I had a great time last night at Watershed’s ‘Voices from Another Part of Town’ event!
The evening was organised to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Trinidad, Tobago and Jamaica’s Independence, and comprised of extracts from a documentary film about St. Pauls – ‘Voices from Another Part of Town’, produced for the BBC by Gavin Barrie in 1981 following the infamous St. Pauls Riots. The documentary recorded the thoughts and opinions of both young and old Caribbean residents in the area.
My Mother came over to England from Trinidad in the seventies, like many other women, to train as a nurse. I now live in St. Pauls, and it was really fascinating to see just how far the area has come since the eighties.
It was also really interesting to see how attitudes have changed, and how Caribbean culture has infiltrated Bristol’s urban culture and been adopted by the city’s young people, down to the many white youths who live in the area that have adopted a sort of amalgam of Caribbean and British accents. The arrival of Cabot Circus has also made a difference to the area in recent years, which has done a lot for the housing prices and the desirability of the area.
There were numerous complaints from the older generation in the film about the difficulty for Caribbean residents in finding work, and the assertion that putting your address down as St. Pauls on job applications was inclined to lead to immediate rejection.
This situation has no doubt improved in St. Pauls, and attitudes towards Caribbean immigrants have changed. The film made me realise just how difficult it must have been for my mother when she first came to England, being in a completely foreign country, initially without friends or family. You can see why St. Pauls is still such a predominantly Caribbean area; it’s nice to feel at home, and it’s easiest to do that if you are with people who share similar experiences and backgrounds. It was very moving to hear fathers speaking of the dream that maybe their children could one day have a job in the area, and employ some of their friends.
The documentary showed a garage in St. Pauls, run by Caribbean residents, which was, at the time, the only business of its kind in the area. It is still there, and running as such, but thankfully there are now many businesses run by, and for, the areas Caribbean residents.
The other amazing part of the documentary was the musical performances by Bunny Marrett (whose launch party for his new record ‘I’m Free’ followed the event) and the spoken word performances by some of the youth in the area.
It was the passion and frustration about their inability to find work, and the judgements passed on them by British residents following the riots that I found really interesting. The anger that drove the improvisation and beat spoke volumes, and spoken word is now something that has passed well into the Bristol underground music scene, with English youths mimicking the accent and style in performances all around the city. The purpose of the genre is still to vent frustrations and anger towards society and it is fitting that this accent and performance style has now been picked up by youth from other cultures in the UK. With recession, cuts to benefits, youth advice centres and facilities as well as high levels of unemployment, their frustrations are very similar to those experienced by Caribbean residents in St. Pauls 30 years ago.
‘Voices from Another Part of Town’ included a very interesting interview with a young man who spoke about the Caribbean community in Bristol feeling like the lowest of the low. He said he felt their only purpose was to make the working -class feel better, mentioning comments by the poorest members of British society at the time that relayed the attitude, ‘well at least we aren’t like these boys’.
Many of those interviewed also felt sure that it was society’s expectations, or lack of, that led to the anger and aggression of the Caribbean youth, and in part, to the riots. It is difficult not to draw a parallel between the situation in St. Pauls in the eighties, and the similar aggression and low expectation of the disenfranchised and often impoverished inner city youth today, (and the nations fear of ‘hoodies’ and the like) which many have implied may have led in part to last year’s riots.
The importance of race in that sentiment may have mellowed, but with unemployment so high, and so many of what were the working class now unable to find work, claiming benefits and living in the cheaper areas of Bristol with a reputation for trouble, the problem itself hasn’t disappeared. British youth are just as angry as the residents of St. Pauls were in the eighties. And with the government continually and increasingly penalising the poorest, the problem is shifting from racism to classism, and that isn’t an improvement at all.
It was great seeing so many people of Caribbean descent in the audience, as well as people of other cultures, all enjoying the film, and the great music afterwards. Bristol is a beautifully multicultural city, and everyone at the event seemed to be having a great time. There was an amazing atmosphere, and it was a wonderful experience to be able to celebrate my culture at such an event. It also reminded me just what an amazing and brave woman my mother is to have taken the leap of faith to come over here forty years ago.
Despite its problems, I am very proud to be British, I’m proud of my Caribbean heritage, and I love the lively, friendly and vibrant atmosphere of St. Pauls. It’s our parent’s determination, optimism, sense of humour and hard work that has made that possible, and had made St. Pauls, and the change in attitudes towards people of Caribbean descent what they are today.
‘Voices from Another Part of Town’ was part of ‘Radical Bristol’, Celebrating Watershed’s 30th Birthday. As ever, there are lots of interesting events on at Watershed, check it out! Visit Watershed Bristol