“I don’t know what I’ll be when I grow up” – Ben, Leicester.
With each place I reach, it seems like most people aren’t quite sure why they’re here or what they’re doing. People laugh when I ask them my usual opening question, how’s life in this place? Every conversation begins with a series of jokes. Life seems like a series of accidents and coincidences, with a vague hope of work or family connections steering people into lifestyles and occupations they’ve never really given much thought to.
In the morning I talk with my good hosts, Laura, Caitlin and Ben. We have similar backgrounds, being postgraduate students with experiences of unemployment and being skint, of trying to complete a PhD, a silent and mind-numbing ordeal. We share concerns about the difficulties of finding any kind of stable job in the future.
University research is a peculiar kind of occupation. Alongside being a sessional (temporary) lecturer, it is among the lowest paid work in the country, and that is if one is lucky enough to have a scholarship. Yet to succeed one must become ‘civilised’, and adopt the eloquent and authoritative vocal manners and powerful dressing of the upper middle classes. Elbow patches and corduroy, sipping wine instead of beer at university events.
To the outsider the university researcher is on the up, is often judged to be unfamiliar with manual (or any kind of) work, and probably from a wealthy background. The experiences are often much different. Friends of mine struggle on very little money and work all manner of jobs. Depression and anxiety disorders are common. One must apply all over the English-speaking world to get a job, and expect to move anywhere from Dubai to Denbighshire.
In this respect, university work little different to many other forms of professional work. But there are growing problems of stress and low pay. Universities have massively expanded across Britain, in towns like Leicester, Coventry, and elsewhere. Students often arrive poorly-prepared and many speak inadequate levels of English, as universities make new efforts to recruit students overseas who pay much higher fees. Over-filled classes are then run by hard-working young people whose contracts often pay less than the minimum wage, when preparation time is taken in.
There is a danger of having a new idea in the university.
My hosts depart to their respective jobs, and I gaze out at the window. I’ve slept in a former hosiery factory in Leicester’s ‘Creative Quarter’. As I wander out, it’s hard to gather what’s being created here. Perhaps it is a branding attempt to ghettoise young professionals in these American-style apartments?
Leicester is full of such quartering. I visit St. Matthew’s estate, England’s most income-deprived area until recently. It is a strange place, isolated from the rest of the town by thick snaking roads busy with traffic. Its location suggests it is a leper colony. I pass the inward-facing social housing, ugly 1960s planning that blocks up on itself, giving the impression of a castle, with the roads as a kind of moat. The social composition is homogeneously very poor, mostly Muslim, and from Somalia and other north-east African states I think. I pass delightful wafts of incense and boiling rice, and overhear bubbles of friendly chatter in other tongues, and past launderettes and a community centre whose signs are all in Arabic. I have no problem with not hearing English in a place. As a modern language it is little over 500 or 600 years old. Countless tongues have been spoken here, and people are entitled to express their culture as they choose.
The people I encounter seem warm and open, and I am disappointed that as hosts, this country has given them such an ugly and badly-integrated place to call home. Without exception, 1960s and 70s town planning has been an unmitigated disaster for urban landscapes.
I weave to Belgrave road and cycle up the Golden Mile, past Sari stores and sweetshops, restaurants wafting out curried aromas, and endless jewellery shops that give the place its name. Here multiculturalism seems to have succeeded. Leicester has the largest Diwali celebrations outside of India. Alongside a bustling Indian community are other stores, from a Portuguese grocers to fish and chip shops, from Chinese takeaways to angling shops. Local hip hop blares out of white transit vans driven by young British Asians. The haphazard local driving and the contrast of smells and sights reminds me of Rye Lane in Peckham, near where I grew up. As I cycle out I pass a statue of Mahatma Ghandi.
I brave the major roads back towards the town centre. I am liking Leicester a great deal. The combination of building styles and communities is a continual surprise. It is full of quirks. There is a dedicated exhibition to Daniel Lambert, once the fattest man in recorded history, who once exhibited his 50-stone bulk to passing visitors during the early 19th century in order to make money. He was a jail-keeper and dog-breeder, and as I cycle along the cobbled lanes, I picture this huge man fighting a bear in the town centre. I am told that Bradgate Park is also a mythical and beautiful place, with its sleepy deer and tumbled down manor ruins. I potter through the pedestrianized shopping precincts, where refreshingly there are a number of independent shops and restaurants and a huge market. This is not a British Town Centre.
Leicester is also the home of one of the most important pioneers of parliamentary democracy. Simon De Montfort was a 13th century baron and earl of the area. He raised a rebellion against king Henry III and effectively took over the country. Rather than attempting to put a crown on his head, De Montfort called and established two parliaments, which acted to strip the King of unlimited authority, and which gave political representation to towns. Although De Montfort’s intentions weren’t always laudable and reflect a typical opportunism (he also booted out the Jewish community from Leicester), these are important milestones in the development of democracy, something which has always been hated and abused by the powerful. I want to thank De Montfort, but there are no monuments I can find to him, and the city seems to have largely forgotten him.
I am searching for a dead body.
Richard III’s remains were recently found in the car park of the local council’s social services department. No-one seems to know quite where though, and the internet is largely inconclusive. Eventually I work out that it is at the Greyfriars building, near New Street and Friar Lane, close to the town’s small cathedral. I sneak in to the building site, where men in hard-hats wander about lazily and heavy drills expel any wandering thoughts from taking hold. The king has been perfectly vilified, his name being a euphemism for a bowel function in London. Shakespeare, poet and establishment patsy, has persuasively cast him as the sickly and malevolent fool. History is a story we tell ourselves, that we are told. His body, found full of horrific wounds, is one object in this island’s long history of ambitious and vainglorious men fighting for the control of others.
I have one more tip to take up before I leave. I follow the pedestrianised New Walk up to the university. In the Richard Attenborough building here is the most unusual lift I have ever come across. It is called a Paternoster lift, and continually moves up and down the building along a chain, following the shape of an oval. It is a little scary to climb aboard the moving lift, and the thing feels a little dangerous, but it takes me to the top of the building where there are some great views of the city.
It is time to leave, and so I head out, following a cycle route that, predictably enough, is poorly-signed and involves going up a steep staircase. I make it out of town and pass the sweety malty smell of Everard’s brewery. Thereafter I pass through increasingly hilly countryside, through places with cheery names like Glen Parva and Slang Spinney. I pass wheat growing in fields, though the land is less intensively farmed than Lincolnshire. I follow a route that takes me along Fosse Way, an ancient Roman road that once linked Exeter to Lincoln, and which marked the western frontier of Roman Britain. It is a remarkably straight road, as if it was drawn into the landscape by a great laser beam. There is little evidence of any Roman activity today, but the road’s lethal history is reflected in the high number of car and motorbike accidents that happen today. I cycle with care.
I approach Coventry and pass the Rolls Royce factory, before cycling through a bizarrely empty and overdeveloped technology park. Aviation and aircraft-building were once huge local industries here. The inventor of the jet engine, Frank Whittle, was born in nearby Earlsdon. There is no monument or little local knowledge of this man to whom we now all depend. Most factories have either closed up or cut down their workforces. In terms of major goods, it seems that little is still made in Britain.
As I approach the town, I pass a lady on horse-back. Although fully clothed, she’s a mythical sign that I must be entering the city. In the 11th century, Lady Godiva rode out through the town naked, on a horse. In a stunt that seems to anticipate Pussy Riot, she staged a protest against her husband’s heavy taxation on the impoverished people of Cov. It seems to have worked. She instructed all the town’s people to close their windows and not look but, as the myth goes, one lascivious tailor named Tom had a peek, and was either struck blind or dead. Such is the danger of being a peeping Tom.
Coventry is a tougher and more ugly place than Leicester, but full of rich tales. Its charm is wherever the city asserts itself against its own ugliness. The late 1970s Ska revival boomed here, and the city gave us The Specials and the Two Tone label, a fusion of Jamaican reggae with British pop and rock sensibilities, combined with a natty dress code and a gentlemanly ethics. Jerry Dammers also wrote Ghost Town for the band, a song about Coventry as it was about anywhere else.
“You travelled from town to town and what was happening was terrible. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down… We could actually see it by touring around. You could see that frustration and anger in the audience. In Glasgow, there were these little old ladies on the streets selling all their household goods, their cups and saucers. It was unbelievable. It was clear that something was very, very wrong.”
The song was number one for three weeks. As I cycle through working-class Ansty there are signs that there has still been no recovery. I pass run-down pubs and closed shops. A man in a transit van starts ranting at me at a traffic light whilst I stand on the pavement eating a sandwich. Frustration and anger are etched into the place. Ghost Town was about there being nowhere to go out, nothing to do. Coventry once had a culture of drinking and street fighting which, as I’m told with a little regret, is starting to die out.
I pass working men’s clubs and social clubs for the first time too, something that always feels distinctly northern feature to me. They are intriguing places. They are democratically run by a council, and in exchange for a very small membership fee, one can drink some of the cheapest beer in town. Profits are put back into the club, making the beer even cheaper. They were also considered to be parochial, sometimes racist, and men only places. Cov was once full of these social clubs but, without factories, there are few working men to patronise them. They tend to attract retired old men who are functionally alcoholic. Those that have survived have had to change their style and embrace the community, such as the one in Ansty, which is now doing well in a newer kind of guise.
I follow the road into town and enter the city’s extremely confusing ring road system. I manage to escape without having to go over a flyover but it’s a close shave. The town has experimented with autonomous traffic systems, where there are no road signs at all and drivers are forced to think about what they do. This is a great move. Streets are no longer cluttered with unnecessary signs that infantilise drivers, and there are very few accidents.
The university has carried out a silent coup in the city. Most of the major buildings near the cathedral are now stickered up with their signs. Local pubs sell food and beer for staggeringly cheap prices. I get to the cathedral, where Coventry again asserts its tough and fascinating identity in spite of itself. The city was largely erased by Luftwaffe bombing during the second world war, and its famous cathedral was largely razed to the ground. Some of its walls remain and have been restored, and one can wander round the ruins of the cathedral where, at its altar, sits a wooden cross that famously fell intact from the fire. It’s very unlikely, but it’s another local myth I like very much. The new cathedral is also remarkable and full of strange artworks, from images of unearthly angels and devils to a remarkable tapestry and stained glass inside.
I meet my friend Stephen here, who has kindly offered to me put me up for the night with his girlfriend Ann. We talk by the cathedral, which also faces the university and where young people laugh about on skateboards. We wander through the older parts of the town before visiting the Whitefriars pub, one of the oldest pubs in the universe I’m told, where we share a good deal of beer and laughter.
Ann and Stephen also share a similar background to me, and work a variety of teaching jobs. They tell me about teaching English to the huge number of overseas students that the town attracts. There are great cultural barriers to broach, from the heavily oral learning culture of Omani engineers to the more timid, introspective and word-based learning of young Chinese students. Both are at the coalface of modern higher education, being turned into a privatised free market that sells services that only the rich can afford.
International students tend to be from the upper class or wealthy middle class of these overseas countries. Students bring in photos of themselves having dinner with the prime minister. Teachers are frequently offered bribes in exchange for better grades. Corruption can easily seep in, as staff pay decreases and the aggressive and egoistic impulses of business management take root. Ann tells me about her family background, of strong women who led families and just got on with it: I’m sure I’ll come across this again in the north.
Like with two-tone music, beneath Cov’s tough exterior is a deeply multicultural core where diverse peoples now live together in stable and friendly communities. It indicates that multicultural integration is a fact of modern British life and should be celebrated as an indicator of our island’s historic liberalism and tolerance.
It’s not been a long day in terms of travelling but it’s been a full day of adventures. Improbably, we manage to fit the bicycle and ourselves into a cab and drive out to Earlsdon, to a proper northern looking terraced street with backyards that face each other, linked by a small alleyway. It reminds me of Chapeltown, Leeds, where we used to visit my Irish gran and play football with the local Bangladeshi kids on Sheepscar park. It’s a good form of design, allowing neighbours to quickly get to know each other and establish mutual support and trust, far better than the high-rise yuppiedromes of London that one sees in Stratford or Elephant.
I have become a pig. I end up eating about three bowls of the delicious veggie Bolognese Stephen makes, washed down with countless bottles of German beer and polished off with a bowl of cereal. They are good people and wonderful hosts, and I’m sorry to leave. I sleep in the area of Frank Whittle, in a city that now sells services instead of making things. Cov seems to capture many of the contradictions of Britain, caught between identities and time-zones, a city unsure of its future, a future that, whatever happens, will no doubt pale in comparison with the achievements of the past.
Like many built environments, political incompetence and deceit has led to a profound decline in the country that began with jobs closures and is now manifesting itself through the destruction of the built environment, and corruption of public services. In spite of its ugliness and catastrophes, in spite of its history, Coventry has come through. Can we do the same?