Home, 2010 and 2017

In 2010, Simon James took a series of photographs for an exhibition which he called Home, 2010. This was a series of portraits with handwritten answers to a questionnaire alongside the photos. The questionnaire asked the subjects of their photos a series of factual questions –name, home town, nationality, part of London they lived in, occupation, time of arrival in the UK, mode of transport to the UK – together with some that were more opinion-based: what did they find the strangest thing about England, what was their favourite British food, did they every plan to go back home to live (and, if so, when), what they did in London that they never did back home, and what they most missed about home. The portraits and the questionnaires can be viewed on Simon’s website.

Simon James‘s ‘Home, 2010’ exhibition, first shown as part of ‘Alien Nation: the art of blending in’, Great Western Studios, London. March–April, 2011.

In his notes to the exhibition, Simon framed the collection in this way:

‘One should not be an alien at all.’
George Mikes, How To Be An Alien (1946)

Mikes’s book highlights the absurd cultural contradictions between England and continental Europe. England is a nation of immigrants. Throughout history waves of immigrants have chosen London as their new home.

Ten of the twelve most recent accession nations to the EU have been eastern and central European countries. Citizens from these nations are entitled to work in the UK, but have limited access to benefits and social provision. Since 2004 there has been a noticeable increase in migration from these countries to the UK.

Many of these new arrivals have been met not only with scepticisim but sometimes also with hostility. They found a very different England from the one they had expected.

It is these people that you see in these photographs.

 

These beautifully constructed portraits hint at common experiences of migration: almost to a person, what the subjects most missed about home was family, friends and food. Similarly, despite a clearly critical position on British cuisine, there was general admiration for Sunday roasts, steak pie and those two other stalwarts of British eating: fish and chips (ours courtesy of the Portuguese) and pizza (our national Italian dish). And the things that they found strange about England and Britain held few surprises: driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, separate hot and cold water taps and, again, food.

Simon and the Migration Museum Project were in discussion again earlier this year, when the exhibition at Roast Restaurant in Borough Market was being planned. Reluctantly, we decided that his photos didn’t quite meet the criteria of that exhibition, but we ended up talking about a follow-up to Home, 2010, to see how the subjects’ answers to the questionnaire might have changed in the wake of the June 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. An e-mail was duly sent out to everyone he’d photographed, asking them to give their answers now to the opinion-type questions on the original questionnaire.

The people whose photographs appear in this blog answered the e-mail, and their answers are given here underneath the original photos of Simon’s 2010 exhibition. There’s nothing scientific about this ‘research’, of course, but the set of eight answers gives a sense of the mobility (or temporary nature) of migration – many subjects had gone on elsewhere or returned home (and we could speculate endlessly about the reasons the others didn’t answer the e-mail) – and a hint of a darkening mood since last June. Maciek, who in 2010 had said he had no plans to go home, now writes ‘Yes, very soon! If not Poland, then France/Italy’; Arleta, who previously wasn’t sure, is now thinking about it; Filip and Hanna have both left already (as they had said they would in 2010), Hanna now citing that the thing she finds strangest about England is ‘Brexit’. It would be interesting to track down more ‘before’ and ‘after’ stories of this kind and to revisit these eight subjects in a year or two’s time: it is often a useful corrective to have anecdotal and human evidence set against the statistical findings trotted out by competing positions on Britain’s departure from the EU.

Arleta, and her responses in 2010. © Simon James

Arleta, 2017 responses
  • What job do you do in London?
    Accountant day time/landscape photographer at weekends.
  • Strangest thing about England?
    Two separate taps – one with very cold water and other with boiling hot water.
  • Do you ever plan to go back home to live? If so, when? 
    I’m thinking about it but I haven’t made up my mind yet.
  • What do you miss most about home? 
    Mushroom picking in autumn.

 

Filip, and his responses in 2010. © Simon James

Filip, 2017 responses
  • What job do you do in London?
    Graphics design and video post-production for a production house in Camden.
  • Strangest thing about England?
    Separate taps for hot and cold water. Calling normal taps ‘continental’; in general, your insistence on calling stuff ‘continental’ felt strange, but it makes more sense now since you voted for Brexit.
  • Do you ever plan to go back home to live? If so, when?
    I did come back already actually, back in 2012.
  • What do you miss most about home?
    London was great, top of the world and all, but it was also very competitive. At home I don’t have to prove who I am, there’s less possibility but also less stress; at home I’ve got more time to learn new stuff and I have more room to make mistakes (which are essential if I want to make progress).
    On the other hand:
    I think what I miss most about London is the architecture, mainly the brutalist style that I am in love with, starting from well-known estates like the Barbican or the Southbank, I just kept stumbling on some totally amazing pieces of architecture on my cycle journeys through the city like the Heygate estate or Alexandra Road Estate, which I picked for Simon to take a picture of me, but literally dozens of other amazing spaces that just kept forcing me to stop and gaze for a while each time I took a different route home.
    That would be one thing that I never did back home – call my girlfriend and say, ‘Honey I’ll be home a bit later, I just discovered this another awesome building and I positively need to see how it looks from another side before I move on.’

 

Hanna, and her responses in 2010. © Simon James

Hanna, 2017 responses
  • What job do you do in London? 
    I no longer live in London. My last job was working in marketing for a broadcaster, mostly looking after their Eastern European business.
  • Strangest thing about England?
    Brexit.
  • Do you ever plan to go back home to live? If so, when? 
    I have since moved to Warsaw, Poland (so not home), and now I live in Southern California. I do plan to move back home for retirement though.
  • What do you miss most about home? 
    Familiarity. Family and friends.  Language.

 

Joanna, and her responses in 2010. © Simon James

Joanna, 2017 responses
  • Strangest thing about England?
    Separate taps for hot and cold water; hand washing can turn into a nightmare.
  • Do you ever plan to go back home to live? If so, when?
    No plans at the moment.
  • What do you miss most about home?
    Family and friends and my mum’s cooking.

 

Macíek, and his responses in 2010. © Simon James

Macíek, 2017 responses
  • What job do you do in London?
    Musician/composer/guitarist.
  • Strangest thing about England?
    Separate cold and hot water taps!
  • Do you ever plan to go back home to live? If so, when?
    Yes, very soon! If not Poland, then France/Italy.

 

Māria, and her responses in 2010. © Simon James

Māria, 2017 responses
  • What job do you do in London?
    Property investor.
  • Strangest thing about England?
    Weather and food, English manners.
  • Do you ever plan to go back home to live? If so, when?
    No, but I’m considering other options such as Asia or Dubai (temporarily).
  • What do you miss most about home?
    Our large quiet garden, better weather, cheaper restaurants and services.

 

Monika, and her responses in 2010. © Simon James

Monika, 2017 responses
  • What job do you do in London?
    Singer, songwriter, singing teacher.
  • Strangest thing about England?
    Food: sandwiches with chips, beans on toast.
  • Do you ever plan to go back home to live? If so, when?
    Not at the moment, but we will see how it goes.
  • What do you miss most about home?
    Family and friends.
  • Something you do frequently in London that you never did back home?
    Going to pubs – we haven’t got pubs in Poland.

 

Wojciech, and his responses in 2010. © Simon James

Wojciech, 2017 responses
  • What job do you do in London?
    I am an artist. My jobs are my projects and also the services I perform for galleries and collectors in the care and condition of art collections.
  • Strangest thing about England?
    That the country of such great traditions – cultural, technological, politically liberal – can sink so low as it has done recently in adopting euro-sceptic point of view reserved until now to a narrow group of MPs such as John Redwood, Bill Cash and a Daily Mail lobby.
  • Do you ever plan to go back home to live? If so, when?
    I am rooted to deeply now and my mother country is suffering from the very same illiberal affliction. It would have to get a lot worse before I would do that but ‘Events, dear boy, events’, as Macmillan once had said, are unpredictable.
  • What do you miss most about home? 
    Familiar touchstones – such as sights, well-spoken words, theatre, warmth of family and friends
  • Something you do frequently in London that you never did back home?
    Listening to BBC Radio3, my favourite radio station, closely followed by John Humphries and James McNaughtie – the great news men from Radio 4.

 


There is more information about Simon James, and more of his photographs, on his website: 
www.shotbyjam.com