Eighty years ago last Saturday the Jarrow Crusade came to Leicester where the workers mended their boots overnight for them. Twenty two years ago last January I came to Leicester to watch the Manic Street Preachers play a wounded, incendiary show as part of the Holy Bible tour. It was the last time I saw Richey Edwards and I have never been back till this week. Six hundred and thirty two years ago, Richard III, last of the Plantagenets, came to Leicester and he never came back either. Actually, come to think of it, he sort of did.
The resurgence of our modern cities often stems from some quirk or unexpected seed. Manchester had its bomb, Birmingham had Simon Rattle and the CBSO, Leicester has the body of a long dead, much maligned ‘crookback’ which turned up under a car park near Costa and Poundland. The sensational re-discovery of Richard III’s burial site in the centre of Leicester, unceremoniously and hastily interred here after being dragged from Bosworth Field. Alongside Claudio Ranieri, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, Dickie Ill (as my old English teacher used to call him) is one of the men responsible, according to many of the locals I spoke to, for the regeneration of the city. And I saw all of them on Saturday afternoon.
The exhibition devoted to Richard III is a triumph for the city. Brilliantly done, it has the right mix of gravitas, reverence and modern cultural savvy. The audio-visual recreation of the battle is thrillingly impressionistic and there’s a smart overview of his contentious reputation and his enduring life as a cultural trope from Kevin Spacey to Laurence Olivier to Johnny Rotten who based his onstage persona it’s said on Larry’s twisted misanthrope, also the inspiration for Peter Sellers who combined it with another hip UK artefact of 1964
Anyway, it’s fabulous. Do visit it. I coud have spent longer there but by 1.45 I was striding up the Welford Rd along with several hundred other single-minded people. A lot has changed in English football since I first went to the cowshed that was Springfield Park to watch Wigan Athletic play Altrincham and Goole Town in the Northern Premier League. Wigan climbed all the way up the tiers of English football to the very top, won the FA Cup and are now sliding joylessly down again. That top tier is now called the EPL, formerly the Premiership, formerly the First Division. Times change, kick off times change but for some of us the thrill as three o clock on a Saturday approaches never ages.
When the Marchers came to town, Leicester City, ‘the Foxes’ were top of the Second Division and heading back to the top having been relagated the year before. The Jarrow lads didn’t have time but I did, and thanks to social media, a terrific woman called Lara and her equally terrific Foxes season ticket holder mate Mark, 2.30 found me sitting with Mark and lad Sam sipping IPA in the Foss Lounge and listening to the reading out the team sheet. For Englishmen of a certain vintage perhaps, this has become a more difficult undertaking since our football became more cosmopolitan.
“Number 19, Islam Salmani…Slam…Salami…”
“SLIMANI” roar back the crowd in amused exasperation
“And finally, the referee, Mr…ah who cares.. They’re all the same..”
Again, more on this when the book appears but suffice to say I had a great time and the Foxes, after a poor start in the League, ran out 3 – 1 winners and I naturally then saw myself as a talismanic presence. ‘You can come every week” says one Foxes fan on Twitter.
I decided to make sure I was back in my room with a warming whisky – autumn was beginning to bite across middle England – to watch the match on Match Of The Day and also to see what kind of mood presenter Gary Linkeker was in. One of Leicester’s favourite sons was ending a turbulent week having incurred the wrath of the Sun newspaper for having the temerity to show some sympathy for the refugee kids in the Jungle camp in Calais. “Getting a bit of a spanking today” he tweeted “but things could be worse: Imagine, just for a second, being a refugee having to flee from your home.
This refers to the Sun’s splash of yesterday “Out On His Ears” (Gary has quite prominent ears… I know… alert the Save Our Sides campaign, as we used to say at the NME) which called “for BBC to sack Lineker after he peddles migrant lies” Quite what the ‘lies’ were I can’t tell you as I never got that far down the article, being too busy picking myself up off the floor at the breathtaking gall of the Sun accusing someone of mendacity. At the time of writing Gary is happily still in his job presenting Match Of The Day, as well as his other one helming BT Sport’s Champions League coverage. Now how exactly has he managed that?
By nine the city centre is vibrant and pulsing, but I see two very different Leicesters here, the same dichotomy I guess I’d see in any big English city today. On his patch between the taxi office and the station I give some cash to a guy selling Big Issue who happily tells me his real name but let’s call him William. He is gaunt and red-eyed; about thirty I’d say but it’s never easy to tell when people live lives like this. His story is typical I imagine; dabbles in heroin, becomes addicted, loses job, house, girlfriend and, he says, access to kids who’ve been adopted by step dad. “My only chance of getting access is to go on Jeremy Kyle” For a moment I think he’s joking, then realize that William actually thinks that wretched freak show is some kind of court. Which I suppose it is
“Still been clean now for two months…apart from this of course” *(he indicates the can of Red Stripe in his shaking hand ) “But you know what does bug me, some of the people you see on the street, they’re not homeless…they’ve got properties…these Rumanians..”
After a while, I make my excuses and turn to go and put my fancy recorder away with its numerous lights and oft lost windshield.
“Hey” he asks “Is that one of those machines you can record ghosts on…”
Later I discover that I have accidentally wiped the audio of all my talk with William. At first I am furious with myself but a little later I grow philosophical, even glad. Of all the encounters on this Jarrow march to date, this was the saddest.
The other Leicester is just a few hundred yards down the road where at pavement cafes along the strip, young people from India, Asia, the Middle and Far East, whose culture or faith or taste doesn’t perhaps embrace alcohol, play cards and drink milkshakes and coffee, eat ice cream and baklava and laugh and flirt and chat outside in what almost be zero degrees. Their presence brings real warmth to the street and the night. The Jarrow Marchers would not have believed it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t have liked it