Loafing in Leicester – Leicester Market
With my boyfriend recently having moved to Leicester, and a pesky global pandemic continuing to foil elements of my research, it seems a perfect time to explore Leicester on foot, which conveniently also bears the academic name of “walking methods”. From the outset of my research I’ve been really interested in the idea of the “go-along” as written about by Margarethe Kusenbach (2003), which involves walking around familiar areas with interviewees while asking them about their experiences.
My research originally included plans to conduct “shop-alongs” with Leicester residents, in order to understand their relationship with their neighbourhood, local community, and the city more broadly. However, this plan is now scuppered by the need to wear masks and shop alone and as briskly as possible, so I have changed my research design to include to a digital alternative.
Thus, in an effort to understand how we experience the city space, James and I have been walking around the city, and while he gets acquainted with his new manor I make surreptitious notes concerning our surroundings on my phone. My supervisor, who is evangelical about turning me to the dark side (that is, Geography) insists that this is ethnography and that I am a cultural geographer. I do like the idea of having an intellectual home but, still clinging to my background as a musician, I yearn for a bit of glamour. Hence, I have christened myself a flâneuse, taking a reflexive stance on experiencing my adoptive city.
Walter Benjamin saw the flâneur (literally translated as ‘stroller’ or ‘saunterer’) as the quintessential spectator of the modern, urban experience: an observer of the mores of the city. Not only that, the flaneur figure lies directly at odds with the recent phenomenon of the privately-owned, consumerist city model. Freedom to roam and exist in spaces without outlay is a pre-requisite of the act, in Benjamin’s view.
Bearing this and more recent scholarship (for example Evans and Jones, 2011, and Degen and Rose, 2012) in mind, we took to the streets, for certainly, while I have never heard Leicester described as the Paris of the East Midlands, it nonetheless holds various charms which cannot be accessed by those not on foot. Ayona Datta describes our individual experiences of our locality as “intimate infrastructures”, and it was this idea that I took with me on our walk: attempting to unpick the small interactions which make a city space unique.
Our first voyage was to the recently-upgraded Leicester Market: it was a beautiful weekend and seemed a good time to make the most of the weather with a wander up the gorgeous New Walk fantasising about owning one of the Victorian villas opposite Leicester Museum and Art Gallery (newly rebranded). I will admit, we were not quite walking in the true spirit of Benjamin as we were assuming the role of consumers: we needed chicken thighs, greens and chillis.
Seemingly the only upside of Leicester’s continued lockdown has been the lessening of traffic: even the pedestrianised New Walk was quieter because of it. This peace was reflected by how people moved around the city: they walked more slowly, there seemed to be more small groups just sitting, enjoying the breeze on their faces in public realm space. Somewhere this wasn’t reflected, though, was in Green Dragon Square, next to the market. It was almost completely empty (see photo below). Fortunately, this was not lost on Leicester City Council, who have now installed benches for Leicester residents to enjoy a picnic. Still, at the time, it felt slightly like being in a George A. Romero film.
In contrast to the peaceful walk and empty square, the market itself was a hubbub of noise and energy. “FOUR MAAAYNGOES FOR A PAAAAAAHNND!” “COME ON!” “THAT’S £2, DAHLIN’”. (Here's a short audio clip. Warning: it is quite loud. Or perhaps we were a bit overcome after such an uneventful walk). One trader in particular caught our ears: she was a tiny woman with a huge voice. James compared her rasping voice, offering strawberries for a pound, to death metal. It’s no exaggeration to say that once she started projecting her bargain offer around the market, people began crowding round and literally shaking their cash at her. We were no exception: enmeshed in her sonic web, we too lined up to nab ourselves the bargain. We didn’t need strawberries, but we somehow became convinced we did. On the plus, we were also able to pick up some beautiful cabbages from the same stall, which ended my indecision over which type I should buy, and from which stall.
It struck me, as someone who once dreamed of being Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House (you can rest easy, Alex Beard, I’ve realised it probably isn’t going to happen), that the aural experience in the market was not too different from being at the opera. The projection and rhythm of the stallholders, the ebb and flow of the shoppers, the focus moving from voice to voice. In my time working in music I saw many initiatives where opera companies would surprise shoppers and traders in markets with “flash opera”. It interests me, now, why we value an impromptu aria more than an impressive voice using patter to attract sales. More on this, I think, another time.
The sonic experience aside, there is a particularly interesting spread of produce at Leicester Market. Alongside the local, seasonal vegetables from Lincolnshire there are Scotch bonnets, tiny Birdseye chillies which make your eyes stream, bulbs of garlic as big as your head, mooli, cassava, majestic dragon fruit, and glossy persimmon. It struck me that this is not only a treat for adventurous foodies, but a lifeline for those whose food is often considered ‘exotic’, yet forms a staple of their diet. Certainly, this produce will exist in local and specialist stores, but its presence in the market felt, to me, like a sign that everyone is welcome in the city centre. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic in light of so much bleak news surrounding racial injustice and violence recently, but I’d love food to play a role in inclusion and social justice.
Looking for chicken we discovered the ultimate market hack: traders are morning people. It does not cut it to saunter into town at 3pm for your pick of the meat, as we did. We satisfied ourselves with picking up some smoked sausages from the Polish charcuterie stand, and went over to the Halal butchers just across the street from the food hall. James was awed by the guy filleting and skinning the thighs which a knife which, frankly, resembled a scimitar. He is determined to learn how to do this for himself at home. It was a stark reminder of how detached we are from our food: so accustomed to buying fillets of meat that we cannot competently remove a bone.
Our tardiness in getting to the butchers turned out to be fortuitous, as going to the Halal counter led us to an irresistible shoulder of spring lamb, which we turned into melting lamb shawarma the next day (with flatbreads and a cabbage salad – recipes here as everyone deserves Nagi's recipes in their life).
It was so refreshing going to the market and getting more closely acquainted with how we shop, and cook, and move around the city. One thing that I noted, though, was the exuberant use of plastic carrier bags at every stall we visited. Even though we had brought jute bags, everything came wrapped in blue plastic, without question. I thought about this further, and I wondered whether sustainability and environmental concern did not necessarily transcend certain boundaries? I’m not sure what these notional divides even are, but I think a huge step in working towards a greener market and thus a greener city would involve talking to storeholders and shoppers about re-usable bags. Maybe being on foot in my role as flâneuse had made me particularly sensitive to such matters…
This is the first of a series of posts detailing our flanning (I know this is not a word but I am trying to make it happen). Do subscribe on my home page if you’d like more glimpses into Leicester life!