Eastern Europe, Racism and Norwich Arts Centre

I’m in Norwich at quaint  Norwich Arts Centre.   I have played here variously over the years. They’ve been booked me  into The Gables Guest House. But in my contract it says “No Guest houses”. So they’ve booked me into a b&b. In my contract it says “…and no b&b’s”.  

It’s a gorgeous if mono-cultural city. I say mono-cultural as a description of its feel more than anything else. This adds to its beauty. I find that places that are  mono really display the character of a country – it is the same anywhere in the world.  I feel like a white tourist in Kenya looking at the rural huts of the tribe.   I arrive at Norwich train station and see a hotel right outside. I am not staying at that b&b so   I book the hotel and check in. I’ll pay for it myself. 

You can tell where someone is from by their accent and shape of face. So as I steppedin the lift I said to the gentleman  “from South Africa? ” . He was about forty dressed in a suite and looked tired.  He brightened upon my question and replied in the affirmative. I tell him how much I like South Africa and mention some of the cities I have been too, so that he gets the message that I really do like the country. It turns out he is on a break betweenbusiness in Belgium, doing a little sight seeing in Europe and has just returned from eastern Europe.  I sense something and asked “how did they treat you?”.  There is alot of subtext to this question.  His eyebrows raised in understated exasperation.

We know, Black folks, that Eastern Europe is one of the most overtly racist places in Europe for a black man.  After much conversation  he ends with  “they are ignorant”.  This,  from a black South African: a man who had faced down racism in his own life time, in his own country. A man who was part of a culture who named it and stopped it as best he could. He’s clearly educated and softly spoken but shaken. I tell him that racism is not about the words that are spoken but in the language of the body the face and more oftenthan not it is the words between the lines. He is visibly hurt by the way he was treated on a daily basis in Eastern Europe.

Many  English people simply don’t realise that most black people have long since detected the virtual disgust emanating towards us from the recent East European immigrants to these shores. He’s off to eat and waves goodbye. I wish him well and wait at reception for the taxi to take me to The Arts Centre.  

"What kind of music would you like for the audience" said the sound and lighting technician in his regulation black t shirt.  I can’t tell you how tired I was before this  event - absolutely shattered.   It was a nice question though "soul" I replied instinctively then aftera little thought "or maybe blues - maybe nina simone".   The audience filtered in and I  checked in to the dressing room, where I found a fan letter to some previous performer that began with “Dear Mr Souther, please don’t think me a stalker”. It was a long and rambling affair. The amn was clearly not a stalker but in his innocence had given to much respect to his object who had left the letter disgarded with food stains upon it.  

I’d  decided before hand that I would give this reading my everything. If someone is going to come out to se me on this night then the least I can do is give my best. If that’s not good enough then okay, but at least its my best.   I have noticed quite a few radio four listeners at my events.  Events are really special at the moment. Since stopping drinking I am getting back to myself. It’s wonderful.

But something is twitching me and I made a joke about it on stage. The music previous to the event in the break and at the end as provided by the sound and lighting technician who had very little to do that evening - what does a poet need but a mic and a light - was hard core  Eastern European traditional music.  I like  traditional Eastern European traditional musicbut I wouldn’t play Wagner at a Bar mitzvah. Okay that’s a little extreme but I was invited  to this event by Norwich arts centres as part of  their celebration of Black History Month.  So what’s with the hard core eastern europpeaan traditional music.

It’s not that the sound man played Eastern Europpean Traditional music after havingasked me which music I would prefer. That would be bad enough.  It’s that he did not make any link between  the relevance of soul music, blues or nina simone  with the one Norwich Arts Centre performance for  Black History Month. When you employ black people here in England  you get so much more experience of the world.  And while I am at it. There was no-one to introduce me on stage either. It felt like more of an obligationevent for Norwich Arts Centre  than a celebration of black history month.  But aside from all of this BS I had an event to do  and despite all of this,  the reading and the audience, were truly wonderful. I must say that it is only while writing this blog that I unravelled this chain of events. Having to concentrate on my job stopped me from processing these things.

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