One warm summer day in 1952, the children running, chattering or just mooching around in the walled playground of Edgewick primary school in Coventry were suddenly confronted with something they had never seen before. One of the teachers had come out of the school building leading a diminutive and bewildered looking boy by the hand; she came to a halt when they were in what seems, in the tidied-up precision of my recollection 62 years later, to have been the exact centre of the larger of the two squares that made up the playing area. She blew her whistle – normally the signal that we were all to return to our classrooms -and indicated, with repeated waves of her arms, that we were all to gather, instead, around her and the timid and rather strangely dressed boy who still clasped her hand. The whistle was blown again, this time forcefully and repeatedly in order to make it clear to us that silence was called for. The shrieks and laughter that had proliferated all over the yard began to die down; and it was not simply because we were already beginning, before we were ten years old, to do what we were told between the hours of 9am and 4 pm.
There was another, equally compelling reason for the rapid response to the teacher’s instruction. The lad was – as we whispered to each other – browner than any of us, and he was wearing a patka on his head. Our teacher announced that he was joining us at the school; his name, which I have alas forgotten, further emphasised to us that he was different. She exhorted us to make him welcome, released his hand, and walked quickly back to the door from which they had emerged.
Her instructions were quite unnecessary. Before she had even reached the building, we clustered around him, bombarding him with questions and then, when it became clear that he could not understand what we were saying, with invitations to join us in what must have been an equally bewildering variety of games. A kind of competition ensued: who could persuade him to play hopscotch? Had he ever seen a dinky car and did he realise that one with oiled wheel axles could be made to trundle from the top of the playground almost to the entrance gate at the bottom of the slope? There was a clear winner: before the whistle was blown to indicate the end of the dinnertime play period, he had learned to run all over the yard in a game of tig, at half of which he was especially successful as practically every other player allowed him to catch them easily so as to be one of the kids who had let him touch them. He had less success in running away when it was his turn to be tagged, because all of us wanted to get a good look at him during the game and he was forever trapped in a benevolent circle from which there was little chance of escape. And so it was that before the summer was over he had already learned to speak English; at least the English that is necessary for the playing of childhood games. I do not remember a single instance of any kind of unwelcoming behaviour; and it wasn’t because we had been instructed, on pain of punishment, to be nice to him. It was because the usual range of undisciplined nastiness – bullying, mockery, exclusion from groups and gangs – never managed to overcome the curiosity and excitement that we all felt to have someone different – exotically so at our age – inserted into our world.
Our conversations with him were largely prompted by curiosity: “Why do you wear a hat? Where do you come from?” But in the years that followed, things began to change. As the newly arriving Sikh families settled in Coventry, it was the attitude of adults that began to dominate.
Each time an immigrant family moved into a house opposite the school, the family next door departed. A pattern of occupation began to establish itself.
No doubt many children asked their parents what was going on; and no doubt they were given an explanation that made little sense to them if they had once gathered around the boy with the patka. Some of them perhaps forgot what they had felt and done as children, as they grew up themselves.
Things have, generally speaking, improved since those days of closed minds and fear of the unfamiliar.
But the contrast between the playground welcome we gave our newcomer and the immediate response of the older generation seems to me, as I look back on it, to be as mournful as the other contrast which Philip Larkin – himself once a Coventry schoolboy – so memorably referred to when he wrote, of another momentous change in human experience, “Never such innocence again.”
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This post was written by John Lane