I spent the weekend pleasantly at the southern stronghold of Clan Paine; a fifteenth-century coaching inn in Berkshire owned by my cousin. It is built partly of oak reclaimed from Royal Navy warships of the Age of Sail. No more English place could be imagined. It has been in her branch of our family all my life and it was there her father - then the owner - made the teenaged me a tifoso and today's me a Ferrarista.
Elders visiting from the North told of a rare visit to London. Two ladies dressed in what they called a burka (but more likely an abaya or chador combined with a headscarf) got into a lift with them. They admitted to feelings of fear and were concerned this reaction might be 'racist'.
I feel sorry for older Britons. Most have strived their whole lives to be decent, kind and polite but now live in danger of being told they are wicked because they have not grasped the latest sociological nuance.
In our culture, I told them, fear is a normal psychological response to masks. Long ago, rehearsing a youth theatre production, my drama coach warned me that I must be careful where I fixed my masked gaze. People, she said, find it 'disturbing'. Another masked actor and I (there being nothing crueller than male teenagers) would stand in the wings during each performance selecting the prettiest girl in the audience. During a scene in which we stood for twenty minutes, masked and immobile, we would fix our gazes on her. She always cried. She always left. None lasted more than five minutes.
In other cultures things are different. I assured them that the ladies in their lift had not meant to scare them. I said their reaction was not 'racist', but a cultural response that the routine presence of ladies in hijab would eventually change. They were reassured. They had not thought they were 'racist' and had not wanted to be misperceived.
Someone else suggested Britain should follow the lead of France and ban the hijab. I jokingly replied that if they chose to dress in public as Superman or Wonder Woman they could expect strangers to laugh, neighbours to think them barmy and their friends to tell them so. But, very properly in a free and tolerant society, they would not expect the police to intervene. A lady dressed in hijab was entitled to expect the same reactions from her non-cosplay neighbours; no more and no less.
On my daily constitutional today I wondered how a hijab-wearing Muslim would view my advice to these elderly relatives so keen to respect her culture. Does she know that in our culture her mask inspires fear? Does she care? If she is not prepared to respect the cultural sensitivities of her neighbours, is it fair to expect them to work so hard and so fearfully to respect hers?