Derek Bardowell takes to London’s streets in an attempt to lose himself, and finds subtly pervasive racism – hidden in the cracks and people’s attitudes.
I hate the way I walk, perhaps as much as most writers hate the first draft of their books. It nags. Exposes your deepest insecurities. Fundamentally says something about you that you don’t like, something that you don’t want the world to see.
Never told anyone about this before; seems kind of trivial. Stupid. Vain. The type of thing most people wouldn’t think about, I guess. Why would you, unless you were image conscious (which I’m not), paranoid (which I am a little), a model (only thing I’ve posed for is my school photo), a politician (which, fortunately, I am not), a teenager, (which I was twenty years ago) or someone with an impediment (which I do not have). You probably think I have too much time on my hands. Should be more grateful. Have issues. Maybe true. But my walk leaves me exhausted. It leaves me anxious. It leaves the gap between my eyebrows as strained and tense as my jaw after grinding my teeth all night.
On the surface, my walk doesn’t look so bad. I arch my legs (with almost enough space between them to fit an American football) and my feet point outwards. The combination creates a slight hop and causes my arms to swing a little, enough to annoy anyone walking near me on a crowded station platform. I tend to lower my head, avoiding eye contact, blocking out the world and lessening my (6ft 2in) height. I move fast too, whizzing past everyone as if always late to pick up my children from school.
I am also a preemptive walker. I anticipate everything. Dog shit on the street, traffic light changes, mothers who may need help getting their prams down some stairs, menacing youths, you name it. I have seen it from a distance, altered my pace accordingly and prepared an appropriate response.
I have often tried to remix my walk. Most recently I attempted to adopt Stringer Bell’s stroll. Bell, played by English actor Idris Elba, was a character in The Wire, a series that will forever go down as one of the greatest walking shows in the history of television. I cannot remember a program with so many distinctive walkers.
You had Major Daniels, stiff with his arms and shoulders swerving gently, looking very much like a cowboy about to draw a gun from a holster while on stage at a Mr. Universe contest. Avon Barksdale, bouncy, compact, cocky; representing a kid who had never grown up despite being a drug king pin. Marlo Stansfield, predatory, heavy-footed, psychotically calm and intimidating, arms as taut as a mannequin’s. Yet no one moved with as much poise and charisma as String.
So, I decided, on one damp Saturday morning, to test my String walk out on my local high road.
The main road, in southeast London, is narrow, congested and so heavily burdened by the roars of cars and the screams of sirens; it is difficult to hold a conversation without shouting. Goods from grocery shops and pound stores – the mops, the plastic containers, the wicker bins, the fat seeded grapes, the virile bananas, the baskets of blow up footballs – eat into the pavement.
Remnants of unsustainable, politically motivated ideas burden the street too; the many different styles of bollards and the parking bays (restricted) also cramp walking space. It is near impossible for three people to walk side by side together and, Lord forbid, getting caught behind a mother with a double buggy, an older couple or a gang of youths.
This would be a good test.
“The String” could best be described as a composed yet purposeful-style of walking; you need to move your shoulders with an East-End-meets-East-Coast swagger, arms cuffed behind your back, demonstrating that you’re at ease yet occupied, confident enough to roll with the suits or the boyz in the hood. I’m strolling now in a Stringer State of Mind. My remix will be as hard as Pete Rock’s revamp of Public Enemy’s “Shut ‘Em Down.” So good, the original will be long forgotten. So I hope.
Within minutes I am in the middle of the high road, full of the elderly with severe ailments, young mums pushing their buggies while chatting on their iPhones, young boys on roller skates and blades; there are cars hooting to my left, nail bars, fast food joints, bookies and mops to my right; the street smells of cigarettes and fumes. There’s laughter, posturing, load chat, swearing. It’s vibrant and busy, but with a melancholic undertone.
As I’m about to pass a grocery store, a man steps out of it, straight in front of me. I grind to a halt so I don’t bump into him. He’s tall, bald, Black (light-skinned), with a shriveled mid-forties face and black thick-rimmed glasses; his chin is laden with enraged shaving bumps. He’s skinny, no arse, just legs that run into his lower back, and he wears a black shell jacket, that fails miserably to hug his frame. He doesn’t apologize. Doesn’t even acknowledge my presence. Just walks slowly in front of me, trying to place his carton of Ka fruit punch into his black leather man-bag.
I try to overtake him, but a woman, Vietnamese, I think, about 5ft, in a beige shell jacket staggers towards me. She’s giving her six (or so)-year old boy a piggyback. He’s too big. She’s too small. It looks as if his feet are dragging on the ground. I abort my attempted pass. Don’t want her to bump into me. I would have to apologize, even though it would be her fault.
I shuffle towards the road, stepping first over a sleeping bike before leaping over three garbage bags, ravaged last night by a fox and leaking half-eaten chicken bones, egg shells and moldy mandarin skins.
Danger clear, I step back onto the pavement. As I look up, a cyclist comes hurtling towards me. I hear the puff of the bike before I see him. I stop. He slows down a little, and veers to his left. I move to my right. He swings to his right. I shift to my left. We can’t avoid each other and eventually he screeches the bike to a halt. We’re a yard apart. I’m startled, but I cannot let this get in the way of our inevitable stare down. We look at each other like two boxers during pre-fight instructions. I can’t really see his features, but his head looks like a baggy Satsuma wearing an oversized baseball cap and Beats by Dre headphones. We’ve both been programmed not to back down. Think String. Be String. My face softens, enough for him to believe that he’s won, enough for him to move on while muttering an insult under his breath. I walk on.
My senses are consumed, and I still cannot walk at my normal pace. I wait for openings. I find an opening near the edge of the road, but a young white woman, likely in her mid-twenties, walks towards me, quickly filling the space. She has bleached blond hair (straight and thin), a chubby face with sharp features (lips and nose) and a little too much black eye make-up. Debbie Harry, Rapture. Our eyes meet; she gives me a reticent but inviting smile. I smile back. Don’t follow up though. I lose the moment. Guilt. Can hear what one of my black female friends would say to me. You. Derek. White woman? I think, why did the thoughts of my black female friend cross my mind before thoughts of my partner, my kids, my family.
I’m in my thoughts now. Start wondering what it will be like when I’m old and no longer the recipient of such smiles. Then a weighty white guy, with a sandy crew cut, knee-length khaki shorts and white trainers (no socks) catches my attention. He is packing his two boys (seven and nine-year-old versions of him) into silver Toyota land cruiser. As I pass, the little crew cuts spot me and shout “black man,” “bad man t’ing,” “I kill you” in a mock Black English accent.
I need to stop. String is tiring. I gaze into a shop window. White woman in her mid-thirties, a size-14, stands next to me wearing a fitted beige overcoat. Her hair is dark brown and shaggy, as if she’s just stepped out of a shower. Her face is the perfect oval with pink plumpy cheeks and dark penciled eyebrows. Tense lips. A reality doll. She has a plastic bag dangling on her left forearm, a plush brown leather bag in the other. She spots me next to her. I smile. She looks at me as if I have just put a run in her tights. Her body tightens. She didn’t say anything, but I understood her look. When you’re non-white in Britain, you see this look a lot. Quiet horror. Sighing irritation. It’s the type of look that never makes the press. Never makes television.
We are both suddenly distracted by a heated discussion between a Somali woman and a police warden. The Somali woman has done something wrong. A mistake, a misunderstanding. Not criminal. The police warden, who is black and female, frustratingly tries to explain the mistake that has been made. The Somali lady doesn’t understand English very well.
The lady in the beige coat turns to me and, in reference to the Somali lady’s inability to grasp English, disapprovingly shakes her head (sighing irritation). Suddenly she feels we are aligned. Bonded. In the same gang.
This is too much to bear. I turn and walk off down a side road. String has gone, and I’m walking like a child that has no freedom to fail. The legs arch, feet slide, the arms swing. I remember where this part of my walk came from. I’ve had it since my early teens when this style of walking was deemed cool. It gave me a little power, made me fit in, respected, restricted. I wanted more than this walk and what little power it gave me. Didn’t know how to get it. Didn’t have opportunities to get it. Didn’t know the game. Wasn’t taught it. Never knew the rules well enough to break them. Couldn’t access what my more privileged peers accessed. Couldn’t get away with the same mistakes as they could. The walk, the façade, was all I had.
I’m lowering my head now. But it’s not about lessening my height; I’m trying not to be so threatening. That’s why I lower my head. I’ve scared many a beige-coat lady, psychologically laddered many tights. I carry history around with me. I know my color often determines how people respond to me. Consciously. Unconsciously. “Bad man t’ing.” Tights with runs. The unseen, the racism you don’t see.
My pace quickens, not through apprehension, just reverting to my normal walk-to-work haste. A soulless haste. I’m a suit, you see. Learned the game a little. A little late. I’m successful at work, a respected citizen, a purposeful man that turns his nose up at the nail bars, the chicken shops, and the mops. Wants more coffee shops. Wants more Black folks around, because it puts him at ease. But not like this, not this way. Not this high road, with its symbols of struggle, symbols of poverty, symbols of how integration has led to apathy, symbols of how little we Black people in Britain have progressed. Maybe I’m judging others by my own flawed morals again. Doesn’t everybody? Maybe it’s because I’m a neither-here-nor-there man, without the power or enough understanding of the game to fit neither in with high society nor with the people on my local high road.
No place to go. I’m walking now as if I’m losing my ambition. Scared to break free, scared of losing what little I’ve got. I’m in the middle, neither her nor there. No freedom to fight, no freedom to fail, no second chances. No power, no privilege. No Obama, no Oprah. No place for me in a country that has defined our social history through tragedy. Brixton Riots, the death of Stephen Lawrence, the London Riots.
But at least I can see. I can see the run tights as clearly as “bad man t’ing.” I am weary. I am wary of those Black folks that can’t see. Understand why. Too painful. Maybe they don’t want to feel trapped like me. Restricted like me. Black like me. Maybe they don’t see at all. Even worse. See, England has perfected the art of the unseen and the art of denial. And we Black folks appear to be ignoring the unseen, living in denial. Yet the unseen is the biggest battle facing Black-Britain today.
I fear for those that can’t see. I fear for those that can’t recognize the unseen. I fear for those that believe it does not exist. I know they will not end up walking like me. But I sense they will have the same feeling of unease wherever they walk.
Originally appeared at The Weeklings