The alien has landed…

A holiday was just what was needed, but as so often happens I had left the planning to the last minute. I am quite organised in my work life (at least I like to think I am), and things tick along in my home life in a mostly organised way, but when it comes to booking a holiday something weird happens in my brain. If I was expert at prevarication as a student, I am the queen of putting-it-off when it comes to booking a holiday. I’ve tried to think about why it is that every night for the last 2 months, I’d say to my husband, “We must book a holiday tonight” and bedtime would come and I hadn’t even looked at a possible destination. I know that we are one of those couples that has to shop around for the best fit deal, and with more choice comes another of our faults: the inability to make a decision. Too much choice and our tiny brains shrivel into panic “…but which is the best?” Whether it is shopping for electrical goods, lights for the garden, or merely energy-saving light bulbs we spend endless hours researching to find the ‘best’ deal. Really there is seldom a “best” at all, and we have been through hours of angst and sniping at each other to save a few pence, always sure that the best is on the next webpage, before ending up choosing the first item we found. Humph. However, I get the sense that my inability to book a holiday stems not just from our wish to get the best deal, but from a foundation of fear. Where that fear originates needs a little unpicking as I reflect back.

We never went on holiday when I was small. Well, I say never but one summer when I was at primary school my mum announced that we were going on holiday for a few days to stay with an uncle in London. Dad was staying at home she announced, with the look that said “We have spoken about this at length… and this is my decision.” He hated change and anything new as he didn’t like to drive on roads he wasn’t familiar with, or visit places where he didn’t know what to expect. I remember countless 100-mile-an-hour journeys in the car, his hands gripping tight on the steering wheel, rushing to get to our destination and to beat the fear, to make it stop. Once on our way to relatives in Portsmouth the journey was punctuated by being stopped by the police for speeding. Whoops. I also remember with a smile him driving me at breakneck speed to my wedding. He was dreading the thought of seeing my mum with her new husband and their new small family. He had refused to come to the day at all, until I said it was my dream that he would drive me to my wedding. He told me so many times that he never stopped loving my mum, and the thought of spending the day celebrating my wedding with the pain of his failed attempt was just too much. That failed attempt had resulted in my decision for no grand white wedding, all I wished for was that my family and friends helped celebrate the love I had found. I have always said to my lovely man that I could not guarantee what would happen in the future, my parents were testament to that, but that I would love him always…and that is still true 36 years later. My dad pushed down the anxiety to give me my wish and to drive me at breakneck speed to the registry office, although didn’t stay for the small party afterwards. During that drive I was convinced it was going to end with me spending my wedding day in a police station. Anxiety blocks out any reasoning and I am sure that this thought never crossed his mind, or the fact that his daughter was sat with her hands gripped hard onto the seat praying to arrive in one piece.

I now recognise that it was a deep anxiety that made him act so often in what could be viewed as less than positive ways. I have spoken in a previous blog of his fight or flight response when he was fearful, so that when we hurt ourselves as kids it would result in the smack before the cuddle. Adrenalin and cortisol is strange stuff that does strange things to the brain. With the view from adulthood I now see his skill of sarcasm, and his quick-to-bite response stemmed so often from anxiety borne of fear. I see this from the place of adult, recognising that anxiety within me too. My anxiety looks different though. I find the unknown flips my tummy and the anxiety gnaws inside my chest, with my brain posing a million “what if…?” questions. I have to say that many of my what-ifs stem from my experiences of being ‘other’ and the micro-aggressions (or worse) from being black in a white world. I can navigate these feelings in my safe home territory – I have learned the rules of engagement. However any new experiences and the unknown fill me with dread, with the knowledge that I will likely be so obviously different, and so clearly marked as alien to the ‘norm’.

This is partly why I find it hard to book a holiday. The ‘what ifs’ start as soon as I start to look at the possibilities. Don’t get me wrong we have had some amazing holidays at home and abroad, however whilst good, many have been where my difference has resulted in brief discomfort and promoted feelings of being alien. Greek holidays where people have stared, and it is clear that my blackness has been a curiosity at best, and an issue for derision at worst. UK holidays where when entering a pub or cafe you know that you are not welcome, by the looks or actions. So when I look at holidays not only do I look for the scenery, the accommodation, the star ratings, the visitor comments – I also try to second-guess whether this will be a place of welcome, or racist hell. They don’t have a star-rating for that unfortunately.

This year we toyed with the idea of a holiday abroad. The new passports had arrived – I looked like a grumpy old grey-haired black woman in mine. What do they say – the camera doesn’t lie! Lol. Then we read of the heatwave in Europe and realised that it wouldn’t be the relaxing time we wanted. I have started to get the most awful heat (?) rash over the last 5 years. At the first sign of sun any part of my body that has been exposed (except my face luckily) protests by producing tiny spots or raised wheals. How embarrassing it is to admit this when ‘kind’ folk pointedly declare “Oh you must love the sun.” Yep folks, #mythdispellingtip #hownottoupsetablackfriend – black people get heat rash too, oh yeah, and we do use sunscreen!

So we turned away from booking a holiday abroad, and instead started looking at holidays by the UK coast. I love the sea. I imagine, romantically I know, that the sea resides buried within my ancestral DNA somewhere, because when I hear the sound of the sea it resonates deep inside like a thrum that joins and matches my heartbeat. Whether it is rough and angry, or smooth and shimmering in sun- or moonlight, watching the sea makes me smile inside and out and I feel a connection that I cannot explain. We decided on a trip to Suffolk, as we had never been to that North Sea coastline. As always we ended up with a list of possibilities, of cosy cottages close to the sea, all with a complex list of various pros and cons. I had reached the saturation point of ‘too much choice’ and was close to shutting down the computer again with less than a week before my annual leave was to begin. My husband looked at me in a pained way, “Come on Annie, please, let’s just book one.” And in 5 minutes it was booked and paid for, decision made, and I was left wondering why I always made it so hard…

Five days later and we were speeding up the M25 on the way to Suffolk, well I say speeding, but really much of it was spent in a long, hot, very boring queue of traffic. The ‘what ifs’ began on the journey and I thought often of my dad and his anxiety, as my own insecurities jostled for position. Would we find it ok? Would it be a nice place? Would it be close to the sea? Would people be ‘nice’? A large lorry hurtled its way from a slip-road pushing in front of us without slowing its journey, into the slow-moving queue. And there it was emblazoned on the back of the cab in large letters – my fears personified – #freetommyrobinson. It felt like a slap around the face, a punch in the solar plexus. Some might ask why it matters, but to people who are a different colour the likes of Tommy Robinson and his supporters are a constant reminder, on the news and in the media, that certain people like us are unwelcome at best, and a target for hate and violence at worst. I often hear the cry that these are the worst kind of racists and not everyone is like that…but at least we know where we stand with them and their overt brand of racism. The ‘mainstream’ politicians, such as Johnson, Farage and Widdecombe, have a much more pernicious and toxic kind of racism; the smiling-“I am a friend of Great Britain”-whilst-spouting-racist-poison kind, which is made palatable to many under the thin veil of patriotism. Anyway, I digress and will climb down from my soapbox, however it is important to recognise that each cry for support for any of these characters can feel like a two-fingered salute to people like me and the feeling that you are not seen as truly British. Put up, shut up if you want to be tolerated.

The lorry remained a constant niggle, like an annoying finger-poke at me personally as we travelled at snail’s place. We were stuck behind that lorry, and it’s value-laden slogan. It reminded me of the finger pointing jabs of the TR supporters that I see on TV (and experienced first-hand from too many Brexit supporters too) – aggression in your face. I scowled at the back of that lorry, my eyes staring ahead trying to convey my anger and contempt in a look towards that man when looking in his rear-view mirror. Those few words on a lorry cab held a million messages for someone like me – none of them pleasant. When the lorry turned off, I felt like I was breathing normally for the first time since it had pushed its way into the queue. I was cross with myself for letting it get to me: what a start to my holiday mood. My husband said, “It’s ok, it’s gone” but we were both deeply aware that in regards to the underlying message sadly this is not really true…

After a few grumps at each other along our journey, we arrived at a sweet little terraced cottage, backing onto houses on the seafront. We unloaded the car quickly, and sauntered along the pretty low-key promenade with picturesque houses lining the beachside. Beautiful. My shoulders dropped, my smile widened – the sea, the sun = holiday started. A lovely colleague had told me that there was an acclaimed fish and chip shop in the small town which always had a queue, but that the edible reward was worth it. My husband and I walked through the small high street with its eclectic mix of shops. I started to notice that as we walked we seemed to be attracting a few stares…we are a tall, perhaps odd-looking couple and used to this. A very tall bearded, long-haired man holding hands with a tall, black woman with dreadlocs seemed to be providing some interest – but this was 2019 wasn’t it? We hadn’t journeyed there in a DeLorean had we? I began to look around me playing ‘spot the black person’ – none. Mmmm. Perhaps I was being overly sensitive after our experience on the motorway. I have to hold my hand up and admit that over the last 36 years I often use my husband, who is white, as a barometer. If he notices things from his white view then I know it is likely to be ‘real’. I have had too many accusations from people over the years that I am imagining racism when there is none. It has sometimes felt strange that even as the recipient on the sharp end, that someone else can tell me my own feelings are totally unjustified. So now I try to stay silent and wait to see how things pan out. We had looked at a few shops and walked a little way when he suddenly laughed and declared “Ok lots of stares. No black people…Sorry I shouldn’t say but…” I laughed in return, with relief – I wasn’t mad, I wasn’t imagining it, my feelings were justified. There hadn’t just been staring, there had been head-swivelling!

In our quest for the fish and chip shop we were approaching a pub, the Friday night crowd of people spilled from the bar onto the pavement. People were sat eating fish and chips which they bought from the shop next door, whilst they drank their locally produced beer. There was laughter and shouting. One crowd of young men were particularly loud, and a couple of them looked at us, said something, and louder laughter followed. Of late rather than be cowed I have walked with my head up. I straightened my shoulders and carried on walking, and there it was, that look from one man. I knew that look. I have had 50+ years to know that look. He stepped into my path as he stared. I was not going to move my direction to move from the pavement into the road – it felt important to me somehow. I looked ahead, head high and walked. I am a big lady and I was determined. At the last minute he stepped one small step back, just enough that I could get through. As we continued our way an unintelligible comment was made, followed by more laughter. We joined the end of the queue for fish and chips. My husband touched my arm “Are you ok?” I responded “Yes, it just makes me sad sometimes. Will it ever get better?” A group of young girls passed us – they looked at me whispered to each other, looked at me again, and laughed. My husband and I looked at each other and this time burst out laughing too “Really? Can this be happening? Have we stepped back in time?” I thought to myself that here I was on holiday, I had arrived. The alien had landed. We took the fish and chips back to the house, they were fantastic, quite the best I had tasted for a long while. However the taste was soured for me with my negative experience and feelings of ‘other’.

I woke the next morning my mood slightly low, the ‘What-ifs’ that followed sat around my feelings of being alien. I tried to shake off the negativity. I was tired after the longer than expected journey the day before. The day was hot and sunny and we decided to walk along the sea front away from the town. There were lots of people out walking too, some with their dogs to accompany them. Two men passed us and stared, I shrivelled inside. “Morning” said one. I looked at them and smiled, “Hi”. This one encounter shifted my mood a little and I readjusted my slightly frowny face to my usual smile at the world. This same greeting happened several times on that walk, from young and old, an acknowledgement, simple words of connection. “This is different from last night” my husband stated, grinning at me as we paused our walk to sit and watch the rolling sea. Knowing me so well he had noticed my thoughtfulness as I stared out into the distance. “Yes, I needed this. I can feel the need for writing building up” I replied. “Yep, I thought so” he laughed.

So I sit in the sunshine a few days later typing on my iPad, staring at the shimmering sea. The waves are reassuring as my words spill onto the screen, the thrum of the sea like my heartbeat, my breath in and out matching the waves. I am at peace. I will probably never get over my anxieties when going on holiday. I am sure the ‘what-ifs’ will remain as will my feeling of ‘alien’ when landing in a new place. The dictionary definition of ‘Alien’ is “belonging to a foreign country” it feels unfair that I should be made to feel this in a country that is my birthplace. White people I have known have said that they have been made to feel this way when going to a place where the majority of people are Black. Imagine feeling that way when you are in your homeland – this is the lot of many people with different coloured skin that are born in Britain. The second dictionary definition “unfamiliar and disturbing or distasteful” highlights how the small-minded view those of difference, resulting in their responses as they treat other humans as alien. Sadly, it isn’t just on holiday that people like me are made to feel like ‘alien’. I could view this all as negative, and sink into despair at the way the world I inhabit is set up for those with white faces and makes the road difficult for those that are not. However instead what I am left with following my reflections is my overriding belief in the important power of connection. Those human beings that reach out to others, however simple that might be, can make a mountain of difference to those who feel othered. In my very weird love of metaphor, and my love of children’s films, I picture ET reaching out a finger to heal a hurt, to touch a heart. Connection is powerful. I walk the world seeking connection to others with love in my heart and a belief that this is what makes us human. I try to hold onto the belief that love will conquer. Sometimes I am hurt and my positivity broken by the reactions of others who treat me as alien. A small act of connection, an acknowledgement that I am seen, can change that script. I leave the final words on this blog to Selena Godden. Words I read and that resonated deeply with me during my holiday reading of “The Good Immigrant” and I raise a glass to those who connected when I felt like the alien who landed.

“Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Welcome aboard my Good Ship. Let us sail to the colourful island of mixed identity. You can eat from the cooking pot of mixed culture and bathe in the cool shade of being mixed-race. There is no need for a passport. There are no borders, we are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, you bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories and climb aboard. United as a people we are a million majestic colours, together we are a glorious stained-glass window, we are building a cathedral of otherness, brick by brick and book by book […] I drink to our sameness and to our unique differences.” (P.197)