The Oldham Riots: 15 years on

Let me just get this out there: it’s a really bad idea to complete a dissertation about your hometown whilst preparing to leave. It’s even worse if you already harbour a love/hate relationship with the place!

I spent the summer reading about the 2001 Oldham riots which, until now, were fuzzy recollections of newspaper stills and snippets of landscape seen through the eyes of an eleven year old. There were hushed whispers in classrooms and anxious discussions in homes. And when the NF marched in town, those weekends were spent indoors: it became an unspoken rule.

I spent the next six years praying for a way out and when I finally made it out, I spent another four years missing home. The school I’d studied at was a majority-Asian school; the nearby rival school a majority-white school. When I returned home exactly 10 years after the riots, the two schools were merging and I obtained my first teaching post with the new Academy.

My dissertation has been a labour of love and an emotional roller coaster. It involved writing a creative writing piece (the love) and a research essay (the roller coaster).

When I wasn’t deliberating over government reports and anthropological studies, I was spending whole days either filled with pride for the place I come from, or feeling melancholy at the very little change that had occurred. And is it awful to admit I felt sorry for others? Not in a condescending I’m-looking-at-you-from-the-privileged-position-of-someone-who-made-it-out-successfully kind of sorry, but a genuine heartache and empathy for those who have faced or are facing the conditions that make Oldham one of the worst places to live. There were days I’d sit at the local library and make no effort to hide my tears. Then there were days when I felt like one more encounter with the phrases ‘integration’, ‘cohesion’ and ‘willing formation of Asian ghettos’ would push me right over the edge. On those days I would’ve gladly punched someone in the face.

Here is a very tiny fraction of research revealing some facts underplayed by the media at the time of and since the riots:

  • The segregation of the town into all-Asian and all-white areas was not entirely a self-inflicted ‘willing’ segregation. It was partly the result of the council’s segregationist housing policy which allotted certain housing for Asians and whites. As housing prices were low for deteriorated and cramped inner city housing, they were easier for immigrants to buy.
  • The other contribution promoting segregated areas was ‘white flight’, which occurred at a much faster rate in Oldham than nationally in other urban areas and was largely ignored by biased media coverage.
  • In schools, segregation in education is increasingly a result of white flight as parents do not want their (white) children to be the odd ones out in a diverse classroom.
  • The proportion of people living in a multiply deprived area is: 7% of whites, 50% of Pakistanis and 60% of Bangladeshis.
  • The ones capable of real community leadership and those able to make a difference to the town often move to Manchester or down south. Those who are left behind have limited career options and may drift into crime and drugs.
  • Despite the picture created by post 9/11 media, the Muslim community is much more likely to identify strongly with Britain than the rest of the population. (Gallup Poll 2009)

I worked for the new Academy believing it was a step in the right direction for the town. But I know now, after having worked in not one but two local Academies that the forceful merging of schools was not the *only* answer to Oldham’s problems. In fact, the adverse effects of uprooting a school’s whole system led to further problems and a huge disservice was done in the name of education. Extremely competent and experienced staff from predecessor schools had no worth in Academies and students (especially non-Native speakers of English) became projected figures and percentages for the next five years of their lives.

All in all, I don’t know what was more draining – sitting for hours every day and feeling my butt go numb knowing I couldn’t waste time by taking a break, or the actual topic of the research. My brain still hasn’t registered the fact that I have completed and submitted it!

I can’t believe I am no longer a student at The University and will not see it again for many years. From the first pangs of homesickness all those years ago to the joy of handing my work in last week, both The University and the city have been fundamental in shaping my feelings, thoughts and ideas about my hometown.

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4 thoughts on “The Oldham Riots: 15 years on

  1. […] Those of you who have read my previous updates will know that I have this bug: a bug to read every book written by a Pakistani author/about Pakistan. In some ways this is me trying to make up for the lack of exposure to Pakistani literature during my entire career as a Literature student and teacher. I am constantly searching for recommendations. The subject in Maps for Lost Lovers is very dear to me as it covers the stories of working-class immigrants in the northern towns of Britain. I only wish I had known of this before writing my dissertation. […]

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