Why don't they stay in Birmingham?

People from ethnic minorities who live outside cities can find themselves isolated and ostracised. Linda Grant reports on racism in rural Britain
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Indy Lifestyle Online
LAST September a man knocked at Judy Allsop's front door and asked if she would like to join the local ratepayers association, of which he was chairman. The street on which Ms Allsop lives in Torpoint is 100 yards or so from the ferry across the Tamar River that connects Cornwall to Plymouth and Devon. Torpoint, in many ways a suburb of that city, is nonetheless where Cornwall begins, one of the last pockets of an almost exclusively rural England.

Judy Allsop moved to Plymouth from London as a student in the Eighties and later settled in Torpoint with her husband. Her visitor, Harry Callendar, was, she later discovered, a district councillor and member of the Police Consultative Liaison Committee. He told her that membership of his association cost £1 and, after she handed over her money, he gave her some literature.

"Then he asked me where I was from. I told him Stamford Hill and he asked me if I was Jewish. I said I wasn't, and he started to talk about aliens. It was like the 1979 National Front spiel. I'd never heard so much vitriol. When I told him that my brother and sister both have black partners, he told me that people like me weren't welcome in his organisation and that I would make other members feel uncomfortable. He talked about how Cornish businessmen had been `set up' by black people coming to trap them into discriminating against them and then claiming damages. Then he gave me my money back. I was shocked. I couldn't believe that anyone in this day and age could come out with this stuff. You could understand if it was ignorance, but this was hatred."

Judy Allsop, 31, is not a member of the advance guard of what used to be called the London loony left. Her father is a long-serving officer in the Metropolitan Police and her husband is a pilot whom she met when he was in the Royal Navy. Was the visit a rogue incident? Later this month, the Commission on Racial Equality will hold a conference on ethnic minorities in Cornwall. It follows a report published two years ago on racism in the South-west, the title of which, "Keep Them in Birmingham", reflected the attitudes of many in the region, that minorities should stay where they belong: in the inner cities.

Although Cornwall has the country's second lowest police record of racial incidents, the numbers are growing. Two years ago, Selwyn Ollivierre, 55, a West Indian-born resident of the county, was kicked by attackers who shouted racial abuse, in the small town of Wadebridge, near Bodmin. In 1991 a black chambermaid at a Cornish hotel was dismissed because a coach party of visitors objected to her presence in their rooms and management did not want to risk alienating valuable trade.

Out of a Cornish population of 1.5 million, 8,450 are from ethnic minority groups. Unlike city populations, they are scattered throughout the county. The CRE has now recognised that the very isolation and lack of a supportive community makes ethnic minorities more vulnerable, not less. They are subject to two types of discrimination. Cornish people regard all incomers, regardless of race, as "emmets" - foreigners. One reason for the CRE conference in Cornwall is to address demands from some quarters that the Cornish people be recognised as a separate ethnic minority. There are also those who move to Cornwall to escape from the crime and poverty of the inner cities. It appears Harry Callendar is one of those.

Callendar spent some energy evading my attempts to speak to him last week. But in 1994, he told Katie Tokus, a reporter on the local Evening Herald: "I have people here in the town who have moved away from certain areas in London because of an increase in the coloured population. I could not accept [Judy Allsop's] membership because that could upset them considerably. We don't want any problems in Cornwall. We have enough problems without bothering about coloureds." But his views are not shared by some former members of his association.

Marjorie Keir resigned from her post as secretary last September after Callendar's remarks were reported. "What he said is illegal for a start, and I can't go along with that kind of thing," she says. "I've got no coloured connections but I have worked with coloured people. He's moved from London and he's using the Tamar as a barricade. Four other members resigned at the last meeting. Only he knows how many other members he has. I wouldn't be surprised in the least, though, if others did share his opinion."

Who are the "coloureds" that Callendar and his followers want to keep out of Cornwall? Over half the ethnic minority population of the South- west is Chinese. In almost every small town in Cornwall there is a Chinese takeaway. The lives of those who work in them are arduous and frequently friendless. If they work long hours it is often because they have nowhere to go to meet friends. Their children may be the only non-white pupils at the local school. Tom Wong is the president of the Devon and Cornwall Chinese Association (the only ethnic minority organ-isation in Cornwall), set up in 1975. Wong came to Britain in 1958 from Hong Kong, and in the Sixties joined a friend in setting up Plymouth's first Chinese restaurant and married a Cornish girl. "There was a Chinese laundry here before the war," he says. "The first generation was three people and we were the second generation, 15 people. It was the only job we could have because our English wasn't good."

Wong will not come out and speak directly of racism. But he describes a host of minor incidents in the takeaways and restaurants throughout Cornwall and Devon. The prevailing view among trouble-makers is that the Chinese won't put up a fight if they are crossed. A common ploy is to place an order, go away and return with the food half-eaten, claiming that it was not what they asked for and demanding another meal free. When I told this story to one county council official, he was puzzled. That wasn't racism, he argued, it was just because the Chinese were small. It could have happened to any small person.

To counter the loneliness of these families, the association organises annual Chinese New Year festivities, which may be the only time his members get to see each other. Some pensioners are particularly isolated. "One couple had retired down to Okehampton from Glasgow to be near their family," Wong says. "I found the man crying. When I asked what was wrong, he said `I feel so lonely every day. The people here are very nice to me but I can't speak to them, I can't even say thank you to them.' "

Like other immigrant groups, the first generation of Cornwall's Chinese population always thought they would return, but they have found their home utterly changed and themselves more familiar with the countryside in which they have spent so many years. "You get used to it here," Wong says. "Every weekend here I go to the moors on my bike and even the farmers sometimes say hello to me. You go back to Hong Kong and you find yourself completely lost. You don't know anybody, it's all changed. You're not used to the modernisation, you don't know how to cross the road, you don't know how to get a taxi. So how can we go back?"

Cornish people as a whole may in all likelihood be no more racist than anywhere else. The reports of the Harry Callendar case provoked angry letters in the local paper from residents of the area outraged at his remarks. But the lack of exposure to ethnic minorities means that many in the area have little understanding of racial issues or "the coloureds" (still a widely used term). Cornwall County Council does not have an equal opportunities officer. Multicultural education falls to a single individual, John Keast, advisor for religious, personal and social education. "Children here have had the media exposure to other ethnic groups but they many not have had any first-hand experience of meeting people of other races because very few live in Cornwall," he says. "There are some ethnic minority teachers, but not many. So we think it's very important that children have experience of a range of cultures. We're trying to prepare them for adult life and that won't just be in Cornwall." Those who leave the countryside to look for work in the cities will have their first exposure to other races.

The situation in Cornwall, while made more complex by the factors of Cornish identity and an influx of migrants from the cities, is nonetheless common throughout rural Britain. The CRE's most recent report focuses on Norfolk, which had prided itself on its location, its high standard of living, and the lack of motorways which one respondent told the CRE "bring people in". Bangladeshi students at the University of East Anglia in Norwich have reported harassment when they go into town and in 1990 Brian Moore, a young black man who went to Norfolk for the weekend, was attacked by 13 skinheads and himself ended up in prison.

In rural Shropshire, Afro- Caribbeans moved from Wolverhampton to the new town of Telford, tempted by the businesses creating work in green- field sites. When the recession drove up unemployment, they found themselves stranded in a community constructed out of a series of linked villages, with no proper town centre. The CRE is now beginning to work on the needs of this group.

In Cornwall I was told many times that if local black and Chinese people kept themselves to themselves, why, how could there be any trouble? "If they come over here they should live like we do," was a constant refrain. I spent some time talking to a member of a black family who felt a dual identity as both black and Cornish. They had earned the respect of their neighbours and married into local families, but they decided, understandably, not to go on the record. Other black people in the county took the same view about being interviewed. They were notfrightened, but spoke of not wanting neighbours to think they were criticising them.

One can only respect their privacy, but that silence means we don't have the whole story. The Cornish may feel that racism is not their problem, but it is for those who experience the discrimination to have the final say. I sensed that only those who had been declared honorary white people were acceptable in Cornwall. Perhaps the Cornish need to make people like this feel so at home that they can speak freely about their lives.

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