It’s just seven days now until the publication on On Copper Street, continuing the story of Tom Harper and his wife Annabelle in 1890s Leeds. Strangely, it feels as if I’ve been waiting an eternity for this day, although rationally I know it’s not that long since The Iron Water appeared.
I wrote a little about what suffuses the book here, and that sense of mortality is bound to become part of anyone work as they grow older. Even raging against the light or refusing to go gentle into that good night is an admission of it. And that’s fine; after all, death is just one act in life. Whether it’s the final one is something we’ll all find out when it happens to us.
On Copper Street isn’t the end for Tom Harper. I have very definite plans for him – for the two of them, really. There’s still plenty of late Victorian Leeds to explore. The city is in constant flux, still proud, still growing, still a centre of industry. And that new century isn’t far away, beckoning on the horizon. Tom and Annabelle will still only be in their 30s when it arrives. They have years ahead of them.
Much of ‘old Leeds’ still survived then – Richard Sykes’ house on Briggate, dating from the 1500s, and the old bow-windowed shop on Lower Briggate, just as two examples. Many of the courts and lanes still existed and were in daily use. As a new city, Leeds was on the cusp, wanting to be modern and look ahead, but not yet ready to quit the past. The thousands of back-to-back houses that were built for working families were only supposed to last for 70 years. Next time you drive around Harehills or Kirkstall or Hunslet or Armley, think about that. 70 years.
At some point in the 20th century, though, Leeds made a strange bargain with fate. As far as possible, it decided to sacrifice much of its history to the gods of commerce. The grand Victorian buildings could remain, and those that daren’t be demolished, like St. John’s and Holy Trinity churches. But everything else was fair game, deemed to stand in the way of progress. The slums were no loss, of course, and that redevelopment was welcome.
Cities change, of course. They evolve like organisms, like a species. But the past is a vital part of that evolution. It tells us where we came from and can offer hints of where we’re going.
But all too often, in its rush to become the Northern capital of retail, finance, and students, it’s as if those who run this city are ashamed of its history. Two decades or so ago there was the idea of tearing down Kirkgate Market, one of Leeds’ great jewels. Even now, it’s ridiculously shortchanged as the council bows at the glittering altar of Victoria Gate. Kirkgate – the street – is only just beginning to take the first steps back from years of being run-down.
The past that’s largely being ignored, of course, is that of the ordinary people. Those great Victorian buildings were monuments to wealth, to prosperity, and in their turn replaced something older and humbler. But these days, those running Leeds seem to genuflect at the slightest tinkle of coins. The ordinary people never mattered that much – you’ll be hard pressed to find many of their voices recorded in the history of Leeds – but now they seem to be actively pushed aside for the glitter of gold.
Nothing can redress that balance. But I try, at least to some small degree, in my books. The ordinary folk, the ones who’ve left no trail through history, are celebrated. Maybe something like On Copper Street reflects Leeds as it really was. We can’t turn back the clock, and we probably wouldn’t want to, but we dash recklessly after the new and shiny at our own peril.
By the way, after nosing around a little, this seems to be the cheapest place to buy On Copper Street. And I hope you will, of course, or borrow it from your local library, while they still exist (if you’d care to leave a review somewhere I’d be very grateful, too). Perhaps it’ll make you think a little, about life and death, and about history.