This week Coventry successfully won the bid to be the city of culture in 2021. Subsequently, there have been numerous articles about Coventry in the media, reflecting both the history and lived experiences of the city. The response has also been mixed in the sense that some people have continued to dwell on the lack of culture and “beauty” in the city, and in part this is true. The more optimistic see this as an opportunity to revive the glorious past with renewed energy.
As I reflect on the city’s bid to become the city of culture, I remember an oral history project, which I did in 2005-6, Coming to Coventry. It was funded by the HLF and supported by The Herbert and documented the migration of South Asians to Coventry from the 1940-60s. We collected over fifty oral accounts of people, who migrated here and, through these testimonies and the beautiful pictures that people shared with us, we documented their journeys to Coventry in search of a better life. Many of the early migrants had intended to go back home but gradually, some of them made Coventry their home. They contributed to the growth and development of the city in the heyday of the post-war years. The 1970s were, of course, to bring about change and the consequent downturn was not kind to Coventry.
The time through the duration of the project gave me an insight into the city, which I did not fully comprehend before. It made me reflect on my own experiences of migrating to it. Coventry is a city that I came to, not out of choice but as a child accompanying my mother. At the time, I had no preconceptions of the city and my response was only that of a child, who could not quite understand the upheaval of migration and dislocation to a “foreign” land. It could have been anywhere and I suspect the response would have been the same. Nonetheless, Coventry became my home while growing up in 1980s Britain: a challenge in itself. In the backdrop were Thatcher’s Britain, the Falkland’s war, the vibrant music of the 80s, racism and the declining car industry in Coventry. Gradually the former car plants gave way for housing and retail parks. The city changed and adapted, as did I. But the years of the Thatcher administration left its mark on me, especially when I was beginning to see and understand the society around me, even though the Prime Minister would have us believe that there was no such thing as society. Studying politics, sociology and art seemed to me a perfect combination in response to the excesses of Thatcherism.
The pursuit of knowledge led me to University and I had two choices, University of Warwick or the newly created Coventry University. Despite having a place at the former, due to personal circumstances, I chose the latter. I had felt out of place at a visit to the former and besides, something caught my eye on the courses offered at Coventry University, namely, the opportunity to study the history of India and Pakistan – from where I and my parents originally came from. As that has become my life’s calling, I have stayed in Coventry, despite subsequent other opportunities. There is something quite strong and resilient in the city, which has kept me here, in my adopted home of over three decades. It is, as many have pointed out not the most attractive city and lacks many amenities, yet, there is a subaltern robustness and romance to Coventry. The city, for all its drawbacks, is standing, attempting to reinvent and reimagine itself. For me, it provides my base, which is provincial, on-the-margins and of the under-dog; these feed the spirit and space to keep hoping and doing.