It was 4am. I was 14; four of us cycled off towards the river, our fishing rods tied to the crossbars of our bikes. John kept laughing; Edward kept telling him to shut up, to stop it or he'd be in trouble. Joe and I were dying to know, to be in on it. After half an hour, we got to the river and set up our gear, in the quiet frenzy of pre-fishing, hurrying to put the line through the rings on the rod, to fix the float, tie the knots. I cast out and sat, yawning, lobbing maggots into the water. The water was dead calm; the maggots made ripples all the way to the opposite bank. We were sitting in longish grass, with bushes behind, 10 yards from each other.
John crawled through the bushes behind us. He was already laughing.
'What is it?'
'It's a joke.'
'No, no, it's a brilliant joke. I'm not allowed to tell it to anyone. It's been banned.'
The joke was racist, about a plantation owner and a slave called Rastus. The owner keeps saying, 'Are you lying to me, Rastus?' John told it with suppressed hysteria, doing the voices, stopping to cry with laughter. We cried with laughter, too, knowing it was wrong, knowing it was trouble.
Hours later, as the four of us were tying our rods back on to our crossbars, I felt a sudden burst of inspiration, and said: 'Are you lying to me, Rastus?' Edward dropped his bike and walked over to John, who had already buckled into a cringe, and hit him in the chest. Then he hit him a few more times, until John was crying an appreciable amount. Joe and I were giggling wildly under our breath, titillated by this horrible energy we had harnessed.
The next step suggested itself. I can't remember whose idea it was, or even if we discussed it at all. It just seemed the right thing to do. The next time we saw John, one of us said: 'Hello, Rastus.'
'Rastus. Your new name.'
'Oh, look. That's nor fair.'
'Are you lying to me, Rastus?'
'Shut up. You can't do this]'
But it was a fantastic success. It spread like wildfire, and was to be John's nickname for more than a decade, until he married and moved away. It had instant appeal - he was being punished for telling a racist joke by being treated like the victim in the joke. We could now show him what racism was like, we thought; vicariously, we could be racists.
Were we racists? Did we think that people from other races were worse than us? I doubt it. But we were colluding with the next worst thing, something much more subtle and widespread; learning the language of racism, and letting it settle into our talk, into our minds. And there were terrible pitfalls. John was, at first, simply 'Rastus'. But, pretty soon,
things got more complicated, more horrible.
Who was the first person to say: 'Get out of the way, you black bastard'? Or: 'Play the white man'?
And when did all of this lose its meaning, and become submerged in the social mire of pure habit, pure instinct? After a while, people were yelling the most vile racial epithets you could imagine, unaware of the full implications of what they were saying.
New aquaintances, having picked up
snippets of the conversation, would wonder
about this black guy, until we put them
straight. John was blond, almost Aryan. It
was just a nickname, lost in the history of our childhood. Even we had practically forgotten about its origins.
How many really bad things happened? Everybody had an example. A friend called Simon told me of a typical instance, five years on from the initial naming. John and Simon were fishing on a pier, and had got their lines snagged on some piles; John had climbed down to unsnag them. Simon, bored, shouted: 'What the hell are you doing, you brainless nigger?' John was under the pier, out of sight. So it would have been impossible for Simon even to begin explaining the situation to the black man standing a few yards away - its subtle history, the fact that it all began as a punishment for telling a racist joke.
Years went by. Even Edward joined in - had joined in, in fact, from the first moment it was unavoidable, as soon as it had become part of our language. One day, Edward, John and I were sitting in his house, grown up by now, drinking coffee and talking about - what? Girls? Universities?
Their father, an academic, emerged from his study with a new student, a tall man in his twenties from Nigeria who had come over to do a PhD. We all shook hands. Edward went into the kitchen to make coffee.
He came back five minutes later, holding the tray; we were talking in that polite, slightly strained way you have when you must approve of everything in the conversation.
'Oh, Lagos . . .'
This was the Nigerian's first week in England; he was nervous. I kept smiling, nodding.
Edward said: 'Milk, anybody? Dad?'
Everybody stood still, silently, for five seconds. John did not reply. Edward - who had been against it in the first place, who had been the most reluctant to join in - had made the worst faux pas. He didn't know what to do with himself.
The Nigerian stood there, looking straight ahead. Making a stab at an explanation, everybody realised, would be futile. John and I ran 50 yards up the road and fell on the grass verge, sick with laughter. It wasn't funny; that was the worst thing about it.-Reuse content