Eastern Europe, Racism and Norwich Arts Centre

I’m in Norwich at quaint  Norwich Arts Centre.   I have played here variously over the years. They’ve been booked me  into The Gables Guest House. But in my contract it says “No Guest houses”. So they’ve booked me into a b&b. In my contract it says “…and no b&b’s”

It’s a gorgeous if mono-cultural city. I say mono-cultural as a description of its feel more than anything else. This adds to its beauty. I find that places that are  mono really display the character of a country – it is the same anywhere in the world.  I feel like a white tourist in Kenya looking at the rural huts of the tribe.   I arrive at Norwich train station and see a hotel right outside. I am not staying at that b&b so   I book the hotel and check in. I’ll pay for it myself. 

You can tell where someone is from by their accent and shape of face. So as I stepped
in the lift I said to the gentleman  “from South Africa? ” . He was about forty dressed in a suite and looked tired.  He brightened upon my question and replied in the affirmative. I tell him how much I like South Africa and mention some of the cities I have been too, so that he gets the message that I really do like the country. It turns out he is on a break between
business in Belgium, doing a little sight seeing in Europe and has just returned from eastern Europe.  I sense something and asked “how did they treat you?”.  There is alot of subtext to this question.  His eyebrows raised in understated exasperation.

We know, Black folks, that Eastern Europe is one of the most overtly racist places in Europe for a black man.  After much conversation  he ends with  “they are ignorant”.  This,  from a black South African: a man who had faced down racism in his own life time, in his own country. A man who was part of a culture who named it and stopped it as best he could. He’s clearly educated and softly spoken but shaken. I tell him that racism is not about the words that are spoken but in the language of the body the face and more often
than not it is the words between the lines. He is visibly hurt by the way he was treated on a daily basis in Eastern Europe.

Many  English people simply don’t realise that most black people have long since detected the virtual disgust emanating towards us from the recent East European immigrants to these shores. He’s off to eat and waves goodbye. I wish him well and wait at reception for the taxi to take me to The Arts Centre.  

“What kind of music would you like for the audience” said the sound and lighting technician in his regulation black t shirt.  I can’t tell you how tired I was before this  event – absolutely shattered.   It was a nice question though “soul” I replied instinctively then after
a little thought “or maybe blues – maybe nina simone”.   The audience filtered in and I  checked in to the dressing room, where I found a fan letter to some previous performer that began with “Dear Mr Souther, please don’t think me a stalker”. It was a long and rambling affair. The amn was clearly not a stalker but in his innocence had given to much respect to his object who had left the letter disgarded with food stains upon it.  

I’d  decided before hand that I would give this reading my everything. If someone is going to come out to se me on this night then the least I can do is give my best. If that’s not good enough then okay, but at least its my best.   I have noticed quite a few radio four listeners at my events.  Events are really special at the moment. Since stopping drinking I am getting back to myself. It’s wonderful.

But something is twitching me and I made a joke about it on stage. The music previous to the event in the break and at the end as provided by the sound and lighting technician who had very little to do that evening – what does a poet need but a mic and a light – was hard core  Eastern European traditional music.  I like  traditional Eastern European traditional musicbut I wouldn’t play Wagner at a Bar mitzvah. Okay that’s a little extreme but I was invited  to this event by Norwich arts centres as part of  their celebration of Black History Month.  So what’s with the hard core eastern europpeaan traditional music.

It’s not that the sound man played Eastern Europpean Traditional music after having
asked me which music I would prefer. That would be bad enough.  It’s that he did not make any link between  the relevance of soul music, blues or nina simone  with the one Norwich Arts Centre performance for  Black History Month. When you employ black people here in England  you get so much more experience of the world.  And while I am at it. There was no-one to introduce me on stage either. It felt like more of an obligation
event for Norwich Arts Centre  than a celebration of black history month.  But aside from all of this BS I had an event to do  and despite all of this,  the reading and the audience, were truly wonderful. I must say that it is only while writing this blog that I unravelled this chain of events. Having to concentrate on my job stopped me from processing these things.

6 thoughts on “Eastern Europe, Racism and Norwich Arts Centre

  1. Hi Lemn,
    I haven't been to Eastern Europe, though a friend has who's brown skinned, no racism directed towards him maybe because his ethnic origin is different, who knows, but I've heard it's bad in Russia and that skinheads (neo nazis) are attacking people who are darker skinned as well as different ethnic groups like gypsies. It's very depressing.
    The guy you met said it was ignorance, maybe it is sometimes, it's also a choice though, and when it's collective it's more devestating.
    I feel it has something to do with economics and the fissures that have opened up since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, but it's also fear of “the other” and a deep wounding of the collective pysche caused by repression of national culture under Communism, as was the case in Chechyna…still an ongoing battlefield.
    I wasn't aware of the racism being projected by East European immigrants over here, but then, being white I wouldn't be subjected to that would I. It's as though people always want to have someone to kick out at, especially if they are exploited already, they need someone below them.
    As a woman I do feel that I have some insight into being made to feel of less worth, and it never quite ceases to amaze me that women only got the vote here approximately 80 yrs ago, I mean that is weird!
    In all honesty I think everyone has some prejudice and if it's not conscious then it's part of an unacknowleged collective heritage, it's there in the back of our heads and it hurts.
    Which reminds me of that poem of yours about wishing heads (like toilets, had a flush).
    All the best Lemn.

  2. Hi
    I have been to Eastern Europe various times and Russia. Concerning race, Neo Nazi's are the least of the problems yet the most visible representation of racism in those countries. They are a result of an Eastern Europpean culture not unlike the culture here in the seventies.
    The saddest thing about racism towards Black people from the Eastern Europpean Migrants here in Britain is that they are immigrants themselves, suffering the same indignations that many of the black immigrants suffered before them.
    The South African guy I mentioned in the blog, he knows what racism is. And he sees that if you boil racism down it comes to ignorance. To call a country ignorant is not to deny it's racism but to source it.
    As for fear of “the other” why should the black man be the whipping boy for everyones “fear of the other” People need to get it right. Racism is not tolerable, from anyone at anytime. It is learned behaviour not inherent to the human condition. You can be proud of your country and your home wthout denigrating another on the basis of its race. “fear of the other” is not an unacceptable state (I have seen african babies cry when a white man is close by and vice versa) . The actual physical difference is arresting.
    However, what you do with that fear, how you deal with that fear, now that is an entirely different thing altogether. This is where racism feeds. Our attitude to race, and response to the previous question, reflects who we really are.
    By the way, who are ya?

  3. Hi Lemn,
    Having re-read my comment, I can see my tone might have seemed apologist, that was unintended. Of course racism is unacceptable and I agree it is learned behaviour. I questioned it being ignorance as I feel that there are situations where people do know better but choose to carry on behaving as though they do not, institutional racism for example is that ignorance or a pernicious way to maintain privelege?

  4. Lemn,
    You put me straight and I needed it. I'm disappointed with myself. I don't have first hand experience of the issue, but I went blundering in with lazy thinking.

  5. I disagree. I don't think your message was lazy at all. I found it compassionate, sensitive honest and i agreed with you. This is complex subject matter – the willingness to discuss it openly is in itself a good thing. I understood your points and agreed with them too. And I want to thank you for taking on the subject matter with the aforementioned qualities. How else will any of us get anywhere.
    Best Wishes Joe

  6. Have you ever tried to travel to Croatia. We do not have any problems with racism there. Our islands are equally peaceful and nice for everyone. Let us know and we will be there to serve you. Check that.

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