Dread Town

Dread Town

From 3:AM Magazine.

One night in my early teens, my father pulled into the road where we lived in the Lozells district of Birmingham. We had just returned from a family visit to a relative’s house on the other side of town. A few yards from home, we were met by a wall of police officers with helmets and shields blocking the street and told to exit our vehicle. Unknown to us – in a time before the internet, mobile phones, and 24-hour news – riots had suddenly broken out earlier in the evening and our home was near the epicentre of the disturbances. An officer escorted us to our door telling us to keep it bolted and not to venture out. As we awoke the next morning to the detritus of a night’s violence strewn along the streets, politicians and TV cameras at our doorstep, we also learned that two brothers had been killed in a blaze in the local post office. It was 1985, and the scale of the riot had eclipsed even the previous one there only four years earlier.

In her semi-autobiographical debut novel, The Handsworth Times, Sharon Duggal takes the reader back to the scene of the original riots of 1981 at a time when she too was a resident of Handsworth, of which Lozells is a sub-district. The ‘Handsworth Riots’ of 1981 were a seminal part of the first wave of so-called ‘race riots’ that rocked England’s inner-cities, from Liverpool to London, that Summer. They were to erupt again with even fuller force at the height of Thatcherism in 1985 culminating in the murder of police officer Keith Blakelock on the Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham and the deaths of the post office brothers in Birmingham.

Duggal captures the ambient world of Birmingham’s multicultural inner-city at a moment in time. The uneasy relations between local communities and authorities, the endless grey factoryscapes, the worker-management stand-offs, the casual violence, the fantasies of escape. From the industrial wastelands of Birmingham to the haunted memory of village life in Punjab, her book is, in turns, affecting and desolate. But at its heart it is a personal tragedy – hinging on the death of a child, the dysfunction of a family, and its alcoholic father, Mukesh Agarwal, tortured also by the guilt of another death, that of his brother during his childhood in India. And it is this emotive centre within the novel which enables it to transcend time and place while still reflecting the peculiarities of the immigrant experience.

In its sentimentality as well as its evocation of the predicament of the working-class immigrant in the big city, it brings to mind elements of Luchino Visconti’s classic realist melodrama, Rocco and His Brothers (1960). Visconti’s, at times mawkishly gritty, cinematic ode to the great transformations gripping Italian post-war society reflected his wider anxieties with the crumbling edifice of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ in the face of modernity. Following the fate of a newly arrived southern Italian peasant family, the Parondis, in Milan, Visconti traces the insidious moral contagion which pervades the shining metropolis as the once happy-go-lucky brother, Simone, descends to a darker world of rape, murder and violence. As the denouement unravels, the saintly brother, Rocco, played by Alain Delon, expresses the immigrant’s fading hope of ancestral return to a more virtuous bucolic realm. Speaking to his youngest brother, Luca, he recounts a timeless pastoral vision to which, he promises, the family will one day return, ‘Ours is a land of olives, of moonbeams, of rainbows.’ But there will be no return to this imagined twilight past.

While none of the Agarwal family, barring perhaps Mukesh, are ever too far from being saintly, rape, violence and cultural disconnection also play their part in The Handsworth Times. The quotidian landscape of the novel – dilapidated terraces, neglected alleyways, rubbish tips for play – is reminiscent of The Jam’s elegiac ‘Wasteland’ where the children sit dreaming amongst the ‘shit, the dirty linen, the holy Coca-Cola tins, the punctured footballs, the ragged dolls and rusting bicycles.’

But Duggal, like Weller, also sees hope in the darkest of places which is what separates theirs from Visconti’s ultimately fatalistic vision of proletarian powerlessness. Perhaps, in the end, Visconti’s sentimental view of agrarian communism could not escape the lofty vantage point of his own life as a privileged aristocrat, a far cry from Weller’s and Duggal’s where fidelity to hope and solidarity provided the only real everyday routes to self-improvement. ‘But we have to hold hands’, Weller exhorts at the end of the song. Duggal too channels this defiance via Mukesh’s wife, Usha, who organises a local group to lobby for proper amenities for the community. One of his daughters, Anila, joins a local anti-fascist group but cannot escape the ubiquity of unbridled demagoguery, in all its political guises, when the leader she so admires rapes her.

Beyond Meera Syal’s preoccupation with the apparently urgent need for the UK’s theatre elite to heed the potential for profit from what she terms the ‘brown pound’ (the disposable income of the ‘British Asian’ bourgeoisie) and Gurinder Chadha’s hackneyed, screen-friendly life journeys in films such as Bend It Like Beckham, championed by a small independent publisher, Duggal’s is a refreshing and authentic voice. British Asian life is often refracted through a distorted media prism which plays to caricatures prevalent in British society – a quaint, sanitised, harmless and ultimately powerless world of postcolonial archetypes. Eager to please or to entertain, or for their colourful attire, humour and food (though not values and history) to be accepted, they tap a deep vein of racial objectification which has been internalised and, in turn, served up for the masses. Minority art in this regurgitative mode does not serve as a means of challenging society’s inequities, but as a way of reproducing prejudices and roles defined by relations of power. Yet even a cursory glance back at Birmingham’s recent past opens a vista onto a more troubled hinterland which lies beneath the veneer of apparent affluence and indulgent self-parody.

The Handsworth riots also betrayed a deeper urban history of Birmingham. Like points on a map, they connect apparently random events to a shared psychogeography of conflict. In 1964, the Smethwick ward of Birmingham had been the site of a Conservative Party general election campaign associated with the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’. The racially charged atmosphere prompted a visit to Smethwick the following year by civil rights activist and former Nation of Islam member, Malcolm X, just days before his assassination in New York. Before the decade’s close, in 1968, Enoch Powell delivered his ‘rivers of blood’ speech to the Birmingham Conservative Political Centre. In 1976, Eric Clapton had voiced his support for Powell’s anti-immigrant stance in a racist rant during a concert at the city’s Odeon theatre which catalysed the formation of the ‘Rock Against Racism’ movement. Earlier that decade, the IRA bombed pubs in the city centre just around the corner from where Clapton would later play. And, by the end of the decade, an emboldened National Front marched freely through the centre of the city. Not long after, riots would scar Handsworth repeatedly.

Since 9/11, the city of Birmingham has again become a site of urban conflict, but in ways which reflect a kind of dystopic, implosive version of the Handsworth riots. It is the city’s Muslim communities, not its African-Caribbean or ‘Asian’ ones, who are now the main targets of community anxiety and surveillance by local authorities. Street violence resurfaced in Lozells once again in 2005, this time between African-Caribbean and Asian youths. Its fallout was later rumoured to be linked to the desecration of Muslim graves in nearby Handsworth Cemetery allegedly by an obscure clandestine group called the ‘Black Nation’ – as if to upend Malcolm X’s visit to the city four decades earlier. But the post-9/11 shift was epitomised in the more recent revelation that CCTV cameras in the Sparkbrook area of the city were being used to monitor the local population for counter-terrorism purposes. This is ironic given that, apart from a fatal stabbing during the 2005 riots, it is mainly Muslims who have been killed during post-war urban rioting in Birmingham – the two brothers burnt alive above the post office during the Handsworth riots of 1985, and the three friends who died in a hit-and-run incident in the Winson Green area of the city, which borders Handsworth, during the nationwide civil disturbances of 2011.

More significantly, the new urban conflict in Birmingham, centring on policing global terrorism and religion (albeit a heavily racialised vision of religion with the city’s Muslims being mostly of South Asian origin), is more virtual than real, concerned with tracking secret plots to kill and terrorise rather than on meetings which seek to organise public demonstrations. Perhaps this is why the use of CCTV proved not only so controversial but also redundant. In these ways, the afterlives of the Handsworth riots fold back the city’s psychogeography of conflict into a subterranean world where Birmingham has, again, become something of a laboratory for understanding the transformation of urban life. (It is no accident that ‘cultural studies’ found a home in this city in the heyday of Stuart Hall). This is now played out in protest which seeks to leave rather than take to the streets. Where solidarities are deliberately hidden rather than enthusiastically publicised. And where the aim is to destroy rather than build the very communities from which such forms of resistance arise.


Zaheer Kazmi writes about Islam-West relations, (comparative) political thought, intellectual history, International Relations focusing on radicalism and dissent (violent and non-violent; secular and religious): Islam and liberalism; counter-extremism and counter-terrorism policies; anarchism and globalisation; the (cross-) cultural politics of anti-authoritarianism, including in literature and art. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, Queen’s University Belfast.