Please note: this piece contains strong language
His colleagues even took the piss in front of us kids, Mad Mike they would say. Naturally, we ripped the shit out of him too, pulling faces and twisting a finger into the side of our head whilst crossing our eyes and making what we deemed to be ‘spastic’ noises. He would just shake his head. Mike was a carer in the Children’s Home where we lived, he was a permanent member of staff, so we saw him often enough to get to know about his life outside of the Home. Mike was an active Socialist and he just couldn’t help but talk about the burning issues of the day. Well, they burned for him, not so much for the Coronation-Street-watching-majority with whom he worked, they just didn’t care, and would roll their eyes when he started to bang on about Thatcher, Cuba or any other social issue.
Sometimes, Mike would speak to me about what was going on in the world, he’d see me reading newspapers left by staff and sidle up to look at what was on the page. If I happened to be on a page mentioning some social issue, he would try to engage me on the subject, try to give me a socialist perspective. I enjoyed these conversations, though made sure no-one seen me doing so. If another kid was around, I would give him some cheek and walk away, peer-group opinion ruled the day and no way was I getting lumped as Mad Mike’s mate.
Mike sold the Socialist Worker newspaper in the High Street on a Saturday afternoon, we’d see him there and would stand in front of him giving him pelters for a few minutes before heading off laughing. Mike never said a word, he would continue to hold the paper up and recite whatever point he thought would sell a paper. One day we seen him there, he was speaking loudly,
“Apartheid is a crime supported by the Tories. They think black people eat only bananas; they are racist!”
We heard the word bananas and started shouting,
“You’re fucking bananas, Mike.”
We began to jump around and make monkey noises, beating our chests like gorillas and generally being as rude as we could. We were horrible little shits.
A week or so later, I was sitting in my bedroom when Mike appeared at the door,
“I just wanted to tell you how disappointed I was to hear that stuff coming from you. Do you know what racism is?”
I didn’t. My father always called black people rude names, as did many in my community, I just followed suit. I said nothing.
“Look, I know lots of people say stuff and that we copy those around us but just because others do it, it doesn’t make it right.”
I felt bad, natural guilt filled me up.
“I wanted to show you something. I want you to understand why I was shouting about Apartheid in South Africa.”
Mike sat beside me, he had two flyers, one, an Amnesty International flyer, explained why it was wrong for Apartheid to exist. Everything it said made sense; I agreed with it all; I related to the injustice. I knew right from wrong. The second flyer was graphic. It had a grainy photograph of two black men hanging from a tree. I was shocked, enraged even. How could they do this to people? It was my first real taste of the horrific acts one group can perpetrate against another.
Mike left the room, both flyers lay beside me on my bed. For a long time, I felt that I couldn’t even touch them, such was the enormity of my learning. To touch them was to be a part of such a world.
A week later, Mike was on shift. He asked if I’d like to go and see a film - we often went to the cinema with staff. I agreed, and we headed into town. I hadn’t even asked what film was on so when we got there I was surprised to see it was rated 15 as I was still only 13. Mike winked and said,
“Don’t worry, I won’t say anything if you don’t. Oh, and this film might be a bit sad at times so just ask if you want to leave, okay?”
The film was Cry Freedom, all about the struggle against Apartheid, and about friendship, love, injustice, pain and horror. At the end of the film, instead of the usual credits to those involved in making the film, there were the names of individuals who had died in police custody. Beside their names were the official reasons given for their death. I remember two in particular: ‘fell from a police car’ and ‘fell off a chair’. Those responsible for these crimes couldn’t even be bothered making up plausible excuses. I cried through the rolling of those credits. I looked at Mike, he too was crying. Words were not needed.
The following week, I made my way into town on the Saturday afternoon. Mike was in his usual spot, holding aloft a Socialist Worker. I walked up to him and asked for a copy. He reached inside his bag for one and handed it to me. I stood there beside him and held my copy aloft in the air. Some half an hour later my ‘friends’ appeared, they were smiling as they looked at me, they thought I was imitating Mike; that I was taking the piss. When they realised I wasn’t they looked confused and started to shout,
“What the fuck are you doing?”, “Haha your mad like Mike, you fucking mentalist”.
I stood there, my legs shook but I wasn’t going to leave. I thrust my paper higher and shouted,
“Better than being a load of fucking morons like you lot.”
It was the first time I had rebelled against the crowd, the beginning of a continuing journey of discovery, available only to those who open their minds.