Rosie works in the university cafe. She used to kid me along by saying “It’s not rocket salad you know”, but when I told her I was going to work at Leicester’s other university, she flatly denied it had one. She couldn’t think where … but when I said ‘De Montfort’ she said “Oh you mean The Poll-eh! Why didn’t you say?” She didn’t care anyway. The University was for them on the hill while the Poly was for us down the town. It’s not rocket science you know.
Too trivial for Cool Britannias, too local for Metropolitans, too perverse for Intellectuals – the story says something about how the British think of themselves. In fact, stretching from the old medieval community at one end of the campus to the bright wide piazza at the other end to the elegantly converted Victorian buildings in the middle, De Montfort (DMU) has not only given the city a second university, it has given it a second heart.
They used to make socks in the Clephan Building. Now we make Arts graduates. Nobody I know at DMU thinks it’s Balliol or wants it to be. This is ‘De Mont’: and it don’t mean a thing unless it’s got that Leicester swing. Just like Vaughan College over the way. Sold off by the university on the hill but now being reclaimed by the city council and a cooperative of tutors and students, Vaughan is a tiny bit of civic pride aligned to the mighty business of learning and living.
You wouldn’t know any of this if you never made it out of London. Leicester gets on with the essential matter of being ordinary. In 2016, Leicester City Football Club won the English Premier League. They sang ‘we know what we are’ all through last season, and the second line crashed back: ‘CHAMPIONS OF ENGLAND’. And so they were. At the beginning of the season this very ordinary club was 5000/1 against. Do you know what that means? It means that the money men – ultra realists in these matters – reckoned the club could play for 5000 years and never win the League. In other words, it meant never. But they won it all the same.
Islam Slimani, their Algerian front man who plays alongside England striker Vardy, recently scored with a beautiful glancing header. The Kop showed their appreciation by rhythmically clapping and chanting ‘Islam Salami’. Not correct. But not nasty either. Mischievous more like. I didn’t hear any comments from the three Muslim lads in front. They were clapping too. Too trivial, too local, too perverse, you wouldn’t catch any of this in an official guide.
In 2012, Leicester found an English King buried under its social services car park. About 10 feet down and in Reserved Space Number 3, marked ‘R III’, they found the body of Richard III, slain in battle in a Leicestershire field in 1485. At first the city didn’t know how to celebrate its own celebrity, but in the end a bizarre mixture of loony medieval pageant and Anglican rock carnival re-buried him under a block of Yorkshire granite.
Just for a moment, Richard was a multicultural hero in the first European city with a majority black and Asian population. Leicester doesn’t talk about its diversity all that much. It leaves that to others, usually up from London on a day return. As with Vaughan and De Mont, as with being Champions of England, as with finding the King of England in a car park, it just gets on with it.
These are the sort of stories that hold a country together – told in what the historian E P Thompson called an “English idiom”, which he described as “disintegrative of universals”. In the great Brexit debate, by adopting a universalism of such proportions they almost sailed away, the British intellectual class lost the debate and the result. This they could not believe. I repeat. This-they-could-not-believe. The Guardian newspaper, once a bastion of Thompson’s empirically-minded English idiom, took on the spite of The Bourbons. Its sister paper, The Observer, responded with an editorial that began by calling the people sheep.
The trouble with the new liberalism is that it believes in itself more than it believes in the people – which is awkward for an ideology whose master narrative has always been the masses against the classes. In the wake of the Referendum, the British people now find themselves simply not good enough for their intellectual betters who, in turn, don’t know how to forgive them for being so trivial, so local and perverse etc. What to do? Keep all northerners in the North? Lock all white van men in their van? Disenfranchise all those who can’t speak European good like what we can? I exaggerate, but only slightly.
Those who were good with words, of course, said it best. Novelist Ian McEwan said his country had befouled itself, while with a Shakespearian flourish Ben Okri asked if there were “no windows that can take away this smell”? Sir David Hare, the well-known Hampstead playwright, thought Britain could only look forward now to “a loveless future” of “social backwardness”.
Ah well, let us suggest a couple of positives instead. First, Brexit indicated a British belief in themselves and their institutions. The Left always told the people that the country belonged to them. The Right never did. But then, in the 1990s when the Left made their great global cart-wheel into neoliberalism and lost their reason for being British along the way, the people – English, Welsh or Scots –never forgot their identity as self-determining peoples. Not for the first time in their history, they looked to themselves.
This is complicated because they came out for themselves in different ways, but at least they go forward now with a politics which, for all its faults, they understand and, quite remarkably, they want to understand. No one ever accused the EU of being understandable. Neither Left nor Right nor listening to its peoples in any sense those peoples would recognise, Brussels represents the extreme neo-liberal single market middle wanting everything everywhere.
Second, the economic future has to be played for it is true, and there is no doubt that many people voted Remain because (quite understandably) they didn’t fancy taking the risk. But one thing is certain: for all the difficulties of leaving, we now have the opportunity to rethink our place in a post-modern world where it is not clear, and has not been clear for some time, either where the big money is being made, or where the big decisions are being taken, or where the big borders are being drawn.
At the very least, it is now up to the British state (no excuses) to regulate the free flotation of capital and labour and reverse the slide in the quality of life of that half of the country who are not graduates. We are where we are and, for all its creaks and bangs, the British people understand their electoral system and make it work. At the very least they are better placed to see what is going on, and no one ever accused the EU of being transparent. For example, the future of British fishing could provide a nice little test case of whether Brexit will be made to deliver for fishing communities, or just the banks. The Norwegians, by the way, who understand these things, have just issued a new 200 kroner bank note showing a giant cod.
The British are at their best when they are not trying to be extraordinary. Look at our friends Tim and Izzie’s green gardening in Brittany. The Chartists used to call for three acres and a cow. They are doing it on three acres and a wifi connection. Or look at Manchester, a city that turned being prosaic into an art form but is also one of the Europe’s great hubs of science and technology. Or consider Hull, once famous for fish but UK City of Culture as well, and the chosen home of England’s greatest modern poet. Larkin specialised in turning bits of ordinariness – an old photo, a musty church, a train journey – into magic. You can meet him on Hull’s station platform any day.
The real and most hopeful life of these islands is not the sort that the British Council finds easy to promote or uncover, try as it may. Away from the tourist image, the British people come together in a million ways not ordinarily appreciated. From poetry slams to charity matches, from coops to parish councils, from French classes in front rooms to badminton clubs in village halls, to gudwaras, allotments, beer festivals, garden fetes, community campaigns, literary festivals, street parties and the like, they have long shared the democratic knack of coming together for small causes and big results. Alongside, there is their equally remarkable capacity for trusting each other, for feeling free to say “Yes’ or ‘No’, ‘Thanks’ ‘No Thanks’ and ‘Cheers’ all in a moment. You can most quickly find this holding the door for someone in a pub, but you can most powerfully access it by getting to know somewhere local.
Last Saturday evening, my friend Albyn celebrated his birthday in a boiling Italian restaurant in Durham City. All around us, northerners were eating and drinking at their most unabashed until suddenly the table next door started singing. They were a choir from down south (doon sooth) who had been to the Cathedral but now they were singing for him. The waitresses folded their arms. The bar staff grinned at each other. The manager took a minute as the other tables went quiet and just for a moment the ordinary became extraordinary. It wasn’t the rocket salad. It’s the power of place.
And now, it seems, we are in a summer of disasters – from a suicide bomb to knives and vans and the horrible fire at Grenfell Tower. London, it seems now has a Shroud as well as the Shard. But in the million ordinary ways in which people responded, big cities suddenly seemed small again, face to face, and close at hand. My kinds of town.