The Europe-frenzy in popular news has now spread to the world stage. Greece tinkers in dramatic meltdown, Germany attempts to manage a weakened Euro, and, lest we forget, London is hosting the Olympics. Europe stands at the forefront of popular global affairs, and the rest is secondary (et al.). Yet, however global Europe may be, traces of a local Europe can still be discovered. While London flaunts the world’s best eye-candy and Athens attracts the juiciest political-drama, it is rather within the local talk-of-the-village where some of the largest issues are hashed out. The self-reviled city of Preston in England will help elaborate the “village talk” of Europe.
From my enclave of Preston, Europe is much different than its representations in the media. First, as was made aware to me, “Europe” and “England” are two entirely different concepts. At its closest, England is only 21 miles from France; while most people here might as well place England in the middle of the Atlantic. I made that faux pas, along with another: referring to the currency as Euros or even one time as Dollars. Those were quite humiliating mistakes.
In discussions with British students about European politics, I often received confused looks. In one conversation with a student at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), she interjected saying, “Europe is everyone else.”
Given the UK’s anti-Euro stance I should have seen that coming, but conceptualizing Europe apart from Great Britain is quite confusing. Also confusing were the ideas of commonwealth; and whether I should use Great Britain, England, or the UK in conversation. Thankfully YouTube has answers for most of life’s problems as seen here.
Preston, a city in the Lancashire county of Northern England, is home to over 130,000 people plus a seasonal university population. Students have creatively called the city “Depresston.” Among other people I’ve encountered, Preston has been associated in tandem with rain, cold weather, and miniskirts. The lattermost of which will I will definitely come back to…
England is already notorious for waterlogged weather, which it has mostly lived up to during my time, but Preston specifically is said to be one of the rainiest. While the U.S. has experienced heat and dryness this summer compared to the 1930’s dust bowl, the “almost apocalyptic” cold and wet weather in England has caused increased drowning of puffins off the northern coast. No one wants a puffin to drown, and thus our emotions are likely to assume that this weather trend is particularly terrifying. Overall, the forgiving weather in London for the Olympics will likely outweigh the unfortunate northern losses.
Back to the miniskirts… Yes, it’s a Preston identifier. Although I have not been out to see myself, I have been briefed on skirts – no pun intended. Stef who is a student at UCLan (and who actually likes Preston!) described the situation to me. Stef said, “It is statistically proven that the highest number miniskirts are purchased in Preston of any city in the UK.”
I found this hard to believe, so I did my own research on Google News. The Daily Mail (a UK news source) in 2010 described this phenomenon, “Northern lasses [young women] wear skirts that are on average 17cm shorter than girls in the south [of England].”
The average length of skirts in Preston was found to be 32cm, the second shortest in the nation after Edinburgh at 30cm. The Sun says “UK mini-skirt capital is Preston” and that “a staggering 49 per cent of all minis are sold in [Lancashire], eight times more than in London.” Meteovista.co.uk, an online weather site provides the daily weather in terms of “short skirt weather,” “poor short skirt weather,“ or “reasonable short skirt weather.” You can find out today’s short skirt weather here.
Rain and skirts are significant to Preston. But is there more? From my interactions, almost all people review Preston negatively. Some say there is nothing going for Preston outside of the university (UCLan). Other people also acknowledge how common it is for British people to complain about the weather and where they reside. So the self-reviled nature I have found Preston in may be more culturally relevant than actual, but from words alone, it sounds fairly grim. However, I hold out that the largely negative self-perception of Preston is not exactly well deserved.
While at a restaurant with Stef in Preston, we discussed the topic of diversity over our Indian dinners. I said to Stef that I was surprised the UK wasn’t overflowing with people given its relatively small size. I asked Stef, “The UK must be exporting many of its people?” – As if people were an exportable commodity or trade item.
She responded, “Well, we import a lot too.”
Immigration, over miniskirts and the weather, was certainly the more important topic in Preston and relevant to all of the UK. Ian Preston, a professor at University College London, writes in the Oxford University Press Blog that a concern over lowered wages for UK-born workers is influencing opposition to high levels of immigration. Preston (the professor, not the city) says, “Immigration over the past decade and a half has brought new workers into the country who are younger and better educated both than British born workers and earlier immigrants.” My conversation with Stef supported these concerns. She said that in press agencies, “you cannot get a job, they are all taken by immigrants.”
In Preston, effects of immigration were visible. For one example, the number of women wearing burkas in town was noticeable. I do not remember a single time I saw this in United States, and I grew up in Dearborn (home to the second highest Arab population outside of the Middle East, first being Paris). As an added note, the burka (or burqa) is more common in central and southern Asia, but it has been stereotyped to encompass the Middle East. Only a couple of times in Nigeria did I see women in the market wear a burka, so I did not think I would see it at all in England.
A popular online article in The Telegraph, with over 1000 quarreling comments, describes the racy and relevant topic of immigration in the UK. It argues that although politicians assure immigration is under control, “the authorities have underestimated the numbers of migrants…and that a sizeable portion of immigrants are illegal.”
The influence of immigration on wages was proven to be small in Preston’s research, however the social and political impact seems to be larger. Like France, some in the UK urge parliament to ban the burka on grounds that it is oppressive for women. A column by Allison Pearson in The Telegraph supports a ban and states, “When Atatürk outlawed the veil in Turkey in 1934 the result was a soaring rate of literacy among women and equality between the sexes was ushered in.”
Regardless of the issues, I did not see that increased diversity or immigration to actually cause discontent in Preston. But neither did I find Preston to be a multicultural haven either. Currently, during the summer months, Preston’s student apartments are mostly vacant of British students who have returned to nearby hometowns, leaving many Chinese, Indian, and other foreign students on campus.
During my short six weeks in Preston, I found the city to fill a unique character. Nearly all British-born natives I have met turn up their nose to Preston. It seems that no one can say, “I am from Preston” at all, let alone say it with pride. Preston’s British-born students and residents, like its immigrants, appear to share a common place. While the British want little to do with it and immigrants are still becoming a larger part of it, Preston still contains everyone equally. Hopefully it can be called “home” by both soon enough.
In Preston, whether the topic was miniskirt or burka, I was sure to have a unique conversation, relevant to the larger, global community. Preston is just one example of the increasing diversity in the UK’s metropolitan areas. Positive benefits aside, immigration can also spark anti-immigration policies and sometimes racism. To promote healthy perceptions of immigrants and protect against human rights abuses, third actors become increasingly important. Examples include women’s empowerment, refugee protection, and multicultural advocacy groups that can alleviate the negative effects, like prejudice, that follow increased immigration.
This summer we are experiencing “Europe, et al.” Focus on London for the Olympics will remain strong throughout this week, Greece will likely be a continuing topic, but for most, Preston will be off the radar. But by looking at the “et al.” like Preston, we may better understand the similar issues throughout Europe. Through this local understanding, solutions for global application are more possible.
“Team GB” sports a diverse lineup of athletes for the Olympics, including the much-publicized Somali-born Mo Farah. He is called “the UK’s finest ever distance runner” and last Saturday he won Gold in the 10,000K. Just outside Preston’s historic museum and library is the town square complete with Olympics paraphernalia and a large TV screen for public viewing of the games. In the featured image for this article, Mo Farah is displayed on the TV screen behind a few of Preston’s onlookers: a Lebanese, a Nigerian, and a Brit, all actively discussing the games.
I, along with the three men watching the public TV, rooted for Mo.
Surely I enjoy a good race, but even greater is my appreciation for the celebration of a diverse nationality.
See Associated Media and Content Here:
- “Defining women’s oppression: The burka vs. the bikini” - An article and political cartoon about the Western vs. Islamic perspectives on how women dress