'In my head I don’t have an accent, only a voice'

Posted by pt91 at Aug 18, 2014 10:55 AM |
A migrant’s tale at the opening of 100 Stories of Migration exhibition


Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Mark Peel, Head of the College of Arts, Humanities and Law, made a powerful speech at the formal opening of the 100 Stories of Migration exhibition in the School of Museum Studies.


Here is his story…


I am particularly pleased to open this event, because this exhibition, and the questions, insights and ethic that inform it, are of great interest to me. You can probably tell from my accent that I am not from around these parts, except that in a curious way I am. Of course, in my head I don’t have an accent, only a voice. But in any event you will know that I am a migrant. I look now and have always looked through a migrant’s eyes. I am in a way doubly migrant, a migrants’ child who migrated again, back to his migrant parents’ homeland. I hope you won’t mind me sharing my story, as it will help you see why the images and stories that make up this exhibition are so powerful for me.

Arriving Down Under

My parents departed Britain independently in 1956. After several encounters in the third-class bar, they arrived together in Australia some six weeks later. My Lancashire-born mother was an infant teacher and decided to go to South Australia in the hope that the tall, sun-tanned young men that Australia House strategically sent out to foster migration from Britain’s regions were typical of what she might find at the end of her voyage; my father, tall and young but more translucent than sun-tanned, had just finished his mechanic’s apprenticeship in Yeovil and was going to join his parents and siblings, who had taken their ten pound passage three months before. He struggled to find work for a few years but in 1959 he secured a job at the Weapons Research Establishment, which brought with it the offer of a council house north of Adelaide. They moved in, with my older brother. I was born later that year at the new local hospital, where the maternity wards were quickly adapting to the demands of mass reproduction.

I grew up in a remarkable place, Elizabeth, a British-style ‘new town’ built in the mid-1950s on Adelaide’s parched northern outskirts, named after the new queen, and almost entirely migrant. Elizabeth had a car factory, and eight neighbourhood units of semi-detached council housing. Our houses were small, and spartan. But to 1950s Britons, three bedrooms, a large kitchen, a small parlour, an indoor toilet, a laundry sink to call your own, and a fenced back garden seemed pretty good, even if people twenty miles down the road in Adelaide were already calling Elizabeth a “slum” and a “Pommie ghetto”. Slum we weren’t, but ghetto we were becoming. There were no Australians, because however much they needed housing, people from Adelaide wouldn’t move twenty miles away from the city, past the metropolitan abattoir, the salt pans and the sewage works. Migrants—British, but also Germans and Dutch—had little choice: two years in a hostel hut or two weeks and a house in Elizabeth. By the end of the 1960s, Elizabeth was the most concentrated immigrant settlement in Australia, and more than eighty per cent of the people in our end of the town were British migrants and their children. And because the boats tended to gather together people from the same regions, the streets took on a dialect and a character. There were the rowdy Belfast streets and rowdier Glasgow ones; ours was mostly Lancashire and north London, with three German families. I met my first Australian, a teacher from Melbourne, when I was ten. Given the anglicised and ‘proper’ tones adopted on Australian radio and television until well into the 1970s, her drawling accent came as something of a shock.

Elizabeth was, at least for a time, a remarkable place, in which imaginative public provision and powerful migrant aspirations empowered each other. It was not what its planners had intended, and Elizabeth, like any outer working-class suburb, had its problem-makers and pessimists, its delinquents and malcontents. There were people who ‘went back’ to Britain, though in my memory they were generally pitied rather than envied. But on its own, plebeian, terms, Elizabeth was remarkable. It was an outcome of the kinds of policies—in housing, urban planning, income redistribution, education, employment and welfare—that gave my generation our chances. Of course, those chances came with a price. The emphasis on sacrifice, security and self-effacement made for narrow versions of manhood and womanhood. Many of us were raised to leave Elizabeth and not look back. We were raised to see our parents’ lives as something we should respect but not repeat, because only this would vindicate their decision to migrate. We were often the first generation in our families to complete secondary school. We were without exception the first generation to enter further education. And most of us left the town, never to return. For many of us, mobility and success came at the cost of disconnection, and a kind of constant re-migration.

When you are a migrants’ child, your relationship to your parents is complicated, in some part because your relationship to their homeland is complicated. Some migrant parents are nostalgic. They suffer their disconnection, and some of them can never quite mend what their migration has broken. They want their children to reforge those connections, to respect and even venerate what has gone before. For others, the homeland is what has been left behind. It is the adversity that has been overcome; it is the bleak future avoided by the clever, the independent, the talented and the brave. For my parents, and especially my father, Britain was and must forever remain characterised by the slights, insults and petty brutalities of a wartime and post-war working-class childhood. It was and must forever remain the class-structured future of denial and lack of opportunity, a future from which he saved himself and especially his sons. For migrant men, in particular, the success of children is the vindication of their decision and their decisiveness. My parents returned to Britain once, in 1984, twenty-eight years after they left. Those were hard years, I know, and this was not Britain at its best. But it would not have mattered much, so determined were they to confirm their impression of a declining and still savagely unequal country.

A return to Britain

This also perhaps explains why it took me so long to set foot here. I lived in the United States for three years during the 1980s, and travelled to other places, but I first came to Britain only in 2002, nearly fifty years after my parents left it. But having come, I kept coming back. By then, too, I was with my partner, Scott, also the son of two British migrants to Australia. We migrants’ children often find ourselves together, perhaps because we understand each other’s dilemmas. We came to Britain together for a month in 2008, in part so I could work in the National Archives and he could explore the London his parents left in the 1960s, and in part so we could form a civil partnership, something unavailable then and still unavailable now in Australia.

We returned to Melbourne in January 2009, just in time for the apocalyptic fires that surrounded the city the next month; in the raw, hot badness of that summer we each edged closer to telling the other of our harboured desire to live in Europe. Once we shared our aspirations, we decided to do it. For me, it was partly about coming to live in a country that had always been incredibly distant yet surroundingly close. We both had British fathers, and that meant British passports, so the mechanics were straightforward enough. At first, we thought we would come for a year or two, but we decided to not give ourselves the wrong reasons to return. We sold our house, and we packed and brought everything, including the cat. Most of the stuff went on a ship, which we watched rather anxiously via the on-line vessel tracker as it made its way past possible Indian Ocean pirates. The cat—Orlando—came on a plane, a week after we did. He was sixteen years old, so elderly for a migrant. He spent six days being hydrated and fed and petted by our former vet, twenty-four hours on the Melbourne-Singapore-London flight, and four hours being driven to Liverpool, through a blizzard, by a remarkably kind man from the pet transport company. Upon his arrival, he walked out of his crate and gave us the kind of withering look only a cat can give you. He found his voice, and I’m pretty sure it was cat for “whatever the [expletive] that was don’t ever [expletive] do it again”. Having patrolled his boundaries, he enjoyed a quick snack and anointed his new litter tray. He then chanced upon his first ever steam radiator, a machine of which he immediately approved. One of these machines lay under a window seat. We had brought him a new and very luxurious cat bed, which we placed on the window seat above the radiator, and in which he promptly went to sleep for two days. There are all kinds of migrations.

So I hope you will see why I find very interesting how migrants, migration and migrantness are understood, represented, depicted and debated. And you will see why I find the idea of this exhibition so fascinating and so valuable, and why I am particularly enthusiastic in my praise of those who have made it happen.

Engaging audiences in debates around migration

This is a project that grew out of discussions between the Migration Museum Project and our Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, discussions about the possibilities of working together to develop exciting new approaches to engaging audiences in debates around migration. It quickly grew into an ambitious student-staff partnership led by the PhD students in Museum Studies, working with and supported by staff across the university and in the Migration Museum Project. It’s yet another example, I think, of the way in which our Museum Studies staff work with their colleagues in museum practice, and work with students, and the ways in which they think deeply and imaginatively about how to engage with our various publics. I am grateful to my colleagues in Museum Studies—and in this case, particularly to Professor Richard Sandell—for their leadership in this vital task. They set us all a standard.

The aim has been to develop a provocative and engaging exhibition, and to add a number of innovative features; the work includes an offsite exhibition that was at Radio Leicester last week and opened today at Leicester Station; filmed interviews with individuals offering fresh insights on the exhibition theme; digital kiosks throughout the exhibition; a film curated by students using archival footage and showing tonight in the stairwell; a vibrant website and the first ever use of an augmented reality app—Blippar—in a museum exhibition. I think you will agree that they have more than fulfilled their ambitions. In doing so, they will have touched and moved all of us; they have certainly touched and moved me.

Professor Mark Peel


Head of the College of Arts, Humanities and Law


Pro-Vice Chancellor (Access, Recruitment and Transition)


  • 100 Stories of Migration runs until 13 February 2015 and is open to the public.  The photographic exhibition and accompanying media explores and poses questions around the ways in which migration affects us all. The exhibition, housed in the School of Museum Studies on University Road, near the junction with London Road, also includes a number of offsite exhibition displays including the Charles Wilson Building (until 13 February 2015).

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