History, Raging About Leeds, and On Copper Street

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.

Thank you.


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.