Phoenix City: the resilience of London

In this period of enforced inactivity, when almost all Migration Museum staff are in furlough, we are running a small number of blogs written by friends of the Museum on subjects related to the current pandemic. The first one, written by Cathy Ross, long-term friend (and distinguished friend) of the Museum, focuses on the capacity of our capital city to regenerate itself after disasters; future blog posts will move the discussion outside London.


London is resilient.

How do we know? History says so. My favourite London historian, the late Roy Porter, says that historians make ‘rotten physicians, worse planners and appalling prophets’, but nevertheless most of them agree that London has the resilience gene embedded deep in its DNA. It is a demonstrable fact that the city has bounced back from whatever disaster life has thrown at it. Today, London can look back on a life story packed with catastrophic experiences: invasion, sacking and pillage, Black Death, plague, war, fire, more plague, riots, more fire, floods, population flight, urban decay and Blitz bombs. London has survived the lot.

London during the Blitz: Number 23 Queen Victoria Street, City of London, collapsing in flames on Sunday 11 May 1941 © City of London London Metropolitan Archives

So why is London so resilient? Or, to use a metaphor that we’re all a bit too familiar with today, what makes its immune system so strong? When Roy Porter was writing his wonderful book London: A Social History in the early 1990s, he mused on London’s lucky genes. The two he saw as fundamental were: ‘its geographical site with respect to Europe and the Atlantic’ – which made the city perfectly suited to world trade and therefore in-coming wealth; and ‘its cohesive population’, by which he meant that, despite the inequality that inevitably exists in cities, ‘divisions between rich and poor remained bridgeable in London’. (Whether this is as true now as it may have been when Porter was writing would make for an interesting debate . . . )

It was the strength of these two long-term factors which counteracted any short-term failings in London’s top–down government (in a particularly bumbling state at the time Porter was writing):

Over the centuries London’s government was bumble and bungle; internal confusion on a day to day basis, and paralysis at times of crisis – the Plague, the Fire, the Gordon Riots, even the Blitz. In the past, the failures – structural and personal – of London’s government have been neutralised by the socially redemptive power of its trading position and the cohesiveness of its population.

Roy Porter, London: A Social History, Hamish Hamilton (1994)

Of course, it hardly needs to be said that London’s two lucky genes are both about movement: movement of goods, movement of people through society, movement of ideas and encounters. These are the processes of change and development which drive any city forward and always prove stronger in the long term than any determination to stand still. Migration is well and truly part of London’s immune system. Without migration, London’s resilience would be compromised.

A crude measure of a city’s resilience is whether people still want to live in it after the catastrophe has happened. By that measure, London proved super-resilient after the outbreak of Plague in 1665. Famously, the Great Plague emptied the streets and terrified the inhabitants (‘I went all along the city and suburbs … a dismal passage, and dangerous to see so many coffins exposed in the streets, now thin of people; the shops shut up, and all in mournful silence, not knowing whose turn might be next,’ cried John Evelyn). Despite killing one in six Londoners – probably around 80–100,000 people, the Plague scarcely dented London’s relentless growth. Population statistics for pre-19th century London are notoriously unreliable but it is probably fair to guesstimate the population in 1600 as around 200,000. By mid-century it had doubled to around 400,000. By 1700, despite plague, fire, war with the Dutch, etc., the population had swelled to nearer 600,000 people and London was well on the way to becoming Europe’s monster city.


London in flames: ‘This view represents Ludgate as having just caught fire; behind is the Cathedral of St Paul, involved in flames, and the extremity of the scene exhibits the ancient and beautiful arched tower of St Mary le Bow surrounded by the burning ruins of the desolated city.’ From an engraving by Robert Wilkinson, 1811 © British Museum

After the more recent catastrophe of the Second World War, London’s population took longer to recover – surprisingly long: it was not until 2015 that the population of Greater London returned to the 8.6 million it had been in 1939. In the 1960s and 1970s there were still many who believed that London was in its death throes, its declining population a sure sign that vital organs were shutting down. But London in the 1960s is a reminder that resilience is not just about statistics. Demographically, London was indeed ‘dying’ in the 1960s, but that was not the only story in town during that effervescent decade. The better-known story of 1960s’ London is of a city coming alive with new optimism and energy, a very clear illustration of another historical truth about catastrophes, which is that they are invariably catalysts of change. Terrible events force people to learn lessons and contemplate doing things differently, if only to avoid a repeat of the terrible events.

Two survivors from 17th-century London (the Monument and St Magnus Church) surrounded by buildings from the 1920s, 1960s and 1990s (© Cathy Ross, photographed in 2011)

So can we speculate about London’s resilience after the great pandemic pandemonium of 2020? A while back, it used to be fashionable for historians to play the ‘What If?’ game. What if Henry VIII hadn’t fancied Anne Boleyn? What if the Black Death hadn’t happened in 1348? It’s possible to stretch this game quite far: thus, if the Black Death hadn’t happened, maybe we wouldn’t have ended up with a National Health Service in 1945.

Speculating on the ‘What if an event hadn’t happened?’ is really thinking about the long-term consequences about what actually did happen. So if we speculate on the ‘what if’ of coronavirus – what if the virus had not knocked the stuffing out of London in 2020? – we might conclude that in the long term the virus will strengthen civic resilience. As we all know, historians make appalling prophets, but I’d like to think that this traumatic and sorrow-filled episode will ultimately provoke a new reflection on what makes London London, and a new appreciation of the importance migration plays in our city’s resilience.


Dr Cathy Ross is a long-term friend, and distinguished friend, of the Migration Museum. She has worked in museums most of her career, most recently as Honorary Research Fellow at the Museum of London, and was responsible for curating our Germans in Britain exhibition, which toured the country non-stop from 2014 to 2016.

Porcelain roses

These days of lockdown have apparently been an occasion for nostalgia, for raking over the past, sifting through memories, trying to work out how then came to be now.

Like Tim Smith, the photographer who posted recently about his father’s and his own memories of taking photographs in Barbados and other islands in the Caribbean, Elzbieta Piekacz – a photographer who has documented many of our events and exhibitions – has been going over her past, recalling a moment when she travelled back to Lviv, the city that her grandparents lived in, to piece together memories, armed only with some photographs left to her by her grandmother.

The city of Lviv, the focus of this piece (and the focus of East West Street, a wonderful book by Philippe Sands), changed hands eight times between 1914 and 1944 and, in 1991, became part of the newly independent Ukraine. Lviv was for centuries one of the largest cities of Poland, and renowned as a cultural and academic centre. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, it was a multi-ethnic city  in which Jews, Ukrainians, Armenians, Germans, Czechs, Russians and others coexisted with the numerically dominant Polish community.

At the start of the Second World War Lviv was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin infamously divided Poland between them. Two years later it fell again to the Germans, when the Nazis invaded the USSR – retreating Soviet forces killed most of the prison population, and the Nazis (aided by Ukrainian nationalists) murdered almost all of Lviv’s 100,000 Jewish citizens.

We have touched on the carve-up of Poland before and after the Second World War in an earlier blog post, and that division underlies much of Elzbieta’s blog here.


© Elzbieta Piekacz

I was raised ‘longing for a lost paradise’, for a time that is gone.

‘There is nothing like Lviv!’ Grandfather used to sing, playing the accordion – and Grandmother whispered poems about Lviv to me before I fell asleep.

Grandmother’s name was Anastasia. She said that her documents had been burned after the war, so she changed her name to Zofia. Because she was older than her husband, she also took nine years off her age.

He had been obsessed with her. She had tried to ignore him, until she saw him standing outside her house one day in heavy rain.

‘Józiu, why are you standing here, getting wet?’ she asked.

‘I am standing here and I will keep on standing here,’ he replied.

I used to ask her, ‘Grandma, how many “summers” do you have?’ and always received the same answer: ‘As many as I have winters.’ When I close my eyes, I see her rolling the dumpling dough in the kitchen, her crystal beads bouncing in pearl-like laughter, and pale pink roses, like porcelain, looking in from the wide open window. The garden was the only place that my grandparents really ‘tamed’.

© Elzbieta Piekacz

The Red Army of the Soviet Union retook Lviv in 1944 and, following the Yalta Conference in 1945, the city became part of the Soviet Union. Zofia and Józef were among the 140,000 Poles to be resettled in territories ‘recovered’ from Germany further west of Lviv. It is estimated that Lviv lost between 80% and 90% of its pre-war population in this process.

‘Take away all the furniture from here; I will not live on someone else’s misfortune,’ said Grandfather when he was assigned a German house in Silesia. And for once Grandmother couldn’t persuade him to change his mind: they would have nothing to sleep on that night. Whenever she bought anything, she always heard the same refrain from him: ‘How will you take this to Lviv?’

Grandfather spent his whole life waiting for his Lviv to be Polish again. He returned to the city only once, just before his death in his 53th year, never fully recovered from the labour-camp in Siberia.

Grandma died 20 years later. There were no addresses for the family members who had decided to stay in Lviv, only a few photographs.

I took these with me.

© Elzbieta Piekacz

My first day in Lviv

‘My grandfather was born in Hołosko,’ I confided in Russian to my Ukrainian co-passenger as we crossed the border in the ‘marszrutka’, the local minibus.

‘You can speak Polish,’ he said with a polite smile, flashing his golden teeth. ‘I will understand everything.’

‘He was born in Hołosko,’ I repeated.

‘Where?!’ He grimaced. ‘That’s bandit territory!’

The first days in new places always hold something special for me, maybe because I move in them more intuitively; everything is like a dance – it just happens. My first memory of Lviv is rain, blissful, cleansing. By the thick walls of the presbytery of the Latin (also called Polish) cathedral, I recall a funeral mass for Władysław Jagiełło, the Grand Duke of Lithuania and the King of Poland, which was celebrated here in 1434. The year 1656 went down in history as the year of Jan Kazimierz’s pledge, when he confessed in front of the image of Our Lady of Grace in this cathedral: ‘I choose you as my patron and queen of my countries today.’

The elderly wife of the verger is peeling carrots at the kitchen table. From behind the half-open door of the room come the words of a Polish TV soap opera. The verger is telephoning people who might know my family. I absorb the atmosphere of impatient care, filled with love, that emanates from their flat nestled in the cathedral. I bombard his wife with conversation, as she cooks. ‘What is this “Polonia”?’ she questions. (I’ve just used the term, which is a way of referring to the Polish diaspora.) I can sense her agitation. ‘There is no Polonia here,’ she says. ‘Here is Poland.’

© Elzbieta Piekacz

The first walk around Lviv surprises me with the renovated facades of tenement houses, renovated only from the front, hurriedly using Unesco money for the celebration of the city’s 750th anniversary. Inside, the houses are steeped in history, layer upon layer of time, dark as in Bruno Schulz’s¹ novels, lichen-like. My two visits to the Red Cross and the Union of Poles in Lviv end in a helpless spread of arms – the faces in my photographs say nothing to those I show them to.

On the way to Hołosko, as dusk falls, I find myself in the shoemaker’s shop, where I ask for directions. The shoemaker dips the women’s heel in glue, slowly, so as not to move while I am trying to capture the moment.

© Elzbieta Piekacz

False hope on the telephone

‘Good morning. I come from Poland; I am the granddaughter of Józef and Zofia … ’ I repeat into the handset, then – on hearing the next ‘I don’t remember … ’, ‘He/she is dead … ’, ‘Please call later … ’ – cross out the next person on the long list with the same surname in the telephone book.

And then, at last, I hear ‘Come; this is my address.’

At the market I buy my grandma’s favourite peonies and get on the tram. I travel for a long time, the old monolithic pre-war buildings of Lviv suddenly giving way to brutalist blocks of flats, sneering at me with a jagged, mocking smile. The street becomes wide, tailored to the dimensions of tanks, not people. I get out and start looking for the address.

A puppy leads me to the door of the apartment. My flowers are already wilted when an elderly woman I had previously talked to on the phone says that it wasn’t Józio but Józia, that it’s a mistake and she is sorry … I feel stupid there in the hallway with laces and emotions undone … Fortunately, the dog eases the situation, enjoying the meeting without requiring any joint connections.

Later, sitting at the bus stop, I think that it makes no sense, that it’s a waste of time looking for the past, that I will end up missing the here and now, that I should finally focus on living ‘my Lviv’.

Lisienka Street

My past began to find me when I stopped looking; that, or my work began to bear fruit.

‘Kurkowa – that will be Lisienki Street now ,’ said the old man basking in the sun, to whom I was explaining where my grandparents lived. ‘They changed the street names in Lviv four times,’ he told me.

© Elzbieta Piekacz

I walked there slowly, feeling that I was crossing a different dimension, afraid that the tenements would suddenly break again into blocks. But nothing like that happened. The cobblestoned Lisienki Street descended gently from the hill, lit by afternoon light, all the way to number 3 itself. My legs teetered under me as I stepped over the threshold, remembering that that day (1 August) was the anniversary of the controversial 1944 Warsaw Uprising². ‘Choose the lesser evil,’ I said to myself, thinking about the choice my grandfather had to make when crossing this threshold back then. ‘Poland will not be here anymore,’ his brother had said to him the day before he left. ‘Tomorrow the last transport to Poland leaves in the morning – you have to decide.’

I couldn’t see the door of apartment number 2 and asked a young woman passing by about it. ‘The former owner has died; a company owns it now,’ she said. ‘I don’t know anyone, I only moved here recently, but here is the caretaker, who has been here since the very beginning, since 1945.’ The caretaker had the key to the door. In the cool office space, I recognised only the enfilade doors (doors that open between interconnected rooms, allowing the rooms to be viewed as a continuous whole) that my grandmother used to talk about – I didn’t see any objects that could have belonged to my family. Suddenly I cried, and this Ukrainian woman hugged me wordlessly. I felt she understood me. Maybe she too had not come here of her own free will; maybe like a desert plant without roots she too had been blown here by the cold winds of history.

Saint Antoni . . . let my loss be found

My past began to find me . . .

I heard the splash and saw a piece of watermelon shatter on the pavement. There was a shred of plastic bag in my hand. ‘Please take one more,’ the seller offered but I bristled at the idea of another plastic bag. ‘Fucking environmentalism,’ I thought, picking the remains of the juicy watermelon, which I had hoped to quench my thirst with, up from the pavement. ‘And why? Why am I picking it up?’ – I was furious at myself as I looked around for a basket. ‘Why can’t I just leave?’

And then my eyes stopped at the church of St Antoni and I remembered the words of a prayer to St Antoni, the patron of lost things, which my grandmother had taught me as a child:

Saint Anthony, King of Heaven

Let Your will be done

Let my loss be found.

© Elzbieta Piekacz

I went inside. The mass was just being celebrated, in Polish. On the marble slab I discovered carved verses of a poem by Zbigniew Herbert³, the Polish poet who was born in Lviv:

Ocean of volatile memory

washes, crushes paintings

In the end there will be stone

where I was born.

Every night I am standing barefoot

in front of the slammed gate

of my city.

In the sacristy, I heard that the church resumed its activity only 25 years ago and that all previous documents and parish records either had been destroyed in the Communist period or were now in Kiev or Krakow. ‘Well, all I can do now is pray to Saint Anthony,’ I said.


My past began . . .

© Elzbieta Piekacz

In Lviv I became fascinated by the old shoe repair shops, after the first one I had come across on my first day on my way to Hołosko. The next one I visited, unchanged for years, in the very centre of an increasingly more modern city, delighted me with its icons of layered holy images, and with the three women customers who came and went, with the same sense of suspended expectancy as in Anton Checkhov’s Three Sisters.

© Elzbieta Piekacz

Another shoemaker, a one-eyed old man in the spa-town of Truskawiec, 30 km away from Lviv – my grandmother’s birthplace – turned out to be all-knowing.

Little was left of the spa. The sweet-sounding Truskawiec (Strawberry City) turned out to be a desert of concrete blocks, and I had decided to see the spa and return to Lviv as soon as possible – but then I noticed the shoemaker’s shop. Old, with yellow, flaking walls and a one-eyed shoemaker inside. I felt him look at me expectantly and, as I sought to break the silence, the thought occurred to me to ask about my family.

‘What was Grandma’s maiden name?’ the shoemaker asked. I told him.

‘A Polish woman?’ he laughed. ‘That’s a Ukrainian surname.’

He put on his glasses, looked at my old sepia photograph and said ‘Well … This is Ola, this is Taras, and this is their daughter Natalia. They are my neighbours,’ he added, seeing my astonishment. A customer listening to our conversation said: ‘And I’m going there now. I can drop you off.’

A moment later, in the rattled Żiguli, similar to the black car that brings the NKVD agents who will kill the hero of Nikita Mikhalkov’s film Burnt by the Sun4, we drove to the address given, leaving the brutalist blocks of flats behind me. The man dropped me off in front of a small, crumbling cottage. Peonies bloomed in the garden; the German shepherd dog barked. A 60-year-old woman came to the gate. I didn’t need to look at the photograph: I could recognise the same person, older now by 40 years. ‘I have come from Poland … ’ I started. She looked at me for a moment, searching in her memory, until suddenly her face brightened, and in a cry of joy she shouted out the name of my mother, whom I look like:


© Elzbieta Piekacz

Suchoje wine – for special occasions

‘Taras, wake up!’

A tall man with a black moustache was taking an afternoon nap on the bed. Ola winked at me knowingly.

‘This lady would like to rent a room from us for a summer holiday.’

The man, angry at being woken, blurted out, ‘Are you crazy? What summer holiday?!’

Ola was not to be discouraged. ‘But look at this lady – does she not remind you of someone?’

The man turned an angry look at me, then said a name.

‘No!’ exclaimed Ola.

Another name. ‘No.’ Another one.

‘Way off. Try again,’ she prompted.

Suddenly the man’s harsh eyes flashed and for the second time that day I heard:


Later we sit on the terrace and drink Suchoje wine, kept for special occasions.

‘I fell in love with your mother’, he confesses to me. ‘Your mother came here when she was 16.’ He lowers his voice because Ola is coming back from the kitchen with hot dumplings.

© Elzbieta Piekacz

In the evening we go to see Truskawiec’s spa, where their daughter Natalia works.

‘Everything was better then,’ sighs Ola, as we pass the stage, covered by grass, on which the orchestra once played. ‘They were like gods to us. We stood down here, while they appeared up there, on stage – so unreal, beautiful. Now it’s all rubbish.’

Rubbish and fruit trees, branches of apple trees broken from the weight of overripe fruits.

‘Once, there were houses here but they destroyed them and built blocks,’ she says. ‘I too would like to live in a flat in one of those blocks.’


She is surprised at my question. ‘Do you know what winter is like here and you have to expose your bum to the wind in the outside toilet?’ She is laughing. ‘But nobody’s going to spend any money on an old wooden house like this, and we aren’t either. Natalia won’t come back here – she has a flat in the block. But for us, whatever it is, it’s enough for us.’

‘Come, eat,’ Taras invites. We listen to the news from the Polish station they always listen to. In the pauses in our conversation, I hear a familiar voice giving the shipping forecast for fishermen somewhere at sea.

‘And Natalia?’ I ask, because they don’t speak much about their daughter.

‘Natalia thinks differently,’ Taras says, gently stroking the dog. ‘She has her own mind – but I have already got wise and I know that everyone has their own mind.’

I fall asleep that night, cuddled by the sun-warmed wooden wall and going over the words that Ola said to me earlier in the evening.

I had told her that my grandmother had started to speak Ukrainian before she died. Ola’s reply was like a gift, the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle I had been struggling to complete:

‘Your grandmother was Ukrainian. She hid it all her life from your Polish grandfather because she loved him, because she had to leave Lviv, because those were the times. The first time she came back to Ukraine, her sister said reproachfully to her, ”Did you forget your family language?” Your grandmother took her to one side and replied, weeping, with the words of a Ukrainian poem: “There must be a stone instead of a heart for those who forget their family language … ”


¹ Bruno Schulz (1892–1942) was a Polish Jewish writer, whose novels combined modernism, surrealism and magic realism. Schulz was born in a town near Lviv – Drohobych – and was shot and killed by a Gestapo officer in 1942 while walking back home towards the Drohobycz ghetto with a loaf of bread.

² The Warsaw Uprising took place in 1944, with the German army in retreat from the Soviet Union’s Red Army. It was an attempt to liberate the Polish capital before the entry of the Red Army, in the hope that this would strengthen the international position of the Polish government in exile and prevent Poland being subsumed within the Soviet Unioin’s bloc of power.

Poorly armed insurgent troops fought on their own against the overwhelming German forces, with the Red Army choosing not to intervene. The battle lasted from 1 August 1944 to 3 October 1944, when the Polish troops surrendered. During the two-month fight, about 16 thousand Polish troops were killed or missing, 20,000 were injured and 15,000 taken prisoner. As a result of the airstrikes, shelling, desperate living conditions and massacres organised by German troops, between 150,000 and 200,000 citizens died. The fighting and systematic demolition of the city by the Germans led to the destruction of most of the left-bank buildings of Warsaw, including hundreds of priceless monuments and objects of high cultural and spiritual value.

The Warsaw Uprising is considered one of the most important events in the recent history of Poland, and one of the most controversial – there is a heated debate still about whether it was legitimate to start an action that would lead to such tragic consequences.

³ Zbigniew Herbert (29 October 1924–28 July 1998) was a Polish poet, essayist, drama writer and moralist. Herbert was a member of the Polish resistance movement, Home Army (AK), in the Second World War, and the loss of his beloved hometown (Lviv), and the subsequent feeling of being uprooted, were important motifs in his later works. He was a candidate for the 1968 Nobel Prize in Literature and was awarded, among other prizes, the PEN/Bruno Schulz Prize  in 1988.

4 A 1994 film set at the time of Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930s, centring on the betrayal of a war hero and Bolshevik by an ex-nobleman jealous of the hero’s achievements and in love with his wife.

The weaving together of photographs

In this second guest lockdown blog, Tim Smith, a photographer who has written two previous blogs for us and has been ‘with’ us since the start of the Migration Museum Project, sifts through old photos he and his father took of the Caribbean and asks how photographic memories control the narratives we spin of our presents.

We live in uncertain times. During the early days of lockdown I spent a lot of time scrolling through news feeds, trying to figure out what was happening and anticipate (or guess) what would happen next. Now, with lockdown easing, even those of us living comfortable lives in the UK, with futures that previously seemed reassuringly mapped out, remain unsure of where we are headed.

Faced with a present and a future full of doubt, the temptation is to look back. Over the last few months, as the pace of life has slowed, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect upon the past. My profession, working as a freelance photographer who makes pictures of people, is completely at odds with lockdown. As my work has dropped off a cliff, I’ve had the space to look at some of the photographs I’ve taken over the past 40 years. Although I have the advantage of a huge archive of images to help me remember where I’ve been and what I’ve seen, I’m aware of how the past can seem uncertain too. For all sorts of reasons.

The vast majority of my pictures were taken on assignments, either self-imposed or for clients; but I also have my fair share of family photos. All are evidence of certain events happening in front of my camera, but they are not a full and simple story. Looking at them reminds me that the construction of our histories and identities – be they personal, national or international – is often based on a process of selective myth building, with images playing a vital role in what we choose to remember, and how.

The family album plays a large part in writing a family history, but reveals only part of it. We decide which events to photograph. The act of making pictures involves choosing where to stand and when to press the shutter, and thus we make decisions about what is included in the frame and, perhaps more importantly, what is not. Then we edit them (hopefully!) and decide where, how and by whom they will be viewed. Like most, my album is full of pictures of family holidays, playing out and moments of celebration. They are just snapshots of a much larger story, chosen and motivated by a desire to mark the good times.

My family and I playing with bubbles in our back garden in Bradford, 2001. ©Tim Smith

Was life really like that? Not all the time. Like much of what survives from the past these collections of images need to be put in context, fleshed out via careful consideration of the stories that they are designed to tell and those that are missing. I find echoes of this in the current debate around public statues. Historical figures displayed in prominent places do not teach us a full and indisputable history (nor is history erased by their removal to other spaces). They are what the sculptor Anish Kapoor aptly describes as ‘emblematic monuments to our past which can be thought to represent how we see ourselves and our history’. In many ways, family albums do a similar job. They act as motifs of identity and of what we hold dear, but within enclosed and personal spaces, telling stories about particular groups of people to self-selecting audiences. Statues differ in that they are designed to be seen by all. Put upon pedestals, they seek to impose a public narrative upon us all, so it’s hugely important to ask: What version of reality do they represent, to whom does this belong, and what and where are other stories that should be part of this history?

The statue of Lord Horatio Nelson that stands opposite the Parliament Buildings in Bridgetown, Barbados. It was erected in 1813 in Trafalgar Square, a name that remained until 1999, when it was changed to National Heroes Square, in honour of the ten national heroes of Barbados. Photo taken 2010. ©Tim Smith

Using photographs as catalysts for uncovering hidden stories is a device that I’ve employed throughout my career, and one I recently used for a scheme designed by Bradford Council to provide cultural activities encouraging people to interact with each other and create a sense of community during the lockdown. Now that physical gatherings to mark Windrush Day were cancelled, I worked with members of Bradford’s Caribbean communities to use photographs taken by myself and my father for a series of on-line Caribbean Conversations hosted via Zoom. My father’s photos were taken during the 1950s and ’60s when he travelled the Caribbean from our home in Barbados; my own have been taken since 2010, when I’ve made several trips back to photograph those islands which have close links with communities in Britain.

A view of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in St George’s, the capital of Grenada, taken in the 1960s by Derek Smith. ©Tim Smith

As I wrote in a previous blog, ‘Island to Island’, sharing these photographs sparks all sorts of memories and reflections about life both ‘over here’ and ‘over there’. Many themes are easily anticipated, such as conversations about the role of the church, the pros and cons of close-knit communities, or the merits of different kinds of fish, mangoes or rum. Others are quite unexpected. There was a long and often hilarious discussion about the hierarchies of accents, languages and how parents would expect their children to speak ‘The Queen’s English’ as opposed to the patois they used among themselves. Some people missed the sound of the sea, sweeping the yard or petrichor, the scent that fills the air after warm, heavy rain falls on hot earth.

A mural of polite phrases at the Pierre Charles Secondary School in Grand Bay, Dominica, 2010. ©Tim Smith

Some, however, didn’t miss the climate at all. Muriel Drayton left Barbados as a twenty-year-old when she and her sister, like many other young women she knew, were recruited by a nursing agency. In 1956 she came to Burley in Wharfedale, a village that’s part of the Bradford District, after a nineteen-day journey from Bridgetown to London’s Victoria Station.

When I arrived, it was so dark. I was worried England was dark like this all the time, but it was the fog! You could scarcely see. But I do prefer the cold weather to the heat, which I can’t stand very much. The Nursing Council was there to meet us nurses, and I was sent by train all the way from London to Burley, Scalebor Park Hospital. They met me there with my suitcase and when I got to the nursing home, it was all Barbadian ladies! All Barbadian nurses. The girls there were the Bovell sisters, three Warner sisters, and my sister and I. On the men’s side, it was Jamaicans and a Barbadian. We had a good life there.

Sailing ships moored in the Careenage, the main harbour in Bridgetown, in 1956, the year Muriel Drayton left Barbados.Photograph taken by Derek Smith ©Tim Smith

As with meeting old friends, the past can offer reassurance but it is often a complicated place which raises many questions. What evidence we use to attempt to understand it, including photographs or public statues, needs careful consideration and interpretation. History needs to be inclusive. I find photography can help us make it so. One of its strengths is to help facilitate the weaving together of historical narratives with personal stories. When this is done well, it can help people relate themselves to others whilst promoting the discovery of a shared sense of the history and shape of our diverse society, and how or where we all fit into it. Without that understanding, I’m not sure we have much idea of who we are, never mind where we’re going.

A parade makes its way around the Savannah racecourse near Bridgetown, part of the celebrations marking Barbadian Independence Day on the 30th November 1966. Photo by Derek Smith ©Tim Smith

A group of American-style majorettes stride past a group of Brownies at the Holetown Festival in Barbados, 2010. ©Tim Smith

A guitar lesson in a backyard in St John’s, the capital of Antigua, 2011. ©Tim Smith


Tim Smith is a photographer, based in Bradford, who has contributed photos and blogs to the Migration Museum Project since 2011. His website carries many of his photos. The Caribbean Conversations project was supported with a Response grant from Bradford Metropolitan District Council.

The Migration Museum’s 2020 lecture, delivered by Baroness Warsi

All images © Ana-Maria Militaru

It’s safe to say that the Migration Museum lectures don’t disappoint: all have been thought-provoking and inspiring in equal measure, from Michael Rosen’s lecture on ‘The Languages of Migration’ in 2014 to David Olusoga’s ‘The Perils of our Insular Illusion’ in 2018.

But the lecture that Baroness Sayeeda Warsi gave on Tuesday 21 January at King’s College London was a bit special – particularly because it was introduced and chaired by her friend, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, who has spoken eloquently about their cross-bench friendship previously, referring to Sayeeda Warsi as her ‘naughty little sister’. From her introduction to the lecture to the interview that followed it, there was a political friendship on display that was affectionate but challenging, exploring differences, questioning positions – in essence, a representation of what Baroness Warsi was saying that the UK itself needed right now.

Sayeeda Warsi’s lecture explored the rise of Islamophobia and described the challenge of navigating complex currents of religion, identity and allegiance as a British Muslim and a high-profile politician in her talk. But, because, for her, migration was all about stories, ‘stories that make up who we are as Britain’, there were also stories, mostly about her family, who, as she said, had been British for 150 years – both her grandfather and her great-grandfather having fought ‘for’ Britain in the two world wars of the 20th century.

In a wide-ranging and thought-provoking lecture, based in part on her best-selling book, The Enemy Within, Baroness Warsi started by posing four provocative questions for the audience:

  • Whose country is Britain?
  • Which migrants are/were acceptable, and which are not?
  • Who has the right to belong?
  • Why are the children of migrants always told to be grateful?

As part of her response to these questions, she recounted her mother’s keenness to buy a house in Pakistan, ‘for when they kick us out of here’ – a position that Baroness Warsi at the time thought was absurd. After all, who was this ‘they’? And who were ‘we’? And wasn’t the situation in Britain getting better by the year, and Enoch Powell becoming increasingly a distant memory of a bygone age?

Over the last few years, however, Baroness Warsi had come to understand her mother’s position more and more. In the course of the 2016 referendum – for which, as she explained in the talk, she had been an early supporter of the Leave campaign before stepping down, worried at what she called its xenophobia – immigration, never far from the number one spot in most papers’ headlines, took up a fixed position there for the next year or two. And, of course, what many voters meant by immigration was essentially (if erroneously) Muslim immigration.

In an atmosphere of anxiety and apprehension at the drift in public discourse towards intolerance and incivility, Baroness Warsi remained cautiously optimistic. Migration was about stories, she said, and the more people heard these stories, the less able they were to demonise the migrants involved; similarly, nothing was likely to defeat Islamophobia and racism more than the simple matter of people living alongside each other and forming relationships (there was silent applause from all Migration Museum members at this point!). And Britain itself was a work in progress, as it always has been. People who think its identity is static, fixed and determined are just not facing up to historical reality – the country and its identity have been constantly evolving, and always will. Look, for example, she said, at the difference between Margaret Thatcher’s promotion of the infamous Section 28 (which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, or the promotion of ‘the acceptability of homosexuality’, in schools) and David Cameron’s government in 2010, which legalised same-sex marriages.

Things had to change, of course. Baroness Warsi suggested that Muslim communities needed to be more active in their exposition of Islam and not wait for an incident such as a terrorist attack before denouncing such behaviour as contradictory to their religion. And Britain as a whole needed to recognise that ‘diversity’ was not people of different skin tones holding exactly the same opinions as their ‘white’ colleagues – real diversity was an acceptance of difference, a challenging of different positions, and a movement onwards, propelled by those differences. The affectionate and respectful way in which Baroness Warsi and Baroness Chakrabarti challenged each other’s positions was itself an expression of the diversity Baroness Warsi was calling for.

The lecture was also a celebration of a new partnership between King’s College London’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute and the Migration Museum, and Professor Anna Reading and Dr Leonie Ansems de Vries gave short talks about the academic research being undertaken into migrant studies.

The 300 or so attendees traipsed out into the grey, gloomy Tuesday evening afterwards with a little nugget of hope.

Baroness Warsi’s Migration Museum lecture, ‘The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain’ will be available as a downloadable audio-file shortly. Other Migration Museum lectures are available to listen to/watch and download from our website.