A Journey Through The Past And Back Again

Sometimes life holds out a little magic, and all you have to do is grab it.

Looking back into my family history, I’d reached the late 1700s, and I seemed to be stuck there. Digging into a different family history site recently, I struck lucky. Suddenly I was tumbling back and back through time. All the way to 1545, in fact. 250 years in a day.  It felt like being the Doctor, but without the life-threatening adventures, Daleks, or sonic screwdriver.

I discovered that my family has in roots in Westow. I’d never heard of it before, but it’s a tiny village (current population 339) near Kirkham Priory, and five miles from Malton. 1545 was the first Nickson birth recorded there, but keeping births, marriages, and deaths in Parish Registers only became law in 1538; they could well have been there for centuries before that.

John Nickson was the first, then his son Thomas, born in 1587, and his son Thomas, who arrived in 1617. William came in 1660, Richard in 1692, another Richard in 1729, And then Isaac in 1752. One of his children – had had seven – was yet one more Isaac, who came squalling into the world in 1785, hanging around until 1857.

That Isaac is pivotal to the family tale. He certainly broke away from Westow. Around 1720 he ran an inn called the Golden Lion in Malton, five miles from home, and somewhere around the middle of the decade decided to try his luck in Leeds, taking his wife and children with him. That’s how we came to this town.

The descendants remained. Isaac himself went back to Westow to die in 1857, so the pull of the place and his forbears must have been strong. Or perhaps he’d simply had enough of life in a noisy, dirty town that was growing by the day, with its dark Satanic mills, industry, and crime.

On Saturday I visited Westow. A pilgrimage of sorts, if you like. I needed to see the place, to sense if there was any atavistic tug. It’s barely a village, really more a hamlet. There’s a pub, but no shop. Some old buildings along the main street, which is pretty much the only street. It’s peaceful, bucolic, surround by fields, deep in the heart of arable farming country.

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A number of the places look as if they were probably standing when Isaac struck out for Malton. Did he live in any of these houses? There’s no way to tell, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. Too many other generations of stories will have filled the stones since then.

And there’s an old hall, of course, as there should be in every village. Safe to say my family never lived there.

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The church is about a mile away, equidistant between the two villages it serves. The old Norman tower still stands, I’ve read, but the rest is newer, rebuilt from the original stones. It was locked, but what I wanted was outside: the graveyard.

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It was always hopeful thinking to imagine I’d see a Nickson headstone. Maybe Isaac’s after he returned to die. But no, not a single mention of Nickson. Yet, that was fine, I realised as we drove away. I’d seen the place, I’d walked some of the same earth they did all those centuries before. Now I knew.

From there, to Malton. The Golden Lion still stands in the marketplace. It’s been empty for a few years, apparently, but still in good condition. I stood across the street as I took a picture and looked up at the two floors above the bar, thinking that Isaac and his family lived and slept there. They had joy, they had pain there. That single upward glance seemed to cross 200 years in a heartbeat.

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That’s what I try to do as a writer. I try to bring the past alive, to make the people breathe in the here and now. It’s a way to try and commemorate people who would otherwise be unremembered. Many are fictional, of course, but some did live.

Like all writers, I love hearing from readers who enjoy the work, for whom the people who spring out of my head seem real (so please keep the emails coming). And good reviews are heartening. Two that arrived in the last week for On Copper Street, out in America as an ebook on June 1) made me happy. Booklist gave it a starred review and call the series “top-notch,” writing: “the story features meticulously researched period detail; a strong sense of the social, economic, and political situation at the time.” Publishers Weekly noted: “Nickson successfully creates an intimacy between the characters and the reader by showing, with each successive book, how his protagonists grow and change as they face life’s milestones: marriage, children, promotions at work, and the death of dear friends.” And past is place as well as people. The Fully Booked blog wrote: “When the sad time comes for Chris Nickson to shuffle off this mortal coil you will probably find the word ‘Leeds’ engraved on his heart. His knowledge of the city encompasses every nook and cranny, every church, chapel and graveyard, every legend, every tall tale, every dark hour and every moment of joy.” It’s not the first time someone has said I have Leeds in my core. But it’s probably true. I came back here after almost 40 years away. Isaac Nickson had his Westow, the place that called him home. I have Leeds.

Yes, those reviews make me feel I’m doing something right in my writing.

As I said at the start, sometimes life holds out a little magic.

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Chance Encounter

Tomorrow, On Copper Street, the fifth of my Leeds Victorian novels, is published. Like the rest of the series – and like my Richard Nottingham books, set in Leeds 150 years earlier – the social conditions of the people, and the city itself are vital parts of the story. Yes, they’re mysteries, crime novels, but with a Dickensian social conscience. For me, it’s impossible to look at the past without seeing the dirt, smelling the stink, and hearing the pain of so many who lived there.

The books are, perhaps, a way to offer some sort of memorial to the unremembered, the ones who, like my own great-great grandparents, were buried in common graves.

But first, to whet your appetite for On Copper Street, how about a new Annabelle Harper short story?

Leeds, 1896

 

She’d gone five paces past the man before she stopped. There were beggars everywhere in Leeds, as common as shadows along the street. But something about this face flickered in her mind and lit up a memory. He was despondent, at his wits’ end, but unlike so many, he wasn’t trying to become invisible against the stones, to disappear into the fabric of the city. He might not like it, but the man was very much alive. She stopped abruptly, turned on her heel in a swish of crinoline and marched back until she was standing over him, shopping bags dangling from her hands. It was the last day February, a sun shining that almost felt like spring.

‘You, you’re Tommy Doohan, aren’t you?’

Very slowly, as if it was a great effort, he raised his head. He’d been staring down at the pavement between his legs.

‘I am,’ he answered. His voice was weary, a Leeds accent with just the smallest hint of Ireland, easy to miss unless you were familiar it. He stared up at her, baffled, with his one good eye, the other no more than a small, dark cavern above his cheek. ‘And who might you be? You don’t look familiar.’

‘Annabelle Harper,’ the woman replied. ‘Annabelle Feeney, when you knew me. Back on Leather Street.’

His smile was weak. He looked as if the entire weight of the city had pressed down on him and left him small, broken. It had dropped him in this spot

‘That was a long time ago.’

His suit had probably been reasonably smart once. Good, heavy wool, but the black colour had turned dusty and gritty from sitting so long. Cuffs and trouser hems frayed, threads hanging to the ground. Up close, she could see the grime on his shirt, no collar, no tie. The shine had long vanished from his shoes. He was bare-headed, his hair dark, growing wild and unruly. His cap sat upside-down between his thighs. In a rough, awkward attempt at copperplate, the cardboard sign propped against it read: But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.

‘Luke,’ she said. ‘Chapter eleven, verse forty-one.’ Annabelle grinned. They’d been in the same class at Mount St. Mary’s School. ‘The nuns must have rapped my knuckles a dozen times over that one. Sister Marguerite would be happy it finally stuck.’

‘Ah, me as well. Twenty times, at least. But they’d have a harder time doing that now.’ He held up his right arm, the hand missing two fingers and the thumb.

Annabelle took a slow, deep breath.

‘My God, Tommy, what happened?’

‘Just a little fight with a machine,’ he said wryly. ‘I think I won, though. You should have seen the machine when we finished.’

‘How can you-’ she began, then closed her mouth. She knew the answer deep in her bones. You laughed about it to stop the pain. You joked, because it you didn’t you’d fall off the world and never find your way back. ‘Come on, I’ll buy you a cup of tea.’

‘I can’t let a woman pay for me.’

She dropped the bags and stood, hands on her hips, face set.

‘You can and you will, Tommy Doohan. Get off your high horse. You’d have been happy enough if I’d put a tanner in your cap. Now, get on your feet.’ She looked up and down New Briggate. ‘There’s a place over there, across from the Grand. And I’m not taking no for an answer.’

For a moment he didn’t move. But her voice had a razor edge, and he pushed himself to his feet, scooping a couple of pennies and farthing from the cap before he jammed it on his head.

He was tall, towering a good nine inches above her. Close to, he smelt of dirt and decay, as if he might be dying from the inside.

‘I’d carry your bags for you, but one of the paws doesn’t work so well.’

‘Give over,’ she told him, and his mouth twitched into a real smile.

 

He cradled the mug, as if he was relishing the warmth, only letting go to eat the toasted teacake she’d ordered for him. When he was done, he wiped the butter from his mouth with the back of a grimy hand, then felt in his pocket for a tab end.

They’d been silent, but now Annabelle said: ‘Go on, Tommy, what happened to you?’

‘When I was sixteen, I headed over to Manchester to try my luck. Me and my brother Donald, do you remember him?’

She had the faint image of someone a little older, tousle-haired and laughing.

‘What could you do there that you couldn’t here?’

‘It was different, wasn’t it?’ he said bitterly. ‘I’d been a mechanic down at Black Dog Mill, I could fix things, and Don, well, he was jack of all trades.’ He smoked, then stubbed out the cigarette in quick jab. ‘We did all right, I suppose. One of the cotton mills there took him on, made him a foreman, earning fair money.’

‘What about you?’

‘Down at the docks. Long hours, but a decent wage. Lots of machines to look after. I met a lass, got wed, had ourselves a couple of kiddies.’

‘I’ve got one, too. A little girl.’

Doohan cocked his head.

‘What does your husband do? You look well off.’

‘You’ll never credit it.’ She laughed. ‘He’s a bobby. A detective. And I own a pub. The Victoria down in Sheepscar.’

He let out a low whistle.

‘You’ve turned into a rich woman.’

‘We get by,’ Annabelle said. ‘Anyway, what about your family?’

‘Gone,’ he told her bleakly. ‘About two years back I was working on this crane, you know, hauling stuff out of the boats. The mechanism has jammed. I almost had it fixed when the cable broke. It’s as thick as your arm, made from metal strands. Took the fingers before I even knew it, and a piece flew off into my eye.’ He shrugged. ‘I was in the hospital for a long time. Came out, no job. They told me that since I didn’t have two full hands, I wasn’t able to do the work any more. Goodbye, thank you, and slipped me two quid to see me on my way like I should be grateful.’

‘Where was your wife?’

‘Upped sticks and scarpered with my best mate as soon as someone told her I wasn’t going to be working. Took the children with her. I tried looking round for them for a long time, but I couldn’t find hide nor hair. Finally I thought I’d come back to Leeds. I might have a bit more luck here.’ He sighed. ‘You can see how that turned out. On me uppers on New Briggate. Begging to get a bed.’ He spat out the sentence.

‘Couldn’t you brother help?’ Annabelle asked.

‘Donald was married, and he and his brood had gone off to Liverpool. He has his own life, it wouldn’t be fair. Me mam and dad are dead, but there are a few relatives who slip me a little something.’

She stayed silent for a long time, twisting the wedding ring back and forth around her finger.

‘How long did you work at all this?’

‘Seventeen years,’ Doohan said with pride. ‘Ended up a supervisor before…’ He didn’t need to say more.

‘Do you know Hope Foundry? Down on Mabgate?’

‘I think I’ve seen it. Why?’

‘Fred Hope, one of the owners, he drinks in the pub. He was just saying the other day that he’s looking for engineering people. You know, to run things.’

Doohan raised his right arm with its missing fingers to his empty eye.

‘You’re forgetting these.’

‘No, I’m not. You’ve got a left hand. And your brain still works, doesn’t it?’

‘Course it does,’ he answered.

‘Then pop in and see him tomorrow. Tell him I suggested it.’

‘Are you serious about this?’

‘What do you think?’

‘He’ll say no. They always do.’

‘Happen he won’t. Fred has a good head on his shoulders. He can see more than a lot of people.’ Annabelle opened her purse and pulled out two one-pound notes. ‘Here. It’s a loan,’ she warned him. ‘Just so you can get yourself cleaned up and somewhere decent to sleep. Some food in you.’

‘I can’t.’

She pressed the money into his palm.

‘There’s no saintliness in being hungry and kipping on a bench,’ she hissed. ‘Take it.’

He closed his fingers around the paper.

‘I don’t know what to say. Thank you. I’ll pay you back.’

‘You will,’ she agreed. ‘I know where you’ll be working. And your boss. Now you’d better get a move on, before the shops shut.’

‘What about…?’ He gestured at the table.

‘Call it my treat. Now, go on. Off with you.’

At the door he turned back, grinning. He seemed very solid, filling the space.

‘Is this what they mean by the old school tie?’

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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.

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