FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS
“Like Proust meets Cervantes- with added sex!”
1. The barmitzvah (1984)
For many years, I went to bed early, with someone whose name I do not wish to recall. But more of that later.
I thought of my best friend’s coming-of-age party as a barmitzvah, which is a bit weird, as not only was he a Hindu, but I wasn’t aware of ever having met anyone Jewish, and had certainly never been to a barmitzvah. I think I was just aware that when a one-liner fell flat, you were supposed to say “I’m available for weddings and barmitzvahs!”. This was a formative joke that was buried deep. (The other one from this period was “I’m not worried about money, and I’ve got piles!”, which I still love to this day, partly because it doesn’t quite make sense).
Reaching back, this was the first time I was conscious of having fun with someone from a different culture. My primary school had been very white, Church of England, in a village that had been a multiple winner of the “Best-Kept Village Green Award”, had a haunted pub built out of a graveyard, but also had constant aircraft noise as it was under the flight path to Heathrow (at Vermeulens’ Garden Centre you could reach up and touch the planes’ wings while your parents were inspecting gardening equipment) and a wine bar called “La Bougie Bistro”, that villagers jokily called “la boogy” out of a mixture of ignorance of French pronunciation, and respect for the licentiousness of its wine-quaffing after-work snogging reputation.
Anyway, in my early years, I mainly knew white people. On summer Sunday afternoons I could choose between playing a record (33” vinyl of monologues and silly songs- Bob Newhart’s The Driving Inspector or Peter Sellers’ A Hard Day’s Night- or of recordings of steam engines whooshing past) or going out on my tricycle. One day I chose the latter. I woke up on the Monday morning to tell my mother excitedly “I dreamt about a black lady!” (Don’t get funny ideas- I was pre-school! “Lady” meant a sub-human person of the elderly category, the kind that a normal, running, skipping person or dog might be carrying along behind them). Mum smiled knowingly and said “That’s because you saw one in the park yesterday!”
That kind of ignorance, through sheer lack of contact, was also embarrassingly evident in my first year at primary. I proudly passed on a playground joke to my teacher, with the naive enthusiasm of the inexperienced joke-teller. “Why are there so many black people in England?” Awkward pause. “Because…. (starts singing in a rowdy, deep caricature of a TV advert) “Cadbury’s takes ‘em and it covers ‘em in chocolate!” Pause for effect. “But there aren’t lots of black people in England. Why are you saying that, Matthew?”
What is now called the Roma community was visible at the school, though. Some people called them “gippoes”. Billy and his friends and extended family were said to live in caravans. That was all that was obviously different about them, though I remember not only liking Billy a lot, finding him uninhibited and entertaining, but also slightly mysterious and romantic. (At 5, I was clearly a patronising Orientalist in the making). I’m undoubtedly reading too much into this now, but he was darker-skinned, charming, funny, and apparently very sensitive. On the first day of school the teacher said “Now we’re going to do some work” and he burst into tears. When the teacher asked why, Billy replied “My Dad goes to ‘work’ every day, and he hates it.”
He soon gained a reputation for being good with his hands, and he once fixed the classroom sink before the plumber had time to arrive. He also loved creating double-nouns (when the floor was wet, he would always point at me and say “Don’t fall on your bum-bum!”) and he pronounced my name in a totally different way to everybody else: something like “Ma-fa-yu!” Definitely three syllables. Not until I lived in Spain, 15 years later, would I hear such lavish variations- as well as the localised “Mateillo”, the approximations “Macius” and “Marcius”, always with a final “s”.
Who doesn’t love a gypsy? As a pre-teen I was obsessed with Adam Ant. I still am, if I’m honest. (In one interview, he said the most important man in his life while growing up was his maternal grandfather, a Romani gypsy). My mate Kerry and I would jump out of apple trees and shout “Stand and deliver!” at the dog. As a student in England I had an obsession with Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, and his short stories depicting reckless infatuations with gypsy girls. As a student in Spain, it was Lorca, and I lived for a year in Granada’s Albayzin, the home of one of Europe’s most settled and vibrant gypsy communities. But more of that later. Probably around the 8th.
It was only when I joined the Cub Scouts that I realized what a social gulf existed. The Scout Hut was near one of the caravans in the woods, but never the twain shall meet. My loyalties were torn, and many people seemed to think I shouldn’t be hanging out with “gippoes” at all.
Big school was in the big town, though, with a large Asian community. I soon made new friends there, without really realizing that there were different “communities”. I mean one friend had a pubescent beard and massive turban, and some people did or didn’t eat different things, but that was nothing special. I had just become vegetarian myself, which a lot of older people found completely alien and baffling.
So when I turned up, aged 13, for a party I thought of as a “barmitzvah”, I was flattered to be invited into a new world of endless plates of food, women in saris, singing and dancing.
Sorry, I got a bit sidetracked there and now I’m out of time. Hold the saris! Just keep that image in your head for 24 hours, as you go about your business. It’s saris, saris, saris, for the 1st of January this year.
Tune in at the same time tomorrow for FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS, PART TWO: entitled… “THE BARMITZVAH”.