On my website it says ‘I write Leeds.’
But the more I consider it, it might be better to put: I mythologise Leeds.
It’s a very dark mythology, built on shadows and soot, where there’s no relief for the poor and little compassion for the rich. It’s a place of constant grind, of simply trying to survive.
No gods and precious few heroes in this place.
It’s grounded in reality. The streets are where they’ve stood for years, even centuries. But in my Leeds they’re peopled with ghosts that haunt memory. The people who died, lost and nameless.
Go back a century and more and there are accounts of how the poor struggle. The length of the days they work simply to put food on the table. The children and the old who go into the workhouse because they’re not strong enough to fight outside.
I can take that, I can place them on those streets that still exist, in the courts and yards that are mostly demolished or turned into modern bars and clubs, where a different noise fills the night. But I can never know it. I wasn’t there. I didn’t live with the stench of the chemical works, the dyeing factories, the stink of the tanneries. All I can do is read and imagine.
And from that comes the mythology. Not Wayland’s Smithy or Hrothgar’s Heorot, but a place of dirt, of industry. Leeds itself is a character in my books, its changing face, its shifting populations. But always, at the heart of it, as they’ve always been, the poor.
There’s no promised land for them, no milk, no honey, just the drudgery of working or starving until they die. But I try to bring them alive, to give them the kind of dignity that might have been so elusive in life. I make it bleak and brutal, but I suspect the reality was far grimmer than anything I put on the page
My great-grandparents are buried in common graves. No headstone, only a name and a plot in the cemetery ledger. I didn’t know that when I began writing about Leeds. But it’s come to me since that they, and all those like them, are among the reasons I write about the place. To create some memorial for them.
I love Leeds, for better or worse. But it’s so much more than the names on statues and plaques. Some of those people did great things; that’s beyond doubt. Yet, for those who made their fortunes, could they have done it without all the people working for them who vanished between the cracks of history? No.
Those small people might not be gods and goddesses. They don’t have to be. But I can create an epic landscape, a city that almost existed, and give it to them as theirs. They deserve it.