Book Review: Invisible Britain edited by Paul Sng

Review by Kate Haddow

Paul Sng is a filmmaker and writer of dual British and Singaporean heritage whose work focuses on people who challenge the status quo. In 2015 he founded Velvet Joy Productions to explore the lives and work of individuals who have been neglected, marginalised or misrepresented by mainstream media. His first feature documentary, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain, is part band documentary, part state of the nation film that followed the band Sleaford Mods on a tour of the UK in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. His second feature, the critically-acclaimed Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, focuses on the failures and deception behind the social housing crisis, and was released in cinemas in June 2017. Invisible Britain, edited by Paul Sng, was published by Policy Press in November 2018.

INVISIBLE BRITAIN

Austerity is a very popular part of our political lexicon at the moment.  But what does austerity look like? Would we recognise it? Invisible Britain, edited by Paul Sng, has a team of photographers dispersed across the UK to give a first-hand visual account of austerity.  In the book we meet a variety of different people, with forty self-portraits and small biographies on each page giving us a taste of their life.  

The book is a follow-on project from the film Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain which was based around a tour following the politically outspoken punk duo the Sleaford Mods in 2015.  Instead of touring big cities, the band tours in areas of often significant deprivation and decline, worlds apart from the safe bubble of Westminster, areas forgotten about by those in power and often suffering the most in terms of austerity politics.   The film sets the scene for the book, giving us an overview of ten years of austerity and reflections from the Sleaford Mods and attendees who are often ordinary members of the public.

Together, the book and film give a much-needed platform for those balancing on the edges of society, through the power of photography and storytelling. We live in an era of poverty porn (often used as a label to criticise forms of media which objectify people in poverty for the sake of entertainment and do not truthfully capture the problems at heart), with programmes like Benefits Street constantly occupying our screens and newspapers. Invisible Britain is radically different. You do not laugh at the people featured in both the book and the film, you laugh with them. With the narratives there is a sense of authenticity –something poverty porn fails to achieve. 

The image above is one from the book. When we see high rises like this we immediately associate them with social housing.  We are facing a crisis in terms of social housing with a mass shortage and communities under threat of demolition, constantly having to defend their homes from territorial stigma. What came through from the book in particular was the importance of place and home.  After all each biography has a place attached to it, and the Sleaford Mods took their music to specific places, often areas many have never heard of.

The people featured have been neglected by government social policy and feel let down by past and current governments for a considerable amount of time, even as far back as Thatcher’s government in the 1980’s.  We are living in a time of political and social upheaval with widening inequality between the rich and poorest in society, the gathering momentum of right wing politics and a shunning of the mainstream political parties.  Now we are eagerly awaiting what Britain’s future will look like outside of the European Union, another political earthquake which has left the UK bitterly divided.  This all provides the crucial back drop for this book and it could not come at a more pertinent time.

This book and film explore a range of pressing social issues, which arguably have stemmed from the political turmoil of the last decade, such as welfare cuts, deindustrialisation, migration, housing and racism often intersecting with each other and experienced first-hand.  The book and film allow people in these areas to talk about issues of their choosing and more importantly in their own words – for far too long these people have been spoken about but rarely listened too.  The stories are unfiltered and are brutally honest.  There are many stories presented here all unique, some shocking and some controversial but all here to speak the truth.  

One particular story that stood out was Craig’s from Peckham. The picture is still vivid in my mind – standing behind the wonderful Del Boy style vintage cocktail cabinet with a small decorative plastic parrot on top with a cigarette posed in hand.  The introduction is hard-hitting: “I love Brexit” – something we do not hear often.  Rarely do we hear from people who voted leave in the referendum, largely labelled by many as ignorant or racist.  But Craig is neither, and presents a sound argument for why she voted to leave.  Brexit is far more than just racism and Craig’s story touches upon so many current issues.

The film was part of a launch tour for the book and visited selected cinemas in the UK. I saw the film in my home town of Newcastle at the Tyneside Cinema in the West End of Newcastle, an area that has the busiest Trussell Trust foodbank in the UK.  It is also where the film I, Daniel Blake was set and filmed. The film is incredibly powerful in bringing the stories to life and viewing people’s testimonies first hand is very emotive.   During the screening I cried with sadness, and laughed at the brutal honesty of working class humour, ‘telling it how it is with no frills’ whilst making the most of a bad situation.

The film provides a wider much needed commentary of the current political and social changes witnessed throughout the last thirty years.  In the film we see a lot more of the Sleaford Mods tour and see them in various gig settings, watching their passionate political performances while swigging a bottle of Jupiler or three.  It is rare but refreshing to see a band like the Sleaford Mods given so much time on screen, after all how many musicians are from working class backgrounds now? The film also has more of a focus on those in power, a very rare topic of conversation, reminding us we never really scrutinise the rich and ask how they retain power, vastly over represented in positions of power such as government and in the media.  As Jason Williamson from the Sleaford Mods puts it, “it’s like they have been enclosed in a glass bubble and separated from the rest of fucking society”.

Despite peoples’ harrowing tales, the people featured in the book and the film should not be viewed with pity. All the narratives are filled with acts of resistance and resilience.  The book and film feature people who are often active in their community, fighting everyday injustices. During the commentaries we hear from people who have witnessed change first hand, as well as academic Lisa McKenzie (author of Getting By: Estates, Class and culture in Austerity Britain), who explains beautifully and cohesively what is happening to social class in recent times, and why programmes like Benefits Street have become so popular with members of the public.

The value in both the book and the film is the level of accessibility – the project brings sociology to the masses, rather than being confined to a handful of academics. They are truly unique pieces of work and the execution of both is beautifully done whilst the timing is prescient. The work is a credit to all those featured, capturing the realities of ten years of austerity and a divided political system.  The people featured are far from ordinary people, because they are part of extraordinary things.  Both the book and the film are radically different and offer an alternative view into what life is really like on the edge – they are a must read and see for everyone.   

Review by Kate Haddow. Kate is a PhD student at Teesside University.  Her research interests include food insecurity and poverty.  Currently in her final year, she has completed an ethnographic study of hidden food insecurity in the town of Middlesbrough.  She tweets @KateHaddow1.    

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