Populations and people

by Ben Rogaly

This article first appeared on MetalCulture’s website.

“Since I started doing academic research I have specialized in listening to people, especially people who maybe don’t think they have a story that’s worth listening to, or that others would be interested in.

There is a scientific phrase for the kind of work I do: biographical oral history. Oral historians have long debated how to work with memory, which is necessarily selective, and of course fallible. People recall different things at different times, and their memories are triggered by conversations in certain spaces or with particular people. The relationship between interviewer and narrator matters a lot in oral history. Both are people; both may be transformed. There is less onus on expert knowledge. Authority is shared.

I am especially interested in oral histories of work – paid work and unpaid work, done by women and by men, by people who move residence as adults and those who stay put in the place they grew up. As a geographer I am also interested in oral histories of place, what different places mean to the same person over their lifetime, and, what this teaches us about what we might call people’s life geographies.

I began as a researcher by listening to people who moved around for harvest work in the West Bengal countryside in India, staying in places they regarded as foreign for weeks or months at a time. Since the early 2000s I’ve been researching in eastern England, also listening to people employed to do seasonal and other temporary work. The dominant view, based on official migration statistics did not pick up this short term moving around, which was much more common than the data suggested – both in India, where migration had been understood as the changes in population between the censuses, that were introduced during British colonial rule, and in England’s horticulture, where the annual survey in June each year inevitably underestimated the numbers involved in the seasonal and temporary workforce. There have been similar problems accounting for the numbers working in fruit and vegetable packing and in this country’s large food processing industry. [This statistical blindness resonates for me with both main parties’ shock at the size of the turnout by young voters in yesterday’s General Election].

At the same time as criticizing migration data, my biographical oral histories of place in the provincial cities of Norwich and Peterborough produced a challenge to the notion of a static, so-called indigenous white working class, threatened by the mobility of newcomers, especially international migrants. For example, my research with Becky Taylor in Norwich a decade ago showed that people who were categorized by others as natives, as ‘indigenous’, had often experienced international migration or were related to someone else who had. Examples included travel abroad in the colonial armed forces or women who became GI brides after World War 2, and people who took advantage of the ‘ten pound pom’ scheme for British citizens to migrate to Australia.

Taken together the different strands of my research raise a number of questions about the way people’s life geographies are thought about, especially in discussions about immigration. I want to argue that part of the problem – when it comes to understanding the immigration of people to Britain – is amnesia about the conditions that produced large scale emigration from Britain. Opening this up involves a willingness to think critically about population in relation to British colonialism and race. The late cultural theorist Stuart Hall has argued that there is a historical forgetfulness about British colonialism in contemporary Britain, involving a disavowal of the maintenance of rule through violence, the classification of populations into tribes, castes and races in order better to govern them, and the extraction of economic resources to build up the wealth of the ‘mother country’ at the expense of the colonized society.

This forgetfulness of course takes us back to the subject of memory, to its fallibility and selectiveness. But it is not only memory that is fallible. Oral historians defend their corner against the mainstream archival tradition in history. They point out that archives too are selective, constructed in particular categories, with certain material redacted from official papers or kept closed for extra long periods. There is no doubt that the snail’s pace at which the archival record on British colonial atrocities emerged had a relationship with how individuals and wider society remembered the country’s imperial past.

In his posthumous memoir published last month Stuart Hall asks

‘Why this forgetfulness?’

And he answers it by explicit reference to the effect of migration. To quote:

‘The spatial organization of empire was an important factor in the process of forgetting. It was one thing to be deeply mired, as Britain was, in exchanging trinkets for captives in West Africa, shipping them across the Atlantic in the genocidal Middle Passage, selling their bodies into plantation slavery, exploiting their forced labour, consuming the commodities they produced and repatriating the profits of an activity they could safely conduct hundreds of miles away, without compromising the nation’s self-image as a ‘sceptered isle’ or a ‘green and pleasant land’.’ Reflecting on Britain in the 1950s, Hall continues: ‘It was quite another [thing] – an abrogation of a law of nature – to have the natives’ descendants next door, renting a room in your house, clipping your ticket on the bus and touching your body in hospital’

How people resident in the UK think about each other, and about people considered to be ‘other’ remains deeply affected by colonial history. Division continues to be used to keep ordinary people blaming each other for the ills of society – keeps our gaze from looking up, for example, at the power of large corporations. Oral history has the power to enable us to express our innate diversity, to discover and value ordinary culture in a way often denied in a class-based hierarchal approach to the arts. In and among all this we find that, as humans, with our frailty and vulnerability, and with due acknowledgement to the late Jo Cox, we have more in common than we thought.”