Two nights ago I thoroughly enjoyed the official launch of my new novel, The Constant Lovers, at Leeds Central Library. After from the cock-up – the booksellers actually only had two copies of the book for sale – it was a great event, and as close as I’ve come (geographically at least) to appearing on the stage at Leeds Town Hall.
It made me think about my relationship with my hometown. I haven’t lived there since 1976, and I’ve actually spent more time in another place (Seattle). But Leeds has a claim on me, and exerts a hold, that no other place can ever match. In part it might be genetic. My family’s been there since the end of the 18th century. The place is in my DNA. My father grew up in Hunslet, and spent his summers in the relative countryside of Sheepscar, where a relative ran the Victoria – much bigger in the 1920s that it became later, and with a huge garden and supposedly renowned rhubarb garden. For him, above all, it had a piano he could play. My mother’s family was decidedly more middle-class, out in Alwoodley, with a maid and a chauffeur.
Each time I return to Leeds, which is several times a year now, it renews me. Yet, curiously, I see a place that isn’t that. Several places that aren’t there, really. In my mind I see the place from my books, the jail at the top of Kirkgate, the Moot Hall in the middle of Briggate, close to where Harvey Nick’s is (and I know which I’d prefer), Garroway’s Coffee House on the Headrow. In truth, there’s very little of those days left; about the only private residence of that time is now Nash’s, just off New Briggate.
I also see the Leeds of my childhood. The magical toy shop that was the Doll’s Hospital in the County Arcade, Fuller’s where my other and I would meet my grandmother for tea every week, and the department store Marshall’s, which had a uniformed doorman, and where I, a very innocent four-year-old in 1959, saw my first black person in 1959 and asked my mother why the woman was made from chocolate. My mother apologised to the woman, but I truly had never seen a person of colour before. It was a very, very different time, and not a better one. Then there was the music shop at the corner of County Arcade and Cross Arcade where I went with my father when I was seven. Ostensibly we went in to buy a harmonica for me and came out with a baby grand piano, which appeared a few days later in our front room. And I did get my harmonica.
And then I see the Leeds of my youth, the great bookshop opposite Leeds Poly, sorry, Leeds Met, where I discovered Hamsun, the small, two-storey Virgin shop on King Edward Street (I believe), the head shops close buy, the discos at the Poly, gigs at the Town Hall and the 100 Club not far away where I saw Taste and the Nice. On Saturday mornings I’d go into town (before I had a Saturday job), get off at the ABC, cross the street and go down to the basement coffee bar for a frothy coffee before spending the morning mooching around, and maybe buying a record at Virgin or Vallance’s.
Before this descends into mawkish reminiscence, let me say this is simply a small sampling of memories that tie me irrevocably to Leeds. The city formed me much more than I was willing to admit for many years. It took a long time, and many miles, for me to really understand that, and give me the desire to start studying the city’s history.
Out of that have come my books. Apart from being mysteries with (hopefully) good characters, they stand as love letters to Leeds. The city of the 1730s that I describe might not be a beautiful place. The people, many of them, anyway, a degradingly poor, the place stinks. But it’s mine as much as it’s Richard Nottingham’s, and I love it then as I love it now.