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February 16, 2011

The Future of England - as seen from the Irish Club in Royal Leamington Spa on a winter afternoon

Posted by Lincoln Allison

We were under snow for the most part of forty days. A commonplace remark was that we had more snow in 2010 than in the whole of the 1990s put together and knowing smiles were exchanged about global warming. I took to referring to Royal Leamington Spa as Warwickshire's premier winter resort. The sledging went on for day after day until virtually every plastic sledge in town had cracked on the increasingly fast, ridged slopes of the Campion Hills; they lay in bits in a photogenic heap of blue and yellow and red around a litter bin on Beacon Hill. Finally bored with sledging, we walked for miles across a dazzling, frozen landscape and watched fieldfares and redwings, refugees from Scandinavia, scoffing the last of the hedgerow fruit before warming our bums in front of a pub fire. One of my sons remarked that it was like living in a Christmas card; it was England, in winter, but not as a man of thirty winters had ever known it.

One afternoon, I was summoned by my wife to a wake at the Irish Club. The story is a sad one: the deceased was only about forty, but he had spent nearly the whole of his adult life as a paraplegic, having made a terrible mistake stepping in front of traffic from a coach coming back from a rugby match when he was twenty. I always reflected how easily that could have happened to me at that age. His ten brothers and sisters were there, even the brother from New Zealand, and the twenty-year-old son whom he had never met. There were many other relatives, but not his parents, both of whom had died in their sixties.

We were there for several reasons. My wife taught many of the family at school; she remembers Patrick, the deceased, politely spurning her offer of individual help with the words, "Don't worry about me, Miss - I'm just thick". Another teacher, of Afro-Caribbean origin, recalled that he was the most athletic child she had ever taught, the only one who could meet her challenge to leap and touch a particular ceiling. One of my sons teaches several of the younger generation of the clan and, in any case, they were our reliable and trustworthy babysitters for years; that includes the one who has been in gaol. They look like a clan, incidentally, all handsome in the same way and raven haired - "black Irish" as the Victorians would have described them.

Back on the slopes and the paths everybody was English and some version of middle class. We're the ones who love the great outdoors and have sledges in our cellars. In some respects the world of those middle classes and the world of the Irish Club are entirely different. One of our babysitters, for example, was a grandmother at 36, which is just about the age some educated, professional gals begin to think about having children. And here among the Guinness they talk about life after death in a quite matter of fact way, as in "I hope Mam and Dad don't shout at Patrick like they used to, now they're back together". This would be considered somewhat embarrassing in our part of town, to put it mildly.

All of which gets me thinking, in a mellow kind of way, about our town as a community and the society of which it is a part. It is far from being a tightly knit kind of place; indeed, its diversity is astonishing for a population of 60,000 people. I could take you through every suburb and submerged village in the place, each different in its ethnic composition, status and reputation, including parts of town known in their day as Whitetrash and Wife-swapping capital of the world.

The town is diffuse and divided, but not in ways that are deep or bitter; yet the parts tend to come together over time and they share a discernible pride in the place. In this club, for example, it says Cead Mile Failte in large letters over the stage, but I haven't heard an Irish accent, let alone any Gaelic. Although the people look Irish and have parents or grandparents mainly from Cork they tell stories about visits to Ireland as if it were an exotic other, just as the Punjabis who are 20% of the town talk about India and the Sicilians talk about Italy. If we took demography seriously those notices would not say that we were twinned with Bruhl and Sceaux, but with Cork, Cimino and Amritsar. The Punjabis and Corkonians came mainly for the Ford foundry which now lies derelict at the other end of town, the Ciminese to run restaurants and hairdressers. The Poles came as refugees and in such numbers after 1939 that the old town hall became the Polish Club. There are now many Portuguese whose original focus of employment was the services on the M40.

I would originally have been suspicious and unhappy about the scale of immigration which has affected Leamington. I grew up in a town with a very different demographic shape: Colne, Lancashire, in the 1950s had a Jewish family which ran the bookshop and the odd Polish refugee, but it was otherwise a cotton town in a backwater where industry had recruited from a ten mile radius. We wore clogs and spoke in dialect; I say this even though I personally never wore clogs as unsuitable for the son of the headmaster of the grammar school. The names in my primary school class, more than half of whom were called Hartley, Pickles, Carradice, Day, Hurd or Nutter, were the same names who had gone off to battle from Colne since Flodden in 1512. The teacher who taught the final two years instilled a weird Lancastrian-British racial pride into us. We were a volk, the cream of a mighty empire. I don't suppose she knew much about ethnic and civic concepts of national identity, but she would have known which side she was on. It was only when I discovered the soft, sad South as an undergraduate that I began to realise what a cosmopolitan place England is.

Since then I have come to regard Sir Thomas Beecham's assertion that a man in his life should try everything once except for incest and morris dancing as not merely a disdainful witticism, but also a powerful statement of national identity. Let foreigners hanker for their incest and ethnic identities and folk dancing and tremble at the name of globalisation. Here in the "Heart of England", in the land of cricket and Shakespeare, globalisation is what we are and what we do. One of my granddaughters has her roots in India, East Africa and Ireland, but that won't stop her growing up to like rhubarb crumble, cricket and real beer or from having an undergraduate sense of humour. Voltaire said of English religions that because there were so many none of them was a threat to freedom; perhaps he would extend his optimism to ethnic identity now.

The orthodox version of the charm of a multi-cultural society stresses its diversity, though it is often not clear whether diversity is supposed to be good in itself or, if not, what its good consequences are supposed to be. I like the alternative perspectives it gives. For instance, when I walk out of my front door I am likely to meet persons of American-Jewish, German , Indian, Spanish, Nigerian and Italian extraction with all of whom I am on speaking terms. They whinge a great deal less than the "pure" English: for example, an Italian of my own age extols English weather in a quite Wordsworthian way - and I don't think he's being ironic.

But there is also the absence of any sense of us and them. Too complex an us, too many thems. In this sense, the Spa resembles California rather than the states of the East and the hinterland and it is quite different, for instance, from the Lancashire towns where there is one substantial minority, Muslims of Pakistani origin.

Indeed, in a traditional English way we do much more us-and-them on the question of class. This is a borough, after all, which petitioned parliament for an exception to the 1870 Education Act on the grounds that the servant classes needed to be taught better polishing techniques rather than numeracy and literacy. But we have acquired factory districts since then. In postcode terms we are CV32; south of the river they are CV31. When the town's football club reached the first round of the FA Cup proper and were on television there were banners which read "CV31 and Proud". Also "Born in Leamington, Live in Leamington, Die for Leamington". Of this latter it can be said that in CV32 we would not express such a crude sentiment ourselves, but we retain a sneaking regard for those who do. All in all our divisions are so subtle and numerous and cross-cutting that they can barely function as divisions.

These are my thoughts in the dark late afternoon while holding my third pint of Guinness and counting the number of persons present who appear to be of Asian extraction in that most English of institutions, an Irish Club. The answer is seven, which is seven more than the number of people with Irish accents.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is My Father's Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas.

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