On Saturday I had a very strange (in a good way!) experience. A friend and neighbour told me that she had been in a queue behind two Eastern European farm workers in our local shop. Although they were both immigrants they seemed to speak different languages, and communicated in English. One told the other how he stored his loose change in a jar for when money was short. He then politely asked the lady behind the till if it was acceptable if he paid in small change, and she said she had no problem. However, the person in front of my friend in the queue made a big fuss about it. He sighed and complained loudly and rolled his eyes and generally made it clear he was very irritated.
Here comes the point I found startling, lovely and a bit disconcerting to hear. My friend said ‘I thought of your book, Anne, and I thought, ‘Anne wouldn’t stand by and hear these workers be harassed, so I said something.’
My friend went on to say loudly, so that the farm workers could hear, ‘Well, I think it’s absolutely fine to pay like that,’ and the complaining man said ‘ you’ve got a lot of opinions, haven’t you?’ , to which my friend said ‘I think you’re very rude’. She said she felt nervous but sure she was doing the right thing. He then replied angrily, in a stunning comeback, ‘well I think YOU are very rude,’ paid for his shopping and marched out. My friend paid for hers, worried slightly that he might be waiting for her outside to carry on the argument, but finding he had gone, went home, relieved.
My friend was v funny telling the story, and I know that two people telling each other they are rude is not exactly newsworthy, but I think she was extremely brave. She said ‘‘Girl with a White Dog’ sensitised me, Anne,’ and that makes me feel very proud.
But it was the bit where she said ‘I thought, ‘Anne wouldn’t put up with people speaking like this to immigrants ’ that made me go ‘oh no!’ to her. I am so relieved that she didn’t get into a physical fight because of my book.
You see, I don’t know what I would have done. I have days when I can be brave, and I have days when I am not. I am absolutely not sure I would have done the right thing, and I am flattered and touched that my neighbour has such faith in me, but I don’t have the same faith in myself.
So should we not write things we can’t live up to?
I think, as a human, I have to. I can’t live up to ideals of perfect love and goodness. I think humans are prone to all sorts of cowardice and selfishness – it’s part of the human condition. We all fall short. The people in Nazi Germany who turned a blind eye to unspeakably awful things happening were very wrong but human, like us. And the point of ‘Girl with a White Dog’ is that I want us – our country – our neighbourhoods – not to be put to the test, and for us to make sure that systems are in place which bring out the best, not the worst in us. We need politicians to be aware of what they say and the conditions that spark racism and encourage prejudice. We need to be aware of small issues and the seeds of racism and intolerance so we can deal with them on the ‘I think you’re very rude’, ‘Well I think you’re very rude’ level. If I am not sure I could have been brave enough even to have that simple argument, how on earth can I be sure I would be heroic enough to protect the vulnerable if a more extreme government got in?
So I feel very honoured and proud that ‘Girl with a White Dog’ made my neighbour want to make some farm workers feel welcome. I feel very proud that she was brave enough to speak out in public and to be kind, and even if I don’t personally rise to the occasion myself all the time, and am worryingly prone to tweet and post things I may not live up to, I think I’m going to keep on writing and live with the humbling realisation that
sometimes my words are better than me!