International Plymouth: Making and Made

Article by Emily Stewart

To be fair (one of my favourite British terms), the role of international citizens in Plymouth’s cultural scene is complex. Plymouth is historically an international hotbed. In addition to obvious forays by famed explorers, Plymouth serves as Devon’s foremost seaport; in the late 19th century, the Port of Plymouth hosted over half a million emigrants. On the flipside, transatlantic liners like the Olympia escorted actors and politicos into the city. Yet, when Made In Plymouth asked me to write an article on “culture in Plymouth from an international perspective,” I struggled. Yes, I’ve written a book advising transplants about life in the city. My website provides travel ideas, a local dictionary, how-to guides, and blogs about Plymouth. But talking about the cultural connections between international citizens and Plymothians is a sticky topic for both parties. At risk of “speaking for” (and therefore generalising) a diverse population, I hereby offer my American thoughts on the integration of foreigners to Plymouth’s blossoming cultural scene.

Emily Stewart

Emily Stewart

While the world debates issues around immigration laws, there’s no denying the importance of international mobility. According to Market Research World, “Global mobility has increased significantly over the past decade and expatriates constitute a large and diverse market… According to a new research report published by Finaccord, the total number of expatriates worldwide amounted to around 50.5 million in 2013.” (Tobias Shneider, 2014). Beginning in 2008, the British government provided immigration subsidies to Bulgarian and Romanian citizens starting export companies. The Spanish and UK governments only recently decreased shared programming fostering nurses’ immigration to Derriford Hospital.

We know international people are in Plymouth. We see their shops. We hear different languages in Armada Plaza. Every so often a bright sign hangs on The Guildhall to parade a Thai Festival. International people know that international people are in Plymouth because they’ve connected using social media. But actually finding immigration statistics is difficult. From my analysis, the majority of immigrants are here for education or for work. Companies like BD, Wrigelys, and Princess Yachts relocate professionals here and academics work on projects. The American Navy landed 16 sailors and their families this past spring, to be joined by 16 more by the year’s end. Often, accompanying spouses are ineligible for work and are largely unaccounted for in a census. Students are in one door and out the other. Visitors might stop in Plymouth on their way elsewhere, leaving barely a trace. I surmise, too, that finding details about immigrants living in the city is difficult because, to some extent, they hide.

Just like the Brits, international citizens are excited by culture in Plymouth. Foreigners are a prime market for new arts and music organisations. We love events like Plymouth International Book Festival and groups like Beyond Face that outwardly support outsiders and minorities. We’re waiting for developments like the History Centre. After all, we’re not jaded by years of grandparents’ stories of Plymouth’s past. However, I sense a certain level of nationalism that makes foreigners hesitant to engage. The History Centre is calling for “mothers, fathers, grandparents and inspirational people of Plymouth whose stories are forgotten.” The assumption, here, is that their stories are Plymothian. There are so many stories of international activity in Plymouth that are also part of its development. Like how the Irish survivors of the Titanic were brought here! Nigel Voisey tells their story. Who can tell the others?

Immigrants develop arts, culture, and music in Plymouth. I recently worked with a Dutch milliner who produces hats here because it’s a lovely place to raise kids and horses (and British husbands). Mariana of The Ocean Corner is creating global trade in oceanic rubbish to foster art and connectivity. The are international artists in the new Ocean Studios development.

One big difference between culture made by Plymothians and that by foreigners is that immigrants’ nationalities are often hidden behind their art, whereas Plymothian artists are often “local” first, then producers after. Today, many immigrants feel defensive (I overheard one tell a local, “I’ve never applied for benefits!”). Artists use their work as a shelter. Foreigners struggle to feel like they belong here, like they have a legitimate place.

There are internationally focused events in Plymouth. Examples include CultureFest and Mayflower 2020 celebrations. Yet these feel like an offering to British citizens: “Here, try our food, see our dance!” British events feel like a celebration: “Resurgam! Be Plymothian!” Therefore, what I’d really like to see in Plymouth’s plans to become a major cultural destination is the legitimisation of its international population. There are a few points to consider to help develop this:

  • Identify the international ties between Plymouth and the world in places like the museum, galleries, and events.
  • Offer tours of the city that help global citizens connect the dots between its history and cultural facets. In fact, I hosted my first tour of Plymouth last weekend! To advertise, I used social media and stood outside the Americano Café with a big sign. Not the best form of PR, but I couldn’t finagle other support.
  • Incorporating international languages in our cultural spaces. I know that Dartmoor Walks & Rides This Way speaks German, but I’ve met few tourism organisations that offer multiple languages. Have you?
  • Find creative ways to foster networking between Plymothian and international citizens. Both groups are cautious to interact. How can we create a mutually beneficial dialogues?

I believe that Plymouth is on the right track to promoting international engagement. We’ve got the organisations, groups, and events. The truth is that people need to see an idea multiple places and multiple ways before they trust and engage it. So, let’s print, preach, and publicise interactions between people making Plymouth and people made in Plymouth!

For helpful and titillating coverage about living in Plymouth visit Find me tweeting about Plymouth @BASEDtraveler. Purchase a copy of the Plymouth Primer: An Expat-Local’s Guide to Life in Plymouth, UK from Waterstone’s Drake Circus, Devonport Live, Cornerstone Books (27 New Street), University Booksellers, my website, and Amazon.