment, it was the better of two local schools; the other was Cowley where the roughnecks went. The neighbourhood I grew up in had a liberal sprinkling of Jamaicans, Irish, English and the aforementioned Greeks. As I remember it was about as harmonious as a bunch of displaced misfits could get. If there was any trouble it was of the type of drama reminiscent of cheap daytime soap operas. I never saw any direct racial trouble. Although when things erupted, as they inevitably would in this fragile ecosystem, people were quick to revert to basic colour-coded insults. We had the usual assortment of urban bit players and everyone knew who the major characters were, and who had bit parts. During the late sixties, I moved on to Archbishop Tennison’s School in Oval, south east London. I was truly dropped in the deep end being the only West Indian pupil at the school over a five-year period. My father was so proud when he found out that I’d been accepted by a Grammar School, he ran out and got me a shiny tan leather briefcase with my initials embossed in gold on the side. I hated that briefcase. We had to wear short trousers for the first year of Grammar School. On the very first day the school bully greeted us ‘first years’ by slashing our legs with his steel comb. When he made a move on me I smacked him in the mouth—simultaneously the bell for break rang, giving him no time to retaliate. Perfect timing. It wasn’t that I was particularly good at fighting, it was just that if I had gone home and told my parents that I’d let someone do that to me they would have beaten me! But by the same token if I went home and told my parents I’d got a beating from a teacher guess what, I’d also get a beating from them. Go figure.
Whilst at school, I can remember all too well Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that he made in 1968. He demanded an immediate lowering of the numbers of immigrants setting up life in the UK and wanted those that were already lIving here to be sent back home. That speech had a devastating effect at street level. One minute I’m playing with my mates in the playground the next it was fuck off you black bastard. Wog, nigger, Kit-E-Kat eater, Brillo bonce, coon, sunshine, chief, sambo—all these names and more were used to try to humiliate me. But whenever they called me a name, I’d just proudly reply, “That’s right.” It was like “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” as James Brown put it. This would piss them off no end and in the end they began to respect my stance. During this period I became close to a white guy called Roy Freeland or ‘Froggy’ as he came to be known and we became best of friends throughout secondary school. He was the one that got me hooked on the Beatles. I’d bought “Penny Lane” for seven shillings and six pence, a huge commitment in those days. It was Froggy that taught me the meaning of ‘obsession’. Luckily my steadily growing ego would save me from the one-way street of ‘fandom’, but not before I had acquired one of the largest collection of Beatles’ memorabilia in the U.K years later.
At the age of twelve I had to decide which subjects to pursue to examination level. Simple, right? Wrong. My parents believed that a black person couldn’t possibly make a living as an artist. So in my best interests they decided that I should take up physics, chemistry and technical drawing. Years later when it came time to sit my exams, in a moment of rebellion, I wrote on my chemistry paper, “a chemist I was not to be, that I clearly state, ’cause I got a splitting headache and I cannot concentrate.” I drew a nude woman for my technical drawing examination with the caption: “curves are better than straight lines.” Anyway, we’d just discovered sex, drugs and rock’n’roll for Christ’s sake! God knows what a distraction that can be for a jaded adult, let alone those juveniles who considered they were boldly going were no man had been before.
Now in my formative years I was immersed in white culture. Through hanging with white guys like Froggy I got to hear bands like Led Zeppelin, Captain Beefheart, Cream and Pink Floyd. I had that coming in one ear, and in the other ear I was listening to black music. Being immersed in black and white cultures made me open-minded and was the beginning of me not wanting to be defined by my colour. I didn’t understand the attitude or school of thought that said, “If you are black, then you could only listen to black music and be immersed in black culture.” The juxtaposition of black and white cultures side-by-side just made for a more interesting ride.
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