It was in Susie's Tea Rooms in Appledore that a tricky lunchtime conversation developed between a husband and wife (who had asked to join my table) and myself. I forget which part of the country they were from, but it must have been a major city with a particularly diverse population, for having chatted about the yummy menu - Susie's is a pretty fashionable place to eat, and not expensive - and the remarkably fine weather, the husband launched into ethnic matters - to wit, that there were very few 'foreign faces' in North Devon. Since there were plenty of Europeans about, I took this to mean no black or Asian faces.
Oh dear, what an awkward subject! My personal stand on the other people of the world is to look at things from their point of view, and not make comparisons but ask 'What would make them think well of me?' What actions or behaviour would prompt them to think me a nice person, worthy of respect, kindness and understanding? And help me to establish a place in their society, if ever I found myself living among them? Jamaica or Hong Kong, India or Japan, Canada or Peru, Senegal or Hawaii, it wouldn't matter. People are much the same the world over. Everyone resents condescention from a stranger. Modestly and a regard for local ways are surely the keys to winning friendship and trust in another land. So the onus would be on me to please and adjust, and not the other way round. I am not willing to write off entire nations or ethnic groups on mere hearsay and conventional prejudice. In a nutshell, what people are like as human beings is the thing that matters, and not which 'race' they are supposed to belong to.
So when the husband started to talk about the lack of foreign faces in Appledore - a matter clearly welcome to him - I replied politely but carefully, not wanting him to think me a fellow-traveller who shared any kind of ethnic agenda.
He didn't in fact look like someone with a critical eye for a dark or swarthy face. But appearances are of course no guide. There are urbane, civilised and cerebral people who - despite their intelligence - take a lofty attitude towards any fellow-countrymen who are poorer or less well-educated. And who are even more snooty and condescending towards 'foreigners', however eminent or distinguished. These are just the sort who also like to see women kept in their place, and who pooh-pooh whatever a woman says. I have met them, and respect their achievements, but I have no time for their snobbery and superiority.
Fortunately, their food arrived and conversation ceased. We hadn't got as far as saying where we lived. I was wondering whether telling him that I lived near Brighton would bring forth remarks about the well-known mix of people there, such as gay men, lesbian women, and trans persons, some of whom I knew well as friends. I was stiffening myself for some prejudicial comments and dismissive remarks.
It occurred to me, of course, that this was merely a tea shop conversation and nothing much hung on it. He might reveal ignorance, or misguided views, but he wouldn't be naming and attacking individuals I actually knew, and I need not react as if he were. It would be enough to mount a gentle general defence based on what I had observed and understood of gayness, or being lesbian; and what my trans friends said about themselves (a whole spectrum of opinion there!). But I hoped we wouldn't need to discuss it.
And we didn't. I finished my Salad Niçoise first, paid at the till, and could escape.
Later, I told myself that I'd really read too much into his remark about the lack of foreign faces in the West Country. His words need not have meant very much at all. But even so, there were some personal implications.
One: I was obviously a White English Person of Traditional Views. That didn't fit my self-view at all.
Two: I was apparently a no-nonsense lady from an age when Britain was exclusively for the British. Really that old? Really that reactionary?
Three: I was in his view absolutely normal and sensible and Old School, and therefore highly likely to agree with him. I hated school, old or otherwise, and loathed the idea of being part of a stout old generation of diehards.
Four: I was the sort to disregard and despise the notion of 'political correctness'. Well, that was quite right; but I still took care about what I said, not wanting my words to hurt or embarrass.
Gosh, had it come to this? To be taken not for a lifelong closet rebel, nor a quirky outsider, nor as an unconventional plainfaced woman with feminist leanings; but as a card-carrying UKIP or even BNP supporter! How shocking. I felt badly misjudged. No wonder I'd got on well with those persons of social standing or pretension whom I had occasionally encountered. They must have assumed things about me too, things that were not true but might be inferred, wrongly, from my demeanour or voice. Oh dear!
I saw that had we got onto gays or lesbians or trans persons, I would have had two surprises for him: my staunch defence of their existence, and their right to happiness and success; and my firm rejection of that 'old school' label.
It's sobering to think how, all the time and everywhere, people are making snap judgements about whether the person before them is a bird of the same feather. And if so, taking it for granted that their own pet views will be shared. I had no idea that Something About Me said 'It's safe to assume a classic 1960 point of view in this lady'. Is it in my face? The words I use? The sound of my voice? My clothes? My manner?
And am I in fact automatically ridiculed by all young people, who see only a quaint old maid with old-fashioned views - if they notice me at all?
As I said, it's sobering. Troubling. Worrying.