I think the first time it happened I was on a Victoria Line train on the London Underground.
I was feeling quite mellow and relaxed, standing by the exit doors of the train when he talked to me.
He was a young black bloke, maybe around 19. The shrewd observer of life in London might have guessed he was a black troublemaker and/or mugger.
He got up, looked me in the eye and offered me his seat. This was maybe two years ago. It was a first.
I had got to that point in life where I look so old (and presumably appear to be so frail) that people offer me their seats in trains. And one thing always strikes me. This is, I think, a fairly accurate guesstimate of the numbers…
Around 90% or maybe even 95% of the people who offer their seats to me in trains are non-white.
It is very rare for a white person to offer me their seat.
Young men; young women; even, the other day, an older Indian guy who was maybe 50.
I think: What the fuck? How old do I look? How geriatric must I look?
But it’s almost always the same. They are non-white and (I think; I guess) are British residents. I don’t think tourists would offer their seat to me unless I looked REALLY frail and looked like I was about to drop down at any moment. Tourists would not be absolutely sure about the local protocol.
I don’t know what the social or ethnical or upbringing reason is; but it is non-white-skinned people who offer their seats to me.
And, just before Christmas, there was a more unsettling incident.
I was with a friend’s 8-year-old daughter.
We got on a fairly crowded bus. But there was a double seat occupied by a young woman in her twenties of Chinese origin. I say that because I don’t think she was Chinese. She may have been Malaysian or similar. Mostly Chinese ethnically but not by birth.
She had a small child – presumably her daughter – standing in front of her; they were interacting. They were using one seat; the seat beside them was completely empty.
The young woman looked up and saw me approaching. I was going to let my 8-year old sit on the empty seat and stand beside her.
The Chinese woman, looking me in the eye, made to move so that I and my 8-year-old could sit down in the two seats and she and her daughter would stand, giving up their one seat. There was a look in her eye that made me think she felt I presumed I, as a white man with a white chlld, had a right to the two seats and she – a young Chinese woman with a Chinese daughter – had to defer to me.
With a look, I communicated she did not have to get up.
They had been quite reasonably and very politely only using one seat, so my 8-year-old was able to sit down in the empty seat without affecting them and I stood by the eight-year-old; there was no other empty seat nearby.
But the look in the young woman’s eye – that she had to defer to a white man – unsettled and still unsettles me.
Another incident happened just after Christmas.
I had arranged a meal with a chum in a Japanese restaurant in Soho. My chum is of Polynesian/Chinese descent. There was a queue of about four other people, mostly Japanese, outside the restaurant, including my chum; she had arrived before me.
“Did you see that man with the zimmer frame?” she asked me.
I had passed him. He had just turned round the corner.
“He told us all to get off the street and get out of the way,” she told me, “and to get back to where we came from.”
The queue was not blocking the pavement.
I went back to the corner but he was no longer there.
I can think of one reason why he had to use a zimmer frame.
The Christmas/New Year period roughly coincides with the 9-day Jewish Hanukkah holiday.
I live in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, just on the NW edge of London. For reasons unknown, there is a fairly high Jewish population; and a fairly high Romanian population. We have two Romanian grocers… one generic Balkan grocer also catering for Romanians… and now a triple-fronted Romanian restaurant in the high street.
This year, in the shopping centre, to celebrate Hanukkah, there was a large menorah installed – made out of balloons – and a few tressle tables. The gents supervising it all wore skullcaps/kippahs and long beards. They looked Jewish. There were DJ disco tracks playing on a loudspeaker. The music was a mixture of Jewish music and what sounded confusingly like black Caribbean music.
When I listened to the music properly, I realised it was Rasta music and the song lyrics referred to “the Lion of Judah” (ie Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia) and “have a happy Hanukkah”.
As I was loitering around listening to all this with some bemusement – OK, to be honest, the scene looked like a Jewish celebration, with West Indian music playing, manned by black-bearded members of ISIS – I realised quite a lot of the passers-by were speaking to each other in an Eastern European language that was not Russian. (I sort-of learned Russian at school.) I surmised the language was Romanian.
So there was this scenario where fairly recent immigrants from Romania were walking through a typically English shopping centre at Christmastime where some Jewish festival was being celebrated (there was the large menorah made from balloons) while West Indian music was playing.
I suspect this was culturally beyond confusing to them but, somehow, I also find it very reassuring.