Wednesday 16 November 2016

Review by Simon Cole of "Welcome to Leicester," ed. Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Lee, and "Born to Run," by Bruce Springsteen

Home Thoughts From Abroad

Holiday reading is important to me. It has to be a conscious choice as the pile of books by the bedside gets bigger, and the time available to read them gets smaller. So a half term break saw two choices make the cut. Springsteen's Born To Run, and Welcome to Leicester: Poems about the City.

Springsteen has produced a magnificent rollicking read, as he heads from sleeping on the beach surrounded by all of his few possessions to mega stardom. Along the way he hasn't lost his sense of humour, of irony and of who he has lost along the way. His descriptions of his battles with himself and his depression are vivid and moving. 

Having engaged with The Boss, I turned my mind back to Leicester, taking myself very quickly from Asbury Park, N.J. To Spinney Hill Park, LE5. Early on in the Welcome to Leicester anthology Paul Lee recalls Spinney Hill Park, in 'her green lap', he recollects how

delighting feet sloshed through
The dew-slick flood of grass

I was hooked. I loved the evocations of places I knew as a child, and know now. The cinnamon scents washing over the Caribbean Festival, the colours and tastes of the Belgrave, THAT view of Old John from the top of London Road and late night in Granby Street. That is a scene that every police officer who has ever worked the night time economy would recognise as Julia Wood describes 'The cash-machine drunks on the pavement.'

There are two omnipresences throughout that are brought to life. The unblinking oversight of a dead King, and the inspiring tale of the fox that was an underdog. 'We've won the bloody football', writes Steve Wylie, 'while policemen laugh', before expressing guilt that he isn't exactly sure who one of the heroes adorning the lampposts in the city actually is! The sense of sport bringing together all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds is writ large throughout. It does capture what it felt like to be in Leicester as the impossible happened, as people danced in the street, as tears were shed, as Nessun Dorma rang out, and as one in four of the population headed for Victoria Park to sing and shout and cheer themselves hoarse. I suppose that as I write this I appear to have 'something in my eye'. The poems capture that feeling very emotively.

Overlooking all is one man. Whilst I would love that man to be the chief constable it is, of course, Richard the Third. 'A pile of bones, Both regal and diminished', a Plantagenet, a resident of York, a talisman, a commentator, a source of inspiration. In Charles G Lauder Jr's 'The City' he is the King hailed by the City one day, before his 'usurper' is festooned the next. Together with the bespectacled 'Italian alchemist' Ranieri as his Caesar, the miraculous discovery of the King in the car park runs as a driving force for a renaissance of civic pride.

For me the biggest theme is of belonging. Poets describe a search for a place to be home, where they can be themselves. Farhana Shaikh writes 'To Leicester Where We Belong', and of her grandparents arriving with just a single suitcase to their name. Some of the language and places of the past used in many poems reminded me of my own grandmother, Leicester born and bred. She would recognise the sounds of the market, the stories of those that make things, the chance to look out from the City into the county beyond. The image of Hui-Ling, Chen's 'Night Swans on the Grand Union Canal' would have resonated with her.

So what's not to like? Inevitably some of the writing grabbed me, and some didn't. In a collection of almost 100 poems and 150 pages that is unsurprising. I felt that some of the footnotes were a bit utilitarian and unnecessary; part of the joy of reading new things is finding out what is being alluded to for yourself.

What I loved most was the swirl of images and names that look like the place that I live and work in every day; the Diwali wheel, Idi Amin, The Big Issue, Windrush, suffragettes, hope, DNA, DMU, Attenborough, Watermead Park, the Haiku hike around Aylestone Meadows and even some policing. I especially loved the stately dance of Maria Ronner's 'On A Bus', as cultures meet, and the niqab and woolly hatted anorak find out a way to get along.

So, as I sat far away watching waves roll endlessly into a foreign beach, I found myself back in landlocked Leicester. Perhaps Browning should have written 'O, to be in Leicester' as he reflected on his home thoughts from abroad.

As Rob Gee shouts 'I am from Leicester, and I can do anything.' I have even got my own pen and paper, well... laptop... out and have started scribbling down some poems of my own, me ducks!


1. Welcome to Leicester is available from Dahlia Publishing:
2. See also, Kershia Field’s review of Welcome to Leicester, and Eliot John’s review of the anthology,
4. See also Ambrose Musiyiwa's blog post on the anthology,

About the reviewer
Simon Cole QPM is Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police. 

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