Southampton: City of Diversity 2025….Make It So

As many of you may know or should know, Southampton is hoping to secure the nomination for City of Culture 2025, and I sincerely hope that we are successful. I was born in London, and some would argue as to what right I have to speak about thiscity; but the reality is that I have spent more time in Southampton than any other place in my life.

When I first came to the city, I had little expectation that it would be a city that wore its diversity on its sleeve….but 40 years later I had an expectation that when people spoke about Southampton in other parts of the country and abroad, it’s profile would be more than the birthplace and home of Craig David….as good as he is! The reality is we are more than a ”Seacity” and the home of the Spitfire; we are a city that has been a haven for refugees for hundreds of years with a significant, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, and African Caribbean communities and more recently Eastern European and a variety of African communities….notwithstanding a significant Chinese community and this story should be told in the images that represent the city. When I enter the city from every direction, references and images relating to the city’s Diversity should shine like a beacon; and a beacon we should be proud of.

Let’s go back a bit…..When I came to Southampton in March 1977, my intention was to go back to London after about a couple of years… max, but in the words of John Lennon “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans”. Having worked in central government in Westminster and with the arrogance of someone who comes down from London to what us Londoners called “A small town”,  I was, on the one hand, unimpressed by a city that seemed to be disengaged from the big social issues but on the other hand impressed with the warmth that the bigger cities were struggling to retain.

From my little flat in Cranbury Avenue, I observed that the so called “Ethnic minorities” were mostly contained in the Newtown/St Mary’s area, partly as a result of the hostility of many of the other areas to make them feel safe in other parts of the city. There were no Sikh Gurdwaras, Hindu Temples, and Muslim Mosques. There were a clutch of sympathetic White faith groups and a handful of well-meaning individuals who worked hard to convince the rest of Southampton that these different looking people “came in peace”…. and some of these people later became the origins of the Southampton Race Equality Council.

It was a time when Black people struggled to get jobs as bus conductors and people like my friend Canute Fraser became personalities as they were unique in this type of job by virtue of their colour. Being the first Black person in many areas of work was not only a huge statement but a heavy responsibility; and in those days you put up with more than you really wanted to. Depressingly, it is a situation that applies in some areas today. In those days there was even a well reported campaign that challenged The Hants & Dorset Company Bus Company for their racist employment practices…..this was the same time that Hampshire Constabulary were training their police cadets in South Africa during Apartheid and the South African ambassador was a guest of Southampton City Council….strange times!!

Nonetheless, let’s return to the city’s bid to secure City of Culture 2025. Southampton has a history of Black and Brown peoples going back to the 16th century. The city also has three and sometimes four generations of peoples from India. Pakistan, Bangladesh, The Caribbean, Africa, Eastern Europe, China and many other places and we need to value that treasure trove of diversity and use that as a means of projecting the city’s identity.

I think that our bid to secure the City of Culture 2025 needs to address the question of who as a city we are, and fully embrace its relationship with diverse communities, historically, socially and culturally. The city’s 500-year relationship with diverse communities is something that needs to be unpacked, valued, and accepted as a legitimate part of Southampton’s history and not as a fanciful and exotic addition. This embrace must integrate those diverse communities in the business of telling those stories about who we are without embarrassment and this story needs to be celebrated in all the city’s platforms; and not just cosmetically. This will also include having difficult conversations about the region’s relationship with its part in the transatlantic slave trade. Finally, to make all this happen there needs to be a greater resolve to revive the deconstructed systems that challenged the disadvantages faced by the very communities whose non inclusion diminishes who we are as a city….Yes, we must certainly “Make It So”

Don John