As L P Hartley said, the past is a foreign country, and he might have added that there is no land on Earth where we so deeply lament the ignorance of the natives. Until recently, I had no desire to revisit the Leicester council estates where I spent 13 years growing up. Through the generosity of relatives, I was lucky enough to attend public school and subsequently escape from my early surroundings. When my family decamped to Wiltshire, our transition from the underclass to the middle class was complete. My single-parent mother is now a scion of the local Conservative Party, and the events of our former lives are taboo in her household. Having lately exploited my unearned opportunities with what I judged to be reasonable success, I was able to return to the place of my birth without the fear that I might have to remain there.
The atmosphere of one’s home town often passes unnoticed; a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas breathed by people who speak without accents. The inner suburbs of Leicester, however, do not easily form such a neutral backdrop.
As perennial council tenants, my family enjoyed postings in several of Leicester’s sink estates. Because such surroundings were invariably undesirable, we were forever petitioning to be moved. The composition of the requisite formal letter was an important ritual. Small, neat handwriting in blue ballpoint pen on blue writing paper had to be checked and rechecked, in the absence of a dictionary, by my mother, and sometimes myself, for spelling mistakes. These letters were probably taken far more seriously by us than by the officialdom to whom they were addressed, but they were always effective. The process, with grim inevitability, went like this: you moved into a house, dropped your bags, looked around and announced, “This is a doghole”. You then applied to the council for another move. Eighteen months to three years later, they got around to processing your application and you were transferred to another home. The process then began anew.
This is not to say that some abodes were not preferable to others. Of all the booby prizes in the housing lottery, the grand, rollover jackpot was a semi in a street called Deepdale. The house in question possessed no central heating, no running hot water, and its lavatory was situated in the garden. The local social worker told us, with visible civic pride, that we were living in the first council house to be built in Britain after the 1945 Labour victory. The year we took up occupancy, however, was 1985, in the height of summer. We had a mere six months to wait before we had to sweep snow off the toilet seat prior to sitting down.
Before our journey to Deepdale, my grandmother told me that the famous writer Colin Wilson had once lived in our new street. If I had been expecting bohemia, I was to be sorely disappointed. Travelling with our belongings by taxi cab, the closer we came to our new home, the shorter were the haircuts of my new contemporaries.
Almost there, we stopped at a set of traffic lights outside a chip shop, where I foolishly made eye contact with a local boy a couple of years my junior. He snarled at me and made as if to stave in the window. The boy turned out to live in the house opposite our destination with his parents and brothers, in an arrangement that raised serious questions about traditional family values.
The most dangerous individuals on every estate came from secure nuclear families where the father dutifully stayed around to tutor his progeny in the finer arts of thuggery and antisocial behaviour. The boys’ first lesson seemed to be that attack is the best form of defence, and the consequence was that such families could single-handedly terrorise whole neighbourhoods. The same phenomenon is repeated on the world stage, it appears.
One day, I was making a trip to the local corner shop when the same eight-year-old neighbour on his bicycle caught my attention from across a busy road. I could not hear what he was trying to say, so I shouted for him to repeat himself. Again, I could not hear him, and shouted my request once more. Still none the wiser, I gestured that I would cross over to speak with him face to face. When the traffic parted, I made my way across and told him that I was sorry, but I could not hear a word he was saying.
He bent over into my ear. “I think you’re a fucking cunt!” he yelled at the top of his voice. As I recall, I rarely ventured outdoors over the next two years. When I did, I rode on my own bicycle as fast as the pedals would turn.
These confrontations usually took place without reference to the familiar trappings of the underclass lifestyle. There was a singular absence of drink and drug problems in our street. These men required no demons to possess them during their frequent bouts of violence. They acted as they did simply because that was what they were like. I kept well hidden, so my other encounters with aggression outside school hours were limited to reading the printed leaflets that were pushed through our letterbox by the “Baby Squad”. This organisation was not a branch of social services, but a firm of particularly vicious football hooligans who recruited door to door for a while during the enterprising Eighties.
The family of my young nemesis was banned from the area some years ago, according to the friendly Asian woman who now lives with her family in our old house (which today boasts two indoor toilets – one upstairs and one downstairs). She is unsure where the council moved them to. Braunstone is Leicester’s very own Devil’s Island, where the inhabitants are contained by a cunningly devised system of dual carriageways. The policy has been largely successful, and the town has never acquired the national notoriety of rivals such as Manchester’s Moss Side.
Braunstone’s residents have never expressed their disaffection in political terms, but cynicism is endemic. Like many who believe the world to be a terrible place, their first reaction is to make it even worse. The streets are populated by unshaven, lurching old men and period urchins brandishing sticks or branches.
Today, however, one front garden provides a break from the parade of deceased cars and debris: a full-sized, brightly coloured bouncy castle that blocks out half the house. None of the children playing on it when I pass by is bouncing. They prefer to clamber up its walls and shin along the rubber battlements, still gripping their sticks.
The children of Braunstone used to live their lives between the amusement arcades and martial arts centres which still appear to outnumber pubs in Leicester’s city centre. When our loose change was not disappearing into slot machines, it was saved up to buy ninja “Death Stars” – with which, more often than not, we ended up injuring only ourselves.
Today, the Silver Arcade shopping mall is a market for trendy clubwear, second-hand books and movie memorabilia; 15 years ago, however, a 12-year-old could walk out the proud owner of a cheaply made samurai sword. While the arms dealers have retreated somewhat, or at least hidden their merchandise under the counter, the local taste for downmarket gambling grows unabated.
Leicester’s amusement arcades were dingy, seedy establishments that seemed destined to fall to gentrification. Instead, they have merely reinvented themselves in chrome and neon, in line with the city’s gradual rise in affluence. Their bomber- jacketed, under-age punters have been replaced by Burton-suited shop workers and secretaries on their lunch breaks. The womenfolk are a welcome change, as the grunge of the clubbing years has brought a more attainable look to the city’s young and hip. Fifteen years ago, Leicester was where Satan would go to find a wife. The trend in the Eighties favoured the Blind Date perm, a kind of wet-look style worn long in ringlets. Today, smart bobs and perfect teeth are not uncommon.
Like all areas, Leicester’s estates have cultures and forms of life that deserve better than to be patronised. It is difficult – even while being touched by Leicester’s efforts to better itself – not to mock the city. With the provincial release of the film Beat Street, the hip-hop craze finally reached Leicester in 1984. One could scoff at the city’s would-be homeboys and their inept attempts at graffiti in the same way as we can all laugh at “Turkey’s answer to Tom Jones” as presented on The Clive James Show. “Beat Street‘s coming to Leicester” was soon spray-painted on to the walls of the canal, accompanied by an embarrassing diorama of stickmen in baseball caps striking ludicrous breakdance poses.
To provoke pathos was not the artist’s intention, but the reaction is a familiar one to those who have lived in such places long enough to outpace misery and fear. The most dysfunctional of families can make spirited attempts to mimic the Waltons. They take photographs of each other smiling against bookless, pictureless walls and eat fish fingers around the TV together for Sunday lunches at which there is no discernible difference between the conversation of the children and the adults.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Leicester suffered the same decline as any number of post-industrial towns in the Midlands and the north of England. But whereas towns become more alike in success – their progress counted in branches of McDonald’s and Gap – each declines in its own way. Partly because the recovery of the city and its satellite estates is not quite complete, Leicester’s individuality remains palpable.
Although several immaculate shopping malls have replaced the old department stores, I saw no Starbucks coffee houses on my recent visit to the city. Nor do the fashionable bars and cafes that have appeared belong to any chain.
The local council may remain an omnipresent, but sadly not omnipotent, god in the lives of many citizens, but where it has been able to retreat, there is now something of a character in areas that once displayed only a mentality.
However, the inhabitants would probably be as unimpressed by the Tory leaflets that my mother pushes through letterboxes these days as she would be by the progress of her home town.
In a sense, she was right to scoff at my return to my so-called “roots”. Before my first day at public school, a local taxi driver arrived at our semi in Deepdale to take me to my boarding house. He looked my puny, floppy-haired frame up and down, quizzically at first, then with utter contempt.
Shaking his head, he declared: “You are not a Deepdale lad.”