|(The Guardian’) 2000|
There were many stories, many versions of what had happened to Sam: Sam, the local black guy, or ‘the coloured lad’ as he is more frequently known in these parts. Most everybody I spoke to in Penrith, historic capital of Cumbria and hub of the beautiful Eden Valley, knew something about the incident. But some thought it had taken place outside a pub, others after a football match; some thought that it had occurred fairly recently, others some years back; some said that he had been set upon by two men, others that it was more of a give-and-take altercation. All were agreed, though, that there had been nothing specifically racial about the incident, so much so that I found myself, by my fifth time of asking, preempting the response. “You know that Sam business, “ I said to a cab-driver, “it probably wasn’t racial, was it?”. My cabbie, keen to shed the best light on his community, shook his head vigorously.
It wasn’t until two days later that I heard the truth of the matter, from one Roger Brennan, a curly-haired softly spoken local I met in a town centre pub. For sure it was racial, Roger, a fitter at the Sellafield nuclear plant 50 miles away, insisted. He’d actually witnessed the trouble, had been standing on the touchline at a small six a side football tournament organised by members of the Carlisle United Suporters Club – Carlisle is Eden’s nearest league team – when two other spectators began abusing Sam as he was playing. Then one of them had suddenly run onto the pitch and “glassed” Sam with a bottle. Roger didn’t know the extent of Sam’s upset but he knew that Sam had pressed charges and his assailant convicted and sent down.
The local newpaper later confirmed the story but it was difficult to get the date and other details from the ‘paper or the police. No-one, you see, seems to know Sam’s last name.
Sam, the elusive Sam. For a community whose villagers and town dwellers really do know each other, where, as I’m frequently told, you can’t step out of your front door without bumping into twenty people you know, hard information on Sam is strangely hard to find: where he lives, what he does, his relationships, his social haunts. I kicked myself then, listening to Roger, for my earlier complacency; for my readiness to believe that Sam was alright, to accept the infamous Sam incident as being the result of some unremarkable encounter. I wondered why that had been and could only put it down to my sheer relief that, after a dispiriting initial period, I’d spent a relatively pleasant, hassle-free time in this oh so English ‘paradise’…