Storyville: The Road, a story of life and death

Nora Connolly 

Image©Ewan Munro

You see how people treat their dog, their cats and you wish you were a dog. At least someone gives you some kindness, some friendship…People ignore you and no-one accepts you… Storyville

This quote encapsulates what Robin Richardson has called the unkindness of strangers, the comment above uttered by a migrant worker and participant in this outstanding film, made by Marc Isaacs. The documentary tells the story of a diverse group of immigrants living on the A5 – one of Britain`s longest and oldest roads – focussing on the inhabitants of London. The individual quoted (country of origin not specified), is speaking while waiting on the streets of London, in the hope that he might be selected by a contractor for a day`s work. A scenario familiar to Irish workers from the 1950s, the documentary peppered with archive film of Irish men waiting for employment, just as these new migrants wait today.  

Only someone with a heart of stone could not feel compassion for the people in this film – two of them dying during the making of the documentary. Peggy Roth born in 1916, an articulate and intelligent woman, who left her homeland because Hitler came to Vienna. She escaped, while her mother sadly was taken by the Nazis and Peggy never saw her again, although her mother was a constant presence in her life, and she spoke movingly about her as Shostakovich played in the background. Peggy in a later interview told us that her deceased husband was a brilliant man, though she did not mourn him as he was miserable, demanding, unjust, hypocritical and a demagogue. After her husband`s passing, Peggy lived a happy existence a resilient and feisty individual. During the filming she fell while out walking and on her return home, she knocked on wood as she stated how lucky she had been not to break any bones. An optimistic outlook seemingly undiminished regardless of what life seemed to throw at her. This documentary is worth watching just to listen to Peggy who died in 2011 aged 95 her funeral is part of the documentary.

The other key participant in the film was Billy Leahy born in Ireland in 1950.  Billy sadly died in 2012 – and such was his social isolation at the time, that his body was found by the filmmaker who explained, `if I hadn’t been filming him who knows how long he would have remained undiscovered. A man who left his homeland to build our roads, lay our pipes, and even helped build the Channel Tunnel has vanished without a trace. ` Billy was intelligent, reflective, articulate and oozed pathos, he chastised himself for indulging in self pity but he cut a very sad figure. He had clearly known happy times while his life had been dominated by hard manual work. He happily laboured for 72 hours per week throughout his long working life. He looked older than his years, a perception exaggerated by his infirmness; he was unable to cook a meal due to his arm tremors which were visible throughout the film.

In his final interview he explained how alcohol filled the void left after years of hard manual labour. He had sisters in Ireland and a brother in Cricklewood who tried to contact him but Billy repelled friendly advances from his family. He never married although played house a few times…you get fed up with them and you want to move on. Been doing that all of my life. He was near to tears when he spoke these words and then forlornly flopped on the bed, a few days later he was found dead.

My own parents emigrated from Ireland in the 1960s and my father did his best to avoid returning. He always said that his third class status in Ireland prepared him for life in Britain (receiving more equitable treatment in the UK than he ever did in Ireland). However, after many years of persuasion he finally relented and the two of us visited the country of his birth. I was reminded of this visit while watching this documentary. During the visit we met up with his old friends, people he had not seen for decades. On initially meeting him, one old friend asked sharply when he was returning to England. This seemed a reasonable ice-breaker type question to me but then again I did not understand the subtext. My father gently asking why his old friend wished to know. “Well” he said (with a now detectable element of devilment), `Padraig aren’t you an Englishman now and I was simply wondering when you would be going home`. My father replying, `it seems in England I am an Irishman, while in Ireland I am an Englishman`. Bill Leahy made the same point, `I lost my way in the fog…it’s very hard to find your way back. The reality of things are, you don’t fit in back in Ireland and you don’t fit in 100% here either…when things go like that, you’re always a day late and a pound short. And that`s the sincerity of it. `

This paradox of belonging is a dominant theme explored in this documentary. Iqbal a Sunni Muslim from Kashmir was in many respects the star of this documentary. He worked in a hotel (filmed at his place of employment) and was asked about the Irish immigrants. Iqbal knew them and understood their feelings perfectly, stating philosophically, you lose both the place you are leaving and the place you are coming to, you lose both of them. Iqbal was speaking as the documentary focussed on Shi`ite Muslims celebrating the festival of Muhaurram on Marble Arch, a festival that Iqbal informed us connected those celebrating to the world. While he is a Sunni Muslim he still strongly identified with this event because it brought back memories of his homeland.

There was much more in this film to appreciate, which concludes on a happy note when Iqbal and his wife are re-united and they make preparations for their future in London. This superb documentary gave much needed voice to Britain`s immigrant population and is available to view on BBC iplayer.

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