When I was a kid my hero was Cyrille Regis, one of the famous trio of brilliant black footballers who played for my team, West Brom. I lived in a place called Hagley, which is where people from Birmingham and the Black Country went to live if they had done well for themselves. Hagley was almost entirely white; there was one black kid in my year at school.
I absolutely revered Cyrille, along with his teammates Brendon Batson and Laurie Cunningham, and was overwhelmed with horror at the racist abuse they endured from opposing fans and, on occasion, even their own supporters.
The first time I met Cyrille was many years after he had stopped playing and was back coaching at West Brom. I was filming something there that involved a bit of running around the pitch. Afterwards I walked into the shower in the dressing room and who should be in there but Cyrille. My legs went all wibbly-wobbly then and every subsequent time it was my privilege to spend time with him.
Cyrille died two years ago, just short of his 60th birthday. All our hearts were broken. Shortly afterwards his family invited me to a memorial event in Harlesden. Although Cyrille had lived in Birmingham for most of his adult life, it was this part of north-west London where he had grown up, putting down deep roots. On this midwinter’s evening, several hundred people – friends, family, locals and football people – had gathered in a community hall. It was all a bit chaotic, with music playing and everyone talking and hugging. I was taken over to Cyrille’s brother-in-law Otis in a corner of this huge room. A slideshow of our hero’s life shone on a wall. After a while Otis asked me if I would say a few words. I hadn’t prepared anything, but this was an honour I could hardly turn down.
Anyway, I had no choice, because suddenly the music stopped, the lights went on and I was introduced. I will never forget that moment, as I turned around to be faced with a big crowd that was overwhelmingly black. I was outnumbered. I doubt this counts as relevant “lived experience”, but I realised that, incredibly, in my 50 years I had never been outnumbered before. Having talked to many black footballers of Cyrille’s era and later, and written, broadcast, sympathised and opined on what they went through many times over the years, this picture pulled things into a sharp focus for the first time. Those players, their families and the communities they were from were all outnumbered, and still are.
I managed to get some words out in the right order and I thanked God, as well as Otis, for the opportunity. The following morning, I called a black friend of mine, the television executive Pat Younge, to tell him about my evening being one of the very few people in the room with my colour skin. “That has been my life since I was 18,” he said.
Since that night I haven’t been able to help seeing everything through the prism of the notion of outnumbering. It was a novelty for me; it’s plainly a different matter if it’s like that all the time. The outnumbered’s lives will probably have added discomfort compared with those in the majority – and their experiences will be overshadowed by that. There are some white people who, finding themselves the exception not the rule in their changing communities, will doubtless feel the same way. Perhaps I would; I don’t know. But it’s absurd that nationally there are many white people whose fear of being outnumbered is so great that they have entirely forgotten that they constitute more than four-fifths of the population and that this outnumbering is never going to happen.
It might help if those of us doing the outnumbering all found ways of being properly outnumbered ourselves every now and then, just so we know, however briefly, what it feels like.