I always say “Yes” when the assistant in the shoe shop asks if I’d like the box that my new shoes came in. Over the years a collection of shoe boxes has appeared on a shelf in my wardrobe, dusty and seldom opened except to slide in the occasional card or envelope. Most contain letters, postcards, Christmas cards and other handwritten bits and pieces from a time when people still wrote real letters. A sudden bout of nostalgia – or influenza – and I take down one of the boxes to trawl through the contents like an archaeologist sifting through layers of silt. The deeper I get into a box, the more often I find letters and cards from people I have forgotten. Postcards or thin sheets of airmail notepaper sent from no-longer exotic holiday resorts, often written in ink with indecipherable signatures.
Recently I found a thin bundle of hand-written letters in dark blue ink at the bottom of one my shoe boxes, together with a few small sheets of paper typed with a pale blue typewriter ribbon. The letters were written in a strong, cultivated hand, clearly signed by Mrs D. Williams of 42, Gopsall Street, Highfields, Leicester, and dated 1967.
I was a Social Science student at the University of Leicester from 1964 to 1967. The university was located near Victoria Park in a number of low, grey wooden pavilions which had previously housed the local mental hospital. In his welcoming speech, Professor Ronald Meek pointed out in his booming Scots voice that there were still bars on the windows, but now to keep people out instead of in. This was meant to reflect on the popularity of the new university, but this being 1964 we were not convinced.
I had forgotten Mrs Williams, but sifting through her letters and writings took me back to my years in Leicester, and an incident which took place early one morning in my first week there. Crossing a side road I avoided the rush-hour traffic to take a short cut though Victoria Park. The autumn grass was still wet, but I forgot the dew on my gym shoes when I heard a sudden loud squeal of tyres to my right. Looking up I saw a cream and maroon double-decker bus leaning over as it swerved through the nearby roundabout. A woman who was standing on the open platform at the back of the bus lost her grip and was slung off into the road like a sack of coal. The uniformed bus conductor, a thin, sallow faced Pakistani with black stripy hair, turned his back. Nobody else reacted as the bus hurtled on towards the city centre. Fortunately there was no car or lorry directly behind the bus. After a moment’s hesitation I started to run towards the woman, who had rolled over into the gutter but was slowly getting to her feet, brushing off her clothes. She was middle-aged, West Indian with bushy hair tied up in a bright patterned scarf, wearing a green dress, beige cardigan and flat, comfortable shoes. The woman was probably on her way home from working as a cleaner or housekeeper at one of the large houses in the nearby leafy residential area. Seeing me approaching, she quickly grabbed her brown shopping bag from the road and limped off. I stopped and watched until she disappeared down a side street into the nearby housing area, Highfields.
Highfields, “High Fields”, originally an area of farm land outside the city, became a residential district from the 1850’s onwards. Little development took place during the twentieth century so the Victorian suburb looked very much as it would have done in the nineteenth century, with Victorian townhouses, today often subdivided into flats, and redbrick terraced housing.
Highfields was badly bombed during the Second World War and after the war became less desirable, as the trend to suburban living encouraged many residents to move to the outskirts of the city. Highfields became instead an area of lodging houses and poor quality rented accommodation, which attracted a succession of migrants to make their homes there. Highfields is an extremely multicultural area, with large ethnic minorities. In the post-war period the first incomers were Irish together with ex-servicemen and workers from the Caribbean and migrants from South Asia.
Over the years Highfields has been subjected to numerous waves of migration including Indian, Jewish, Irish, Polish, Somali, Pakistani, and Caribbean populations. Recently the area has attracted a large number of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Today Highfields is home to the Leicester’s synagogue, an African-Caribbean Centre, various Christian churches and many mosques, madrassas and Islamic community centres, which reflect the numerous ethnic groups who live there.
Highfields was a place I occasionally visited, usually to see fellow students who had found cheap lodgings there. I felt uncomfortable on the streets of Highfields: unfamiliar languages and peoples, West Indian greengrocers with strange fruits and vegetables, Indian restaurants with strong spices, an Indian cinema and pub, Pakistani corner shops. The narrow cobbled alleys were used as parking for flashy old American cruisers with growling V8’s, decorated with flags and equipped with loud speakers pumping out unfamiliar rhythms. Earlier Highfields had a reputation as a red-light district where crime was rife, often drug-related. This reputation still tainted the area in the 1960’s.
One familiar sight on the streets of Highfields was the uniformed bus drivers and conductors employed by the local city council, mainly from India and Pakistan. The local newspaper, the Leicester Mercury, wrote of increasing tensions in Highfields in connection with the India-Pakistan war in 1965. The city bus service tried to avoid using mixed crews on the buses, after incidents between Indian and Pakistani employees. Photographs of Indian women in saris queueing patiently to donate their gold trinkets to the war effort were published side-by-side with team photographs of the Highfields School hockey team, where twelve of thirteen members wore turbans and answered to the name Singh.
What has all this to do with Mrs Williams? And who was Mrs Williams?
I first met Mrs Williams at her home in Highfields in 1967 when I was working with volunteers who did painting and decorating for people in poor housing conditions. Their names were suggested by the local social welfare department and materials were donated by local shops and businesses. Not the latest wallpaper styles or shades of paint, but clean and bright. A visit was agreed via Mrs Williams’ home help, Elizabeth, who introduced herself as Lizzie. Mrs Williams was more formal and always addressed her as Elizabeth.
Mrs W, as Lizzie referred to her, sat in a large armchair draped in a mohair plaid when we arrived, wearing a long dress and slippers. We guessed she was about seventy years old, but her face looked older from living in the sun. On our first visit she told us her life story, in a well-spoken upper-middle class English with a very slight South African flavour. She had lived for many years with her husband in South Africa, who was an estate manager. On a visit to England, he had died suddenly. She lost the house in South Africa and was then more or less penniless, but survived on a small pension in her house in Highfields, with the help of Elizabeth. Mrs W spoke to Elizabeth in the manner customarily used for servants in South Africa. Elizabeth didn’t seem to take offence, a slightly raised eyebrow and little smile put it down to a difference in class and upbringing.
Mrs W was always sprucely turned out, in long, pre-war tailored blouses or dresses, outfits infinitely more suited to an evening G&T in the lodge overlooking the estate than a seedy brick terraced house in Highfield. Her half-long, thick grey hair, almost reaching the double row of pearls which usually completed her outfit, was always freshly brushed.
In contrast, the house was in a bad state, almost derelict, back yard full of rubbish. Mrs Williams only used the ground floor, heated by a small coal fire and a one-bar electric heater. Like many older British houses it was unhealthy – damp, cold and draughty. This didn’t bother Mrs Williams and she definitely didn’t want us doing any painting and decorating. She regarded us more as companions and friends, allies in discussing her latest ideas and writings.
While Lizzie busied herself about the house with the daily chores, Mrs W devoted her energy to campaigning: animal rights, capital punishment, anti-vivsection (animals used for medical research), Thalidomide and immigration. Daily she wrote long letters to the newspapers on these topics, hammering away on an old typewriter with a worn, blue ribbon. On some of these issues her position was very clear; she was for animal rights and anti-vivisection, warned against Thalidomide but seemed less clear on humane forms of capital punishment and limits to immigration, at least as far as “darkies” as she called them were concerned.
Lizzie’s final responsibility of the day was to stick stamps on Mrs W’s daily production of letters and drop them in the red and black pillar box on the corner of Highfields Road, in good time before the five o’clock collection.
Mrs Williams found time to write personal letters too, written in sweeping long-hand, using a fountain pen which it was Lizzie’s job to keep filled with dark blue ink. Mrs W wrote about everyday matters, expressing concern that we worked too hard for our finals or didn’t get enough sleep. She was also very generous in suggesting unorthodox cures for ailments such as arthritis (for my mother) or other afflictions.
In Highfields Mrs W saw herself as the last outpost of civilisation, surrounded by various threats which were personified by the many immigrant groups who made up her neighbours. In some way she was proud to be the only white English person left in the multi-ethnic Highfields, but at the same time decidedly paranoid. Old, frail, alone and alienated, she felt threatened when local kids threw stones into her yard and shouted insults. She was on speaking terms with her Indian neighbours, tried to get help from them with the gang of children, but did not trust them. Once, on my way out, she slipped me the following note on a small folded-up piece of paper:
“If no answer at front door please try the back door, because neighbours are not all reliable & on occasion have sent people away saying I was not here!!!”
Mrs Williams’ other fear was the authorities, who she knew were provoked by her controversial views and were planning to silence her. She was convinced that they were a danger to her, and told us on one occasion that she had in fact been kidnapped. She described in detail with a wavering voice how she had been rolled up in a red blanket and unceremoniously bundled into an ambulance and driven away.
Perhaps that is what happened to her in the end. Reading her old letters, I see in front of me Mrs Williams sitting, well-dressed, in her near-derelict house in Highfields, surrounded by a multitude of ethnic groups whom she saw as frightening and hostile. She was the last outpost of white Britain, trying to keep up a semblance of civilisation in her campaigns – Thalidomide, immigration, capital punishment and animal welfare. She battled on, brandishing the Union Jack, alone except for her faithful servant, home-help Lizzie.