16 May, 2016

"Joyful exultation and praise for a Spring evening"

Saturday's Programme
The Programme cover had it exactly right when it said “a joyful exultation and praise for a Spring evening”. And the Programme's introduction to the concert said that the music to be performed had “the feel good factor” and that it would make us all feel (to use the words of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning) that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”. How right the programme was! Well........as I wrote the Programme’s introduction and contributed other parts to it, and to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies in the 60s Profumo trial,......."I would say that wouldn't I!"

Saturday night saw the final concert of the season for our local choir – the Ruddington and District Choral Society - but although it was the last concert of the year before the choir takes its summer break it was in every other sense a new beginning since the choir has had both a new musical director/conductor and a new accompanist/choral teacher to lead them. It was a “first” too because the choir were joined by a wonderful and skilful group of musicians – the  Ruddington Chamber Ensemble who brought an exciting and new dimension to the concert; hopefully, this is a relationship that will develop further in future months. And finally it was a first since we had the services of four excellent young, local soloists: Grace Bale (Soprano), Katharine Chonara (Mezzo Soprano), Geoggrey Hickling (Tenor) and Ossian Huskinson (Bass) - these four young people were outstanding; again a relationship that it is hoped might develop further. My wife, Pat, has sung with the choir for many years and although I am not a singing member I do help out, as required, with writing the programme, numbering tickets, manning the door on concert nights and other similar “dogsbody” tasks! For this concert, however, I had a new and extra role – to take photographs so that the choir’s website could be up to date with the new personnel.
Paul Hayward - the Choir's new director in rehearsal mode!

Because  it was something of a new start for the choir the programme had been specially chosen to allow everyone to shine – pieces that are very much choral greats, favourites of singers, players and audiences alike. So in that sense the concert couldn’t really fail, but in actual fact it surpassed everyone’s wildest expectations – a splendid, joyful event where everyone went home, as predicted in the programme, with that real “feel good” feeling. There was universal agreement that the new men in charge, Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury, had injected not only new life and enthusiasm into the singers but had brought huge skills and talents to improve the quality of the singing and musicianship plus a new musical dimension which gave the performance a real buzz; the whole audience sat entranced throughout as the music  poured forth from a choir, soloists and orchestra at the top of their respective games. As I sat watching and listening to the music unfolding before me one could almost feel the mutual engagement between the performers and the listeners so tangible was it - the performers at one with their audience, the listeners feeling almost a contributing  part of what was unfolding before their very eyes and ears.  And, as the final applause died away, it was so noticeable how many of the audience left the church asking when was the next concert, or approached Paul, Michael or choir members to congratulate them on their performance and to thank them for a wonderful evening; they, the audience hadn't just been to a good concert, they had been an important part of a wonderful musical event.
Enjoying the rehearsal!
Paul Hayward is, despite his seeming youth, a hugely skilled, enthusiastic and experienced musician and has held several senior musical posts within the music world. He has undertaken national and international tours, performed on CD and taken part in BBC broadcasts. His musical interests are wide-ranging from traditional church music, through the classical repertoire to theatre and jazz. I am, sure that this versatility, his wide-ranging experience and his background as a respected leader and conductor were in the minds of the Choral Society when they appointed him their new director – believing that he would bring not only his considerable conducting skills but also a new dimension and enthusiasm to the choir’s repertoire and musical development. The Choir have not been disappointed - Paul has brought all these qualities and more to his role and to the benefit of each and every member of the Society. He has become an instant success. Similarly, Michael Overbury is a hugely talented, experienced and nationally recognised musician.  Primarily known as an organ and harpsichordist Michael has performed at the highest level: assistant organist at Kings College Cambridge & New College Oxford, international organ competition prize winner, cathedral choir master, teacher, soloist at places like the Royal Festival Hall and the Handel House Museum in London, leader of early music groups, writer and a performer on CDs.  Michael’s background and experience are unquestionably of the highest order. His skills as a teacher and an accompanist have already borne fruit in the choir and when combined with Paul’s choral leadership, direction and conducting have not only produced a wonderful concert but brought the choir to life in a way that could only have been dreamed of  four short months when they took up their new roles.
Michael Overbury - Organ maestro!

But, of course, in the end, the music is the thing. Musicians and choirs may come and go but it is the music that provides their raison d’être and it is the music that concert goers go along to hear.

I don’t think that anyone who attended Saturday night’s concert would have had any reservations about the choice of programme; people knew what they were going to get – and they came to fill the church and to hear some of the greatest of works by the greatest of composers. As I mentioned above the programme was chosen to grab attention and to enable all to shine – and shine they did! Early on Saturday afternoon I had walked to St Peter’s Church here in Ruddington where the concert was to be held to take some photographs of the final rehearsal. As I quietly slipped in via the side door I was met with a wall of sound as the choir and orchestra gave life to mighty Credo from Haydn’s Nelson Mass – surely one of the world’s spine-tingling musical works; in short, the hairs on my neck stood bolt upright! And throughout the concert on Saturday evening I watched the whole audience sit almost on the edge of their seats, not only entertained but inspired and moved by the pieces: Antonio Vivaldi’s serene and mighty Gloria, George Frederick Handel’s beautiful and technically demanding Organ Concerto No 4 and, of course, the powerful and glorious Nelson Mass by Joseph Haydn. When a programme contains pieces and composers as well known as these it is perhaps not easy for a choir or orchestra to impress – after all, many of the audience will, like me, know these works well and have the works on CD performed by some of the world’s great musicians. Audiences will know what it should sound like when played at its best but as the audience left the Church on Saturday night their praise and happiness was obvious. I heard one member comment that the performance of the Vivaldi was better than the professional performance she had attended a week or two previously at a recognised concert venue. The lady was alone; congratulations were on everyone's lips - the rendering of these mighty works in St Peter’s on Saturday night bore comparison with any other that I have heard. It was not only a rewarding experience but a great achievement by those involved.
Singing aloud is allowed!

And as I sat there listening I thought of something that often goes through my mind when I attend any concert. Here we were, in  little village in the middle of England enjoying things that had first been heard in far off places and by ears of far off times. We were experiencing something pretty close to what listeners in Venice experienced three centuries ago when Vivaldi’s Gloria was first performed. Similarly, when Michael Overbury played that marvellous Organ Concerto by Handel we were hearing just what 18th century London theatre goers heard. And when I crept into the church on Saturday afternoon, or sat in the concert on Saturday evening and was overawed by the power of Haydn’s Nelson Mass I was listening to what that great Admiral first heard in 1800 as he returned victorious from the Battle of the Nile having put a stop to Napoleon’s plans to dominate Europe. The music was linking me and the rest of the audience to our shared and mankind's past.
A light hearted break in the rehearsal.

These great works and thousands of others like them, are an historical bridge that links us to times past – to the feelings, ideals and events of those past ages. And it isn’t just great classical music that does this: I can sit and listen, as I sometimes do, to (say) the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan and be immediately transported back to my college days in the 60s. I can listen to Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly or the Everley Brothers, as I did the other evening while Pat cooked tea, and be back reliving my misspent teenage years to the Rock and Roll of the late 50s. Or, I can listen to enjoy one of my CDs of Gilbert & Sullivan and in an instant be back to the age of Queen Victoria and Dickensian England; such is the power of music to transport us to another world and another time and hear what those of those far off days heard and loved and to perhaps understand more fully our history and mankind’s dreams, ideals and aspirations.
Everyone concentrating on this difficult bit!

Antonio Vivaldi
Vivaldi’s Gloria is one of the world’s great choral pieces. Antonio Vivaldi, or the “Red Priest” as he was known because of his bright ginger hair composed his Gloria in Venice, probably in 1715, for the choir of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for girls, of which he was the music master. The Ospedale prided itself on the quality of its musical education and the excellence of its choir and orchestra. Vivaldi, a priest, music teacher and virtuoso violinist, composed many sacred works for the Ospedale, where he spent most of his career, as well as hundreds of instrumental concertos to be played by the girls’ orchestra.
Looking serious? Everyone gets their instructions on how
to behave on the night!
On one of our visits to Venice Pat and I stood in the Church where Vivaldi’s work was performed by the girls from the orphanage all those years ago. In those far off days it was not seemly for young women to be seen performing by gentlemen so the girls played and sang behind iron grills on the church balcony while the gentlemen of La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia, (the Most Serene Republic of Venice), sat below hearing but unable to see the performers. What a wonderful picture this conjures up: the church lit only by flickering smoking candles, the wealthy gentlemen of La Serenissima Repubblica  sitting craning their necks to catch a glimpse of some orphan beauty behind the grills, outside the gentle sound of the lapping water of the Grand Canal and, of course, Vivaldi’s glorious music permeating all. As I sat there in the rehearsal and during the concert I was there – in Venice, three centuries ago – such is the music’s power and such was the wonderful performance that we heard. The Gloria is Vivaldi’s most famous choral piece and is a joyful hymn of praise and worship based upon the Latin Mass and  based around St. Luke's account of Christ's birth, and the angels singing to the shepherds. Its movements range from the serenely beautiful to glorious and powerful; any one of the twelve movements might appear in a hit list of great choral works but my own favourites are the Gloria, the Et in terra pax, the Domine Fili unigenite and the Cum Sanctio Spiritus – hear them and, as the programme said, one knows that all’s right with the world ! Vivaldi was hugely popular in his day. Sadly, however, he squandered much of his wealth – but, he left us a treasure trove of great music, and, as I say a historical bridge to his world.
George Frederick Handel

When Michael Overbury sat and performed Handel’s Organ Concerto No 4 (Opus 4) in F Major  he was doing exactly what Handel himself did when it was first performed in 1735 – namely, entertaining the audience with a musical interlude between the main parts of the concert. The two main works on Saturday night were the Gloria and the Nelson Mass and when Handel performed his Organ Concerto it was as an interval piece at one of his great oratorios. Handel’s Organ Concertos do not have a religious spirit but were intended to captivate and entertain the general public who had come to hear his Oratorio. They were music for the ordinary man and woman – easy to grasp, melodic and exciting at the same time.  The six Opus 4 Concerti were all written between 1735 and 1736 and performed at the newly opened theatre of John Rich in Covent Garden. The Concerto No. 4 in F Major was completed by Handel on March 25th 1735 and performed by him during the performance of Athalia on April 1st 1735.  This was “interlude music” for the pleasure and enjoyment of the audience and one member of the audience, Mrs Pendarves, clearly enjoyed it. She wrote at the time: “....Mr Handel’s playing on the organ .....was the finest thing I ever heard in my life”.

Have we got the "X Factor"......Yes, we have!
Such was Handel’s celebrity status in eighteenth century London that his appearance at a performance of one of his Oratorios ensured a “full house” and Handel, always keen to boost his income, intended all of his Organ Concerti for himself to play, and so ensure a full theatre! To coin a modern phrase, Handel’s playing put “bums on seats” and money in Handel’s pocket – a thing very close to the great musician’s heart! The Concerto combines brilliant, fast and flowing music with slower movements which allowed Handel to take the spotlight and remind his audiences that he was not only a popular composer and celebrated performer, but also a peerless player and improviser. When Michael Overbury performed the piece on Saturday night he did just that: reminded us of his own peerless skills and of the great music that Handel left us. As I sat there listening to Michael’s wonderful playing and Handel’s great music, I could understand what Mrs Pendarves was feeling as she sat (or maybe stood) all those years ago in a smoky and crowded London theatre hearing exactly what I was hearing in our little parish church in the middle of England so many years later.
Inside the Esterhazy Palace where Nelson heard his Mass

And finally to the Nelson Mass – another of the true choral “greats”. Joseph Haydn wrote his Mass, as most of his other works, whilst employed by Prince Esterhazy at the magnificent Palace of Esterhazy in Hungary – part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Holy Roman Empire. The Prince was one of Europe’s great men and his palace one of the great cultural centres of 18th century Europe. Haydn was required to produce a new mass each year for the name-day of Princess Esterhazy and in 1798 he composed his Mass in D Minor – the Missa in Angustsiis (A Mass for Troubled Times).   
Joseph Haydn - "Papa" Haydn. He gained this sobriquet 
because he is often seen as the father of the modern 
symphony and, in his time, was much loved by 
those who played for him - he was their "father figure"
Times were indeed troubled: Haydn’s world was in turmoil. Napoleon had won four major battles with Austria in less than a year and French  armies had crossed the Alps and threatened Vienna itself.  The summer of 1798 was, therefore, a terrifying time for Austria. What Haydn did not know when he wrote the Mass, however, was that on the 1st August, Napoleon had been dealt a stunning defeat in the Battle of the Nile by British forces led by Admiral Horatio Nelson. As the news reverberated around the world, Nelson was heralded as the 'saviour of Europe' and it is believed that reports of the victory reached Haydn on the day of the Mass’s first performance in September 1798.  Perhaps because of this coincidence, the Mass instantly acquired the sub-title The Nelson Mass. That title, however, became firmly fixed two years later.  
The great sea captain
And Lady Hamilton, his "friend"!
In the months following the victory Nelson became a legendary figure in Europe. Feted and courted by Europe’s elite and powerful he toured much of the continent enjoying his fame. In Italy he met Sir William and Lady Hamilton who lived in Naples and there he fell for the beautiful Lady Hamilton. She became his mistress and a ménage a trois was established. The Admiralty, learning of Nelson's behaviour, immediately recalled him to London but he did not rush home! - instead, he took nearly two years to make the return trip, and only after he had so arranged matters as to travel overland with the Hamiltons via Austria and Germany!

The route included Vienna, and from there Nelson and the Hamiltons visited Prince Esterhazy at Eisenstadt and so met Haydn in 1800. To mark the visit of the famous Admiral, Haydn’s D Minor Mass which had assumed the name Nelson Mass,  was performed for the illustrious guests and to celebrate the great victory  that had temporarily, at least, thwarted Napoleon’s plans.  From that moment the “nickname” stuck – the D Minor Mass would be forever the Nelson Mass. During the visit Nelson and Haydn apparently become close friends and accounts tell that Nelson gave Haydn a gold watch captured during the battle, whilst in return Haydn gave Nelson the pen that he had used to compose a cantata to Lady Hamilton.
Getting to the high notes!

The Nelson Mass is the longest mass that Haydn produced and is not only one of the world's great choral works but one of the most listenable to and most performed. Its exciting and dramatic music sweep the performers and listeners along – it certainly did that on Saturday night! Hear the Gloria, the Credo or the Agnus Dei and one can be in no doubt about the ability of great music to influence men and to speak of great power, great ideals and  great deeds; it is the sort of music to make one feel very small in the magnificence of the universe and indeed of God’s creation -  a theme that Haydn explored in another great work, his mighty oratorio The Creation. As I listened on Saturday night, I pictured in my mind’s eye the brilliant palace of Esterhazy, the gathered, glittering political, military and cultural elite of Europe, the great Admiral and his mistress, “Papa” Haydn, now an old man nearing the end of an illustrious career, conducting the assembled performers and all of them hearing exactly what I was hearing in St Peter’s Church two centuries later. A gateway and bridge to an understanding of our shared past to be sure.

Didn't we do well! Acknowledging the applause. 
As I thought of this, another thought crossed my mind. Haydn’s great work was written at a time when Europe was under threat, when times were dark. And here I was, two centuries later, listening at a time when the notion of a united  Europe is again under threat as the EU referendum approaches. The UK is torn between remaining in Europe or going it alone and Europe itself is having to deal with huge problems of mass immigration that threaten to overwhelm the continent whilst terrorism and the far right gains an increasing presence and foothold. Across the Atlantic the most powerful nation on the planet is sliding further into increasingly bizarre, extreme and worrying rhetoric as Presidential wanna-be Donald Trump preaches the gospel of isolation, individualism, aggression and inequality. This is a time for European nations to again stand together. It seems to me that, just as with Beethoven’s great Ode to Joy, the culmination of his great masterpiece the “Choral” Symphony No 9, Haydn’s Nelson Mass was written at a time when Europe and its people were in danger and when nations and men had to unite together to confront the great problems and dangers they faced. Today we must do the same - unite behind the flag of freedom, friendship and equality, not the beating drum of division, fear and extremism. Works like these are about humanity and brotherhood and the best that mankind can be. They are not about individualism and  breaking from the rest of our neighbours as those who advocate our withdrawal from Europe would have us do.  Saturday's concert was not just great music to enjoy  but music that has the power to celebrate great events and great men; to drive great ideas, great ideals and great things. It was music to inspire mankind to have faith and belief in the greater good and to aspire to something bigger than their own self interest. And as I listened I, like the rest of the audience, was swept along – wanting to stand up and cheer. Not to simply applaud such music and such a wonderful performance but to acknowledge and honour the great ideals and spirit that drives such music and makes it integral to the great force  and sweep of history and to the humanity, brotherhood, ambition, spirit and spirituality of mankind.“Rejoice”, the programme cover pleaded; quite! – an apposite command for such a splendid occasion, such memorable performances and such mighty works.

09 May, 2016

How do you spell Leicester?

Me as the office junior in 1961 (front row left)
When I left school in the early 60s I began work in the drawing office of an industrial furnace manufacturer in Preston where I was born. I was training to be a draughtsman and, of course, in the first year or two I was very much the office junior. One of my many jobs was to run the weekly football competition in the various offices. This was a pontoon type sweep; people would pay a small amount each week (I think it was about a shilling – or 5p in today's money) and draw a team out of a box. Each week their team’s goals would be added together and the first team to get exactly 21 goals won – and the “owner” of that team would receive all the money that had been collected from everyone over the weeks of the competition. As the office junior I was responsible for collecting the money, keeping a record of all the goals scored by various teams and when a new competition was started writing out the names of all the teams on little slips of paper, putting them into a box and then taking the box round all the offices so that everyone could draw a team out of the box. It all worked very smoothly but one incident, to this day, stands out in my mind.
Leicester City (the Foxes) celebrate

One Friday afternoon, as usual, I took the box and the slips around to the offices and entered an office where one of the sales reps worked. I didn’t know him very well and was slightly in awe of him – he was a commanding person, rather abrasive it seemed to me. He put his hand in my box and drew out a team and when he did so he looked at me and said sternly ”Didn’t they teach you anything at school – don’t you know the spelling rule ‘i before e except after c’.  I was partly embarrassed but even more terrified –  I was getting a telling off from this senior man who I always found rather daunting. He showed me the slip that he had drawn. The team written on it by me was Leicester City. “You spell Leicester ‘Liecester’ he went on – ‘i before e except after c”. He then grumpily complained that he would never win anything with Leicester City. I had a certain sympathy with that last comment - for even in those far off days Leicester were not known for their great footballing feats. But I was more than a little put out that I had misspelt the name. Having said that, I was also confused; I knew that I had checked the spelling of all the teams before writing them on the little slips but, still in awe of this guy, I apologised profusely and went on my way. Of course, when I got back to my own office I checked – I was right - it was spelt Leicester. He was wrong. His spelling rule was one of the many that are often quoted but rarely stand much scrutiny in the quirky English language. However, such was my fear of this man that I never corrected him, I just let it lie. But, ever since then, whenever I have seen the word Leicester the event has come back to me – and I have never once had any problem spelling the name of the town!

The Premiership title won at last by a team of nobodies!
I’m sure that there can be no-one on the planet who is not aware  that Leicester City have just won the English Football Premiership title, and I would venture, no one in the whole of the UK  would, I think, have any problem spelling Leicester today given the media coverage they have had in recent days and weeks. It has been the only sporting thing of note in the media  as the club edged towards the title. And, since they won it a few days ago, they have been the toast of the footballing world. Somehow a team comprised of largely unknown journeymen football players, managed by a well travelled but overall not too successful elderly Italian manager, Claudio Ranieri, have succeeded where the big names and big money clubs have failed in what is commonly considered to be the toughest league in the world to win.The east midlands of England is not known for its great football teams – it is an area of the “ordinary” – but, rather like Nottingham Forest’s Brian Clough did way back in the 1980s, Ranieri’s Leicester have defied all the odds and come out as “top dogs”. Leicester itself – and of course the team’s supporters – are jubilant and I guess still unbelieving of this apparent fairy tale. As the man in the office implied to me all those years ago Leicester City don’t win things – well, now they have!

Lady Jane Grey
We live quite close to Leicester and, as we occasionally do, yesterday Pat and I went for a walk through the ancient and beautiful Bradgate Park on the outskirts of the city. Bradgate is the ancestral home of the Grey family - the ruins of the family home are there – and it is very much part of English history. (see blog http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/historical-facts.html)  It was from Bradgate that the family’s most famous member came to be the “nine-day” Queen. Lady Jane Grey was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII and a first cousin once removed of Edward VI, the only son of Henry VIII. Edward became king in 1547 aged nine but he was a sickly child and when, as a 15-year-old,  he lay dying in June 1553, he nominated Jane as successor to the Crown. For nine days Jane was queen but in the turbulent times of Tudor England she was deposed in July 1553, convicted of high treason and ultimately executed by Henry’s daughter Mary – who then became queen for  five years until she herself died at an early age to be succeeded by her half sister Elizabeth as Elizabeth 1st in 1558.

Richard III
And Leicester has another link with those turbulent times. Almost a hundred years before the events involving Lady Jane Grey and her distant relations a battle had been fought only a few miles from Leicester – the Battle of Bosworth. It was the battle that deposed Richard III as king and established the first Tudor king, Henry VII – Henry VIII’s father. At the end of the battle Richard fled – to Leicester and for centuries there was speculation as to what happened to him. This was resolved about 18 months ago when his remains were discovered under a car park in Leicester city centre – the remains of what had in Tudor times been a monastery lay under that car park and Richard had clearly sought sanctuary there after the battle. His remains were interred in Leicester Cathedral with due ceremony and there is now a heritage site to commemorate him. These events that heralded the Tudor age have, in the last year or two ensured that Leicester is now “on the map”, so to speak and many now suggest that the city’s football team began to emerge into the potential champions since Richard received his full funeral and recognition – the club's success guided by some mysterious royal spirit thankful to the folk of Leicester for giving him a final and honourable resting place befitting of a king rather than having to lie unrecognised under a city centre car park !!!

Whatever the reasons, Leicester’s footballing heroics have been good for the game. For once, it seems, money is not talking. The big spending, billionaire clubs and players have had to look from a distance as this team of unknowns has taken the Premiership by storm – finishing about 10 points ahead of their nearest big spending rivals. Players who were unknowns are suddenly stars and as one of the football pundits on TV commented that’s got to be good – it will, he said, give young players everywhere the belief and the ambition that they too might one day “make it”.

We've won!
But there have been other benefits. Claudio Ranieri the quietly spoken Italian took over the club at the end of last season. He is in the twilight of his managerial career and although he has managed some big name clubs has not been the most successful of managers. Despite that, however, he has usually left clubs in a better shape than he found them and is well regarded throughout the footballing world. On his arrival Leicester were firm favourites for failure - relegation expected at the end of this season. But magically he has turned them round and made his group of journeyman players into champions. And at the same time he has earned much personal praise for the way that he has conducted himself and ensured that his team have conducted themselves on and off the pitch. Quiet, erudite, thinking, polite, friendly, gentle – all the adjectives that one doesn’t usually associate with Premiership football or Premiership managers - Ranieri has displayed in abundance. He has, rightly, become the loved face of football in the UK! For me that has to be good!
Claudio Ranieri and opera singer Andrea Bocelli singing
Nessun Dorma the operatic football "anthem" before
the team are presented with the trophy 

And there has been another spin off – not to do with the football but with the context of the situation. In the 2011 Census Leicester was judged to be one of the most ‘most ethnically diverse' cities in the country. It was widely tipped to be the first city in the UK with a minority white population but just missed out on that in 2011 with 50.6% describing themselves as white. It does, however, have one of the lowest rates of residents who identify themselves as white British, at 45% (compared with 80% nationally and 63.9% in 2001) and the highest proportion of British Indians, at 28.3%. Rory Palmer, the Deputy Mayor said said "What it means is that we have a very diverse population and we view this as a great strength and something the city can be very proud of.”  Quite.
Ranieri mobbed by adoring fans - an ordinary man who
 has done the extraordinary

For several years after I retired I worked in and around Leicester visiting schools to assess trainee teachers. Whether the school was in the leafy suburbs of Oadby where large expensive houses are the norm or in the inner city areas like Highfields where narrow streets of terraced housing fill the landscape; whether I visited a school in the Belgrave area where every shop it seemed sold Asian, oriental or Afro–Caribbean produce or whether I sat in the classroom of a school in suburban Wigston I saw not only evidence of this cultural diversity but also evidence of it working. In many classrooms the majority of the class would be of Asian or African or Chinese or some other ethnic community, many languages might be spoken and different faiths  followed. I worked with many trainee teachers of Asian descent and talked to a huge variety of head teachers and teachers from various cultural backgrounds. But the message was always the same: adults, children and families succeeding, getting on together and making good lives. When Pat and I go shopping in Leicester we might go to Sainsbury’s or ASDA or Tesco and if we do the check out will invariably be staffed by a non-white Britain and on the shelves  we will see ethnic foods on sale that we do not see in our own shops here in Nottingham. If we stop for a coffee at the Sainsbury superstore on Troon Road as we occasionally do on a Saturday morning we will be almost certainly served by a non-white British person and I nearly always comment on how good the fried English cooked breakfasts look as they are cooked and served by Muslims or Hindus or other ethnic/cultural/religious groups. Walk round the shopping malls of Leicester and you will see multiculturalism at work at an everyday level – it’s the norm, it’s what modern Leicester is about. And from what I can see it works.

I don’t suggest for a minute that everything is wonderful. But the city, the local administrators, the schools, the churches and mosques, the community centres and the people of Leicester have shown that diversity can and does work and that the points made by the Deputy Mayor are valid. This was obvious in the news reports from Leicester over the past week or so as the homed in on the Premiership championship. On our local East Midlands TV hardly a news broadcast went by without some reporting of the rising tide of excitement in the town as the championship got closer and an important element of each report was invariably the cross cultural support for the team. The team, comprised of a mixed bag of journeyman players from different nationalities and cultures, led by an Italian and the club owned by Thai millionaire who each week has ferried in monks from his native Thailand to pray for the team’s success  brought the many communities and cultures of the city together and has become a very real symbol of this  multi-faceted place.
All cultures  are represented.

So, here we have a city, almost in the very centre of England. It has no special privileges; it is a very ordinary place in a region, the East Midlands known for its boring ordinariness. As a region we are not a rich area, indeed we are below the national average, we don’t have many claims to fame in the sense of famous people or places, we are pretty average or below average by most indicators – house prices, employment, academic success and the rest. And yet Leicester has turned the footballing world on its head – their very ordinariness has  ensured that it has performed something quite extraordinary. In a world where global markets and capital rule, where footballers are paid obscene amounts, where clubs like Manchester United or Chelsea, or Barcelona or Real Madrid jet in top players from all over the globe and have budgets bigger than many small nations Leicester have bucked the trend. It may only be for one season – perhaps next year Leicester will again take their rightful place with the also-rans – but at the moment they are kings and their townsfolk, whatever their nationality, cultural background or faith are enjoying the moment. Every one of them wanting to bask in the glow of this success and comradeship. In years to come I have no doubts that fathers and grandfathers from white British, Sikh, Hindu. Moslem, Chinese and a myriad of other faiths and cultures will tell their children and grandchildren of the great deeds done by the team of 2016 and that they were there when it happened!

The right wing media would divide us
As I have been writing this blog it has occurred to me that Leicester’s success within this context is perhaps a timely reminder. As a nation we stand at a cross roads. In a few weeks time we will be voting in a referendum to decide whether we stay within the EU or whether we effectively cut ourselves off from our near neighbours in Europe and go it alone. Whatever the economics or politics of the various arguments in this situation I cannot for the life of me understand how those who would argue for us to leave the EU – can reconcile this with the fact that we now live in a global world. Half a millennia ago the poet John Donne reminded us that “no man is an island” – his words have never been more true than in 2016. Whether it be economic ties, global capitalism, political alliances, sports like football, package tour holidays, basic resources such as food, oil, gas or any other commodity or situation one cares to mention we are tied to each other. To ignore this and cut ourselves off is in my view totally ignoring the facts of the modern world. Leicester and Leicester City’s composition and make up of players, manager, owner, supporters etc. proves the point that we are stronger and more successful together than if we are apart and alone.
Sadiq Khan at his inauguration brings together the
London Communities

Secondly, we have had in recent weeks a particularly unedifying campaign for the Mayor of London. The campaign has been marked by unpleasant and unnecessary comments, speeches and incitement by the Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith and reinforced by senior Conservatives from Prime Minister David Cameron downwards. The smearing has been directed at the Labour candidate for Mayor, Sadiq Khan suggesting amongst other things that Khan favours and has links with Islamic terrorists and the like. Fortunately Khan won by a significant majority and now the Conservative party is in some disarray as they are forced to back pedal in the light of public opinion and the knowledge that  their comments were  untrue. Khan himself has gone out of his way to emphasis the multi- faceted face of modern London and to confirm that he speaks for all Londoners whatever their cultural background. His has been a voice of calm in a very unpleasant few weeks.
Possibly the most divisive  and dangerous
man on the planet

But, Khan’s election and words come at a crossroads. As a nation we are at the crossroads of the EU membership and speeches on both sides of the debate have become ever more extreme – sections of the Conservative party and certainly the UKIP party have views which can only be described as irrational, extremist and divisive, intended to exclude people, to send back immigrants, to wave the flag of dissent by suggesting that foreigners in our midst take jobs, get benefits to which they are not entitled etc. At the other end of the spectrum we have a similar situation in the Labour party where anti-Semitism appears to be increasingly raising its ugly head. And over it all the right wing press jingoistically waves the flag and beats the drum of Britain is best, John Bull is king, white British is good and any other nationality, colour or creed is bad.
Michael Fallon - a rather foolish but thoroughly unpleasant man,
and a government minister. Fallon has a track record of
personally attacking and  smearing opponents, attacking
minorities with whom he happens to disagree  and was one of
 those who vilified Sadiq Khan

The “war on terror” grinds on and in its wake creates an ever increasing refugee crisis that, whatever one’s views, Europe especially will have to address.  I read in the New Statesman magazine the other day that “Jews are leaving France in record numbers as anti-Semitism rises.....as many as 8000 a year left in 2014, up from 1900 five years earlier” and already this year – 2016 – the 8000 mark has been passed. And across the Atlantic a would be President Trump is already ramping up the extremist language and threatening to build walls to separate the “Good old US of A” from its middle and South American neighbours and to “make America great again – presumably at the expense of those not fortunate enough to be born under the stars and stripes.

We live in changing times and times where increasingly, it seems to me, we live in a dangerous world and where we are only a few steps away from catastrophe. It is a time of  delicate checks and balances where instant mass communication, great movements of people, increasing concerns about individual and national liberty and security, and growing inequality across nations and continents generate and feed upon an excess of extremism.
Sadiq Khan at his inauguration: a Moslem in
 Southwark Cathedral

Against this back drop it has been good to hear the calming and conciliatory words of Sadiq Khan, the new London Mayor, and it has been a helpful and timely reminder to us all that as Leicester City have shown “ordinariness” and working together can prevail over all adversity. The everyday, journeymen players of Leicester City, all from different backgrounds and cultures but united in their ordinariness and led by their quiet, ordinary and unassuming manager from a far off country have with the support of their foreign owner and their thousands of ordinary, local fans who themselves come from the widest of cultures and backgrounds have all proved that ordinary endeavour and working together can bring results. Leicester’s Deputy Mayor was right when he said “.......we have a very diverse population and we view this as a great strength and something the city can be very proud of.”  Palmer’s comments about his city are also true about his football team and they should be true about us as a nation, and indeed, any nation in today’s modern world.  Those people and politicians who wish to divide us from our neighbours in Europe, or who wish to build walls, or who separate us on cultural lines should take heed; as John Donne said “no man is an island”.  We are better together than apart. Not to be so is a route that has the potential to lead us to catastrophe in our global and interdependent world.