Imagining Leeds

The legends and tales and folklore of a place tend to depend on a deep connection with its past. Roots that go deep into the earth to create a sense of history, of being connected to that earth. That sense of place is vitally important. Go to York and history surrounds you. Reach out your hand and you can touch it. Walk along a green lane in the countryside and there’s still a sense of brooding mystery that seems to tumble through the years, the sense that a spirit might suddenly appear in front on you. Visit one of the old battlefields and you can almost hear the clash of weapons and the cries of the wounded and the dying.

Places have power.

Look for that in Leeds and you’ll be sorely disappointed. I say that as someone whose life involves conjuring up Leeds’ history. Our oldest real artefact is the Leeds Cross, and that a composite, the remnants of five Saxon crosses that once stood outside an early version of Leeds Parish Church, but were broken up and tossed into the walls as filler during a rebuilding. Quite deliberately, we vandalised our own history – and sacred history, at that. It was old, so it was no longer relevant.

leeds cross

Yet somehow that’s emblematic of a place that only began to truly flourish with the arrival of industry. The era of machines and power, water and steam and the manufactory and the mill. They stood tall, the modern equivalent of the castle or the cathedral as a symbol of subjugation of the people. And folk did flock here to live in the shadows of them. Yet while the past is very tangible in both cathedral and castle, the legends and supernatural close to hand,  it’s impossible to evoke any ancient magic inside the walls of a mall. It can’t.

Almost old folktales and songs we might have once had were lost. After I’d first published this, someone ,mentioned the apocryphal tale of merchant John Harrison sending Charles I a tankard filled with gold coins when he was being escorted south after being captured by Parliamentary forces. The event is commemorated in stained glass in St. john’s church – the one Harrison built with his own money before the Civil War. And it is a great story, no duobt about it.

But there could never be a Beowulf or Wayland the Smith in Leeds, because our roots to whatever we possessed long ago have long since been cut. Those bards we have – a Bennett, a Waterhouse, a Hoggart – are all recent, and can only touch the surface, because that’s all there is. They have no grand words or ideas, but their language reflects industry; practical and utilitarian. Notably, all three came from working-class beginnings.

With its factories, Leeds was very a society of immigrants. Not necessarily from other countries, although that happened soon enough, but from other regions. Although it has a history of things that are demonstrably older, it’s essentially people who define a town or a city. Their stamp moulds it more than it moulds them, especially when the influx is so quick and so large. In 1800, just after the start of the Industrial Revolution, 30,000 people lives in Leeds. In three decades that number tripled.

So any Leeds we can imagine only goes back a little more than two centuries. Those roots are barely old enough to sink below the surface. We haven’t had time to create many folktales or songs. And those that have come about are of disappointment, of factory workers or grand Victorian buildings (Jenny White’s Hole, for example, or the Town Hall Lions). This is a place built of brick and smoke, on dirt and poverty. We don’t have a mythology.

And most of those factories and mills that were the foundation of industry have been demolished. The buildings proved as ephemeral as the lives of the people who worked there. They and their histories are erased. The history of Leeds is essentially the history of working people. But when their workplaces become rubble and their homes are torn down because they’re slums, where is the past for anyone to touch? There’s very little history for anyone to dream.

Even our parks are human constructs, where man has imposed himself on the countryside. Kirkstall Abbey was once in the middle of nowhere. Now it’s a tamed, picturesque ruin.

k abbey

It’s probably not just a Leeds phenomenon. Very likely it’s true across the north, in all those places that were built on different industries. And there’s a kick to finish it all off. Leeds was essentially created by industry. By pain and sweat, the riches of a few and the labour of so many. But industry has all but gone. And a city of finance and service industries doesn’t offer much in the way in inspiration.

We all need a spine of tales, of folklore, of songs that are us. And there are artists and writers, musicians and makers of theatre who are trying to do that. But these things need to grow from the bottom up, not be imposed upon a place.

At one point there was continuity. Now things are demolished, refashioned and repurposed every couple of generations. You can’t find any tradition in that. And that’s the pity. Humans need tradition. It’s part of belonging.

Yet a few faint tendrils do curl down and survive in our language. A few things that are uniquely Leeds. Ginnel. Loiner.

ginnel

There’s beauty in those and other words like them. It’s a dialect that’s largely dying and TV culture makes language homogenised. But it’s holding on. And those words do conjure up a fading Leeds of the imagination.

Possibly, just as Leeds is post-industrial, it’s also now post-mythology. But people will always need stories, songs and ballads to pass on. They always have. It’s part of being human. We need to create them, then nurture the flame and keep them alive.

10 thoughts on “Imagining Leeds

  1. Absolutely superb blog, which I hope you don’t mind if I share. My own writings always begin with a setting. Thank you, John.

  2. Great commentary!!! (Even though I’m sure it makes your job a bit harder.) Unfortunately, here in the U.S., it’s nearly impossible to find anything historic that’s more than a couple hundred years old, and most of that has been redone and romanticized ( i.e. Yorktown and much of the East Coast.) Even sitting in a U.S cathedral, most of which barely pass 150 years old, it’s difficult to get the same hallowed feeling as you get even in the ruins of many cathedrals in the UK and Europe. The few fairly well-known stories and myths that we have, come from the immigrant populations of the Mid-West or West. I always thought that it was because industrialization left people no ‘free’ time to think of matters beyond their next meal, but historically, that’s probably always been the case for most of the population throughout history. So I think that you’re right about a stationary sense of place and history being necessary to give ongoing life to stories and myths. After industrialization – really after the plague, I guess – people started moving so often just to survive, that it made any sense of place and home much more temporary.

    1. I know exactly what you mean, Ron. I spent 30 years in the US, 10 in the Midwest, and 20 in Seattle. There is history, of course, Native American history, although you have to look for it. But for the white settlers? In Seattle it goes back to 1851, although the 1889 fire meant there’s an entire underground section to be explored, and there are tours. But America is a country of movement, west and west and west, devouring everything in its path. It’s possibly only some places on the East Coast where people have roots that extend beyond three or four generations. Glad I made you think!

  3. This here , the Flanders Kempen was a very poor place with lots of sand , even some dunes from very very long ago. Because of that only the army and (poisonous as in arsenicum) industries and the likes came here but only since the late 1880s. So I think I understand what you are saying.

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