Thursday, 19 January 2012

Leicester - the way we were

This is an interesting article I picked up from a comment on a blog. It appeared in The Independant and was written in 1993; the author compares news from the Leicester Mercury that year with a 1953 addition of the same month:

ON 8 AUGUST, a jewellers' in High Cross Street, Leicester, was raided and a pad of seven watches, valued at pounds 25, was taken. The thieves had smashed the window by driving a motorcycle at it. In another incident, Jack Beresford, the Olympic oarsman, had his car stolen from outside the Constitutional Club: its starting handle was later found inside a shop window from which televisions and a radio had been removed.

The first incident reflected recent raids in London, where the 'now-familiar technique' of attaching a plank to the front of a car and driving it at a shop window is commonplace. There's nothing new about ram-raiding. But, leafing through the Leicester Mercury of the first week of August 1953, there is little else that is remotely familiar.

Semper eadem - 'always the same' - is the Leicester motto. It could hardly be less appropriate. On the face of it, no city in Britain has undergone more change. Though the population has remained stable at between 270,000 and 290,000, since 1951 its nature has changed entirely. In that year, 1.9 per cent of the city's population was born outside the UK. In 1961, that figure had risen to 2.9 per cent. In the 1991 census only 71 per cent described themselves as 'white' - 22 per cent as Asian.

In 1972, when Idi Amin expelled 27,000 British-passport- holding Asian Indians, Leicester - Britain's 10th largest city, with a population in decline - became the new home for up to half, despite determined opposition - advertisements were placed in Ugandan newspapers advising them to stay away.

The city's daily, the Leicester Mercury, was not slow to catch the local mood, and ran articles with headlines like 'Leicester is full up', and 'Madness to accept Commonwealth immigrants'. But Leicester did accept them, and many more. By 1989, it was estimated that the city had absorbed 40,000 Hindus, 20,000 Sikhs and 15,000 Muslims. The Leicester Mercury has launched an Asian edition, with news from the sub-continent as well as matters of Asian interest in the UK.

Yet, even without this enormous change in the cultural complexion of the population, the tenor of life seems to have changed out of all recognition.

The Mercury of August 1953 gives an impression of a placid, humdrum community characterised chiefly by its lack of what we would call news. It reflects a community that still tugs its forelock. A front-page picture story is headlined 'Lady Nutting found time to hold visitor's baby', above a respectful piece telling how Sir Harold and Lady Nutting graciously welcomed 1,200 sightseers to 'their stately home', Quenby Hall, in need of money for restoration.

Parish pump matters are a local newspaper's business, and the Mercury of 1953 had a good idea of its priorities. A story on Leicester dog show, and its near- record entry, sits beside a bald account of power cuts in East German factories and the wrangling over exchanges of prisoners-of-war in Korea.

It is the week of the August bank holiday, and a good proportion of the Leicester population has gone to the East Coast for a week by the sea. Reporters were despatched to Skegness ('The bathing pool at Skegness attracted quite a crowd on Sunday . . .') and the Mercury was on sale at the seaside. So we learn of 12-year-old Raymond Withers, of South Wigston, who missed his footing stepping on to the platform from a train on his return from Mablethorpe, and hit his head. Leicester Royal Infirmary states his condition to be 'quite fair'.

The Mercury still dispatches reporters to East Coast resorts, but the holiday jollities reported last week were different. Last Saturday was the Caribbean Carnival - police 'anticipated 30,000 revellers at the event'. At the beginning of the week was the Hindu and Sikh Raksha Bandan, or Rakhi, festival, a celebration of kinship.

Holiday entertainment has changed too. For those left in the city in August 1953 there were three theatres, 12 dance halls and 28 cinemas. There are three cinemas now: judging by the 'It's Leisure' page, most Mercury readers are going to car-boot sales for their fun.

Crime, the staple diet of a local paper, has also changed. Page three of the Mercury of 3 August 1993 has stories of plans to put security guards in a community centre to combat drug-dealing; a teenager who had a glass smashed in his face at a wedding reception; a rape case; the pensioner tied up, threatened and robbed of pounds 1,200; a man in court on a murder charge; police comment on the rise in vandalism - 11,500 incidents in 1991 to 12,200 last year - on one estate alone.

A whole week of the 1953 Mercury has news of two or three burglaries ('The Carlton Kinema was broken into over the weekend, but nothing was stolen'), a suicide attempt ('Man admits trying to frighten wife'), two arrests after a pub fight. A Loughborough 20-year-old is charged with stealing pounds 1 from his father.

That week's running story concerns 36 phials of 'deadly poisonous' Novocaine, the dentists' anaesthetic, put through several Leicester letter-boxes. By the end of the week the police discover that children found them on a waste tip. The August 1993 Mercury had a spate of robberies on city taxi drivers to carry it through the week.

There's no shortage of crime stories today. The number of reported crimes in the city in 1953 was 2,449, including one murder, three rapes and 375 burglaries. In 1963, it was 6,654. Last year, Leicestershire Police's central sub-division dealt with 21,143 reported crimes: 1,696 of them burglary, five murders, seven attempted murders and 38 rapes. There were 338 racial attacks.

Unemployment in the Leicester travel-to-work area was 9 per cent in June (the national figure was 10.4 per cent), and one significant similarity in the newspapers is the impressive number of job advertisements - two tight columns in tiny print in the 1953 broadsheet, more than a page in the modern tabloid. And an extraordinary number are still in traditional Leicester industries - hosiery and textiles.

Textiles and clothing are Leicester's largest industry in the manufacturing sector, providing nearly 15 per cent of all jobs. And it is commonly acknowledged that, without the influx from Asia, that industry would be dead. Nearly 1,000 enterprises are listed in the council's Directory of Asian and Afro-Caribbean businesses: the largest section covers clothing manufacture and retail.

Pravin Lukka arrived in Leicester in 1971, initially to work in textiles. He is now a manager with the social services. He explains the success of the Asian businesses in simple terms: 'The Asian entrepreneurs began because the textile industry couldn't face the international competition in the Seventies. Sure, some of them were running sweatshops and paying very low wages, but it put the industry back on its feet.'

The process of change is now slowing, Mr Lukka believes. Primary immigration has halted and the violent racism of the Seventies is a distant memory. 'I am very optimistic about the future. And I wouldn't swap Leicester for anywhere.'

His words echo those of Leicester holidaymakers in 1953, returning from a France stricken by train strikes. 'Thank goodness,' one says. 'I'm sick to death of these unstable countries. I do not think I shall leave home again.' Semper eadem.

We are now almost 18 years on from when that article appeared. Far from primary immigration halting, we have seen further influxes of moslems, Somalians, Vietnamese boat-people, and Eastern Europeans, so Mr. Lukka was wrong there.

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