The group was set up in Evington Library in March 2012 by Nicky Bennison (MA Creative Writing) who led it for approximately a year, supported by funding from Everybody’s Reading. She left to continue her excellent work in a number of local libraries as well as Gartree Prison. Members continue to meet and grow under the name Evington Scribblers, meeting fortnightly in the library.
Evington Scribblers would like to thank the staff at Evington Library for their hospitality.
We’d decided to steal a baby. One in particular. Okay, it’s illegal but trust me, she’d be better off. She was a toddler actually, with bright ginger curls. I’ve always loved red hair. I was too old to have a baby myself and Lindsey couldn’t face the whole pregnancy/birth business. We could have gone for adoption but, as a social worker, I knew how long and generally hopeless that process was.
The idea came to us both; one of those light bulb moments, in the cheese aisle at Asda, Fosse Park. There she was, maybe eighteen months, tottering between the trolleys, snot caked round her nose and a crumbling Greggs sausage roll in her grubby fist. We both spotted her at the same time and checked the surrounding shoppers for a loving mother/father, someone searching frantically for a lost, precious child. No-one. Now, it’s difficult these days. You can’t just approach children, take them by the hand, and console them. But you can’t just leave them to the paedophiles and murderers, either.
Wordlessly, we fell into our roles. Lindsey kept her eye on the toddler’s whereabouts while I set off to inform a member of staff. Before I got three feet, a human rhino barrelled round the corner past the BOGOFs, trumpeting its distress.
“Oy, Chardonnay! Ger ‘ere now!” The child’s mother (we checked her out later in official files) dragged her tearful offspring by the arm and dumped her in the trolley, alongside a week’s worth of groceries clearly chosen for their heart attack and diabetes inducing qualities.
I raised an eyebrow and Lindsey shook her head in disbelief. Call us judgemental but that was it, decision made. The rest of it was research, reconnaissance and surveillance. It was easy enough to find out about the family. I won’t go into details but they could have graced the stage of any Jeremy Kyle Show. We made our plans and lined up a new life in busy, anonymous London.
Chardonnay was always dragged round Asda on a Friday. We got there early on the chosen date and slipped into the toilets. There’d been plenty of publicity, so we knew that the store was holding a massive fundraising drive on Red Nose Day. Shoppers and staff alike were all encouraged to wear fancy dress. We changed into black polyester trousers and mint green polo shirts, with mocked-up Asda name badges, covered our faces with clown masks and tucked our hair under orange wigs. I looked forward to seeing those CCTV images on Crimewatch!
We wandered around the store, rearranging shelves, tidying veg, thanking the health and safety mafia for blue latex gloves. We even stood about with buckets and collected donations, mingling in, becoming part of the background. Then Lindsey spotted our little girl and gave me the nod. I set off the smoke bombs we’d hidden earlier amongst the tins, packets and bottles. Someone shouted, “Fire!” and they were off. A thousand wildebeest all stampeding for the main doors, screaming and yelling, tumbling over trolleys, ignoring the tannoy’s pleas for calm. No-one noticed the clowns picking up a stray child and joining the maddened throng.
So, here we are, three years later, a happy, little family. Yesterday, Charlotte (obviously we changed her name), said why couldn’t she have a baby brother. I said it wasn’t that easy. You couldn’t just go to the shop and get one. But Lindsey caught my eye and smiled and I knew just what she was thinking.
The jam jar swims Spellbound, after school,
at my grubby finger’s twirl; I returned the next day,
fish surface the same spot, beneath a sky
amidst the swirl. wearing blanket grey,
Abbey Park the scene, blithely unaware
me lakeside, bare kneeling, I could never quite repeat
net in hand, bread-baited, the time, the place, the circumstance,
dusk onwards stealing, let alone the feat.
my enterprise barren, And so there I delved,
my fishy fortunes spurned, denied for all my pains,
when abruptly, proverbially, the lake unresponsive,
the tide turned bearing only rain.
and sweeter far Given another stir,
than Willie Wonker’s ticket, the jar paints in misty white,
a gobstopper its brush’s black clouding
or bowling middle wicket, into shades of night.
my net quivered, shone, Now I’m in gangland
if in moonshine dipped shooting up the streets,
as with every plunge daring in alleyways,
within its clasp they slipped, competing in the heats,
gudgeon by the netful, leaving fag cards, marbles,
the lake a harvest field; comics, far behind
every dive bulged when rumour led to a garden
a vibrant, silver yield. and a circle, leg-lined,
In bed that night with a showman crouching ,
within that net I dreamed, his showgirl putty to his will,
dwarfing common tiddlers, as he demoed his prowess
trophies swam and gleamed. coldly in peepshow thrill
and me round legs craning
to catch a mesmeric sight
of his fingers paddling
in her deeps, naked, white.
After the carve-up on Bosworth’s harvest field
and, betrayed, unhorsed, uncrowned, undone,
you reaped death’s rotted, blood-soaked yield,
becoming your own eclipsed, inglorious sun,
you vanished, a cover-up too wicked for light.
Rumour interred you with Leicester’s grey friars
before you sank beneath layered Tudor spite,
tarmac and hundreds of parking tyres,
a morality for gamblers and the high rider.
Discovery intends blackened bones come clean
under forensics’ scrutiny; a scour
which must lie in doubt when you’re caught between
the Bard’s mesmeric, venomous spider
and two boy princes cornered in the dark tower.
The rapping on the booking hall hatchway made me kill the radio and scuttle across the room. To tell the truth, I didn’t mind in the least; there’s only so many times I can stand being told ‘I Like It’ by Gerry and The Pacemakers. What I did resent a bit was the heat that streamed out of the open window; you wouldn’t think it was July from the weather. I’d set the fires in the booking hall and waiting room first thing but the coal was poor and made more smoke that it did heat. At a guess, it was what was left over from the old steam engines. There hadn’t been one of those on this line for a couple of years.
The man at the window was carrying a wicker basket full of racing pigeons he wanted to send to some Scottish station called Tyndrum. I’d released plenty of birds but I had no idea of what I needed to do to send a basket off. That meant phoning through to Hinckley Station. I was only supposed to do that in an emergency. I could contact them on the same old black phone that received calls from outside. But only in an emergency.
‘Customers expect to be able to ring up with their queries,’ I was told, ‘not to have you hogging the phone for advice.’
For once, the booking office clerk was friendly enough. I managed to find the duplicate book to make the label and work out the price. Well, I worked out a price; from the look on the man’s face, I probably undercharged him. How was I to know?
In theory, all the information I needed to calculate the price was in the regulations. But the regulations ran to four hundred pages. I could never find the exact place I needed. No one seemed to care. As long as the passengers and parcels ended up in the right place and the books balanced at the end of the week, everyone was happy.
Once the transaction was completed and the basket placed safely in the waiting room, I returned to the booking hall and my daydreams. It wouldn’t be long before the fire filled the room with a comforting fug. Being a station porter was a perfect holiday job, After all, what could be better than being paid for doing almost nothing?
Extract from Voices From the Trenches:
Eyes open shut; men’s faces, I can’t see
Running from this carnage into the night
Loud screams in my head, they do not hear me
Mad Generals, drunk with insanity
As redcaps return me from my respite
Eyes open shut; men’s faces, I can’t see
Charged and court martialled with a guilty plea
Verdict read out, ‘To be shot at first light.’
Loud screams in my head, they do not hear me
On a telegram sent, is the decree
Killed on active service, my Captain writes
Eyes open shut; men’s faces, I can’t see
I will be shunned, by all humanity
An unmarked grave at the burial site
Loud screams in my head, they do not hear me
Blindfold against a eucalyptus tree
Twelve good men to send my poor soul in flight
Eyes open shut; men’s faces, I can’t see
Loud screams in my head, they do not hear me
As I sleep in this man-made grave
I dream of yester-year,
When all this seemed so far away
When forced to volunteer.
It was the fourth of August, a
Sunny Bank holiday
On the Abbey Park’s boating lake
With children all at play
And at the Clock Tower in the town
Women citing poetry, with
[Chorus – Women]
“Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?
And handing out white feathers to
Young boys, not old enough
To shame and to cajole them all
Into strong sterner stuff
With my Pals to De Montfort Hall
We all gathered to hear
Talks from recruitment officers
Then first to volunteer
Then with makeshift rifles we lined,
Still in civilian clothes
We marched on the Magazine Square
Singing words just composed
[Chorus – Men]
‘Do your balls swing low’
‘Do they jingle to and fro’
Then three months, of basic training
To teach us military skills
To build our physical fitness
And discipline instill
We learn to dig deep, deep trenches
And then to fill them in
Then shooting on the rifle range
Clean guns and firing pins
Charging at straw stuffed dummies
With bayonet afixed
Scream and stab again and again
With fierce eyes transfixed
And now here on the Western Front
All this training has yield
Rows and rows of young dead men’s graves
Dug up on Flanders Fields.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Red river like a menstrual flow
And yet, we have not learnt a thing
When hundred guns triumphant sing
And bombs blow boys from head to toe.
Black body bags, all lined to show
Young men, whose minds will never grow,
Like poppies in the midst of spring
In Flanders Fields.
Lest we forget the evil foe
Blackened hearts like carrion crows.
Hades for them their souls we fling,
Heaven for us on angel’s wings?
And who shall stand on sentry-go
In Flanders Field.
Caught in the Act
The discovery of Richard III’s remains under a Leicester car park had, indirectly, changed Clare’s life. She’d followed with great interest as the story unfolded in the media, and was drawn back to the city. She’d had fond memories of her time as a student at Leicester University in the 1970’s.
So after many years as a history teacher, and about to retire, Clare decided to relocate to Leicester with a view to getting involved with the developing tourism industry. She planned to set herself up as a self-employed tour guide. As well as doing research using books, archives and online searches, Clare was preparing for this new role by walking the routes of the tours, similar to a London taxi driver “doing the knowledge”. While walking she was making notes, and from time to time was speaking into her Dictaphone.
‘New Walk – by day a tree lined promenade – by night perhaps not so innocent.’ Clare stopped the recording and swore under her breath, startled by a cyclist who sped past with inches to spare – despite the “No cycling” notices. ‘Set up in 1785 as a promenade through fields, it was originally called Queen’s Walk, then Ladies’ walk, before it was called New Walk. Elegant Regency and Victorian buildings line the route. Imagine people dressed in their best outfits promenading up and down this wonderful avenue in the 19th and early 20th centuries.’
Clare stopped near the Museum and Art Gallery as she visualised ladies and gentlemen – not necessarily wealthy, but dressed to impress – in period clothing. The Walk was not just a means of getting from A to B, but a destination in itself, a meeting place.
When she reached the Belmont Hotel, Clare continued ‘And perhaps one of these people could have been Agnes Archer Evans – her maiden name was Kilgour – the women’s suffrage campaigner. She was headmistress at Belmont House School in De Montfort Street, which is now the Belmont Hotel. She taught at the school from 1882 until 1893. She married William Evans in 1895, and they lived in St Martin’s opposite what was then St Martin’s church – now Leicester Cathedral – where Richard III was reburied in 2015.’
There were many other strong women social reformers. Clare thought she would like to put together a tour or talk about them. She was also interested in other aspects of Leicester’s social history: topics such as sewers and sanitation, the workhouse and the developing health service, slum clearance and relocation to council housing estates in the 1930’s, and more. She might even gather enough material for a book. . . .
As she retraced her steps up and down New Walk, she paid particular attention to the really old buildings, some of which had fallen into disrepair. She battled her way past overgrown shrubs and unrestrained weeds in the unkempt garden of one of these houses and peered through a window. It was too dark to see much but she imagined the scene inside one hundred years ago – a rich family being served afternoon tea by servants who lived in the attic . . . Her daydreams were interrupted by the sound of a man’s voice.
‘Excuse me madam, do you have permission to be on these premises? We’ve received reports of a woman acting suspiciously, walking up and down, looking at all the properties and taking notes. I hope you’ve got a very good explanation for this.’
Clare turned round and was shocked and embarrassed to see a young policeman standing there.
‘Can I take your name please madam?’
‘It’s Clare, Clare Freeman.’ Relief ensued after the explanation was duly delivered, and accepted. She was let off with a warning. She wasn’t put off her new venture at all though. She just wondered how the history of policing in Leicester would fit within her portfolio.
A city’s life enhancer Striding quickly away
of sights and sounds past trunks of roughened bark
in total motion whose very roots are set
the drone and throbbing to catch the dreamer
along the ribboned highway is a cloud of yellow fronded
meandering paths and spikes growing tall inside a
green crust infested waterway. crazy paved surround.
Rain falling as a silk wash Beyond black timbered arch
on half opened eyes a place of Holy worship
as the four smoothly glide whose ancient carved walls
white tipped oars offer comfort from within
dipping, dripping as nearby, a spreading horse chestnut
they pass by. shelters diverse standing stones
with inscriptions written
A black, locked iron gate for the dead.
the sweet scent of lilac
petals as they nod Time slowly moves on and
through the rusted bars the tree lined street fills
beyond, brick and stone with a bright dappled light
rise up from shackled a moment of sheer joy overcomes
dungeons deep below.
as the past blends with the
present when around a corner
a group of waste skips
pour out their vinee spice and
The dragon lifted her head and sniffed at the air. An acrid smell of smoke drifted on the breeze. The wood was a-blaze. To Flora’s quivering nostrils, it was like the aroma of finest red wine. She closed her eyes and staggered in ecstasy.
The moment of bliss was brief. Flora flicked open her heavy eyelids and gazed keenly into the distance. The smoke had cleared and Flora espied what once had been the quaint-looking hamlet of Evington, now singed and glowing orange in the sky.
Flora froze in fear. There were strange sensations in her stomach, followed by bile rising up into her mouth. Kind Bertie lived in Evington! Bertie, the young boy who had befriended Flora when no-one else would. Not even her own kind.
Reynard Fox charged towards Flora from under a nearby bush.
‘Flora! What have you done?’
‘Me! It wasn’t me! I don’t have my smoke yet,’ Flora croaked.
‘Well, who was it? You’re the only dragon in the dale.’
Dragon and Fox looked at each other in confusion. Smoke continued to drift across from the dwellings, mingling with early evening mist. The daylight was fast fading; it would soon be coal-black night.
A sudden flash illuminated the devasted hamlet in a burst of red and orange flames. In dwindling light, the fiery ruins could merely have been the woodland in its autumn glory. Who could survive such an inferno?
A screech from behind made Flora and Reynard jump.
‘There must be another dragon, innit, man!’
‘Oswald! Must you always creep up on one?’ Reynard scolded.
‘But there aren’t any dragons for at least three dales. Wendy of Wigston is the nearest,’ Flora said.
‘She’s ancient. Don’t reckon she’s got no more smoke in her these days,’ Oswald remarked. ‘Nah, this is a dragon in its prime, I reckon. To do that much damage.’
Flora looked again at the hamlet and thought of Bertie. Something was stuck in her throat and she coughed. A racking, harsh sound that caused all four of her scaly feet to leave the ground. Flora writhed as a searing, stabbing sensation pulled at her insides. There was a burning, piercing feeling deep within her.
Flora fell to the ground in agony. What was this pain? She had to open her mouth and release the pressure. Reynard and Oswald looked on in concern, but they’d seen this before. It wouldn’t be long now. One more cough brought a plume of silver mist, then a thick black cloud, and finally, a tongue of brightest burning flame. Flora’s smoke was in.
The past is marshland, waiting to be reclaimed,
missing persons waiting to be named.
Most times, buried below the silt of years,
both lie steadily sinking beneath the mud
then a fragment surfaces, a tip appears
and all comes coursing at the flood,
prompted by a landmark, the spoken word,
family stories by turns tragic, absurd.
The first I dredge are the ancestral dead
who dirtied their hands for their daily bread.
Of these my mother’s granddad was the chief,
founding a button factory, Orchard Street.
‘It were drink which brought the family to grief,
a house full of food with no one to eat,
as first he and then my poor old gran cleared
off and for days at a time disappeared.’
They lived in a house on Mowmacre Hill,
part of a brick tide which managed to spill
a few piles above the rest. As a child,
my uncle Fred saw the old boy brought in;
he’d been found in a ditch after a wild
night. Yet, drunk with kindness, he lived to win
his workers’ hearts; for all his falling down,
they lined his funeral route through Leicester town.
Fred, my grandfather, was the elder son.
We never met. All I have to go on
is a photo and faint words to his wife
on how drink and temper kept them apart.
At forty war shrapnelled his unfit life.
( ‘Mam said biking the hill had strained his heart’ )
‘I’ve been a poor husband’ his last words say
from the trenches. ‘I’ll make it up some day.’
In a sense he died in the second flood,
yet he’s somewhere swimming inside my blood,
so I search through the celluloid remains
for semblance- the workman’s cloth cap, scarf, pale
face; rough fingers that were not spared the pains
of graft , ‘and ‘I’m the boss’s son.’ The trail’s
gone cold already with fancy grown lean
by speculating on what might have been.
Before death closed the branch if not the line,
cuts loomed. The sister gave a warning sign.
‘In father’s will our Joe stands most to gain.’
He’d drafted the business up a siding
which left the younger, Fred, truly in train
with Joe himself up front presiding,
living proof that fortune’s timely knocks
come best answered inside the signal box.
In Flanders squelch both of the brothers died.
The business passed to Joe’s widow and her side
then. Bitter, Fred’s widow, a former maid,
was left to bring up two boys and a girl
on the pennies that a war pension paid
and to ponder how soon the fates can hurl
the family wagon, like Jack and Jill,
careering headlong down Penury Hill
where the tale’s touched bottom if not an end.
I confess I have great power to lend
all manner of touches to gloss this trip,
highlighting here, foreshortening there,
like some hairdresser’s judicious snip-snip
on a customer’s locks of unkempt hair.
So much for confession but then what’s more,
all witness comes from off the cutting floor.
I have to drag the reaches of the murk
for that jetsam from the past which might still lurk.
Holding hands, grandmother’s three children stand
from off their sepia bed. Marooned by their
later selves, they look stunned to think this poised band
could ever change; illness, waste ever share
this firm a grip; time, distance intervene,
or death could slip so deftly in between.
(Officially the fourth ceased to exist.
Like some victim in revisionist
history, he’s been wiped off the family face
for being born outside its wedded sheets.
Reg, whispered rumour says, you’re a disgrace
to our father who was long past heat
of any kind when you appeared, so we shun,
scorn you as being only half our son.
Still, I had evidence that you were flesh-
the aircraft fitter, the de-mobbed youth, fresh-
faced, aiming to chance his arm ‘ down under’;
your wedding snaps I took to school and lost;
food parcels gleaming like pirate plunder
sent to melt austerity, a last post
in a way wafted airily ashore
from the Antipodes. We heard no more.)
Iced in Sunday best, they rise like tiered cake.
Uncle Fred stands in the middle to make
a peak, the cancer which ate him post-dated.
Sloping to my right his brother Les, soon
to crumble from mental decay, fated
to be interred in The Towers, crack-pated loon,
the first sign when he was found by a wall
rambling through the pieces of his own fall.
Then standing shyly to my left, Fred’s right,
my mother clad in a dress frilly white,
innocent of the burdens yet to be
delivered by the years: her mother’s end,
found visiting Les; she just failed to see
an oncoming bus, was crumpled past mend
and, rained on, in the road she lay,
all her colour, all sweetness washed away
like much else in 1939. She’s
very certainly ignorant of me;
of selling up; of living all alone
in a rented cottage ( Fred had now left ),
the proceeds from the house having been blown;
of feeling that emptiness when bereft
of love; or was it desperation, whim
that let her heart’s brief tenancy to him?
A shapeless body breaks up the surface.
Picked clean of detail, you have no face,
no smell, no past, not even a name
with which to haul you to the shore,
thus you float out there free of all blame
or praise. Coward as I am, I can’t claw
you near, even if I wanted. Instead
I should sink you down on your silted bed,
thinking it pointless to rattle the dead,
to bubble open the wound whose weal-red
throb even now my mother won’t admit.
Why did you desert? Whatever else you shared,
it just wasn’t enough, was that it?
And abortion being out, you were nightmared
by your own creation, squirmed by the shame
of the being with bastard for its name?
Imagine houses in rows back to back,
each one reflecting what the others lack:
no kitchen to speak of, no indoor loo,
certainly no bathroom, ’cept a zinc tub
in which to wash weekly and ‘make do’
round the coals. Yet more than dirt would rub
on me at The Cottages, Loughborough Road,
where my childhood was spent. My memory sowed
so deeply that when digging out my past
each find, uncaked, seems brighter than the last,
like those valves crackling their wireless glows;
burnt onions roasted in the cast iron grate;
my lead soldiers cannoned by matchstick blows;
bread toasted on a fork; tripe on that plate
sniffed by slit-eared Tim, our family black cat,
that sleek, spitting monster my mind begat
then drove heroically back to its lair,
in truth the legs of two toppled chairs.
Next door, the two old spinsters’ evening rite
shown by snuffing the gas lamp’s blue tinged flame,
so dowsing their budgie’s talk for the night
when creatures, far too numerous to name
them all, thrived such as Arthur, Rupert Bear,
Robin Hood, the Famous Five and Dan Dare,
outpaced by hooves and nostrils flaring wide
of the nine o’clock horses, sent to ride
me down if not indoors upon the dot.
Yes it was the gangland streets I preferred,
leaping moons in lamp-lit streets; the blind, hot
pursuit down alleyways where shadows stirred,
then pounced, so with all my senses thus enlarged,
I braved those stallions, however supercharged,
until I scuttled home under coal seam
dark which quickened shapes half real, half dream
across my mind; that bogeyman who, ditch-
faced, trawled the bottom in our cubby hole;
that stranger waiting his moment to pitch
me back down those unlit stairs as I stole
to bed, where at last I tranquilised alarm
many a-night inside my mother’s arm.
And yet there was a place of thrilling night
shafted by a white, flickering light
we kids loved: the pictures or flicks
where odious villains like Merciless Ming
battled with Flash Gordon and Tom Mix,
steel heroes who were ever ready to spring
from exploding sets or perilous peak,
in time for the episode Saturday week.
Childhood is now that half-forgotten state
on which the later years seem to wait
to crayon in its picture book; they omit
for the most part it’s non gloss grey and full
of oblivion. Yet one or two fit
events remain to chart the long pull
back up the hill. One such was junior school
where at length witching words became my rule,
my passion, after false starts when I bit
some girl in return for a playground hit,
so was made to bite soap for my error;
and then was smitten by Miss Betty Slack
with her history tales of Viking terror-
bringing deeds with axemen about to hack
off my dreaming head, yet who is to know
whether the axe or the crush laid me low?
Sex and violence came hurting soon enough,
while progress in reading was just as tough
for word-blind youngsters such as me,
hence Janet and John were drafted as guide
and as though on the instant I could see,
I could run, only then to be denied
by the eleven-plus swizz which selected
me for the ranks of the non-elected.
The same when I concealed that scarlet pride
mingled with fear beneath my feathery hide
when asked, because the lead was taken ill,
to practise Cock Robin in the school play.
I was borne on my bier so super still,
so desperate my rival remain away,
but he didn’t. ‘Who killed Cock Robin?’ He
Could well have answered, had he known, ‘Me’.
Thus highlighted days chiselled from rough hewn
innocence, their joys in scrumped apples, strewn
in sandpits or sucked up through straws with chums
in shorts and grubby knees, while wondrous, clean,
pigtailed girls, quite impossible as sums,
cushioned the rub round the playground scene,
till as leavers we faced the camera’s shot,
in truth showing our backs as like as not.
Buoyed by simple Christian belief, my mother
clung to my being as to no other.
It was hard to bear her love’s fierce flowering
when, for example, I was forbidden
bikes, unlike my ‘wild friends’ I’d sometimes bring
home. Then the point of all this lay hidden,
like my polish she felt impelled to seek
scrubbing folk’s steps at 5/6 a week,
like the point of being shepherded church-
wards Sundays, despite my unlamblike search
for escape, shown by my wolfing minutes
from the mantel clock, hoping we’d arrive
too late for our week’s immersion in its
stagnant dip, but then nothing seemed to thrive
at St Peter’s ‘cept ivy- the door welcomed in
both my mother, me and my sheepish sin.
If I was too close then to see you right,
how can I fix you now you’re out of sight?
With their dead matter your pictures cannot
credit you; besides they’re torn or too confined,
water-marked or mildewed with the rot
and formed well before me, how can they bind
us? Clearly, you must take your stand
planted in matter far closer at hand.
Quite bulldozed like the house, lilacs spread bloom
across the cobbled yard. Denied house room,
our tree’s blossom, an unchosen white,
(unlike the neighbour’s which was welcome blue )
was deemed by my mother a luckless sight
that tokened the blanche of some nameless rue.
Often from the bedroom window I’d stare,
feel pity for the figure stuck out there
in all weathers, think in extreme alarm,
should I leap it would pluck me by its arm.
These childlike thoughts, such sympathy,
will ever deck you , mother, in my mind
with the lustre on that lilac tree,
for like it as with many of your kind,
you were slighted, had your share of ill luck
yet, deep rooted, despite rack and ruck,
through the years your love’s spring never failed;
its spray far from withering never paled
when searching a blessing in every plight,
so it’s most fitting I end my story
by this shape both fallen and bolt upright,
weather scoured, blown yet touched by glory,
under whose capacious, shadowy spread
are leafed together the living, the dead.
We had travelled away from Leicester along the A47 towards Peterborough. After leaving our drive and taking a left hand turn I knew at once that we were travelling East because the sun shone directly into our eyes and persisted all the way until we reached the cross roads some twenty minutes later. Had we turned left at this point we would eventually, no doubt, have found Melton Mowbray, for that is what the sign post said but instead we turned right and began to meander expectantly along the winding road which led to Market Harborough.
It was a relief to turn away from the sun’s glare of intensity and instead enjoy the magic of its glistening rays which, like magical spotlights, brought to life the sparkling dew and the early morning mist which clung to the earth like gossamer as it drifted over the beautiful Leicestershire countryside … but we never did reach Market Harborough . Rather we chose to meander through gated roads and lanes until we happened upon a village which, snuggling in a valley, lay sheltered amongst the green fields and pastures. To the west of the village was a stream and as I gazed at it I knew almost certainly that I had been there before… Yes, I was quite certain in my own conviction and knew at once that this was that strange phenomenon known as Déjà Vu but how could this be when, after all, we had only just arrived in Leicester.
Barely a week had passed since our move and on that particular day, frustrated by muddle and tired from the relentless unpacking of tea chests, we had taken a break and simply “down tooled” and thus journeyed forth to explore our new terrain.
So there we were, held in that moment and I for one stood mesmerised by a hauntingly beautiful village called Horninghold. But why should it make such an impact? Deep down I knew the reason was a strange one because to tell the truth its appearance was almost exactly like an imagined place which hitherto had existed only in my dreams. In my mind’s eye I had conjured this place from nowhere and as I read stories and books it had become the very core of my imagination.
Numerous fictitious characters had lived in a cottage in the centre of this village. As far as I knew the place did not exist in reality but now it seemed as if by magic we had stumbled on it and discovered that it did. How strange was that?
As I read and re read my favourite narratives I recalled how numerous were the characters that had lived in my imaginary cottage which now by chance had become reality. Suffice to say it was the home of Peter and the Flopsy Bunnies. Paddington too and Jenning’s Aunt Angela. The Borrowers were under the floor boards and the families of Noel Streatfield’s invention also resided thus. This included the Bell Family and of course Pauline, Posy and Petrova from Ballet Shoes. Into it too, had Richmal Compton ensconced William and the Browns?
The self-same cottage in my head could be made large or small, humble or grand to suit whatever I wished or whatever fitted the book. Of course it seemed only natural that Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie was at home amongst them making his events so plausible. But why did it all take place in Horninghold? As Alice would have said “curiouser and curiouser!”
“Write something about Leicester” they said.
I scream inwardly and shout… (to myself, of course!)… but they persist.
“Or Leicestershire.” someone adds as an afterthought.
That really puts me in a spin for what do I know about Leicester or Leicestershire, after all I have only been here since August 1988 (shame on me!) but I am not Leicester born and bred so “No” I do not remember the Leicester fortnight, or Highfields as it was, or the smoky factory chimneys and the living two up and two down. I have never had mushy peas or been to Skeggie and I say Barth not bath. My granddaughter is Katy not Kate’eh and I guess that if I liked football I would support the Seagulls or Arsenal. But that is not an issue because I don’t know which goal post is which.
I like Leicester with its strangely spelt name. I like how its history connects to the Romans and beyond and then appears in the Domesday book as Ledecestre . I like the idea of Richard 111 and Lady Jane Grey and the diversity of cultures and the tolerance of its people but mostly I find it a warm and friendly place and it is to my shame that I could have lived here for so long and not know more.
For many years I had left my home each morning, turned left out of my drive and proceeded eastward with the sun in my eyes and yes you have probably guessed, I drove over the Langtons to Market Harborough, passing daily the road that had once taken me to Horninghold .
Teaching I felt was a strange world; rather like finding Narnia. It was another parallel world once you had passed through the school door. Some hours later you emerge back into the real world and head off to your dormitory and home, with your marking and plans before returning to Narnia the following day. This seemed to swallow up a lifetime and left little scope for exploring much of Leicester and that is my excuse for not knowing more.How strange it is that life so often turns circles and stranger still are moments of Déjè Vu.
We were travelling away from the centre of Leicester in what must have been an easterly direction because it was morning and the sun shone fiercely into our eyes. The road led directly to Peterborough but we were not going there but instead we turned somewhere along the way towards Market Harborough but we never got there; instead we went straight to Horninghold. I don’t really remember it of course because I was only just three years old. So what do I recall?
I was born in London during the Blitz and lived close to the gasometers and Kings Cross station so I was certainly lucky to be alive and making this trip “up north” as my family called it (they meant Leicester).My mother and I lived with my grandparents having lost my father but at the end of the war my uncle came home. He had been in Burma and a prisoner of the Japanese. Somewhat disorientated from the experience he decided to return to farming and took a job in Leicestershire.
Scarred also from experiences of war time London my mother decided to join him and naturally took me. I still can’t claim in depth knowledge of either Leicester or the county but I can recall small snapshots of the past as seen by a young child in a foreign land and where it all seems so distant. Is it LP Hartley who states that “the past is a foreign country?” How different was my world then.
We lived in a cottage in Horninghold … a village of scented flowers, strawberries and butterflies; where there was a stream and the sticklebacks swam. After the rain tractor oil made rainbow patterns in the puddles and bees made the air lazy as their soothing sound mingled with the far distant rhythm of a passing steam train.
Our cottage had an old fashioned black range cooker and was the favourite place for the cat to sit. The shallow stone sink in the kitchen had an old fashioned hand water pump with a lever. There was a water pump in the village too. The communal toilet, which we shared with the neighbours, was at the end of the garden and an outside shed housed the clothes copper. It was precisely there that our cat had her kittens. Next door was a family and lots of children. My friend was Jennifer who did her knickers up with safety pins… probably they were easier to obtain than elastic. How I longed to do the same and was ecstatic with joy when I found some safety pins on a stall on market day but my mother did not share the same enthusiasm for the fashion or for allowing me to make mud pies in the garden. I guess we were true Londoners at heart.
The village seemed lost in time and slow to change…. so old fashioned it was almost feudal with its important people in the big houses and the lesser folk in the cottages knowing their place.
The farmer’s daughter, who was like a princess, had a donkey and sometimes the children of the village were given rides. She also had a sledge which everyone shared during the winter of 1947. I remember the snow piled high along the road side.
I began school in 1947 and went to Hallaton. I had to go on a bus and the school, as far as I remember, had two rooms and I had a slate and chalk… how archaic was that? I went home to lunch every day with a friend whose mother read Thomas the Tank Engine… well he was a boy! And she always gave us a boiled sweet. That was generous as there was still rationing.
I think the farm was the most extraordinary place because it was so far removed from modern agriculture. The cows were milked by hand and there was one called Rose who kicked so had to have her back legs tightly chained. Chickens and turkeys wandered at will whilst horses, Boxer and Lady, still ploughed the land. In the summer everyone went hay making and created huge hay stacks in the fields.
My special friends were Kurt and Alfred. They were German prisoners of war who liked me because I looked like their own children back in Germany.
There was a bus once a week to Leicester but I only remember it once because I accidentally held the wrong hand in a shop. Horror! The Fair Isle glove was not my mothers. Perhaps we were in Fenwick. Who knows? Was Fenwick there at that time? The bus took ages to get back and my mother was sick.
We went to Market Harborough to market once a week where I would get a colouring book or some farm animals made of lead. They were my favourite toys and never poisoned me! It was a contented time and I enjoyed colouring at the table and listening to the radio and particularly to “Horses Favourites.” I wondered how they knew what music horses liked to hear. Of course it turned out to be “Forces Favourites.”
Sometimes we borrowed the pony and trap to go into Hallaton and I was allowed to hold the reins. What a different world it all was. I don’t think we were ever really accepted so I know exactly how it feels to be “foreign” for we were the strange folk from London and of course “they do things differently there.” At the end of 1947 we returned to London with its traffic and smog and its theatres and West End. How different was that to that timeless snapshot of rural England “up north.”
I never came to Leicester again until 1988 when quite by chance I felt that enigmatic moment of Déjè Vu.
The English Azure Aztec blue, still sky.
A breath-taking backdrop, with busy birds
And high above white jet trails crisscrossing
Like lines of cocaine, in hazed August heat.
My son and I survey the summer scene.
The sun, hiding behind a regiment
Of trees, pregnant with thick foliage, filt’ring
Dapple lemon-lime light, like sparkling stars.
Lazing on Islamic glassy green grass
Freshly mowed: the airborne aromatic
Atomised invisible grains, ignite
Taste and smell receptors; starts me sneezing.
Nearby children at play, running barefoot
On hot concrete; laughing in joyous pain.
While parents look out, with concern and pride
Like wild beasts on the Serengeti plains.
More to explore; my sun-screened son, push-chaired
Along ragged, grey, granitic foot-paths.
Bumpy fun ride for a boisterous toddler
Eyes one way, then t’other then back again.
To the right the frivolous fairground fun
With waltzing Waltzers and Dodgy Dodgems
To the left, the grand War Memorial’s
Towering archway, framing the golden sun.
Suddenly, amongst a throng of people
Like a colony of red stinging ants
Foraging for food; long queues at food stalls.
Mums, breast-feeding tiny bald-headed beasts.
The air sweet, from macheted sugar cane.
Sprinkled with Caribbean fiery spice
Of jerk chicken and curried goat with rice.
And quenched by ice-cold Tropical Rum Punch.
Through the ground; bass sounds from Aba Shanti’s
Speakers, mixed with the whacky baccy high.
And then The Mighty Sparrow takes over,
With Jean and Dinah and Clementina.
Then enter a procession of colours
Giant peacocks, with feathered filaments
In a spectrum of hues of greens and blues
Strutting to the music beat of steel drums.
Followed by tawny, tangerine tigers
With white whiskers and biro black markings,
Egyptian eagles and dragons dancing
In a frenzy, to the Calypso pulse.
Then in the evening sun I look around,
See people; a myriad of colours.
Though beneath their skin the same blood red runs,
T’morrow; some will see only black and white.
Tempus Fugit under the Clock Tower
Standing by the clock tower, waiting, musing, I felt ancient steps beneath my feet. At first the tread of the crudely sandled sockless feet of Celts and Romans. Trading together in the forum, not blows but peacefully meeting mutual needs. Why fight? The soldiers left soon, surplus to peace as prosperity made its home. Baths were added among the red tiled homes, still evident now, a ghostly stone outline in the shadow of a wall, mysteriously later named Jewry and still impressive after two thousand years.
For a while the wall and its neighbours stood forlorn and abandoned until the guttural Saxons settled. Now I could feel the Bishop’s evangelical pace made in a sacred procession from his church, cheek by jowl with heathen detritus. Take care holy man, strong, marauding godless Danes will soon overthrow you, but only for a moment.
The men of violence come and go but the craftsmen stay, weavers, potters, workers in wood, stone and iron, all pass by this spot and sometimes, like me, tarry. Their masters now have another foreign tongue. Gone harsh Scandinavia, yet the Norman babble is a strange brew of icy Baltic and balmy Mediterranean.
Standing right here, did the Domesday chronicler marvel at the wooden stronghold to be razed to the ground by an angry monarch a century later? I feel the panicked scurry of Hebrew feet, banished by cruel Simon, a prelude to a nationwide exile for those who always get the blame. Meanwhile a shepherd with crook rests, his flock destined to give hair, skin and meat, a trinity of wealth bestowing sacrifice for the growing town. Here the adorned, illustrious mayor flanked by his guild while proud Richard struts his last only to return naked and derided. The fat friars are hidden from view in their privileged abbey, but like their Hebrew cousins, must soon flee the wrath of Henry and pass by in a sombre mood. The plague replaces feet with heavy wheels and heavier hearts. Bring out the dead, a mournful shadow. A traitor tiptoes past to let the royalists in and herald a blood bath, a brief triumph, however, as Naseby seals their fate. Cromwell assures the castle will be no more and warring violence stays away until stray German bombs cause forty unfortunate fatalities a mile from where I stand.
Fine buildings and wide streets radiate out boosted by hosiery and footwear, an industry smoky on its island of frogs and quickly surrounded by a sprawling warren of cramped and crowded streets, their descendants bustling around me now. A city of such diligent toilers, in the age of invention deserved the novel innovation, created in their midst; Cook’s holiday, Thomas’s own hotel close by. The rich, meanwhile, built their delightful, tree lined promenade from town to racecourse and the benevolent among them ensured green spaces.
Looking down now at my own socks and shoes, not made here, I’ll wager, I feel the presence of the whole world, Jesus, Krishna, Muhammad loudly lauded from this tolerant spot while a disabled Romanian serenades with his lilting accordion. Romans and Romanians linked by two thousand years. Tempus fugit right here beneath the clock and nothing stays the same yet nothing really changes.
The sun gives out a golden glow
as upon a marbled seat I muse
and then, from an open cafe door
a catchy thrum of distant strings.
My eyes open, as I look around
at people dancing as they pass.
There’s elegance in shocking pink
and roughness in an old grey hat.
Earrings glitter as a head is tossed
loose jowls sink into shirt of silk
when suddenly my vision fractures
as feet on skateboards rumble past.
Time silently and swiftly moves
as town hall clock strikes eleven
I gather up all my shopping
and hurry along the avenue.
Pushing open the frosted doors
three minutes late; my friends are there
at our favourite meeting place
relaxed in comfy leather chairs.
The hourglass falls, our coffees drunk,
We say our heartfelt goodbyes
and step out into the busy street
to head for home by bus and car.
Jake and his family had recently moved to a house “with potential” according to the estate agent. Jake saw it as an old house in need of renovation, but interesting. He’d made a discovery. A loose brick at the side of the fireplace, when removed, revealed a folded yellowing piece of paper. He opened it carefully. Handwritten in calligraphy were the words:
Take some time to meditate
Consider, reason , cogitate
Then you will appreciate
The meaning of The Gate.
Humberstone, Church , and Gallowtree
North and South and East
Apple, Sanvey and Belgrave
But where is West concealed?
Seek and surely you will find
The treasures which are sealed behind
The Gate . . . .
Jake was excited. Where was the missing gate? Was it a portal into the Otherworld, or to another time? Or was there buried treasure? To find out he had to solve the riddle.
First he had to get a detailed map of Leicester. Into Dad’s study then.
Jake got his compasses and drew a circle which passed through Northgate, Southgates, and Eastgate. West Gate must be somewhere on the circumference, opposite Eastgate. The geometry set was being put to good use at last! He quickly checked the Leicester A-Z index; he saw a Westgate Avenue and a Westgate Road, both several miles from the city centre. There was no Westgate or West Gate in the city. It must be there, but hidden. He looked at the map again. That could be it! West Bridge, Bow Bridge; and King Richards Road was nearby; and King Richards Road was nearby.
He consulted an old guide book which was on the bookshelf and was lucky to find a relevant passage: “The West Gate used to stand on the town side of West Bridge . . .The West Gate had a drawbridge and portcullis for additional security. The location of the West Gate was marked by a Blue Plaque.”
A bit more down to earth than he’d imagined, but still worth further investigation. As Jake was thinking it over, the front door banged shut. His Dad walked into the room.
‘You found it then,’ Dad said, ‘I knew you would. Next time we go to Castle Gardens we’ll cross over the road and take a look at the bridge.’
‘Great,’ said Jake, ‘do you think we’ll find any treasure?’
‘Maybe. But the treasure isn’t gold, silver or precious jewels. It’s the wealth of discovering past lives and events; art, inventions, and amazing buildings. Don’t ever lose that enquiring mind of yours. Keep passing through The Gate.’
Why does everybody come to Leicester?
It’s easy to get to Leicester,
you just come up the M1 and park.
No-one carries on to Derby and Nottingham
as they’re harder to find in the dark,
because the lights end just before Leicester –
suddenly it all goes black!
So everyone turns off and parks up,
but nobody ever goes back…
Leicester’s got a nice new bus station,
while Derby is knocking theirs down.
In Nottingham, even the train backs away
as it nervously exits the town.
First Derby, then Nottingham claimed our airport
in a bid foreigners to deceive
but it’s not made the slightest difference,
still they come here and then never leave…
because no-one can get north past Loughborough,
which they neither can pronounce nor spell!
And Derby doesn’t know its ‘a’ from its ‘e’
which adds to the confusion as well.
Leicester’s not got a very big river
compared with the Derwent or Trent,
nor a National Water Sports Centre
on which lots of money’s been spent
like Nottingham’s got a Holme Pierrepont
it’s a bit of a Soar point, I’d say,
but there are still a few who come by canoe
and then fail to continue their way…
Bikers ‘rev’ in their thousands to Donington
and each year the Round Britain Race
sees hundreds of cyclists come pedalling
only to disappear without trace…
Now the lift’s working at the Space Centre
it isn’t just little green men
landing, but Dr Who and the Daleks,
but will they ever take off again?
Will they boldly go?… Somehow I don’t think so.
Leicester’s more central, you see,
to colonise Earth and the whole Universe,
Leicester’s simply the best place to be!
They took the coal
Out of Coalville, stole
Its name and soul,
Used their power,
Undermined men’s working lives.
No more black gold.
Dig deep on dole
To afford to heat.
Men without role
Subside, no shaft
of hope, no future, no goal.
An empty hole where once a mine,
Pithead now museum gallery.
Leisure is the new industry
Since we all have so much spare time.
When my father died, my mother could not afford the keep us in Rugby. We came to the Cottage Homes in Countesthorpe. I was in number seven, with fifteen other girls. The mother who cared for us was Mrs Riddington, widowed in the First World War. My little brother Edward was in number three. Mr and Mrs Burley were parents there. Mr Burley was responsible for greenhouse products. I didn’t see Edward in the week, but we could play together at the weekend.
On Sunday we would all walk in a crocodile to church. Down the Drive, the gate would be opened for us and we’d go left, across the crossroads and then the railway crossing, down to the village centre. We’d file into the pews at the back, warned to be quiet. I remember knowing that we weren’t to talk to the village children, we didn’t belong with them. In the afternoon we were let out again, to walk through the fields in a convoy, to Blaby, or Whetstone.
When the war came, I recall we went to the village hall to be fitted with gas masks. Blackout was hung at the windows and our plain food was now rationed, though there was always plenty of bread and dripping. We were herded into the Hall to sleep when there was the first air-raid warning, the shelters weren’t built yet. The little ones started to cry but the mother said, ‘It’s only a practice.’
They didn’t tell us what was happening. We tried to listen when they whispered. In November 1940, though, the sky was lit up one night. We could see it from the bedroom windows. They had to tell us then. It was Coventry, bombed and on fire. Leicester was blitzed that month, too. There was even a stray bomb dropped by the Willoughby Road. That was Easter Sunday night, the following year. We saw the crater when we walked to Willoughby Waterleys the Sunday after.
Late in the war there were Americans camped in Leicester. My aunt, who visited, told us that there were huge gliders at Stoughton airfield, and they were towing them up into the air, then releasing them to practise landing. I don’t know how the paratroopers billeted in Braunstone knew about us at the Cottage Homes, but someone must have told them because they organised a Christmas party, must have been 1943. They paid for us to go to a pantomime and they gave us presents. My brother had a small die cast model Hurricane. He loved it. He kept it with him all the time, in his pocket. After that we might see a big convoy of them, on our Sunday walk, and they would wave and shout, ‘Hello, you Cottage Homes kids.’ And we would stand and wave back until they disappeared from sight.
They were there into the spring and early summer and then we didn’t see them. The mother was very sad, suddenly. I was old enough by then to ask her why. She told me: those troops had been parachuted into France on D-day and nearly all were killed. I wasn’t sure if I should tell Edward, but I did. He gaped at me and then his face was filled with fury. He took the Hurricane from his pocket and smashed it hard against the wall, breaking the tail off. Then he hurled it away from him.
The Cottage Homes orphanage was closed in 1972, when Countesthorpe College, built on the farmland by the crossroads, opened. The houses were empty for a while. Students squatted in them. Later most of the buildings were sold as private residences. In 2015, in the vegetable plot of number seven, the broken model aeroplane re-surfaced. The oral history of Jean Beryl Sabin is part of the East Midlands Oral History Archive, held at the Leicester Records Office.
Louis’s friend Justin promised he’d stay up all night to get the tickets for his favourite pop group ‘The Slurp’. Six months saving, foregoing mobiles, extra paper rounds, washing cars and even narrow boats. Louis couldn’t wait to hold the bit of paper that told him it was all-worthwhile.
The teenagers were Gongoozlers. In the summer holidays they liked to bike to
different waterways. Whenever they observed the activities on the canals they would wear their specially bought red scarves, black peaked caps and waistcoats.
Today Louis had biked to Foxton. He parked at the bottom of the staircase of locks and climbed up. When he reached the white café at the top, he bought a coffee and strolled outside.
He sat on the black balance beam, number 9, opposite the café. It seemed to him as if the whole of Leicestershire had come out to watch the boats, have a picnic and admire the distant views of hills, cows and sheep. The white hawthorn flowers were nodding in the wind, leaves on the trees and hedgerows were shimmering in the sun. At the bottom of the ten locks he could see his friend Justin striding past ‘The Foxton Locks Inn’. Louis gulped the last few sips of his drink and ran down the hill and over a bridge.
He met Justin at the first side pond, which was gushing with water. Usually the boys would have enjoyed watching the navy blue boat opposite that was rising from nowhere. First its colourful pots, a silver chimney and the head of the driver would have appeared, then the boat with its several portholes, the inside doors open showing its canal art, pink roses on green paint. They missed all that because they had a more important matter on their minds.
‘Did you get the Slurp tickets?’ Louis asked his friend, breathlessly.
‘Yes.’ Justin waved the items in question at his pal, but a gust of wind blew them out of his hand into the pond before Louis could grab them.
‘You idiot,’ said Louis and pushed the Gongoozler into the water. ‘Go and get them back.’
Justin disappeared beneath the surface.
Louis stared in shock as his friend failed to reappear.
‘Help!’ he screamed, but the visitors nearby looked bemused. He ran towards the lock keeper, who was stroking his ginger beard. He was making sure the boats were taking their turns fairly, up and down the locks.
‘Quick, do something,’ the Gongoozler shouted grabbing the boss’s arm. ‘Friend’s fallen in the pond and been swept through the tunnel.’
‘I’ll dial 999. You look out for him.’
Though the boaters had completed opening the narrow beam to move up to the next flight, Louis saw no sign of Justin.
‘There’s a body just come up,’ shouted one of the visitors staring down the canal near the front of the blue vessel. The lock keeper grabbed the red lifebelt hanging on a post near the towpath and gave the end of the rope to Louis.
‘When I say ‘pull’, pull as hard as you can.’ The lock keeper jumped in and lifted the boy’s head above the water.
‘Pull! Pull!’ he shouted. With the help of some of the visitors, they managed to get Justin out. The lock keeper started the life saving technique.
Louis felt his heart beat fast. He’d killed his friend, all for a silly ticket.
‘He’s breathing,’ shouted the lock keeper as water spurted out of Justin’s mouth. Louis went towards his friend. The paramedics were close at his heels.
‘The boy got sucked through the hole beneath the water, between the pond and the filling lock,’ said the boss wiping his forehead.
‘He’ll live,’ said one of the paramedics, kneeling down and checking Justin. ‘Give us the boy’s details. We’ll phone his home and airlift him to hospital.
‘Ask his friend,’ said the lock keeper looking at Louis, who was staring at the blue sky. ‘I’m sure he can tell you all you want to know.’
Produced in conjunction with
` ‘Everybody’s Reading
Supported by Leicester Libraries, School Development Support Agency, WORD! Leicestershire Partnership NHS Service Trust, Leicester Adult Skills and Learning Service, National Union of Teachers, BBC Radio Leicester and SLB Distribution and Promotion Services Ltd.
 Leicester born Jessie Pope wrote the stirring poem : “Who’s for the Game”.