Welcome to Leicester, ed. by Emma Lee and Ambrose Musiyiwa, Dahlia
This has to be one of the most joyful anthologies that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. In 2015 the remains of Richard III were reburied in Leicester cathedral after being discovered under a car park in the city. The following year Leicester’s football team won the Premiership in miraculous, 500-1 circumstances. And in that same year editors Emma Lee and Ambrose Musiyiwa put together a poetry anthology, Welcome to Leicester, that celebrates many other singular facts about the city, and not least, the diversity of its population.
Dawn Bauling in ‘Henna On Her Hands’ describes exotic rituals – “let us take the garba pot /and spin each other skirts” - in a poem dedicated to “the people of Belgrave with whom I lived”. In ‘Land Locked’ Maxine Linnell observes that Leicester is “one hundred miles from sea” and mocks its “slug river Soar”, but then allows her vision to, er, soar:
One day we went to Belgrave Hall gardens,
ate samosas, onion bhajis and apples,
licked oil and spices from our fingers,
lit candles to float downriver,
and sang them off to faraway coasts
Tributes are paid to Leicester figures such as Thomas Cook (Jayne Stanton’s ‘Time Traveller’), and anti-slavery campaigners Susanna Watts and Elizabeth Heyrick (‘Watts Revisited’ by Deborah Tyler-Bennett). Emma Lee has written a poem about Leicester suffragette Alice Hawkins (‘Diary from Holloway Jail February 1997’): “Refused entry when Winston Churchill / spoke at Leicester’s Palace Theatre. / Alfred had to speak for me.”
Jayne Stanton celebrates Big Issue seller Maria and “the lottery of her heritage … / Her feet rock the boats of her shoes / as she cradles the Black Sea in her lap.” And not forgetting the late Sue Townsend, begetter of contemporary chronicler Adrian Mole and his secret diaries. “Before I knew the city I knew you … / I laughed / and felt the happy sadness / of your words”, says Maria Taylor in ‘Sue and I’.
All this and much more, before we’ve mentioned the football. In the 2015-16 season mild-mannered Italian manager Claudio Ranieri and his determined Leicester City team stunned the world, as well as their own fans, by winning the Premiership.
Andrew Button’s ‘Ratae Corieltauvorum’ recalls the Roman name for Leicester, which had a forum, bath house, and basilica, before lauding Ranieri, the modern-day “Caesar of the city, / who restored the reputation of Leicester / with his team of fearless warriors.” Steve Wylie captures the sheer astonishment surrounding the club’s achievement in ‘Leicester’s Gone Blue Daft!’: “We’ve won the bloody football! / Which no-one thought we could, or ought to.” Matt Middleton links “A pile of bones / Both regal and diminished” with “a bespectacled Italian alchemist / Quietly turning base metal into the people’s gold.” (‘Emergency Landing’).
Leicester was not always blue heaven. Two poems – ‘Leamington Street’ by Tony Shelley, and ‘To Leicester Where We Belong’ by Farhana Shaikh – tackle racial prejudice in the city in the 1960s. But times change. We know that in our hearts, even if recent events have given us the shivers. Stand firm. Angela Bailey’s ‘The Patriot’ sees an Asian grandmother standing outside number 97 in her sari, recalling how she and her family fled Uganda and Idi Amin in 1972, and “sought shelter in Belgrave / with her uncle, aunt, and family of ten”:
She worked long hours in the Wolsey factory,
Her husband ran the corner shop;
She had four sons: now one’s a dentist,
Another’s a pharmacist, one drives the buses,
And one runs the corner shop.
All right, Leicester City’s latest results are nothing to write home about. But that just makes their 2015-16 triumph all the more magical. In any event, Welcome to Leicester is about far more than the historic achievement of a football team; the range of its subject matter is remarkable. Buy a copy for any friend or relation with a connection to the city. Even if they have no interest in poetry, they’ll love this book. It doesn’t only make you feel proud of Leicester, it also makes you feel proud of Britain – for all the right reasons.