The Agnes: Prologue and King Themba
The whole book, The Agnes, by Andrew Harding, is published on Kindle at
Departing the city’s civic centre and moving West of Church Street, the visitor is advised to proceed along Curtin Way two blocks to Webster Street, turning left past The Warfleda, a public house named after Warburton’s most prominent resident in Saxon times, Queen Warfleda. She is mainly known for allegedly riding her white horse naked through the city in some form of vivid protest. Webster Street dates from the mid-to-late 19th century, and its most notable building, worthy of a brief stop, if only for its famous café, is the Agnes Ward Centre (known colloquially as “The Agnes”). This traditional Warburton-style redbrick building was once “The Arts and Crafts Society of Warburton”, which words are quaintly etched in stone between the ground and first floor. Across the typical Norman-style arch over the front door will be seen a sign in grey lettering, “AGNES WARD CENTRE”. Enter this door for the café/ lounge on the left. The building is more extensive than its street-front suggests, and includes a large lounge, a youth club, a library, classrooms, a gymnasium, a snooker room (facilities which are occasionally available for public use), and upstairs accommodation for thirty men, while its Annexe houses thirty women. This hostel is run by the Agnes Ward Trust, which the visitor will recall also endowed the city clock in Church Street, while a statue of Agnes Ward herself may be seen in the botanic gardens. Agnes Ward was the most eminent person in Warburton in the second half of the nineteenth century. She was the widow of one Jacob Ward, who expired in 1865 at the age of 47, a victim of consumption, but by that time an industrialist of considerable renown who had made a fortune from industrialising England’s insatiable desire for heavy machinery. The visitor will no doubt be aware that Warburton in its heyday was an engine of what may without undue exaggeration be called Mercia’s enormous contribution to the industrial revolution. Agnes Ward devoted herself and her husband’s fortune, which she curated with what Eric Macaulay has referred to in his History of Warburton as “remarkable intelligence and foresight”, to good works, including the Arts and Crafts Society. Agnes Ward died in 1899, but the Trust she established was able in 1923 to open the Agnes Ward Centre as a place for what was called in the trust document “the betterment of the working classes, both male and female”. By 1937 The Agnes Ward Centre had come to take its present form of two hostels, one male, one female, and a youth and community centre with sports and what were referred to as “improving activities” such as night classes. The Warburton Tenants’ Advice Bureau also occupies part of the ground floor. The building is thus not simply part of Warburton’s architectural heritage, but an important social resource and a pleasing example of 19th century philanthropy and its contemporary legacy.
What the Guide does not tell you is that The Agnes was, during my early growing years, the most important building in my life.
The building was in fact better described as run down rather than old. The windows were surrounded with flaking white paint and on the exterior there seemed to be dark corners everywhere, hardly illuminated by the sunlight coming at an oblique angle, or by desultory street lighting at night. Railings accompanied the worn steps down to a basement, and up to the main door, which was painted dark green. There always seemed to be a faint smell of carbolic soap in that area, which I supposed was because of incessant cleaning of the steps and the reception area by old Jake, the caretaker.
I came to know a great deal about The Agnes and its inhabitants, and The Agnes came to know a great deal about me. My parents both worked there. Dad managed the male hostel and was responsible for the Tenants’ Advice Bureau, which was separate – a kind of social enterprise, I think you would call it, but also supported by the Trust. Mum managed the female hostel in the Annexe as well as the accounts for the whole Centre. I spent a lot of my time there with my friends, whom I will shortly introduce.
For those who don’t know it, I should first tell you a little about my city. Warburton, where The Agnes is located, is a medium-sized city, part of the conurbation that these days is called Mercia Metropolitan County, in the English Midlands. It is an important railway junction with connections in all directions, about three hours from London.
I can’t actually say I am that proud of my city. It is very old, dingy and generally wet. Its buildings are a bit nondescript and blackened by, I suppose, years of pollution. The newer ones are rather unimpressive. But after all, it is where I have always lived and gone to school. It is in my opinion full of argumentative, materialistic people of no vision, and sometimes limited goodwill, about whom you might also say there are a few good points. They can be very loyal in friendship, for example, and they have a long tradition of emphasis on education. My friend Eddy (his name is actually Edison Ward and he is the great-great grandson of Agnes, blessed in memory) says they are called Mercians because they are all mercenary. This seems to be true, although I can think of many exceptions. But they are after all my people, the people I have grown up amongst, and who have loved, protected, educated, fed and entertained me, as well as repelled me and annoyed me to the point of frustration. I have certainly learned a lot from them, anyway.
One thing about Warburton that’s well known is that it has a mixed bag of people of all races, religions and colours, and the joke is, ‘you can always tell a Warbie by the shamrock in his turban’. So Warburton has also accommodated (I don’t say exactly welcomed) over the years many different types of people. Originally Saxon, it took in Danes and Jutes, then Welsh and Irish. More recently West Indians, Sikhs, Indians, and Pakistanis for example, have made Warburton their home. Warbies have always been a bit weird in my opinion, even though I count myself as a Warbie. Which other city, after all, has a stark-naked queen on a white horse as its iconic founder? Apart from all this, I suppose our excellent football team (also called ‘The Warbies’) and our grammar school, The Bishop Herbert School, which is my school, and Warburton University, are our main claim to fame. Oh, yes, I nearly forgot, but a ‘Warbie Cheese’ is a kind of pasty, which by the grace of heaven is apparently only found in this city. Frankly, it’s awful, but visitors feel obliged to eat one for lunch at The Warfleda, with a pint of Piper’s Ale. The naked queen on her white horse is shown on its sign, which creaks scarily at night. For some reason our school song says we boys all owe allegiance to our Queen Warfleda, and we are all her sons. But, really, that is a bit silly, as she died in 872, according to the Saxon Chronicles. You will gather my school is a boys’ school, more’s the pity. Eddy says that’s because otherwise the girls would probably all get pregnant. Girls, like Lucy, go to Warburton Girls’ High. I’ll tell you more about her later.
Apart from The Agnes and my school, the other most important building in my life is naturally my home with Mum and Dad, and Rebecca, my sister, which is only about two hundred yards from The Agnes, facing the end of Webster Street. I have lived in that house all my life. Because of this location near to The Agnes, I am able to hang around there as long as I like, and sometimes I even go back there after dinner and finish my homework in the library or chat with the hostellites.
Mum and Dad are loving and, I would say, at least as far as they are able, attentive parents to Rebecca and me. Rebecca is about seven years older than me and at university. She is a brilliant scholar and we are all very proud of her. Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be following in her footsteps, as I am much keener on sports than learning stuff like Ancient Greek. Both Mum and Dad have rather demanding jobs that seem to take up many more than what I imagine are their contracted hours, with numerous crises and emergencies interrupting a normal family life. There is often a fight, or a hospitalisation, or a flooded bathroom, or a police visit, or something of the kind. For this reason, I am in the unusual position, actually the envy of my school friends, who mainly live in Warburton’s leafy suburbs with rather over-controlling parents, of both being well looked after and at the same time having relatively light supervision of what I am doing, or when or where or with whom I am doing it. Pretty cool, isn’t it?
School keeps me very busy with classes, homework and sports, which I like (the sports, that is, mainly, but definitely not the homework). However, as I reached eleven years old, I came to spend more and more time at The Agnes, and since then I have done more of my (admittedly rather perfunctory) homework there, in the lounge or the library, than at home.
I think, by the way, I forgot to tell you that my name is James Emmett, but everybody calls me Jimmy. Except some of my teachers and Rebecca, who calls me James, and doesn’t like to be called Becky.
I suppose at first it was the attractions of a comfortable sofa in the lounge, and the tea and evil cupcakes with which Mrs Hammond, the cook, plied me. Mrs Hammond is a round and motherly woman with an incomprehensible Glaswegian accent, a bit inclined to hysteria perhaps, but the thing is she is quite fond of me, and I am fond of her cupcakes. She cooks breakfast and dinner for the hostellites and anybody else who stops by. Her fish and chips are more highly to be recommended than a Warbie cheese any day. The café is separated from the lounge by a partition wall with a swing door, so you can take your tea and one of Mrs Hammond’s cupcakes, or whatever, into the lounge without putting it down.
The Agnes attracts hostel residents internationally, as well as from other parts of the British Isles. There friendships are made, projects are planned, and what Dad calls “life’s critical pathways” are determined. Most people only stay for a year or two, but some are what Rosie calls “part of the furniture” – I suppose she herself is an example, because Rosie is one of The Agnes’s long-termers. Or at least she was until she moved to a nearby apartment. And so was Ravi, until he left. He was what they called a perpetual student, but now he is an engineer. Rosie is my special friend and she’s a social worker. I love her, but I am not in love with her, if you get my meaning. To me Rosie is a special girl – or actually a woman who is nearly twice my age. She’s a blousy, plump, funny Australian with long yellow hair, who is always especially attentive to me, and this is very pleasing, given my sister’s increasingly long absences at university. (Anyway, Rebecca is not exactly what you would call fun, clever as she is, unless you find Aristotle fun.) Rosie was a trainee social worker with the city council, and is now a fully trained one. She is what you’d call the beating heart of The Agnes, without whom I reckon nothing would be quite the same. Even though she moved out she is very sociable and still prefers to spend time at The Agnes. Actually, to be honest she fills it with cigarette smoke. She is also a big help to Mum in solving problems. In fact, I’d describe Rosie as an amazing problem-solver, except that she’s no good at chess. That kind of problem she leaves to me. So, I suppose Rosie has mothered and sistered me a lot. People might find that a bit strange. But I don’t care. I think of Rosie as like my second Mum.
Apart from the comforts of the lounge, I found I could read books from the library, play games requiring at least one partner, such as snooker, table tennis, or chess, and even watch TV, when Ravi or Kwokkie was able to get it working, that is. Kwokkie was another long-termer. He is a Chinese guy from Hong Kong, and was qualifying as a lawyer, so he advised people in the Tenants’ Advice Centre. Sometimes there is five-a-side football or basketball or badminton in the gym. More than that there is to me just a sense of things happening, and interesting people coming and going, which makes it more attractive than my own quiet room at home, where I would normally otherwise be waiting for my parents to return. The Agnes is after all my parents’ workplace, so it feels as though one of them at least would normally be near at hand if need be.
I found that as I sat there in the lounge people would pass through, talking about lots of things which I didn’t really understand but felt I should. Politics, international affairs, and such like, about which I have learned a lot. As it turned out, The Agnes has given me more education than I could possibly have bargained for. Not all of it, to be honest, would actually survive Mum and Dad’s closest scrutiny, but what I mean is education in life, what I came to call The Knowledge, with a capital T and a capital K. I have made some great friends, like Rosie, Kwokkie, and Ravi, and there always seems to be something exciting or interesting going on, and somebody good to talk to.
The hostellites mainly consist of students at the local Mercia Police Academy, or the Warburton Teacher Training College, or Warburton University. Some will be doing apprenticeships or holding junior positions with local companies. As a result of my regular visits in the afternoons or evenings, I became some kind of a mascot, or at least I was until I got a bit older. I suppose I was, to them, at the beginning at least, a smart kid, cheeky in a cute way, and for those from non-English-speaking places, a good source of inconsequential English conversation. I think I must speak very clearly, because Kem, who is a scientist from Ghana, drew Ravi’s attention to my speech - “This boy, Ravi, his English is so p-p-p-p-p!”, he said. Ravi is from India, and speaks excellent English but with a funny accent. He taught me to form complete paragraphs, and avoid what he calls “that poisonous local Mercian slang - how I do hate it”. I know what he means. For example, when Mercians say “anything” it comes out as “anythingg”, or “anythink” if it is before a vowel, which is quite funny. He regaled me with astonishing stories about India – its transport systems, its rivers, its religious rituals, its variety and ungovernability. Kwokkie is very studious, and likes to explain the mysteries of Chinese history and civilisation, such as about Confucius and the Chinese emperors. So I know a lot about the world. At the same time perhaps in a way I know nothing. At least I did know nothing until I myself became part of the furniture at The Agnes.
You see, The Agnes is far more than a place of interest. It has been my family, school, social and sports club, café haunt, and many other things all rolled into one. Rosie calls it “The University of Life. I have already graduated from it, darlin’. I am a true alumna, and I am now one of the faculty”, she announced one day from behind a cloud of smoke. At The Agnes I was very soon by the age of eleven growing apace in knowledge and sophistication just by associating with these inhabitants and imbibing the atmosphere.
Yet with all these friends and others to entertain, instruct, and amuse me, nothing was so remarkable to me as the arrival of the amazing King Themba.
1 KING THEMBA
One chilly evening in late 1961, when I was eleven and a half years old, Themba appeared, looking lost, at the reception desk. He had two leather suitcases and wore a huge raincoat. I ran over as there was nobody else around. Which was typical at The Agnes.
“Hello, sir, I will just find somebody to help you, if you don’t mind waiting”.
“OK, that’s fine, kid, thanks. I got time.”
He sank down into the chair as though he was exhausted by a long journey. He had, I discovered later, just arrived from Johannesburg. He was very large and very wet.
Themba was duly checked in and emerged an hour or two later. He made a very impressive figure, I must say. Themba was a huge man. He seemed to me about seven feet tall, but I suppose he would have been maybe about six foot four or five. He was very powerfully built, with enormous shoulders and biceps that seemed about to burst his shirt sleeves. His skin was shiny and very black, and his head completely shaved, with sticky-out ears. A small fuzzy beard adorned his chin. His face was, I would say, more noble than handsome, and gave the impression of somebody of considerable intelligence and experience. There was something really quite sad in his eyes, but they would light up at the slightest provocation or any suggestion of humour or some interesting controversy. His conversation, begun on that wet wintry night, was always lively and playful. I was quite intrigued, bewitched in fact by Themba, and wanted to ensure he was my friend before anybody else could claim the title. So I made bold to show him round The Agnes myself. He was tired, but his eyes opened wide at every new discovery. “Oooh, that ees nice!”, he responded to the coffee machine, the gym, the library, the snooker room. “I think I am goin’ to be very 'appy 'eah”, he concluded, as I fixed him a cup of cocoa and we sat down in the lounge, waiting for Dad, who was seeing to some crisis or other, to come and greet him.
“And so”, he asked mock-sternly in his broad, throaty South African accent, his eyebrows raised impossibly high, “who exactly ah you, precocious yong man?”
“Oh, sorry, sir, I am Jimmy Emmett”, I replied. “I’m the boss’s son. I’m happy to meet you Mr Themba, but I’m really not whatever you said I was, when you get to know me that is.”
His mighty laugh filled the corridors. Heads turned.
Themba was, I gathered later, from a well-known family in South Africa, and was in Warburton to learn about journalism with the Warburton Tribune. I was not properly aware until later, when Themba informed me, about South Africa’s terrible apartheid regime, but it seems Themba had managed to come to England only because his family was able to afford it, and, as I also later learned, his intention was to learn skills that he could use to oppose the regime in South Africa as strongly and effectively as he could. But at the time, although he seemed a lot older than myself, he was I think about twenty-six years old. He seemed rather older than that because he had a kind of regal bearing, suggesting somebody proud and confident, strong and very masculine. For this reason, I came to refer to him as “The King”. All of these things he in fact was, and, as I discovered, a lot more besides. He was a complex character, by my reckoning, but definitely a large one in all senses. To me he was King Themba. And that became a joke.
Themba was naturally very outgoing and friendly, and settled in quickly. I began to spend a lot of time with him, and sensed his fondness for me. Despite the large difference in years between us, as with Rosie, he was really my friend, and had a way of treating me as though I deserved the respect accorded to an equal, even though I was far from that. Themba, I learned, was a man of scrupulous attention to what he called “moral principles”, and to the English language. He also took everyone seriously, even, it seemed, a cheeky eleven-year-old boy. Like Rosie, he appeared to think I needed some special attention, and he would question me for hours about all kinds of things – my family, school, life in England, the Agnes Ward Trust, sports, and so on. While showing much respect to me as though I was a highly educated person with well-formed opinions, which I clearly wasn’t, he assumed an avuncular role in relation to my homework and my use of language. Admittedly these were not exactly excellent in the first place. Condescension this was not. He was unremitting in his critique of my homework, as though I ought to be doing better than I was.
“What on airth is this non-sense?”, he would laugh, clutching me by the back of the neck, reading my English precis. “Do it … ay-gain. And this time get it complett-ly right!” He would then check the result, and if it was still not perfect, he would ask me to do it a third time, before letting me go. He was similarly unremitting in his critique of his own journalism, and would ask my opinion on it as if I were his editor or his colleague. I think his pieces had already in fact been filed with the Tribune office against punishing deadlines, and this show of meticulousness was really for my benefit, rather than his. Occasionally I would find fault with his use of a word or his punctuation, and he would nod gravely, making his correction with a flourish and beaming, if unwarranted, gratitude.
As became quickly apparent, Themba was also a remarkable sportsman. He was a superb heavyweight boxer who joined the boxing gym in Curtin Way, where I occasionally accompanied him, just to watch. He sparred with the best in town, flooring all the opponents that I saw, that is the ones bold enough to challenge him. He would tie a red cloth around his head, which was odd, I reckoned, for a man with a shaved head, and he looked terrifying in action. Any blows he received never seemed to wind or hurt him, but blows delivered were drastic and often, if they didn’t just knock his opponent flat, drew blood around the eyes or nose. He played rugby as a forward, and quickly made a local league team. He could throw the javelin or discus or hammer immense distances, and he could hit sixes and bowl fast when playing cricket in summer. A cricket ball looked like a ball-bearing in his huge hand, and a discus like a small plate. Boxing, though, was by far his favourite. He also spent much time lifting weights in the gym at the back of The Agnes, inside in winter, outside in summer. I talked to him as he panted and heaved, lifting weights under the elm tree, the sweat descending his enormous muscular frame in rivulets. He would often laugh heartily at my questions and observations. “Oh, Jimmy, my boy, you have eh great deal to lairn, yong man”, he intoned on many occasions, with great amusement at my rather childish remarks. And it seemed he had assumed the job of teaching me that great deal.
There was apparently nothing Themba could not do, and this induced in me a sense that moved from admiration to near hopelessness. I could never, I reflected, be as strong, as wise, as knowledgeable, or simply as effective in the way Themba always was, however hard I tried. He was my standard in all things. It seemed that, whenever there was anything difficult to do, Themba was first in line to sort it out. If it was the awkward task of taking down an old chandelier in the lounge, he had it figured out and done without any damage in a few minutes. If it was a suspicion of rats in the attic, he had that sorted within a day, almost scaring poor Mrs Hammond to death by presenting her with two dead rats, as if for cooking - he enjoyed a practical joke. He easily sorted out awkward kids in the youth club, of which he sometimes took charge. They were all terrified of him. And if it was a nuisance drunk at reception, the fellow was sent packing before anyone in authority even noticed. One miscreant, a grown man, was delivered to the police like a noxious wet rag, held off the ground by his collar. “This, officah, I believe, is fah you”.
Trying to find a chink in his armour, I started to wonder eventually if Themba had any weaknesses. In fact, I calculated, I could identify two.
The first was that he had what you could call a long-burning fuse, but one whose detonation would be deafening. He was, I have to concede, basically a patient and tolerant person in the face of many of life’s difficulties. Of this there can be no doubt. He experienced racism routinely, and rebuffs more than deserved, and assumptions that he was far less than he was, on a daily basis, yet never showed any real sign of distress. But when pushed too far he would explode with a rage that was truly frightening. Faced with persistent or obnoxious racism, or especially dense bureaucratic obstinacy, or obvious moral failure, he would swell with anger, the veins standing out on his enormous forehead, deploy a stentorian voice, and if need be would come with fists flying. I saw this happen notably on a couple occasions, and shrank into a corner to avoid being inadvertently crushed by the fallout from his anger. But whenever this occurred, I noticed, Themba was always in the right, as far as I could see, and he never apologised for these admittedly rare outbursts of rage.
The other weakness was women. Being an impressively masculine figure, he enjoyed no shortage of female interest. But his girlfriends came and went, and he never stayed with one for more than a couple of months. I could hear him cooing gently to one of them for ages on the phone. “Ooooh, how are yoooou, Gisele? I didn’t see you since at least three days ay-go”. Or I saw him charming a Melissa or a Trina or a Betty over coffee in the cafe. But the relationship would never last, and Themba didn’t ever appear to be upset when the inevitable break came. I assume he was always the one who lost interest. When he saw ‘The King and I’ on TV, he laughed with uproarious approval when Yul Brynner as the King said that “blossom must not ever fly from bee to bee to bee”.
Kwokkie and Ravi were especially scurrilous in relating Themba’s “conquests”. I have to admit that I often actively assisted Themba by assuming my role of mascot, amusing his new girlfriend while praising Themba to the skies in an ironic way as the greatest man I knew, and did you know he is actually King of the Zulu? In fact, if I had considered it, he was exactly the greatest man I knew, but I pretended exaggeration. I would however sometimes challenge him. “Themba, that girl Melissa was so nice, the one with the earrings, why did you let her go?” This was greeted with a shrug of the huge shoulders, and a clear desire to change the topic of conversation. I would point out, however, in Themba’s defence, that these two weaknesses of his never came into collision with each other. His rages were over principles, never over his own fortune or relationships as such. But in defending a principle he was a warrior. Enduring many personal racist slights with ease, he was always incensed by racism itself.
As Themba became entrenched in his work at the Tribune and as a notable resident at The Agnes, our friendship was unwavering, and in fact deepened. I became friends with Eddy at that point, and introduced him to Themba. Eddy was our class leader, always top of the class. He seemed more like thirteen than eleven, and was well developed physically and socially, happy to display the vein standing out on his forearm, and mention his girlfriend, Fiona. Eddy was also the grandson of the Chairman of the Agnes Ward Trustees, and actually as I said a descendant of the blessed Agnes herself. Themba and Eddy liked each other too, and he would take us both for bus rides at the weekend to outlying places of historical or natural interest, thus educating himself as well as us. We were frowned on by middle-aged ladies, clutching their handbags tightly on buses. They clearly thought this group of two white boys and one extremely large back man was not in the right course of things in a respectable place like Mercia.
After a few months Themba had acquired a certain reputation around The Agnes and in the city, due mainly to his journalism, which was regarded as cutting edge in some quarters and outrageously impudent in others. In one instance he attacked my own school as "a bastion of racism", complaining that the Bishop Herbert School had 499 white boys and only one non-white boy (my friend Gurdip, in fact), which did not at all reflect the population of Warburton. This was without doubt true, but it did not go down well with the school governors or the city fathers. In fact, they were incensed and complaints were made against him. I am glad to say that the Tribune ignored demands that Themba be sacked, and Themba used the occasion to make another sally against "Warburton’s endemic racism". On another occasion he lambasted the city council for its cuts to services he argued were essential for ethnic minorities. Even when he was clearly right, it was said it was not for him to say such things. It was as if, being Themba, you couldn’t be allowed to win under any circumstances.
Themba also reported to us all at The Agnes one day the developments in his beloved native South Africa, on which he gave a disturbing address. Themba had been deeply distraught when the Sharpeville incident occurred in 1960, and left South Africa as soon as he could after that. A man I regarded as made of flint had tears rolling down his face as he explained what had happened at Sharpeville and what it meant to him. By this time he had graduated to being a fulltime journalist on The Tribune, and in left-wing circles, whose epicentre, you might say, was often The Agnes itself, Themba was regarded as a fearless warrior of heroic stature. King Themba.
Dad joked about him. “One day, Themba, you will either be President or go to jail for a long time.”
“Or mebbe both”, added Themba, laughing with his whole frame shaking in amusement.
This puzzled me, because I did not then understand why anybody would put Themba in jail. To me Themba was perfectly admirable, an ideal I could not even aspire to, and certainly could not criticise. More than that, I trusted Themba implicitly, because he always protected my back. If I defaulted on homework, Mum was treated to an excuse on my behalf, as if Themba himself was responsible. If I was late back, Themba would call and apologise – “It is my fault Jimmy was late back, Mrs Emmett, we missed the bus. I am so sorry. It won’t happen ay-gain”.
A few months after Themba’s arrival, as a result of some planning, over Mrs Hammond’s tea and cupcakes, by Rosie, Themba, Kem, and Dad, The Agnes started evening classes in English for non-English-speaking migrants. Themba was tireless in organising this and sought my help (I was very much flattered) in conversing in English with Pakistani, Indian and African kids, many of whom were the same age as me, or younger. We would talk to the kids until quite late at night and their grateful families would come to collect them. These evenings were enormous fun and I found I was able to amuse the kids as well as learn something about their various cultural backgrounds. Themba was delighted with our progress, and became the main organiser of these evenings. We laughed, we talked, we drank Vimto, and ate Mrs Hammond’s calorie-swamped cupcakes as an occasional treat. Kem, a tall, slim and very expressive young man, was like a stand-up comedian, always hilariously funny, taking off well-known figures, including Dad, Rosie, and Themba himself, whom he portrayed as Themba, King of the Zulu. We were often in stitches at his impressions. Rosie would hug me in sheer glee as Kem imitated her Aussie accent, her intense chain-smoking, and her loose language.
At the same time, we lived in a part of the city that was, as I explained, well-known for its ethnic mixedness, and at around that time ugly racial tensions began to emerge. Instances of police action involving attacks on migrant communities were on the rise. One of Mum’s girls from the Annexe, who was Pakistani, was accosted by thugs and raped in a back alley in a very distressing and much discussed incident. Nothing like that had ever occurred in the area before. Themba and my father addressed the city council on this trend of events. The Chairman of Trustees, Eddy’s grandfather, Sir Reg Ward, was deeply concerned and was interviewed on the BBC concerning “racial tensions in Warburton”. Dad said we should all beware, although I didn’t really know at the time exactly how to beware, or of what.
One chilly, wet night we finished the classes late and I left The Agnes to walk home, a distance of only about two hundred yards. Turning right out of The Agnes I saw part of the road was bathed in a jaundiced light revealing a heavy drizzle. I pulled my coat collar up and my school cap down and continued on my way home. On the other side of the road in semi-darkness I noticed a huddled group of older boys. One of them looked round at me as I passed. I recognised him as Decker, a boy who had been in The Agnes before, and was quite well known. After a few seconds he called out to me. I didn’t quite hear what he said, but I didn’t like the look of these boys, who seemed too much like the skinheads I had seen hanging around the city centre, apparently looking for some sort of trouble. I ignored them. Then I heard them crossing the road. They were after me. I quickened my step but they soon caught up with me. My collar was jerked round to face the group. They looked in an ugly mood. They were skinheads with chains, dirty jeans, and leather jackets. They were around sixteen years old. I was frightened to see Decker was sporting a flick-knife.
“’Ey, where yow off ter, rabbit?”. A strong Mercian accent. It was Decker. “This kid ‘ere, he’s a black-lover, he is. Let’s teach ‘im a lesson, lads.”
“Look, I am just minding my own business, Deck. What do you want?” I tried to appear unruffled, using Decker’s nickname to make it as if some kind of social norms were operating.
“Oh, nah then, young Jimmy’s minding ‘is own business, lads”, he jeered. “Well, it ay the kind of business yow can ger away with, sonny Jim. We don’t approve of you, sonny Jim. Yow’m a black-lover ain’t’cha, sonny Jim?”. He joshed me, and I fell back against the wall, almost losing my footing.
The abuse continued as the boys kept pushing me around and jeering at me. I just recall, “Black ‘is balls fer ‘im, tharr’ll learn him”, from another skin behind Decker. A third and a fourth boy laughed.
And with that landed the first blow - to my ribs on the right side of my diaphragm, taking my breath away completely and doubling me up, just as a second blow hit me in the left eye, my head knocked back and my cap sent flying.
The third blow from Decker advanced towards my chin, but never landed. What followed all seemed to happen in slow motion. All I was aware of was a large black fist appearing from the right of my vision. It hit Decker square in the mouth and I saw a couple of teeth spinning and a spurt of blood, as he staggered backwards into the gutter. In a second Decker’s arm was pinned behind his back, his hand twisted and relieved of the flick-knife, which fell in the gutter. “Fokk me! Fokkin’ black bastard!” “Shut your disgostin’ mouth, kid, or you will get more of the same!”, said Themba calmly, menacingly. “Next time, man, you can just pick on someone yah own size.” The other boys gathered round Decker as if protecting him. Decker held his mouth while blood seeped between his fingers.
“Fokk me, yer bastard!”, he repeated. Decker didn’t have much vocabulary, and most of what he had was foul, even in normal times.
“Now off with you boys, back 'oom, and don’t you come near here ay-gain, hear, or you will have me to ansah to.”
“And who the fokk are you, yer black bugger?’”
“My name is Themba. Remember that name. I’ll be waitin’ fah you.” The boys were clearly considering whether five of them could take on Themba. Such was Themba’s size and authority that they wisely decided against, and slunk off down the street. I retrieved my cap from the pavement, a clutch of pain as I bent down.
Themba, watching the skins retreat, picked up the knife, examined it carefully, and turned slowly to address me. “Are you OK, Jimmy?”
“Yes, Themba, I am OK. It’s just my ribs hurt. Thanks for dealing with them. I was really scared. That Decker had a knife. I don’t know why they wanted to pick on me.”
“That is somethin’ we’ll look into later, Jimmy. Let me take a look what’s gone on 'eah.” He held my head up under the street lamp, clucking his disapproval. “We’ll get that fixed first. Then your ribs. Don’t worry. It was a good job I followed you. They are not exactly nice, ah they? But I thought somethin’ like this was goin’ to ‘appen. Now we get you 'oom straight ay-way.”
Themba picked me up and carried me, as if I was a small pile of laundry, a hundred yards to my home. My parents were horrified and Mum was, by the standards of her normally crisis-immune demeanour, beside herself. She washed my face carefully, and my ribs were felt gingerly and then bandaged. I saw that Themba’s fist was quite badly bruised but he said nothing. He looked quiet and sad, rather than angry or worried.
“This is very serious, Themba”, said Dad, “I am going to report it to the police. We know who did this. We have to stop these damn thugs. I can see this just going from bad to worse.”
“It is already worse, Mr Emmett. It is already like my 'oom town in Soweto.” Themba carried me upstairs and placed me carefully on my bed. “Don’t worry none, Jimmy, I won’t let anybody 'airt you.”
“I know that, Themba. Thanks, friend. You saved me.”
Themba and Dad could be heard talking downstairs. I slept, but my sleep was a very troubled one. I was very much shaken, but I thanked heaven for Themba, and wondered what would have happened to me if he had not been there to protect me.