Christina Patterson: A disturbing trip into Hicksville, Europe...

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The Independent Online

Armies have never been known for their enlightened approach to race relations. (Not surprising, perhaps, when the chief requirement of your job is to blast the balls off whoever your government has currently decided is your "enemy".) Even so, it was a bit of a shock to hear of a German army instructor's favourite training tactic. "You are in the Bronx," said the instructor to a soldier in a clip from a training video. "A black van is stopping in front of you. Three African-Americans are getting out and they are insulting your mother ... act."

From the English report of the incident, it's not clear whether the instructor actually used the term "African-Americans" or a more colloquial alternative. It is clear, however, that he was resurrecting that trusty trope, a boy's love for his mum. In one short sentence, he managed to juxtapose an incitement to aggressive racism with a sentimental appeal to blood and honour. The result can only be described as bathos.

He was, no doubt, a "bad apple" in an army teeming with sensitive champions of racial integration, but it's hard to fight the feeling that this was not an isolated incident. Like many European countries, Germany has had its "gastarbeiter" (a polite euphemism for those invited to do the badly paid work its native residents don't want), but these have largely been Turks. Its Afro-Caribbean population remains - as in many other European countries - almost non-existent.

In Italy, for example, the black population consists largely of West African street vendors who spend their days crouched on kerbs. Their wares - mobile phone covers, glittery hairbands - are balanced on cardboard boxes for swift flight from the police. They, however, are the lucky ones. Many, as I discovered on a trip to Pisa at the weekend, have little more to sell than a handbag-sized pack of Kleenex. Their strategy, instead, seems to be to swarm around you until you pay them to go away.

This is not a strategy calculated to win the respect of most Italians. Perhaps that's why one of them unleashed a torrent of abuse at the black friend I was travelling with (who hadn't thought to bring any mobile phone covers or Kleenex), and why people stared at us with the kind of astonishment they might reserve for a fellow countryman begging to pay their tax. Yes, that must be it. In any case, it felt, even in a city where many of the young people have swapped their Valentino shirts for combats, piercings and dreadlocks, like a return to Hicksville, Alabama circa 1961.

In Poland, according to one of the Polish workers at my gym, a group of black visitors to a village near her home was greeted with an army of crosses. Poles in Britain, too, are reacting to their multi-ethnic neighbours with a mix of hostility and confusion. According to reports this week, Polish children are refusing to sit next to their black and Asian classmates. In art lessons, they're drawing pictures of them as apes.

In France, which does have a large black population, culled largely from its ex-colonies, the banlieues are preparing to vote against the presidential candidate who described them as "racaille", or scum. Unemployment amongst young black men is sky high - including the educated young black men whose excellent qualifications fail to outweigh the ignominy of their African names.

Here in the UK, too, most of the faces in power are white. Most of the young men dying on our streets are black. But, in our cities, at least, we do now expect to live, work and relax with people whose skin colour ranges from pasty grey to peat. Our children, increasingly, are brown. Nearly 60 years after HMS Windrush brought those first Jamaican workers to shiver on our shores, this is surely progress of a kind. There's a very long way to go, but sometimes it takes a glimpse of other failures to mark the first, tentative, steps to success.

The patron saint of shopping

In the normal course of events, none of us would have much reason to muse on the mind of Victoria Beckham. If, indeed, such a thing exists. For anyone who travels on public transport in London, however, and who has to share a seat with piles of free evening papers, her gaunt face, lollipop frame and glued-on globes are impossible to avoid. Most recently in relation to her birthday.

For this, hubby David had planned an exciting array of treats. Victoria, left, would be "whisked" (people in such circumstances are always "whisked") away to Paris, where she would be "wined and dined" at the Ritz. And she would shop. She managed, in fact, to clock up an impressive £70,000 in a 12-hour trip. Like a goldfish who treats each trip across its bowl as a fresh adventure, the patron saint of retail was, apparently, thrilled. This, clearly, is not a hobby. It's the very breath of life.

The scourge of the call centre is a well-documented aspect of contemporary life. There's not much, in fact, which sends the pulse racing and the blood pressure soaring like that voice "popping" you on hold and leaving you hanging in the seventh circle of hell.

This week, I tried to change my mobile from Orange to Virgin. Various Virgin operatives took my details and passed me from pillar to post. Eventually - and I mean eventually - I received an email thanking me for my order. This was followed by one telling me that they "couldn't accept" my order. In order to cast light on this terse verdict, I braved the circles again. I had, I was told, failed a credit check. No, they couldn't tell me why, but I could write to customer services. I didn't, I'm afraid. I phoned the press office instead - and discovered that my credit check had failed because someone had transposed two words in my address. A metaphor, perhaps, for our times.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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