Like any city or district Bradford comprises the sum of the lives of its individual citizens and the households, streets, neighbourhoods and institutions in which they dwell. However, given its longstanding associations with imperial trade and international migration, Bradford also provides a world-class example of the ongoing significance of local to local – or “translocal” – connections to people and places elsewhere. The political establishment and mass media often exploit populist anxieties about ethnically, racially and religiously marked linkages overseas as a threat to national interests. However, a better understanding of translocal connections is crucial because “the nation” is not necessarily the best “container” for thinking about the societies we live in today. Living translocally is not mutually exclusive with local rootedness.
Once a former minor market town ringed by wild, beautiful Pennine countryside, the so-called “Worstedopolis” of Bradford was transformed by industrialisation, urbanisation and immigration from a population of 13,000 in 1801 to 280,000 a century later. Speaking of his hometown’s translocal trading connections, in English Journey (1934), novelist and playwright, J.B. Priestly, remarked that in its Victorian heyday the world leader in worsted wool production was “a city of travellers” whose suburbs “reached as far as Frankfort (Frankfurt) and Leipzig”. From German wool merchants and Flemish weavers to Irish navvies and post war Eastern European refugees, the history of modern Bradford is exemplary of migration and diversity. However, during a period of global economic restructuring and de-industrialization, the city’s challenges are frequently framed in terms of the legacy of translocal connections to Pakistan in particular. At the last UK Census in 2011, Bradford Metropolitan District was home to the highest proportion of people in the UK of British Pakistani and Muslim heritage, with the majority tracing their family history to Mirpur district in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Today, as Bradford seeks to re-invent itself, key parts of its local “here” remain intimately connected across time and space to multiple other local “theres”. Road signs and shop signs ”here” – from Hamm Strasse, Mayo Avenue and Sylhet Close to Kashmir Crown Bakeries – all mark the “absent presence” of homelands remembered both by newcomers and by the city. Those left behind (or returning) “there” also mark the significance of such linkages to Bradford with similar inscriptions of their own. Whether “here” or “there” they start to render more visible the everyday realities of translocal flows of people, goods, capital and ideas that continue to “make” the city what it is today.
How do translocal connections relate to the work of Bradford’s Science and Media Museum?
Translocal connections are a significant topic for rethinking the National Science and Media Museum’s relationship with local communities in Bradford. The science and technology of media has been a key driver of modern globalisation and the ways in which we imagine, represent and participate in the communities we live in and their relationship to the wider world. Throughout history technological innovations have enabled exploration, navigation and the ‘discovery’ of new places beyond local and national scales. Travel, in turn, has allowed the sharing of new and inventive ways of reproducing images, texts and other objects. However, such exchanges have also produced half fascinated, half fearful accounts of the similarity/difference – and indeed the superiority/inferiority, traditionalism/modernity – of people and places elsewhere. Indeed, the mass media is now the dominant arena for representing how societies think about ‘Ourselves’ and ‘Others’.
Until the invention of new media technologies from the nineteenth century onwards, it was impossible to make local-to-local connections without someone (or something) taking a journey elsewhere. Together with new methods of generating power and enabling transportation, from the steam engine to the jet aeroplane, inventions such as the electric telegraph (1836), telephone (1876), radio (1899), television (1926) and computer (1949) have all slowly but surely enabled people anchored in remotely different places to live increasingly as if they inhabit a “global village”. Media technologies shrink our experiences of time and space, so that we can start to think of – and experience – the world as a single place. The internet and social media have also provided people with a new, relatively affordable, devolved, interactive and easy-to-use means of organising life across borders and even challenging economic and political interests in society. However, mass media technologies and information networks also afford such dominant interests unprecedented reach and opportunities for control in what often remains a gated globe.
How do translocal connections and media technologies relate to the Bradford’s National Museum project?
During the National Science and Media Museum project I will be learning about Bradford’s Pakistani Muslim heritage communities and their use of media technologies across the generations. I am particularly interested in the changing ways in which individuals, families and institutions have used print, audio, visual and other media/communications technologies to stay in touch with relatives, co-religionists and others across specific locations in Bradford, South Asia, the Middle East and beyond. At the same time, I am also interested in people’s reflections on how a powerful ‘mainstream’ mass media represents them, their heritage, their faith and their city, as well as the impact that this has on their lives.
Many of the Pakistani migrants who worked the night shift in Bradford’s mills from the 1950s onwards were from farming backgrounds. They mostly relied on an educated family member or countryman to write airmail letters home. Such letters took about a week to arrive in rural Pakistan, with a friend telling me recently that in his village there was only one person who could read and write with return news of births, marriages, deaths. Those literate in Urdu would have had some access to more general news from home once UK editions of newspapers like the Daily Jang became available. Apparently, Bradford’s local newspaper, the Telegraph and Argus, also had a column in Urdu during the 1960s. With a select number of university students travelling to the UK for postgraduate studies, Islamic, Leftist and other periodicals printed in English began to circulate among intellectuals and activists during the 1970s too.
In the absence of international direct-dialling, and given the generally late arrival of infrastructure including electricity and landlines in Pakistani villages (and especially in Kashmir), early migrants to Bradford relied upon telephone messages ferried back and forth to the few shops in the bazaar with connections. Later local PCOs (public call offices) fulfilled this role, while, in an emergency, migrants might still have to rely on telegrams to send an urgent message home though this would typically arrive to the nearest city. Though access to technology has remained unequal across the UK and Pakistan, and it may be post-migration communities that bear the main costs, in the last decade smartphones have become the norm at both ends of the translocal connection. With the cost of calling Pakistan from the UK just a few pence per minute people in Bradford can now stay in touch with parents, siblings, cousins and friends in places like Mirpur on a daily basis. Facebook and other social networking fora also afford them opportunities to gather in cyberspace.
Audio cassettes bearing recorded messages, Islamic sermons, political speeches and popular music were also part of translocal soundscapes until the 1990s. In 2015 the BBC celebrated 50 years of Asian radio programming within the UK. However, until the internet age, only those with the best quality radio sets could receive services from the Indo-Pak subcontinent. Today, Bradford’s Sunrise Radio, a community-based commercial station established in 1989, broadcasts some shows simultaneously with a partner in Pakistan. Ramadhan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, is peak-period for OFCOM’s short-term local radio licences, with competition for such licences in Bradford being the highest in the UK during 2018. For a decade or more mosques have also held special licences to broadcast their Friday sermons and other events live to those in their neighbourhood with receivers.
Diasporas are typically early adopters of cutting-edge technology. But before the home Video-Cassette Recorder (VCR) became popular Liberty cinema in Manningham showed Bollywood movies between 1968-1982. Into the 1980s footage of significant translocal events such as weddings and religious ceremonies was recorded on portable Video Home System (VHS) camcorders to be viewed at a later date in the diaspora or homeland.
I was once told too that Muslim leaders earned royalties for the video-footage of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), being burned in the city. When peaceful lobbying had failed to make a difference the stunt was staged for the media only to be magnified globally as they lost all control of how Bradford and its Muslims would be represented. By the 1990s 24-hour services were also relaying ‘real-time’ news of crises in the Middle East and beyond which undoubtedly impacted a local to global Muslim consciousness. Al Jazeera eventually broke the monopoly of Western news reporting, while increasingly commercial South Asian entertainment and sports channels provided extensive programming choices for satellite television subscribers.
My research will hopefully begin to better link the lives of the Bradfordians I am engaging with to the work of the National Science and Media Museum and set this in wider social, cultural, economic and political contexts.Investigating histories of media technologies and their changing role in enabling everyday translocal connections among Bradford Pakistanis is deliberately juxtaposed with critical attention to the ways in which the mainstream media problematises such linkages, often in terms of extremely partial, generalising and racist representations. This approach will enable the museum to tell new, more complicated and critically reflective stories about the technology and media in its existing collections and to identify new objects for potential acquisition to diversify these collections.
Seán McLoughlin is Professor of the Anthropology of Islam at the University of Leeds. His main research interest is the local character of Muslim communities in Britain and their translocal connections. He has worked on and off in Bradford since writing a PhD about the city (1997) and ran an AHRC network which featured a case study of Bradford called Writing British Asian Cities (2006-09). He also has previous experience of working with museums, collaborating on an AHRC funded large grant with curators at the British Museum (2012). See British Muslim Experiences of the Hajj. Email Seán with any comments, questions or feedback on email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeedsUniHajjRes.