The times they certainly are a changing. How right Bob Dylan was when he wrote that song, and now, only 54 years later, can we see it here in our own town. With Montenegrins at our carnival, East Timorese in our factories and a 28 year old Portuguese Mayor, Bridgwater is becoming truly multicultural.
Times have changed. And that’s a good thing.
Bridgwater has had Mayors since 1468 when John Kendale (of Kendale road fame) became our first. Having a Mayor was the symbol of a town being granted certain local powers and rights. In Bridgwater, our Mayor is a symbol of that tradition, an ambassador for our town and the first citizen for the year he or she is in office. We change Mayors every year. It’s not a paid job – although Mayors do have a community budget to spend as they see fit, and they’re chosen (by secret vote) from amongst and by the 16 elected Town Councillors. Each person of course brings something different to the role. Which is also a good thing.
Enter Mayor Diogo
Diogo Rodrigues was born in Portugal but brought up in England. He looks Portuguese (the dark glasses help) but he sounds English, with his ‘estuary Essex’ accent. Elected as a Labour Councillor for the Dunwear North area of Bridgwater on the Sydenham estate he won the backing of his fellow councillors to become Mayor at the record breaking age of 28.
Now half way through his term of office, which comes to an end in May 2019, Diogo seems to have become the most popular Mayor not just in Bridgwater history, but in the entire Cosmos. Which stops just this side of Highbridge.
Diogo’s use of social media and his very public presence – obviously combined with youthful good looks, and stylish dress sense, have made him an instantly accessible Mayor, leading to many people saying he’s the first Mayor they’ve ever sat up and taken note of. But that’s of course a sign of the changing times, something which a guy from another generation…ie, now…realises and finds normal. He’s raised the stakes for future Mayors. And that’s a very good thing.
The World Stage
Diogo’s term as Mayor is hugely symbolic in many respects. He’s the first Portuguese Mayor, not just in Bridgwater but in Britain, and that fact alone shows that Bridgwater exists on a world stage and is proud of that fact. So nowadays it’s totally normal when Montenegrin dancers parade down the High street as part of Bridgwater carnival (admittedly dressed as sunbeams in the middle of November…) or when a group of 300 people called the East Timorese Association holds a launch event at Morganians rugby club to celebrate living and working in Bridgwater or when the owner of the Polish delicatessen in Eastover opens up a new quality restaurant in the old River Parrett pub and that’s before we even mention the new Mercure hotel…..
Bridgwater’s Internationalist Heritage
But…although it seems shiny and new at the moment..Internationalism is in fact nothing new in Bridgwater. A seafaring town and an industrial magnet for migrant workers whether it’s from abroad or the Welsh valleys, Bridgwater has made it’s mark.
In 1938 Bridgwater was the only town in Britain to elect an MP on the basis of defending Czechoslovakia in the face of the rise of Fascism. Popular broadcaster Vernon Bartlett was elected and Czechoslovakians visited the town to talk of their countries occupation. Although the newspapers at the time did report some people ‘surprised they weren’t black’…probably due to Neville Chamberlains ‘far away country of which we know little’ speech, making them think ‘its probably somewhere in Africa’. In 1992 Bridgwater was the first British town to twin with a Czech-Slovak town (Uherske Hradiste) and during World War 2 many Czechs and Slovaks fled to Britain to continue the fight against the Nazis. In fact the top RAF pilot with the most strikes was Czech flyer Frantisek.
Growing up in Bridgwater I already knew several Polish people. Poland is one of the largest countries in Europe and it’s no surprise that Poles travel in great numbers. Historically they’ve been attacked on 3 sides by their neighbours and proudly claim to have ‘saved Europe’ from the Turks, the Mongols and the Red Army. Many Poles fought alongside Britain during World War 2. They never surrendered. When we take Bridgwater students to our Italian twin town, Priverno, we always visit the battlefield of Monte Cassino, where troops of 21 Allied nations tried to dislodge the Germans from the summit – but it was the Poles that did it. The story of Wojtek the Polish ‘soldier bear’ (a bear trained to carry live ammunition in a battlefield scenario…make that of what you will, animal lovers..) was told at the recent Polish independence Day celebrations at Victoria Park where the community group Diversity Voice, run by the Polish born Rafal Skarbek, held a very successful event which included food, drink and music from not just Poland but across East Europe.
Poles clearly number the largest modern day International community in Bridgwater and a documentary made by Michal Puzynski of Bridgwater based Polish TV features an interesting set of interviews with Poles living in the town today alongside members of the host community.
You can watch his ‘Jeden Procent’ film here.
The Diligent Timorese
East Timor is basically half an island in the Indonesian archipelago touching the Pacific Ocean. In 1975 they became independent from Portugal. And were immediately occupied by Indonesia whose military regime didn’t just oppress them for the next 25 years, it carried out systematic massacres which cost the East Timorese 10% of their entire population.
After a guerrilla resistance (and don’t forget, the Timorese fought on the side of the British and Australians in world war 2 against the Japanese , effectively holding back the invaders from landing on mainland Australia) they won their independence and became the first independent state of the 21st century.
Timor Leste, however, was a poor country and many people there with their Portuguese passports were able to find work in the European Union, which benefited greatly from these hard working and friendly people. As Bridgwater does today.
Bridgwater choir ‘The Voice of the People’ travels Europe yearly and links up with choirs everywhere, singing together of peace and friendship. Last year they went to Budva in Montenegro, a country which wants to join the European Union and can’t understand why Britain seems to be going the opposite direction. I can’t explain that either. And it’s even more confusing this week when the Government seems beset by even more confusion . First prize goes to anyone who can explain why Brexit secretary Dominic Raab resigned because of a deal that he himself had negotiated. Second prize to anyone who can explain Jacob Rees Mogg (without laughing).
However, VOP met a choir in Montenegro, discovered they had a Carnival there and so invited them here. Hence the cheerful sunny sight of Montenegrins dancing through the streets of Bridgwater in early November dressed as happy rays of sunshine. And why people in Montenegrin peasant folk costume were present at the opening of the new Mercure Hotel.
Our Oldest Allies
It’s not such a well known fact that Portugal is Englands oldest ally at 600 years and still going strong. Nor maybe that Portuguese Troops fought alongside us in the Napoleonic wars and World War 1.
Today as fellow European Union members their people are living and working over here as some 50,000 Brits are doing exactly the same over there. In Bridgwater we not only have a Portuguese cafe (Aveirense in Eastover) but a large Portuguese work force in our factories, second only to the Polish in number. And of course now a Portuguese Mayor.
For several years TUGA productions has staged a ‘Portugal Day’ event amongst other things to promote the country and to motivate the community and recently we have now seen the launching of a Somerset Portuguese Association, based here in the town as well.
So, change is in the air. In fact, it’s here. We’ve changed.
And let’s all have a bit of it. On Saturday 24th November we’re holding a Bridgwater History Day at the Art Centre where 7 historians are talking about different aspects of our town’s history. Our international friends are welcome and will surely want to learn about the town that is now their home.
Then on Saturday 1st December, the Bridgwater Together group is hosting a night of International music at the Art Centre featuring top Irish band The Eskies, supported by locally based musicians from Poland, Portugal, East Timor…and Bridgwater.
Our Community Moving Forward
Diogo has also innovated the airwaves and has taken our already grassroots council that little bit further into the hearts and minds of the people. His ‘Mayor Live’ events on Facebook are popular regular features that involve the community.
So far he’s discussed Transport, Carnival, Shopping and County cuts and next up it’ll be Policing. If you want to catch any of these interviews or check out the next one you can go to his page here.
Until then let’s leave you with some of the kind things Bridgwater people are saying about their Internationalist Mayor.
Tania King I’m not even from Bridgwater and admire your efforts there. Wish more mayors and locally elected representatives throughout the UK could take a leaf out of your book to step up to the plate. You’re a much needed breath of fresh air
Alex Roland Fantastic ! You have done a huge amount in your time and we have all been very grateful for the enthusiasm,dedication and hard work you’ve put into raising the towns profile as well as taking time to listen to people and meet with them. In my work I’ve seen you at lots of events and realise you must have at least three doubles to be in so many places at once! You are a fantastic example and really hope you can continue your great work. Hugely impressed!
Megan Boucher Fantastic! We are so proud to have you as mayor! Well done
Michelle Pattenden You are an inspiration
Jo Gould Thank you! You’ve certainly raised the bar for the role of Mayor. I hope you enjoy your 2nd half
Becky Wright Your just brilliant I really appreciate all you do
Paul Olson You are doing a good job. Let us all hope you have set the standard for the mayor’s role in the community. Bridgwater needs lots of councillors like you
Sue Park You have been a brilliant mayor