Friday, June 01, 2012

The harder they come by Ian Walker (New Society 11 October 1979)

OK, I've been a bit hap-hazard with the posting of the Ian Walker articles on the blog, so I've decided that from now on I will be posting one of his New Society articles every Friday and Tuesday on the blog until I've exhausted my supply. I can't write fairer than that.
To start off this more conscientious blogging behaviour, a piece from October 1979 where Walker reports from Cornwall on the multi-racial South African Barbarians Rugby Team's controversial tour of the UK. (This 'On This Day in History' article from the BBC News website gives more background on the tour.)
Eagle eyed readers will note that there is a typo in the text. Sadly I'll never know what the Holmans Male Voice Choir sang "trusty men and true" over but I did find out from this handy wiki link that the Barbarians beat Cornwall 23-7 on the day. Walker neglected to mention the score in his piece. I guess he thought the main sport was taking place off the pitch.
The harder they come by Ian Walker

The palm trees on a granite street in Camborne look like they were put there as a Cornish joke this rain-soaked Saturday morning. A coachload of policemen race up the street, which is named Basset after a local arisocrat who was MP for the borough of Penryn in the second half of the 18th century. Dreaming by Blondie, is on Radio One in Terry's Grill. I'm sitting by the window. Three black men stroll past. They smile and I smile back. Smiles are ID cards: we are not here for the rugby.

I'd had breakfast with a man who was - the referee, Alan Welsby. He is kind of famous. "I'm on the telly, the opening credits of Rugby Special," he says, his large frame hunched over a plate of bacon and egg. Sitting opposite is a white South African who has come all the way from a bar in west London, where he's working, to see, he says, his "fellow-countrymen."

I tell them I was at a meeting the night before in Camborne community centre, an anti-tour meeting addressed by Sam Ramsamy, a black South African and chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee. A hundred or so seats had been set out, but only eleven were occupied. The King opened the community centre on 1 December 1937 - it said on a plaque under an oil painting of the King, his family and the corgis.

Over the road from Terry's Grill is another cafe, the Cornish Miner. A skinhead in a combat jacket and three greasers in black leather jackets sit at one table, the man reading a Stop The Tour leaflet at another table is black. One of the white men starts whistling the tune to The red flag and the black man polishes off his buttered toast and goes out. There are pictures of ruined mines on the walls.

Three other lads in the cafe say there are "bikers," though they do not look the part. Chas works in a garage and David is a painter. "I'm a brain surgeon," says the other lad, and his mates laugh. "No, I'm a scrounger, on the dole. Ain't much work round here." There are only three working tin mines now. Holmans, a mining engineering works, is the town's main employer.

If it stops raining, these boys say, they'll go to the game. "Four year I been going there, and I never paid once to get in," says Chas. A woman ties what looks like a plastic bag over her green peaked hat and goes outside to face the rain.

In the White Hart, five men are playing poker in the corner of the public bar. A one-armed bandit called the "Pound Stepper" noisily spews out tokens, and heads turn to watch a fat woman in a green dress stooping to collect her winnings.

A hundred or so demonstrators stand in a car park off Camborne high street. "Suez, 1956, was the last march I was on," says a bearded English teacher. There are only three black students in his school of 1,500 in Camborne. "Important to stand up and be counted," says a local Labour Party member who makes silver and gold jewellery in St Ives, "my husband's done his own poster." She is pointing at a man holding up a placard which states: "We will welcome South Africans when they end apartheid."

Some students from Plymouth Poly tell me that four National Front members got on their coach. "We tried to persuade them to get off, but they wouldn't. We phoned the police, but they said they had no powers to eject them. We decided we wouldn't travel with them, so we had to find a mini-bus.

Why didn't you eject them from the bus?

"You should have seen their flagpoles: great spikes on the end."

Union Jacks they were carrying?

"No. Swastikas."

A policeman addresses the demonstrators. He's speaking into a microphone. His loud-hailer is held in position by Sam Ramsamy. Everyone listens politely. "No demonstrators will be allowed into the ground."

"Why not?" I ask. No reply.

"Thank you for your cooperation." The policeman has finished his speech, and the banners move off towards the high street. A small crowd outside a clothes shop, called Blokes and Birds, watch the 400-strong procession. It's raining hard. All along the high street, the Saturday lunchtime shoppers stand and stare. Camborne has never seen the like. Except perhaps in 1795 when local miners, hungry, discovered that grain was being loaded on ships bound for France. Or in 1872, when the Riot Act was read in Camborne after a fight broke out in a pub between locals and Irish immigrants who'd come into town to work the mines.

This march will not develop into a riot. It passes a church where the RSPCA's annual bazaar is being held, continues down the Old Rectory towards the rugby ground. "Don't scrum with scum," someone shouts and, thinking it witty, others join in the chant. Outside the ground, some boys in red-and-white hooped rugby shirts have shinned up a stone wall in order to shout "Go back to Russia."

The Holmans Male Voice Choir is singing of "trusty men and true" over the XXX. The turf is lush and green, sodden with the rain which sweeps almost horizontally across the ground. Admission charge is 80p, but those who can afford an extra £1.20 go under cover in the stand. "Won't be any trouble; I doubt it," a man in a deerstalker says. "Cornwall's a very parochial county, y'see."

The photographers try and keep the Nikons dry. The grey shroud is broken here and there by pieces of dayglo orange and yellow, which are anoraks round the green pitch. A man with a beard (it is a brighter shade of grey than the sky) peers out at the few hundred policemen ringing the pitch. "I just don't believe it's necessary; not in this weather anyway," he says. "Yes, you travel all over the mines in the Republic and somewhere there's a Cousin Jack: you'll find a lot of people in the area have got some family in South Africa. We have, so we're pro South Africa anyway."

A police notice comes over the PA. The man with family in South Africa is disgruntled. "Much better if they kept the police where they are, and let the spectators deal with the demonstrators."

"A very good point, I think," says a man on a row of seats in front of us.

A black South African with a No. 3 on the back of his two-tone blue shirt leads the Barbarians onto the field. He is holding a furry toy, presumably their mascot. Cornwall are in black-and-yellow hoops. The referee, Alan Welsby, wears all-white.

A few demonstrators did enter the ground but there was no chanting. They were either too drenched, or too scared, or both. "Not a sign of a demonstrator," one cut glass voice says to another. "Of course, the real losers, as ever, were the policemen having to turn out in weather like this."

A soldier I met on the train down to Camborne said he was leaving the army in two months, "to live with human beings again." But first he had to fly back to Flax Street in Belfast, on 19 October, to re-join his unit. He said he was coming to the game, but I didn't see him.

"He's a big lad that No.1. Six foot three or four; more. Look at the size of him," the man with family in South Africa is pointing at Hennie Bekker who comes from Western Province and has just scored his second try. "Still, the bigger they are, the harder they fall."

"The harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all. Yeah." This song is by Jimmy Cliff, the celebrated Jamaican reggae artist, and I'm wondering if he inspires black youth in the streets of the cities of South Africa?

Camborne is three miles from the sea and almost 6,000 miles from Johannesburg. The men in sensible shoes sitting in the stand are watching a show that is on its last legs. The referee blows the whistle and the crowd drifts off towards the exits and the rain.
11 October 1979

No comments: