Search for Leicester – a psychogeographic roman à clef

“I knew one boy, yeah, ‘e took like twenty-five eighths to Croydon town centre. He didn’t tell nobody he was shotting, but in a couple hours there was no bags left.”

Issit?”

“Cunning salesmanship, innit.”

My drug dealer’s living room typically housed a varied bunch of associates, but I did not recognise the guy who opened the door to me, and whom I learned upon entering this epitome of the classical “drug den” had brought his infant son with him, buggy in tow. I left with relative haste, my pockets lined with some auburn rocks of MDMA and a fat sack of piff, as well as a ben [rhyming slang: ten] of the same marijuana for my friend, who waited out on the sodden street corner with his girlfriend.

“Tell him to wait in the park, yeah” my Man instructed me “that corner is hot.”

Burdened by my felonious stash, I too felt pretty hot.

***

I had been pondering the changing shape of my adopted city, Leicester. With 40% of its population hailing from outside the United Kingdom and 50% darker than Western man’s Caucasian archetype, it is one of the UK’s most demographically diverse areas, although I hate quantitative data.  This has been bolstered by historical factors ranging from an explosion of house-building that lasted from the end of the Second World War to the nineteen-seventies, to a deeply racist attempt by Leicester Council to dissuade Ugandan Asians – expelled from their country by the despotic Idi Amin – from seeking asylum therein. A racist contingency still exists in Leicester, but thankfully not on the Council, whose dunderheaded scaremongering, in a delicious irony, attracted around a quarter of those Ugandan refugees to their proverbial door.

This influx of migrants – which British media perennially loves to describe in the terms of a Biblical flood – is not, however, the change of which I speak. For a Briton to complain about immigration is to effectively concede that everything’s been going steadily downhill since 1066; to yearn for an England that has never existed, and moreover, to use the most hackneyed scapegoat for social decline there has ever been. Before I moved here, my aunty – who used to visit a friend here as a student in the 1980s – spoke of some great food cooked up by Leicester’s Asian community all along Narborough Road. Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find such cuisine on Narborough, but you can take your pick from the fast-food delicacies of Subway, Big John’s or Maryland’s. These are the changes that intrigued me. I wondered how far Leicester been sucked up by the spectral hoover of late capitalism.

So, a plan was hatched; in collusion with a friend, hereafter known as Salvador Allende, I would undertake a psychogeographic voyage through the city. We would soak in the sights and sounds of our milieu – thinking both about where everything came from, and how we would perceive it if it came from nothing. We would consciously attempt to deviate from the paths our internal geography led us down. What’s more, we would take the ecstasy that I purchased the previous day.

***

So, why MDMA? Because it’s marked change of pace from my – and Allende’s – preferred drug, marijuana. Whilst pot cultivates a relaxed yet studious mind, said relaxation means deadly things for a walk of any scale. Ecstasy, however, is like a forklift up your ass; an invigorating ambulatory aid. Also, any excuse to take drugs…

I had written some material – a loose itinerary of sorts – that precluded our expedition, hoping to find some structure from which to salvage what was sure to be a decidedly unstructured set of notes. Allende thought this was cool;

“I read it. It’s, like, a prophecy, man.”

I laughed and handed him my ID.

“Crush up the shit some more, dude. I think I got a chunk up my nose just now.”

“That’s fucked up, man,” he breathed deep with metronomic rhythm and crushed the rocks onto the desk with a flex of the card. I was pacing, snorting, gargling and rubbing my hands together; warped and insatiable, waiting for the kick. “Clear.”

Things continued in this vein for half an hour, and it had begun to grow dark. The devil fools with the best laid plans, I figured, having hoped to view the city with the clarity of daylight.

“We should go.” Sal reasoned, tipping the contents of the bag onto my desk. I dabbed some on my index finger and sniffed it, then howled like a wolf.

“Shouldn’t whuh…we…” I gasped “bring some with us?”

He shot me through with a dead-eyed stare, “…fuckin’ cops, man.”

I gesticulated like I had solutions, “What about I jam it in my phone between my, uh…back cover and battery?”

But it was another pipe dream; the Blackberry was not made to smuggle contraband. So we did it all!

***

Narborough Road bustled icily. The mythical Indian food joints were out of sight, out of mind. At an ecstatic pace we trod the familiar part of the route. In more lucid times, parts of the area had piqued my interest, but we were not yet there. Many of our usual haunts flew by; the deep-fried shithouses I don’t care to name, Scorpion – the totally legal business that sells equipment with which to take illegal drugs – and Key Sounds, the musical instrument outfit from whose window a life-size cut-out of boogie-woogie maestro Jools Holland beams at passers-by, who probably all watch the Hootenanny ritualistically.

“We should go in there and ask if we can have it,” said Allende “when they’re done with it. I’ve grown quite attached to auld Jools.”

“Careful,” I cautioned “his endorsement might be their USP.”

We observed that Rapunzel appeared to have taken up residence above the flashy new bar, Pi, in an enchantingly glowing tower that I suspect may be a loft conversion. Opting for less glamorous surroundings, we swung by Gaul Street and passed our comrade Yair Rice, who embraced me and said “this kind’a shit is in vogue” and then, with the pulsation of his bulbous eyes putting unimaginable strain upon his sockets, he disappeared in a cloud of frivolous paper notes.

“Weren’t those…?”

“What?”

“…your notes?”

“Nah, he’s always writing,” I reassured myself. I don’t know who I was trying to kid “fuck! They must’uh fallen outta my pockets when he hugged me.”

Something dawned on Allende. His eyes widened, which was some feat considering his toxicological condition. He shook me by the shoulders; “WHAT ABOUT THE PROPHECY, MAN?!”

My jaw jutting purposefully, I took control of the situation, “Stay cool, man. It’s on my laptop back home. We can go where we want and lie about the rest!”

“We’ll lie about the fuckin’ rest!” He concurred, shaking me now with affection. “You know what I am? I’m the urban oceanographer!”

“You hear me? We can go where the FUCK we want!” I told everybody on Gaul Street.

It may have been the drugs, but it felt like a triumph. We were freed from all narrative constraints, and as we crossed to Western Road it felt like a great and inalienable liberty to wonder anywhere and everywhere and not have a reason for it. Words like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, however, I choked upon when I saw who stood, ranting and raving, outside the East-West Community Project.

Allende had been provoked by the morosely terraced houses that lined Gaul St. to ask if its residents were “students or real people?” In Leicester’s housing it is indeed difficult to delineate between the self-imposed poverty of the student and the true poverty of the worker. I felt sanctimoniously liberal as I pondered how a modest, somewhat grimy house was, for my peers and I, a place to crash for a few months, but for somebody else it was home. Elsewhere, in many tall apartment complexes, one gets the sense that the property boom has continued with the student faculty exclusively in mind. Today it’s probably more difficult for a working class migrant to find decent housing and employment in Leicester, and to some that’s a good thing, but I think the true people of Leicester have come from all around the world, and not just for the universities. And, lest we forget, the lecture rooms don’t exactly look like UKIP meetings.

The East-West Community Project represented this melting pot sensibility, and it was emblematic of everything Oliver Heiley, a 25-year old student who, shall we say, dabbled in right-wing politics, hated; “English culture is being destroyed! Sharia Law imposed all over the place! Immigration is out of control…everybody’s thinking it, but nobody’s saying it! Leicester has been subject to something, oh yes, something called ethnic cleansing, and now I must get my dictionary to show you that is the case!”

He fumbled for his book, we jostled towards him, and I spat on his English Democrat manifestoes; “Fucking fascist.”

“You’re twisted up inside, man.” sneered Allende.

“You…” Heiley blustered in the archaic manner of a fustily avuncular character from The Third Man (1949) “…you are a pair of leftist militants!”

“What the fuck?” said Salvador “I only read the Guardian, like, sometimes.”

“I might be a leftist militant,” I said “but you’re on the far-right, man. Get real! Always bitching and complaining you’ve been wronged by society, just shut the fuck up for once and people might start treating you nice.”

“You drug-using leeches on the state are the reason we need more police on the streets!”

***

Maybe that fuck was the real prophet; we instantly left Bede Park, with its imposing skyline of buildings as mundane as Tesco Express, because – SHIT! –a cop nonchalantly patrolled the park, so we moved on to a new-looking development lined with houses so neat, bland, homogenous in their anonymity, that one almost expects them to be inhabited not by people but little tin soldiers, or maybe that there’s some Stepford Wives kind’a shit going on…

“I’ve never seen the Stepford Wives,” inquired Allende “what’s it about?”

“It’s about, uh…well, there’s, like, some families and they’re…married…I d’no, I haven’t seen it either.”

With one row of domiciles surrounded by a spiked iron fence that must certainly fill its residents with a sheer sense of incarceration, the developers had sought to make the area more homely by naming the roads Coriander, Tarragon, Mint and Sage, which are definitely not real road names. All that was missing was Parsley, Rosemary and Thyme. A sign read “police in action” – shit, I thought.

Later, my companion would point to a beautiful but weather-beaten mosaic that depicted the sheering of sheep – even with the cracks and the fading and the overgrown weeds at its foot, it betrayed a kind of majesty, “but” he said “the decay prevailed.” Our plans for a purposefully aimless meander off Leicester’s beaten path similarly began to decay. The catalyst was my bladder.

It dragged me to the Student Union and past it into town on an endlessly familiar route. It’s hard to rebel too savagely against the urban infrastructure; function keeps you following a certain path. Yes, I needed to piss, and the nefarious Leicester Council certainly hadn’t gone out of their way to provide public toilets. So, after a brief chinwag with those ubiquitous students we lathered our hands in the prestigious-sounding soap of the Skincare Management System and made for the doors. It had begun to feel surreal to be – in the drug connoisseur’s parlance – buzzing in the SU, when I remembered the place doubled as a nightclub.

***

Deeper into town, “NHTFG” was scrawled in white graffiti upon the topmost segments of a grey skyscraper, which begs the question; did the owners of said building sanction this oblique – and logistically challenging – artistic display upon their property, or did this minimalist Basquiat take the initiative themselves and either a) hang precariously upside down from the roof of the building and write each of the five characters that way, b) hitch a ride on a friendly window cleaner’s rig, or c) hire a helicopter. Although late at night I have overheard the strange rumblings of low-flying rotorcraft, the curiously lopsided rendering of the letter “n” could support the first theory, yet leaves even more unanswered questions. Not least; what does the pattern mean?

We were swapping drug stories by the Motorola Warehouse when it hit us that we’d taken all the drugs. This realisation was a major bummer, but certainly should have freed us from fears of the cold grip of the law. Instead, stumbling into the Cultural Quarter’s Curve theatre, Allende was more fucked up than ever.

“Psssst…” he hissed in my ear.

What?”

“We better split, man, this place is getting hot…” Couples dined and somebody played live piano in the corner, “I don’t think we should be here.”

After grabbing some leaflets, we split.

***

We strolled through the neon garishness of the shopping centre, discussing the transgressions of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, and how we can reconcile them with their artistry. Highcross, rechristened as such in 2008 but around since 1992, is particularly symptomatic of one facet of Leicester’s gentrification; with the collapse of the Industrial sector in the 1980s, the city compensated for the lack of prospects with a surge of job opportunities in retail. The elastic road seemed to be coming to an end.

“I’ve got a drug problem…” I began.

My friend is a rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast “Keith Richards has it right,” he grinned, quoting “’I don’t have a drug problem, I have a police problem.’”

“No, a problem with these particular drugs. We take too much ecstasy! Instead of imbuing me with an all-encompassing desire to just fuckin’ move, it actually relaxes me.”

“Y’know, now th’t you– my legs are kind’a starting to hurt, man…”

My friend’s company had, to an extent, kept me focused upon the task at hand. However, I was reminded of my experiences walking alone. Although I attempt to keep observation at the heart of my peregrinations, my walks often cease to be about my environment, whatever my intentions, and revert to a mostly solipsistic focus. We found that at times our one-on-one conversation would render Leicester merely ornamental. Function again grasped us in its hands, and, ever the loyal customers, the final stop on our trip took us to our Man’s living room. I chuckled at the circularity of our haphazard odyssey. Thinking of my grand ambitions, I lamented that I was even mourning structure. I didn’t know if we’d found the real Leicester, but I had material to spare and – any problems – I could just make it up.

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