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Us and Them
by Bruce Harris




The first fight I had with Stephen Watts was in junior school in the spring of 1964; I was seven years old. Stuart Cargill and I were examining, in awe and wonder, a brand new Corgi Mini Cooper Monte Carlo which Stu had had for his birthday; he’d brought it in to school to show me, since we lived about two miles apart.

‘They got it right, Joe’, he said quietly. ‘I mean, exactly right’.

A shadow fell over the thin spring sun and we looked up to see Watts there. He was tall, with a curiously menacing dark complexion which made even his smile intimidating. As usual, his monkeys, as many of us called them, Philip Hutchinson and the almost permanently silent Mickey Dunne, were perched just behind each Watts shoulder.

‘Pearson and Cargill. Thick as thieves. What’s that?’

He peered down; Stu tensed beside me.

‘I’ll ‘ave that’, Watts said, and made a grab at it. Stu writhed away from him.

‘You bloody won’t’, he said, standing up, and I wondered at what his very correct mother would have had to say to such a statement. Of course, I stood up beside him; I went even further back with Stu, all the way to nursery.

One thing led, as it does, to another, and we gave as good as we got, even if it was three on two. Watts’ monkeys would have loved to have been good fighters, but they didn’t have the coordination or skill for it.

The scuffles went on, through primary into secondary school, a so-called boys’ comprehensive. We seemed like mutual red rags to bulls.

Finally, when we were both thirteen, after a truly epic set-to on a patch of woodland about half a mile out of school, just him and me, we half-killed each other, leaving blood and a few teeth all over the ground, torn clothes and scuffed shoes.

‘Watts, keep out of my way and I’ll keep out of yours. I’ve got better things to do with my time’, I snarled at him, propping myself up on a tree trunk.

He tried to think of some smart putdown, but he wasn’t in any state to make speeches; most of the teeth were his. He sort of growled like a trapped creature. We touched hands, and an armed neutrality stayed in place for a good while. Watts and his friends became an unpleasant but inevitable fact of school life. It increasingly amazed me how many things they didn’t like. All of the teachers, it seemed; most of the lads, any school subjects, any parts of the school or any activities of the school. They spent their time trying to make life difficult for as many teachers as would let them get away with it and obstructing the rest of us, who just wanted to get a decent schooling and get on with our lives.

It was only just after we’d started on what for many of us would be our last year at school in September 1972 that the adult world finally intruded far enough into our boyhoods to make the problems more serious than ever. A few weeks into the new term, two new boys arrived, introduced to us in a year assembly by the Head of Year Mr. Richardson, predictably nicknamed Dickie, but as with most teachers with a nickname, even a dubious one, it was a term largely of acceptance and approval, or as close to it as boys ever got. Richardson, tall and thin with an easy smile but a harsh tongue when he needed it, had been at the school for over twenty years; some of us had parents who’d been taught by him. He brought the two new arrivals to the front of the hall. They were both immaculately uniformed, even if also creased with embarrassment. Their names were Shailesh and Asif Madhvani.

‘These two lads are here’, Dickie said, glowering at us as if daring anyone to contradict him, ‘because an oppressive tyrant - look it up - decided to order them out of their own country, Uganda. I’d like you to imagine, if you can, your family suddenly ordered to pack just a few suitcases and get out, not only of this area, but your country, so that you are suddenly forced into another place you’ve never seen. Shailesh and Asif have had their world turned upside down, and I ask - well, no, I don’t ask, I insist - that they are treated decently and helped to make a new start in a place which is totally unfamiliar to them’.

It is difficult to explain to people in modern multicultural Britain the impact of these boys in our school community. Our school was in a small market town in the north Midlands, and there was nothing much in it to attract immigrants. The new boys had arrived because the only Asian business in the town at that time, an Indian restaurant, had close connections with their family. They were, quite literally, the only non-white boys in school.

And, of course, with some media coverage of Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Ugandan Asians being so negative and the National Front having a field day, opportunity knocked for Stephen Watts and his soul mates. The kind of behaviour Shailesh and Asif had to put up with fell short of actual physical assault - the teachers were keeping a very careful eye on the situation, even though one or two of them didn’t seem too sympathetic either. Racist comments, nudge, nudge jokes, noses held, imitations of Indian bus drivers - Watts and his now expanded crew had a repertoire of means of persecution, a few of them tacitly supported by parents who should have known better.

Most of us got to know the new arrivals fairly quickly. They were twins, similar without being identical - Asif was quieter and more sporting, and a gifted runner; he had an athletic build and his long legs and broad shoulders discouraged the less brave of his critics.

Shailesh, however, had abilities which always were likely to get him into trouble. Slightly smaller than his brother, with more expressive, mobile features, Sha, as he became known amongst those of us who recognised his existence, was a mimic, one of the best I’ve ever known. Within weeks, he could do several teachers with devastating accuracy and was able to reduce those of us willing to be amused to helpless tears of laughter.

And Stephen Watts, with his loud, braying phlegmy tones, was a mimic’s gift. One day in October, on the fields during break, Sha walked up to his brother being Stephen Watts.

‘As if’ - that’s how Watts pronounced Asif’s name - ‘you are not only better at sport than me, you Paki bastard, you are even prettier than me and I bet you’re already trying to get your mucky brown hands all over our nice white girls, you scruff bag - ‘Asif laughed easily, the way he did, and it was only then that we all noticed Watts had approached to no more than twenty yards away.

Now things turned very ugly very quickly. A lad called Martin Latham, one of those with the enviable ability to make everyone think he agreed with all they were saying even when he didn’t, reported that Watts and something like seven or eight others had decided that, even if in school violence was beyond them, there were places on what they knew was the Madhvani brothers’ route home. One of them was the sheltered glade where Watts and I had fought two years before, and they had chosen that for their ambush.

‘The idea’, said Martin quietly, ‘is to do them over so badly that their parents will take them away from the school, and ‘get shot of the Pakis once and for all’’ – Martin could put quote marks into his speech very accurately.

Whether Sha and Asif had heard the rumours by the time we were all heading off home, I don’t know, but by the look of them, they knew something was amiss. Stu and I walked up to them as they were standing nervously at the school entrance.

‘Can we stroll along with you, lads?’ I said.

Asif looked at me with his typical quiet smile.

‘Bit out of your way, Joe?’

‘My brother means ‘thank you’’, Sha said quickly. ‘He just has an odd way of saying it’. He turned to Asif. ‘Bloody hell, Az’ – and suddenly he was Simmons, the English teacher - ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, you silly boy’’.

We all moved off down the drive leading to the school gates, and what subsequently happened has stayed with me ever since. I don’t remember anyone saying anything at all, but half way to the gate, there seemed to have become six of us, and by the time we got to the gate, there were nine of us. Fifty yards down the road, there were twelve of us, and by the time we were approaching the turn off to the short cut patch of woodland which saved people from going about a mile out of their way, I’d lost count. Even laid back Asif was almost in tears, and Sha really was, the pressures of recent months at last getting to him.

We peeped through the cracks in the hedges just before the turn off and saw that Watts had only actually managed to gather five boys around him. And, being boys, we decided to have a bit of fun with them.

Asif and Sha turned first, on their own. Sha had recovered himself enough to give them his best P.E. teacher - ‘now then, lads, off you go, we haven’t got all day - ‘Watts and co. spread out in a semicircle around them. Stu and I then turned the corner; still, everything was quiet, apart from a snort of derision from Watts. They moved in on us. Five more boys, including the school boxing champion Dave Wyatt, then appeared, and even Watts himself began to flinch ever so slightly backwards. Finally, all the rest turned, and I at last had time to count our numbers, eighteen altogether, because the opposition seemed to be momentarily dumbfounded. They didn’t immediately appear ready to give way, and the whole lot of us were moving towards them when Sha held up his hand.

‘Please - we don’t want violence. Az and me have seen as much violence in the last few months as we ever want to. Let us just try to get on’.

All of them except Watts held up their hands or shook Sha’s hand.

As for Watts, we left him to Dave Wyatt, who never said much, but what he did say counted.

‘If I ever hear that these two lads have been harmed in any way, Watts, I will personally knock your effing head off your shoulders. Savvy?’

Watts nodded slowly and then everyone drifted off in an anticlimactic but somewhat relieved way.

1972 was only a year after the raising of the school leaving age, and many boys and their families still had a standoff attitude towards the enforced final year. We didn’t see much of Stephen Watts after that; like a few others, he was already doing part-time stuff here and there, and after the exams, we didn’t see him at all.

Now, when I remember that day, it always makes me think that when certain people talk about people of other cultures as strangers and divide us all into ‘us and them’, perhaps the main reason why they rarely succeed is because the rest of us have a different definition of us and them, and the them is them.




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