Within Greater London, Havering has always been different. Home to many of the white working class who left the East End when others moved in, its estates and towns often feel more like Essex, and many of the residents wish it still was. In the Brexit referendum 70% of its residents voted toLeave, whereas the majority of London voted firmly to Remain. It's also one of the few parts of the capital where they celebrate Armed Forces Day, in which respect it's utterly normal for England, and the majority of London is out of step.
Armed Forces Day has been held on the last Saturday in June since 2009. Its aim is to encourage the public to show their support for the armed forces and all they do, and is intended as a counterpart to Remembrance Day by focusing on those who are very much still alive.
Yesterday morning in Romford they marched through the pedestrian precinct from South Street to the top of the market, then attended a reception on the lawn outside the town hall. The parade group was impressively long, led by The Royal British Legion Band & Corps Of Drums, immaculately turned out in their Victorian-style white helmets. As they formed up outside Santander a small group of onlookers assembled, some deliberately, others taking time from shopping to pay their respects. Some had brought small children and flags, others reversed in on their mobility scooters, and one was reading her victorious copy of The Sun.
A big cheer went up when the veterans emerged from a sidestreet and marched past, the vast majority of them over 70 and in full medalled jackets, but one much younger lad in a polo shirt walking on two prosthetic legs. Behind them came a sequence of young cadets, locally sourced, from the Air Training Corps and the volunteer police, arms swinging almost perfectly together. And then came the Brownies, which at first I found somewhat unnerving, until I remembered that this was a celebration rather than a show of force.
The pace was brisk. Within five minutes the band had reached the market, marching up the main avenue between stalls draped with St George's Cross bunting. Because we're in the middle of Euro 2016 it's hard to know how much is temporary, but the Union Jacks on the leather belt stall weren't football related, and I suspect the fishmonger always flies one of each. Again the veterans earned applause and the remainder of the parade earned respect, as the two hundred or so participants passed by.
Romford's ring road then conspired to force the parade through a subway, which isn't the most respectful way to carry on. The flagbearers dropped their poles, and a bunch of shoppers wandered the other way having not been made aware what they were blundering into. The far side of the subway's no beauty spot but has been named Ludwigshafen Place after Romford's German twin town, a reminder of the importance of friendship in the aftermath of conflict. And then finally the parade broke step to climb two ramps beside the roundabout to the finale.
The brass band got to circle the lawn twice, whereas the veterans were allowed to walk straight into the central marquee and take their plastic seats. Once the cadets had lined up in front of the town hall and been suitably shouted at, and the Brownies followed in behind, the great and good of the town of Romford emerged from beneath the roundabout. The mayor smiled broadly in her red cloak, while a rather portly attendant carried the council mace. The town crier held back briefly, bedecked in a rather splendid blue robe and tricorn hat, gold bell in hand. And that was when I suddenly saw the man with the t-shirt.
I had to read the t-shirt twice because I didn't believe anyone would wear it in public. The wearer was clearly delighted with the outcome of the referendum, because the top line of the slogan said YES! WE WON! But the continuation was chilling, not so much a message of intolerance as an outpouring of hate, implying that there was now legitimate recourse to SEND THEM BACK. Who 'they' were wasn't specified, nor whether 'back' meant Europe or beyond, but a despicable implication was clear.
One of the official civic party, a tall balding gentleman in a grey suit, stopped to chat to the t-shirt wearer. Not only did they seem to get on well, but the dignitary smiled and put his arm around the man's shoulder before moving on. I think this chilled me more, a tacit acceptance from someone in authority that such racist thinking was to be applauded. And this t-shirt had already been paraded around the shops, as a blue carrier bag made clear, its offensive message seen by many of the 'them' who make Havering their home.
As the man in the t-shirt walked up to join the spectators behind the barrier, I snatched a photo. When I looked at it afterwards it appeared that the police were standing back and doing nothing, although the camera angle suggests they wouldn't have seen the front of the t-shirt, which just shows how easy it is to jump to conclusions without stopping to think. And then I tweeted it, lining it up behind two photos of the parade proper to help ensure the entire event wasn't tarred with the same brush.
And that went viral. Buzzfeed noticed, and the Huffington Post, and even Sky journo Kay Burley (yes, all with attribution), and hundreds of thousands of people saw what I'd taken. The vast majority were appalled, which was reassuring, or else were unduly preoccupied by the state of the man's hair. The right half of his head was shaved bald while the left had grown out, like some demi-skinhead, which evidently isn't a hairstyle that gets you taken seriously.
Did they send back his hairdresser half way through this haircut?
When you have to cut short a trip to the barbers to be racist somewhere
When you're halfway through your haircut and your barber tells you about his boyfriend Piotr
His hairstyle is a metaphor for the result. Maybe he asked for a '52:48'?
One side of his hair left, the other remained.
I've been swimming through Twitter notifications all day, I've never experienced anything like it. Thankfully I've received an absolute minimum of venom and trolling, although a deputy headteacher from Worcester did send me a direct message telling me I was utterly despicable for my racism and offensive behaviour, and should grow up, before blocking me.
It's been comforting to know that Britain finds this t-shirt as repugnant as you'd hope, and that displays of naked intolerance haven't become the norm. But this kind of thinking is out there, more openly than before the Brexit vote, in what's a highly worrying turn of events. And I need to close by reminding you that just because this idiot was spotted in Romford doesn't mean that everyone in Romford is an idiot, because that's the kind of thoughtless generalisation that got us into this mess in the first place.