A Taste of Dan Markham

You’ve been discovering Tom Harper and Leeds in 1890 – at least I hope you’re reading Gods of Gold. I’m incredibly proud of it, and I adore Annabelle (if you don’t know who she is, read the book).

But in January I moved ahead to 1954 and Dan Markham, a young enquiry agent in Leeds. Here’s a taster.

The Adelphi probably hadn’t changed since the turn of the century. An old gas lamp still hung over the front door. Inside, the pub was dark wood, dull brass and bevelled etched glass, all neglected and in need of a thorough cleaning. At the bar he ordered an orange squash.
A table and two chairs sat in the middle of the snug. This room was different; freshly scrubbed, the hearth black-leaded, tiles gleaming and windows shining.
‘Have a seat, Mr Markham,’ the man by the window said. The voice on the telephone. He checked his wristwatch. ‘You’re right on time.’ He smiled. ‘Punctuality is a good sign.’
‘Of what?’
‘An organised man.’ He was probably in his late forties but well-kept, broadly built, neat dark hair shot through with grey. His nose had been broken in the past and there were small scars across his knuckles. But he didn’t have the look of a bruiser. His eyes shone with intelligence. The dark suit was costly, a subdued pinstripe, cut smartly enough to hide the start of a belly. The tie was real silk. He sat and gestured at the chair opposite. ‘We have things to talk about.’
‘One thing, at least.’
‘In my experience one thing always leads to another. It’s the way of the world.’ And he had the air of someone who’d spent a fair bit of time in the heart of the world.
‘I like to know who I’m talking to.’
‘I’m David Carter.’ He brought out a pack of Dunhills and a slim gold lighter. ‘Does that name mean anything to you?’ he asked as he blew smoke towards the ceiling.
‘No.’
‘Good.’ He sipped from a glass of whisky, savouring the taste before swallowing it. ‘Never wise to be too public. If people see a name cropping up a few times they tend to become inquisitive.’
‘So what do you want with me?’
The man cocked his head. ‘Your co-operation.’
‘You should have just asked, Mr Carter.’ The words were calm enough, but he was shaking inside. Whoever this man was, he knew exactly what he was doing. ‘You obviously know where my office is.’
Carter reached into the side pocket of his suit and threw a packet of Lucky Strikes onto the table.
‘I’m told you liked those during your National Service in Hamburg. That American colleague of yours used buy them for you from the PX. Have them. My compliments.’
All he could do was sit and stare. Oscar, the American Pfc he’d worked with in Germany, had been able to buy the cigarettes on base for next to nothing. That and the jazz records. Carter possessed a long reach. All the way to the War Office. And far beyond. It was a powerful little gesture. Impressive. And chilling.
‘What do you want in Leeds?’
‘Oh, I’ve been buying some businesses here in the last few months. You won’t have heard.’ He gave a quick, tight smile. ‘And those who work for me are good at staying out of sight. Except for one of the chaps following you today. But you didn’t notice the other, did you?’ He stared at the burning tip of his cigarette for a moment. ‘Tell me, Mr Markham, what do you know about crime in Leeds? This is your home, after all.’
‘I don’t really deal with criminals,’ he answered slowly. ‘If you think I do, you’ve got the wrong man.’
‘Indulge me. What do you know?’
He shrugged. ‘There are tarts. Shebeens. I imagine there’s illegal gambling and some protection rackets. I don’t really know.’
‘Penny ante stuff,’ Carter said dismissively. ‘And if someone’s caught they end up in prison.’ He paused. ‘In some cases, on the gallows.’
Markham unwrapped the cellophane from the Lucky Strikes, broke open the packet and lit one. The taste brought quick memories of Germany.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘I’m more interested in guineas than change. Let’s say a man signs over half a profitable business to someone. A little while later he sells the rest of it to his new partner at a knockdown price. All above board and completely legitimate. Do that with a number of places and there’s good money to be made.’

The Unchanging Leeds No One Notices

In the early evening last Thursday, a couple of hours after dark, I was walking up Briggate. I’d been down in the glittering Victoriana of the Adelphi, one the other side of the bridge, poised at the top of Hunslet Road where it meets Dock Street.

The place was busy. Town was busy, many heading home from work, others beginning a pre-Christmas evening out. Plenty of foot traffic on Leeds Bridge, spilling out into the road, vehicles passing. If they’d been carts instead of cars and lorries, it could have been a re-enactment of Louis Le Prince’s 1888 moving pictures of the scene (the first in the world, in case you didn’t know).

Queen’s Court, Lambert’s Yard and Hirst’s Yard, each with their tiny entrances off Lower Briggate, looked like dark portals back to the nineteenth century, each with their menaces and joys. Cross over Duncan Street to see the police arresting someone, possibly a shoplifter or pickpocket. Buskers entertaining, hoping for change in their hats or guitar cases from the generous.

The little ginnels that lead through to Whitelock’s, the Packhorse, the Ship. All of them with memories going back three hundred years. How many drunks had held themselves upright on those walls? How many had waited in the shadows to rob the unwary? How many prostitutes has tumbled their clients just a yard or two off the street?

Further up Briggate, street vendors are crying their wares to drum up trade. Calls that echo back through the years. ‘What do you need? What do you lack?’ They’re there, in the space where Leeds market stood for so long, every Tuesday and Saturday, pretty much from where Harvey Nicks now sparkles all the way up to the Headrow, where there was once the market cross.

So what’s the point of this? It’s simply that, for all the sheen of the 21st century, Leeds is very much the same as it was 200, 300 and more years ago. The same things in different clothes, with different words. We have far more in common with those who came before us in Leeds than we admit or even think. Briggate and the streets that surround it, might change their facades. But that’s the only thing that really changes, along with the tat offered for sale; the nature of people doesn’t necessarily alter that much.

Next time you’re walking along there after dark, think about that.