The first fight I had with
Stephen Watts was in junior school in the spring of 1964; I was seven
years old. Stuart Cargill and I were examining, in awe and wonder, a brand new
Corgi Mini Cooper Monte Carlo which Stu had had for his birthday;
hed brought it in to school to show me, since we lived about two miles
They got it right,
Joe, he said quietly. I mean, exactly right.
A shadow fell over the thin
spring sun and we looked up to see Watts there. He was tall, with a curiously
menacing dark complexion which made even his smile intimidating. As usual, his
monkeys, as many of us called them, Philip Hutchinson and the almost
permanently silent Mickey Dunne, were perched just behind each Watts
Pearson and Cargill.
Thick as thieves. Whats that?
He peered down; Stu tensed
that, Watts said, and made a grab at it. Stu writhed away from him.
wont, he said, standing up, and I wondered at what his very correct
mother would have had to say to such a statement. Of course, I stood up beside
him; I went even further back with Stu, all the way to nursery.
One thing led, as it does, to
another, and we gave as good as we got, even if it was three on two.
Watts monkeys would have loved to have been good fighters, but they
didnt have the coordination or skill for it.
The scuffles went on, through
primary into secondary school, a so-called boys comprehensive. We seemed
like mutual red rags to bulls.
Finally, when we were both
thirteen, after a truly epic set-to on a patch of woodland about half a mile
out of school, just him and me, we half-killed each other, leaving blood and a
few teeth all over the ground, torn clothes and scuffed shoes.
Watts, keep out of my way
and Ill keep out of yours. Ive got better things to do with my
time, I snarled at him, propping myself up on a tree trunk.
He tried to think of some smart
putdown, but he wasnt in any state to make speeches; most of the
teeth were his. He sort of growled like a trapped creature. We touched hands,
and an armed neutrality stayed in place for a good while. Watts and his friends
became an unpleasant but inevitable fact of school life. It increasingly amazed
me how many things they didnt like. All of the teachers, it seemed;
most of the lads, any school subjects, any parts of the school or any
activities of the school. They spent their time trying to make life difficult
for as many teachers as would let them get away with it and obstructing the
rest of us, who just wanted to get a decent schooling and get on with our
It was only just after
wed started on what for many of us would be our last year at school in
September 1972 that the adult world finally intruded far enough into our
boyhoods to make the problems more serious than ever. A few weeks into the new
term, two new boys arrived, introduced to us in a year assembly by the Head of
Year Mr. Richardson, predictably nicknamed Dickie, but as with most teachers
with a nickname, even a dubious one, it was a term largely of acceptance and
approval, or as close to it as boys ever got. Richardson, tall and thin with an
easy smile but a harsh tongue when he needed it, had been at the school for
over twenty years; some of us had parents whod been taught by him.
He brought the two new arrivals to the front of the hall. They were both
immaculately uniformed, even if also creased with embarrassment. Their names
were Shailesh and Asif Madhvani.
These two lads are
here, Dickie said, glowering at us as if daring anyone to contradict him,
because an oppressive tyrant - look it up - decided to order them out of
their own country, Uganda. Id like you to imagine, if you can, your
family suddenly ordered to pack just a few suitcases and get out, not only of
this area, but your country, so that you are suddenly forced into another place
youve never seen. Shailesh and Asif have had their world turned upside
down, and I ask - well, no, I dont ask, I insist - that they are treated
decently and helped to make a new start in a place which is totally unfamiliar
It is difficult to explain to
people in modern multicultural Britain the impact of these boys in our school
community. Our school was in a small market town in the north Midlands, and
there was nothing much in it to attract immigrants. The new boys had arrived
because the only Asian business in the town at that time, an Indian restaurant,
had close connections with their family. They were, quite literally, the only
non-white boys in school.
And, of course, with some media
coverage of Idi Amins expulsion of the Ugandan Asians being so negative
and the National Front having a field day, opportunity knocked for Stephen
Watts and his soul mates. The kind of behaviour Shailesh and Asif had to put up
with fell short of actual physical assault - the teachers were keeping a very
careful eye on the situation, even though one or two of them didnt seem
too sympathetic either. Racist comments, nudge, nudge jokes, noses held,
imitations of Indian bus drivers - Watts and his now expanded crew had a
repertoire of means of persecution, a few of them tacitly supported by parents
who should have known better.
Most of us got to know the new
arrivals fairly quickly. They were twins, similar without being identical -
Asif was quieter and more sporting, and a gifted runner; he had an
athletic build and his long legs and broad shoulders discouraged the less brave
of his critics.
Shailesh, however, had
abilities which always were likely to get him into trouble. Slightly smaller
than his brother, with more expressive, mobile features, Sha, as he became
known amongst those of us who recognised his existence, was a mimic, one of the
best Ive ever known. Within weeks, he could do several teachers with
devastating accuracy and was able to reduce those of us willing to be amused to
helpless tears of laughter.
And Stephen Watts, with his
loud, braying phlegmy tones, was a mimics gift. One day in October, on
the fields during break, Sha walked up to his brother being Stephen Watts.
As if - thats
how Watts pronounced Asifs name - you are not only better at sport
than me, you Paki bastard, you are even prettier than me and I bet youre
already trying to get your mucky brown hands all over our nice white girls, you
scruff bag - Asif laughed easily, the way he did, and it was only then
that we all noticed Watts had approached to no more than twenty yards away.
Now things turned very ugly
very quickly. A lad called Martin Latham, one of those with the enviable
ability to make everyone think he agreed with all they were saying even when he
didnt, reported that Watts and something like seven or eight others had
decided that, even if in school violence was beyond them, there were places on
what they knew was the Madhvani brothers route home. One of them was the
sheltered glade where Watts and I had fought two years before, and they had
chosen that for their ambush.
The idea, said
Martin quietly, is to do them over so badly that their parents will take
them away from the school, and get shot of the Pakis once and for
all Martin could put quote marks into his speech very
Whether Sha and Asif had heard
the rumours by the time we were all heading off home, I dont know, but by
the look of them, they knew something was amiss. Stu and I walked up to them as
they were standing nervously at the school entrance.
Can we stroll along with
you, lads? I said.
Asif looked at me with his
typical quiet smile.
Bit out of your way,
My brother means
thank you, Sha said quickly. He just has an odd way of
saying it. He turned to Asif. Bloody hell, Az and
suddenly he was Simmons, the English teacher - dont look a gift
horse in the mouth, you silly boy.
We all moved off down the drive
leading to the school gates, and what subsequently happened has stayed with me
ever since. I dont remember anyone saying anything at all, but half way
to the gate, there seemed to have become six of us, and by the time we got to
the gate, there were nine of us. Fifty yards down the road, there were twelve
of us, and by the time we were approaching the turn off to the short cut patch
of woodland which saved people from going about a mile out of their way,
Id lost count. Even laid back Asif was almost in tears, and Sha really
was, the pressures of recent months at last getting to him.
We peeped through the cracks in
the hedges just before the turn off and saw that Watts had only actually
managed to gather five boys around him. And, being boys, we decided to have a
bit of fun with them.
Asif and Sha turned first, on
their own. Sha had recovered himself enough to give them his best P.E. teacher
- now then, lads, off you go, we havent got all day - Watts
and co. spread out in a semicircle around them. Stu and I then turned the
corner; still, everything was quiet, apart from a snort of derision from
Watts. They moved in on us. Five more boys, including the school boxing
champion Dave Wyatt, then appeared, and even Watts himself began to flinch ever
so slightly backwards. Finally, all the rest turned, and I at last had time to
count our numbers, eighteen altogether, because the opposition seemed to be
momentarily dumbfounded. They didnt immediately appear ready to give way,
and the whole lot of us were moving towards them when Sha held up his hand.
Please - we dont
want violence. Az and me have seen as much violence in the last few months as
we ever want to. Let us just try to get on.
All of them except Watts held
up their hands or shook Shas hand.
As for Watts, we left him to
Dave Wyatt, who never said much, but what he did say counted.
If I ever hear that these
two lads have been harmed in any way, Watts, I will personally knock your
effing head off your shoulders. Savvy?
Watts nodded slowly and then
everyone drifted off in an anticlimactic but somewhat relieved way.
1972 was only a year after the
raising of the school leaving age, and many boys and their families still had a
standoff attitude towards the enforced final year. We didnt see much of
Stephen Watts after that; like a few others, he was already doing
part-time stuff here and there, and after the exams, we didnt see him at
Now, when I remember that day,
it always makes me think that when certain people talk about people of other
cultures as strangers and divide us all into us and them, perhaps
the main reason why they rarely succeed is because the rest of us have a
different definition of us and them, and the them is them.