For seventeen years, I lived not far from Gloucester. Like many English cities, it has a river and a cathedral; like all English cities, it is a city of contrasts. If you went there sightseeing you could come away with an impression of a majestic and historic settlement. You’d start at the cathedral (taking in a bit of the Harry Potter gloss and marvelling at the fact that a couple of mediaeval kings and their close relatives are buried there), travel along the Via Sacra, admiring the mosaic tiles installed by early 21stCentury City Bigwigs, passing through the newly developed docks (very posh) and fetch up at the museum. There, you’d learn about the Emperor Constantine (very big statue) and have the opportunity, should you arrive at the correct hour, to go back in time to visit the underground foundations from the Roman era. There’s even gold coins in thin pull out drawers to examine, treasure found in Gloucestershire fields.
If you went shopping, you’d have a very different experience. You’d have to make your way past the empty shops, the e-cigarette place, the tatty looking party shop and the smokers outside MacDonald’s on your way to H&M. It can feel as if all the money has been sucked away, diverted to Gloucester’s wealthier neighbour, Cheltenham. The mechanical clock and beautiful mediaeval architecture don’t quite make up for the litter and the hanging around, down at heel air of the centre of town on a week day. When you drive behind County Hall on your way to the car park, you can see the peeling paint and shabby interior of the office block behind the grand steps and columns of the imposing façade on Northgate. It’s a bit of a metaphor for the place.
I worked there for four years, more or less. Like the city of the past, Roman at its founding, the Gloucester of today is full of people who have travelled there to settle and seek a better life. I enjoyed working in such an interesting multi-cultural setting, one with well over a hundred languages spoken, teaching children whose families had, not so long ago, come from all over the world. They often brought home to me that so much of what I took for granted was particular to my own experience, growing up in a different time and place.
I remember one lunchtime, standing at the window with a group of Year 4 children, goggling at the rain and the enormous puddle that was rapidly forming in the playground as the drains were overwhelmed. Never one to ignore a teaching moment, I commented in my best teacher-of-young-children voice, ‘goodness me, it’s a good thing Dr Foster isn’t visiting today’…only to be met with a sea of blank faces. While Dr Foster and his visit, during the rain, was a part of my cultural upbringing, it wasn’t a part of theirs, even though they lived in Gloucester itself. I’m not sure they really enjoyed me teaching them the nursery rhyme, but I gave it a go anyway. It was a privilege to play my part in helping these young children to make sense of the world they now found themselves in.
If you were to visit Gloucester for a day out today, you’re most likely to find a cultural monument to a fictional mouse (a Tailor of Gloucester gift shop I believe – or there was, anyway – in the overhung lane that leads from Northgate to the Cathedral Close), rather than the good doctor. While you will find a rather grand bronze of the Emperor Constantine on his horse, you won’t find a Dick Whittington, with or without his cat or all his worldly goods, tied up in a red spotted handkerchief and hanging off the end of a stick, off to make his fortune in the city where even the streets are paved with gold; London.
So what is the point of all this tale telling of a place I no longer work, no longer visit for a quick dash to Clarks or Marks and Spencer because the parking is easier and I only want to pop? Well, you see, there are those who would like to claim that mobility, socially and economically, is a new thing. It’s a product of the EU or education or a post-war government policy or neoliberalism or globalism or something and it is contributing to a breakdown of the family and we should all get back to the old ways.
But it’s not a purely modern phenomenon. We might have travelled up and down the east coast of England, following the fishing fleet in the 19th Century. We might have gone to hiring fairs, to indenture ourselves for a set period in the 14th, or signed up as an apprentice, or gone to someone else’s castle to learn how to be a knight. In the Olden Days, we might even gone to London a poor boy and ended up as mayor and spawned a legend.
People have always travelled in search of a better life; they have always taken a chance and left their family and friends behind, taken the sadness of missing loved ones today in the hopes of a better tomorrow. It’s not easy, and I guess whether it is good or bad depends on what you are leaving. But let’s not pretend that we have, like teenagers discovering sex, invented something new, or worse, that you can only live close to care.