Irish workers after completion of the Spaghetti Junction. 1972
Who Belongs to Birmingham?
At the end of each interview conducted for Children in Movement we ask the question, ‘What does it mean to be a Brummie’? I won’t reveal the answers as they provide a fascinating insight into the complexity of identity in migrant experiences and the answers are best enjoyed after hearing about their specific life experiences.
The more I thought about this question, about how people can embody a place, I realised how obsessed we are in Britain about this idea of belonging. I come from an Indian migrant family (with both Grandads from countries in East Africa) and for as long as I can remember questions of immigration, citizenship and borders have dominated narratives in the news, in family squabbles, in parliament, in newspaper columns and in pretty much all other corners and crevices of life. Britain is obsessed with both dictating who belongs in the country, and also questioning the claims of people’s belonging.
Why is this? Well there's lots of reasons but the most glaringly obvious for me is the legacy of colonialism. Britain has a very selective reading of its history of colony (every time I see Churchill on a five pound note I feel a bit sick inside) and has never properly dealt with its reduced (yet still mighty) power it once had. We can see this in Brexit, which campaigned using racist propaganda and codified phrases like ‘taking our country back’. Taking it back from who exactly? This country is built on undervalued and exploited migrant labour. We, the migrants and their settled familes, built this country. And it’s not an isolated case, throughout history we have seen politics turn to cheap nationalism when ideas to improve the material conditions for the people of this country run out.
Cover of The S*n newspaper, 8th October 2014
This project is not a political project. And by no means am I saying that our Children in Movement aims to solve these questions of belonging, but it does go someway into further questioning and understanding how people come to have a relationship with their lived environment, the city, the landscape and the people and things that occupy it.
I’m reminded here of French Guiana born, West Midlands football maverick, Cyrille Regis, who sadly died earlier this month. Regis played for for West Brom, Coventry City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa Football Club (AVFC being the superior team of course) and at West Brom, alongside Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Baston, he was one of the first black footballers in England to make a significant impact on the game. He ended up staying and living in the West Midlands and is one of the many migrants who made the region their home. His experience of migration and racism was well publicised and made for a very particular expeirence and is a telling story of how this country understands migration and racism, particularly in a sphere and profession where nationalism is ripe. I wish we'd had the opportunity to interview Regis and ask him about his experiences and why the West Midlands struck such a chord with him, though he was not the first migrant to find security in Birmingham.
Regis playing for West Brom
Right until the 1970’s Birmingham was one of the fastest growing economies in Britain. Since the post- second world war period the city has taken in large numbers of migrants from former British colonies, and a strong manufacturing sector meant assured employment opportunities. My Grandad, who came from Mombasa, Kenya, via Calcutta, India, worked in many garages in Digbeth and my Grandma also worked in the factories in the city.
Shortly after, however, Birmingham suffered serious industrial decline. This decline meant many closures and job losses and large numbers of migrant families fell into precarious work and poverty. The report ‘Mapping of Race and Poverty in Birmingham’ looks further into this. What’s interesting to note is that as a result of this decline rather than moving to seek work, as many had already done to get here, many migrants stayed in this city. My Nanaji, who lives in Handsworth, used to travel 3 hours a day out of Birmingham for 15 years, just to be able to continue working as an electrical engineer.
My Nanaji in the top left with his friends. Taken at shore of lake Tanganyka in Kigoma where his Dad used to work
Drayton Manor Park in Tamworth, Nanaji (second from left) enjoying a pint his Dad and two brothers. Drayton Manner park was often a meeting place for our family to enjoy a pint and picnic. 1984
I’m further reminded of my Nanaji and the words he once told me: ‘Birmingham is the best, even when we were poor we always had our neighbours’. Although he was particularly referring to his community in Handsworth I understood that there exists a very strong migrant solidarity in the city, and that many people are very proud to be a Brummie, and to some extension, British. Then I came across this from the Birmingham City Council website:
86% of people consider themselves to be British, regardless of ethnicity
Interesting isn’t it. When we think about belonging, especially in relation to a nation, we tend to think about ethnicity being a predominant factor. I don’t know what the trends are for the rest of the country but overall Birmingham’s population don’t seem to relate their ethnicity to their Britishness.
Birmingham has always been a city of migrants, both foreign and internal. The market town grew and grew as the ‘city of a thousand trades’ brought people in from all over the country and the city kept growing.
SMITHFIELD MARKET, Birmingham, West Midlands. A corner of Smithfield Market c.1890s
Being a native to Birmingham myself, and one who has moved around the city quite a bit, I would say that there exists a spirit in this city unlike most other cities. It is a city that allows time for people to settle, a city that definitely suffers from a second city syndrome but also revels in that plucky underdog spirit. And with that come the most incredible stories.
If you want to get involved in Children in Movement and have the opportunity to seek out some of these stories yourself then follow this link and get in touch.