Helen Walsh: At The Sharp End

'I was enraged - burning cheeks, flashing eyes, palpitating heart - by what the old harridan was muttering'
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The Independent Online

One thing Liverpool is not short of in the build-up to the European Capital of Culture jamboree in 2008 is bars and cafés. Over the past 12 months we've seen a brilliant assortment of new watering holes opening, from traditional real-ale boozers like The Belvedere (already a favourite with the nearby Philharmonic Orchestra) to Alma de Santiago, a funky neighbourhood sherry bar specialising in, well, sherry - more than 100 types - and Chilean tapas.

And one of the more gratifying aspects has been the influx of Polish waiting staff. Liverpool has always been on the backpackers' map, but with Poland joining the EU last year, and John Lennon Airport serving Krakow, Poznan, Warsaw and Wroclaw, the area has become home to a new generation of upbeat, ambitious young Poles.

This is good. Not only do Jan and Maria - two new waiters at my local coffee shop in Birkenhead - manage to bring a joie de vivre to the art of table service, they have great stories to tell and they refuel my faith in some core human qualities. It's not just their buoyant embracing of the great universal adventure that is youth. It's their optimism - about everything.

"Don't you find Birkenhead a bit bleak?" I ventured the other morning.

"Hah! You want to see Wroclaw!"

I'll confess to erring on the sentimental side but, truly, these two humble me. They put me in mind of my grandmother's adage: "It's nice to be nice." Whatever they do - serve coffee, clear the plates, indulge me in chit-chat - they're nice about it. They're bright, diligent, lovely kids. So I was enraged - burning cheeks, flashing eyes, palpitating heart, the lot - to hear some old harridan muttering to the manager about employing "more of them".

Race is a sensitive issue for me. I was brought up as a brown girl with a white soul in a hard, reactionary northern town. But this careless, casual dismissal of my two new acquaintances went beyond lazy racism. It seemed like a petty-minded denial of a huge aspect of this region's unique character.

Liverpool is a mongrel city. It has always had a transient population. People come, people go, people stay. Part of this is to do with the sea, part of it is to do with the Celtic wanderlust, but it strikes me that it's in the very nature of Merseysiders to pack up the old kit bag and go and have a look what's out there. How many skilled workers - bricklayers, plasterers, painters and decorators - have moved, for example, to Germany in its economic heyday, to undercut the local labour market and make a decent living? How many long-established families in Australia, Canada and the US originally set sail from the port of Liverpool with a dream of a new life?

These are the same people - or their sons and daughters - who indulge in the scapegoat politics of the live radio phone-in. Whatever their specific beef, you can be certain of two things. Sooner or later, the allegation will be made that "they" are taking all our jobs. The other thing you can set your clock by is a robust airing of the conservatives' most cherished catchword: "disgusting". Boy, do they love to be disgusted!

"It's disgusting what's happening. They're taking over the place. And they can't hardly talk the language, neither." I'd love to have seen the perpetrator of that particular rant at his diplomatic peak on the building sites of Frankfurt 25 years ago: "Hey! Fritz, lad. That's half an hour I've done here without a brew..."

The fact is that Jan and Maria seem immune to this sort of prattling. They shrug it off as though it's as normal as the discarded crisp packets next to the bins. If anything, they're a tiny bit apologetic, and they over-compensate with more smiles. I'd do anything to avoid confrontation most times, but standing alongside this disgusted customer, I had to ask her.

"So you'd rather be served by some scowling, hungover wretch who'll make you feel guilty just by being here?"

She turned, opened her mouth but couldn't think of a thing to say. Maria busied herself, head down, clearing a table until the stand-off had blown over. I think I embarrassed her. But in some minuscule way I felt I'd done a good thing in challenging the old bag. Who knows if it was the right thing to do - it was certainly the nice thing to do.

THE BIRKENHEAD PARK BIKE TEST

So Iran's latest proposals for disarmament have been rejected. I have a much more reliable indicator of the current state of world peace - the Birkenhead Park Bike Test. At times of relative ease I can ride around the park with only the occasional suggestive remark shouted in my direction. For reasons beyond my ken, the sight of a woman jogging/cycling/walking in a public space presents an irresistible sexual challenge to a certain kind of man (typically, one with a penis). But whenever there's any kind of security alert in the world, the nature of those jibes takes on a more sinister tone.

"Terrorist!" shriek the 14-year-olds, as a tennis ball whistles past my ear.

Many is the time I've wanted to explain that my mother's Hindu, my Dad's Irish and I know more about acid house than I do about Allah. But with the conker season just around the corner I may as well just change my route - and hope for peace.

Rebecca Tyrrel is away

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