With prominent uses in not one but two films released so far this year, it’s been a big year for The Specials’ song Ghost Town – and the haunting, decline-riddled conception of modern Britain it attempts to illustrate. In Joanna Hogg’s exceptional Sundance favourite The Souvenir, it is a subtle reference to a busy, unhappy 1980s outside the ornate Knightsbridge inhabited by the film’s primary characters. But in Karim Sayad’s new documentary My English Cousin, which tells the story of Sayed’s cousin Fahed, Ghost Town serves as very much the timely anthem for a society that still hasn’t arrested those years of decline.
Fahed is introduced (somewhat ironically) as an eminent Englishman, the wearer of Arsenal and England football shirts, who strolls around his now-native Grimsby with his hands in his pockets. Like his director cousin, Fahed was born in Algeria, but stands out within the family as a rare émigré from a country that – at least compared to its North African neighbours – hasn’t done too badly out of the past two decades. Fahed, for the first time in the 17 years since he moved to Britain, is nonetheless considering his assumed Englishman status for the first time. He misses home for the first time, he tells Karim, who naturally taps into a relatively timid speaker with greater intimacy and effectiveness than one of his contemporaries might.
Either way, it’s not hard to see why Fahed might be tempted to leave. Even putting Brexit aside – although 71% of Grimbarians favoured the EU withdrawal – the North East seaside town is an all-too-on-the-nose symbol of British post-industrial decline and coastal deprivation; it is a town of empty shops, payday loans, betting machines and cheap beer. If Britain’s nationwide recovery from the financial crisis of a decade ago has been reasonably successful in much of the country, at least compared to the Continent, Grimsby hasn’t heard the news. “Will I spend my whole life in exile?”, Fahed asks himself rhetorically. But it’s a question that does have a yes or no answer.
Another unfortunate complication in Fahed’s story – beyond family machinations, relationship entanglements and an affable aunt who tells us more about Fahed than he seems to know about himself – is the part he himself plays in a fast food-obsessed culture that capitalises half on laziness and half on bad taste. He laments how a home-cooked meal is always better than what you can expect from a fast food outlet – but he also works at one. That’s at least when he’s not in construction, seemingly enjoying this work and the time it allows him to spend in a house share with friends who work on similar projects. They complain that Grimsby isn’t exactly Bel Air, but concede that their places of origin – Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow – haven’t got much on either.
My English Cousin is ultimately a competent and occasionally poignant slice-of-life depiction of the thoughts and feelings of a mild-mannered but conflicted subject, as well as a look at the relatable anxieties around the choices we make between our chaotic familial homes and all-too-often monotonous (or worse) working lives. If it leaves too much unresolved, that’s because Fahed’s life isn’t – at least not yet – a completed picture.