Peterborough’s main square

Stories from a Migrant City (Manchester University Press) by Ben Rogaly

If you come from London, or Manchester, or Glasgow, or Brighton, or Belfast, you’re used to reading books about where you grew up. But I was born in Peterborough and grew up in a Fenland town about ten miles away. It’s rare that I find anyone else who has ever even visited where I’m from.

So imagine my surprise on discovering Stories from a Migrant City. Ben Rogaly has written an entire book about Peterborough, taking the city seriously as a place where people live and which draws its residents from across the globe. Peterborough, as Rogaly demonstrates, can tell us a lot about British identity, about contemporary politics, and about how people really live in the places they inhabit.

The book is based on interviews with over a hundred Peterborians: English, Italian, Lithuanian, Traveller, Ugandan Asian, Polish, Irish and a whole tapestry of other heritages. Blending oral history and sociology, it also explores Rogaly’s own subjectivity – the friendships he formed through his research and the affection he clearly feels for the city and its inhabitants. The book showcases people whose voices are not usually heard or considered important; their testimonies are handled with care and are woven throughout the text.

Stories from a Migrant City comprises four main chapters. The first explores the memories of three Asian men, who all came to Peterborough during their childhoods and have grown up living and working in the area. The second examines “racial capitalism” in the workplace, particularly focusing on conditions in the warehouses on the outskirts of the city that employ much of the migrant labour alongside working-class British citizens. The third chapter focuses on community groups and initiatives to look at how racialised outsiders participate in urban citizenship.

Finally, Rogaly explores vernacular creativity and cultural production, focusing on four books recently produced by Peterborough citizens about their personal, regional and historical identity. These four case study chapters are supported by a preface that sets out the conceptual framework for the book and a conclusion that thinks about “common anger” in the context of the recent, Brexit-inflected immigration debate.

It’s hard to keep Brexit out of your head when reading this book. Peterborough voted Leave by a much bigger majority than the national average, and as a city on the edge of the Fens – the area of the country with some of the most vehement Leave voters – it received a lot of attention in the national press after the referendum. But the story is complicated, not least by the election in 2017 of Fiona Onasanya, a black female Labour MP (after a recall petition, she was replaced with another Labour MP, Lisa Forbes, who held her seat for six months before being replaced by a Conservative in the December 2019 election). Peterborough resists easy classification, whatever journalists from London searching for vox pops might think.

Rogaly is not from Peterborough, and spent eight years researching the book by immersing himself in the community. His research started before the referendum, but questions about identity, inclusivity, nationhood and nationalism permeate the book, and some topics clearly prefigure, as well as reflect, the Brexit moment. For example, as Rogaly argues, the campaign by white British residents to shut down the organisation New Link, which had provided welcome and orientation to newly arrived asylum-seekers and eastern European immigrants, was a clear precursor of the Brexiteer desire to “take back control” that imagined Britishness as a fixed and exclusionary identity.

But Rogaly’s real contribution here, the thing that makes the book sing, is his work to point out painstakingly and carefully that non-elite cosmopolitanism exists – has always existed – in Peterborough, and must be understood as just as central to the identity of the city as stories of racism and exclusion. When Theresa May talked disparagingly about “citizens of nowhere”, she probably imagined people in places like Peterborough nodding along. Rogaly shows how complicated the reality really is.

This book is for anyone interested in British identity. You don’t need to have spent your Saturdays as a teenager hanging around the Queensgate shopping centre to find it informative and compelling. But Rogaly also resists using the city merely as a way to explain something bigger, as a stand-in for other provincial places.

In Stories From a Migrant City, Peterborough exists, in and of itself, as a distinct place. We need more books that do the same for other cities and towns in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world.

This article is from the New Humanist winter 2020 edition. Subscribe today.