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‘Hey, Blackie!’: Jian Ghomeshi on growing up in 1970s England

CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

An excerpt from CBC-Radio host Jian Ghomeshi's new memoir, 1982

The U.K. was always cool.

Before Joan Jett hit the stage at the Police Picnic in the summer of 1982, the lineup of bands had all been British. That is, except for the Spoons – and they were a Canadian band trying to sound British. Everyone wanted to sound British.

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Even British bands wanted to sound British.

It's no secret that in Grade 9 my favourite artists were from the U.K. Bowie was from England. So were the Police and the Clash and the Beat, and just about every other cool band, starting in a previous generation with the Beatles, the Stones and the Who. In the 1980s, Britain was where real New Wave style and substance was centred. I'm not really sure why.

Maybe it was because the U.K. was better at starting cultural trends. Maybe it came out of a more pronounced class war and politicized youth. That's what my sister told me. But maybe it was because most English people had straight hair (much easier to crimp) and pale complexions (much easier to make paler), and that naturally made them more punk. And also there were lots of reasons to be unhappy in England. Or at least, Brits would find reasons to complain. They might be unhappy about smaller food portions, or fewer TV channels, or more Thatcher, or less sunshine. They could often be bitter and miserable. And being miserable was cool. And New Wave music sounded better in a miserable or defiant English vernacular.

Billy Bragg wouldn't have been as successful if he'd sung working-class protest songs with a Californian accent. He would've sounded like a surfer, and surfers have no reason to be angry. So Billy Bragg would have sounded like a liar. But he had a British accent. And so he was believable. And that was cool.

Besides, for me it made even more sense that I had an affinity for all things British. I was born in London and spent my first seven years in the U.K. If only I'd known how to harness that lineage, I would have been more successful in Thornhill in Grade 9. I could have retained my English accent and peppered my sentences with "y'know wha-I mean?" and said about my friends, "They're my best mates." And then Wendy probably would have thought I was more special and punk and unique.

But I was a different kind of unique. When I was in England, as much as I had friends and loved supporting Arsenal Football Club, I didn't really fit in. And then I didn't really fit in when I got to Thornhill. My search for appropriate role models often came up empty. And being myself didn't seem a very appealing option.

When I was a little kid in England in the 1970s, the boys I hung out with at primary school called me Blackie.

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This is a fact. It became my label. And some of those kids that called me by that name were my friends.

"Hey, Blackie!"

That's how they would greet me. This term was apparently based on my parents' ethnic background and the way I looked.

My parents had moved from Iran and settled in England before my sister and I were born. And we were the only ethnic family around. But I didn't really understand what that meant at the time.

I didn't take offence to being called Blackie. It didn't bother me as a little kid, because I didn't recognize any of the broader societal implications or any sort of a power dynamic.

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I figured Blackie was just another nickname. There was Paulie and Nicker and then there was me, Blackie. Most of the good football players in the English Premier League had nicknames, too. In England, soccer was called football. And the footballers all had catchy monikers. Just like me.

You might wonder if I'm making this up. You might be surprised to learn that I was called Blackie. That's because it was stupid. It never made any sense. I wasn't black. My skin wasn't even a particularly dark shade of brown, unless I'd spent too much time on the beach at Brighton. But in the suburb of London where I grew up, almost everyone was white. Like, pasty, pinky white. There were no black kids or brown kids or yellow kids – at least none that I remember. So I became the de facto ambassador for all of them. And clearly, "Brownie" or "Olivie" just didn't have the same ring as "Blackie." I don't know why. I didn't realize how insulting it could be to be singled out for my race until a few years later. But I did start to get the message that I was different. Confusion about my ethnicity began

From 1982 by Jian Ghomeshi. Copyright © Jian Ghomeshi, 2012. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Group (Canada), a Division of Pearson Canada Inc. 1982 is in bookstores Tuesday.

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