I come from a place called South Hornchurch, a small suburban town at the edge of the East London conurbation. My parents took the bold step of moving from South Hornchurch to Hornchurch proper five years ago which gives me few reasons to return.
However, as it was Easter Sunday and I had absolutely nothing to do, I thought I’d go back and have a look. I took the 252 bus past the site of the World War Two airfield, which still has concrete bunkers I played in when I was a child. Many people locally cling to those World War Two glory years, perhaps because it was a time when the area was of minor strategic importance, and also because men had the chance to do a brave and good thing: defend their country.
As the bus rolled through the airfield estate I noticed on my right several flagpoles in people’s gardens. One flew the Union Jack, two others the English flag with one for the Help The Heroes charity. The four flags were in gardens backing on to each other. It looked like it was a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses exercise, with each goading the other to be as patriotic as possible. I couldn’t help but think that this patriotism was not a simple statement of pride but a banner for all manner of unpleasant, bigoted views, with Help For Heroes being charity of choice.
I got off the bus and went into the Good Intent pub, which I’d always found to be a heavily ironic name. However, there was a friendly atmosphere with the locals enjoying a diet of Sky Sports, decently-priced booze and red meat. I settled in at the bar next to a bloke who was wearing long hair, a cardigan and a Miles Davis t-shirt – the only man who didn’t look like he did most of his clothes shopping in Sports Direct.
The match, Arsenal v Manchester City, began. At one point, Yaya Touré got a heavy challenge and hobbled off the field. One of the burly, shaven-headed men pointed to Touré and said: “He’s black and blue!” which caused great laughter.
Mario Balotelli raised the ire of some Arsenal fans with a couple of late challenges. One of the men, a skinhead, said, “I’d kick him in the face.” None of his friends reacted, so he said it again. Still being blanked, he said to one of them. “I’d kick him in the fucking face. I am a racist. I don’t like blacks, jews, faggots or transvestites.” He then walked outside to have a cigarette.
A quick survey of the pub revealed the only black person was a barmaid who, despite her youth, had a long-suffering look on her face. How many gays, jews or transvestites there were in the pub who could potentially cause him offence I could not tell.
I walked out at half-time, not because of this incident, which I was half-prepared for, but because I wanted to walk around my old neighbourhood. I went to my old school, Brittons, and noticed it wasn’t a school any more – it was now one of Michael Gove’s academies, which I’m sure will make a massive improvement to educational standards. Happily, I saw that the No Trespassing on School Premises sign outside the school had changed to No Pissing.
As I walked around South Hornchurch most of the people I saw were black. This was a big change from when I grew up there, when I knew a very small number of black people.
With the Union Jacks and casual and not so casual racism, I’ve no doubt South Hornchurch isn’t particularly welcoming to these people. I hope that, like Streatham, where I now live, the pubs on matchdays will one day be filled with football fans from all backgrounds, and racists will not just be ignored but barred. But I wouldn’t expect that change to happen any time soon.