Idly channel hopping one night I stumbled upon Channel 4’s pseudo-documentary, Immigration Street. I had remembered the surrounding furore in the media from when it was being filmed in my home town, Southampton. I had hoped that the controversy would prevent it from going ahead, and duly forgot about it.
Due to the inflammatory title and controversy over the production company’s previous series, Benefits Street, this was never going to be a balanced and reasoned discussion on the subject of immigration. Nor was it likely to be a positive representation of the area of St. Mary’s, Southampton. It started off innocently enough, but as the programme progressed, it descended into chaos. Clearly out of their depth, the production team defensively struggled to keep control amid growing dissent, culminating in disturbing scenes of violent unrest in the community. The selective editing reminded me of Martin Parr’s sneering lens, disingenuously protesting objectivity while pouring ironic condescension on unknowing subjects (otherwise known as people).
Sam Wollaston’s review in the Guardian described it as “depressing” and “like a snowball of hatred and mistrust and inward-looking irony rolling down Derby Road”.
For me, though, it was more personal. As I watched, tears smarted in my eyes; I felt the kind of furious, swirling, impotence which springs forth from your gut when you’re cornered and you can’t fight back. For Love Productions had not only misrepresented and disturbed and entire community. They had trampled over a part of my history. Then, unable to harvest more content, they had fled with their tail between their legs.
By way of setting the internal record straight, I took a walk down to St Mary’s with an old friend, fellow mixed race Southampton native and blogger, Ms. Mongrel. We procured samosas and Indian sweets from Banga newsagent, as I had many times before.
I was pleased to find it largely unchanged, save for the addition of new fangled items, such as an automatic coffee dispenser and credit card machine. Samosas were still stacked high, meat on one side, vegetarian on the other; never the twain shall meet. We enjoyed a convivial picnic in the Shah-mobile while discussing the area, the city, our childhoods and the general state of ‘things’, as we have been doing for some 20 years now.
I told her of how the school hall, in which the protest meeting was held in the program, had been many things to me. My father was the headteacher of the school and had devoted his whole working life to it. I played there during the holidays. I helped to dig the pond. I participated in a dance class with the other children (we did the Monster Mash). I enjoyed my dad’s brilliant performative assemblies, in which he used secular songs from his own upbringing to educate and engage. Later, I had worked there – many happy hours creating displays from sugar paper, laminating worksheets and tidying the children’s library. I had debated the colour of the curtains, the use of Barbie in educational books and discussed the Bradford riots with members of staff there. I attended my dad’s retirement event in that same hall, deeply moved by the extent of goodwill, and the underlying foundation of inter-faith and inter-racial collaboration. So, to see it as the backdrop for this circus was upsetting.
Ms. Mongrel and I finished our snacks and strolled contentedly up the road. We reflected on our parents, and how their inter-racial relationships were received within their families. We reminisced about a school trip to the Sikh Temple, and pondered what a strong impression our staunchly multicultural upbringing and education had made on us. We discussed how the programme was a missed opportunity for a potentially fascinating and valuable study of race relations in the area. “Derby Road had this conversation 20 years ago.” MM continued, “This road is not so different to anywhere else in the area.”. I agreed, “It’s a bit rough around the edges, but it’s normal”. The conversation about race and immigration is complex, sensitive and ongoing. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that this kind of “misery porn”, as MM put it, should not be part of it.
We are lucky enough to consider ethnic diversity so normal as not to cause comment. But it is all too easy, when surrounded by like-minded people, to forget that not everyone has the same view. My first non-media filtered sightings of UKIP support, in the form of a poster in someone’s window and, surreally, an empty UKIP bus trundling up The Avenue at night, gave me a chill.
Memory is important to me, and so is where I come from. My time in Southampton reminded me that the city has work to do in terms of its recovery from recession, and the commercial homogenisation that many British towns have suffered in recent years. But what it needs is positivity and the right kind of investment, not media hacks looking to boost viewing figures with their emotionally bankrupt agendas.