Sunday, 8 May 2022

Britain is no country for Ernest Theophile and the old domino players in Maida Hill Market Square

Ernest Theophile, who is seventy-three years old and retired, has, for the past twelve years, enjoyed the company of other pensioners in London's Maida Hill Market Square and has said : "The Square is very important to me. I come here virtually seven days a week. I’ve grown up there all my life so I don’t know any other. To me, it’s like home away from home”. However, last year, he was summoned to court by Westminster Council and accused of being too noisy and causing a disturbance while playing dominos in the Square with his other domino-playing friends. In his defense he said : “If you are West Indian you just can’t play dominoes without making a bit of noise”. When he says "a bit of noise" he means contesting the other players and slamming down the dominoes hard, on the table. Westminster Council said that they served their injunction relating to behaviour in the Square after receiving 200 noise complaints from the public.

Ernest’s barrister, Tim James-Matthews told Central London County Court said : “An injunction restraining the activities of a minority of black people in a public square where there is a theoretical power of arrest and sanction of imprisonment is indirectly discriminatory”. Ernest himself believed that being taken to court was : “Absolutely racially motivated”. He said : “It’s because it’s mainly groups of ethnic minorities who come here and that’s the reason why I think they wanted us out”. However, the Council disputes this and claims that antisocial behaviour, such as public urination, drug dealing and drinking, were the main rationale behind the court order. However, although the Council has said that Ernest and his friends were not the target, they could still face jail if they breach a court order by : “Playing loud amplified music, drinking alcohol and shouting and swearing”.

Others say the fact that many pensioners use the Square as a social hub is a result of a lack of community spaces in the area. Ashworth, a retired security officer who regularly visits the square said : “We have nowhere else to go and gather. We only really have this place here, where we can sit outside and play a little dominoes, or a little backgammon too. We’ve been to the Council so many times to ask them to give us a place, but we still only have this Square”.

Jacqui Haynes, a Community Organiser based in Maida Hill confirmed this when she said : “The Square is used by many different people because there’s nothing here for anybody” and “There are a lot of older people who go to the Square not because they necessarily want to, but who go there because there’s nowhere else. I’ve been battling with the Council to provide social activities so that the people that don’t want to be there necessarily won’t have to. But people go there because there’s nowhere else”.

Ernest's solicitor, Anne McMurdie, accepted that, while at the moment he can go to the Square, the order has a "dampening effect" on his freedom and : "He is permitted to go to the Square to play dominoes if he wants to, but he would have to do it very quietly and in a way that's completely contrary to how he's used to playing the game. It's like saying you can play football but you can't shout or swear or get cross. It's really curtailing how they have always socialised together, that's the nub of it. So they can play dominoes so long as they don't do it in the traditional way, and they can't have a beer with it either. Bear in mind that there's also a power of arrest and a risk of imprisonment involved - the idea that you could be arrested for shouting at a friend because you thought they cheated is crazy".

Angela Foster, writing in the Guardian said : 'Growing up, I remember huddles of men – including my dad, uncles, family friends –hunched over tables, talking, laughing and remonstrating loudly in smoke-filled rooms, usually with a Red Stripe or Jamaican white rum in hand with reggae music blaring out of the speakers – and the dramatic thud of the dominoes as they crashed on to the table. (link) The banging down of the tiles would get louder and louder, especially if a player was on a roll and looked like they were going to win. Sometimes there would be fallouts, even near-punch-ups – dominoes is a serious thing in the Caribbean community. The game is still so popular in Jamaica that in 2010 the country expressed hopes of it becoming an Olympic sport'.

She continued : 'The fact is, this case is not about wokery or being deliberately antisocial – it is about cultural nuances. Dominoes is not played in Caribbean communities like chess or draughts – it is more like a very rambunctious game of Monopoly. It’s loud, it has energy – it’s a social gathering, as Theophile alluded to when he said he and his friends started playing in the Square because “we were kind of lonely”. If they make a bit of noise, they are not the only ones. Football fans have their chants; pubs are noisy places; children playing outside, wrenched away from their screens, make a glorious racket. No one has the right to be deliberately antisocial, but isn’t reasonable accommodation of our different foibles how a diverse society works?' She finished with : 

           'Lighten up. Let the old men gather. Let the games begin'.                                                                                  

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