`If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.’ I literally obeyed that Matthew 10 verse 14 Bible injunction and dumped my winter coat, gloves and long pants in the dust bin and happily left London to work in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, many years ago during the Nigeria-Biafra war. One reason was that the weather was bad for my health. From childhood I had suffered from allergic rhinitis and schooling in London had been hell, particularly in winter. My nostrils were usually blocked and I had to carry nasal drops around. Doctors at the ear nose and throat hospital in Kings Cross appeared to experiment on me sometimes inserting what I thought were live electric wires in my nostrils to puncture what I later got to know were polyps.
The other main reason was that as a very sensitive person racial discrimination made me sad most of the time. `Give each black person ten pounds and send him home,’ some politicians insisted publicly. And Enoch Powell worsened matters with his well-publicised `rivers of blood’ speech to the Conservative Party. Furthermore, blatantly discriminatory notices in some corner shops and newspapers like, `sorry no coloureds, no dogs,’ sometimes also, `no Irish’, excluded certain category of people from accommodation. Blacks could only deliver merchandise to the major shops through the service doors but could not be seen selling the same merchandise in the shops! It was that brazen.
At the end of the war I came back to Nigeria, secured a good job, and got married. And it immediately dawned on me that everybody wanted to go to London, the same place I had run away from! The rich visited London even for weekend outings including shopping or for gambling in the West End. For some others it was a lifetime ambition, see London before you die. It was for some others an opportunity to escape to a better life, legally or illegally, including as stowaways in ships! My wife, Lizzy, was no exception. She pleaded with me to take her to London during my leave. I eventually gave in and seven years later I was back in London, curious.
We stayed with Wilson and Agnes, my old friends, off Lavender Hill in Battersea, an area I knew since I had lived in nearby Balham. The day after we arrived, a Sunday, we, including our hosts, took off for central London in the 137 bus. At Marble Arch we disembarked and walked that day farther than I thought I could to the other end of Oxford Street and came back making a left turn into Regent Street to Piccadilly down to Piccadilly Circus. During our stay we must have traversed that stretch and adjacent streets at least five times mingling with tourists from all over the world, many with cameras, shopping or just taking in the scenery. We each had a camera too. We must have visited most of the major stores, Selfridges, Woolworths, Marks and Spencer; you name them, admiring the variety of goods on offer. We did as much buying as our budget allowed.
Wilson and Agnes worked week days so my wife and I, armed with a London A to Z, took off in whatever direction we chose. This being Lizzy’s first trip she wanted to visit each place she had been hearing of. For me it was a visit to rediscover London. In my student days I had preferred the red double-decker buses to the tube because I enjoyed the sightseeing so we used the buses for the same reason. We used the tube once or twice to give Lizzy the experience and when we wanted to save time.
On our trips into north and central London the bus 137 usually took us through Hyde Park Corner to Marble Arch or Oxford Circus which alternated as our take off points to places north of the Thames. From there we took off in different directions on foot or by bus. One day we window-shopped from Marble Arch far up Edgware Road and back. On another we took a bus to visit Golders Green through Swiss Cottage and on to Hampstead Garden suburb where the very rich lived. The Central Line tube took us to the bustling Liverpool Street market where in one particular shop the Arab shop-keeper spoke Yoruba language to us. When he understood we were not Yoruba he spoke in halting Igbo, testimony to his having hosted many Nigerian tourists.
On another day we ended up in Hyde Park Speakers Corner where tourists and Londoners listened to, cheered or jeered, speakers of different races airing their opinions on issues at times ridiculous or scandalous, sometimes political, and at times blasphemous. But the police was there to ensure things did not get out of hand. One evening we were hosted to dinner by a business mogul from home at the Playboys in the Hyde Park Hilton and experienced for the first time being served by the famous bunnies. We also went by bus to Porto Bello market and Shepherds Bush. Of course we did not miss Madame Tussauds, Trafalgar Square and its famous pigeons, the Nigerian Embassy close by, Parliament Square, the Big Ben, 10 Downing Street, the Westminster Cathedral, Soho and other landmarks around Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square.
As part of my reliving my days in London we took a bus to Balham station and walked the long Emmanuel Road past No 85 where I had lived for five years and on to Telford Avenue in Streatham Hill. I had searched for the Pipers, my former landlord and landlady, in the telephone directly but was sad that they were not listed. At Telford Avenue we boarded bus 159, my bus of choice to Elizabeth House, Waterloo, where I had done my articleship. I always laugh when I remember my then supervisor, Mr Rosen, a likeable Jew. One hour before closing time he would rub his palms and say, `Peter, I can’t be late twice in one day, late coming to work and late going home. See you.’ And he would take off.
We also visited Brixton School of Building where I had studied part time. My regret was that we could not go to Walthamstow where I had attended the Technical College for one year even though we were able to visit the hostel just by Finsbury Park in Manor House where I had lived during that one year. From there I had alternated between watching Tottenham Hotspurs and Arsenal, the two nearest football clubs. I made sure we walked up Milbank past the Barclays Bank branch where I had banked and had religiously exhausted my thirty six pounds sixteen and eight pence monthly Eastern Nigeria government scholarship allowance before the end of each month. I was sad that Estreham Table Tennis Club was no longer in the old church hall in Streatham Hill. I had played for the club in the first division of the Wandsworth and District League. This and the Sunday league football for my club in Tooting Bec and other Commons in Wandsworth had provided unforgettably happy moments for me. Whenever I could I had my fill of fish and chips which I had missed very much.
The three enjoyable weeks passed quickly. And I was now able to understand more clearly that the only thing constant about life is change. Blacks were now employed in the major departmental stores! And all through our gallivanting I discovered that racial integration had taken place in so short a time. I did not see any anti-racial advertisement on corner shop windows or in the newspapers that I read. It gave me more belief in humanity.
But some other things had not changed much. The old landmarks and places of interest were still there. The famous red London buses were still there, always available. The black cabs were still `turning on a six pence’ in busy Oxford Street ferrying tourists and Londoners. I did not expect the weather to change though. I had made sure our visit, my pilgrimage, was in summer, late July into August, with its early sunrise and daylight up to ten in the night. We had a wonderful time and decided to come back as often as we could, during summer of course!
On the last day of our holiday, a Saturday, we and our hosts had gone to Clapham Common, done some window shopping, lazed about in the Common, and then decided to catch the 35 bus to Clapham Junction to shop in Arding & Hobbs. The rows of seats facing forward in the bus were occupied so we sat in one of the two rear rows that faced each other with space in between. At the next bus stop in came four black youth, obviously West Indian, to sit in the row facing us and after them came some old white women to stand holding on to the support rail above.

The bus moved and we were chatting happily when I suddenly saw a black hand in the handbag of the white woman standing directly in front of me. Instinctively I was hitting the hand and saying, `Stop it, what are you doing?’ The hand withdrew quickly.
The owner of the handbag looked with distaste from me to the other side. Shortly after, the bus stopped. The white women went down from the bus. The woman with the handbag got off last, holding on to the bus facing us, one foot down laboriously and then the other. As she let go of the bus she hissed loudly, `black bastards!’
With my mouth open in shock at her apparent ingratitude I kept staring at her until the bus moved. I was thinking, is that the reward I get for stopping the boy from robbing her?
My wife whispered hoarsely to me, `Serves you right, mister do good. See your reward? When she said “bastards’’ she included you, you know? In fact she meant all of us black people in the bus.’
The boy whose activity I had interrupted had a knife and a stick which he appeared to be sharpening. He was staring at me and muttering what obviously were uncomplimentary. By my side my wife was berating me. She said, `How many times will I warn you to mind your business? One day you will get yourself killed.’
The bus stopped suddenly and the youth got out, the aggressive one still calling me names. I watched them run ahead of the traffic into a shop. By my side my wife was still grumbling at me. Just before Arding & Hobbs we saw the youth run out of the shop with bags under their armpits towards the Junction. They had obviously robbed the shop. They ran left into St John’s Hill.
I kept thinking about the old woman even after we had returned to Lagos. I had stopped her being robbed but to her I was a black bastard just like the boy who had tried to rob her. Her deep seated prejudice had come to the surface, temporarily dampening my spirit. Yes, London had changed but it will take a longer time for the people’s prejudices to change, especially the older generation. They may not put it in notices in corner shops or newspapers but it is there. But, coming to think about it, there will always be prejudice, even among people of the same colour for prejudice is human nature. No two people are exactly alike. And that is the beginning of `I am better than you.’ Mutual respect is something to aspire to, to work for. God created us different. Perhaps His intention is for us all to keep aspiring to be better.

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