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Emigrate to Leicester: you could do a lot worse

January 5, 2009

Leicester is now officially one of the most diverse towns in the UK, forecast to be the first to have a majority non-white population by 2011. Good news for everyone, argues John Keyes.

My memories of being brought up in Leicester are in most ways fairly typical of anybody of my age and class. Regiments of small terraced, red brick, houses and back street schools, the market in the centre, the Clock Tower and flat midlands accents – not Brummie, not Southern, on the cusp of becoming the North. A place that hosted a welter of the industries Britain had when we made stuff that other people wanted, and bought; shoes, hosiery, light engineering that kind of article. Leicester was not immune from market shifts but diverse enough, in the round, to ride out a lot downturns. The world might decide it didn’t want to buy many ships this year but the demand for socks remained fairly constant. It’s not the stuff of songs and I suppose Leicester is, at heart, a prosaic sort of spot (who sings songs about factories making underpants?) – but it was functional. A place where you could rely on work for you and yours, where houses were relatively cheap and you could build a life. Just the kind of place that would attract immigrants.

Attract immigrants it did – including my Irish Mum and Dad. Rural Ireland in the fifties had little to offer the working classes – another in the succession of Irish generations “reared for the boat”. The message was simple – “There’s nothing here for you – go and do someone else’s heavy, dirty, work and maybe you’ll have a better life. You’ll at least have money to send home” (Ireland was always home). We ended up in Leicester rather than Liverpool, where my parents first lived, because of coal seams. My Dad was a miner, not out of choice but the lack of it – (there was an all round shortage of choice in the late 1940s). He ended up down the pit, firstly in Lancashire, and then North West Leicester. The latter he chose because the coal seams were bigger and if you had to be down a hole in the ground you might as well be able to stand up. He also told me that he was astounded in Leicester to find workingmen with bank accounts and some who even owned cars – an impossible dream.

When we got a house my mother took in lodgers (always Irish) and cleaning jobs. She told me she was glad when West Indians and Asians started arriving in numbers because it took the heat off the Irish.

Though I was born and reared in Leicester, we were immigrants, and we behaved accordingly. Clustered in the worst available housing, the Irish congregated at, and around, the church, the school, the pub and the club, where work and relationships were built and maintained. Some Irish pubs (and these were a long way from the “Shifty O’Shaughnessy’s” type of 1990s branded outlet) acted for decades as recruitment centres for the building trade. New immigrants came to a brother, sister, friend or cousin’s for a roof over their heads and a “start”…. a job to go to…. and the numbers grew. We went to Catholic schools; overseen by an (Irish) parish priest.

Immigrants carry a direct memory of, and a longing for, home and they pass this on to their children – but the Irish are a sentimental people and sentiment does not sit easily with reality. The emigrants left Ireland to escape poverty, small time repression, religiosity and even minor criminal convictions – but the Ireland they left became transformed in the leaving. A place of romantic tales, foolhardy bravery, tyrant landlords, casual cruelty born by the innocent, of laments of lost love – all catalogued in song. Leicester might have been a place of quiet prosaic industry but in the middle of it the Irish congregated and drank, and sang, and courted and married with their own.

The Kellys, Costelloes, Murphys and Maddens are gone from my old school – Irish names and faces replaced by African, Goan and East Europeans – but the church continues as ever, baptising, confirming and marrying the new arrivals – and now burying the Irish dead of the immigrant generations. I felt a strange and (thankfully) fleeting proprietorial twinge at the cast changes in the parish play. But it passed. We had our turn and it’s their go now.

The traditional city centre Saturday market offered heaps of domestic and exotic fruit and vegetables at a price and quality that would have silenced an epicure. A poor man could comfortably survive on guacamole – eight avocados for a quid – or bags of tomatoes, peppers okra, aubergine or sweet potato, not to mention potatoes and cabbage for the Irish – at supermarket-beating prices. The adjacent meat and fish market catered for all tastes, and faiths – again on a pauper’s budget. The costermongers and traders (of all ethnicities) sang their wares in a style unchanged from Dickens, and the more entertaining for that.Leicester market has a use beyond commerce – it forces people to mingle. The direct person-to-person interchange, I suspect, does more for harmony and tolerance than any Council-sponsored “meet your new neighbours” shindig, and certainly beats the sullen, solitary wheelie-trudge of the superstore.

In a multicultural vignette, a crowd of East Asian, Africans and West Indians and native Caucasians, some in the traditional dress of Pound Shop Santa hats, stood around watching a group of chanting and dancing Native American (buskers) in full costume. We waited for the dance-off between the Cherokees and the Bhangra lads but it didn’t happen. As dusk fell, we visited one of the most dangerous Irish pubs of our youth – now a Jazz venue with a wooden (laminated?) floor. A couple of pints of Guinness later we made the traditional visit to an Indian (Pakistani) restaurant and the ”all you can eat’ buffet. No alcohol was available – possibly why we were the only non-Asians – but we took tea and faced up to the ‘all you can eat’ challenge of the buffet in an traditional Irish fashion, all for a tenner a head. The staff of this family-run cafe – big lads with beards – were amiable, helpful and non-intrusive. There was one other notice: “Please do no waste food.” Good advice, good business and a religious requirement all in one.

Leicester is now officially one of the most diverse towns in the UK, forecast to be the first to have a majority non-white population by 2011. “Already 50 per cent of school children of five years age are non-white, and by 2011 we are talking of a non-white majority,”according to Paul Winstone, Race Relations policy officer of the Leicester City Council. Nowhere has this happened peacefully, and we are proud of what we have achieved in Leicester over the last 30 years. We dont want anybody to see this as a threat to the English way of life, since the majority will consist of several minorities,” he said. “Leicester is now a permanently multi-cultural society. Today the Asians have political power, economic power and cultural discipline. The sky is the limit for them.”

From what i saw I’d agree, but the race issue polarises like no other, ranging from A: “they’re savages who eat their own children and will one day murder us in our beds” to Z “delightful, civilized, people – much better than drunken, violent, lazy chavs.” Leicester has hosted large scale immigration for a long time. I don’t live there, and plenty who do are vocal on the subject, but what I observed, and was reassured by, was that the foundations of the place appear sturdy and unshifted by the influx. I’d say good luck to them, in the spirit of my immigrant forebears, and ‘get a life’ to those who don’t like diversity.