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A new book of untold stories from people left behind by media narratives and government policy is unveiled today at Arnolfini. Editor Paul Sng and local activist Karen Passmore discuss austerity, Brexit and the hope when people resist.

Main Photo: Jon Tonks

Sitting with her dog on her lap in front of her bungalow in Southmead, Karen Passmore’s image speaks of defiance, but it’s not where she imagined she would be. With a laugh that ends with a quiet sigh, she says “I didn’t think I’d be an activist at the age of 68, I thought I’d be enjoying my retirement.”

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience shares untold stories from people who have been left out of the media narrative, and left behind by government policy. Karen is a Bristol activist is among 41 stories and portraits that make up the book.

“It’s important these voices are not just heard but celebrated and championed”

Karen set up the Bristol branch of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), campaigned against the introduction of universal credit and champions transgender rights. Although she doesn’t think the book will have much impact on devastating Tory policies, she sees it as an important historical record of austerity.

“The worst thing that could happen is for the austerity argument to be ignored. If you don’t tell stories people never know about it.”

The book tells Karen’s story; how she knew she was transgender from the age of four, but wasn’t able to talk about it in the pre-internet era, and how she found her voice as an activist after seeing the impacts of cuts to disability benefits. Since then she has spoken at rallies and all over the country, from an action to unseat the former Minister for Work and Pensions, Stephen Crabb, to demos against NHS service closures.

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Edited by Paul Sng and published by Bristol-based publisher Policy Press, the book will be discussed at a launch event tonight, 2nd of November, at the Arnolfini. Sng’s previous work includes Dispossession, a documentary about the housing crisis and Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain, which is part music documentary, part look at the state of the nation in the run up to the 2015 general election.

Diverting from documentary film, his new work features stories and portraits of people across the UK sharing stories of how the “world of austerity, de-industrialisation is affecting us all. “It’s important these voices are not just heard but celebrated and championed,” Sng tells the Cable.

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience, Policy Press, 2018

A Snapshot of Invisible Britain

Sng decided to re-visit the concept of invisible Britain when compiling the book, as it “refers to social and geographical elements of Britain that we don’t always hear from or are frequently ignored or overlooked”. Acknowledging that ‘Invisible Britain’ is a loaded term, he says: “People aren’t invisible if you know where to look. It’s not about being literally visible or invisible, it’s about who’s heard and who’s valued.”

Some of the people included in the book are Sé from North London who has lost family members after being let down by mental health services, Avi who grew up in Birmingham’s Asian community but now thinks there is too much immigration to the UK, and Jenny from Cornwall who has seen cuts to family services, the NHS and benefits affect her and her daughter, but feels that the title of single mother doesn’t define her.

Sé Oba-Smith, who is from Islington in North London, lost his cousin to suicide. Photo: Cian Oba-Smith

“There’s definitely an invisible Bristol,” says Karen. “Every time you go to the centre you see people on the shop front doors. I’m an activist so I get heard a lot, but a lot of people are going through problems.”

“I had a friend call me in tears the other day – he’s going through a third bout of illness and because he’s self-employed he hasn’t been working, before you know it they will be in rent arrears and his family will be evicted – who will hear them?” she asks.

Sng is keen to stress that Invisible BrItain does not signify a group of people. In fact, he points out that the book is interesting because it gives us a snapshot of how people’s views are “complex and sometimes even contradictory”.

Jenny Carter from West Cornwall doesn’t want to be defined just as a single mother. Photo: Amara Eno

Countering Media Narratives

A thread that runs through this book is people’s dissatisfaction with government and mainstream media. “In part that’s what Brexit was about, it was a referendum on the government, on austerity and the lack of housing,” Sng says. “However these aren’t the stories we see or hear from the media.”

He points out that while sections of the media depicted the common Brexit voter as working class, racist and ignorant, research by the geographer Danny Dorling reveals how the middle class vote pushed the vote through as 59% of leave voters were middle class.

“The overwhelming message that comes through the book is that you can’t always rely on government – whether that’s on a national or local level – to solve anything”

“There’s a tendency in the media and in the arts to tell stories about working class people for them rather than by them or with them. There’s almost a process of ‘othering’, where people are made to look very different and separate from the rest of society,” says Paul.

The book is also a reaction to the ‘poverty porn’ narrative that has come to dominate how people view those on lower incomes or those who claim benefits.

On why he made this into a book not a film, he explains: “Documentary films are often creatively treated to present a person’s speech with images that they have no control over, but with this book the editing was minimal: everything that is on a page is what someone said directly.”

Sng has plans to set up Invisible Britain as a platform that supports people from working class backgrounds to get into paid work in the film industry. This will be done through workshops and mentoring schemes, and include paid opportunities. “The art industry has become very middle class and very nepotistic. Most internships don’t pay enough for people to live on”.

Avi Thandi from Birmingham grew up in the Asian community but voted Brexit and thinks there is too much immigration to the UK. Photo: Vivek Vadoliya

Stories of Hope and Resilience

If there is a narrative that runs through the book it’s probably one of hope and resilience. “Hopefully this will inspire other to get involved,” Karen hopes.

“The fact that austerity hasn’t affected me as much, means I’m still here fighting it,” she says. “If you have to fight the DWP, have to go to food banks, this occupies much of your life. You don’t have time to fight back. In fighting back for everybody I’m also going to make it better for me.”

Sng says he doesn’t think anyone in the book is a victims. “There are people in the book who have suffered various hardships, but they aren’t bemoaning how much they’ve suffered,” he says.

“In a lot of ways it’s a book that shows people that have come through adversity or come through really tragic circumstances, and in many cases found hope, shown resilience, and also helped other people through it.”

“The overwhelming message that comes through the book is that you can’t always rely on government – whether that’s on a national or local level – to solve anything. What we are seeing in a lot of areas of the country is grassroots campaigns and communities that are being forced to act, and although they shouldn’t have to be doing this stuff, it shows great resilience – these are the people worth celebrating.”

Paul Sng and Karen Passmore will be speaking at the book launch tonight, 2 November at Arnolfini. 

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