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Many years ago, back when life was stretching out before me like an endless adventure, I hitched back down from Leeds to Walsall for a party. My best friend in the world was turning eighteen, and her mom and stepdad had hired the function room in a pub, and on top of that they’d ordered a buffet. There were crisps, sandwiches, and chunks of pineapple and cheese on cocktail sticks. There was even hot food. And – seeing as they were pushing the boat out for the evening – there was a cover band, too.
I was pretty certain the younger ones amongst us would have been happier in the bar in t-shirts and ripped jeans, drinking pints and to hell with good behaviour, but this was an evening as much for my friend’s mom and stepdad and her aunts and uncles as it was for us. The cover band stood on the low stage in the corner of the room wearing frilly purple shirts and black slacks, and played barely adequate versions of old rock’n’roll numbers while we sniggered and ignored them.
Then the music stopped, and the singer – all comb-over and Black Country accent – started telling jokes. Irish ‘jokes’. Irish ‘jokes’ where thick Paddy did this, or stupid Paddy did the other. Maybe he thought this added to the sophistication of the evening, I don’t know. But my mom was Irish, and what I heard were the same sad, tired, offensive ‘jokes’ I’d heard all my life, told in the same breath as jokes about ‘pakis‘ and ‘niggers’ and ‘wogs’. The language of bigotry and ignorance which had always made my blood boil, and which always will.
Sitting in that function room, my blood boiled once again. But I knew I couldn’t spoil my friend’s big night by causing a scene, so I sat on my hands and bit my tongue, and told myself to let it lie. Then I heard a lad at the next table mutter and curse under his breath. Something wrong? I asked him. Oh yes, he said, was there ever something wrong. While the singer droned on in the background the two of us chatted about our shared experience of growing up Irish, about identity and discrimination, and how – tonight, especially tonight – we’d really had it up to here with the stupid Irish jokes. By the time the singer announced he was taking a break for ten minutes and the band would be back with more music soon, we knew exactly what we were going to do.
We cornered him on his way to the toilet, and asked if we could have a word. I think he expected praise, a slap on the back and the offer of a pint, and his face froze in shock when we told him his jokes weren’t funny, and his patter sucked. Then came the bluster. It was all just a laugh, wasn’t it? We were taking it way too seriously, weren’t we? We needed to lighten up a bit, and have a pint and a giggle. They were only jokes. Calmly and patiently, we pointed to our history, explained about the discrimination our parents had faced, reminded him how recent it was the signs read No Irish, No Blacks, And No Dogs, but in truth we might as well have been talking to the wall.
He simply couldn’t understand what was happening. Two lads from the Black Country were taking him to task, and he just couldn’t get his head round it at all. We looked and sounded for all the world like we were part of his target audience, one which he assumed would join in laughing and pointing the finger at the immigrant, the foreigner, or the stupid Paddy, and here we were having a go at him. In his world, it just didn’t make sense. But when he went back on stage that night he didn’t tell any more jokes.
Since then, the years have slipped away, one after another, but some things haven’t changed. My friend is still as beautiful and wonderful as ever, and still my best friend. Life is still an adventure. And people still use the language of hate and expect me to fall in line and sing along. But I won’t hate migrants or Muslims or refugees, and politicians who talk of swarms and hordes and threats to our way of life should remember that they have as little credibility as a pot-bellied bloke wearing slacks and singing someone else’s songs in the back room of a pub thirty years ago.
And only Jimi Hendrix ever looked good in a frilly purple shirt.