Leeds Revisited

07/03/2013 00:43

My last visit to Leeds was the most memorable for a long time... Filled with colourful items from childhood, wide discussions with my father, sharing crisp white wine; filled with moving about the city with an evolved aim.

Walking to the centre, I passed directly through Harehills with its knocked-about back alleys that divide the red brick terraces. I caught sight of a solitary pedestrian plodding up one or two of them, between the symmetry of wheelie bins. People drive everywhere in preservative tanks along the main thoroughfare, letting their wheel trims walk for them. To the drivers I'm an anomalous interloper. Suspicious, exposed, invisible. Carrying oneself into central Leeds from the suburbs by foot is a rare thing that few people attempt. People are taken aback at someone walking “that far.” The distance is four miles each way, and each way took fifty minutes at a strong pace.

As an adolescent I used to take the bus; the same route many times. My tastes have changed. I've lost the taste for convenience, for “that's the way things are.” I want to feel uncomfortably alive. I'm fighting the hypnotic instincts of the passenger – the fuzzed-out passage of time. Walking doesn't distract, it focusses. Funny how children don't gallantly say: “One day I'll walk into town.” More likely they are taught to want, one day, to be driven there smoothly in a blue Rolls Royce or equivalent contraption – this is the general lesson that invades their eager minds whether they like it or not. 

A research errand brought me to the edifice of Leeds Central Library, whose mosaic staircases are well integrated with the Leeds Art Gallery and the sybaritic gold-green surroundings of the so-called Tiled Hall café that's begging to be danced in. Passing through the first floor gallery brought me face to face with Francis Bacon's painting 'Head VI'; this surprise was my first sight of an original of the artist's work. The purple has a quality that pulls.

'Head VI' by Francis Bacon (oil on canvas)


As more unwanted restaurants replace bookshops our grand old city libraries are the most important refuge we have left, even if their research centres are overrun with people looking for jobs. The sick artists are staying at home. There was an atmosphere in this central library's upper room, but not one set for writing or reading. It was more of a mood. A sweeping annoyance that was catching. What is it that we crave about for with fingernails tapping? One must read deeper into the mood before one can read out and be freed of it. And who better to reach for in this fraught kind of recovery situation:


“I could not become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground


“Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We are oppressed at being men -- men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground


“One circumstance tormented me then: Namely, that no one else was like me, and I was like no one else. I am only one, and they are all.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

'Sick Artist' by Alexey Korin (oil on canvas)


The late 19th century library is certainly a fitting venue for obsession and philosophical despair. Many people aren't capable of silence anymore, so reading rooms aren't necessarily conducive to reading. It used to be the sound of a neighbouring brain clicking in excitement that was the only disturbance. Now it's the full assault of clattering keyboards, mindless complaints and loud librarian chatter. A letter is best written in the Art Library, away from the mouths, the multimedia and the misdirected ennui that falls short of apathy.


I'm the bourgeois who uses the photocopier. I'm the one sitting before books rather than screens. I'm the alien author in the library. For a slim moment the institution is mine. Move me in rent free. If not I'll inhabit the postbox outside, fill my ears with plasticine. The post is running. In my black and white clown shoes the work can continue. 

Leeds has many beacons, looks different from other cities to the outsider. But Leeds is a metropolis that can't keep up with me. Its heart seems to be missing without knowing why. The energy has drained off somewhere. If everyone was walking I wonder how it would change. The inner city would prosper and be noticed. Nothing would be evaded. On our way through we'd kick away a litter of abandoned cars and queue for the last unlocked toilet before the Headrow. There would no longer be a ring around the centre that's hardly crossed by foot. We wouldn't need to fund our transport to the venue that funds the transport back home again. Leeds would be a spirited new world. A wild world of thoughtful independence. In creating it we'd take a second direction, pull ourselves out of the sickness by pulling our big city out of it, so that adults could grow up there all over again. This is a catharsis that's already there waiting.... a liberty that requires just a touch of group courage to let it loose. We'd turn petrol stations into book exchange shops, blast infectious soul-defining music across the well-trodden wastelands that were once manufacturing centres and car showrooms. Presenting a city dangerously filled with compassion! Walking, reading and music can change people at an alarming rate. You'd need little to live there and to learn. An inner England that's yet to be realised, imagine. Energy would flood back in all of these ways. The buses would be gone. Isolation would be over. We'd be children again – the kind who aren't miserable. There to live, chaos or no chaos; it wouldn't matter. I would return to a city such as that. I'd be its loving advocate – something I haven't been since I was a child the first time around. But this physically and mentally fit city of the future would speak for itself; would say with true and proud gusto, greeting the glowing legs who stride into it:




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Comments for 'Leeds Revisited'

Walking into Leeds - this has to be a joke

Date: 13/03/2013 | By: AlexUK

No cars or buses in Leeds city centre? A laudable pipe dream but impractical. What about the elderly and infirm? A 100 minute round trip on foot with shopping bags in tow? Transport is key to the viability of the city centre shops. To say otherwise would be to encourage even more online sales. The glowing legs striding into the city would only be infrequent and youthful ones.

Re: Walking into Leeds - this has to be a joke

Date: 15/03/2013 | By: Peanut Lucubrator

I was eating an egg when I saw your comment. Oh good we have a wriggler. I must thank you for pointing out those problems. And what kind of world would be free from problems – certainly not a fictional one. I hear there's a fetish called idealism, but I prefer a form of absurdism. If unfamiliar I believe our early manifesto is still floating on the smaller lakes of Europe so please fish out a copy.

Absurdist writers are serious professionals, let me reassure you. By day we don't just sit around reading Dostoyevsky and writing to fishtanks in Belarus and housewives in Romania. We don't stay up all night either and we don't ever despair. We behave in an entirely sensible manner. We even eat eggs from chickens, usually four.

But you want me to respond, I sense. Perhaps it's the lightly-poisoned champagne I was served at your petrol station.

I did mention chaos, but order can be equally frustrating. As you know one writes fiction from one's own perspective, in an escapism that surfs over the practicals. Certainly metaphors for embracing discomfort are uncomfortable and senseless through practical eyes, but blink twice and the underlying processes aren't so straightforward.

The Peanut Society of Lucubrators represents a taste for the so-called irrational in the knowledge that humans can feel most free when touched by things that don't make sense. We therefore refuse to meddle with these reactions or to ignore them in the fiction we read and produce. Absurdity is a great separator, pitting suspicion and ridicule vs. a natural independence.

For any further clarification please send a stamped-addressed envelope to: The Purple Mayor of Heavy Rust, Poste Restante Palermo (Centrale). But I'll warn you, he's not a practical man.

Saluting you from the underbelly of fiction! Thanks for reading, and for stimulating the germ of a new river-fit manifesto.

The telephone

Date: 10/03/2013 | By: John A White

When I moved to live in a mouse-ridden house in Harehills in the mid-sixties,where some unnamed fungus grew on the attic-bedroom ceiling to which I had been condemned, it was the telephone and not the automobile that has successfully undermined the distinctive community culture of the rows of back-to-back housing. For the telephone was not an ubiquitous household instrument in the immediate post-war years in Harehills. In fact my own mother, then living south of the river, hardly ever used one and if compelled to do so held it at arms length as if it had a malign life of its own. Perhaps it had and we of the first generation of electronic people failed to recognise it! Anyway we were, of course, absorbed from the test card to the National Anthem by the television!

Before the telephone, or when only a few were dotted on the landscape of the Bexleys and the Ellers, then in times of emergency, distress and death neighbours were the necessary resource. There was one old lady still occupying her modest family home who prevented the Co-Op funeral mutes by laying-out your dead, her dead.

But when the telephone came as a lodger in every house it could be hours, if not days, before people knew the happenings in neighbouring houses. The telephone seduced us, and we are easily so seduced, into the arms of a dark privacy. We were encouraged to believe that old but pervasive lie that the human accident of nature is at its best when left alone.

Re: The telephone

Date: 12/03/2013 | By: Peanut Lucubrator

Wonderful to receive comment. Thank you for sharing your experience John, I applaud your recollections and wise words. So pleased that the article brought back memories for you. Yesterday I heard from Leeds City Council who inform me that they also enjoyed reading the article. The leading controller of their Influencing Travel Behaviour Team is my kind of gentleman. Yet not a squeak so far from Arts Development on the proposed book-loading of petrol stations.

I must confess that I too have a wall fungus - when time permits I attack with a damp rag and red pole. No mice to speak of since they prefer the old phone box down the street. Now I'm off to drain five bricks so I can salute you by the decilitre!

P.S. I'm seduced by the dark smell of typewriter ink that I roll under my arms of an evening. My phone is in a bucket in the garden.

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