10 things to celebrate about Swindon – No 10: Multicultural Swindon – much to be proud of

17th September 2013

Well dear readers, here we are with the last in my series of 10 things I think are worth celebrating about Swindon. As I said in No 9 it’s not by any means a definitive list, just 10 things that have made an impression on me. Any one of you out there could make a completely different and equally valid list. The point being, and as Brian so eruditely points out in his post, Swindon and Swindonians – and after 20 years here I’d like to count myself as one because Swindon is definitely home to me now – has so very, very much to be proud of. And I don’t think the ‘powers that be’ always do it the best of favours. Yes, we know it has faults but show me the town that doesn’t. I get very cross about a lot things that go on here. But picking over them wasn’t the intention of this blog – that’s easy to do, there’s other places to do it and anyway, who wants to read a blog full of rants? I just wanted to create something that minimized the negatives and emphasised the multitude of positives about this town and its people.

It’s an odd thing, life. I had fully intended to round off my list with something about Swindon’s multicultural population and the Mela – I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that Swindon is an official microcosm of the whole country because any ethnic group you care to mention can be found here. However, whilst I knew that Brian was writing me a guest post I had no idea of the subject matter. I like it that way, I enjoy the surprise. I could get all Forrest Gump here, except that you do know what’s in a box of chocolates cos there’s a ‘menu’ telling you – I always thought that was a rubbish analogy. So, to drag myself back to the point, unbeknownst to me Brian wrote his piece on that very subject, hence it earns a place as No 10 in things to celebrate about Swindon. I feel there should be some sort of trumpet fanfare at this point …. instead, and  without any further ado here’s a brief introduction to Brian Carter, the author of this lovely guest post which I hope you will enjoy as much as I have.

‘Brian Carter was born in Swindon in 1961. He was raised in Upper Stratton and has always lived in Stratton or Swindon.  He’s traced his family tree back at least eight generations and found that a large proportion of his ancestors were born in and around the town. Dozens of them (including his father and both his grandfathers) worked for the Great Western Railway and/or British Railways in Swindon.

Brian was the founder of SwindonWeb and recently set up his own company, Carter Collectables  – his website is a wonderful wallow in nostalgia.  He has an ongoing project to publish photographs and documents relating to Swindon on flickr. He also regularly comments about Swindon on Twitter.

“Swindon is an easy target for lazy comedians and miserable people who would have you believe that it’s a bland concrete jungle inhabited by soulless people – a town devoid of culture, heritage or human values. We hear such views so often that we could be forgiven if we started to believe them. But when a ‘foreigner’ from ‘up north’ creates a blog intent on extolling its virtues, we’re thankfully brought back to our senses. Born Again Swindonian doesn’t wait for the inevitable negativity and counter with a reply. Instead, it shouts its positivity and affection for Swindon from the rooftops.

In 1997 I created SwindonWeb with the same attitude. And although I passed on the baton several years ago, I’m happy and proud to report that SwindonWeb has never broken the golden rule set down at its inception: that it would always be 100% positive about Swindon.

Ironically, if Swindon has a fault, then it is that it doesn’t ‘blow its own trumpet’ often enough. For example, consider the Great Western Railway (GWR). Unless they’re blinded by their own local loyalties, most railway enthusiasts acknowledge the GWR as the jewel in the crown of Britain’s great pioneering railway heritage – the epitome of quality and style. And Swindon was, of course, the beating heart of ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’. But Swindon often seems strangely embarrassed of even that. Few other towns would be so reticent in claiming its part in such excellence. Maybe oily, smoky, noisy steam locomotives (however beautiful) just aren’t cool in these modern times. Or perhaps Swindonians are just reluctant to hark back to the past.

front cover of the autum issue of swindon heritage magazine Aside from its wonderful railway history, there are many other rich and diverse aspects to Swindon’s past – and it’s great to see that they’re now being celebrated through the hugely impressive Swindon Heritage   magazine.
  Swindon is at last beginning to show pride in its past, but is it also concentrating on promoting its present? Well, not really. There’s still a lot of work to be done before Swindon overcomes this flaw in its character. It     still needs some convincing that it really does have much to be proud of. A perfect example of something which Swindon excels at, but doesn’t give itself credit for – is its unswerving embracing of multiculturalism. It is an admirable quality, but taken for granted here. As discussed in recent editions of Swindon Heritage magazine, its positive attitude to diversity is something which Swindon has developed over the years. 

In the 1840s, Swindon was transformed from a small agricultural town to a large industrial one – at a rapid (almost brutal) pace. Several waves of influxes of workers from Wales, the Midlands, the north-east and elsewhere brought with them subtle religious and cultural variations. But Swindon quickly accepted those differences – adopting the attitude that they enriched, rather than diluted, the town’s character. The relocation of Londoners to our town after the Second World War met with no difficulties. And many Irish, Italian and Polish people happily settled here in the post-war years. More recently, Asian influences have added yet more colour to Swindon life. It seems entirely appropriate that Swindon has associations with not one but three twin towns. Our connection with Torun has reinforced the link with Poland, and there’s an unlikely but welcome connection with Ocotal in Nicaragua. 

mural on wall of sports centre

Mural in Swindon Link Centre celebrating the town’s twinning with Octotal.

Any animosity towards the German people following the Second World War was washed away by a pioneering connection with the town of Salzgitter. And I have personal reasons for being thankful that the people of our two towns have developed a strong and lasting friendship. Swindon’s multiculturalism knows no bounds. Sabine Coe (herself a French Swindonian) has recently completed a photographic project profiling 50 Swindon women. Each one originates from a different country, but they’re all happy to be considered part of the Swindon family.*

In the past and in the present, the human race has struggled with diversity. Evil-minded politicians concentrate on the differences between people in order to alienate, persecute and exploit them. Swindonians see things very differently, and if you wanted an example of how, you need look no further than the Swindon Mela. They have Melas in other places, of course. It’s part of the Asian character to celebrate its culture and heritage, and so other towns and cities with Asian communities have similar events to the one which took place in Swindon last weekend. But there’s something especially endearing about Swindon’s Mela: it has been so totally and enthusiastically embraced by the non-Asian people of Swindon.

It’s a remarkable thing, which is worth considering for a moment. Thousands of people turn up for this annual event. They have an incredibly wide-ranging mix of cultures and beliefs, and yet there isn’t the slightest hint of racial, cultural or religious tension. Far from it. The people of Swindon (from all backgrounds) attend the Mela because they’re interested and genuinely appreciative of the differences between each other. Swindonians really do celebrate diversity. And this gives Swindon Mela a wonderful, happy, peaceful atmosphere. And yet it almost didn’t happen this year. Swindon Borough Council, mystifyingly felt the need to try to prevent it taking place. There was some ironic talk that this definitive community event had become ‘too successful’. But the people of Swindon were having none of it. Public outcry forced the Council to back-track and, thankfully, the Mela was saved. Maybe that little hiccup will prove to be a good thing in the long run – surely no one will dare mess with the Swindon Mela again!

Modern Swindon has much to be proud of, but its tolerance, understanding and acceptance of other people are some of the things which it should be most proud of. Swindonians might sometimes be a ‘bit backward in coming forward’, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that, deep down, they’re really just nice people.”

*Sabine’s project is currently being featured on the Totally4Women website see:  http://www.totally4women.com/page-50/

Swindon Web has a lovely report with masses of fab photos of the 2013 Mela.