My parents were Windrush pioneers. My father was from Antigua and my mother from Jamaica. Both worked in factories and at first we shared a single room in a house occupied by other Windrush families in Leicester’s Highfields area. From the late 1950s right to the present, Highfields has offered cheap accommodation for new arrivals and economic migrants.
I’ve always been intrigued by Highfield’s rows of “two up two down” houses as well as its grander pallisaded villas. I always wanted to know what was happening behind those windows. Although my parents moved out of the area, I went back to live there myself. It has always accommodated diverse cultural and faith communities. Highfields has had a reputation for prostitution and drugs but it is also a haven for artists, political activists and students. I have watched the ebb and flow of people there. Many have felt like outsiders and yet banded together.
I learned about the Commonwealth at Geography lessons at school. Practically the entire Commonwealth could be found in our local Indian and West Indian shops. They were packed with specialist cooking wares, like the iron skillets, 'dutchy' and aluminum rice pots, pestle and mortars. In those aromatic shops I learned about yams and found out where Indian spices and Basmati rice came from. It created a sense of wonder about the huge distance those foods had travelled.
These shops were critically important for newcomers shocked, then as now, by the hostility of the Motherland. African, Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani: those shoppers would mingle, jostle and haggle. They picked up items and inspected them. They kept up a playful banter with the shopkeepers, making disparaging remarks about the quality of the goods to get the price lowered. Just as they do in outdoor markets back home.
In their cold houses parents and grandparents would park their young children in the living room so they could make “home food” in the kitchen. For a Baby Boomer like myself, television and film became my own form of escape. This explains the poem’s allusion to Disney’s Fantasia. The obsession with food barely registered in the mind of my television-watching generation. But now I understand food’s alchemy. I understand the relief it must have provided from demanding children, from the drudgery of factory shifts, the persistent sense of socio-economic injustice. Our parents orchestrated each herb and each vegetable, affirming their “home skills” and healing their battered identities.
As young children we were generally given English food. But, by way of an initiation, we were gradually introduced to our parents’ food as we got older. The kitchen was where my parents shared anecdotes, stories and songs about growing up back home. These were inspired by a piece of nutmeg or the careful instructions on cooking rice . They were moments of collective restitution.
The poem is a kind of travelogue, its form and structure indicating an outsider looking in. The grim domesticity of the cold living room is contrasted with the hot kitchen; a crucible of creation. Recent decades have seen a generational drift that has adversely affected the area. Yet my night walks through Highfields showed me that Leicester’s connections with so many homelands are as vital and personal as ever.