George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Wednesday 8 November 2006
Doing the rounds
Owen Powell – 8th November 2006
I now feel sorry for politicians and salesmen.
Before today, they were the only people I could think of who would set out, notebook and A4 file in hand, with the express purpose of knocking on a load of doors just to ask nosey and impertinent questions. Now Alex and I can be counted in that unsavoury group.
I arrived at Alex's house late, and after a quick morale-boosting cup of coffee, I noted ruefully that we were walking out of the one house on the street where we knew there were definitely two other nationalities, as both the builder and the cleaner were hard at work in different rooms. However, these two "finds" were literally too close to home for him to contemplate at the moment, fearing that a negative response might result in a botched ceiling or a stained carpet. Instead, we tackled every one of all 47 houses on the opposite side of the road. Over the course of nearly two hours, we knocked on all but three doors, and we had reasonably good reasons for those three.
The first was George's neighbour, as he'd told us she'd been there for 40 years (a fresh arrival, in his eyes, but almost certainly not useful for our purposes). Ten doors down from here, we found a sign by the letter-box saying, "No door-to-door sales", and didn't fancy quibbling over semantics with whoever answered. A bit further along, we could hear a massive dog growling and barking and periodically launching itself at the other side of the door from where my about-to-knock fist was raised. We looked at each other, and while no words were exchanged, it became apparent that the best course of action was to try the next house along. We're not that brave.
Of the doors we did knock on, 21 were not answered. I suppose that's a reasonable proportion; people have to work, after all. Maybe they just weren't answering their door. During the course of the day, I got to thinking that if I wasn't expecting anyone to call, I might not answer a random knock at my door either.
One lady fell into a category by herself. She pulled back the curtain in her front room, saw that we were standing there on her front step, and waggled her finger at us in a rather unwelcoming manner. It was nigh on impossible to gauge her nationality from such a gesture.
So, that leaves us with 22 people who answered the door, spoke to us through downstairs windows, opened upstairs windows to lean out and chat, or came home with their shopping just as we were giving up. And what an interesting bunch they were. A frustrating bunch, in many ways. Although we found a total of nine nationalities (and hints of about ten more), only two were happy enough to let themselves represent their country in our project. And one of these was the George-and-Iris combo Alex has already written about.
After returning home, I constructed a very basic spreadsheet (yes, I'm taking this seriously) to remind me of all the people we'd met. Here's a selection of some of the words I filled in under the column marked Attitude: 'Suspicious', 'Embarrassed', 'Enigmatic', 'Sleepy', 'Confusing', 'Unwelcoming', 'Relieved', 'Stern', 'Terrified', 'Concerned', 'Apologetic', 'Baffled'. It certainly made me re-think this specific approach to the project, although not the whole project itself. There were times when Alex and I caught ourselves standing on someone's doorstep, little black notebooks poised, pens in hand, muttering to ourselves things like, "Is this where they said the Sudanese might be?" Any immigrant, legal or not-so-legal, witnessing that from an upstairs room might question our motives. Yes, we weren't in uniform, and yes, we seemed friendly, but perhaps we were coming across as authority figures. With most people, we didn't even get to the part where we asked to take a photo of them standing next to their house number, so we could trace them later.
An ongoing highlight for me was the way in which people who were starting to understand the project (including most of the British people we met) would lean out of the door, nod their heads one way or the other and suggest we "try a few doors down", as they were sure there was someone there from Brazil, or Ghana, or the Caribbean. One lady, in fact, trying to be helpful, told us that her neighbour in the flat below was "Black British", which I wasn't sure how to react to. This list of potential finds makes interesting reading in retrospect. The man whose 80% claim Alex mentions elsewhere also suggested we listen out for music, as that was where we'd find the Russian music teacher. And a music teacher we did find, although he actually hailed from Ukraine – a small difference in some people's eyes, but probably not in a Ukrainian's.
Two people answered the door in dressing gowns (by now it was nearing 1pm) which made me feel a bit better about being late again. One of them said she couldn't help, as she was just going out. In a dressing gown?
Finally, as we neared the last five or so doors, we had success. Dhanji Patel is 62, is a retired building contractor, grew up in India, and, according to my spreadsheet, has a 'Super' attitude. He has spent 25 years in the UK, and came here via Kenya where he gained a British passport to go with his Indian one. He still has a cousin out East in India, and a brother a shorter distance West, in Kingsbury. After a quick chat about cricket (becoming a theme, I think), we moved on to his neighbour. Who was out.