Watching ‘Capital’ Part 2: : Everyday encounters, multiculture and racism

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Ahmed (ADEEL AKHTAR), Petunia (GEMMA JONES) – (C) Kudos – Photographer: Hal Shinnie

‘You wouldn’t find a doctor down here before. Or a banker. Albert was a solicitor’s clerk. And then the immigrants started coming. West Indians first, then Indians, like yourself…’ Petunia to Ahmed ‘Capital’ episode 2.

The first episode of Capital started with Petunia sitting in Ahmed’s shop. Petunia is the oldest and one of the last remaining working class residents of Pepys Road. She moved into the house as a new bride and is fighting a battle with her daughter to be allowed to die there. Ahmed is a shopkeeper – and put upon dad/husband/brother/son. Both actors (Gemma Jones and Adeel Akhtar) put in beautiful and understated performances. So much is conveyed through their faces and non-verbal communication. In this opening scene Petunia recalls the changes the street has been through – a handy narrative substitute for the book’s prologue that describes exactly this process. Ahmed listens to her patiently, only stopping her to clarify that he is Pakistani not Indian. When Petunia is not well enough to physically go to the shop they both enquire after each other. Meanwhile, Petunia’s daughter gets annoyed at her mother’s repeated praise for Mr Kamal, taking it as a dig that she doesn’t do enough.

In ‘Capital’ this relationship is an exception. Interactions between neighbours are minimal. This is a portrayal of crisscrossing lives that only occasionally connect across different class and ethnic differences; ‘Bogdan’ the Polish builder hangs out with the other Polish builder; Roger (the banker) endures the company of his fellow (predominantly white, male) workers; Quentina (the traffic warden) struggles to connect with anyone because of her precarious immigration status and despised role in the community until she meets Mashinko at church. The postcards reading ‘We want what you have’ at least provide a talking point between people.

The impact of living in cities on our social interactions is one that has preoccupied sociologists and philosophers since the Nineteenth Century. Engels looks at the crowds of people in London, ignoring each other:

‘After roaming the streets of the capital a day or two … One realises that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature … The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other are they not human beings with the same qualities and the same interest in being happy?’[1]

Despite the differences between the theorists of this period they were all grappling with a phenomenon of industrialisation, the move from close–knit community (gemeinshaft) to urban society (gesellschaft), from kinship networks to the company of strangers, from serfdom to wage labour. These ideal types don’t always stand up – ‘I’ve lost all of my gesellschaft’ lamented a colleague to me recently after getting involved in a local campaign thus forsaking his local anonymity – but still the question about what the city does to human interaction and forms of community remains. In particular, a key question for those studying cities today is how people live in close proximity with difference.

We get a hint in Petunia’s opening statement that the arrival of ‘immigrants’ is not something her late husband would’ve approved of, whereas Petunia is quite at ease with this now. We can think of this process as what Stuart Hall called ‘multicultural drift’, a sense of something new becoming normal and accepted over time (‘just having them [people from other cultures] around, they weren’t going to eat you, they didn’t have tails. The smartest guy in the store is probably black. You turn on the television and the guy singing is probably black’). Places can change through what people do, but changing places can also act on people.

Alongside this gentle friendship we see violent state incursions into the lives of the people who live and work on Pepys Road, firstly Quentina. Frustrated with the restrictions that stop those seeking asylum from working, she has taken on fake ID in order to work as a traffic warden. Her status is discovered by the police because of the investigation into the ‘we want what you have’ postcards. We see her handcuffed and put in the back of a van, transported to a detention centre where she is put into another limbo, waiting for news of her appeal. This character is given more time in the series than in the book and Wunmi Mosaku’s powerful performance is important. Such rounded portrayals of those with irregular migration status and their experiences are rare in a context of intensifying dehumanisation in UK political and media discourse over the last couple of years.

The episode ends with a shocking raid on the Kamal’s house the family we have seen joking, eating, arguing, are forced to their knees by armed police and humiliated in front of their neighbours (how magnificent is Shabana Azmi in that scene?).

As I argued in the previous blog, in ‘Capital’ (the book) some of these plot lines and characterisation verges on caricature. However, the careful rendering in the screenplay and the skillful performances of the actors turn this around. For me, Capital (the TV version) provides a way to think through the co-existence of multiculture and forms of racism, here as enshrined in the violence of immigration law, that are part of everyday London life. As Anamik Saha and I argued in our recent call for conference papers ‘The experience of urban multiculture is not always convivial or fraught; instead it is complex, rich, contradictory and multi-layered.’

[1] Engels, F. (1845) ‘The Great Towns’ in ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’

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