At 9.30a.m. John sat with his pen poised; it was his turn to attend the compulsory one day workshop entitled ‘Celebrating Diversity in the Workplace’. On the whiteboard were written words and phrases and they were required to jot down their initial thoughts about each. EXCLUDED; John had certainly never been excluded, because he had never been or done anything interesting enough to warrant exclusion. SENT TO COVENTRY; well if he had been sent there he probably wouldn’t have noticed anyway. He still hadn’t put pen to paper but he was thinking. The classroom situation brought back memories of sixth form. All through lower sixth he had secretly adored Annabel; on the first day of upper sixth he was thrilled she was in his form again, this year he would try and approach her. Whose form were you in last year? she had asked innocently. Yours he had muttered bleakly, the crushing awareness of his invisibility blighting further conversation.
Teenagers usually imagine two things; everyone else is having a better time than they are and their parents are boring; in John’s case both were true. As a teenager he had vowed never to live in a suburb, have a mortgage or endlessly discuss double glazing and patio doors; but these things had all come to pass.
Still nothing written and now everyone was gathering in their discussion groups. No one noticed John had nothing to offer; they were all eager to relate their own unfair treatment in life and work; smokers, pregnant women, drivers, people passed over for promotion… he was glad when the ten minutes was up.
The next question was How have your origins affected your life? For a moment he was stumped; then it dawned on him what was missing from his life; he had nowhere to go back to. He really envied people who could return to their roots; the Welsh had their valleys, the Scots their islands and highlands and the Irish were always getting on ferries to go back home for holidays. But one could hardly say dramatically ‘I need to get back to Middlesex or Middlesex will always be in my blood’. He had never left Middlesex, but it had left him; swallowed up by Greater London, ironic since Middlesex used to surround London.
He realised the group were talking again; proudly relating how their parents’ struggles had inspired them to succeed or how keeping in touch with their roots had given them strong values. John thought of his dreary family, John Smith, they hadn’t even the imagination to give him a middle name. Granddad had been too young for the Great War and his father just too young for the Second World War; they hadn’t needed to go anywhere so they didn’t, he could hardly blame them, where had he been?
That woman was talking again, what did she call herself? Not teacher, oh yes, just call me Jilly everyone. She was asking them to write down what languages they spoke, easy, one. John was filled with admiration for folk who could slip easily from one tongue to another. He was convinced he would have been a more interesting person if he had grown up bilingual, what another dimension to life. You could be 100% British but fly away, step off the plane and stride confidently into another way of life.
Last question before coffee;
Which aspect of your life or work makes you feel most excluded?
At last John spoke up ‘Well I feel excluded because I haven’t got any diversity.’ They all looked at him blankly, ‘I haven’t even got any issues.’
‘What do you mean by issues?’ asked Call me Jilly.
‘You know, ISSUES, when they say at the end of a programme If you have been affected by any of the issues raised by this programme, please call our helpline, well they should have a helpline for people who can’t find any issues.’ The others laughed, he was getting into his stride. ‘I can’t even find a community to belong to, not the cycling, the deaf or the travelling… and I can’t help the police.’
The discussion was turning into the liveliest of the day.
‘You look like a law abiding chap’ replied one man.
‘Precisely, the police never stop me and when they put out a plea for information from members of the such-and-such community, that is never me’ explained John.
Call me Jilly was getting exasperated now, the workshop was not going the way she intended…
‘I know just what you mean’ piped up a woman’s voice.
John looked over to see an ordinary looking woman he hadn’t noticed before.
‘You go to the art gallery to see a photographic exhibition but it never says on the wall We went to work among members of the Boring Community, giving them cameras to take pictures of their dreary lives and asking them to describe the images in their own dull words. No one ever wants my picture or my opinion.’
She looked around as the others cheered, hardly believing she had spoken up. Everyone was enjoying themselves now, the workshop was much more interesting than expected; with one accord they surged out for their coffee break.
Call me Jilly tried in vain to hold the group back. ‘Everyone, everyone another five minutes till coffee break, we haven’t summed up yet.’ but no one heard her.