Out of step

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When people learn that my stepfather, John Wellings-Longmore (1917- 1982), was a West African, they jump to several false conclusions. They imagine that he must have sparked my great interest in African and West Indian folklore. Not so. My mother remarried in 1953, when I was eleven and my brother Martin ten. At the time, marriages between white and black people in England were rare. My passion for folklore had been stimulated by my mother's interest in the subject: it began when I was four - at most.

In that respect, my stepfather was a disappointment - he appeared never to have heard of folklore. As a boy, he had enjoyed the music of griots (West-African troubadours), but as a man he felt ashamed of such backward things. A civil servant, he wore an English suit, and failed his promotion exams by writing stilted "autobiographical" essays in the awkwardly assumed "persona" of an Englishman.

After his death, when I went through his letters, I found that he had written to his cousin in Nigeria describing a dream in which he destroyed a monster by hurling a spear down its throat. "Please have this dream interpreted in our traditional manner," he added. So in his dreams he was a traditional African.

Most absurd of all the assumptions people make when they learn about my stepfather is that, in some way, I have been "brought up black". Having leapt to this conclusion, people look at me incredulously, wondering why I look so sluggish, suburban and incurably English, when I should be bounding along in fashionable clothes, shouting "Yo, well alreety! Ice-T, he's my main man, man!"

By the time I met my stepfather, I was eleven and as brought-up as I would ever be. But even if my stepfather had brought me up, West African is not "black". What the world looks on as fashionably "black" derives from America or the Caribbean.

Was I brought up as an African, then, from the age of eleven? No, I was brought up under apartheid. My stepfather, steeped in the West-African belief that children should do the housework, was amazed to find that my brother and I thought that houses cleaned themselves and had not learnt to do the simplest chores. Stepfather and sons looked on one another in baffled confusion.

Luckily, he did not make us work, but simply left us alone. Our apartheid system developed on these lines - my mother would cook two meals, a hot-pepper-sauce dish of African foo-foo for my stepfather and herself, and English food for us boys. It was cosy in our large basement kitchen, for my mother mastered the art of apartheid conversation - one for the stepfather, one for the boys.

On the few occasions my stepfather attempted a long conversation with me, it ended badly, for he spoke in such academic tones that I would not only lose track of what he was saying, but assume that he was no longer talking to me and walk out of the room. "Yes, John!" and "No, John!" was the normal limit of my conversation with him, always in tones of deep and simulated respect.

In later years, when soul music came along, I seemed to recognise my stepfather's voice in these lyrics: "Respect! Respect! All I want is a little respect when I come home!"

The African father is master in his home. Imagine a grim, deep-voiced Red Indian chief and you get the general idea. There is a great deal to be said for having a fierce man in the house. Humoured with pretended or real respect, the genially grim African father need not vent his ferocity on his family, but can use it to protect them from enemies outside.

My stepfather lacked the fully respect-worthy African demeanour of a Zulu chief sitting in state. We children found it easy to humour and deceive him. After leaving for school with great ceremony, I would hover outside in a nearby doorway until I saw my stepfather emerge with his briefcase and turn the corner to the bus stop. Then I would go home again, where my mother would let me in. "Education" is very important to anglicised Africans but not to English people, thank goodness.

Curiously, it was during the years I lived with my African stepfather that I felt more English than I have felt before or since. When my mother remarried, we left mock-Tudor suburbia and moved into a larger flat in a Georgian house in central London. I felt stunned by the change. For nearly five years, I spent the weekdays in a daze, living only for the weekends, when I left London to stay with my grandparents. As I had passed the 11-plus, they (themselves foreigners) believed I was receiving the education of an English lord. They reverently treated me like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and I readily fell in with the idea.

Once, I went with Martin to the flat of a school friend, a boy who earnestly aspired to please his bus-conductor father by becoming a bank clerk. Not only was I tongue-tied when introduced to Joe's parents, but I remember how absurd the occasion felt - having tea with a bus conductor! Far from feeling "black", I felt that I belonged to my grandparents' imagined aristocracy.

It is from this stance, that of a total outsider, that I introduce a column about black life in Britain

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