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Us and Them! Them or Us?

Image: Pubfront July 2015 http://www.northumberlandarms.co.uk/ @klimek78
Right to bear arms or to bare arms?

Us and Them!  Them or Us?

The sense of belonging is a natural human instinct; one that is cultivated throughout life, but it can have its drawbacks, and even dangers.

Those dangers rest in every country, in every walk of life, and we need to trace their roots.  To do so, I must try here to emulate the great Alistair Cooke, with a soliloquy that if it cannot match his style, it can ramble in much the same way to get to one vital point he always wanted to leave with his vast audience.

My point here is that danger begins when "us and them" becomes "them or us!"

The idea for this blog came after I referred to “a consummate insider” in a previous blog that warrants more explanation. Insiders are always us and  unlikely to embrace them outsiders.

Most of us Northumbrians take pride in the county of our birth, although that pride got my chum and I evicted from the pub (above).

We often enjoy things that mark us out, distinguish us from them!  Northumbrian schools, like many around the world, make pupils wear the same school uniform.  We didn’t like it.  We always tried to overcome the uniformity with some rebellious feature, like the way we wore our hated cap, or tied our ties. Oddly years later, some of us wear the silly tie with pride.  “Old School Tie Network?”  (I have taken a close up from school reunion picture here.

Kampong Chhnang Sponsored Girls
It is refreshing these days is to see schoolgirls in developing countries taking great pride in wearing their school uniforms, as a sign of their perceived good fortune to attend, alongside the more favoured boys. 

A bicycle and a school uniform, just US$50;  one "no unofficial fee" (bribe) plea, is all it took for this girl (right) to go to school!

My old schools have left me with many happy memories and much nostalgia.  However, they also taught me to be on my guard against “us or them” and associated prejudices.

Colin, in my primary school class, was dyslexic.  He was different from most of us though none of us, including teachers, knew about such a condition in those days.  He had a horrendous time at school, and only years later, after diagnosis, did he achieve his true potential at Oxford University.  We also had a teacher, nicknamed openly “Peg Leg” in those less enlightened days.

Disability today in Cambodia is still in the dark days.  At times so is religious freedom, for indigenous animist believers.

During my school holidays, I would visit my cousins in York Crescent, Alnwick, a cul-de-sac that was a veritable children's playground until TV and internet ages. You would see and hear from dawn till dusk children playing - girls skipping and hopscotch; the boys football or cricket.  I recall one game that came to an abrupt halt with a loud rebuke. "Whey de'ya think 'eer are?  the Po-ep?" (Who do you think you are?  The Pope?)  Children were no longer just children, some of them were Catholic.

Colin and I met up again years later in SW London.  We rented a house in East Sheen and then Hampton Hill with other lads.  Nearby is Mortlake, most notable for being the end of the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race on the River Thames.  I learned a lot there.  I worked at the famous Watney’s Brewery.  I alternated.  One week I was with the blue collar workers.  The next week I was in the office with my white-collar colleagues.  By golly, there was class distinction and the remains of the class struggle ever-present from what we thought was a by-gone era.  (It is illustrated if you read about how and why working men and their clubs in our North East set up their own brewery. One thing at Watneys stood out. We had two canteens, one upstairs posh, table linen, etc. and the other one downstairs. I recall a quip by one co-worker. “Same food, just cooked differently”.  It ended up the same price. 1/6d downstairs, or 6/6d upstairs but colleagues could cash in their 5 bob (5/-) a day luncheon voucher.

From time to time in Cambodia, I meet up with its nascent trade union leaders. Most have no idea about the struggles and troubles in the UK.  I tell them that they can find many fellow-us campaigners even today in the UK.  I am invariably the first to tell them about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the birth of trade unionism worldwide, in Dorset, where I lived for 7 years.  They never tire of hearing about the “Jarrow Marchour famous North-East local crusade in 1930s Great Depression. They see how far the UK has come and hope that some day Cambodia will follow suit.

Now that job at Watneys did not just reveal a class struggle, but one more shocking prejudice.  I had to visit many famous places where beer was delivered, including 10 Downing Street with Prime Minister Edward Heath, but one place stood out more – my first visit inside a psychiatric facility at Epsom.  In those days, people with poor mental health were locked up, and a strict regime kept them in-check. I do joke that it is the only place "where women threw themselves at my feet!"  Attendants physically refrained them, harshly.  Yet I remember Vic Johnson, one of the draymen.  He was a rough-tough Cockney but would give them a hug and kiss and say "Thank you darling". Those ladies retired happily, willingly, unlike the others forced away by attendants.  I wonder how we could deny so many of them the right to live their lives among us in the wider community! Thank goodness those days are gone in the UK. Cambodia has never built such institutions, but I am sorry to say that there is cruelty to people with psycho-social difficulties.  They can be locked up at home or even at notorious facilities like Prey Speu.

Now not far from Mortlake and Richmond Park is Syon House and Park, London home of the Duke of Northumberland, and where Colin's father went to work, like us abandoning our county. It was refreshing to see the connections around Brentford and Isleworth, where Colin and I took some other local lads.....hoping for fame and fortune in London but homesick for the North East.  It was Lindisfarne who I'd met performing at Kingston. Last year, 40 years on, we saw two of them in Alnwick. 

One day Colin and I returned to Brentford, and dropped in to a pub just along from the Duke of Northumberland’s indispensable second mansion in London to go with Alnwick Castle Syon House.  The pub was a local’s pub in those days.  Neither of us qualified as one of them. We weren’t very welcome.  Perhaps we were a little boisterous.  We explained “This is the Northumberland Arms; we’re from Northumberland, and these – waving them around – are Northumberland arms!”  “Out!” mine host barked and off we scarpered.

We were all hippyish 1973
Bloss. also of the Hampton Hill “us” residents, was not with us that day. We knew where to find him - at the Iron Bridge pub just up the London road.  Now Bloss stood out in any crowd.  He was quite a sight with his David Bowie androgynous appearance, mixed with a hippy sheepskin coat over a conventional suit and kipper tie, even in Summer.  He was unfazed as a self-declared failed product of the local secondary modern school. That does help to explain why his oft exclamation of “Sacré-bleu!” always came out as “suck-blow!”  He looked more like us than us, rebels with a cause, and yet conventionally he sold TVs at Ketts Hardware Shop and drove a Morris Minor van.  But he fitted in perfectly with us university types. Unfortunately in Cambodia today, higher education tends to be for the elite, and pupils who are not "one of us" face a hard time.

Our circle included our next door neighbours in Hampton Hill, the best neighbours you could ever ask for.  Their food, much better than Indian restaurants, they always shared generously. Surish; Soubash, and Sorika were the children of an Air India employee.  They were of similar ages to us.  Surish who bore an uncanny resemblance to Rolf Harris used to enjoy telling his party-piece joke before his ever-diminishing audiences, i.e., only those left who had never heard it before. I’m as good as you are!” he would exclaim aloud.  Dutifully we would all put on our expressions of surprise as if we had no idea of what would follow. “Yes, I live in the same semi-detached houses as you!”  We had to nod our heads. “And I go to university like you” “True” “I’ve got a car like you!” “True”.  These little comparisons would go on until he had garnered enough attention to deliver his two-part punch line. “I’m better than you!” “What” we had to ask as if suddenly mystified? “I don’t have a Wog live next door to me!”  (Wog stands for a “Western Oriental Gentleman” a foreigner with dark skin, a term of derision and today politically incorrect.)

Usually another one in our crowd would follow up with the building site joke, of the Boss remonstrating with his workers: two Irish, one Scottish and one Scouse (Liverpool) who are abusing their Pakistani mate. “Mick, Mac, Paddy, Wack – leave the Wog alone”. This is a play on words from an old English Nursery Rhyme.

I still think that humour is a good way to counter prejudices.  It is a pity that its use is very limited today in these politically-correct times.

I wish I had time to write more about another one of the Hampton Hill us from those days, Conrad from Savile Park, Halifax, who drove an ancient Ford Prefect with the driver’s door missing.  He surprised us by turning down our invitation to the BBC’s Top of the Pops. “What and meet that weirdo Jimmy Savile?” Conrad knew in 1971 what would take decades to unearth about that child molester.

So here I near the end of my rambling talk of prejudice on the grounds of class; education; physical and mental ability; race; gender; work-skills and almost sexual preferences. Why?

Well it matters very much or should.  If we over-stress the “us”,  it is bound to be at the expense of “them” as in others.  We exclude what we share in common as humanity.

In truth that may not matter so much in countries like the UK where violence is checked more often than not by supremacy of common decency and rule of law.

But it matters much in other countries.  One is the United States, with the ascendancy of the “us” gun lobby over “them” the opponents of their “right to bear arms” second amendment. Too many innocent citizens, especially children, die from gunshots.  It is literally always them or us in those sieges.

That sad fact denies the United States some moral high ground in dealing with Cambodia, where the rich and powerful, backed with state-sanctioned arms, enact violence to suppress the struggles and troubles of the poor.  There can be no justification for lethal fire on unarmed citizens, such as the Veng Sreng Street shooting of protesters of a labour dispute. 

They give out one simple message. “Those of us who kill can remain free to enjoy our impunity!” “Those of them who incur our wrath [if not killed] will stay behind bars!”  Their alleged crime, a lesser crime than killing, if one at all, was to have “incited” the protest. The system of justice, with due process of law, is just slow or reluctant, deliberately so, to act.

Back in 2004, I used to buy my weekend newspapers from a former Heineken beer-girl.  She is one of them, the Beer Girls, who had not only survived the exploitation and prejudice that her profession still receives, but commendably she had saved enough money to start her own business, a newspaper kiosk, to join the supposed more respectable us.  Just yards away, a killing took place.  It was of trade union leader Chea Vichea.  I saw his blood, just as I saw the blood of other victims on the same street in previous clashes, including monks, of what can only constitute political killings.

I am clear that behind the quick resort to brute force methods is this deeply-ingrained “us” or “them” 
prejudice that resurfaced recently with the suggestion to disallow from high office all citizens of dual nationality.

We see the same prejudice every day in the rampant confiscation of ancestral land and denied access to natural resources from Cambodia’s first peoples - them not us Khmer - the original indigenous people who predate Cambodians descended from the Khmer empire and Angkor Wat.

Khmer Rouge prison rules, www.travelblog.org

Even Facebook today gives a stark choice to the latest generations who should be being brought up to live and learn peacefully.  Instead they are offered  “Join “us” - you will be rewarded”.  Or “Join “them” and you will be dammed!”

Will any Cammbodia leaders emerge embracing the “Golden Rule” that is universal and appears in just about every belief.

“One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself”.

For me the problem is today's Cambodia does not give young Cambodians the kind of experiences I had in my formative years, with freedom of thought and conscience, that will change the "Us or Them" divide.  Maybe the only hope is social media?

You can access my article on Toul Sleng here

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