A particularly unpleasant woman had moved into the farmhouse along the lane from us in East Devon. I well remember the dinner party - attended by our weekend guest, a gay Labour councillor in Hackney - when she spent the evening trying to get our spaniel to bark to the word "Paki". When she left our house (and subsequently the county, to general relief) a shocked silence descended. Was it a wind-up or was it real?
Racism isn't, to be honest, a subject that comes up a great deal in the countryside where we live - simply because there are very few non-white faces around. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, argued in 2004 that a form of "passive apartheid" exists in the British countryside, with people from ethnic minorities choosing not to live in rural areas because they perceive them to be racist.
It is incontrovertible that the countryside is overwhelmingly white. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, across the UK, 92.1 per cent of the population is white and 7.9 per cent from smaller ethnic groups, while statistics from the 2001 census indicated that, in the south-west of England, white people accounted for 97.71 per cent of the population and ethnic minorities for 2.3 per cent.
Ignorance about people of other races therefore comes as no surprise. It may be hurtful - which is inexcusable - but it is not necessarily malicious. One friend, who was married to a Zanzibari and has a daughter, described an occasion when she was having coffee in the West Dorset seaside town of Lyme Regis with a friend who also has mixed-race children. The waiter, seeing two white women with their colourful brood, asked: "So, are you social workers?"
Such attitudes are not confined to those who can easily be identified as "foreign" because of their race; they also apply to the increasing numbers of white migrant workers coming to work here. One farmer's wife in our valley told me she had two Polish men, workers at the local sawmill, lodging at the farm, and that she initially "had concerns about the children". She was genuinely mystified why Poles should be living in East Devon until I told her that Poland had joined the EU and they had the right to work here. This summer, she and her husband are holidaying in Poland with the men's families.
Such anecdotes are commonplace; but do they amount to racism, or simply show that many people in the countryside are insulated from multicultural Britain, naive about it and unable to shake off their suspicion of "outsiders"? As more migrant workers and people from ethnic-minority backgrounds come to the south-west - the 2001 census showed that the region's ethnic-minority population had doubled in ten years - will this intensify a latent racism or neutralise it?
Let's take an optimistic view first and argue that suspicion can be overcome with familiarity. Christina Oyo's mother is (white) British and her father Ugandan; she has lived in an East Devon seaside town since 1975. Reactions to the family have clearly evolved. "I personally haven't experienced much racism here but I know that my elder sisters and brothers did when we first arrived. My sister was the first black face at her secondary school." Christina, a gym instructor and personal fitness trainer, is trying to win support to develop a prime site to build a hotel and fitness centre locally. At a public meeting, the audience, entirely white, was united in one thought - the hope that "one of our own people" wins the contract, rather than some national conglomerate.
Sonia Francis-Mills, director of the Devon Racial Equality Council, lives in a small village near Honiton. She was born in Suffolk; her parents came from the Virgin Islands. Her introduction to the village couldn't have been more intimidating: a dead cat was thrown into her garden, festooned with a swastika and a note saying, "Who's next?" The first breakthrough came when an elderly village couple asked her and her husband for coffee; when Sonia returned the favour, they arrived dressed in a kaftan and a loud tropical shirt. Both couples later laughed about this awkward but well-meaning attempt to make their new neighbours feel comfortable. Ten years on, Sonia and her family feel as accepted as anyone else in the village.
The fact remains that life is made very uncomfortable for many people like Sonia, perhaps for years. One recent survey found that two-thirds of people from ethnic minorities living in Devon's rural areas had been victims of race attacks and harassment. Interviews with 320 people from minority backgrounds in the Teignbridge and South Hams districts found every single one had been a victim of racial harassment and abuse - but only 13 had reported incidents to the police.
Since the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, police forces around the country have stepped up their efforts against racism and launched campaigns encouraging people to report racist crimes to the police. The number of prosecutions for racially aggravated crime in Dorset, for instance, has risen by 155 per cent over the past two years, a trend that John Revell, the chief Crown prosecutor, attributes to a greater willingness to report incidents to the police.
But, behind these numbers, is there actually rising racism, too? The Dorset Race Equality Council reported in 2003 that people from ethnic minorities were ten times more likely to suffer a hate crime in the countryside than in a town.
One 2004 survey of ethnic-minority people living in West Dorset (the Dorset-based researcher hailed originally from the Gambia and as such, presumably, those he interviewed trusted him enough to be honest about their experiences) discovered a complex picture. There was racism, for sure, but verbal battery, rather than physical attack, was the norm. Of those interviewed, 27 per cent said that they had not experienced any racism; 9 per cent of respondents said they had suffered racial abuse; only 2 per cent had been victims of racist violence. The overwhelming experience - of 62 per cent - was of being the butt of racist jokes.
Asked to say what they didn't like about living in the area, 70 per cent cited the same four issues: isolation from the culture, limited public transport, racist jokes and taunts, and a lack of social activities. It is notable that racism ranked equally with shortcomings of country life, such as transport, about which everyone complains. There were positives, too: 74 per cent said they liked West Dorset because it is a good place for children to grow up in; 70 per cent cited the safety from crime as a positive and 61 per cent the quietness. Lower numbers - but still comfortably more than a third - said they liked "being made to feel special" and the "friendliness of local people".
In other words, perceptions of the advantages of country life are unsurprisingly the same, whatever the colour of one's skin or cultural heritage. And this poses another question. Will people from the ethnic minorities join the huge demographic movement already under way, out of the cities and into countryside regions such as the south-west, attracted by its beauty, its excellent state schools, the advent of broadband and expanding employment opportunities?
Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones is all for it. He farms in the wilds of the Devon/Cornwall borders, markets his sausages under the brand "The Black Farmer", and is on David Cameron's list of Conservative prospective parliamentary candidates. "Our parents established beachheads in the cities; it is now up to our generation to move out of those beachheads and claim the rest of Britain as our own. If we wait for the climate to change, we will wait for ever," he said. He and other optimists argue that, if more people from the ethnic minorities and foreign migrant workers (however legal) do opt for a life in the country, the racist tendency will gradually diminish.
Yet pessimists warn that tensions and violence will mount. As in our cities, there is a "not in my village" syndrome. On the A35 between Devon and Dorset is a huge, jolting United Kingdom Independence Party sign declaiming against "mass EU immigration". The British National Party is stepping up its focus on the region. Jon McKenzie of the Monitoring Group's Rural Racism Project, based in Plymouth, warns that the BNP has plans to make everything west of a straight line from Bristol to Bournemouth Britain's first "multicultural-free zone".
Fear of a backlash is making the ethnic-minority community even more defensive. Mohamed Patel, an Indian brought up in Malawi and then Leicester, moved to Exeter two years ago to work for the Devon Racial Equality Council. He worships at the city's mosque, which is little more than a large shed. He has privately advised the imam not to go ahead with plans to build a new mosque, complete with dome and min arets, because it would attract too much attention - just after 9/11, the current building was pelted with pigs' heads.
"What the hell's he doing here?"
Islamophobia, in the countryside as in the city, is on the rise. Patel, a gentle, charming man wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Outlaw", is doubtful whether he can stay in Devon long term. "I feel utterly exposed," he says. "I see people looking at me and ticking off their mental boxes: 'Asylum-seeker - maybe; unemployed - probably; sponger - yes; breeds like a rabbit - maybe; Muslim fanatic - probably. What the hell's he doing here?'" He admits to having cried a lot when he first moved to Devon.
So, what are the authorities doing to counter such attitudes, whether through education or victim support? Francis-Mills has nothing but praise for the police post-Stephen Lawrence. When, a few years ago, she was slapped in the face on the street in Exeter and insulted for being black and she reported the incident, the police went close to saying it was inevitable, given her colour. More recently, two nine-year-old relatives were subjected to racist insults by two teenaged boys; after the incident was reported, the police arrested the youths and arranged a reconciliation session with their victims, during which the youths admitted they had been asinine.
However, she accuses the district authorities of complacency and disinterest. One council chief executive told her: "Look, I have to serve my constituency and my constituency is white. Racism is simply not a priority issue for me." Council websites carry the usual equal-opportunities, anti-racism rhetoric but, in reality, little practical is being done.
This is not the attitude across the board, of course. In Somerset, the council, working with trade-union campaigners, has been trying to improve support for migrant workers - for instance, Portuguese agency labour in the food-processing industry in Chard - who have little representation, find it hard to claim benefits to which they are entitled, are paid very low wages, and face hostility from local people. Glyn Ford, Labour MEP for the south-west of England, argues that the government has not been as helpful as it should have been in ensuring that migrant workers have the access to services and support available to others.
Ratna Lachman, of the Monitoring Group, says: "The rural experience of racism is fundamentally different from that in urban Britain - it is about isolation, marginalisation, invisibility and a deficit of social and community networks." It is no use denying that there are people of ethnic-minority origin or simply from other countries living in the south-west. The way to fight racism is to weave them into our social fabric.
Community, in the end, is the difference. Emmanuel-Jones, and the many other people I spoke to, reject as an urban myth the notion that the countryside is particularly racist. "I have had far more racism in London than Launceston," he says. In any case, drawing the contrast sheds no real light on the issue. "Racism is not about city versus countryside but about transience and community. Transience strips away the humanity in us all; community rebuilds it."
UK minorities by numbers
92.1% of the population is white
7.9% of the population belongs to a minority ethnic group
42.5% of ethnic minorities live in London; 11.6 per cent live in the south-east
4.1% of ethnic minorities live in the south-west of England; 1.7 per cent live in the north-east
48% ethnic-minority population growth between 1991 and 2001
21% of workers from the new EU member states work in agriculture in the south-west
15% of workers from the new EU member states live in Anglia