When a person walks out their door, whether going to the shop, to work, or for a night out, I imagine it is only the lucky ones, who are not conscious, or made conscious of, who they are. I imagine the stereotypical, white middle class male, irrespective of their political hue, on this journey imbibing the day without constraint; not physical, psychological, nor spiritual. They may believe they are completely unbiased in respect of how their position, influences their decisions, or perspective when dealing with other people. They may give to charity, volunteer, despise racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, whilst at the same time, feel totally at peace with the world – that for all its faults, see the world moving in the right direction. And on the whole, they are right – headline figures, which the late Hans Rosling so eloquently showed, see many indicators of human development (child mortality, mortality, rates of disease, etc.) on a positive trend. However, this position is also the problem. On whose backs were these improvements in quality of life carried? Often, it was either the existing poor, and when there weren’t enough of them, immigrants, such as the Windrush generation.
The problem of discrimination is usually seen to be individual or institutional; but a collection of the individual across a spectrum of institutions, is the opaque face of ‘steady-as-we-go’. Organisations such as the English Defence League, are quite rightly the poster boys of racism and violence. And evil clowns like Toby Young or Katie Hopkins feed this extremism. But the tut-tutting of the liberal middle is not enough. Well-meaning and instructive journalists like George Monbiot, Larry Elliot, and Johnathan Freedland, who expose the corruption and inequality of the elites, are part of that privileged collective. We don’t see them resigning and making way for a more diverse set of journalists; and we see the same with politicians, academics, and I’m afraid to say those who gate-keep poetry (there are some exceptions, with Michael Mackmin at the Rialto introducing the editing development programme some five years ago).
Deborah Alma’s poignant poem ‘Pink Pyjama Suit’ I feel encapsulates this ‘problem’ of difference, in particular when identity is far from monolithic and when you have to walk out that door, conscious of who you are and what people might think of you. ‘I must have been just five,/ in my pink, shiny shalwar kameez.// Mummi-ji, I don’t want to wear it to school./ North London laughs too easily,/ makes fools of us and this mix-up family, this/ half-caste council-estate bastard.’ I have never been one to use identity in selecting poets, it has always been about the poem. But I also know that I won’t get the diversity of voice, without the diversity of the individuals. As you will see from Deborah’s bio, she is part of that diversity of voice, both in background and foreground.
This sentiment of the oblivious liberal elite, was more succinctly and directly made by Lisa Mackenzie, (author of Getting By) at an Oxford Union debate of all places, when saying: “I met Jonathon Dimbleby the other day, he thought it was hilarious that he met a working class academic, couldn’t understand it, he said: ‘how can you be a working class academic, You’ve got a Phd?’ my response was, ‘Working class people can read books’.” QED.
You can hear Deborah read her poem on BBC Radio’s Woman Hour here (from 32 mins)
Deborah Alma is a mixed-race Indian/ English woman, born in London and now living in the Welsh Marches. She is a UK poet with a MA in Creative Writing, Honorary Research fellow at Keele University & taught Writing Poetry at Worcester University. She has worked using poetry with people with dementia, in hospice care & with vulnerable groups. She is also Emergency Poet prescribing poetry from her vintage ambulance. She is editor of Emergency Poet-an anti-stress poetry anthology, The Everyday Poet- Poems to live by (both Michael O’Mara) and #Me Too – rallying against sexual assault & harassment- a women’s poetry anthology (Fair Acre Press). Her True Tales of the Countryside is published by The Emma Press and a first collection Dirty Laundry (published by Nine Arches Press, May 2018).
Pink Pyjama Suit
I must have been just five,
in my pink, shiny shalwar kameez.
Auntie, Karachi, pinched my cheeks,
Chorti pyara, like a doll
like a little blonde doll.
Walk this way, try some dancing.
Behen! Now you have
your little blonde doll to play with!
Mummi-ji, I don’t want to wear it to school.
North London laughs too easily,
makes fools of us and this mix-up family, this
half-caste council-estate bastard.
Miss Minchin, one arm shorter than the other
knew how North London could laugh, and said:
Knock on all six doors and tell them
Miss Minchin says I must show the children
my clothes from Pakistan.
Mummi-ji, the glass on the doors is too high
and all those eyes
as I turn round and round, up on teachers’ tables
to twist in my pretty pink pyjama suit
like a little blonde doll.