It’s not often you find that your home town has become the ‘talk of the town’ far and wide, and internationally – especially if your home town is Leicester. And to be fair, Leicester City had been a subject out of fashion for far too many years. Yet now those times may well be in reverse, as Leicester has stepped up a few gears and entered the international spotlight. Oh, and if for some obscure reason you didn’t yet know, the Leicester Foxes football club recently won the Premier League.
The Leicester that I remember as a young boy had a large public swimming baths (St. Margaret’s); an ugly stone bus station (St. Margaret’s Bus Station); and only one semi-decent indoor shopping hall (Haymarket). In those days Leicester had more fame for its large outdoor market, notably where the Lineker family had their vegetable stall. And yes, that’s Gary Lineker, who was born in Leicester too (remember – he of Walkers Crisps fame?). And the indoor fish market still stands at the edge of the Corn Exchange. Another fame of Leicester was its huge array of Indian restaurants where curries were the craze amongst many of us – the hotter the better; and they didn’t come any hotter than the ‘Tindaloo’ served up at the Kur-i-Nor (a bad taste pun on the infamous Indian diamond Koh-i-Noor).
Leicester is famously lit up at the annual Diwali festival and Belgrave Road becomes a celebration of Indian culture, and which has long been the best place to buy those boxes of Indian sweets. Narborough Road was also a flourishing mix of cultures that, to the delight of the large student population, continues to have some of the best bargain shops around. Growing up in Leicester we all knew it was a diverse city, with the central Victoria Park serving as the showground for annual events such as the Leicester Caribbean Festival. And yet there was also a dowdiness to Leicester that showed in its once-dull city centre; a drabness which seeped out of its many run-down and abandoned factories; and which was etched upon the constant reminders that here was an industrial city of middle England that was playing second fiddle to the fame of its neighbour Nottingham.
I left Leicester when I was twenty-four years old to work overseas. For many years I worked as a teacher, both in Europe and in Asia. It was a natural question for my students to ask me where I came from. ‘I was born in Leicester,’ I would unfailingly reply. Their blank glances said it all. More often than not I would be forced to revert to an alternative answer, closer to their pop culture references. ‘It’s next to Nottingham – you know, Robin Hood? Kevin Costner? The flying arrow image?’ ‘Ahhh…’ A look of recognition would dawn across their faces – good, job done. But was it? Invariably the next question would be – ‘…and what’s Leicester like – what’s it famous for?’ Difficult that one: how to answer in terms both truthful and yet in popular culture? After all, my students were almost always teenagers.
‘Look,’ I would say; ‘there are three things you need to know about Leicester. One, it’s the birthplace of England’s heaviest man (Daniel Lambert); two, it was also the birthplace of England’s most famous disfigured man – the Elephant Man (Joseph Merrick), and three, it is home to England’s most unlikely pop group (Showaddywaddy). There – that was Leicester in a nutshell! Or so it used to be. Now there is a very definite Leicester Revival underway.
Recently I was travelling in the Basque Country in the northern tip of the Iberian Peninsula and I was visiting a small valley town where everyone spoke Basque (Euskara) and the national Basque flags hung from balconies and walls. I was introduced to a friend’s father who was in his late seventies. As soon as he heard I was an Englishman he suddenly switched to broken English.
‘I not speak English since school,’ he said. Then he looked at me and his next sentence took me completely by surprise.
‘You know Leicester football? If Tottenham not win next week Leicester get League.’
Wow, that threw me. ‘Yeah, I’m from Leicester!’ I said joyfully. Now, that hasn’t happened in a long, long time. From now on, wherever I go, I sense it’s no longer going to be ‘Do you know Manchester United?’ but ‘Hey, so you’re from Leicester – the Foxes!’
The Foxes, once seen as one of the most unglamorous football clubs, is now the talk of legend. At the start of this season bookmakers gave odds of 5,000 to 1 on a Leicester title. The Economist journal wryly noted how these odds were longer than those on Jeremy Corbyn (the ‘bearded, Marxist leader of the Labour Party’, as they put it)