Matt Abbott: On Thursday night, in my humble home city of Wakefield, I was spoken word compère at a benefit gig for the Mid-Yorks NHS strike fund. This was organised by Unison, the large trade union, and as always the crowd was full of political activists, punk fans and socialist sympathisers. My short bursts of anti-Tory punk poetry skits went down a storm, and all in all it was a bloody brilliant night. We raised money for the workers on strike, we heard some great music, and as always there was a “coming together” of hearts and minds; a connection of ideologies and convictions, a sharing of the general notion of what’s right and what’s wrong, and an undying appreciation for Doc Martens.
So, as I said, it was a bloody great night, and I left the venue afterwards feeling really inspired. Political activism and awareness is pretty much an alien concept in most mainstream contemporary music, but in that room upstairs at The Hop on Thursday evening it was as powerful as ever. I can’t quite imagine a corresponding event on the opposing side of the picket line; can you? Anyway, I digress.
I guess the point I’m making is that whenever an unfortunate predicament such as the Mid-Yorks NHS strikes occurs, you can guarantee that there’ll be rooms packed full of people wanting to make a difference and digging into their pockets on a cold, snowy mid-week evening in the hope that their contribution will go a little way to resolving the situation. People care, people have a conscience, and people want to make a different. In an age seemingly dominated by apathy, the vein that pumps through the helping hand still very much flows.
Fast forward to Saturday night; I’d been out for a few drinks in Sheffield and had pelted down the hill dangerously close to 22:34 in a bid to catch the last train back to Wakefield. When I arrived at Sheffield station, somewhere in the region of 22:32, I was horrified to see that the last train had been replaced by a bus service, which meant that I had to sprint down the road again to the Interchange and pray to the lord that it hadn’t set off bang on time. Fortunately it hadn’t, and I was no longer eyeing-up the pavements in favour of a £60 taxi home.
Anyway, there were two other blokes joining me on the coach; as well as the driver. The two blokes looked to be in their early, maybe mid-thirties. They’d clearly had a few, and carelessly discarded their empty McDonald’s wrappers as they followed me on. They started dishing out a bit of playful abuse in the direction of the driver; asking why we had to get a coach instead of a train and nagging him to stop off at a strip club or a kebab shop – whichever appeared first – on our way out of Sheffield city centre.
To be fair to the driver he took it on the chin, a bit of “playful banter”, and by the time we were on the M1 it appeared to settle down a little. But then the moment that I’d been dreading; the moment I feared might come but hoped beyond everything that in this day and age, it never would. One of the blokes climbed forward and sat beside the driver. “So where the fuck are you from then?” he asked, with a sinister tone. The driver responded immediately, “Sheffield, I’m from Sheffield.” There was an awkward silence, and then the pissed-up idiot continued, “Well you weren’t fucking born in Sheffield, were you? Where are you from you smelly bastard?” The driver paused, swallowed his instincts, and with a level of dignity that I could never manage to find in such a scenario, he replied, “I was born in Ghana, and I moved here with my family five years ago. I live in Sheffield, I work in Sheffield and I pay tax in Sheffield. I shop in Sheffield, I vote in local elections in Sheffield and at the weekend, I always check to see how the two football teams are doing. So, to answer your original question, I am from Sheffield.”
There was another silence, this one more likely a product of confusion than awkwardness, and for a brief period I hoped that this might signal the end of their conversation. It didn’t. For the remainder of the forty minute journey back to Wakefield, the driver was subjected to a tirade of abuse; masquerading as “banter” and “fun” but unable to be described as anything other than abuse. If I’d have been at the wheel I’d have kicked the fuckers out onto the hard shoulder. I mustered up the courage to tell them to pack it in a few times; not an easy thing to do no matter how angry you are, but something I couldn’t simply remain a silent witness to. Obviously they discarded my comments and completely ignored me, and if anything it jeered them on. I guess in a selfish way I almost did it so that the driver didn’t think they were with me, I don’t know.
So we eventually arrive in Wakefield and they stagger off the bus, and I deliberately loiter by my seat for a few seconds. On my way off, I turn to look at the driver and offer my apologies. I give him a fiver tip because I feel sorry for the poor bastard, and he thanked me for it, but the look in his eyes was absolutely crushing. Obviously being a white Caucasian in the UK, racist abuse isn’t something I can relate to. And you hear people speak about it and you read about it, and I’ve spoken to friends who’ve suffered it, and we all know how truly horrendous it is. But to look into the eyes of a man who’d just been subjected to it whilst he was supposed to be helping us out and earning a wage…well let’s just say I hope to god I never see that again. I can’t even begin to imagine how he must have felt.
As I walked up towards The Pie Shop, I felt angry, embarrassed, guilty, frustrated…forty eight hours after that gig at The Hop I’m stood in exactly the same spot, and suddenly we’re back to the 1980s again. The fact of the matter is; racism is still rife in 2013. The neo-Nazi BNP still represents Yorkshire in the European Parliament. The far right is not a distant memory, and bigotry is not simply a stain on yesteryear.
Now I’ve worked and campaigned with Love Music Hate Racism since early 2007, and at every single Skint & Demoralised gig without fail, I perform my anti-BNP spoken word piece at the end. I’ve always spoken out against racism; working with LMHR on carnivals and events, delivering workshops and speaking at assemblies in schools and even sitting on the panel of a press conference at the House of Lords following the European Election results back in 2009. It’s long since been a part of S&D, but I guess after a while I forgot exactly how much it meant to me. And sitting on that coach on Saturday night, witnessing firsthand the ignorant bile that idiots like that can produce, I genuinely felt sick to my stomach. It’s 2013 for crying out loud! I shouldn’t be writing a blog about racism.
I will never, for as long as I live, no matter how much my brain tires and how much my memory suffers as a result; I will never forget the day that I visited Auschwitz in 2005. Never, no matter what happens. I was sixteen years old when I visited the concentration camps with Sixth Form College. And to be quite honest I don’t think anything else could affect me quite as profoundly as that did.
I won’t go into details and I won’t elaborate on the point; that’d be another 1500 words, and it’s not as if you need me to educate you on the horrors of the Second World War, and what actually occurred at Auschwitz. It brings a shudder down my spine just thinking about it. We all know how utterly revolting the story is, but at the same time I don’t think anybody can quite comprehend it. How human beings were capable of that is beyond me. But I didn’t want this blog to be about Hitler and Auschwitz. We can’t do anything about that; we can’t change it, and we certainly can’t prevent it. It’s a horrible lesson to be learnt by all. But when I’m sat on a coach between Junction 36 and 37 of the M1 Northbound and somebody is calling the black bus driver a “fucking wog” because he wants to get off at 41 instead of 39…well, we can do something about that. We can change that, and we can prevent that.
It doesn’t particularly help that the Captain of the England football team is a racist knobhead and it doesn’t help either that vile publications like the Daily Mail constantly spout xenophobic propaganda in order to fuel the “us and them” culture that allows racism to silently bury itself inside of.
But if more people speak out against racism; the stupid Facebook statuses, the throwaway comments in the pub, pissed up chants at the football; and if more people are vocal about the fact that it is simply intolerable in this day and age. Then hopefully by the time my children visit Auschwitz, it truly will be a thing of the past.