Leicester – city of no surprises

I went to a vegetarian restaurant the other day. (Bear with me on this.) The food was terrific. But more than that, Halli Restaurant somehow summed up the idea of a plural city, a symbol of a very modern take on diversity.

It’s in Leicester. There are myths about Leicester. One is that it is dull. In one sense this is not a myth at all, but rather part of the story of a city that was once most famous for producing socks and pantyhose – the wonderfully Mrs Slocomb-esque “hosiery”. Leicester is the embodiment of a kind of ornate suburbia. Joe Orton and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, both masters of the language of comic self-importance, were born there. Both were geniuses at imparting over-significance to the minutiae of the everyday, with hilarious effect. Leicester has the same quality. It once launched a glorious promotional slogan. On all the buses in huge letters, incredibly, ridiculously, it read “Leicester City of Surprises”. Most people tittered.

At the end of the sixties the city played host to a group of Indians, fleeing East African. They are now the largest minority group in the city. Unlike in many other cities in the North and the Midlands Leicester’s Asian population is largely Hindu and Indian rather than Pakistani or Bangladeshi and Muslim. In clumsy broad-brush strokes Leicester is roughly 60% “white” and 40% “black or Asian”. Which has given rise to another myth, a rash of stories uncritically reported by the papers and repeated by the CRE and other agencies that “Leicester will be the first non-white majority city in Britain by 2011”.

But according to Professor Ludi Simpson and Dr Nissa Finney of the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research at the University of Manchester in their recent paper, this is highly unlikely to happen before 2020. And anyway, they argue, this really only has any real significance, if you think that “white” or “black and Asian” have any kind of homogeneity as groups. They point out that the story is really a shorthand for anxieties that some existing consensus about how to live in and govern cities will be displaced by a different and foreign one, that “newcomers….will upset the applecart of the accepted way of life and governance”.

During the conference where I was speaking (hence the dinner the night before) a number of people referred to diversity in such clumsy ways as organised religion or these broad ethnic groups. Clearly both notions do contribute to our identities, but they do not describe the whole of us. They are just stepping-stones on the journey to creating what Robert Putnam, the American sociologist, calls ‘a new we’. One woman next to me muttered in my ear with a sarcastic grin “my boyfriend is white and I am not having an arranged marriage”.

So why did the restaurant seems to transcend this? Well, because when I walked in the door, my spirit slightly dropped as I looked at the décor. There was more blonde bargain pine in there than in Ikea. The pie crust backs to the chairs and the dark wooden floor made me think that we had come to one of those vegetarian restaurants that in the 80’s called themselves Health food Cafes. I expected to be bloated with faceless veggie gloop, off a menu, of the kind that I once described as being ‘lentilly handicapped’. But in fact Jamion Thomas the owner came from Kerala six years ago to join his wife, an NHS nurse, and after a working life spent in the hospitality industry, realised his dream of opening a Southern Indian vegetarian restaurant. The food has its roots in Udupi, a village – a Halli – in Karnataka. I asked the waiter for a wine recommendation, but he was a Muslim, so it wasn’t his strong suit. He smiled and we chose. The customers, who were an all-encompassing bunch, were ordering the food with the confidence of regulars. Outside proudly hangs the banner announcing Halli’s Award as Venue of the Year in the Leicester Comedy Festival. In February they play host to a regular diet of comedy newcomers.

What was so striking about this cultural melange was that the aesthetic of the place had broken free of its preconceptions. It just felt like a restaurant in Leicester. Rather ordinary looking, it’s light hidden under a bushel of inexpensive pine (even the menus are made of wood), it is a symbol of what Leicester is now. As the city tells the story of its next forty years, those who have come to live there have not so much changed it as become it. Listen to them talk and they don’t sound Asian, they just sound Leicester. A city of no surprises whatsoever.

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